Ever since my arrival in Vietnam in late August 1969 I had been in the base camp at Pleiku serving in a variety of positions until an ear infection cleared up. The ear infection began when I was home on leave in July and had continued even after I was sent to Jungle School in Panama. It was a middle ear infection that left me with no sense of balance. Eventually it started to clear up and I was assigned as the Reaction Platoon Leader in base camp.
The Reaction Platoon was made up of whoever was back in base camp, usually the sick, lame and lazy. Also, the crazy. But that’s another story. The job of the Reaction Platoon was to go out and sweep the perimeter of the base camp any time there was an enemy probe or breach of the perimeter. It wasn’t an especially dangerous or exciting job, and it could take several days each time it happened.
On October 7th, my 23d birthday, I was flown out to take command of my first platoon. I was assigned to Bravo Company, 3/8th Infantry, 1st Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division. I replaced LT Tony Sciacca, who then became the company XO. The other Lieutenants in the company were Dave Mann and Fred Bullet. The company had made contact with some Viet Cong the previous day and everyone was pretty excited. We set up a company perimeter in the vicinity of the contact and ran platoon size patrols for the next two weeks. Other than finding a large enemy weapons cache hidden in some caves those two weeks were rather uneventful. I got to know the men in my platoon, and they got to know me.
About the 21st of October we were ordered to move the company to a new location several klicks away. The going was slow through triple canopy jungle with the whole company moving single file, the point element cutting their way with a machete. The first day LT Bullet’s platoon led the way. As Fred was leaving the perimeter, I noticed he was walking point for his platoon and had his gold second lieutenant’s bar showing on his collar. It was not the Lieutenant’s job to walk point and in fact it was not a good position to command and control from. I told Fred I didn’t think it was a good idea for him to be walking point with his rank showing. He just laughed and said, “Hey, if your number is up, your number is up.” An hour or so later Fred was shot in the leg, and it was later amputated.
The second day of the move LT Mann’s platoon led the way without incident except for occasional sniper fire.
The third day was my turn. After moving through the jungle for several hours we were moving up a ridgeline on our way to a hilltop where we were to set up a new company position. Because we had taken fire every day, we were calling in 105-howitzer and 4.2 Inch (four duce) mortar fire on top of the hill as we moved up the ridgeline in case the enemy was waiting on the hilltop.
About halfway up the ridgeline as we were taking a short rest break there was a tremendous explosion. At first no one knew what had happened. Was it an ambush? Was it enemy artillery or mortars? We soon realized it was friendly fire from the firebase supporting us. One of the four-duce rounds had gone the wrong way and landed in the middle of my point squad. The forward observer immediately called for a check fire to stop the firebase from firing any more rounds.
We immediately started to determine who was hit and started to take care of the wounded. The whole thing seemed like a bad war movie I had seen as a kid. People were lying all over the trail screaming and moaning. I moved forward to determine who was hit and passed PFC Rodney Collins. He was lying wounded and was being helped by someone. Up front I found two men were dead and a number of others wounded. One of the dead, Specialist Max Pugmire, did not seem to be hit at all; there were no visible wounds. It turned out he took a small piece of shrapnel through his heart. The other, PFC Albert Wayman had half his head taken off by a large piece of shrapnel. Doc was holding a piece of his brain on a small branch. I moved back down the trail and saw someone had put a poncho over Collins. He was dead. Another soldier, SGT Ronald Westphal, was sitting up crying and trying to push his intestines back inside. He died shortly after he was evacuated.
As we began cutting down trees to make an emergency landing zone for the medivac helicopters, a white phosphorous grenade went off. It turned out to be one that one of the men had been carrying. It had been cracked by shrapnel and finally exploded. The phosphorus burned three men.
At one point I attempted to help one of my men who had been wounded. He had some small wounds in his head and blood trickled down into his eyes preventing him from seeing his other wound. Shrapnel had taken off half of his hand. I remember thinking that it looked like someone had smashed some hot dogs with a hammer, exposing raw meat covered with blood. As I tried to figure out how to put a dressing on half a hand, he asked me if he was going to be all right. He had worked in civilian life in an office as a clerk/typist. I lied and told him he was going to be fine. I just couldn’t tell him about his hand.
By this time, I just wanted to sit down and cry. I suppose I was in shock like all the others. But I couldn’t sit down and cry. I wouldn’t let myself do that. I was the leader. I knew I had to suppress my emotions and keep control. That’s what they taught me at Fort Benning. That’s what I had to do. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life.
I was walking about thirteenth in the file of thirty-five men in the platoon. It turned out that every man in front of me as well as the man immediately behind me was killed or wounded seriously enough to be medevacked. Number 13 turned out to be a lucky number for me that day.
The next day my medic pointed to my helmet and asked how long I had had the hole in my helmet. I looked and saw that a piece of shrapnel had gone through the steel helmet and lodged in the liner. That had been the first day I wore my helmet in the field. I usually wore a boonie hat, a soft, floppy brimmed hat, when on patrol. Lucky again.
This was my first major experience as a Platoon Leader in Vietnam. After that I tried not to get to know my men that well. It was too hard losing them.
I wrote this story many years ago. I wrote it not expecting it to be shared. I did it for myself and to remember my soldiers. I have told parts of this story to friends and students in a class at URI over the years as a guest speaker. I don’t think they could possibly understand what it was like.
PCVI has allowed me to share this story in a non-threatening and welcoming environment with others in the class including veterans from Vietnam and other wars. If you are a veteran who needs to tell your story somehow, I would recommend PCVI as a place you might consider.