This operation was called Choctaw. Our battalion was called up to search and sweep toward the Que Son Valley, a large swath of rice paddies and villages. We were on the choppers by 6:45 am. It was suspected that NVA units were supporting the local VC and our mission was to make the area safe for the U.S. Marines.
A few hours into the sweep, our battalion made an incredible discovery. There, in a dried up creek bed, was a nine-month-old Vietnamese baby boy. After a bit of hurried deliberation, it was decided that the baby was coming with us. And I was in charge of the little guy until we were choppered out.
He was a healthy little tyke and looked well taken care of. I looked around in the distance to see if anyone might be looking for him. I couldn’t help but think that the child’s mother was watching in horror as we walked away with her baby. Even if they didn’t see me take the baby, they would soon realize he was gone. The only future I could see for the child was that it was going to end up in one of those horrible orphanages. It tore me up inside knowing I was doing something wrong.
I carried the baby for hours, always protecting him from the rays of the sun. We stopped for lunch. The baby didn’t seem to be hungry at all. I tried to feed him cookies from one of my C-ration dinners. He pushed them away. I tried to set the baby down, but he wouldn’t have anything to do with that either. I was able to set my rifle, pack, and cartridge belt to the side. I sat him on my lap, and he finally took a rest from holding on to me. I decided to call him Charlie. I tried to think of how one might feed a baby in the middle of the wilderness. I knew he had to be hungry. Then I remembered a Three Stooges episode where the bald-headed stooge, Curly, fed a baby by using a rubber glove as a baby bottle.
But where would I get some milk? Wait a second, I thought. We have instant powdered milk in our C-rations for coffee. I asked for donations of milk packets from everyone and received quite a few. Everyone was willing to donate to Charlie. Then I went over to the corpsman, Doc Eastman.
“Hey Doc, do you have any rubber gloves?” I asked.
Sure enough, he did. I washed the powder out of the glove with a little water. Then I heated some water in my metal canteen holder and added the milk packets to the concoction. I tasted the mixture and it had a little sweetness to it. I asked Steiner to hold open the glove as I poured the heated ingredients inside. I twisted the glove at the wrist and then I bit a little hole into one of the fingers as Curly had. I cuddled the baby close to my body and fed it to him.
“Look at Taylor; he’s breastfeeding,” one of the Marines commented.
A roar of laughter came from the group. I just shook my head. The baby seemed to like my concoction at first, but shook his head and then rejected the finger of the glove altogether. I couldn’t figure out why.
“Maybe the hole isn’t big enough,” Steiner said.
Bill Taylor (First Battalion, Third Marine Regiment)
“You know, you may have something there,” I said.
So, I bit a little larger hole, which was difficult at first because of the thickness of the glove. Once the milk came out faster, the baby drank it like crazy. He fell asleep in my arms. I knew he was exhausted. It wasn’t too long before I heard the call to saddle up. I tried to move, but the baby clung to my every motion. I finally got all my gear on. We moved out, and the baby took a long nap in my arms as we proceeded on the sweep.
We finally reached our first destination point for the evening. The lines were set and fields of fire were established for the evening watches. Two ambush patrols were sent out. Of course, there were listening posts just outside the lines to alert us in case of an attack. After checking our fields of fire, we had to dig our fighting holes.
The baby was clinging to me. I tried to hand him to Steiner. Little Charlie would have nothing to do with that. Steiner shrugged his shoulders and dug the entire hole because he understood the situation we were in. Steiner was falling in love with the little guy, as were some of the others.
The sun was setting over the mountains. Before I made my own dinner, I started my little ritual of feeding Charlie. Steiner had Charlie laughing with some playful antics. One by one, the guys came over to our foxhole to check in on the little guy. The baby was beginning to get more comfortable with the entire platoon.
Little Charlie was becoming our little mascot. Everyone started worrying about him, because he gave us a sense of home and normality. I held the exhausted little baby in my arms and rocked him to sleep as he drank the instant milk. About dusk, the baby woke and I gave him some more homemade food. I noticed that he needed a diaper. I went into my pack and got one of my T-shirts, tore off the bottom, and made a diaper. The top part of my shirt was used to cover him during the night. I held him all night long. A couple of times I tried to put him down, but he would wake and begin to cry and I didn’t want him to give away our position. The next morning, we got up and continued the sweep.
I managed to get enough creamers to keep him fed. I dipped cookies into milk to make them soft and easier for him to eat. Another Marine came over with a puppet he had made from an extra pair of white socks he had. The Marine drew eyes, a nose, and a mouth on the sock with a pen. Then he put on a little puppet show for the baby. Charlie actually started laughing. This raised our spirits a lot.
“I see you still have that baby,” the sarge said as he entered our area. “Looks like you’re doing a good job.”
