The Sergeant's Daughter: Prologue

The high grass surrounding the clearing was blown flat as the Ch-46 Sea Knight helicopter rose from the ground, tilted its nose forward and began its upward spiral. The big bird gained altitude, then leveled off and headed back toward the airbase on the coast. A handful of Marines carried containers of supplies that had been off-loaded—chow, ammo, water—from the clearing toward a tent at the edge of a tree line. A sergeant waved the three Marines who had disembarked over to where he was standing. "Charlie Company CP is right over here," he shouted. Two of the three were corporals who had been medevacked several weeks earlier but were now back and fit for duty. The sergeant greeted each of them by name.

The young PFC was new. His face was pale under the heavy helmet, but his eyes were alive, alert, and not vacant as they were on so many of those who were too scared to walk or talk or do anything except exactly what they were told when they first arrived in the bush. That was the way most of the replacements were when they entered a company engaged in combat for the first time. Most of them were that way, but not this one. He followed the sergeant into the company area where Marines were sprawled on the ground, smoking, talking, eating C-rations from cans.

"What's your name, Marine?" the sergeant asked gruffly.

"Private First Class Owen Callahan," said the kid, his voice soft but firm.

The sergeant was tough looking, but there was good humor deep in the eyes, a smile at the corner of the lips that worked the stump of a cigar around. "Where you from, Callahan?"

"Boston," said Private First Class Callahan.

"Boston," repeated the sergeant with a smile. "Southie, right?"

"Yeah, South Boston," said the kid.

"All you fuckin' Irish are from Southie." The voice was friendlier now, but still hard. "I'm from the North End." The sergeant didn't have to tell Owen Callahan he was Italian. "Come on with me." He went over to a tent where two lieutenants and a gunnery sergeant were seated on C-ration cartons. "Got a newbie, Gunny. Where do you want him?"

The gunnery sergeant didn't look up from the map he was scanning. "Thanks, Vitale. Put him in second platoon," he said. "They're short since that goddam ambush."

The two lieutenants glanced at PFC Callahan. "Lieutenant Gallagher is taking a dump," said one of them. "He's your platoon commander."

"Yes, Sir," said PFC Callahan.

"Your platoon sergeant is right over there, leaning against that stump. He'll square you away."

"Thank you, Sir."

"Don't thank me, thank the gods of war who delivered you to this glorious place."

"Fuck you," said the other lieutenant to his fellow officer, grinning. Owen Callahan guessed that they were the other two platoon commanders. He picked up his pack and his rifle and headed toward the platoon sergeant.

"Hey, Callahan!" shouted Sergeant Vitale after him. "I got nothing against Irish. I'm Italian!" PFC Callahan stopped and turned around, facing the sergeant. "Plenty of Italians in Southie, right?" PFC Callahan looked back for a moment longer, then a smile crossed his face briefly as he turned, shook his head and continued on.

Staff Sergeant Radek, platoon sergeant of the second platoon, saw to it that PFC Callahan had everything he needed to set himself up in the company area. He would share a two-man tent with Private William Powell.

Powell was from South Carolina—he had an accent. "You Cath'lic?" he asked his new tent mate.

"Yeah. What's it to you?"

"Nothin.' I just don't care for Cath'lics. Out here it don't mean shit, long as you a good Marine."

"Well, I don't like Southerners, so we're even," said Owen.

"Good to go," said Powell casually. "I'm gonna crap out. We got patrol tonight, search and destroy." He lay down on the ground. "You check in with the lieutenant yet?" asked Powell, lying on his back with his eyes closed.

"Nope. Just got here."

"Lieutenant Gallagher's Cath'lic, too. He ain't bad for an officer."

"I hear you're from Southie," said Lieutenant Gallagher when Owen reported to his platoon commander.

"Yes, Sir."

"You have a bit of the old country in your voice. When did your parents come over?"

"Forty-seven, Sir. I was born one year later."

The lieutenant nodded. "Don't pay any attention to Powell," he said. "He's just your typical redneck. But he's a good Marine. Listen to him, and you'll learn something."

"Yes, Sir."

"We've been out here over thirty days," the lieutenant continued. "We're closing in on some bad guys." He paused for a moment. We've had seventeen killed or wounded since we got out here, so listen to what the guys in the platoon are talking about—they know what we're doing." He looked at PFC Callahan intently. "You're ready to fight, right?"

"Yes, Sir, ready to get it on."

