Members of the 5th /60th Association,
I am in need of help.
You probably gathered that the Australians held an 'inquiry' and decided against any further recognition. Surprise, Surprise!
The USA recently offered a DSC but the Australians are trying to block it to justify their manufactured findings.
If there is enough pressure placed on the US Awards Branch about it being worthy recognition, they may go against the Australian resistance. After all, I was serving along side American personnel and importantly, it was American lives I am credited with saving.
The DSC is for the 5/60 action on 10 May, 1968 that Shorty was supporting for many years.
Any members who remember this engagement, would you please consider e-mailing the Awards Branch giving your support for the award? The recommendation was first signed by Antilla and there are eye-witness statements from Antilla, Kisling, Hawkins, Hinkley, Ewell, Hunt and Gallup. I think Hohman, Niver and Taylor were there that day. Tommy Franks was there but does not recall my involvement. However, his general support would help.
Because of what has already happened, there is some urgency to this matter. The person to e-mail is –
Cc: Lummer, R Arron LTC USARMY HRC (US); Barnard, Timothy J CTR USARMY HRC (US); Johnson, Megan E CTR (US)
I do not have an address on LTC R. Arron Lummer, so you would have to ask Bradley Hunt to forward your statement to the appropriate department.
The following letter was posted right after our 2012 reunion in St Louis.
I normally don't blog or make long posts and I'm typically a quiet person. However, I thought I'd break away from that one time.
This past weekend I had the honor of driving my parents to St. Louis for my dad's Vietnam Veterans reunion of the 5th Battalion of the 60th Infantry of the 9th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army.
I had the privilege of meeting many brave men that served their country with honor and courage during Vietnam. For me, it was a very eye opening, humbling and educational experience. No longer were these men just photographs that I had seen; names in stories that I was told or read. They became real. They were husbands, fathers, sons and friends. The stories and photos almost came to life and took new meaning as I could actually reach out, touch, hug and shake hands with these heroes.
Son of Barney Tharp
Alpha Co 9/68 – 6/69
The following critique of our 2010 Wichita reunion was written by Rich Niederhof, a friend of Bob Cooper's from Bend Oregon.
What I witnessed taking in Wichita was far more than a “reunion.”
First of all, ANY gathering of almost 200 people, at which EVERY person (I saw no one refuse) – EVERY ONE OF YOUR BAND OF BROTHERS – stands and speaks openly from the heart – THIS is FAR more than a reunion. When I, an outsider, am drawn from tears to laughter, from compassion to overwhelming PRIDE (in each of you), time after time… Sometimes from a single speaker! THAT says something! And from ordinary “grunt” to general…so much for the universal fear of public speaking…
This can only happen when there is caring, love, trust, and a desire to heal and be healed.
Lee and Metz have done a fantastic job of initiating and organizing this, and setting the caring tone, but, WOW, the “guest speakers” were EACH AND EVERY ONE OF YOU!
What each of you accomplished, or tried to accomplish, was opening up, pulling out the past and all its demons, fears, pain, etc. …to yourselves and each other….to help in the healing…of yourself and your brothers…. As one of you stated to all, the reunions “are the greatest therapy I ever had”.
You are doing what you did in Vietnam…"protect” your buddy.
It was also apparent that it is working…those at their second, or third, or fourth reunion so stated. One of you talked of having the bad dreams “resolved”. Several told of getting help from the V. A. and other sources after getting together with their long-lost brothers.
And more of the remembering the GOOD, the fun and funny…from hooch humor to “expert Defication Burner”. Ain’t military humor great???
And remembering and recognizing the bravery and heroism as well.
What you guys are doing is GETTING AND GIVING to each other the RECOGNITION you deserve but didn’t get some 40 years ago. You came home individually….and tried to forget…and too damn fast put back into “normal”. I’ll never forget what one of you said…he got home and sat down to dinner withVietnam dirt still under his fingernails!!!!
It dawned on me… There was NO PARADE! Little or no public POSITIVE recognition…ONLY A lot OF NEGATIVE COMMENTS OR APATHY!!!
So, goddam it, have your OWN parade NOW. Get together and recognize each other through these reunions. And continue to give each other the recognition you deserve. Do you realize, really realize, how special it was for you, Bob Cooper and your band of brothers, to see that Tony “Nam” Sparaco got his Bronze Star after all these years???? The word “Special” doesn’t do it justice.
Okay, call it a reunion if you want…Thanks for letting share in this experience, Bob.
The following letter was written by Max Zurcher
How awesomely misplaced that stranger that came to share my life. No one knows his name or when he came to stay, but there he was – misery and abuse – that came to share what I always felt was mine.
I cannot let him stay or let him share my day, but he’s always there hanging around since I met him 43 years ago in Vietnam. Some call him alcohol; others say his name is drugs. Many say he’s a distant relative that came to confuse and destroy the beautiful memories that I would like to share.
How can a stranger steal all that means the world to me? He takes my thoughts and makes them his. This just can’t be happening to me, but there he is, as big as life, sitting in the chair I built for myself. He steals my brothers and my friends. He makes my life his own.
What can I do? I no longer exist to you. I have to find a name to call the stranger that took my name from me. I don’t know what it means but I’ll call him PTSD.
PTSD has found his home; now please help me find mine.
The following letter was written by Barney Thatp.
The following letter was read by Tony Sparaco at the 2010 Wichita reunion
I saw the notice in the DAV Magazine about the reunion being held in Kansas this week.
I wish I could make the trip and re-visit old friendships; however, I am not able to do so.
I hope everyone enjoys the reunion.
I was stationed in South Viet Nam with the Ground Surveillance Unit of the 9th Infantry Division; 5th Battalion/60th Infantry Regiment 1967-1968. My platoon sergeants were Sgt. White and Sgt. Dornhecker – are they there? – please, say hello for me.
I am married to Cathleen, have 2 children, Jon and Sheila, and enjoy 5 grandchildren – ages 9 – 15. We recently moved from Westland, Michigan to Oscoda, Michigan. Quite a change. Nice country here.
I'd like to hear from anyone who is interested in emailing and catching up. Please, share this email address.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this note, I am unable to attend because of Pulmonary Fibrosis – a fatal lung disease. I am certain Agent Orange is the cause but the VA has not agreed with this diagnosis. I was wondering if anyone knows of anyone who was in Viet Nam at the time I was there who is suffering or has suffered from this disease.
Thanks for hosting this reunion and sharing my hellos.
Take Care –
This was submitted by Association member John Coutant. (6/14/10)
Note to the Reader:
The following transcription is not a verbatim transcript. This is because there were few complete sentences during this exchange, and there is no such thing as spoken punctuation. Therefore, I have made the following changes for the sake of readability:
Double word uses are eliminated. These took the form of pauses; such as “they, they…” or sounds like “ah” or “uhm”, etc.. These, and other hesitations, are indicated with a group of three periods. They are the only deletions that have been made.
Paragraph and sentence breaks are inserted where there is a logical change in thought or subject. If a break is not clear, it is left as a run-on sentence.
Dashes are used to indicate changes in the flow of speech or subject that are made without a pause.
Brackets are used for clarification. The word “stream” now reads as “[river]” for consistency. Other sets of brackets are inserted to clarify a time, place, or meaning gained from context. These are the only additions.
Contractions, such as “goin’” for “going” and “ya” for “you”, are preserved as regional accents.
The interview took place on May 27, 1968, at Tan An South, Republic of South Viet Nam. It occurred just after an award ceremony. The interviewee is Lieutenant Lee Alley and the identity of the interviewer is not known. The tape is a third or fourth generation from the original but has a very clear sound quality.
(The tape begins in mid-sentence.)
Interviewer: …sir, your full name and where you are from.
Alley: …My name is Lee B. Alley. I’m from Laramie, Wyoming.
Int.: And how long have you been in Viet Nam, sir.
A.: I’ve been here, well, eleven months now, I have thirteen days to go in-country.
Int.: Now, sir, tell us, this morning you received the Distinguished Service Cross for…Gallantry in Action here in Viet Nam. Let’s go back when the action first began and pick it up from there and tell us just what took place…with your Recon Platoon.
A.: This happened back in November, when I was acting as the Recon Platoon leader with the 5th of the 60th Infantry. Our mission – we were to go on a three-day air-mobile mission, southwest of Saigon area. We flew from our base camp in Bien Phuoc down to Dong Tam [and] based there. Flew out the next day. Initially, my platoon was to go in last, after they had inserted the companies. And when we finally went in, it was a ‘hot’ L.Z. and we had quite a bit of difficulty movin’ that day. We made very little ground that day. And then a chopper went down in that area and we got the mission of securing that. So, we spent the night…securing the helicopter.
And the next morning, we began…air-mobiling around the area of contact, trying to pick up the unit that we had made contact with the day prior. …We weren’t successful in this and around two o’clock [in] the afternoon, my platoon was picked-up and dropped off at Fire Base Cudgel. [This is] where I was to link-up with our Charley Company and provide security for the artillery at that base. My platoon, the Recon Platoon – I had 35 men at the time,…received the mission of moving to the west side of the [river] and securing that side of the [river] for the artillery.
That afternoon, we spent building bunkers, just generally drying out, because the area [we had been in] was real wet; there wasn’t any dry ground around. As soon as we got there, I put out my observation posts and…the rest of us, more or less, just dried out.
That evening – well, actually, it would be the next morning; it was about two o’clock – we were real tired. I was taking my turn on guard, so I know it was about two o’clock in the morning, when the Charley Company – which was on the south flack of the perimeter – came under real heavy automatic and small arms fire and were completely engaged in…contact. …Simultaneously, at the same time, my position came under real heavy mortar attack. A lot of my – …I shouldn’t say ‘a lot’ – several of my positions took…hits from these mortars and I…started receiving a lot of casualties right at the first.
Originally, I felt that there wouldn’t be a ground attack, because the way the mortars were fallin’ right on my position, I felt that it would be suicide for the enemy to try to penetrate through their own mortars. But the next thing I knew…I could hear voices all in front of me. …It sounded like they were just everywhere; talkin’, screamin’, yellin’ orders at each other. …One thing I remember real clearly: they kept hollering…‘ G.I., you die!’…’G.I., we get you tonight!’, and things like this. Which I might say, at the time, had quite a bit a’ ‘do’[?] on your moral!
Since I was takin’ quite a bit of casualties from the mortars, I decided to…pull my platoon back across the river, where we could have the river as a natural barrier between us and pick-off some of the enemy this way. …Because, by this time, they were in my perimeter. Two of my bunkers… actually… had Viet Cong in the bunkers with ‘em. …It was,…what you might almost call, hand-to-hand fighting there for some time.
