But escape brought its own torments. As he wearily trundled on through, ‘M’s feet soon transformed into white, mangled stumps from trekking across the dense jungle, the flimsy fabric of his footwear soon yielded to the saturated conditions of the jungle, leaving him, before long, with only one shoe to wade though the incredibly long and arduous trek that lay ahead – he strapped the existing shoe with rattan and alternated its use for a few minutes respite.
Following several days of trudging through the dark, dank undergrowth – and with rations depleted and little drinking water available to him, ‘M’ finally decided to just lie down and die. He sensed that many Vietcong soldiers surrounded him; there was sufficient evidence on the jungle floor to suggest they were present, small tracks of flattened grass created by a single-file procession of military personnel being a major indication. If he was once again intercepted by the communist forces – he would die at their hands for sure. He therefore crawled into a small jungle hollow and covered himself with sufficient foliage to camouflage his withered and exhausted frame – and slept, not expecting to wake, but he eventually did so, to the sound of rushing, gurgling water.
Heavy rains to the north of the country during previous days, had transformed a narrow stream into a torrent, ‘M’ had not detected the sound of a river as he laid his head to rest, several hours earlier, the rainwater was still cascading down from the mountainous region of the country, many miles distant from where he was positioned – but the raging waters had now arrived – creating a highway to freedom, ‘M’ immediately sensed that the fast-moving river would flow into the Mekong Delta, which in turn would ferry him over the border into Thailand – and safety.
As he considered his options, ‘M’ determined that he was just too weak to construct a raft or similar platform to float downstream on what was now, extremely ferocious rapids, he also had no wish to create unnecessary noise, that of which would only draw attention to his presence and into the hands of the prowling Vietcong.
‘M’ gazed forlornly at the ever-widening cascade of water – he dejectedly conceded that his chance to finally break loose was gone – he then spied a large tree trunk moving speedily along the concourse, then another, and another, pretty soon, there appeared a vast number of fallen trees, all casualties of the massive force of descending torrents that raced through the jungle from higher ground.
He leapt from the bank and straddled the trunk of a tree that had come closest to his position, ‘M’ would cover more miles in the space of an hour than he did over the course of an entire week whilst crawling through the near impenetrable conditions of days earlier. Yet, his passage downstream was also filled with much danger and frightening uncertainty, the water flow became incredibly fast, and at times, ‘M’ struggled to maintain a positive grip on his ‘getaway’ vehicle, his legs too were being crushed by other large fallen trunks, those that rammed into him at each bend in the river. On one of the banks that he passed by, he spotted a number of Vietcong soldiers standing at the waters edge, totally immersed in the natural spectacle that was evolving before them – they failed to identify with the fact that one of the floating logs was carrying a passenger – ‘M’ started to believe that liberty from was-torn Vietnam was achievable – time would soon tell, but time was a resource that was running out for him.
As the river slowed in pace, many miles distant from the area that ‘M’ initially embarked on his nautical quest for freedom, he managed to get close to a part of the river bank that was not too steep, and slid from the timber conveyance to reach relatively dry and untroubled land. He was now weak, so weak that he could barely muster the energy to scale the few feet to the top of the bank – yet did so after becoming motivated by the sight of a well stocked banana tree, only a few yards from his muddy position at riverside.
With the aid of a fallen branch and around 30 minutes of frustrating prodding, the banana tree eventually parted with a large bunch of it’s long curved fruit, the cluster of plantains landed at ‘M’s feet with a resounding thud – he then started to ravenously consume the soft, pulpy flesh of more bananas than he could possible recall – he had not eaten for five days. In addition, the attack on the banana tree had stirred one of it’s sleepy house-guests, a medium size snake, that of which appeared somewhat agitated by ‘M’s’ unwelcome intrusion – within moments, the viper had managed to address the problem of the next meal, it was swiftly killed and placed in a small haversack, that of which contained the metal projectile that claimed the life of his son, so many months before.
‘M’ knew that he had little more to give; his only hope was to ascend a nearby hillock some two hundred yards away, then rest at the clearing on its apex and await rescue – or death! This was to be his final resting place, whatever the outcome. As he slept on the crest of the rise, he dreamed of his wife, son and two daughters – it was a beautiful dream.
Flying low over the dangerous and impenetrable Laotian jungle on a bombing mission against the Vietcong, a U.S. Air Force Colonel saw a lone figure waving to him from a clearing below.
He continued on his flight path, but ten minutes later – puzzled that a native in this hostile terrain would try to attract his attention – he decided to turn back for another reconnaissance of the area. This time, he saw the letters ‘HELP’ spelt out on a rock. Beside them stood an emaciated man dressed in rags, waving the remains of a dark shirt over his head and signaling desperately.
The pilot radioed his headquarters, who told him that no Americans had been shot down in the area, and instructed him to carry on. But the man continued waving, mouthing over and over again: “No leave, no leave me please.”
Eventually, at the pilot’s insistence, two rescue helicopters were scrambled. Dropping a cable down to the frantic figure, they winched him on board. Fearful that he could be a Vietcong suicide bomber, the crew pinned the five and half stone man to the helicopter deck and searched him – his satchel turned out to contain only a half-eaten snake and a small metal nugget.