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By Jim Richardson
Rats were a common thing where I was stationed during the Vietnam War. The place was called Chu Lai, once a small fishing village along the South China Sea, then the headquarters of the 23rd Infantry Division.
I had recently received a transfer to the rear area from Bravo Company, 1/6 Battalion, 196th Infantry Brigade, and was happy at not having to be a grunt anymore, humping the jungles for weeks at a time in search of the enemy. My memories of living on mountainous firebase Mary Ann were still fresh in my mind. Three of us, including my platoon's leader, Sgt. Daniels, and the platoon's medic, lived in a small bunker on the hill's southern perimeter for two weeks over the Christmas holidays. It was hardly big enough for us to turn around in. We slept in hammocks over a floor made out of wooden ammunition crates in order to keep ourselves safe from the rats that lived between the boxes. What I didn't know at the time was that Mary Ann, considered a relatively safe firebase, would be completely overrun by the North Vietnamese in the middle of the night only three months later.
Here in Chu Lai, I had a bed at night instead of the ground; clean fatigues instead of the same uniform worn three weeks running; hot food at the mess instead of C-rations; a shower; an enlisted men's club where I could drink beer and occasionally get drunk; electricity to run fans, record players, and radios; a volleyball court where I could exercise and have fun; and most importantly, a job that I really liked.
I was lucky. I was brought back to be an illustrator and photographer for the division's weekly rag sheet and a quarterly glossy magazine called The Americal that only the brass ended up seeing. It was a cushy desk job that fit my art training in college and was worlds apart from the danger and daily exhaustion of living in the bush.
Although living in the safety of a rear area where our only fear was an occasional enemy rocket or two exploding in the middle of the night, the real hardship among its inhabitants was tedium. The WWI adage—"war is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror"—certainly applied to Chu Lai. One only had to consider the ferocious Tet offensive that happened the year before I arrived in country to understand how true that saying was. Among the worst things that threatened our lives now, however, seemed to be the bad coffee at the mess hall and the outdated B-rated movies we watched at the EM club at night.
Which brings me to my subject of rats. Chu Lai was like a small city, possibly with as many as a few thousand military personnel living within its confines. Like many small cities, it had its problems, problems such as garbage and waste removal. Areas that served as dumping grounds were fenced in with high chicken wire, but that was only a small inconvenience to the large Vietnam rats that lived among us. If there was ever a happy lot, it was them. They had no problem adapting to the tons of left-over American cuisine: rotten potatoes, old lunch meat and chicken parts, chunks of cabbage and left-over carrots. Many of the rats found the hundreds of ancient sand-bag bunkers scattered about the military complex an ideal place to call home when they weren't busy foraging.
One evening, in the middle of another endless card game, one of the guys hit upon the idea of organizing a "rat patrol" that would try to limit the rats' population around the compound. Everyone thought it was a brilliant idea. Immediately, we broke up the card game and began preparing ourselves for the nocturnal hunt. The plan was to go out every night until we successfully limited their numbers. Someone printed "Rat Patrol" in large block letters on pieces of paper that we each attached to our hard helmets with an elastic band. We then armed ourselves with metal soup plates and pans, large wood and metal spoons, machetes, baseball bats, and flashlights.
Now armed, we exited our hooch in semi-military formation and approached the nearest sand-bagged bunker in search of our prey. We knew that during the day, the rats preferred the inside of the dark bunkers to sleep and get away from the heat. As nightfall arrived, the rats felt safe to come out and look around for food scraps.
The plan was to have one member of our hunting party enter one of the bunker entrances while the others gathered around the opposite entrance to make havoc on any poor unsuspecting rodent that came out. For some reason, (I suspect it was the age-old hunter's anticipation of searching out his prey), I became excited and volunteered to be the one to enter the bunker and chase the rats to the other end. As I cautiously entered, bent over so as not to scrape my helmet on the low ceiling, I banged on my metal plate with a spoon, and at the same time tried to shine my flashlight down the inside of the bunker. I remember the inside was pitch black and the thought of being in such a dark place alone that might be home to dozens of rats was suddenly feeling like a bad idea to me. "What's the problem?" I tried to reassure myself as I slowly advanced inside the bunker, "They're only rats. Besides, I'm a trained combat soldier!"
As I anxiously progressed towards the middle of the sand-bagged tunnel, I could hear the frantic squeaking sounds of the rats running away from me and towards their impending doom. "We got 'em! We got em!" I yelled out, still banging on my plate with gaining confidence. "Get ready! Here they come!" I warned my comrades. It was all working to plan.
Stopping momentarily, I was able to shine my light exactly on our rat pack at the far end. I saw seemingly hundreds of rodents, all of their red eyes suddenly turned towards me. It then occurred to me; they must have sensed more danger at the other end and wisely determined that my direction was by far the safer of the two. As I held my flashlight on them, I watched in horror as they suddenly reversed direction and ran towards me!
"Goddamn!" I yelled out. "They're coming after me!"
I never remembered running so fast. As I charged out of the bunker, I tripped and fell forward, my helmet flying off my head as I hit the ground. The rats clambered over me as they made their escape.
"Are you alright?" one of my buddies asked, bending over me and laughing uncontrollably.
"Yeah," I answered gasping for breath. "But I never thought rats could run so fast!"
Jim Richardson recently published his first novel, Middle Blue, based on his experiences in Vietnam as an infantryman. A sequel novel entitled The Sign Maker, is soon to be published.