So, I started movin’ my platoon…across the river. As soon as I got them in the river…, I told one of my radio operators to go to the river. As he got out of the bunker, he was hit with a…he was shot. I…left the bunker and drug him to the river and returned. And I had one more R.T.O. and my Forward Observer in the bunker with me. At that time a mortar round exploded, wounding my other R.T.O.. And my F.O., Specialist Stepp, did a real fine job; he…administered what first aid he could, there in the bunker, and then [he] drug him to the river, while I covered for him.
By this time, I had nearly everyone into the river. I went back to the river, which was approximately 10 meters behind my position, and started directin’ ‘em across the river. …The river was real deep, over our heads. There was a small foot bridge, but you couldn’t walk on it, as such, and also you didn’t want to get up that high because of the…tremendous amount of fire goin’ on. I told…the men – they formed a human chain underneath the bridge, hangin’ on to it, and passed the wounded across this way.
At…for some reason, I don’t really know why, I returned back to the bunker and…fired…what ammunition I had left, while they made it across. By this time, I could actually see the V.C., they were right up to my bunker, I could just look next to ‘em and you could see ‘em comin’. I…ran out of ammunition, so I returned to the river and got another weapon and I returned to the bunker again. …Ran out of ammunition, so I began throwin’ the hand-grenades which I had…piled up next to me when the attack initially started. And it was really somethin’ because they just kept comin’. You…would look up and here they would come. You would throw a hand-grenade, get down, and look up an’ there’d be more comin’.
So, by this time, my troops were well across the river, so, I myself, went across. As soon as I got [across] the river, I initially got my people down…an’ I started carin’ for the wounded. My medic, Specialist Coutant, did a real fine job; he was patchin’ ‘em up. And [I] started countin’ to find out what I was missing. …I counted several different times and every time I came up that I was missing four men. And about this time, I heard one [of] the artillery positions yell that they saw some men in the river. So, I ran over an’ dove back in the river an’ swim across to help the four men across, two of which were wounded.
Once I got these people across the river…I was still missing three men. However, these were the…three that, I’m sorry to say,…were killed in the action. And…since there was nothin’ we could do for these, this is when I startin’ puttin’ in the gun-ships and the…artillery on the position I had just left, since the V.C. were actually in the bunkers I had left and were using them to fire at us, across the river. And also, we had the ‘Spooky’ flair-ships and air-strikes on an’ puttin’ them into the area, also.
Int.: What size enemy force was this that…made the attack?
A.: It’s really hard to say. I…had a Hoi Chan, one of my Hoi Chans – our Tiger Scouts, as they’re called – and he told me that he estimated a hundred V.C.
Int.: Now, were they – was it a well coordinated, planned attack? Or were they just charging; a massed human assault? And what?
A.: …Actually, it was…quite well coordinated, because the way they initially hit us with the mortars, from which we took quite a few casualties – and then, while we were in, you might say, confusion from the mortar attack – they…started their ground attack on our position. And the way they came into my position; they didn't hit in it, initially, directly from the front. They came in from the flank, got into two of the bunkers, on my flanks, then started workin’ across my front rather than directly into it.
Int.: Did the V.C. take casualties from the mortar barrage that came in when they made the ground assault?
A.: It’s hard to say. I would say yes. It’s just like a lot of the fighting around here, you fight all day and all night: an’ you know you’ve got ‘em. The next day, when you search the area, you find nothing. But…I know that while they were comin’ through their mortar barrages, you could hear them…screamin’…and I…know there was a lot of ‘em hit. But the next day didn’t produce that much.
Int.: Now, what’s that feeling, while you’re in the bunker and… you know that they’re coming on and you have to take care of your men? It’s a great responsibility, now, what’s the feeling then?
A. Well, it’s hard to explain. You…really don’t know what you’re gonna do…until you do it. I’ve often thought back on what I did and why I did it and I…really don’t know why I did some of the things that I did. I know the first thought was to get my men across the river, this is what I was concerned with. And…I think my first feeling was for my men. I really…- it may sound funny – but I really wasn’t even scared. I – it didn’t scare me a bit ‘til the next day when I stopped an’ thought of what I did.
Int.: Sir, it’s a real honor, but a well-deserved one, on receiving the Distinguished…Service Cross from General Abrams. I’m sure you’re real proud of that.
A.: …Yes, I am. I…only have a few days left in-country and I’m real pleased that I did get to receive it here with the…people I’ve worked with over here, for a year. And, as you say, General Abrams,…I was real pleased to have him present it to me.
Int.: There’s a lotta talk back in the States and I…like to ask this question over here, about youth of today and the…youngsters. But you’ve…well, yer about the same age too, as all of us – most of us are – what do you think about…the youth of today, after fighting with ‘em?
A.: Well, I…think they’re…really great, they really are. …Some of the things I see in the news, back in the States, it’s…depressing. But you get ‘em over here, when the chips are down, and they go all out. …And…I’ve had people in my units, which you might consider – what I would consider a ‘hippy’. …I really – this is as closest I’ve come to ‘em – they think they’re ‘hippies’. But, if…that’s what they are, they’ll really get down and fight for ya. They’re…a great bunch of kids.
Int.: This is the thing that makes America great and…what’s kept us so…strong and together so long, isn’t it?
A.: …I…feel it is. Like I said, there’s a lot…”
( Tape stops here.)
Alley Tape Transcription, 3-01 Page PAGE 2.
Copyright 2001 J.A. Coutant
FILENAME \p D:\D drive\John\Alley Tape Trascription,3-01.doc [ DATE \@ “MM/dd/yy”04/29/01]
I Meet Alley and Alley Meets Recon
… Base camp got hit for the second time since I had been in. “Bamb, pop!”; it seemed very close. In sheer panic, I started feeling more little holes, like the one already in my leg. The lights went out and I headed for the bunker attached to the hooch, a few feet away. I found I was alone and wondered where everybody else was. Then it came back to mind that Recon headed for the tracks, although I did not understand why. If someone had yelled “Roll ‘em Recon” I had not heard it or else it had not made sense. I went back for my bag and gear, then down to the motor pool.
“Where ya been, Doc?” It was a new face. The new lieutenant was sitting in the gun turret with the earphones half on. Dicky chided in his heavy drawl.
“Ya, Doc, you’re supposed to be here. We’ve been waitin’ on ya.”
“I headed for the bunker.”
“Negative. The bunkers are off-limits. We come down here. When we get hit, Recon rolls. We’re ‘ready-reaction’ for this camp.” The lieutenant sounded officious.
“Sorry, this is my first attack since I changed platoons. The first time I didn’t move fast enough.” I left the reference vague.
“The tracks are safer the bunkers anyway. The motor pool is further from the woodline.” While Don was talking, I waved a questioning hand at the lieutenant’s back. “Alley.”, said Dicky. The tracks bumped and rolled out of the camp, through the vil and down to T.O.C. We waited until T.O.C. sent us back to camp.
Going heli-borne meant forming in the road in front of the Supply hooch or thereabouts. It was a very loose group. Alley counted noses, figuring if everybody was there and we had the men needed. He gave a general outline of what was going on from the planning that had gone on the night before and changes that T.O.C. had made in the mean time. We were an unsavory looking bunch. We did not have a fussy captain in charge, Alley took orders from T.O.C. and “Panic”. The Headquarters’ C.O. ran the rest of Hdqts. Co. The C.O. did not like what went on in Recon but there was not a lot he could do. So, Recon was not particularly “in uniform”. There were not any “tiger fatigues”, only A.R.V.N.s had those, but other than that we did not all have our rank and matched fatigues. There were some state-side fatigue pants under jungle fatigue jackets.
Alley did try. “Some of you men are not in uniform.”
“Hell, lieutenant, we’re dressed.”
“At ease, Dicky. That’s not what I meant.”
“Ya, at least we’re wearin’ pants today, sir. Hell, one night….”
“I don’t want to hear about it, Point. Ah, I thought I told you guys Recon was going to start dressin’ regulation.”
“Regulation! Shit, we ain’t never been ‘regulation’! Have we, guys?!”
“Sure, sir, what regulations?”
“Next time out I want to see at least your name tags on. The Division patch is supposed to be on too.”
A skinny, dusty looking little guy spoke out. “Hell, lieutenant, I ain’t had time. We’ve been rollin’ so much I ain’t had time to get my clean fatigues, let alone nothin’ sewn on ‘em! Not that I could get ‘em from the gooks; I ain’t been in long enough to get paid!”
“Well, maybe I can arrange to get a day off to take care of that. In the mean time, I want you to look after it the best you can on your own responsibility.”
“Ya, sir, but if we’re in, we’re running maintenance!”
“You all were issued patches when you got here. Don’t tell me none of you can push a needle.”
“Those target they gave us at the Academy? Shit, lieutenant, old ‘Charlie’ just loves to see one of those, that white middle flashin’ in the sun. ‘Kapow!’ good-by flashy patch.”
“Only the gooks got the camouflage ones.” came a voice from the back.
“One thing more; once we’re out in the field, we’ve gotta drop this ‘sir’ and ‘lieutenant’ when we’re talkin’. Otherwise, ol’ ‘Charlie’ might be listening and know who’s in charge.”
“Oh, they’ll just shoot Dicky ‘cause he’s the biggest pile o’ shit with a helmet on it.”
“Are you making cracks about my size, troop?” Alley’s voice lowered. He stood about five-seven.
“Hell no, sir. You’re taller than I am!” The man speaking was about five-six.
“Beg pardon, sir”
“What is it, Westphal?”
Hadn’t you better take the brass off your fatigues? Those little gold bars can become like little mirrors in the sun.”
“Thanks. How come the rest of you guys let that by? Great bunch of grunts you are.” Alley was not serious.
“Ah, gee, lieutenant. We thought you wanted them that way! I was workin’ for a 'lieuie' over in B Company who always wore his so everybody’ld know he was in charge. Of course, one day a V.C. sniper in a tree was sighting on our patrol used his bars for aiming stakes. Got him.”
“I don’t wantta hear about it. This outfit isn’t so big you don’t know who I am. Alright, we got a mission to run today that you know is in a pretty bad area.”
“How many ‘klicks’ we gotta hump, sir?” It was the high, boyish voice I had heard before. I turned to look, but couldn’t tell who it was.
“T.O.C. has us mapped out at 750, through these two treelines. There.” Alley pointed to a place on the photo-montage map in it’s plastic case. “Our tracks will be blocking the other side of the treeline, here.”
“If the barges get there in time.”
