War Story

Warriors Publishing Group
17 min readNov 15, 2023

by Jim Morris

“Jim Morris is an unusual case…a writer whose style is spare, controlled, sprung with tension, whose subject matter is war, whose obvious purpose is to ‘tell exactly what it’s like’ — all dicta impeccably consonant with the Hemingway canon, and yet he is still very much his own man.” Esquire

The following is excerpted from War Story by Jim Morris, now available from WPG.

Chapter One

I was running up the steps, the rough wooden steps carved out of the mountain. I started to top the military crest of the hill and jumped to the left as a slug tore through my right shoulder. I squeezed the trigger on my rifle and heard it go kschlugg. There was a terrible feeling of desperation as I went to the ground be- hind a tree stump.

I called for an M-79, but there was no M-79. I said, “Awright, goddammit, gimme a fucking carbine!”

Some fellow I hadn’t seen before threw one from behind a little clump of bushes. I grasped it and put the switch on full auto. The guy who was firing at me was ahead about twenty meters, down behind a tree trunk. I squeezed a three-round burst off at him. I counted ten seconds, and he came back up again. I squeezed off another burst. In ten seconds, I could get up there and kill that son of a bitch. I went down and I got up and some guy I hadn’t seen shot my left nut off.

I rolled over, feeling cold fear crawling in my guts. It was dark and moonlight sprawled over the covers. My wife slept beside me, and the baby was in the next room. I was safe. I turned over irritably. This dream was a nuisance. Had I been asleep, or just thinking about it? I had thought about it a lot. In the time since then I had learned fear. I had never been afraid before, and now I was. It was most unpleasant. I shut my eyes to go back to sleep.

I was running up the steps…bounding, bounding, heroic, oh, Jesus, was I ever heroic, leading the charge. Shot in the shoulder but undaunted, getting another weapon, firing, waiting, firing again, then up on my feet. This time I made it up a little farther and was shot in the chest. I expired there on the jungle floor, alone, red froth coming through my charred and torn tiger suit, wheezing, bubbling. Dead. The dream was becoming more stylized. It was like a movie with me as hero. I would get weird close- up shots of jungle boots charging up the hill, close-up cuts of the rifle jamming, then stills from my own eyes as I went down be- hind the stump. But it always ended the same way.

Me dead.

Night after night. I was working on some freelance writing during the day and doing insurance investigations. Quarreling miserably with my wife during the rest of my waking hours and then dreaming this wretched dream at night; four, five, fifteen, twenty times every night, slick with sweat, sick with fear, I charged that goddamned hill over and over again.

I had run out every possible outcome of that dream but one. I had been shot in the groin and lost all my equipment. I had been shot in the head and died before I hit the ground, like Herb Hardy. I had been shot in the chest, in the gut, in the heart, in the brain, in the nose, in the left nostril, in the eye. You name it, I dreamed I had been shot there.

I had almost relaxed to it. I knew I would get killed a certain number of times and then I would sink into a deeper sleep and get some rest.

Then one night I made it.

I started the dream just like always — firing the familiar three- round burst. He went down and I counted. He came back up and I fired again. He went down. I was on my feet, sprinting through a hail of hot lead to the stump. I fired down into it and the NVA died miserably, a frightened look on his face. I charged on, but the dream faded. I suppose it was over and the mission was accomplished, and I probably won a medal, although it never got that specific. Anyway, the fear was gone.

I could go home.

Chapter Two

“You are very fat.” The Vietnamese lieutenant driving the jeep said this, not as a gibe, but a simple statement of fact. The Vietnamese respect fat people on the grounds that they have to be rich to get that way. My feelings weren’t hurt, but he was right. By Vietnamese standards I was very fat. By American standards I was “husky.” While on convalescent leave from when my nut got shot off, I had gained weight. I didn’t like it much, but I couldn’t seem to lose it. Still, I wasn’t insulted. He was nice enough to drive me all over Kontum, looking for Phillip.

