the short story project


Houston Hagler

When They Fall

“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” 

– Nathan Hale


June 2nd, 1970.

The sea along the South Vietnamese shore was calm. The sun seemed to look down upon the salty waters with love and compassion. William Conners took in the beauty for a moment. He was raised as a simple farmer in Kentucky. A small-town boy. When the war in Vietnam broke out, he knew this was his chance to escape his dull, monotonous life. Against his parent’s best wishes, he joined the military. Quickly, he was sent to Vietnam, ill-trained and at times, ill-equipped. This mattered little to William, however. Through every trial, he gave his all.

We join him here. On a road which few ever escape.





Black boots fell into the waters off the coastal city of Danang. By this time, Danang had become a center of operations. The troops carried ashore supplies, munitions mainly. Each one of them wading towards the beach, one foot in front of the other as they carried the crates. William was with his best friend, Alejandro Ruiz. William was a tall and able-bodied man, working hard days on his parent’s farm had seasoned him. He had blonde hair and blue eyes, similar to his father. Alejandro was shorter and stockier. He was Hispanic, black hair and brown eyes. But he had a good spirit. This is why William liked Alejandro so much.

Together they were carrying a case of ammo, the sand being pushed below by their heavy boots.

“Why do they make us take the heavy stuff every time?”

Alejandro was breathing heavily, almost tripping over the water. William laughed lightly for a moment, then looked around at the others who were wading with them.

“It looks like everyone is carrying something heavy.”

Alejandro gave him a look of distaste before turning to concentrate more on the task at hand. He and William were both part of the 9th Infantry Division. They had met earlier in their training and were both put on the same boat. Eventually, they made it to the beach where Vietnamese men helped them take their things ashore.

They both marched into a camp on the outskirts of Danang where they were fed and clothed. They reported to a large tent where their commanding officer was giving out instructions. Together, they fell into line with the rest of the men.

“Alright, now that everyone is here. Tomorrow, you will all head out north to Tam Vi. You will go there and set up a permanent base and wait for reinforcements. Am I understood?”

In sync, all of them shouted, “Yes, Sir!” 

This was satisfying enough, the commander nodded and left the tent without another word. The others stayed and talked, while William and Alejandro went to their sleeping quarters. Every soldier was assigned a rifle, a pistol, canteen, and other necessities. William took out his weapon and began cleaning it.

Alejandro pulled out some crackers he had found earlier and begun eating them. William looked at him with a smile, he had a knack for finding things. Or even smuggling it in where it shouldn’t be.

“So, do you think this whole ‘build a base’ thing will work?”

He said this through a mouth full of crackers.

“I hope so. I’ve decided I’m going to just trust my commanding officers. There will be a couple hundred of us, so it should go smoothly.”

Alejandro sat the crackers down on his bed. William saw that he was deep in thought.

“I promised my mom I would come back. She was worried sick, you know. All this talk back in the states about the war…” 

His voice trailed off. William didn’t respond, but he understood. So many people perishing in Vietnam had caused people in the states to attack Nixon, demanding the end of the war immediately.





Gunfire was heard. They had been ambushed.

William jumped into a ditch, using it for cover fire. He shot once or twice out of it, not even daring to stick his head out. It was hard to tell how many shots he actually fired. Time seemed to slow down for him. The hiss of bullets made all else inaudible. He looked out of the ditch and saw a small girl in the middle of the gunfire. His heart was pounding. His eyes glanced around. He knew was he had to do. It was the only way. He jumped up and ran across the field toward the girl. He was ten feet away from her. Every second felt like a lifetime. Bullets flew past his head, but he continued to push on.

Eight feet. Seven feet. Six…Five…

His eyes were on the girl the whole time. Suddenly, she became wide-eyed and fell down. Two bullets had pierced her chest. Her arms went up as she fell to the ground, her immaculate white dress of stained crimson, her knees were dirtied and scraped from the fall. William tripped and slid down next to her. He stared in disbelief at her limp body. He was so close…but he couldn’t save her. He looked up above his head and saw planes fly over. Jets…bombing jets. He knew what this meant. The scream as the napalm fell was ear shattering. His life passed before his eyes. He saw his parents, his birthday. He saw Alejandro when they had first met. But it didn’t matter now. The napalm landed beside him. The flames engulfed his whole field of vision. Both he and the young girl were consumed in an instant.