“A Company is already there. They’re sayin’ the goin’ is fine.”
“Shit, sir, they sure like to work our ass off over there.” The man waved toward T.O.C.
“Ah, you know the last time we was there they had us pinned down before we got the first fifty feet! You been there before, lieutenant?”
“No, I haven’t. I’m dependin’ on you guys who have to stay alert, get the rest of us through.”
“Sure, lieutenant. You don’t have to worry about that. I can get us all through. If I don’t, this bunch of crazies will kill me when we get back!” It was Jerry, the F.O.
“O.K., any questions?” The dusty man raised his hand. “Ya, what’s your name? See what I mean about tags?”
“Sir, they call me ‘Lizard’. Tag wouldn’t do ya much good there. Can’t sew that on.”
“What’s the question?”
“Ya. Who’s gonna kiss my ass and carry me when I get tired o’ walkin’ through all that mud?!”
“A ‘lizard’ like you shouldn’t have any trouble with the mud. Any other questions…about the mission?”
“That’s what I thought. You ain’t no better’n the last one!” “Lizard” exclaimed in mock disdain.
“Alright, let’s move it out to the back road! Come on.”
We ambled down the middle of the camp’s main road. We went through the back gate, past the little M.P. guard post and stood strung out along the back road.
“You hear anything about an E.T.A. on our choppers, Westphal?” Don carried one of the radios, Guenther carried the other.
“Yes, sir. I just heard five minutes.”
O.K., everybody line up down the road!” Alley called out. “Half to the right, half to the left. The choppers are on their way.”
I jumped as a bust of automatic fire went off next to me. I spun around in a crouch. There were other bursts of fire down the road. Don looked down, saw me, and explained that they were test-firing their weapons. Better to find if they worked now than to have then jamb in the field.
“Have I got time for a quick one?” , a man asked.
“Better light it up fast,” was Alley’s response. The man unbuttoned his pants and started urinating into the paddy.
“What is this? Exposin’ yourself to the civilians?”
“Ain’t nothin’ they ain’t seen before!”
“They said this bunch was strange. I got a hippie for a medic, a flasher pervert and wise-asses for R.T.O.s. The man at the head of the line can’t even speak English!” Alley looked almost concerned.
“That’s because he’s always got a pipe or cigarette in his mouth.”
“Hell, I’ve talked to him when he didn’t have anything in his mouth and I still couldn’t make out half of what he said. It’s hard to believe they let ‘em out of school like that.”
“Better check your files on that one, sir…er, excuse me.”
“That way he can’t help the V.C. They sure couldn’t understand him!”
“Is that a speech impediment?” I asked.
“No, that’s the way ‘Double L’ talks.”
“Hard to believe. Sounds like he’s got his tongue half twisted around.”
We could hear the choppers coming. First, a couple of gun-ships came into view. Then six, larger bodied helicopters made an arc from the northwest. They flew in a staggered formation; three left, three right. They landed on the road in a straight line, facing east. We all climbed in and sat on the floor behind the pilots. The engines slowed while radio calls were made to check coordinates. The turbines regained full speed just before the choppers quickly lifted off, noses tipped down at a raked angle, over the treeline.
Aside from the deafening roar of the engines, the world was a more cool and beautiful place. The air of the higher altitude blew in through the open sides; the rotor blades made the temperature comfortable. The land below was mostly green, divided into endless rectangles as far as the eye could see, out across the Delta. There were no open, undeveloped sections of ground. The only curved lines were the rivers and treelines. Even these were partly cultivated. A few of the newer roads had been built with machines, the rest had been dug and built by hand. No machine could build a paddy dike. …
I meet Alley and Alley meets Recon
Copyright 2001/2010 by J.A. Coutant
-political hooch call
The call went out, we all ran down to the motor pool. The hatches on the track were thrown open. The whining ignition turned the engine over to chugging.
“Come on you guys, let’s get this beast moving! The Word has it they’re pretty serious!” Al was wound.
“Whose word? All I heard was ‘civilian casualties’, nobody said to rush it.” Harry, with field experience, was assigned, more or less, for guidance and to work the radio headset.
“The radio said nothing about their condition.”
“Well, they said at the Aid Station the order came from [Headquarters] next door. You know rumor.”
“Well, you know how serious those fragmentation rounds can be. One of those babies went off back in the States during a training course and we got some of those guys through the O.R.”
“O.K., O.K. Everybody seems to want to do this in a rush anyway. We’re ready.”
The radio check determined the three tracks in the element were ready. The call came to “Move out!” Somebody pulled the whip antenna to the radio down as we went under the sign for the camp. Going out the front gate we could always see the abandoned temple, about a hundred meters away, on the other side of the road. The large ceramic figures of fish and dragons on the roof tips and crest, seemed to animate the building. Nobody, locals or military, ever seemed to go near the place.
We took a right and rolled up Thunder Road. When we got to Tan An the noise of the bustling traffic could be heard over the rattling of the metal treads on the paved streets. Our speed was cut by the day traffic of carts, pedestrians, and Lambretta buses. Once through the town the tracks turned left and banged down into the paddies. A hundred meters to the right was an opening between two different treelines. They overlapped for a short distance, roughly parallel; about the space of one paddy. Across the planted paddies was another road, fairly new and well traveled. It was built about six feet high and steeply banked. The objective of out little mission lay 150 meters on the other side.
The lead track revved its engine and gave the bank a go. The grade proved too high to get over. Plastic explosive was brought out, fuses lit, “Blowin’ a hole!” was called, and two holes the width of the treads were blown. The edge of the road, reduced by two feet, allowed the tracks to pull up on the road’s unpaved surface so that we could go banging down the other side. The tow ring caught on the embankment so that the moment after the front of the track hit the water the whole vehicle was suspended on the one point in the back. When it rolled foreword, the middle and the back end hit down with another bang. Water and mud rained down on us.
The paddies were flooded without any planting, the water was full of rice chaff and a nasty amber color. The locals stayed in their hoochs. Only a couple of children ran down the dikes toward us. They pointed to one of the smaller hoochs in the row. The Evac Track was parked backward so the rear hatch could be lowered on the edge of the treeline for support. The other tracks formed a rough circle facing away from us and remained uninvolved.
We could hear a baby crying in the small hooch. Nick and Harry hopped off to take a look around. They checked in the hooch the kids had indicated. They came back with long faces, shaking their heads.
“Ah, this is a real shame. There are about eight of them; old mama and papa-san and the kids as well.”
“The old mama-san doesn’t look to good. But it’s hard to tell.”
“Well, let’s get them on!” Al was ready to go.
Nick was not in the same rush. “You should see it in there. They’ve got a couple of pigs and some chickens in there with them!”
“How bad are the rest?”
“Don’t know, it’s pretty dark in there.”
“Well let’s get them outside and take a look at them. Maybe we can M.E.D.C.A.P. some of ‘em here and let them go.”.
“That’s real big of you, ‘leave the rest’!” Al was ready to protest.
“Look, if we take some back that aren’t hurt, they aren’t gonna like having them brought in by us.”
“Who cares? We ain’t payin’ for it. The sucker taxpayers are and they ain’t around.”
“I wouldn’t want them running around on the track. They’ve probably got fleas or some other like infestation.” ‘
“These people are the family of an A.R.V.N. major over at T.O.C. and we’re supposed to…”
“These people are who?! What else haven’t you been telling us, Harry? I wondered how we got sent out here in the boon docks for some civilians!” Nick was not happy.
Harry cut him off. “There isn’t any time to discuss that now. O.K. let’s get one of those stretchers out here and we’ll get the old lady loaded on.”
“It’s pretty awful in that hooch. I don’t know how people can live in there.”
“They’re only gooks. Gooks can live on anything.”, someone joked.
“At ease, cut the bull. Let’s get this moving.” Al was getting bossy.
Nick and Harry went back to the hooch and stood in the door opening. I followed and looked over their shoulders. It was nearly pitch black inside; there were no window openings. When my eyes adjusted I could almost make out a group of people at the back, some moving shapes making noises, the animals, and little else.
Nick and Harry used gestures and pidgin English to coax them out of the dim squalor. Then they went in with a stretcher. An old couple and a young woman with a baby, then more children began to file out. They were a sullen bunch. Out in the light they started an agitated babble to each other and us. More gestures quieted some of the noise. There was no running blood and no reason for hysteria. The stretcher remained unused
“Let’s start with the old lady. She looks the worst.” Her face was anguished and she wasn’t moving well. The old man had helped her out. The family kept pointing to her back as they pushed her toward us.
“O.K., she goes. Put an ABD. Pad on her, then let’s get her on a stretcher. The rest we can look at here.” Harry was matter-of-fact.
“These people don’t look too bad. When did this happen?”
“The daughter, here, said it was last night.”
“Last night! What was all the hurry for?” Nick was a little amazed.
“Come on, Let’s check these people out.” Al insisted.
The old woman was very old, toothless and feeble. Getting her to sit up so we could get her dirty maroon-colored silk blouse off brought protests from the daughter. She had passed the fussing baby off to a smaller child while she carried on. Nick talked her down by explaining that we had to see the injury in the light. He told her they would get no help at all if we could not look.
The bluff worked and the braided frogs were undone, the blouse was pulled down over the old woman’s arms. A child was sent back inside for a dirty blanket to cover her flat, wrinkled breasts. Her back was a mass of cotton over some sticky camphor ointment.
As we picked away some of the cotton we found a mass of swollen cuts. That she had survived the night and was not hemorrhaging implied the wounds were not that serious. I was able to get a faint, slow pulse inside her elbow.
“This poor soul can’t be M.E.D.C.A.P.ed, her back is chewed to ribbons.”
“God, what a mess. Who taught these people to do this? What happened to all those supplies we’ve been passing out?”
“Take one guess.” Nick couldn’t say “V.C.” in front of the villagers.
We picked away what we could of the cotton, unable to clean her further. We split the muslin ties of the A.B.D. pad into three strips and tied them in front, across her sunken chest.
Harry said, “Alright, we can put the rest inside.” But nothing happened.
We got the women to lay on her side on the stretcher and covered her with an Army blanket. The inside of the track had to be rearranged. It was a little frightening to think of everyone inside with the C-ration boxes sliding around as we were going over the dikes. Space was cleared, the straps arranged in loops to support one side of the stretcher. The other side would be strapped against the wall. It was a hell of a job stumbling over the ammo cans that lined the floor while guiding her inside. She was tipped and bumped over the wheel well. The family, still in some shock, tired, hungry, watched on. The pigs startled the chicken inside the hooch. Neighbors, standing outside their doorways, watched from a distance.
