David Silverman/Getty Images

(Thanks to Glenn Gray, WWII)

By Shepherd Bliss

At ease
the young lieutenant barks at our rifles squad,
tired from a long march.
We are outside Da Nang.

You, solider,” he points in my face.

Yes, sir” I stiffen to attention.

See that cave?”
Yes, sir.”
Charlie’s in there.
He’s hiding.
Hunt him down.
Smoke him out

Yes, sir.”

The last cave I entered,
looking for VC,
flashes in my mind.
I felt like a mole.
Poisonous snakes
might attack me.

Trapped in a small space,
unable to see very well,
I didn’t want to go back
Into another smelly tunnel.
What if the enemy set a trap?

Come on out,”
we yelled.
We know you’re in there.”

I had been in-country only a few days—
still a teenager,
playing games,
this boy soldier.

We waited.
Come on out.”
We waited for what seemed like a long time.

Hearing no sound
we assumed no one was inside.
So we finally threw a few firecracker grenades in,
counting them as they exploded—
One, two, three…
Yes! July 4th—explosions, a light show.

Expecting no one inside,
we edged in…
Body parts everywhere.

We couldn’t look at each other,
hung our heads in shame,
unable to say anything.

We needed a body count:
We tallied parts of seven small bodies…
and nine old, thin bodies of small-boned people.

That was a tiny cave.
This one is huge.

I take my flashlight and M16.
now a seasoned veteran at the age of nineteen.
I’m on a manhunt into a cave again,
now carrying small-boned people inside me.

Each family has staked out a little space
in this dank dungeon.
The stench hits me first—
holes in the ground for excrement.
I gag,
want to throw up.
I’m trained, disciplined,
but not for this.

Acrid smoke hits my eyes—
small fires for light and cooking—
blinding this mole even more.

No wind, no ventilation, no water.
This is surely hell.
How blind we are.

I mumble, grope forward,
try to avoid stepping on bodies.
Hundreds are lying, sitting, crouching—
children screaming,
old men and women coughing or moaning.
No men of fighting age, yet.

Far into the cave,
my head hits the ceiling
and I fall to my knees.

I throw out a hand,
touching not the filthy floor,
but the fingers and palm of a woman’s hand,
raised to stop me from falling on her.
Our survivals are suddenly linked.

Is she the enemy?
Where am I?
What am I hunting?
Who is this woman?

I feel her grasp become a clasp—
Sensuous, even amorous,
Tracing the lifeline on my palm.
She traces the lifeline on my palm.

Unable to surrender to her feeling,
I release my hand,
mumble an apology,
and bolt out of the cave.
Outside, I hold my splitting head in my hands.

How could anyone experience desire in such a hellhole?

Shepherd Bliss was a U.S. Army officer during the Vietnam Era and is a long-time member of the Veterans Writing Group. He teaches college part-time and operates a small farm in Northern California, which specializes in agropsychology–farms as healing places. He can be reached at

© 2012, Shepherd Bliss. All rights reserved.

Guest Poet (5 Posts)

One Comment

  1. I guess because it is merely their reality and they work with what they have. This is a riveting piece. Well done. :)

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