Authors: Gustav Hasford
The Phantom Blooper
by Gustav Hasford.
First published in 1990.
Gustav Hasfords website:
The Phantom Blooper
This book is dedicated to the three million veterans of the Viet Nam war, three million loyal men and women who were betrayed by their country.
Last week members of a Marine reconnaissance patrol told of a skirmish fought with an enemy unit near the town of Phu Bai. Among the Viet Cong killed was the apparent leader of the guerrilla band—a slender young Caucasian with long brown hair.
The young white was wearing a shabby green uniform with a red sash tied across the chest. In his hands was an AK-47, the Soviet-designed automatic weapon used by North Vietnamese regulars.
The Marines are convinced that the guerilla leader was an American, a Marine enlisted man who has been carried as missing in action since 1965.
In the past few months, they add, they have received a number of reports of Americans operating with Viet Cong units in the Phu Bai area.
August 12, 1968
The Winter Soldiers
The loss of reason in war seems to me honorable, like the death of a sentry at his post.
The Red Laugh
I think that history will record that this may have been one of America’s finest hours.
--Richard Milhous Nixon,
President of the United States
July 30, 1969
Saigon, South Vietnam
Somewhere out behind a black wall of monsoon rain and beyond our wire, the Phantom Blooper laughs.
I laugh too.
Naked except for a pearl-gray Stetson bearing a black-and-white peace button, I rise up from my bed of wet clay in the bottom of a slit trench. I climb, scuttling like a crab, to the top of a sandbagged bunker. Mud-soaked and shivering, I hunker down. I listen. Holding my breath, I listen and I wait, afraid to breathe.
I grunt. I stand up, ramrod straight. I tuck my chin into my Adam’s apple and I strut to the edge of the bunker top, fists-on-hips like a Parris Island Drill Instructor.
I say, “LISTEN UP, MAGGOT!” I do an about-face. March back, about-face again. Looking sharp, standing tall, lean and mean. “DO YOU WANT TO LIVE FOREVER?”
I’m a stone-cold comedian yelling punch lines into No Man’s Land. It's a midnight comedy show in the last days of Khe Sanh. I am show business for the shadow-things that crawl and slither out in the darkness beyond our wire. At any moment forty thousand heavily-armed, opium-crazed Communist individuals can come in screaming from out of the swirling fog.
I say, “DAMN THE TORPEDOES, FULL SPEED AHEAD! I HAVE NOT YET BEGUN TO FIGHT! GIVE ME LIBERTY OR GIVE ME DEATH! DON'T TREAD ON ME! SEND MORE CONG! SEND MORE CONG!”
I wait for a reply. I listen. But nothing happens.
I pick up a broken broom handle. On one end of the broom handle is nailed a ragged pair of red silk panties—Maggie’s Drawers. I lift the broom handle and I wave the red silk panties back and forth like a battle flag.
The only sounds from beyond the wire are creaking frogs and the drumming of the monsoon rain.
I throw down Maggie’s Drawers. Then, with both hands, I give the Phantom Blooper the finger.
Midnight. The hawk is out. Ghosts are out.
The winter monsoon is blowing so hard that it is raining sideways. Meanwhile, the silence beyond the rumble of the rain is growing larger.
I sit down in an old aluminum lawn chair on top of an abandoned perimeter bunker at Khe Sanh. Cold bullets of monsoon rain wash mud from my body. With my battered pearl-gray Stetson shielding my face, I lean back and get comfortable. My right hand is touching the wet metal of a field radio under my chair.
Between my bare feet is an M-60 machine gun set up on its bipod legs. I pick up my long black killing tool. It makes me feel less naked when I hold it.
A smooth feed might save my life, so I adjust the heavy belt of clean golden bullets. Every fifth round is a red-tipped tracer. When I am one hundred percent satisfied that there are no kings in the belt, I slam the feed cover down hard and jack a round in the chamber. Happiness is a belt-fed weapon.
The Phantom Bloopers laughs, a cold black laugh.
Maybe if I ignore the Phantom Bloopers he'll go away. If you try to debate philosophical issues with the Phantom Blooper, and lose the debate, well, he just comes right up and kills your ass. The Phantom Blooper has never talked to me and I am very disappointed. I could use the distraction of stimulating conversation. Life at Khe Sanh has always been tired but wired. Now that the siege has been lifted we need something to keep our mind occupied because boredom makes us think too much.
Meanwhile, the Phantom Blooper comes every night and the suspense is killing me.
At Khe Sanh Combat Base in Quang Tri Province in the Republic of Viet Nam, the United States Marine Corps has sometimes lacked grace under pressure, but we have stuck it out, just the same. We have burrowed into this dead hill like maggots. We have clung to the burned edge of reality and we have not let go.
This is it, the big game. The championship. The Super Bowl. This is the biggest game of your life and you're playing it for keeps. You're playing with the black ball. A sudden move at the wrong time could be your last. A slow move at the wrong time could be your last. And not moving at all could be fatal.
The grunts of Khe Sanh hate the Phantom Blooper but we need him very much. In Viet Nam you've got to hate something or you will lose your mind.
There are a lot of stories about the Phantom Blooper.
