Every soldier serving during the Vietnam War can relate to my story below. No matter where you were “in-country” something similar occurred and the memory of that experience probably still pops up occasionally in your dreams. Nobody was immune. It was a fearful time for all. WARNING: ROUGH LANGUAGE.
The following is an excerpt from my book, “Cherries: A Vietnam War Novel.” I’ve added random photos from the internet to this article in hopes of providing readers with an up-close and personal look at what many of us experienced. The language within has not been modified for this article.
“The rat. You know what a rat is, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” he answered, still unsure as to what to do next.
“Well, these fucking rats have a tunnel complex under this place. You don’t know where they will turn up next. When you’re lucky enough to spot one, you just throw the first thing you can lay your hands on. It’s not bad during the day, but it’s a real terror at night. They climb in bed with you, looking for food.”
John shuddered inwardly…
During this first night, the new inhabitants would find themselves in a very different battle – one that would cause additional nightmares in the days and years to come. Uninterrupted sleep during the night, and waking rested and refreshed, would not be an option while in Firebase Tomahawk. Every person on the hill became a reluctant participant in this battle, from the highest-ranking officer to the lowest grade of enlisted man. The rotting garbage dump was providing plenty of nourishment for the camp’s other tenants during the past several weeks of vacancy. Hundreds of hungry rats scurried about the hilltop after darkness set in, following the scent of this appetizing feast.
Ongoing screams filled the night as rats fell from overhead rafters and onto unsuspecting sleeping soldiers. The grunts were in a stupor, thinking that one of the other men in the bunker must have thrown something onto them while asleep. When the realization hit that a rat as large as an alley cat shared the cot with them, no two reactions were alike. Those soldiers from the city were more apt to scream out in sheer panic and cower in fear. The country boys, however, were not intimidated by the invasion, and immediately fought back with whatever weapon they could lay their hands on. Shots rang out as surprised soldiers instinctively aimed at the extremely furtive creatures before realizing their actions were putting others in danger. Still, others used machetes, steel helmets, folding shovels, and even boots to disable or kill the invaders.
In the morning, dozens of carcasses lay on the ground outside of bunkers or hung from clotheslines by their tails. The rats spared no one during the night and everybody had a story to share during breakfast.
“Let me tell you ‘bout my experience last night,” one soldier recounted. “Some screams from the other bunkers woke me up and I sat there for a minute to get a clear head. I thought I was seeing things when I looked over at Cecil. At first, I thought a cat had wandered into the bunker and found a place to rest on Cecil’s chest. It looked like the cat had a deformation or some kind of disease because his tail did not have any fur on it.
At about that time, it turned and looked me straight in the eye. That’s when I noticed it was a big goddamn rat. I froze in place and couldn’t do anything but watch. The rat turned back to face Cecil, its nose and whiskers twitching like crazy. It crept up to Cecil’s mouth and started sniffing around his lips. Then suddenly, the rat’s tongue came out and started licking at the corner of Cecil’s mouth, intent on getting to the dried food or something else from earlier in the day.” Clarence stopped for a minute while those around him shuddered at the thought and made comments.
“Ooooweee, rat tongue lickin’ on the motherfucker. Goddamn!”
“You know I couldn’t just sit there and watch. My ass would have been long gone,” said another at the table.
“I’ve been licked by many things in my life, but never a rat. That’s got to be a weird sensation!”
“I sure never want to find out.”
“Me neither. Go ahead Clarence, what happened next?”
“The nibbling at his lips must have woken Cecil because he opened his eyes and blinked several times to see clearly. When he looked down and saw the rat’s head only inches away, his eyes bugged open in fear and he screamed as if his ass was on fire. It was so shrill and sudden that it scared both the rat and me. Cecil was fast though, and I have to give him credit, he snapped his poncho liner and catapulted that rat onto the floor in the center of the bunker. And, just that fast, he jumped out of his cot with a Bowie knife and proceeded to stab that creature until it was dead. Needless to say, neither of us could sleep anymore for the rest of the night.”
“Damn! That is one bad mother fucker, maybe we all need to move in with Cecil,” one of the men commented. They laughed nervously at the comment.
