Veterans Day Vignettes

On Veteran’s Day 2017, I wrote a series of eight vignettes of some of my experiences in Vietnam some 50 years ago.  I posted them every two hours or so on Facebook. For posterity, I have compiled them into one document and posted them here. On Memorial Day 2018, I added a ninth vignette to honor those I served with who paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country.

 

Veterans Day Vignette #1:
My point of entry into Vietnam was Cam Rahn Bay. Following the evening mess (meal) on that first day, I took a stroll and found myself on the western perimeter where a young private was walking guard. During our conversation, I noticed he didn’t have a magazine in his weapon. Upon closer scrutiny, I discovered he had no ammunition at all. My first thought was, “What kind of war had I gotten myself in?”

So, I asked him why was he pulling guard duty totally unarmed in a war zone? He pointed to the mountain range that rose rather abruptly beyond the perimeter fence. Then he told me the South Korean White Horse Division patrolled those mountains and there was very little danger the post would be attacked. The South Korean White Horse and Tiger divisions were noted for their ferocity and penchant for hand-to-hand combat.

It would have been nice to have been assigned to a place as secure as Cam Rahn Bay. However, that was not the case.

Veterans Day Vignette #2:
On my second day in Vietnam, I was told to report to the airfield for a flight to Cu Chi, the headquarters of the 25th Infantry Division. About fifteen minutes before the flight they called all of us “newbies” together and asked if we had a problem with having a body on board for the flight. I had been to funerals and thought this couldn’t be all that bad. It would probably be a nice wooden coffin with brass handles and most likely have an American flag draped over it.

Just before flight time, a detail came up with a stretcher bearing the body of a serviceman in a body bag that clearly showed the contour of the dead man. Two things stood out about this episode. First, I was struck by the care and dignity afforded this fallen soldier as the detail placed his body at our feet. Second, the reality of war was beginning to sink in fast. Little did I know how that reality would be ratcheted up in two short weeks.

Veterans Day Vignette #3:
I met Jackie Trosper on my first day of boot camp at Fort Benning, GA. He was from Corbin, KY. Following boot camp, we both went to Advanced Infantry Training (AIT) at Fort Polk, LA. Following AIT, we flew together to Vietnam from Travis AFB, CA. After arriving in Cu Chi on September 16, 1967, we underwent an additional week of intense in-country training before being sent to our Base Camp in Dau Tieng.

The life of an infantryman in Vietnam can pretty much be summarized as a larger unit search and destroy operation by day and smaller unit interdicting patrols and listening posts (LPs) at night. The purpose of the LPs was to set up a short distance outside the perimeter of the main unit to give early warning of a potential attack. The interdicting patrols would go much further out and set up for the night on a suspected route used by the enemy.

On September 30, Jackie was assigned to a patrol. As the patrol moved out under cover of darkness, they came within a few yards of an LP. The LP opened fire on them and Jackie was killed by friendly fire only two weeks after being in-country and one week after joining the unit.

It seems the patrol leader shot the wrong azimuth with his compass when leaving the perimeter thus taking the patrol in close proximity to the LP. The LP, not expecting friendlies in their area, reacted accordingly. We lost a good soldier and the world lost a good man to simple human error. This would not be the last time human error would rear its ugly head.

Veterans Day Vignette #4:
We were moving up in support of a group that had come under fire from the Viet Cong (VC) in spider holes.  A spider hole is a shallow round hole in the ground, often covered by a camouflaged lid, in which a soldier can hide and then stand and fire a weapon. As I approached one of the spider holes, someone tossed a hand grenade into it. The grenade came flying out as fast as it went in. I dove for a rubber tree trying to put the tree between my head and the blast but in doing so exposed my left flank and back.

A grenade has a 4.5-second fuse which allows it to explode at about the time it reaches the farthest point a normal person can throw it. Protocol says if you are tossing it much closer you should let the fuse burn while holding the grenade so that explosion occurs simultaneously with reaching the target. This is much easier said than done. It is hard to hold a grenade in your hand knowing the fuse is burning and you are dealing with seconds.

