By SKIP NICHOLS
The frail boy’s eyes seemed to reflect curiosity more than malice. He was young, perhaps 12 at the very most, and he was riding a water buffalo. He was just outside our perimeter.
It was a place where you could get killed.
It was late afternoon just a few miles south of the DMZ in Vietnam, 1967. The drenching monsoon rain that made our isolated Marine combat base on the hill a miserable red muck had stopped for the moment. There were three of us in a muddy hole surrounded by sandbags. We had a radio and each of us had fully loaded M-16s, as well as a couple of hand grenades.
The boy carried a bamboo cane and wore only thin shorts. His arms and legs were little more than sticks. His head had been shaved. That seemed odd, since most Vietnamese boys were proud of their thick, black hair.
His presence immediately put us on edge. A brown cloth bag hung from his neck. Did it contain rice balls, hand grenades or a satchel charge? Were we looking into the eyes of the enemy or an innocent boy who was simply tending to his family’s ancient rice paddies?
“Dung lai!” I yelled. “Dung lai!”
The boy didn’t stop. Instead, with the bamboo, he whipped the water buffalo repeatedly on its flank. The mean-looking beast shook its massive horns and moved toward our outside roll of concertina wire.
“That goddamn buffalo won’t let the wire stop him,” said Cpl. Mike Webb, a lanky southern boy who was on his second combat tour in Vietnam. He was also the best shot.
“Nichols, call the captain and see what we should do,” he said.
“Hurry,” Pvt. Jed Cross added.
I was already keying the mike. I explained the situation and the captain told us to hold fire until the water buffalo touched the wire.
“You are cleared to open fire at that point,” he said. “Repeat, you are cleared to fire. Out.”
We shouldered our weapons. The outside wire was just 20 yards from our fighting hole. It would be an easy shot.
The boy and buffalo were just a foot or two from the wire.
I screamed at the boy.
“Toi se ban! I will shoot!”
His eyes narrowed and his sly grin disappeared. He whipped the buffalo another time and it stepped into the wire.
Time seemed to stop and then, as if one, all three of us fired.
The boy’s body shuddered and his right arm flew up as if waving to us. The great beast beneath him roared and threw back its head, charging ahead. The boy flopped off and into the concertina wire. The water buffalo pulled the roll of wire toward us with the limp young body tangled in it.
Webb fired off another three or four rounds at the animal. Puffs of red mist briefly filled the air.
The buffalo staggered, its knees buckled and it toppled over on the boy.
Then there was silence. I remember thinking it was the silence of death.
My hands were shaking when the crackle of the radio broke the silence.
“Sit rep. Sit rep. Over” said the voice of the command bunker radio operator.
“One KIA in the wire. Over.” I answered, my voice sounding much calmer than my insides.
“Roger,” he responded. “Actual says he will send out a team to recover the body in the morning.”
No one spoke for a long time.
“Shit. I can’t believe we’ve got to sit here looking at the fuckin’ buffalo all night,” Webb said.
“At least we can’t see the boy,” I said. “You think we all hit him?”
“Yep,” Cross said. “How could anyone miss?”
We retreated into our thoughts.
Finally at midnight we were relieved. I took one last look at the black lump in the tangle of wire.
“Nichols, it’s over. Quit looking,” Webb said to me.
We were relieved at midnight. The monsoon returned as we climbed out of the fighting hole.
Back in our hooch, we took off our soaked gear and lit up cigarettes. After a few minutes, Cross cleared his throat.
“Fuck,” he muttered. “I never thought the first gook I’d kill would be a kid.”
“We all killed him,” said O’Brien. “We had to. We just followed orders.”
I laid down on my rack. I shut my eyes but I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep. I kept seeing the boy’s eyes and his sly grin, his shaved head, his stick-like arms and legs. And his arm flying up, as if waving goodbye to us.
I was 19, serving with the Third Marines, when we killed the boy riding the water buffalo. It happened during my first week in the war. We later learned the boy had been mentally handicapped since birth and simply wanted chocolate, like the kind we gave out when we were on patrol.