War is Hell

In 1968, I spent a year in Vietnam and am damn lucky to be here to share things with you.  As a Forward Observer for the majority of my tour, I saw some events that I spend a lot of time trying to forget.  When I was out with the Infantry, I managed to provide effective artillery fire and protected my Companies well.  I never got any of my people killed by friendly fire and kept up effective artillery fire to keep the enemy from doing damage to us in any measurable amount.

When we first got to Vietnam, they sent the majority of us to some kind of school or another.  I went to the Forward Observer school and when my Battalion was sent out to the field to participate in a major exercise I was still not with an Infantry Unit.  I went with our battery to the position we were in for our first actual night in the field.  We did not really have an idea what to expect because we were in a new area and almost no one in our unit had been in combat.

About 3 AM, my recon team had finished making a bunker and the radio operator I had newly assigned to me wanted to go over to the gun section he had trained with.  He had spent the day sleeping in the backseat of our Jeep so he was pretty wide awake.  I told him to go on over and spend some time with his friends.

About 3:45 in the morning, we were attacked with mortars rounds and it seemed they fired somewhere between 20 and 50 rounds into our position.  Only one gun section even moved their howitzer around and fired back.  When the mortars stopped, I ran over to the main battery position.  There on the ground was the Battery Commander and the Executive Officer.  Both were wounded bad enough they needed to be Med evaced to a hospital. That left me in charge of the battery and I did what I could to try to get a headcount and get the guns ready to fire if there was another Mortar attack. 

From the first of my time in the battery commander position, I noticed a jeep trailer burning over at the side of the battery.  It did not seem to be a big deal to me but a Major from Battalion Headquarters came over and told me to get a good headcount and put that Damned fire out.  I had the gun sections send a runner to their trucks and get fire extinguishers to put out the fire.  As the first guy started to use his fire extinguisher, I hear him exclaim "Oh Shit, there is a body under there."  The rest of the guys came over and put the fire out.  About that time, the Major came back over and asked if we had lost any of our gunners.  I told him that there was one dead under the trailer and he told me to get it out as fast as I could. 

I went over there and told a couple of the guys to get the body out of there.  They said it wasn't their job and besides the body still was way too hot to touch.  I saw a couple of metal straps there on the ground and looped it under the armpits of the body.  I pulled it out and we had to wait before we could even put a poncho over it.  After a half an hour or so, I went over to see if I knew who it was.  One of the guys had a flashlight and we looked hard to see if it was identifiable.  No one could tell me who it was.

Finally after a few minutes, I saw that it was my Radio Telephone Operator Sal.  Crap, I should have told him to stay where we were and he would be safe.   It just solidified my feelings that in a combat zone, the good and well prepared can get killed just as fast and the stupid. 

After all the wounded were sent to the hospital, we finally loaded the body on a helicopter and sent it to the rear.  The next day, I got a call from the base camp that I had been nominated to escort the body home.  I told them that there were no other officers left in the battery and I felt that I was needed a lot more by the living than the dead.  They called me back that someone else had agreed to escort the body home.  Thank God. 

I have been blessed that when I came home, I had a loving family, especially a wife that helped me get over the stresses of combat.  I did have one minor flash back watching the movie Platoon.  I had just had some major work done on my teeth and was home watching a movie.  For some reason when one of the women came out of her hut talking in that sing-song language of the Vietnamese, I felt like I was there.  I smelled Vietnam and flashed to places that I had hidden away.

Thank God it hasn't happened since but I do try to keep a lid on it.  After all, it was almost 50 years ago.   


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