An Khe Pass

Here's the entrance to An Khe Pass, a particularly dangerous stretch of Highway 19 that cut through taller and taller mountains on the way to Pleiku.  Look at all those potential VC hiding places.  And steep mountain-face on one side of the road, sheer drop on the other side – if you did run into trouble, where could you go?  Nowhere but down.  

The scenery didn't help matters much either...

The mountains swallowed us and we kept climbing.  And climbing.  The road was steep and narrow, the going slow.  The machine-gunners in front and in back of us kept their sights trained on the treelines above.  

I wondered what a rocket attack felt like, how a mine blast sounded.  Would it hurt?  Would I see it?  Would I know?

How does it feel to die? 

Finally, we reached the summit.

“Mang Yang Pass,” Dirks said.  “’Ambush Alley.’   See over there?”  He pointed to a mountainside to the north.  Impossibly green grass rippled across its face.  But there was something else.  White dots.  Hundreds of them.  In rows.  Like a giant game of checkers.

“What are those?” I asked.

“Graves.  French.  The Viets kicked the living crap out of the French up here in the ‘50s, First Indochina War.  French buried their KIAs right over there, upright and facing west.”

 “Damn French, always dramatic,” Sugden said, huddled into himself. 

I fought off a shiver and hugged my rifle more tightly.

Then we were rolling downhill, past dust-caked carcasses of burned out vehicles – trucks, jeeps, a tank.  Metal skeletons scattered across barren cliffs, full of holes.  The land was desolate, pocked and cratered.  Shadows settled into the hollows. 

It was like driving through a nightmare.

“Man, they don’t mess around up here,” Jessen said, then fell silent like the rest of us.

Thank you, Captain, for weapons.

We heard something from behind...

Rock 'N' Roll Soldier: A Memoir by Dean Ellis Kohler with Susan VanHecke, foreword by Graham Nash  •  © 2023