Someone had told me Phillip Drouin, the Cowboy, was an aspirant, which is a kind of third lieutenant in the Vietnamese army there. But the Vietnamese sector command had him listed as a deserter, and I couldn’t find anyone who knew where he was.

None of the Vietnamese I had talked to seemed to be particularly offended that he had deserted their army. In fact, they all seemed to hold him in high regard. This lieutenant, who was with me now, gave no evidence of using me to trace him so that he could be prosecuted. He was just trying to help out a fellow who was trying to find an old friend.

I had been quite surprised to find that Phillip was in the ARVN. Sympathy for the Vietnamese had never been one of his strong points.

The story of how he came to be commissioned was rather complicated. It seems as though the Montagnards, the mountain tribesmen of Vietnam, had revolted, right on schedule, just as my commanding officer had predicted in his report, but nobody had been ready for it. At some places, such as Buon Brieng, the situation had been handled with tact and precision. Vern Gillespie, the American Commander there, had simply talked his Yards out of it. They’d had a ceremony making their Vietnamese Special Forces honorary Montagnards and that had been pretty much the end of it. This situation had been helped by the fact that the Vietnamese there were not actively hostile to the Yards.

At Buon Sar Pa, however, the revolt did not go so well. The Viets there were shoved down the holes in the outhouse and machine-gunned to death. A little social criticism mixed with the revolution.

At my old camp, Buon Beng, a misguided psychopath named Nay Re had been given the mission of taking the Phu Thien district headquarters. He apparently decided not to do that, however, but settled for mortaring the place, killing about 25 people, most of them women and kids. For some reason after that he just took his company back to camp and put their weapons in the arms room. After the revolt had cooled down, the Viets came out and arrested, tried, and convicted him and five of his assistants. They were dead within the hour.

When I heard about that I remembered my earlier desire to assassinate the little bastard and regretted I hadn’t. Blood on my hands for sure, but it would have been worth it to eliminate one psychopathic killer and save the lives of 25 more or less innocent people.

When the revolt was finally stopped, a settlement was nego- tiated which stipulated, among other things, that some of the young Montagnard leaders would be given a chance to go to OCS and become officers in the Vietnamese army. Phillip was one of those. The name of the Montagnard separatist organization was FULRO, Fronte Unife de Lutte des Races Opprimes, the United Fighting Front of the Oppressed Races.

We pulled to a stop in front of a Montagnard longhouse on the outskirts of Kontum and I swung out of the jeep. A few mo- ments later I was choking down a drink of numpai, the wretched Montagnard rice wine, and listening to a wizened elder of the tribe tell me, “Phillippe go long time now.”

“Where he go?” I asked, sipping as little as I could.
He shrugged.
The lieutenant and I stayed a moment longer and then went back out in the road.
As I got in the jeep two North Vietnamese soldiers rode by on bicycles and gave us hard looks. Since we were only running around town I had left my rifle back at the “B” team compound. The NVA, apparently, were just coming into town on pass, or maybe they were intelligence agents for a day. But I was pretty sure they were North Vietnamese. They each wore Ho Chi Minh sandals and black shorty pajama bottoms. That wasn’t unusual for Vietnamese, and they wore sport shirts instead of black shirts. The clincher for me was the haircut, a sort of high-topped crewcut that I’ve never seen on anyone other than a North Vietnamese soldier.

But since they had no weapons, and I had no weapons, and I couldn’t prove they were North Viets anyway, and the lieutenant either didn’t notice, or didn’t care, I ignored them.

We drove back to Kontum, and he let me off at the “B” team. I wasn’t going back to Pleiku until the next day so I wandered next door to the MACV compound for a drink. They had a concrete patio with tables and chairs. I got a beer and sat down. There were several troopers from the 1st Cav there, grimy from the field. They didn’t look like SF troops in from the field, not as professional, not as casual. Also they were made to shave on pa- trol for some reason I was never able to fathom, and wore far too much gear.

I sat down with a bunch of them, and once they got over the idea that I wouldn’t bite, captain or no captain, we had a pleasant chat.