“Hey dig this,” another soldier at the table began. “Me and Kevin had to go and piss during the night and headed to the latrine with our flashlight beams leading the way. We both thought we were seeing things because everywhere we looked there were glowing red dots. We were stumped and stopped to figure it out. Then, these red dots started moving around randomly in pairs. Something bumped into my leg and startled me. When I shined the light around our feet, several rats ran away. That’s when it dawned on us that the rats had us surrounded. That scene was so bad, man. We booked like hell back to our bunker and barricaded the doorway to keep the bastards out.”
Unfortunately, four men, bitten during the night, awaited evacuation to the nearest hospital. This news heightened the fear in many but also made them aware of how vigilant they now had to be during the night.
In the daylight, only a few rats moved around in the garbage dump. The thousands of others rested and stayed hidden in obscure areas or underground in burrows, waiting for darkness to arrive.
In an attempt to turn things around, Cap came up with an idea. He was sure it would interest the soldiers enough to get involved and help clean the hill of the vile creatures. After breakfast, he called the men together and rolled out his idea.
“We are going to start a contest tomorrow to see who can kill the largest rat on the hill.” The men looked at one another in disbelief. “We’ll start tonight and the competition will continue until the day we leave this hill. The only rule is that you use common sense and good judgment. I do not want to see anyone get hurt during this contest, but you are free to use whatever you have at your disposal to win. The deadline every morning will be 0800 hours; make sure you tag your submissions then lay them out on the ground outside of the Commo Bunker. If you find that there is already one there bigger than yours…”
One of the black soldiers in the formation called out, “Ain’t nobody here got one bigger than mine, this is a complete package,” he cupped his hand around his crotch and shook it a few times. “Yep, you can just give me the prize right now.”
This solicited laughter and comments from those around him.
“Like I was saying,” Cap continued when the chatter stopped, “if there is already a rat tagged and it’s bigger than your rat, then don’t bother entering it. Go and dump it in the trash or throw it off the side of the hill. The CP will judge all entries during breakfast and will measure from the tip of its tail to the tip of its nose. I heard that some rodents running through our camp last night were as big as cats, and know that it would make more sense to use weight as a qualifier, however, we don’t have a scale so we will judge the length instead.”
“What does the winner get?” Someone called from the crowd.
“I was getting to that, and I think you’ll really like this. The daily winner will be exempt from all details during the day and will receive twelve, ice-cold beers to do whatever he would like with them. If you want to sell them or give them away, that is up to you. Now, this is where I think it will be interesting. The names of all the daily winners will go into a hat, and I will pick one grand prize winner on our last day here. The odds of winning will depend on how many days we are going to be here. Nobody knows that, and if we leave at the end of the week, the odds of winning would be better than leaving at the end of the month – unless one of you continues to win many of the daily contests. The grand prize winner will get a three-day R&R to China Beach and I’ll even throw in fifty bucks in MPC to spend as you like.”
Loud cheering erupted in the ranks. They were already planning and sharing strategies.
“When does the winner get to go to China Beach?”
“He can leave on the next day if he wants. It’ll be his call.”
The commotion continued within the formation. The men could not believe this exciting prospect and many were anxious to get started.
“There’s one last thing I forgot to mention, and this is really important. All entries submitted for the contest must be in one piece from tail to nose. Do not alter the bodies and try to make them longer, and do not enter anything pieced together like a puzzle. Are we clear?”
“Airborne!” The group shouted.
“All the way, men! Good hunting!”
Early the next morning, several carcasses were already on display before daylight arrived. They were long, but eventually replaced by larger entries during the last hour of the daily contest. Six entries were found to be so close that each had to be measured several times and the lengths confirmed by others. Only one-eighth of an inch separated the winner from second place and measured exactly twenty-nine inches in length.
The winner quickly dispensed the twelve beers between his squad members and admitted that they were supporting him during this hunt and deserved a cold one. However, he also made it clear that he was going to China Beach alone. When looking over the carcasses on the ground, the thought of creatures that size stalking them at night was mind-blowing and sent shivers down spines.
The men of Alpha Company killed and burned almost one thousand rats during that first week on Tomahawk. The contest was an excellent motivator for reducing the rat population, however, there were still more than enough rodents roaming the hill to keep men awake and frightened during the night.
Did anybody have a similar experience? Did any of you never see a rat during your tour? Please share your experiences in the comment section below so readers of this article can get a different perspective. Thank you in advance.
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