William woke up in a cold sweat. He felt his heart and looked at his hands in the dark of the night.

“Still beating…” He fell back onto the bed. All of it was a dream.



The shrill cry of a trumpet sounded in the early morning. The dew had fallen and the grass outside the tents glistened under the moonlight, which soon gave way to a new morning. It was 0500 hours. (5:00 AM)

William was already awake at this point. After the dream, he had little sleep. He could still feel his heart beating rapidly as he sat on his bed. Alejandro slept like a peaceful stone, without a care in the world. William envied him for that. They quickly jumped into uniform with some, then picked up their gear. Afterward, the commanding officer gave them another rundown of the operation.

They left the lecture and got into formation. They were to march from Danang to Tam Vi, which was a number of miles north of them. They would set up camp there in hostile territory and wait for reinforcements. William had read through different books on Vietnam. He knew the terrain would be rough and treacherous also. Around 250 men marched out of the city. William knew it would be a long and hard march.

One by one, they set out slowly. It had rained the previous night, and the going was difficult due to the muddy ground below them. 

After marching for almost five hours, the men were exhausted. Most of these people had little training and lacked discipline. Drafties who didn’t want to be here anyway.

“Everyone take a break. Echo will go and scout the area.” 

One of the captains said this.

Echo was William’s squad. Alejandro was also in it.

“Just when I thought we get to rest…” 

Alejandro sighed and stood up. All of Echo Squad had formed up together. There was 30 of them at least. They were told to split up into pairs of five and scout a two-mile radius. Alejandro and William were put into different groups this time. William shook the hands of his fellow soldiers. A man named John Clark was over his group. The others were named Lopez, Smith, and Jackson. He left quickly after he had met them, going into the thick wood that lay ahead. They had gone about a mile out when Clark saw something. He stopped, hoping to see better.

“Is that….” 

His voice trailed off, and Lopez stepped up.

“That looks like a building. We should check it out.”

Lopez said this as he strained to see ahead. The brush was thick. Clark agreed and signaled silently to everyone that they should advance. They drew closer and could make out a group of smaller huts.

“This place looks abandoned.”

Smith had spoken for the first time. His voice was surprisingly high, as he was a larger man. William nodded with some amusement but said nothing. Jackson walked inside one of the huts, and there was a loud “click!”. He hadn’t noticed as he lifted his foot off. Lopez saw what was happening from a few feet away. In William’s ears, he heard Lopez’ scream of warning.

But he spoke too late. The hut exploded, knocking everyone down. Blood seemed to shower from above. William was dazed but slowly regained his footing. He heard someone cursing loudly, but his ears were ringing. He opened his eyes, seeing nothing but blood, smoke, and rubble.

He looked down beside him and saw his M16 lying in the dirt. He unconsciously picked it up, starting to regain his senses. Clark was yelling orders to his right, telling everyone to find cover. Bullets were whizzing past to his left. He dived behind another a small hut. He steadily peaked out and saw the Viet Cong soldiers in the trees, firing upon their position. He brought up his gun, shooting. He saw one fall back. He had killed him. Adrenalin was kicking in now. He shot a few more bullets, then darting behind cover before one of the Vietnamese hit him with a bullet of his own. Somewhere, deep in his mind, he enjoyed killing that man. God only knows why. An almost savage state fell over him as he continued shooting, killing two more. He saw someone to his right fall. It was Clark. He looked at the open eyes of his now dead commander. It was almost as if Clark was still alive, asking William to help him… More rage seemed to flood into William now; he shot once again at the enemy. As soon as the skirmish had started, it was over. He thought he could count maybe ten combatants. William sat down against the hut he was behind. Details were racing through his mind. He began to shake at the realization of what he had just done. William was a religious man, and to him, this seemed like the greatest of all sins. Even worse, he liked killing those men. It was as if a sense of barbaric savagery had flooded his mind and body. Lopez walked up and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Hey…we need to get back now. It isn’t safe here.” William looked up and nodded. They all silently knew the act they had committed, but no one dared to say their own thoughts aloud. Almost in unison, they told themselves it had to be done. They shot first, after all. But for some, this did little to ease the sorrow.

On the way, people who had heard gunshots were rushing through the jungle to help if possible. They came upon William’s group but stopped in an instant. They knew what had happened.

