Cowboy—we never called him by any other name— stretched beside me on the pine-needled floor of a forest in the Central Highlands. He nestled close as if somehow to draw strength from the magic of the M-40 sniper rifle with its powerful optics. He was a Kit Carson Scout—a former Viet Cong soldier who changed sides when he was captured. As it is with many converts, he became a zealous supporter of the Saigon government, and a hater of Communists of all stripes.
“You see Cong, dai ui?” He addressed me with the Vietnamese words for Captain. To Cowboy, all American soldiers were dai ui. I was a twenty-one year old Lance Corporal, and since I had the M-40, there was no way to convince Cowboy that I was not at least of demigod status.
“Yeah, they’re milling around over there on the edge of the trees.” We sprawled on the side of a steep escarpment looking down to the Northwest at a main spur of the Hochiminh Trail running out of Cambodia. I still felt surprise at the pines of Vietnam. I was mentally spring-loaded for palms, but we were hundreds of meters above the highest stands of palms.
I could see dust filtering up through the trees, and now and then a glimpse of a North Vietnamese soldier. They dressed in olive green with the ubiquitous khaki pith helmet that might have looked in style on a Washington mailman in the height of summer.
“We call jets now?” Cowboy made a sweeping motion, his hand descending from shoulder height to the ground between us. It was accompanied by his interpretation of the sound of tumbling canisters of napalm—skeeeewhoooom!
“No, let’s watch ‘em for a while; make sure it’s not just a little patrol.” I squirmed over a bit and pulled the tattered filaments of my ghillie suit away from the rifle. “You look through the scope and watch those guys; I’ll be your spotter.”
His eyes grew round. “Cowboy look rifle?”
“Sure,” I said, “you know how to shoot it, right?”
“Cowboy sat cong!” He pulled his shirt open to show me the Vietnamese characters for “kill Communists” tattooed across his bird-like chest.
“Yeah, okay, calm down. Get behind the rifle and put your cheek down on the stock. Can you see through the scope?”
“I see. I see.”
“Okay, keep your finger away from the trigger. It’s ready to go. You understand?” I touched his shoulder.
“I not shoot?” He was welded to the scope and did not move.
“That’s right; just watch.”
We settled in to wait and wait. The breeze was cool and steady. We could have been in Georgia’s piney-woods. The needles rattled above and the sun warmed our shoulders. I fought drowsiness.
“Dai ui, many come.” I jerked awake. It was almost twilight.
He flashed ten fingers four times.
“Okay,” I said, “I’ll get on the spotter scope.” I watched a mortar team materialize out of the pines on the far side of the clearing. “Uh oh, I don’t like the look of that.” The optical range finder told me the lead element of the three man team was three hundred sixty-eight meters from us. “Time for us to pack up and didimau, but we’ll take a couple of these guys out first, yeah?”
“You shoot, dai ui?”
“No, I think we’re going to have you do it.” He was silent; he did not rise from his hawk-like watchfulness. He pushed harder against the stock and I saw him quiver and grow calm.
Just then, on that late afternoon in the Central Highlands, all the odds changed. “Holy Mother, look at that.”
It was a tank; a little PT-76. The stubby muzzle of its main gun poked out of the pines tentatively; then it pulled back.
The mortar team continued deploying their weapon, and I fancied they were looking straight toward us.
“Cowboy, take the shot.”
“Shoot the mortar team leader, you understand?”
His answer was a gout of flame from the muzzle of the M-40.
I bent to the spotter scope and found the NVA non-com down on his back, a broad splash of crimson across his tunic. Soldiers were standing all around him in confusion.
“Do it again. They don’t know where we are.”
Cowboy scored another dead hit. The third time, though, was a bad idea. The tank engaged us then, firing flat trajectory shots as fast as the gunner could load. The fourth or fifth round got me when it vaporized a tall pine right beside me and sent a cloud of splinters through both arms and my right lung.
Cowboy dragged me, twice his weight, out of the kill zone, propped me against a tree, and returned to the fight. By full darkness he had killed a dozen enemy soldiers. He moved from position to position like a ghost. The tank couldn’t advance without infantry cover, and the gomers wouldn’t move out of cover even when an officer exhorted them with a sword—until Cowboy dropped him.
I woke up in the hospital in Hawaii, thanks to Cowboy and a Marine dustoff helicopter. I told his story to everyone who talked to me, and when I returned to combat almost a year later I heard that Cowboy was now a dai ui in the South Vietnamese Army—a rare feat for a Kit Carson Scout.
I never expected to see him again. I finished my second tour, went back to the world to instruct at Parris Island and expected to muster out and resume my life. Then came Tet, and Main street USA decided to quit the war. Somehow I just couldn’t give up on a lost cause. I stayed in the Corps.
It was April, 1975. We were on a suicide mission in Saigon. The war was lost. The U.S. forces were long gone. Five of us in civilian clothes, armed to the teeth, were in darkest Cholon in a rickety Citroen. We were sent to find and rescue a key counter-intelligence agent before the NVA rolled over the capital.
It was a scene from the Keystone Kops. Our chugging, backfiring steed emerged from a narrow alley only to meet a similarly smoking piece of junk at a ninety degree angle. We saw each other simultaneously. Five NVA soldiers in uniform, on a similar mission, gaped at us, and then we all opened up with everything. Red and green tracers crossed in a mad arabesque. Glass and metal flew. Someone threw a Willie Pete; and in the hyper-bright flash of the white phosphorous I saw him.
