Author: Russell Reece
Location: Bethel, Delaware
Russell Reece served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. He is a Delaware native and currently an executive at a major U.S. corporation. He began writing fiction several years ago and has had work published in The Delmarva Quarterly
Ensign Henry's Replacement (1968)
The sun hovered over the sweltering Mekong Delta as our landing craft slowly snaked up an unfamiliar tributary. Under the drone of the diesel engine, our crew of five enlisted men, led by a new Navy ensign, anxiously searched the edge of the tangled shoreline.
Suddenly the coxswain pointed, "There's one." The ensign nodded, gave the sign. We tensed and checked our weapons as the boat turned and headed toward the riverbank. A faint, sweet stench wafted over the bow.
I unfolded the black plastic bag as I had done times before and watched the bloated corpse at the edge of the jungle grow larger. It was face down, its legs in the water. The coxswain jammed the motor in reverse and revved the engine. The boat slowly drifted to the bank and stopped in the mud.
We dropped the bow ramp. The machine-gunner stood ready on the thirty-caliber as two sailors scrambled ashore. The ensign took a deep breath and looked away.
The sailors quickly approached the corpse, grasped its belt and the neck of its flack jacket and hustled it toward the boat. Foul bugs dropped and splattered into the shallow water. The face was gone; flesh and entrails had been cleaned to the bone. Sun-baked skin held together what was left.
I unzipped the bag and the three of us slipped the heavy plastic around the body, tucked things in as best we could. The new ensign leaned over the side and vomited into the river.
The coxswain lifted the ramp, revved the engine hard in reverse, and we slowly pulled away from shore. The embarrassed officer wiped his face and sat down on a rusted toolbox. He removed his helmet and stared at the bag.
The gunner put the safety on the thirty. He lit a cigarette and took a long drag as the boat headed back to the middle of the river.