The kid I was talking to wore grubby U.S. jungle fatigues and had dirt-rimmed eyes and a dirty face. His hair was very short but shaggy, as though he were overdue for a haircut and was trying to keep it that way.

“You guys been in the woods?” I asked. It was a dumb question, since he obviously had, but served as a conversation opener. I was mildly interested in the activities of the conventional units in Vietnam. I had been amazed, the day I got back, to see churning down the road huge dirt movers and all the other paraphernalia of the U.S. Army. I wasn’t particularly pleased to see it, since I joined the Forces in the first place out of a distaste for all that. While I had been gone some moron had let all this dullness in. In 1964 the war had a nice “Terry and the Pirates” ambiance to it. Now it was full of psychotic commanders who thought they were refighting World War II with helicopters. The kids were generally all right, just trapped unwillingly in a stupid system.

This one nodded and kind of deliberately smoked his ciga- rette overhand, playing the role. I was obviously a headquarters trooper, my jungle fatigues were pressed, I was clean shaven that very morning and my white sidewall crewcut made me look like a pinheaded lance corporal in the Bavarian Balloon Corps. I have never understood why a professional soldier is required to make himself as physically unattractive as possible. Probably because the army is run by people who like to make other people misera- ble.

Me, I soldiered because I loved the Montagnards, the jungle, and parachuting. In my present job I was getting damned little of any of those things.

“What outfit you guys with?” I asked the kid. It was the standard number two remark.

“Fifth of the seventh,” he replied.
“Did you know Captain Swain?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I think maybe that guy over there used to talk about him.” He indicated another kid at another table in the same grubby fatigues and the same shaggy haircut.

“I’d like to talk to him,” I said.

He took me over to where the kid was seated and I stuck out my hand.

He gave me a suspicious glance.
“I understand you knew Captain Swain.” He nodded. “How’d he get it?” I asked. “I heard several different versions and I’d like to know.” I’d heard that he had been shelled by our own artillery, and that he stepped on a mine. Lots of different stories.

“I didn’t know him too long,” the kid said. “It happened right after I got into the Company. We were out on a heliborne assault. He checked the perimeter the first night and stepped on a mine made of a 105 shell.”

I nodded solemnly. The stories were each half right.

“They tried to save him,” the kid said. “But he died on the operating table, a couple of hours after it happened.”

“Yeah!” I stayed a minute longer, then went back to the “B” team.

It’s a very funny profession we’re in. We’re always being transferred around at odd times to odd places and you’ll make friends with someone and then never see him again, or maybe you’ll go to some new place and walk into the club and there’s some guy you saw last maybe three or four years before and you’ve both been promoted, and maybe you didn’t know him too well then, but this time you wind up on the same team or live next door to each other or something like that and he stops being a face and becomes a person. And then you leave again and maybe you see him again and maybe you don’t. And maybe you never see him because you just never run into each other and maybe it’s because one of you is dead.

For a while there was a rumor out that I was dead and I’ve walked into places and seen people go white.

And every so often I’ll see a tall skinny guy in a Special Forces uniform with blond hair, and a long-legged confident stride, but just a little stiff legged, going along and I’ll start to call out “Walt!” and strangle on it, because I know where Walt Swain is. He’s at Arlington. Hilda saw them put him there.

I didn’t hear about his death until my wife and I went to visit the Drurys at Fort Bragg. It was after I had gone back on active duty and was taking a course at Fort Gordon, Georgia. Art Drury was a Lieutenant Colonel, who had been my commanding officer, and Walt’s at different times. While we were there Skip, Mrs. Drury, took me aside and told me gently about Walt’s death. She told me the first of the many tales I was to hear about how it happened.

It didn’t soak through at first. I accepted the knowledge, the intellectual knowledge, of Walt’s death and went ahead and we had a nice weekend. Then on the drive back to Fort Gordon I began to think about it. It finally came through that the bastards had got Walt Swain. I had never figured them to do it. Walt was the perfect soldier. I have never seen anyone before or since as good in the woods as he was. I just never thought they could get him.