Lieutenant Gallagher smiled. "Okay, Callahan, just pay attention and you'll pick up things real fast."

"Aye, aye, Sir."

"We're moving out about nineteen hundred."

By 1800 the newly arrived C-rations and ammo had been distributed, and the cardboard containers were burning at the edge of the clearing. Intelligence had located an enemy command post, and three companies of the Marine battalion were closing in on it. Charlie Company had the lead position. The officers and sergeants had been briefed by the company commander, and the individual platoons had received their assignments for the night combat patrol. Platoon leaders and sergeants had passed details of the mission down to their squads and fire teams.

Near dusk the second platoon, the lead platoon, rounded a bend in a path through the heavy vegetation, moving slowly, warily, sniffing the cool evening air for trouble. Suddenly Sergeant Radek stopped, looked toward Lieutenant Gallagher, who was twenty yards further back in the column, and held up his hand. Several others heard the next sound, a faint "whup" in the distance, behind another of the endless thickets of tall grass. The Marines broke for the ditch alongside the path just as a burst of machine gun fire from the tree line ahead swept along the short straight stretch where they had been walking. A split second had saved ten lives, but a few men were hit as the mortar fire thudded and crashed around them.

"Corpsman!" someone shouted.

"We gotta get around to the side of that tree line," shouted the lieutenant over the din. "Vitale, move your squad off to the right."

The machine guns were well placed. The second platoon fanned out, and the first platoon moved in behind, filling the gaps. Mortar rounds continued to burst around them, though the rate of fire slowed after the opening barrage. Three squads inched their way forward, returning fire, but taking more than they were giving as they advanced painfully toward the thick line of green. The grazing fire clipped two more men, bringing more curses and shouts of "Corpsman!"

The third squad disappeared into a thicket, below and off to the right, moving out toward the finger of a ridge that jutted out across their path. There was no movement for a brief interlude—even the machine guns were silent—and nothing happened. For a moment men were stifled by the sound of their own breathing, their hearts pounding. Then Sergeant Radek saw something and the lieutenant saw it, something moving along the edge of the path, toward a break in the tree line, out of a shallow gully at the front edge of the thicket where the third squad had disappeared. An arm flashed forward and a puff of smoke burst up from a spot where machine gun fire had raked the platoon. Four figures—a fire team—arose and ran toward the trees, then another, and still others followed. Three figures went down, but one man got back up and raced through the hail of bullets that thudded into the ground behind him.

"Help him out!" shouted Lieutenant Gallagher.

Sergeant Vitale rose into a low crouch and beckoned the rest of his squad forward. The heat was off them for a few seconds as the remaining machine gun occupied itself with the crazy man from the third squad and the few Marines somewhere behind him in the thicket who poured supporting fire into the trees.

"Come on Marines!" shouted Sergeant Vitale as his remaining men ran half stumbling along the edge of the path. Vitale sucked in his breath and braced himself as he caught a glimpse of a gun barrel swinging back towards his squad from the clearing in the trees, but then the lone figure half dove from somewhere into the middle of the gun position, and the gun spat out a short burst high over the third squad's heads and then fell silent.

Sergeant Radek was maneuvering the rest of the platoon in behind the third squad. Marines from the third squad had hurdled over the elevated path and were following their comrade into the dense area. Peering over the top of the path, Sergeant Vitale watched the figure running crazily across a flat area towards still another emplacement.

"Jesus Christ," muttered Vitale, "the fucker's gone nuts." The lone Marine was spraying bullets from a machine gun, one he must have grabbed from a dead enemy; he had been armed with a rifle. Now he wheeled in a quarter circle, cutting down a line of enemy soldiers moving forward toward him from a clearing. The figure stumbled and fell forward into a hole, but in seconds his arm whipped forward again and a loud whump rolled back over the hill. Smart, thought Vitale; throw a grenade to keep them honest while you get your head and ass wired together.

Vitale looked up suddenly as he heard the odd, familiar rattling whistle of friendly artillery, and he saw the earth erupt in brown plumes about two hundred yards to the front. "God bless those cannon-cocking bastards," he said out loud, grinning at the Marines crouched near him. The company forward observer, a skinny, blond-haired lieutenant, had called the artillery fire in. The sharp snap of 105-millimeter howitzer rounds detonating obscured all other sounds, the noise coming from just beyond the edge of the tree line, dangerously close to the spot where the lone Marine still lay crouched in a shallow hole.