So, they medevaced me to Dau Tieng where they removed (most of) the shrapnel and sewed me back up. I was there for a few days convalescing. However, convalescing did not mean not working. Every evening they would come through the ward and take all the walking wounded, issue us an M-16 and ammo, load us on a truck, and drop us off in threes at one of the bunkers that surrounded the perimeter of the base camp. Here we stayed until daybreak peering out into the darkness for any sign of the enemy.

It was in one of these bunkers that I had the good fortune of meeting Dennis Estes. It wasn’t long before I discovered he was a Jesus follower and a serious one at that. We began to talk about our faith journey. After about three hours, the third member of our guard party told us he never put much stock in the church or Jesus thing, but after hearing us talk it seemed so genuine. So for the next four hours, we explained the gospel to him and answered scores of his questions. About 3:00 that morning he said he would like to become a follower of Jesus. This was a good night.

Veterans Day Vignette #5:
The Vietnam era military helmet consisted of four parts. First, there was the liner made of molded nylon to which the suspension was attached. Then there was the shell often referred to as the “steel pot” which provided the bulk of the ballistic resistance. (It also made a great basin for bathing, shaving, etc.) A camouflage canvas cover went over the shell with the ends folded inside the shell and the liner was placed inside to hold the cover in place. Finally, a small elastic band was placed over the cover to further aid in holding it in place.

The oddest thing I ever saw in relation to the helmet occurred shortly after I returned to the field after healing from my wounds. While under fire, we were advancing up a hill covered in elephant grass. Ted Angus took a shot in his helmet that penetrated the steel pot at such an angle that it traveled between it and the liner 3/4 of the circumference of the helmet. Ted was unscathed, though he did have a bit of a headache.

I mentioned in a previous vignette that Dennis Estes took his faith seriously. As a way to let people know where he stood, he printed Jesus Saves on his elastic headband. In one of the few times we were in base camp, Dennis was standing in the line leading into the mess hall. One of the soldiers looked at his helmet and said, “Jesus Saves. What does he save, Green Stamps?” This was followed by guffaws all around. Dennis calmly replied, “No, he saves souls. He can save yours if you will let him.”

Later that evening, the soldier making the snarky remark made his way to Dennis’ tent seeking more information on what he meant by saving souls. That night, the soldier accepted Christ and began his own faith journey.

Veterans Day Vignette #6:
During a search and destroy sweep on November 24, 1967, our battalion came upon a massive tunnel complex. It contained barracks, mess hall, and even a hospital. After ascertaining the extent of the complex and removing any intelligence, we started using shape charges to demolish the tunnels. Nightfall caught us so we set up an encampment nearby and settled in for the night.

The next morning, a small detail went in to complete the demolition. They came under heavy fire as soon as they got close to the complex. The remaining Charlie company grabbed our weapons and raced toward the fray. I came upon John Cross leaning against a tree with a classic sucking chest wound. He indicated the fighting was intense. As I got to our line, I sought cover behind a large anthill (See typical anthill in Vietnam here. Note. photo not of me.)

Farrington, who was just ahead to my left, had become separated from his M-60 machine gun. Every time he reached for it, the enemy dug up the dirt around it with gunfire.

After a couple of hours, it became clear we were not making any progress and we couldn’t withdraw without taking on more casualties. So, they brought in our Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs) to lay down heavy covering fire with their 50 caliber machine guns. That proved to be effective. Unfortunately, one of the 50 caliber gunners suffered a fatal wound. It was my friend and fellow believer, Dennis Estes.

At a memorial service for the four who were killed that day, the chaplain speaking of Dennis said, “Tragedy lies not in dying, but in living a fruitless life.” Dennis’ life was anything but fruitless. I am blessed to have known him.

Veterans Day Vignette #7:
When in the field, the Chinook helicopter was our lifeline. Its daily flight brought supplies, mail, and meals among other things The Army was good at providing us troops one hot meal a day if field conditions permitted. You didn’t want to be at the tail end of the chow line though. If the Chinook took off before you were finished eating your plate would be covered in dirt blown up by the helicopter’s props.