But I received my orientation in war in a guerrilla campaign, where there were elements of skill involved. In the kind of war waged by the conventional units like the 1st Cav it was largely a matter of bucking the law of averages. Some got it and some didn’t, and knowing what you were doing didn’t help that much. For surer’n hell if you knew what you were doing, either your commanding officer, or his commanding officer didn’t.

So they got Walt Swain. It was the first time I cried in four years. I cried, I believe, for better than an hour. Walt Swain was not supposed to die, and somehow someone had slipped up and it had happened and nothing could undo it.

So we called Hilda on the phone and asked if there was any- thing we could do and of course there wasn’t. She was living with his folks in Miami, but eventually she moved back to Columbus, Georgia, near Fort Benning, with her daughters, Kim and Susie. Hilda was German, and her home in the U.S. was still the Army.

It was funny, what she said on the phone. She said Walt told her before he left that he wouldn’t be coming back. She said when he got command of the company she spent the next two months waiting for the staff car with the officer and the sergeant to come and tell her the news. And then finally they did come.

She said in that two months he was company commander Walt spent exactly two nights in base camp and that he made 17 helibome assaults. His commanding officer wrote her, which is the custom, and told her that he had been the happiest man in the Cav. I can believe it. Walt would have loved the Cav.

It’s funny. I still think about him a lot. I see him on that one patrol we went on together, and I see him bouncing along stiff legged, his fair-haired handsome face grinning, the perfect movie star hero, except maybe really too handsome to be cast as the kind of person he was. He’d be cast in drawing room comedies or something like that. I think of all my friends who are dead, for among them are the best men I have ever known. Some- times I wonder why I, of all of them, should have been picked to survive. Sometimes I feel guilty about it. I sought service in an elite force and sometimes the battalion of the dead seems the most elite of all. When I get to thinking like that I try to think about something else. Perhaps I was just left alive to tell the tale.

The next day in Pleiku I checked into my office, then went over to look through the intelligence files to see what FULRO was up to. Having been in on the formation of that organization, I took a thoroughly non-regulation paternal pride in their activities.

I skipped down a couple of steps into the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) which was half tin-roof shack and half bunker, walked past a couple of doors of offices on either side and into the big room full of maps and radio equipment. Several sergeants were rummaging through reports back there and others were posting changed positions on the map.

I turned the corner and came to the Dutch-doored classified control room. It smelled musty in there. My friend, Bill, a tall skinny warrant officer in Intelligence, was inside, reading. He looked up and smiled.

“Hello, Bill. Anything new on FULRO?”

He nodded and threw me a stack of Intelligence Reports (IRs) on a clipboard. I sat down and started reading them.

“There’s one in there you might find real interesting,” he said.

I nodded. I liked Bill a lot. He was a thorough intelligence professional with a lot of years experience for a man of his age, which was about 26. He was a college graduate, had an outra- geous I.Q. and a sort of good-natured disdain for his present assignment. He was trained for a civilian cover in Europe, spoke German like a German, and had no Vietnamese at all. He had no particular interest in Vietnam, but enjoyed the fact that I did, and was very cooperative in everything I tried to do.

It took only a few moments to find the document I was looking for.

It said in effect that a group of Montagnards had presented themselves, in uniform, at the airport in Ban Me Thuot and re- quested transportation to Nha Trang. The following letter was their authorization.

The bearer of the documet [sic], 3d Lt Y Guk Nie, is an officer of this organization, detached to Nha Trang on military duties. He is authorized to travel on U.S. military aircraft, and any assistance you may furnish any member of this command is duly appreciated.

Col. Phillip Drouin
Dam-Yi Mobile Division of Commando Paratrooper

I straightened up in my chair and grinned at Bill. “Jackpot!” “You think that’s your boy?” he asked.
I laughed. “No question about it. No one else in the world could think up an organization called the Dam-Yi Mobile Division of Commando Paratrooper. That’s the Cowboy all right. The next question is how the hell do I find him?”

Bill laughed. “That’s a question a lot of people are asking.”

The poor little third lieutenant who was “authorized travel on U.S. military aircraft” had immediately been clapped into jail by the Vietnamese authorities.