Harry ordered Ringer’s lactate for an I.V. Saline was produced from a side storage bin. The I.V. was started with some difficulty because the withered old veins were hard to find. Cleaning her arm took more than the usual amount of two-by-twos and alcohol. It was all to keep from losing her to shock. Al fussed over the saline being out of date but he used it anyway.
Harry and I started to examine the rest of the family; Nick mostly shook his head. He was not into touching the natives. The old man had a gash on his arm with a rag tied around it. He became very animated while telling us about the attack the night before, mostly in Vietnamese. A girl had a deep cut, untreated, across her shoulder. The others had minor cuts.
“O.K., you old man. Hey, papa-san, you and baby-san there…no, you. You-you come with us. The rest of you are O.K., you stay here.”
The old man put up a fuss in more articulate pidgin English.
“Papa-san no go! You-you take baby-san. You take baby-san!”
“Baby-san?” Al was confused.
“I think he means the daughter.”, Nick said quietly.
The old women started wailing she would not go without her husband.
“The daughter? What for, why does he want her?”
“So somebody will look after him in the hospital. The families are pretty tight over here.”
“Alright, we take the daughter. Let’s get movin’.”
The daughter then started to make a high pitched fuss; she would not go without the children. At least the baby and the three youngest.
“Wait a minute, this is getting out-of-hand!”, Al complained. “We can’t take all of them. Nothing wrong with most of ‘em!”
“What are we gonna do about it? Old mama-san needs help. She won’t go without papa-san. Papa-san won’t go without ‘baby-san’ and she won’t go without her kids. We gotta get ‘em out of here. It’s past three and getting late.” Harry was getting agitated.
“The track won’t do it. Besides, I don’t think old mama-san here would make the ride we took to get here.” Nick was matter-of-fact.
“How ‘bout a dust-off?”
“Sure, one stretcher, the rest walking wounded. There ought to be enough room in one of those.”
“OK, Harry. You call the dust-off. Get ‘em off our hands.” Harry looked pained and relieved at the same time.
The radio frequency was changed for the call to go through for a chopper. Before it arrived, it was determined that the civilians should be moved further along the dike, away from the hoochs, for pick-up. The choppers needed exact coordinates because of the heavy overcast. The F.O. from another track conferred with T.O.C. and the L.Z. was fixed. The track was driven down, the old woman in back. The family was concerned she was being taken away and ran down the dike following the track. As the track was over-full I followed on foot, The chopper had called they would be at the L.Z. in ten minutes.
We could hear the dust-off and the attendant gun ships before we could see them. Smoke was popped; the purple vapor billowed, swirled, and quickly dissipated in the light breeze that had sprung up. The sky was full of very low clouds, solid and angry looking. By policy, choppers did not land on dikes; they only hovered above water. The pilot would come down next to the dike; there was no argument or he could refuse to land at all.
The chopper came down and hovered over the water, blowing a continuous spray of gray water. I got to watch with the rest of the locals while the family was loaded on. Getting the old woman out was easier than getting her in. Loading her in through the side doors of a bobbing, weaving chopper was the problem in reverse. The family crowded around so as not to be left behind. The dust-off was not happy about the timing or the placing; the weather was getting bad. Such risks were not often taken for civilians.
There were some questions as to why it was happening to this little group. “Pacification” and “local official’s relatives” were the answers. In the noise and confusion, the neighbors had slowly been working their way along the dike and had tried to get their children on the dust-off and away from more, expected, shelling. Finally everybody was on board, even more than had been agreed upon. The children left on the ground were the neighbors’.
The pilot was disgruntled that there were too many people. That he was out in bad weather in a ‘hot’ area. There was some action going on in a treeline not too far away, the chopper had thought they were going there. He was irritated enough at finding the civilians that he called T.O.C. and chewed them out over the radio. I got to the track as Al turned up the volume on the set and we listened to a monotone voice giving Cohort the what-for.
Going back, we lost another hour while the three tracks took turns pulling each other out of the mud. It was getting dark. Travel through the paddies could have its problems in a small group. When we were down to one unbroken tow cable, we finally got it organized and back on the road. Most of the way back was along the roads at top speed. A fast moving target is harder to hit, it was said. It was dusk in Tan An, the traffic was almost gone, the lights were coming on. Those children who remained outside played closer to home. The dogs that were not pets came out of the day’s hiding to run.
Instead of going back down Thunder Road we took side streets over to Battalion Headquarters at Tan An South. Word had come over the radio that, because of the hour, two other platoons of the Company would drive back with us to Bien Phuoc. The line was formed and started moving out within fifteen minutes. The streets were now mostly empty, the roar and the clatter of the A.P.C.s echoed against the concrete buildings. Leaving town, I smelled the air, it had cooled enough that we could not smell the open dump. There were no kids poking through it either. By the time we got to the nameless ville, again having to pull the antenna down for the metal sign over the road that marked its anonymous existence. Here, everything was shuttered against the night. Dinners and evening prayers were in the smoke that blew across the road.
The Evac Track was third in line; not in the usual place further back behind the Command Track. The change was only for the short distance we were going. Just after we had gotten over the little bridge leaving the village there was a clanging sound of metal hitting metal. We looked around to see the fourth track had swerved to the right and into the side of the bridge. The driver had apparently misjudged his distance in the dark. The impact had knocked lose the steel girders that composed the side, those in turn pulled away the underpinnings they were bolted to. The whole structure had been made unsound.
The tracks behind rigged tow cables to pull the A.P.C. off the bridge, back to the other side. It was uncertain that it would have made it across. Even under the battery-connected spotlights it was impossible to fully assess the damage to the bridge. The colliding track had some dents and an axle knocked out of alignment.
This was mostly information over the radio after the engineering help was called for. The three lead tracks remained mostly for security until several other tracks rumbled along the road from camp. The Evac track was called back in. After notes were taken of the supplies used, it was closed up. Heading back to the A Co. area we had to past the Aid Station.
“Better go in and tell ‘em what happened.”
“If we must. Better get it over with.”
We stepped inside; some of the crew was sitting around the front. Sarg. smiled and said “Heard you boys had some adventure getting back.”
“We were lucky, the guys behind us screwed the works. Those guys will probably be stuck over there ‘till morning.”
“How’d the civilians go? Heard you had to call a dust-off.” His voice had a tone that implied “explain this”.
After Harry had told the story it was agreed that there was little else that we could have done. Even if we had brought them all back, a chopper would still have been called for the old mama-san. It would have delayed the same solution; the way it was we were rid of the mess.
“By the way, the coronal over at T.O.C. says to thank you guys for helping out. It was the A.R.V.N. major’s parents and family. He’d wanted to see them. He was happy though, to hear they had been taken to Dong Tam.”
“I hope to hell he was happy!” Al quietly exclaimed with wide eyes.
“T.O.C. wasn’t happy about havin’ their asses chewed by the chopper pilot.”
“That pilot can bite my crank. He was no help getting those people out of there. He couldn’t hold it steady, the stretcher handles got wet and we dropped it getting it on board. Jeez, some people!”
“Those guys know their jobs. You haven’t got anything if he hits a land mine in one of those dikes.”
“Ya, but the old lady was…”
“She was alright. Her pulse was a little weak. I don’t think she was as bad as you thought.” …
copyright 2010 – J.A. Coutant
Fortunately, the moral situation eventually changed. (It had to; a top N.C.O. from Division didn’t like the treatment he got one night in the Clearing Station!) This came to pass with a change in command. The change had a minus and a plus; we lost our sharp ‘first shirt’ but we gained a sharp officer – a doctor – in charge.
We went onto eight-hour shifts, six days a week, but hey!, it was an improvement. Sure, there was a lot of grumbling. Guys – 91B20s – who had liked doing nothing in the Amb. Plt. now had to go back to working their M.O.S. For some that meant doing bedpan duty. I had already staked out my claim in Clearing (outpatient and emergency). That was what I had done back in the States (it had set me up well to work with the 5/60th Inf.) and it was what I liked to do.
I was definitely strange to these rear area people, a combat-hardened ‘hippy’, but I was a ‘company man’. I was on-time and worked my shift. And I came in straight; I was on duty and wanted a clear head. I was good at what I did and there were no complaints about my work. Off-duty, I went my own way and they didn’t like but got used to that.
To continue to be able to work my M.O.S., I had turned down an assistant manager job at the Dong Tam P.X. I was so dedicated to the 5/60ththat I would have continued to work in the Aid Station there, but would have had to sign a waiver to do that. Once signed, I could be shipped back out to the field. No way was I up for that. My guys told me to get out when I could. I continued to wait through December in Bien Phuoc, while the mortar attacks continued. I was waiting for my reassignment orders to come through, expecting to be sent to a hospital. I didn’t get orders for a hospital in Saigon or Vung Tau, ah well!
The seemingly cushy P.X. job had real drawbacks; working outside my M.O.S. would have left me open to being assigned to any job, anywhere. Besides, after Chai Lay I hated Dong Tam by association, the place was tightly run, it got mortared a lot, and pot was hard to come by. The mortar attacks, anywhere in the Delta, would only get worse with the advance of the dry season. Bearcat had a solid reputation of not getting ‘hit’ (a cozy deal with the V.C. over rubber trees had stopped attacks). That and good ‘dope’ was easy to come by.
Some of the men I was working with understood the compromise I had made. The new doctor was one of them. He accepted that, who or whatever I was, I was willing to work as a medic and that anything beyond that, plus safety, was gravy for me. That did not stop the harassment from the N.C.O.s. I took to not using the mess hall to avoid their jibes and went down to 140, undernourished, pounds. Better skinny than being endlessly provoked.
Along the way, a new E.M. barracks was built next to one of the main roads in the camp. (The location was across from the P.X., post office, library, main E.M. Club and other services.) It was a two-story, open bay construct. There was more room, more light, and better ventilation on the second floor. The Clearing Station platoon got the upstairs. We got better quarters and more respect for the jobs we did. We all coped with the new ‘first shirt’, a dullard, because all things can’t be rosy.
Captain Kenyon Gilbert was a bright, bearish man of medium build. Modest, reserved and a little shy. He quietly and forcefully made real changes. He got the non-medical N.C.O.s out of the clinic and wards. In effect, the E.M.s ran the Clearing Station; we now worked directly for the doctors. When they found they were getting better staff and gave better service, some of them came around to Gilbert’s more open attitude. Other “dead wood” was transferred out of the Company. He made changes that worked and worked to most men’s satisfaction. We were glad to be living better. With all the men and material we had, there was no good reason not to.