Below Phu Bai the Phantom Blooper is a black Marine Lieutenant who inspects defensive positions at bridge security compounds. The next night, they get hit.
North of Hue City the Phantom Blooper is a salt and pepper team of snuffy grunts who guide the Marine patrols into L-shaped ambushes set by the Viet Cong.
Force Recon claims a probable kill for shooting the Phantom Blooper in the Ashau Valley. The Phantom Blooper was a round-eye, tall and white, with blond hair, wearing black pajamas and a red headband, and armed with a folding-stock AK-47 assault rifle. Recon swears that—and this is no shit—the round-eyed Victor Charlie was the honcho, the leader, of the gook patrol.
The Phantom Blooper started visiting Khe Sanh the night after the siege was lifted by Operation Pegasus. But only one Marine at Khe Sanh has ever seen the Phantom Blooper's face.
There was no moon that night, but one of our scout snipers had the Phantom Blooper targeted in a starlight scope. As he sighted in, the scout sniper described the Phantom Blooper's face to his spotter. In midsentence the scout sniper went plain fucking crazy.
When they medevaced the scout sniper at dawn the next morning, he still had not said another word.
The Phantom Blooper has many names. The White Cong. Super-Charlie. The American VC. Moon Cusser. The Round-Eyed Victor Charlie. White Charlie. Americong. Yankee Avenger.
But whatever name we use, we all know in our hearts the true identity of the Phantom Blooper. He is the dark spirit of our collective bad consciences made real and dangerous. He once was one of us, a Marine. He knows what we think. He knows how we operate. He knows how Marines fight and what Marines fear.
The Phantom Blooper is a Marine defector who deals in payback. Slack is one word the Phantom Blooper does not understand.
Like his Viet Cong comrades, the Phantom Blooper is a hard-core night fighter. When the day turns black and the sun goes down, everything beyond our wire is overrun by the Viet Cong, one more time. Every time the sun goes down, we lose the war.
Every night, the Phantom Blooper is on deck, armed with a “blooper”—an M-79 grenade launcher. The Phantom Blooper attacks without warning from out of the darkness, the one incorruptible bearer of the one unendurable truth.
“Go home,” the Phantom Blooper says, every night. And we want to go home, we really do, but we don’t know how.
“Go home,” the Phantom Blooper says, without mercy, over and over, again and again, punctuating his sentences with explosions.
A hit from an M-79 is just the Phantom Blooper’s way of telling us that we are running out of slack.
During the past week the Phantom Blooper has wasted Lieutenant Kent Anderson, Funny Gunny Bob Bayer, and that skinny New Guy, Larry Willis. And he killed Ed Miller, Bill Eastlake, and that corpsman everybody loved, Jim Richardson. Then he killed Berny Bernston, my friend. He probably even killed Animal Mother, the meanest, hardest Marine I ever knew.
Every night the Phantom Blooper comes into our wire and talks to one grunt. There are no philosophers in a foxhole. Any dumb grunt who starts to think too much becomes dangerous, both to himself and to his unit.
While I wait for the Phantom Blooper to attack, I keep my eyes turned outboard to avoid looking at the damage we have inflicted upon ourselves. For months we have been shelled, shelled every day, shelled by the numbers, sometimes as many as fifteen hundred incoming round per day. Rusting shrapnel lies scattered across this wire-strapped plateau like pebbles on the beach. The rinky-dinks beat on us with their hard enemy metal and we give the finger to the big guns in Laos and we say: “They can kill us, but they can’t eat us.”
What bullets coming out of the dark and one hundred thousand rounds of heavy ordnance Chi-Com incoming have failed to do, we have done to ourselves. We are blowing up our bunkers. We are tearing up our wire.
Last week a secret rough rider truck convoy rolled out of Khe Sanh carrying a garrison of five thousand men eleven miles east to Landing Zone Stud, leaving behind only a few hundred Marine riflemen from Delta, Charlie, and India companies as security for the Eleventh Engineers Battalion and their heavy earth-moving equipment.
In two days the flying cranes will carry off the last piece of expensive American machinery and the last of the Marine grunts at Khe Sanh will sky out on gunships. Then, when night falls, the jungle will emerge from out of the darkness and will move like a black glacier across the red clay of No Man’s Land and will silently consume our trash-strewn fortress.
And back in the World, no one will ever know about our self-inflicted Dien Bien Phu.
Cold and wet, holding my M-60 machine gun in my lap, I wait.
At zero-three-hundred, prime time for a ground attack and our peak killing hour, the Kid From Brooklyn, our radioman, hops over the sandbagged trenchline along the perimeter and slides down into the wire while heavy monsoon rain slants down, battering him in translucent sheets.
Down in the kill zone, the Kid From Brooklyn dittybops through budding gardens of metal planted thick with deadly antipersonnel mines. Stepping cautiously through Claymores, trip flares, and tanglefoot, the Kid From Brooklyn quietly and efficiently robs dead men of their postage stamps.
Communist grunts hang in our wire all the time, little yellow mummies who have paid the price, enemy military personnel who got caught in the wire and gunned down, their moldy mustard-colored khaki shirts and shorts splotched with brown, their nostrils clogged with dried blood, bugs crawling on their teeth.