Memories from the Grave

In this exclusive excerpt from his memoir, Robert Nylen, a founder of New England Monthly, is in the heat of war in Vietnam—and describes it in detail. Nylen died in December, before his memoir was released.

Whamcrack! It exploded—close—too close to our lead guy, a big black dude from the 2nd Platoon. The Specialist Fourth Class was throwing a grenade at the bunker as a rocket charge blew into tiny, lethal shards. The hurler was as big as and strong as Bob Gibson, the fabulous Cardinals pitcher, and as vulnerable as Gibson as he fell from the mound after delivering heat. Something harder than a batted ball had come back his way.

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I didn’t know his name. We barely knew one another. Serving in different platoons, we’d had little contact before this moment joined us eternally. His nametag was embedded in his flesh along with his cotton fatigues. When I’d asked him to come along, he’d run forward, no questions. His reward for reflexive gallantry was to be shredded. Don’t conjure up the surfing/snowboarding usage, shredding down the slopes or over the waves. My brave volunteer had been hamburgerized. Bloody tissue oozed from his forehead to his boots. B-40 rocket fragments had struck him with full force. How many? Two hundred? My ears were clanging as I walked to him, stunned. Pain shot up my shins. I crumpled.

The explosion had been so cataclysmic that I hadn’t noticed shrapnel peppering my legs. No big deal. I was more shocked than hurt, yet the pain grew. I suppressed a yowl. The 3rd Platoon medic treated the brave Spec Four. A couple of minutes later, the 2nd Platoon medic lifted my right trouser. A thin, bloody stream squirted from my right calf. (This trick recurred later at the rear aid station: the battalion surgeon removed my bandage, sending blood like a water pistol across the tent. A befuddled medic got hit square in the face.)

I was bleeding, but Spec Four Whoever would die without urgent hospital care. Two more men had been hit, too. Back on the trail, a guy took a bullet. Our CO rallied, set up a defensive position, and sent a squad to reinforce us. Our Vietnamese Kit Carson scout yelled “Chieu hoi!” (Give up!) at whoever was in the bunker, now silent. The scout, a former NVA infantryman, had chieu-hoied himself in 1967, leaving the Communist side for better pay and a chance to see his South Vietnamese family without being arrested and tortured by our side. Now he faced the obverse problem.

“Okay,” someone answered in weak Vietnamese.

We extricated an NVA soldier from the hole. His mates were dead. Three men, two dead—just three men all told—had caused this havoc. The survivor was badly wounded. Desperately, he had fired the B-40 rocket just as he was going down with a bullet through the thigh. (In an enclosed bunker, the rocket’s back blast can kill.) His femoral artery gushed bright red. He was going into shock. Our medic applied a tourniquet. He loosened it now and then to prevent our prisoner from losing his leg.

When the shaking, skinny, gray-white, lucky man was stable, we gave him a cigarette. He puffed greedily. Nothing like American nicotine for severely wounded prisoners, World War II movies had taught us. After offering the gift, our scout pressed for information. No torture: we used kindness and medical care instead. It worked. “A battalion is up that ridge,” our prisoner said. “They kill you.”

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Excerpted from GUTS: Combat, Hell-raising, Cancer, Business Start-ups, and Undying Love: One American Guy's Reckless, Lucky Life by Robert Nylen, with permission from the publisher Random House.

Robert Nylen earned a Bronze Star in Vietnam, co-founded the award-winning New England Monthly Magazine, and wrote for Look, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Fortune, and many others.