Over time, Dr. Gilbert picked up the nick-name of “Spanky”. Who knows from where that came from. It was not used to his face. How much he knew of it would be hard to say. He had gained a more personal affection, on several occasions, when he came over to the new barracks to play poker and brought the beer. He got to know his troops first hand.
One day “Spanky” got his new company jeep. It had “Spanky” stenciled in white under the windshield. The paint was fresh and very prominent. He was more than charming in his genuine surprise. When he came to understand what it literally meant, the cat was out of the bag. He now knew his nickname! He accepted it all as the gift that it was. He was also very touched by what it meant symbolically. It was great to see that kind of large show of affection. Most of us recognized that we had a good man in charge and welcomed the chance to let him know what that meant to us.
For my part, I was lucky in that a good man was in charge. I became a burn-out case. I had given the job my all, but I couldn’t take it anymore, mentally or emotionally. The harassment, the bullshit, the military mind-set finally got to me. I had become numb, I stopped caring about giving care and that depressed me. Over the last two months of my tour, I was gently eased out of the Clearing Station. I became a rarer sight around the company area. I had friends and acquaintances in the larger camp to spend time with. After a couple of false starts, I got my R&R to Bangkok. I had been in the field and had yet to go on R&R, so I had priority for my choice. I had studied up for that destination and held out until I got to go where I wanted.
For two weeks plus, I was part of a voluntary trench-foot experiment at the swimming pool. It was the real-deal, I swear! It was Pentagon sponsored and had its own, civilian doctor – a nice guy – attached. At least it had the advantage of repeating an experience I had already been through, this time in chlorinated water. That I had been in the field was a reason I was picked. And there was a three-day R. & R. in the bargain, Vung Tau was promised. We got Cam Rhan Bay instead. It was all a hoot; some travel, good smoke, and new friends.
The last month I held a kind of grace-and-favor job for burned-out ‘line’ medics like me. For five days a week, or as needed, I would drive an ambulance out to the edge of the camp to the Tangle Foot Range. That was real name of the firing range where new in-country, and some resident personnel, could test fire their weapons. The liutient and sergeant who ran the operation were former line-rats and we got along fine. I got to sleep-off the night before and write letters home, sometimes with a hot lunch thrown in. Even on the outer edge of the base, it was relatively safe. We only got sniper fire a couple of times and nothing was found booby-trapped while I was out there.
I was allowed to ‘retire’ with some dignity and comfort. A change in the Med. Co. leadership had allowed for that to happen. Aside from the monthly duties and shit-burning, I was little seen. Some thought I had already left, I faded that far away! I thank Dr. Gilbert, in that he understood, kindly, it was what would work best for all concerned. (That and “short-timers” were nothing to fool with. We could blow up or fall apart and therefore rightly thought to be dangerous!) I never let the good doctor down, I “maintained” to the very end, and he appreciated that. After I got out of the service, he wrote one of the best letters of recommendation I’ve ever had. I had a lot to thank him for, aside from the memory of knowing a good man and seeing what a good man in charge can do. They were all too rare.
Coronado V, from the A. Company Evac-Track
In the quiet moments, the small wound in my leg left me with a sickish, tender feeling. A vulnerable sensation that left a desire to have my surroundings made, somehow, more distant. Even after the surprise and weakness left, the soreness, the occasional sharp pain made me realize that a thin, pliant film of skin was all that me from merging with my alien environment.
The mess-hall and the motor-pool were the only places going at two in the morning. It was very dark and cold. Even in the crisp, clear air, I was still more asleep than awake. The lights and the coffee in the mess-hall didn’t help to wake me. I got on the Evac-Track and the whole of A Company left, plus C Company, Recon and others. Leaving the moter-pool was a kind-of woozy dream. It was about 2:45 a.m. We took Thunder Road to Tan An. Then, instead of taking a right in the middle of town, we went left. Driving to the out-skirts of town, we stopped and parked for an hour.
The street lights colored everything black and gray. Rain from the night before was wet on the pavement. Bill and Harry got down to find out, if they could, what was going on by hanging around the Command Track. Val wandered around while Nick, Joe, and I stayed on the track to keep a drowsy eye on things. I barley noticed two strangers, demolition men, assigned to our track.
An advanced element of some kind had gone down the highway to clear it. Before dawn, the rest of the company followed along the continuation of Highway Four to My Tho. As the sky was starting to color, we rolled through My Tho and kept going west. We kept to the outskirts of town, which was more rural than urban. As we rumbled past the kids and the other locals on their way into town kept to the side of the one lane, unpaved road. There was high grass growing to either side of the double ruts and down the middle. A flock of chickens scattered at the tracks’ noise and vibration. All but one got out of the way. White and flapping, it could only see the tunnel of grass and the rut ahead. It ran for all it was worth, but it couldn’t outrun the track behind us and we watched it disappear under the grinding treads.
There was a little village, about the size of our nameless village, down another road, off from the highway. The roads still had lines of trees down each side. The vegetation was more delicate, with fewer palm and rubber tress and more broad-leaf varieties. The hoochs were integrated into the landscape, with the plants growing closer to them. In the areas around Bien Phuoc, the hoochs rose abruptly from the ground and the treelines did not encroach on the yards.
To the right, the trees stopped and the broad expanse of large paddies – free of trees or dikes – opened to view. The sound became louder, what had been a distant rumbling was now smoking sparks in the woodline 1500 meters away. Two jets were diving in a roar, in criss-cross passes over the trees and beyond. Sometimes the explosion would be gray smoke or white. Other would throw debris or white or flame sparks; from phosphorous and incendiary bombs. The tracks stopped on the road for awhile, it was about seven a.m. We watched while the morning haze burned away and was replaced with dust and smoke. We were part of a blocking force for the day.
While we were parked, a crack troop of A.R.V.N. Marines came down the road behind us. The A.R.V.N.s pulled off the road to drive through the paddies. The group had about eight armored personnel carriers with large tires, rather than track-treads. Each was outfitted with machine guns. They drove very fast, throwing up a lot of water. Their uniforms were clean and new like the paint on their vehicles. This bunch scowled and looked tough, not like the usual, friendly waving A.R.V.N.
“Wonder if we’ll see them again.”, somebody mused.
“They look like decoration.”…
…Two other men, Jim and Marty from the Army Information Agency, came over to shoot some general footage of the tracks. They had come out on the Command Track, the Commander felt cramped and because there was no action, they had wandered over to talk with the medics. They were frustrated because they had been assigned to get action footage and they could not get close to the action that day. They shot some of the work on the civilians but were reluctant to use much film…
[The rest of the day was spent running an unplanned med-cap for the locals. Word quickly got around and demand soon depleted our supplies.]…
…At dusk Harry called over to the Command Track to give them the resupply order. Command told him there would be no resupply chopper the first evening out because they had only been working as a blocking force all day. The stock level should be high. There wouldn’t be any choppers, except for an emergency, until the following evening.
Late in the evening artillery started working over the treeline out in front where the jets had been that morning. The shells came down with a tremendous impact. The white incendiary bombs would look like aerial fireworks displays that had exploded on the ground. Other shell exploded as peaked tongues of flame behind the tress. Chunks of burning debris were thrown into the air, some came down within fifty meters from our position. We could hear them splash and hiss when they hit the water…. .
…That night we pulled two hours of guard apiece. All was quiet because the fighting moved away from us. It was two and three treelines out, to our right, front, and rear.
The next morning the, the Platoon, Command, Mechanic, and Evac-Track, about ten in all, got their bearings and rolled into the paddies. We were getting closer to the fighting. The elements were too close to call air-strikes in. Word came over the radio that some of our guys were bringing wounded out of the treeline, off to the left. Bill jumped at the chance to do something and called the Command Track to ask is we could go help. Command liked the idea; we had been having trouble finding our way around a thin, little treeline. All the tracks, in ragged line, changed course to a new direction.
Getting anywhere was not easy; the system of dikes in the area was complex. Small canals were built above the water level of the paddies and ran down the middle of some dikes. Trees were evenly planted along others. Some dikes were six feet across. Small blue butterflies were among the white flowers growing under the trees. No other animals or people were around the few maintained hoochs. The tracks kept getting stuck in the high, softly constructed dikes. One A.P.C. would pull another to gain traction or another way had to be found.
About two p.m. we started to get sniper fire and everyone ducked down. The firing seemed to change direction. In an open area, one of the lead tracks became stuck on a high dike close to the treeline; tow cables were rigged to pull it free. Guys were off the tracks and looking around for a better crossing. Firing was going on in the treeline in front of us, scattered sniper fire started coming our way again.
Val was off looking after a man who had wrenched his shoulder. The situation became confused when more started happening than any on of us could take in. A heavier caliber of weapons and a higher rate of fire started coming in on us. We had rolled right in on top of the V.C. There was 57mm recoilless and mortars as well as small arms fire. The rest of the guys knew it was bad, I had nothing to compare it with.
Both Harry and Val were on and off the track or taking a turn with our 50mm. Joe and I used our M-16s. Nick stood in the hatch, pale with a distant expression, saying nothing. I noticed another man inside. When asked, Nick explained the man had picked up shrapnel wound in the head, fragments from close exploding mortars. Then he added, “Just like me.” Bill and I looked Nick over; we found it impossible to tell how serious his head wound was. He said he had a headache, we looked at the other man and found he was in a similar condition. What bothered us was that Nick’s wound was not bleeding or obvious, a small hole with some swelling. We told him to stay down and take it easy. I looked out to see smoke and the water rising in geysers as shells bust just short of the tracks. Blobs of mud and vegetation were thrown in the air. It came back down, some of it hitting the track with a splat. Gun ships and helicopters were in the sky above us.
Bill was somewhere else. One of the photographers stayed on the 50 as long as there was ammo. The other photographer was on a mortar's track and stayed there. Guys kept coming and going off the track as we moved around in response to radio calls that Harry was picking up on his head set, he was driver now. Nick was too far out of it to do more than watch and pack some ammo, as I bandaged the injured that came in through the top and back hatches. What medical supplies were left were coming out of aid-bags, the rest had been used the day before.
If I wasn’t bandaging, I was passing up 50 ammo and packing 16 clips The men I had been patching, were put to work packing ammo, as long as they were with us. We drove around picking up and putting back men who had been hit. A couple of guys had commented that the big red cross on the side made a good target.
Gun ships had been called in and as they flew over head and opened fire it sounded like the sky being torn open. They scared us worse than we already were. The choppers dove and fired their mini-guns right over our position. A piece of shrapnel hit the photographer, a bandaid and a couple of aspirin kept him going.