“What are we going to do with him?” I asked.
“I’ll talk to the lieutenant,” he said.
It wasn’t long before the lieutenant appeared and acted surprised to see I still had the baby.
“Oh, yeah, the baby,” he said. “We are getting resupplied tomorrow, and I made arrangements for the baby to be lifted out of here.”
“Where do you think the baby will end up?” I inquired. “That’s not our problem, Marine.”
I couldn’t help but think of the coldness with which Francis said that. I held on to the baby all night long. Morning came, and I was exhausted. I made myself coffee and broke out cold scrambled eggs from my C-rations can. I made the baby his milk and fed him a little warmed egg which, to my surprise, he ate willingly. We started our sweep again. Charlie and I had moved several hours before we stopped for lunch. I could hear, in the distance, a chopper approaching. It was getting closer. I wondered if this was it. Were they coming for the baby? I looked at the baby, and my eyes started to fill with tears. I could see the baby turn to me with concern, knowing something was wrong by the expression on my face.
One of the Marines from the command post ran over and said, “Bring the baby to the LZ. He’s being lifted out right now.”
Shit, I knew it. My stomach felt ill. I stared at the baby. All I could think was that this baby was going to an orphanage. I felt as though someone had ripped my heart right out of my chest. What was I going to do? I tore into my pack, looking for my writing gear. It was at the very bottom of the pack, so I flipped it upside down and emptied the entire contents on the ground. I could hear the chopper coming closer. Frantically, I started to write my name and address, but the pen didn’t work so I shook it wildly. The guys were yelling for me to bring the baby to the landing zone.
“I need a pen!” I yelled. “Someone help me!”
Some of the guys looked for a pen while others just sat back, watching the show.
“Taylor, I got one,” Steiner said, and he threw it to me.
I got a small piece of paper and wrote. “To whom it may concern, I found this baby in a cave. I want to adopt it. Please contact the Taylors at ...”
I wrote my name, address, unit, and service number. I then ran to Doc Higgenbottom for a safety pin, which I used to fix the note on the baby’s homemade gown. The chopper had almost arrived. The CP didn’t like choppers waiting on the ground.
“Hey, Taylor!” someone yelled from the CP. “Get the baby moving, now!”
I ran toward the chopper. It was a CH-34, with slanted eyes painted on the front as if it were a large predator looking around as it landed. The baby was terrified as the chopper came in. Dust, sand, dirt, and small rocks flew everywhere. I turned around and tucked his little body close to mine and shielded him from all the flying debris. The rotor was loudest as the chopper landed.
Four Marines disembarked very quickly. The door gunner threw some boxes on the ground and motioned for me to come forward with the baby. Little Charlie was now crying with terror and holding onto me for dear life. I didn’t want him to go, either. The door gunner was yelling incoherently and waving his hand to me. I ran over to him and the gunner grabbed the baby. He couldn’t seem to pry the child away because the baby was still holding on for dear life. Or was it me holding onto him? The gunner gave one big pull, and the baby was ripped from my arms. Little Charlie was crying, screaming, and kicking with his hands held out as if to say, “Come and get me and don’t let them take me away.”
I grabbed the gunner by his shirt neck and pulled him close to me. With all the passion I could muster up I said, “Take care of him. I love him!”
“I will,” said the gunner, as he looked directly into my eyes.
“Whoever gets this baby, make sure they get this note,” I demanded.
“OK! Now move off!” he instructed.
The engine of the chopper started to roar. I was still by the door and the door gunner. I had to back away from the chopper. The dirt and debris were flying, and it felt like the blades of the chopper were dangerously close. I ran away to escape the hell and ferocity of the spinning blades. As I turned to look at the chopper, dust and dirt were flung into my eyes, blinding me for a couple of seconds. It was hard to locate the baby by the door of the chopper. I tried to see him one last time. The tail of the chopper lifted and it started to rise and move forward, up and away. I watched the chopper become smaller. At the door, the gunner was holding onto the chopper with one hand and the baby in the other as they disappeared from my view. Tears were running down my cheeks, and I waved until the craft was out of sight. I turned and slowly walked away, heartbroken. I wondered if I would ever see the baby again.
I yelled out, “God, I hate this war!”
||Excerpted from On Full Automatic: Surviving 13 Months in Vietnam with permission from Bill V. Taylor. All rights reserved. Bill Taylor served in the First Battalion, Third Marine Regiment in Vietnam for 13 months in 1967 and 1968. He has spoken for Veteran’s Organizations and to local schools about the Vietnam War. He currently belongs to the VFW, Military Order of the Purple Heart, Disabled American Veterans, Third Marine Division Association, and the Marine Corp League. He has been a Chapter Commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. Visit his website, https://williamvtaylor.com