In “The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” Rat Kiley, a soldier with a reputation for telling tall tales, claims to have witnessed the transformation of Mary Anne Bell, a typical American girl who visits her fiancé, Mark Fossie, in Vietnam, into a wild jungle beast.
At the start of the story, Rat is in a small medical detachment overlooking a village called Tra Bong and a river called the Song Tra Bong. The area had been a Special Forces outpost, and a squad of Green Berets still bivouacked on the perimeter. The “Greenies” were secretive, antisocial, and sometimes gone for days—or weeks—in the jungle.
One of the men in Rat’s unit, Mark Fossie, arranges for his fiancé to visit. Mary Anne Bell is an all-American girl—a “tall, big-boned blonde,” with long white legs, blue eyes and a complexion “like strawberry ice cream.” She is naïve, friendly, and curious. She wears a pink sweater and white culottes.
At first things go well for the couple. They hold hands, talk, and plan their all-American wedding and marriage—complete with a house in the suburbs and three blond children. Mary Anne participates in camp life. Although she is flirtatious and sexy, the men realize that she is just being friendly, and they like her. She is curious about everything: the weapons, cooking, medical equipment, geography, and the local people and language.
The second week of her visit, Mary Anne persuades Mark to take her to the village of Tra Bong. He argues that going there would be too dangerous, but she prevails. In the village, she behaves like an ordinary tourist unaware of danger. She is outgoing, friendly, and curious. On the way home, she removes her outer clothing and swims in the Song Tra Bong—a symbolic baptism that marks the beginning of her transformation.
At the end of the second week, Mary Anne helps treat some casualties and is not intimidated by blood or ugliness. She cuts her hair and wraps her head in a bandanna, stops wearing makeup, and lets her personal hygiene go. Even her voice changes, becoming lower. She learns how to disassemble, assemble, and shoot an M-16 rifle. Mark becomes uneasy and begins to mention her going home, but she refuses, saying that she has never been happier.
Mary Anne begins coming back to the soldiers’ hooch late at night. One night she does not return at all. The men search the camp, finally finding her with the Green Berets. She is asleep, and they realize that she has gone out on a patrol with them in the jungle.
By the third week, tension between Mary Anne and Mark is evident, and he begins to arrange for her departure. Mary Anne becomes morose and silent, sitting alone, staring at the jungle. Rat says that she seems both terrified and enthralled by it. Abruptly, she disappears into the jungle for three weeks with the Green Berets.
When she returns, her transformation is complete. Rat does not recognize her when she walks out of the jungle like a silent shadow. Even her eyes have changed from blue to a “jungle green.” She disappears into the hooch of the Green Berets.
Mark waits outside the hooch all day for her to emerge. By nightfall, she is still inside, and strange noises, sights, and odors are coming out of the hooch. Mark and Rat enter. The scene is unsettling. Candles flicker in the darkness. There are two smells, one of incense and the other a “stench that paralyzed your lungs . . . a mix of blood and scorched hair and excrement...
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and the sweet-sour odor of moldering flesh—the stink of the kill.” Next to a pile of bones is a sign that says, “ASSEMBLE YOUR OWN GOOK!! FREE SAMPLE KIT!” Mary Anne is singing to Vietnamese music. Her face is flat and expressionless, no longer open and friendly. She wears a necklace of dried human tongues strung on a copper wire. She says that she has become captured by the mystery of the war, and she has never felt so alive as she does out in the jungle. She tells Mark that there is really nothing more to say and she orders him and Rat to leave the hooch because they do not belong there.
Rat does not know firsthand what happened later because he was transferred, but he has heard that Mary Anne finally disappeared into the jungle and was never seen again, although rumors cropped up about half-seen odd shadows or movements, or a feeling that the “Greenies” on patrol had of being watched by the jungle itself.