Harry pulled the track to the far end of the paddy, away from the V.C. The firing quieted enough that a dust-off could land for Nick and two other wounded. One of Nick’s eyes had become more dilated than the other, indicating that he had a concussion. The chopper came and hovered over the water, the next paddy over. The other two men helped Nick across. After they were gone, Harry turned the track around. We were off to find Tree and Val, who were patching some guys and had called for help. From them we found that Harry and Bill had both picked up minor shrapnel wounds at the same time Nick had. While Tree was wading around the track and bitching about the lack of supplies, he smeared mud over the red cross ‘targets’ on the sides. He had been watching the near misses as the V.C. had tried to hit us.
Tree went off to help Val, then limped back. We opened the back hatch for him, but he did not get in but turned around instead. A piece of hot shrapnel had just left a vertical, bleeding gash across his rear. He was pale and angry as he stood outside and called in his own dust-off. He left and came back to say that Val had taken his place with Recon. Bill was off on another track that was driving around with only one man on it. I looked at my watch and out of curiosity took my pulse. It was 4:30 p.m. and a 120 beats a minute.
Even as the rate of fire slowed, Tree and I remained down inside. I realized I had stuck my head outside only a couple of times. With the random pieces of shrapnel hitting those around me, I was not too eager to be a random target. It was almost six by the time Tree’s dust-off got there. There was still some occasional light fire coming in, the gun-ships were still firing right over us.
When the jets arrived and started dive-bombing the area, the ten tracks in the group were able to withdraw to the edges of the paddy. The V.C.’s position was getting shot to hell. The decision came from above to stay there and hold our position for the night. Bill came back and Joe arrived out of nowhere unhurt. None of us knew where the two engineers had gone. The four of us, Joe, Harry, Bill and I, divided the night into two, one-hour guard/radio watches.
There was not much sleep to be had. Along with the jets came the gun-ships that I was hearing called “Spooky”, their mini-guns making waving, red, double ribbons of tracers from the sky to the ground. A small plane, called “Puff”, circled and dropped illumination flares over the area. Napalm incendiary bombs, artillery, and mortars were dumped in until around four a.m. I sat on the open hatch cover and watched the light-show with wonder. The night air was balmy with only a slight breeze. A beautiful evening for fireworks.
The next morning brought word that Cohort Five-Five was coming to look around the battle area. Some A. Co. sergeant was trying to direct the policing of the brass 50 and 60 shell casings from the paddy. There were so many of them it sounded like a silly thing to waste time on. There was a half-hearted attempt that was started when the N.C.O. was around, then abandoned when he left.
The real problem of the morning was recovering the body of the Second Platoon sergeant. He had walked right over a V.C. bunker, while looking for a low crossing at the beginning of the fighting. The Charlies had moved him from where he had been killed to about ten feet behind their bunker line. At first glance the bunkers looked like dikes, on closer examination they were found to be a good foot higher, hollow, and crawling with red ants. The “The V.C.’s friend.” somebody called them.
We got to within a few feet of the body when it was realized that it might have been booby-trapped. We went back and a small, four-pronged grappling hook was found on a track and attached to a long rope. From twenty feet back, a man with a strong arm kept swinging until the hook made a firm connection. The body was dragged free of the spot it was found; nothing happened. We examined the stiff corpse, lying face-up. The sergeant had been about thirty-five, blond, and was starting to smell. His 45 pistol holster was empty, his wallet and boots had been taken too. The boots had been removed soon after he had been shot; the ankles had swollen beyond the blousing ties of his fatigue pants. We wrapped him in a poncho and put him on a stretcher. A dust-off had been called in and we waited a little before it arrived to take the K.I.A. The dust-off tossed out a replacement stretcher.
While that had been going on, the tracks had moved from their position of the day before. They had gone around the tag end of a woodline and formed a line next to the dike where the sergeant had been found. We then followed Recon further into the V.C.’s former position. They had found bunkers as big as small hoochs. They were full of personal papers, bags of candy, books, a guitar, photos, Viet Cong flags, mortar rounds and other ammo that had been hurriedly left behind. Val clambered onto the track and told us what had been found. It was estimated that a reinforced company had occupied that position. It had been a large, well-established base. A guy on the next track snapped a black and white Poleriod of Joe, Harry and me sitting on the track with a bunker in the background.
That afternoon all of A. Co. got back together, First and Third Platoons had been somewhere else the day before. One of Third Herd’s tracks pulled over to the Evac-Track. The men on top looked concerned. The R.T.O. told us that Minor had been killed. The man had no details. We were all shaken: that was three medics gone in one day. I felt lousy, Minor had only been in-country as long as I had. I began to feel worse when I thought about having to replace Minor on the ground.
The Company went back through the little village, Chi Lay, to a place called Fire Base Whiskey. It looked like a camp from Basic Training. Most of the area was dry ground, with trees. The Evac-Track was directed to a paddy with several other A.P.C.s. We parked so the back ramp was supported at the base of a small rise. The full realization of what had happened came to me as I listened to the impersonal news on the broadcast radio that someone had turned on. “Elements of the Fifth-of-the-Sixtieth Infantry met an enemy force of unknown size, yesterday, in Dinh Tuong Province.” Nothing was said about Minor or the sergeant or the little village.
Behind the tracks, over the rise and sitting on a fair sized patch of cleared ground were what I thought were tanks. Very large tanks. They were casually referred to as “one five-fives”. The barrels of the “guns” were behind us and over our heads. The trees and the distance from the rest of the activity muffled some of the noise around us. I lay back against the 50 turret, closed my eyes, I relaxed for the first time in days. It was dark enough under the trees that the night insects had begun to stir.
At dusk the resupply chopper came. They brought “hot” food (but no soda, we had already gone through four cases), supplies, ammo, and new personnel. We thought the whole aid station crew had been sent out; Smitty, an old-timer and two new men just arrived in-country. One of them was assigned to take Minor’s place. They came to the track with a few small boxes of bandaging material. Nobody back in Bien Phuoc had figured we would need much else, they had not been aware of the impromptu M.E.D.C.A.P. that had gone on. I sat and ate from my soggy paper plate and watched the cheerful new faces. I began to feel less dislocated. Wally was heavy-set and older; the other man was small, Jeff, dark, with a boy’s face. I felt very old, looking at him.
After dinner the word was around about where the “medic track” was located. One or two at a time, men came around to have small injuries looked at that. The men had bandaged themselves during the action. Most of the injuries were not serious. That was good because all that we had left in supplies were bandaids and A.B.D. pads. There was no lotion for those who had rashes and “itches” and the aspirin was low. We were out of diarrhea medicine too. The two new medics were happy to run the sick-call.
Two of the men who came over for treatment started to talk about Minor. We pumped them for information. Between the two them we got a story. Both were from Third Herd. Minor had been on the ground from the start of the operation. They had been under sniper fire most of the day. When our tracks had run into the V.C. base all hell had broken lose in the treelines like it had on us in the open. Someone out in front of their position had taken a bullet and was calling for a medic. Minor had been with the rest of the men, down behind a dirt bank with incoming fire just over their heads.
Minor wanted to go to the man’s aid and was told by those more experienced to stay down. A pause would occur, he could go then. The man’s cries continued, without saying anything Minor started over the bank. He caught two bullets in the head and one in the chest. The men who had told him to stay down later went forward to the wounded man to help him back. His wounds had not been serious. I noticed that Harry seemed the most upset by the news.
A familiar face came down the down the rise toward us. It was Jim, one of the photographers; the Command Track had gotten crowded. There was no radio watch, our position was secure. The 155s blasted over us all night. I wondered how I would ever get any sleep. I managed to snag an upper stretcher inside. The next morning Val complained that my snoring had kept him awake. I was surprised I had slept at all.
Val had wanted to stay on the track but word had gotten back to the aid station that he had taken Tree’s place. So we decided he should stay with Recon for the rest of the operation. He started swearing under his breath as he gathered his gear and went off to find their tracks. The Evac-Track was crowded anyway. It was the first time out for the new medics, Wally and Jeff. Smitty looked grim.
The whole of A Company was back on the road. We went back to the same area but on the opposite side of the road from where we had been the previous three days. The country side was all together different from what we had been in. Here the paddies were dry and the dikes high and wide. The trees on top of them were large and fully developed. The closer we got we realized that the dikes had gun slits evenly spaced along the sides, presumably empty. The ominous vacant slits made me nervous. The radio said the V.C. were moving our direction while we took our place as part of the company’s blocking force.
It was a relatively quiet day, the action seemed to be going on around us but not close by. The other photographer found his way back to us. I had a chance to talk to him; he had lived and gone to high school in my hometown, but was not native to the state. My round glasses got us to talking about drugs and pop culture. We got into popular music and the origin of “Yellow Submarine”. I was all ears at the news that the original “submarine” had been a yellow, football-shaped capsule of L.S.D. that was manufacture by a Swiss firm. A product not much seen in the U.S.
After lunch I decided to take a shit, I hadn’t moved my bowels in three days. I got off the track and walked about twenty feet down an overgrown dike. The first place I picked had black ants in the undergrowth. Further down, the second spot had brambles, by being careful I figured I could avoid those. I dropped my pants and squatted. I relaxed and was half relieved when there was an “ack, ack, ack” close by in the treeline. Whose or what I couldn’t tell. I cut it short, pulled up my pants, and took the experience as a lesson in when and where not to drop my pants.
Whatever had startled me did not go on or get any closer. Harry and a couple of the other guys started to wander around the area. Walking was easy on the firm layer of dry, decomposed rice chaff. The track treads had plowed through the top layer to the black-brown ooze underneath and it had stared to set in the heat. On the dike above where I had just been, they found a tree full red ants. Half consciously, they recreated what they imagined the action was as it in came over the radio. Lighters became napalm and cigarette butts were used for air strikes. The “Ho Chi Mihn Ant Trail” was identified.
The ants that were burned either fell away or charred to the branches. A hundred more filled the endless line running up and running down. A few live one fell down the collars of those who got too close with their assault. We had to slap the unlucky man on the back before the ant got reoriented and bit. The game ended when everyone who cared to had avenged themselves for all those unpleasant discoveries of infestation and bites while going through treelines or just being out. We had to stop Harry from setting light to the whole tree when it was pointed out that the rest of the trees in the row would also ignite.