It was Cowboy. He was older; a tiny bird-like silhouette just across the street. He was a full Colonel now, and in the flash it registered that the epaulets on his olive shirt were red and yellow. He was NVA. The front sight of the M-79 grenade launcher covered his face. I couldn’t miss, but I didn’t shoot. Someone threw another grenade, and like dissolving mist we disengaged somehow and went our separate ways.
Debriefing in Okinawa I mentioned what I had seen. Soon I was in a tiny office with a gray-faced Major from Intelligence. He showed me a thick pack of photos, and I quickly found the right one.
“That’s Cowboy,” I said.
“Nguyen Van Cao. One of the best we’ve ever seen.”
“Best what?” I was truly puzzled.
“North Vietnamese spy. Undercover almost ten years. Came in as a chieu hoi; Saigon put him through their reeducation program. Became a Kit Carson Scout with us; he was in a big action with some Marine sniper back in sixty-seven or so. The kid talked him up. Cao got medals from the U.S. and from the Dinks; they made him an officer.”
“That was me, the Marine,” I mumbled. “He saved me. He killed at least a dozen NVA regulars.”
“The better to sell the penetration, not your fault.”
“How did he survive in the ARVN?”
“Well, he worked himself up into the Supreme Planning Staff. He was Chief of the Capital Region Defense Plan. He even made ARVN Lieutenant Colonel. Last December he disappeared. He came back this month as a big wheel in the NVA. He’s probably from the Strategic Intelligence Directorate in Hanoi. Probably always was.”
“Living a double life; how did he do it for that long? How could he keep it all straight?” I was talking half to myself. “Why didn’t we ever catch him?”
“Why ask why, Gunny? It’s over. You got our guy out and you’ll all be back in the world tomorrow.”
It was more than twenty years later; A White House aide’s broad smile and raven hair dominated all the front pages. I met that major again. He was an old retired colonel, and we sat in sunshine on the patio of his little house outside Pendleton. We drank beer and tequila; discussed the fate of a President who had merely gotten what we all want, and told stories of the Corps.
I remembered Cowboy. “I still can’t see how he did it,” I said.
“How did he explain killing all those NVA soldiers?
“Like I told you, it was part of his cover. Nobody in the South questioned whether he had really come over. We all knew he could never go home again; maybe we were right.” The old colonel stared off into the distance.
“What do you mean by that? That was him I saw in Saigon.”
Yeah, whatever. He was there in an NVA uniform.”
“Not this morning.”
“C’mon Colonel, are you jacking me around?”
“Nope. Cowboy lives here now, been here almost ten years. Owns Cowboy’s Liquor down on Redondo. It’s where I got the tequila. How ‘bout another? Gyrene can’t fly on one wing.”
I was speechless. He poured the little glass to the brim. “The South reeducated him after he came over. I reckon the North re-reeducated him again when he went back. Doesn’t look like it took either way.”
“Does anyone know he’s here, besides you, I mean?”
“Gunny, he’s an American citizen. Nobody cares about that war.”
The sun was shining brightly next morning when I stepped into the immaculate liquor store. A wall of Tequila marched toward me as precisely as any drill team. Bottles arranged by color, size, and label. Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey stood in a black and green phalanx, flanked by the flashing bottles of Gin and Vodka. Two young Mexican guys quietly restocked the shelves.
“How can I help? Cowboy has everysing.”
I turned. Cowboy stood looking up at me.
“Dai ui!” He hugged me. He came up to the middle button on my shirt and he probably weighed 125.
“Cowboy, you still look the same.”
“Dai ui, you grown-up man now.”
“Master Gunny Sergeant just retired. I heard you were here, had to come see.”
“We go drink cognac. Come.”
He led me to a back room that could have been ripped from mid-sixties Saigon. It was filled with silk, paintings, low, soft chairs, a dainty glass table, and lamps with dangling crystal pendants. He poured coffee from a silver flask. He fetched a flat red leather box and opened it with a flourish. “Remy Martin Louis XIII” the lettering said—a couple thousand dollars worth of liquid gold.
“You don’t need to open that for me.”
“Only for you. You let Cowboy shoot that day.”
“So I helped you, and you were a spy.”
His eyebrows rose; I thought he looked sad. He concentrated on setting out two crystal snifters and pouring a shallow draught of the rich golden brown liquid. “Countries all messed up. Both sides, they want me to kill and die. You see Cowboy dai ta?”
I remembered the word for Colonel. I nodded. “In Cholon, in ‘75. You saw me too?”
“Yes. I thought my idiots would kill you. Lucky you get away.”
“How did you get here?”
“I decide no more killing. They invade Cambodia, I say no. I go Thailand refugee camp.”
“But how did you get to California?”
“A friend, Marine colonel, he sponsor.”
I got a funny feeling. “Is this someone I know?”
“He know you. He come Hochiminh City, offer me to spy for the Americans. He say you spot me. You good friend, I need to help."
“So, did you?”
“Maybe I help, but he don’t ask me to kill or die.”
Cowboy held up his sparkling glass and looked at me through the cognac.
“So you were on all sides.”
“No, I only on Cowboy’s side.”