"Come on back!" shouted Vitale, but there was no more hearing over the thud of shells. "Let's go get him," he said to a corporal. "The 105's'll keep 'em down." He lurched forward again in a low, half-running crouch.

As Sergeant Vitale slid into the low spot in the grassy area near the edge of the clearing alongside the young Marine, panting, out of breath, the stench of vomit struck him.

"I puked," said the kid. "Sorry."

"Jesus Christ, Callahan, what in the hell you trying to do? Win it all by yourself?" He looked down at Callahan's heaving chest. His jacket was soaked with blood, as was one trouser leg and one sleeve of his jacket. The kid's face was dangerously pale.

"Get your ass back there and tell 'em to keep that fucking arty coming 'til I get this crazy asshole out of here," he bellowed at Corporal Jackson. "And take my rifle." Then he turned back to the gasping, half-smiling Callahan, whose eyes were beginning to glaze over. He was losing blood fast.

"This will hurt," said Vitale, wrestling Callahan up onto his shoulder. He stood up with a grunt and moved quickly if clumsily back toward the first ridge, the skinny body bouncing on his thick shoulders. He fell once and the kid moaned in pain. "Hold on," said Vitale. He struggled once more up and over the ridgeline to relative safety, lowering the young Marine to the ground.

"Damn," said Vitale, out of breath. "You got a mess of 'em. You ain't bad for an Irishman, Callahan." The kid had lost consciousness, and the sergeant stared at him for a moment. "Corpsman!" he bellowed. "Over here!"

Ten minutes later, the remaining squads had followed PFC Callahan's lead into the clearing, having dislodged enemy headquarters unit from their automatic weapons positions. The third platoon was filling in from the right, the second platoon moving in to take up a base of fire over on the left. Lieutenant Gallagher waved the remaining squads forward as the welcome whispers of the howitzer shells continued moving the enemy through the trees, suppressing their fire, keeping their heads down.

"Did you see that kid, Lieutenant?" shouted Vitale, grinning at the officer.

"Yeah," said the lieutenant, grim faced. "Quite a show."

"This is going to come out okay," said Sergeant Radek. "Alpha and Bravo Company are around on the other side, and we drove those bastards right into them."

"Yeah, this may turn out real good," said Lieutenant Gallagher. "We got a medevac coming in back at the CP area. Let's make sure all the wounded are on it."

"I spoke to the six a minute ago," said Corporal Weston, a radio operator. "Everything's clear back there."
"Good," said the lieutenant. He looked at Staff Sergeant Radek. "Okay, we'll set up along the path opposite the edge of that clearing. If any of those sons of bitches come back, we got 'em."

There were at least a dozen bodies in and around the clearing, all of them killed by Callahan's borrowed machine gun. Two more bodies lay in the ditch along the edge of the path, one with his head crushed by the butt of Callahan's rifle, another bayoneted.

Later, when instructors in individual combat techniques at the recruit depots at Parris Island and San Diego and at OCS at Quantico talked about the exploits of PFC Owen Callahan, holder of the Medal of Honor, they would point out that in the space of about three minutes, the young Marine fresh out of boot camp had used five different weapons to destroy enemy soldiers: bullets from his own rifle, hand grenades, his bayonet, the butt of his rifle and an enemy machine gun. Marines would profit well, the instructors told their awed charges, by emulating that example of quick thinking and resourcefulness.

When PFC Owen Callahan woke up in the First Medical Battalion hospital in back on the coast, he could still smell the vomit on his clothing mixed with the odor of bandages, antiseptics and medicines. Plastic containers of fluids fed his body through tubes inserted in both arms. The doctor, a Navy lieutenant commander with a haggard face and bloodshot eyes who was cutting away Callahan's sticky clothing, looked down at him and shook his head.

"Sounds like you made a hero of yourself, Marine," the doctor said, shaking his head. "You also made a mess of your body, but you'll live. You're lucky that no bones were shattered—your corpsman saved your life."

"I got sick, Sir," said PFC Callahan. "I don't remember the rest." He closed his eyes. "I don't remember," he mumbled. "Don't remember."

The doctor continued to shake his head. Pale from loss of blood, the kid looked at best fifteen. In fact, it was Owen Callahan's nineteenth birthday, but he didn't remember that either, not for several days.

Sergeant's Daughter Home | Sage Books Home | Updated July 18, 2021