Sometime in the middle of the afternoon the word came over the radio, that C.S., or “pepper gas” was being dropped on a V.C. positions in the area. Spotter planes had noted a change in the wind; the drift was in our direction. There was enough warning to set going a mild panic to find long-neglected gas masks. Only half the guys had them, gas warfare had been banned or so it was told. Not all the of the masks had good filters, some had not been replaced after the mask had been through water. There was enough on the Evac-Track for those who wanted them. Harry and Wally closed the hatches and shut themselves away in the track rather than bother with the masks. I stayed on top, trying to adjust my perspiration lens that fit in the mask's eyepieces. I had a worse phobia of being shut away in a track in the field than I did of the gas. I watched other men wet down handkerchiefs and poncho liners to cover themselves if they did not have masks.
Irritation was slight at first, as the cloud started to drift by. There was a flush feeling to the skin that intensified under the mask. The cry of “Gas, gas!” went out to the tracks in the surrounding paddies. I rolled my sleeves down, turned my collar up and sat on the engine grating, with my back to the thick white mist that was now floating around everything.
The countryside was enveloped in a fog and deep silence. I could not see through to the next paddy. The burning crept down my neck and through the perspiration spots on my back, arm pits and groin. The gas went through the cloth. The weak breeze was slow about its work. Coughing and hacking started under the ponchos on the tracks across the way. After the larger portion of the gas had gone by, invisible pockets lingered and burned our eyes. The men in the tracks had it the worst; the gas stayed trapped inside and there was no fresh air. It was hotter inside and they had perspired more as well. The gas had remained dense inside after it had cleared outside. One man’s filters had not worked and he got a bad dose. Other men’s skin continued to burn until they were in the open air and the gas decomposed and dissipated.
One man who had caught the full effect unprotected started throwing up. Another came over with severe eye burns, his mask filter were no good and the gas had lingered in the mask. We made him lay down, washed out his eyes with bottled water and put in some medicated eye drops. We kept him on a stretcher in the track for observation. One man came over who had developed cramps from hard vomiting. He was given a liquid antacid and I slipped him a tranquilizer from my personal stash so he could relax when he got back to his track. The rest of the men recovered on their own.
The gas cloud went on to hit a small village. It was also headed toward B Company, similarly unprepared, on the other side of the village. There was a lot of grumbling about the value of the Geneva Convention.
Though there had been no direct contact with the V.C., we were put on fifty-percent alert that night. Half slept while half stayed awake. There was a kind of claustrophobic atmosphere as the flares dropped all night, with their shifting light and shadows. Mortars and gun ships pounded away, making a fine dust that lingered in the air. Slathered with bug spray, I slept the best I could while the mosquitoes dive-bombed around my ears. As always, they were large, loud, and relentless.
In the morning, the reports said the V.C. had slipped away through our lines without making contact. There were also preparations being made for a special sweep to go out, Company Commander and all. They needed two more medics and I got picked. I had hardly been off the track because my stitches were still in. The medical conclusion was that I was close enough to healed that the wire stitchs would hold. It would be my first time hoofing it. The patrol started at nine a.m. and within fifteen minutes I was up to my chest in water while crossing a canal. One of many canals. The day was almost clear and partly sunny. The heavy, yet still delicate plant growth was amazing, where it was still intact. Huge, dark blue butterflies with iridescent wings felt confident enough to come out in the quiet air. I picked up propaganda leaflets that had been dropped from a plane. “Chieu-hoi”, the military would welcome V.C. deserters with “open arms”. That or a helicopter with popped-eyes and claws would get them as the illustration would have them believe.
About fifty meters along we started finding group and individual bunkers and a punji pit. One of the bunkers contained the belongings a Charlie had left behind, tied in a black plastic sheet. His clothes and wallet, a weapons serial number list, photos of his squad and a girl, and personal letters. The Commander said such finds were not common. Another bunker contained medical supplies. I looked over their shoulders and felt sad when I thought of how frightened they must have been to leave those supplies behind. Medical supplies had great value in the field.
Sadder still was the amount and type of material found. To me, it was the most direct example of where the enemy was coming from. Their’s looked to be a primitive hold on the war. Mostly it was cotton, used for dressings. Rolls of tape in a tin box, plastic and paper bags with various medicinal compounds that were unidentifiable. Bottles of lotion, alcohol, a wad of camphor, rusty old instruments and soap, not much of any one thing.
U.S. mortars had made a hash out of quite a few of the Viet Cong jungle holds, one was scorched with napalm. The grass was brown and dry. There were several circular charred spots with burnt, dry grass blown flat in a radial pattern. The ground was dry and covered with litter and rose at a slight incline to a bank. In front of the bank were the remains of a burned out hooch. To the right was a line of trees running along a canal. The trees had been “iced” with napalm, it had “frozen” in bluish, milky white drips off the ends of the leaves. Bubbles were trapped under the hard shiny surface. The ground was blotched with globs of the same plastic material. A couple of bunkers, only partly damaged, had been built on either side of the canal. They looked like block houses on an old fort made of dark earth and log beams.
There were no enemy bodies, only two had been found during the operation. In one dry paddy we crossed I could smell that something dead had been there for awhile. There were spots all over the ground that smelled like that. A lieutenant heard my remark about “that smell” and wondered if that could be used for body-count. There was no physical evidence, just an overwhelming odor, in a burned-out landscape.
We were back to the tracks by two p.m. I kept drinking a lot of water. We could not leave right away because one track was badly stuck. The photographers produced an officer who needed a ride, there were now nine of us. Some choppers came in and started picking up sniper fire. Then some of our own mortars started popping in right in front of us. Several pieces of shrapnel whizzed through a group on a track nearby. One guy caught a piece that left a gash in his arm and we patched him up. There was no further contact. The track was pulled lose and we started to leave. As soon as we were gone, mortars started pounding away in the area.
One V.C. was spotted running along a dike, 50, 79, and 16 fire followed him into the bushes. I fired along with the rest as we rolled through the paddy back to the road. Someone spotted two more V.C. but the Company just kept rolling on. One of the road wheels on the evac track stopped turning. We had to stop while the rest of the unit kept going. The wheel was clogged with mud; once cleaned we were on the road again. It was dusk as another track broke down and we were left to guard it until it was fixed. We pulled into Bien Phuoc about eleven p.m. That night I lay on my cot exhausted, unwashed, and very conscious of being whole and alive.
copyright 2010- J.A. Coutant
This was submitted by Association member, Chuck Aswell (3/5/10).
Tribute to Ralph Hirschler….Bravo Co./5/60th…9th Infantry Division…who was killed on March 11, 1968.
When Jack Bailey and I arrived in Vietnam in early February, 1968, we were as scared as any new arrivals could be in any war at any time. The residual contacts from "Tet" were still very much in evidence. There was a lot of "contact" in the Delta, and it was pretty clear that that was where we would be going.
Jack and I met one another at Ft. Polk, LA during AIT training in the fall of 1968. We became fast friends and confidants during that time. As the end of AIT approached, we grew somewhat melancholy because we knew that we would be assigned to separate divisions/units in that enormous enterprise in Vietnam. By then, more than 500,000 American troops were stationed in Vietnam and it was extremely unlikely that two soldiers who trained together would continue to be together in their eventual assignment. We accepted that but found ourselves continually assigned from one transfer unit to the next after we arrived at Cam Rahn Bay.
As amazing as it sounds, both of us were sent to the same unit in the 9th Division…..the 5th Battalion/60th Infantry, Bravo Company….located at the edge of a small village maybe 30 miles southeast of Saigon….Binh Phouc. It was as rough and seedy a base camp as there ever must have been in Vietnam. It was dusty, dirty, spartan, and decorated in nouveau sandbag everywhere you looked. One thing was certain. As 11B20 MOS new guys, we weren't gonna spend much time there. We were ticketed for duty in "the field" from the get-go. And how right we were. We were as frightened and uncertain as all new arrivals were. Needless to say, we weren't given a friendly, welcoming social to help acclimate us to the regimen. The troops were weary and battle-hardened, especially after their experiences in Saigon during Tet.
But we did meet one guy who was inspiring. His name was Ralph Hirschler. He was the driver of the B-1-1 track. He was one of the most amazing people that we had met in our now 6 month-long army tenure. He was smart, articulate, friendly, and savvy. He was movie-star handsome, from Lamar. Colorado…right out of a Hollywood saga about "War". He'd been in the mix and was willing to share his experiences with Jack and I. He wasn't a bullshitter. We figured that out quickly. He was the real deal. We had a million questions about combat situations and he gave his best answer to all of them. He was a twenty year-old with the experience of a man of thirty. I was 21 and Jack was 24. Despite being older than Ralph, we rapidly learned that he was the "elder" and we hung on his every word.
Within two days we were sent to a firebase a few miles down the road from a little village called My Tho. It was the dry season and the firebase reminded me of the old wagon train setups from childhood western movies. The concertina wire ringed a moderately sized oval that was dotted with APC's facing outward about every 20 yards or so. It was named Firebase Jaeger. Little did we know how significant that place would be to us in the days ahead. For the first few days, we went out on ambush patrols nightly. In fact, on our very first AP, we were fired on just at dusk. I still recall the 3 tracer rounds that passed right in front of me, between Jack and I, just before I hit the ground. Jack hurt himself hitting the ground and I….as a "new guy" didn't think about jumping onto the "far side" of the dike. Instead, I just laid there, expecting to get hit on the next burst. After about 10 minutes, I hollared out, "I'm a new guy. I don't know what to do. Can anyone hear me?" After a short pause, one of the guys casually said, "Get up and jump over on this side of the dike." So I did.
A few days later, we were getting ready to gear up for yet another AP while inside FB Jaeger when our platoon leader came and announced that we were going to stand-down for the night. The guys were esctatic. They told us that this was "rare". The radios were put into place, the beer was put on ice, and the cards were ready for action. But, wouldn't you know, the word soon came back that we were, in fact, going to go back out. Jack and I, being so new, didn't know whether this was routine or not, but the other guys were pissed. In the end, we geared-up and Bravo Company, 5/60, first platoon, headed out the entrance to Jaeger just at dusk. We moved across Highway 4 about 75 yards, turned north, and set up along a dike just outside the hooches of the neighboring village. At that point, we did what everyone did on APs. We got as comfortable as we could. We nestled in. We were assigned our guard-duty assignments, and we just settled down.