Vietnamese relations with FULRO were most peculiar. FULRO was considered an outlaw organization. Its president and commanding general, Y Bham Enoul, was in exile in Cambodia where he had a headquarters set up, thought to be in Mondul Kiri. But nonetheless, even though illegal, FULRO had been assigned a Tactical Area of Responsibility (TAOR) somewhere south of Ban Me Thuot, where they could go forth and fight the Cong and North Vietnamese. FULRO, you see, was not picky. Their quarrel was with all Vietnamese, not just the South Viets, and they were perfectly happy to fight the Cong if they could get the South Vietnamese to leave them alone to do it.

I scraped my chair back from the desk in the classified docu- ments room and went back across the dirt road to my office. It was set up in a little shack next door to the headquarters building. I opened the door and went inside. I had two American sergeants, a Montagnard interpreter, a Vietnamese interpreter and a Vietnamese girl typist.

I nodded to the typist. She was a pretty young lady, bright, and very pleasant, although marred slightly by some acne scars, or maybe smallpox. I didn’t want to ask her. She looked up as I walked in the door.

Chao, Co Tien.” I nodded and smiled at her. Everybody in the office was Co Tien’s big brother, Co being Vietnamese for Miss. She was that kind of girl. Everybody except Tony, my Montagnard interpreter. He had eyes for Co Tien, and I think she did for him, but both had enough sense not to let it show very much. Her father would have hired him shot for a stray thought.

Chao, Dai Uy,” she replied. “Manh Yoi Khanh?”
Toi Manh Yoi,” I said and went to my desk.
Master Sergeant Bennett looked up and nodded.
“Mornin’, Top!” I said. In the old army Top was a nickname reserved for a company first sergeant, but Bennett was the top soldier in my shop and no master sergeant has ever been insulted by being called that.

He looked up from his papers, a chubby, amiable, pa- per-shuffling soldier, and wished me a good morning.

I sat down and started shuffling my own stack of papers. When I looked up again it was noon and the shop was cleared except for Tony and me. I smiled at him. His name was Ksor Tanh, but they called him Tony. He was a good-looking man, tall for a Yard, quite slender with dark wavy hair and thin full-lipped features. He had been an interpreter at Plei Ta Nangle during the great ambush there. I had met him when I flew up to get the bod- ies. He was brother to my old interpreter Kpa Doh. He looked around stealthily and walked to my desk. “I see Kpa Doh this weekend,” he said, looking around from the corners of his eyes.

I looked up immediately. Kpa Doh was a Major in FULRO, a wanted man, and Tony had reason to believe he was also being watched. But next to Phillip, Kpa Doh was my best friend in Vietnam. I wanted to see him too. “Where?’ I asked anxiously. There was nothing to worry about in my office, but if Tony wanted to play spy, there was no reason not to go along with it.

“Ban Me Thuot,” he murmured almost inaudibly.
I nodded eagerly. “Can I see him there?”
He smiled. “I will give you name of man to look up in ‘B’ team there.”

A-424, the informal version

About the Author: JIM MORRIS served three tours with Special Forces (The Green Berets) in Vietnam and was severely wounded during the second and third tours, leading to his retirement as a Major. He has written four non-fiction books and five novels and has edited more than 200 fiction and non-fiction books as an editor for Berkley and Dell, most on military and adventure themes. As a contributing editor for Soldier of Fortune magazine, he covered eight guerrilla wars during the early 1980s. His work has appeared in Esquire, the Saturday Evening Post, and many other venues, including anthologies and college English texts. His military awards are Bronze Star with “V” Device and three Oak Leaf Clusters (four awards, two for valor and two for meritorious service), Purple Heart with three Oak Leaf Clusters (four awards), Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Bronze Star, Air Medal, Master Parachutist Badge, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, and the Special Forces tab. He also has been awarded the parachute wings of the Republic of China, the Republic of Vietnam, and the Kingdom of Thailand. War Story is available as a standalone or as part of The Guerrilla Trilogy.



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