I had always wondered how they knew what supplies to bring out. After the first of the year, I found out. Captain Allison, our Company Commander, asked me to come on board as his RTO (radiotelephone operator) on the battalion frequency. A whole new world opened up to me. Being on the communications track (comm track) allowed me to tune in to military radio transmissions across much of the country. I lost a lot of sleep staying up just to monitor the radio. As for those supplies, I was now the one ordering them. So every day I would compile a list of how many c-rations, boxes of ammo, replacement equipment, etc. I should order. I then called it in using a code that changed every day.

The biggest perk came the day after I moved to the comm track. I opened the mail and it contained the list of those eligible for R&R (rest and recuperation) in the month of March. My name was on the list along with the locations one could choose. Hawaii was out because I was not married. However, the slot for Australia was available and it was possibly the most desired R&R site for the non-married. When I took the list around to the other eligible guys for their selection, the most common phrase I heard was, “Hey, that’s not fair!” After getting their selection, I just walked away whistling Waltzing Matilda.

Veterans Day Vignette #8:
By the time March 13, 1968, rolled around, I was in a pretty good place. I had returned from R&R in Australia and rejoined the unit as they were pulling road guard. Every day there was a supply convoy from Tay Ninh to Dau Tieng. Our job was to sweep road, disarm or blow any mines, then guard the road until the convoy makes its round trip. After the sweeping operation was completed, road-guard consisted of mostly playing cards and concocting strange meals from Army issued c-rations and foodstuff that had been sent by our families in the States. I still remember the spam tacos warmed over C4.

We had a new Charlie 6 (title given to the company commander). Captain Allison had completed his field leadership tour and was bumped to an admin position. The new Charlie 6 was a West Point grad that complained about road-guard duty. He would often say, “This isn’t war.” To which I would reply that I could sit here on the side of the road until the day I leave Vietnam and it would be fine with me.

But on this day, March 13, we would do something different. Intel said there was a large group of VC holed in a wooded area west of where the road to Tay Ninh makes a hard right to the north. Our battalion was to check it out after artillery had softened the area. After artillery finished, a group a little bigger than a squad was to make an initial probe into the area. Charlie 6 decided to go along which meant I, his RTO, was going as well. We also had a scout dog and handler with us. Unfortunately, there was so much smoke hanging in the air from the artillery pounding the dog wouldn’t have been able to smell a steak six inches away.

When we were about 30 to 40 meters from the woods the whole tree line lit up with gunfire. Roughly half of our group was hit in the initial burst, including me.   The fire from the tree line was relentless. The battalion commander was on the radio was asking for Charlie 6 but he couldn’t be found anywhere. I informed him that we had 2 KIAs (killed in action) and at least 5 WIAs (wounded in action). He said hang on help was on the way.

Help arrived in about 10 minutes in the form of a column of Armored Personnel Carriers  (APCs) with 50 caliber machine guns. The APC that extracted me backed to within five meters with the back positioned so as not to take gunfire. John Eberwine came out of the turret, opened the back door and motioned for me to give it a shot. I got to the door and he grabbed my arm and drug me in.

By this time, my pants were soaked in blood from the wounds I received from two rounds from an AK-47. I loosened my belt, unbuttoned my pants and a chunk of my flesh fell in my hand. At this, I passed out. Within twenty minutes I was on an operating table in Tay Ninh. Two weeks later I was in the hospital at Fort Rucker in Alabama. My time in Vietnam was over.

Memorial Day Vignette #9:
The most difficult thing to deal with in Vietnam was the loss of life. No one in a combat unit was exempt and when it happened a flood of emotions swept through the entire company. These were people we had come to respect, admire, and yes, love. 

Every Memorial Day, even after 50 years, all those emotions return as I vividly recall the specific instances of their deaths. Unlike me, they will not celebrate this Memorial Day and their families will not have them around. But I will honor them as best I can and I will try to ensure their names will not be forgotten. They are:

  • Jackie Trosper, E3, 19, Corbin KY
  • Dennis Estes, E3, 21, Garden Grove CA
  • John Gibson, E4, 19, Grandin MO
  • Robert Mlynarski, 2LT, 21, New Britain CT
  • Robert Van Patten, 1LT, 24, San Carlos CA
  • David Ditch, Sgt, 25, Davenport IA
  • Todd Swanson, E3, 21, Los Angeles CA
  • Sam Favata, E4, Pico Rivera CA

 

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