Later that night, after midnight, we were all awakened by the indescribable cacophony of battle. Over the treeline, to the southwest, the sky was aglow with the light of weapons-fire. Tracer rounds raced through the night and bounced off targets into the air at all angles. As our platoon laid against a long dike, we realized that rounds were tearing into the ground in front of us and singing over our heads. As we hugged the ground, and tried to communicate with one another, we realized that Jaeger was under attack. No one really knew what we could do but many of us expected that we would be ordered to move toward the firebase and engage in the fight. However, the fire that we received was withering….like incoming. We couldn't move. The battle raged on as we tried to squeeze into the ground behind the dike. After awhile, Huey gunships screamed across the sky, spewing their deadly line of tracers into the attackers. Then, later, F-100's raced across at low levels and dropped bombs, and probably napalm. The battle raged on for what seemed like hours…in fact perhaps 2-3 hours. We never moved.
When the firing finally stopped, and dawn began to emerge, we moved toward the village along Highway 4. Within an hour we hopped on some trucks headed toward Jaeger, which was still beyond the treeline to the southwest. As we cleared the treeline before the open paddy where Jaeger was situated, the scene that I'll never forget became evident. A pile of bodies, and body parts, maybe 15 feet high, had already been placed just outside the firebase entrance and a pit was being dug by the engineers' bulldozers. It was the single most gripping and unforgettable sight that I witnessed in my tour. These were VC attackers that had already been retrieved from the firebase and just outside. They were being prepared for mass burial. In the meantime choppers were coming and going just outside the firebase in great numbers as army brass and media crews arrived to record the incident. We jumped out of the truck upon entering the firebase and immediately saw the American soldiers who had been killed in this battle…..20 as it turned out. Jack and I had been "in country" for less than 3 weeks. Our emotions ranged from great fear, sadness for the dead, and hopelessness that we would be able to eventually survive our tour of duty.
While walking around the firebase….in a daze, I noticed that Ralph was standing by his track. It was, I believe, the only track that hadn't been burned in the firebase by RPG rounds during the attack. I walked toward him and saw that he was being interviewed by a national news correspondent while standing beside the track. I listened to his interview. He described how he had jumped up to the "50" as the attack began and just started firing. He said that he must have fired off at least 1000 rounds within 10 minutes. I will never forget that. As the decades passed, and I researched some aspects of this battle, I even read quotes from Ralph to that effect in (The Stars and Stripes).
Well, in the following few days, we heard Ralph's story for ourselves. His actions that night….just like those of all of the other American soldiers inside firebase Jaeger, were as heroic as any that have ever occurred in any war at any time. Those soldiers were overwhelmed by a ground force of an estimated 500 VC and NVA attackers. They had no choice but to respond as best they could. At least 68 were wounded, many seriously, in addition to the 20 who were killed. Ralph Hirschler's actions were just a single soldier's response to an incredible battle……the first time that a mechanized unit had ever been attacked, en masse, in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War.
There is no irony like that which happens in war. On March 11th, only two weeks after Firebase Jaeger, Bravo Company was moving slowly through a small village south of Jaeger on Highway 4. There had been a lot of VC activity in the area for a few days. The four company tracks were inching forward while the troops walked parallel on either side of the roadway. Jack and I were near the end of our platoon track alignment. Ralph was driving the lead track. We saw his track stop and he leaped out of the hatch, jumped off the track, and approached the side of the road, maybe 30 yards in front of us. We stopped. Ralph leaned down on one knee and reached out with his hand.
There was a quick, loud explosion which instantly filled the area around Ralph with a thick cloud of dust. I never even saw Ralph after he reached his hand out. Jack, who was in front of me, just wheeled on his heels and yelled an expletive. We both just walked in the opposite direction as fast as we could because we knew that Ralph was dead. He had spotted a wire coming out of a mound of dirt on the side of the road and decided to check it out. This, of course, was the last thing that a soldier should do. He set off the roadside mine and was killed instantly.
Ralph Hirschler, the young man who jumped on top of an APC at Jaeger while it was under attack by two battalions of VC….and perhaps neutralized more enemy soldiers than anyone that night…..was killed two weeks later while violating one of the cardinal rules of combat behavior. It was such a hard loss for our platoon. I have never forgotten his kindness and courage. He embodied pure courage and great humility. I've always grieved his loss.
This was submitted by Association member John Coutant. (2/27/10)
Easter Morning, Fort Huachuca, Arizona, 1967
This was submitted by Association member Bareney Tharp.
*The Perimeter, in the infantry, is a circle of men. It is half a squad,
platoon or company. One half is on guard, staying vigilant, watching for
the enemy, while the other half rests, sleeps and carries on with life as it
is. They are more than just men; they are a brotherhood in uniform.*
*They share their plans, dreams and hopes with each other. In hard times, they share their sadness, fears and pain. They face the enemy together, some like brothers, others like fathers and sons, and always as true friends. They find a spirit in each other that binds them to one another in a bond that lasts forever.*
*As time passes, they will leave the service and each other. They will travel many different paths of life, some to prosper well and others not so well. Somewhere in life's travels, these men find themselves lost in the world, confused, dazed, scared, unhappy and searching for something; something they are not even sure exists.
They are not soldiers anymore, they are called veterans.*
*Somehow, in their search, they once again find others like themselves. They find brothers of the past, brothers of the Perimeter, that circle of safety, where someone else shares their pain, their confusion and their fear. That Perimeter where that fear is eased, where there is less confusion. They share each other's pain in stories, in tears and in silence. Inside the Perimeter, eye contact can say it all. This Perimeter is a circle of life and a circle of death; it is a circle of wounded warriors, with wounds of both flesh and spirit. This Perimeter is a circle of iron that has never broken. It is a circle of common duty that knows no color, no creed and no religious ground. The circle will last forever, through the best of times and the worst of times.*
*The Perimeter is a place warriors will always seek – even for eternity. Just gaze out at our national cemeteries. For out there, on the outer edge, ever so vigilant, are those on the Perimeter.*
By James R. Lawson.
Kim attended the 5th Battalion Association reunion in Dallas, Texas with her father, Association member Bob Cooper.
Kim Cooper Findling
For some of them, it was the first time they’d spoken of their war experiences. The real stuff, anyway – a friend’s blood splattering across your face, traipsing through a jungle village and killing people before they killed you, the sights and sounds of torture and death that can’t be erased from the mind, even 35 years later. Through the long morning, into the lunch break, past the afternoon’s scheduled end, 110 Vietnam vets stood and told their stories. They spoke, I fidgeted. I waited for an opportunity to escape; the pool, maybe, and my paperback.
In some ways, each story was similar. Dust, heat, the constant chop chop of huey helicopters, the thwack thwack of gunfire. Creeping through the jungle on instruction to engage the enemy – which, in non-military speak, simply meant hiking around until the enemy shot at you. Confused, bloody, terrifying nighttime battles. Searching for meaning in your actions, and finding little. Hot dirty hours merging into eternal blurry days. The sheer folly of hoping you’d be one of those who would survive 365 days in hell when men fell around you in a spray of blood and flesh every day. Throwing yourself into the only oblivion available — beer, cigarettes, prostitutes, and the most morbid, self-defying humor you could muster. The sheer, oppressive aloneness of coming home from an unpopular war to people who could never understand your experience and didn’t even really try. “We disappeared into our lives,” said one vet, and because that vet was not just one more in this sea of middle-aged men, but the one who is my father, and the reason that I was there, I realized that it was my life that he disappeared into, as well.
I worried that my presence would interfere. I worried that these men – men with huge bellies, men with craggy faces, men with no legs, men with every one of their fifty odd years etched on their skin like scratches on a cell wall – would edit themselves for my sake. There were other women in the room – a few wives — but no other daughters. Would I make them think of their own daughters, back home: the girls who they were protecting most when they swallowed yet another personal horror story? Eyes followed me when I left the room at the break; penetrating, somber. I tried to make myself invisible.
The soldiers’ stories diverged at tour’s end. Some went home to rural America and became mechanics or farmers or factory workers like their fathers, worked hard, made a family, got by. A smaller number went to college and became teachers or bankers. A handful stayed in and made the army a career and a life. But it wasn’t so much what they did for a living that was notable – it was what they did for a life, after the promotions earned and children raised and bank accounts mounted and marriages saved or broken. Who were they, and how much of the war did they carry? For some, it seemed, had never really left Vietnam. Some never quit living that tour of duty. They were the ones who, if they stood, stood rigid and frozen. If they spoke, they ranted, cried, blurted, or spit crude, bawdy jokes. Their stories were of divorce, alcohol, job after job thrown, drugs, and bar fights. These men were very big or very small, as if they were trying to expand outside of or vanish from within their own emotional space.
But others had survived; some, even, had thrived. They had found the thread of their life waiting back home, and followed it somewhere good. They had integrated their war experience into their lives, made some meaning from it, moved on. Each man’s current emotional state did not seem the direct result of the degree of trauma that man had experienced. The most injured physically were sometimes the healthiest emotionally – at least on the surface – and the guy who spent the war as a supplier and never saw a front line might be the one still waking with nightly terrors.
My uneasiness wasn’t just concern that the vets wouldn’t be able to speak freely in my presence. It was also that their stories were not easy for me to hear. A bomb explodes, and then your eyes open to see your leg — only it’s too far away from your body to be your leg, isn’t it? Teenage Vietnamese whores visited. Best friends blown into five pieces, and then collected by your hands from the sludge of a rice paddy. Enemy bodies, with the heads removed; piled, rotting at a battle sight. And the atrocities weren’t even the worst for me to hear about – it was the constant fear and uncertainty, the unbearable strain and loneliness; a supreme misery marinated in an unrelenting suspicion that it was all for no reason at all. Some men wept, some blustered and bragged, some stood and simply quivered in a familiar fight against an enemy that at some point had morphed from a VC soldier with an AK-47 into three decades worth of an invisible, emotional tidal wave. I watched, I listened, I hoped for an end. I stayed for the duration, even though the day, for me, was an unlikely mixture of trauma and tedium. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t think I needed to be.
I was wrong. After the last man spoke, I stood from the mauve conference chair I had been glued to and, head down, moving quickly, began to dart through the thicket of Vietnam vets toward the door. I tried to make myself small, to not take up too much space, to leave this place and let these men say what else they needed to say, and to escape the ache of hearing it. But as I passed through the room, eyes locked on me, and then arms reached for me. “Thank you for coming,” a man with an impossibly droopy face said. “Thank you for being here.” Then, another, with a deep Southern drawl – simply, “Ma’am, thank you so much.” Startled, I blinked, smiled replies. I left the room, accepting the steady gazes and hesitant smiles with new understanding.
In my discomfort, I’d forgotten what it can mean to simply bear witness. Having your story heard – not only by those who were with you and know it as well as you, but by someone who otherwise would never understand your history, and therefore never really know you at all – is thoroughly validating. I had said nothing and done nothing but simply be present – not even very willingly – yet, somehow, this had been enough.