William and Lopez picked up Clark’s lifeless body together, the other men doing the same with any dead they could find. No one bothered to find the remains of Jackson. They all walked a couple miles until they had found the rest of the group. A few men rushed forward, everyone else stood up to see what the commotion was. William and Lopez gently laid Clark’s body down on the ground. After doing so, he walked away from the scene, ignoring anyone who asked him questions.

The commanders had decided to make camp there. Everyone was on edge but still exhausted.

William asked around for a man named Alejandro Ruiz for most of the night. He finally found out a similar situation had happened to Alejandro’s squad. They needed him to confirm a body. He walked up to a bag, and slowly unzipped it. He stared in disbelief at the lifeless form of his friend. Why would God take his friend? His only friend? Was God really that cruel? William zipped up the bag again and nodded. He left the area quickly, heading back to his sleeping bag. After everyone was asleep, he was unable to hold back the tears. He wasn’t the type to cry. But he let this moment of weakness slip.




Morning broke that next day. Again, William hadn’t slept at all, but instead prayed throughout the night. Fear was gripping at his heart, this place was eating him alive. The only thing that held him together was the prayer that if he was to die, it would be quick. Painless. He didn’t want to endure the suffering anymore. It was almost driving him mad.

Early that morning, they set out again. Everyone had rested, so this march was easier; other than William of course. He hardly spoke a word, he was far too absorbed in his own thoughts. 

They had walked almost an hour when someone to his left started speaking in a hushed tone. 

“This whole thing is us being sent to the wolves. To be slaughtered. I don’t like any of it.”

A couple of the people he was talking to agreed with a simple nod. They decided no words should be said. These few sentences sparked something in William. He remembered what he had done. The death he caused. The rage he felt. The blood-lust.

“We’re the true wolves. All of us. We kill for no reason other than political gain. All of this is a game. We’re just pawns.”

William shook his head after saying this. His voice was like steel, it left no point of retaliation. The man who had spoken put his head down, swallowing the words. He knew this all too well himself. 

It was silent for another hour. They were walking through a small passage, thick foliage on both sides. William looked around him into the dense brush. Something about these surroundings seemed…uncanny. 

Gunfire was heard to their east shortly after. Ten-no, more than ten had died before they could figure out the direction. The soldiers hid behind trees and inside small ditches.

William gripped his gun tightly, watching his comrades shoot in the other direction. Behind him, he heard someone yelling into a radio for help. By this time, it was apparent there was at least one-hundred of them. Grenades and gunfire were constantly being exchanged. William joined in the firefight, shooting multiple times. He was at the very back of the line. Communication farther up was near impossible. The dreadful sounds of bullets made his ears sting, the hiss plagued him. His heart was racing. Behind him, he heard confirmation of allied bombers on their way. William was inside a small ditch. He remembered this from before…these surroundings…but where? It was hard to think with so much noise. He continued to fire on the enemy, killing one, maybe even two. At this point, it was hard to tell. He turned his sights and narrowed his eyes. Lowering the gun, he saw someone standing in the battlefield. His heart pounded even harder, his mind racing. Without a second thought, he jumped out and ran after her.

As he ran, he started to realize where he had seen this before. He cursed at himself inwardly, but he was already too far to turn back now. She was only a few feet away, he could make it. His dream was nothing but a dream. There couldn’t be any coincidence between this moment and then. He had to change things. 

Five feet away now. He could clearly see she was crying, saying something in her own language.

His hand extended out toward her, only three feet away. But it was too late. Blood soaked through her ragged shirt. William caught her before she fell onto the ground. He could see the look of surprise on her face, followed quickly by a look of pain. Her expression was so soft. He had failed…just like in his dream. He stood up with the girl in his arms, trying to run back to cover. After only a few moments, he was hit in the leg with a bullet. He fell down, using his body to shield the girl’s as he slammed against the ground. He had already accepted now that he would die here, in a foreign land, fighting someone else’s battle. He should have never left that farm. That damned farm.

The roar of planes hit his ears quickly. There was no escape from his own death. He looked up to see bombs falling over him. He watched as they hit the ground, napalm licking at the grass as it made its way towards him. Everything has slowed…he was at peace now. He could accept his fate. He gripped the girl’s lifeless body closely, feeling her warmth, and then the warmth of fire upon his back. And it was at that instant,that William Conners was forgotten. 


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