NAM, DEATH, AND HOME
By Michael "Mikey" Dingwell
CHAPTER XV-- Malaysian R&R
Bill and I became separated when I caught malaria, and he went on R&R. I was sent to a place called Cam Rahn Bay, on the ocean, to recuperate from my bout with this "Tropical Disease." They assured us that this place was super-secure and had never, ever been attacked.
It never got hit when I was there; but I remember reading that during Tet in '68, the NVA hit them pretty hard, throwing grenades into the hospital wards and shooting the patients as they ran out. When I was there, however, I thought it was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen, except for all of the sick GIs.
When I returned to our unit, we were given some FNGs or "fucking new guys;" and one of them turned out to be from my home town of Lansing, Michigan. His name was Dewey Torok. I had actually tried to date his sister, but I guess she was nobody's fool as I don't remember ever getting that date. I don't remember being around Dewey very much, so he probably didn't smoke any dope; but Bill and I were pretty close by this time, and someone really had their work cut out for them to try to get close to either of us.
The next thing that I remember is going to Malaysia on R&R, where I managed to spend a ridiculous amount of money on dope, booze, and ladies of the evening. Most of this five-day trip remains a blur to this day, also; so I won't go into that part of my tour except to say that as near as I can recall, I got my money's worth of entertainment.
I do remember the last young lady that I spent the evening with, mostly because she really cost big bucks for over there; and she really was beautiful. She had shaved her pubic hair into the shape of a heart; and her smooth, brown skin didn't have a flaw in it. She insisted on giving me a bath before any hanky-panky, and I thought that was sooo cool. Looking back on it, she probably was protecting herself as best as she could by making sure that I was clean.
I insisted on smoking some of this really great dope that I had found over there, which didn't please her any too much. Finally realizing that this might be the last time that I ever made love, we were awake well into the night doing the wild thing and talking about life and death. I don't think that I've ever gotten so close to anyone so fast since that night in Penang. I sure didn't want to go back to the war.
It was during this R&R that I kind of freaked out about going back to the 'Nam.' I never really had a feeling like I would be killed or even injured over there, not like a premonition or whatever. There were times when I wondered if we would make it out of 'this' one or not, but I don't ever remember thinking that I was going to leave a part of me there or anything.
However, when it came time to go back from Malaysia, I really felt a change in my attitude towards going back into combat. But like a good little soldier, I returned to my comrades in the jungle.
When I returned to my unit in Vietnam, there was a new Sergeant in charge of our platoon, a real jerk who had obviously never been in combat before. Our outfit was laying concertina wire around the perimeter of our base camp when this asshole came up and told me that the grunts needed a pick and shovel to blow some booby-traps, and he understood that I was the one to send. Then this idiot tells me that they're waiting for me at the helipad and that I should get going.
I told him that I was just going to my hooch to get my rifle, and he starts screaming like it's a major catastrophe and tells me that I'm disobeying a direct order under combat conditions if I don't move my ass. Well, that's grounds for a 'cowardice in the face of the enemy charge,' as any G.I. in a war zone can tell you.
So, like a little kid, I said 'OK' and ran down and jumped on that helicopter. I know now that I should have ignored this Bozo and got my weapon before going out to the field. Or better yet, I should've fragged this dude; and everybody would've been better off.
Anyway, it wasn't long before I found myself heading for the boonies without my weapon. It seemed like everybody and their uncle wanted to know why I would come out to the field without a weapon for any reason. Talk about feeling like a fool. As soon as I got off of the chopper, the grunts told me that the village was 'not' secure and that if I could pick up as many booby-traps as possible before I got shot they'd sure appreciate it. It seemed like everybody except me got a good laugh out of this.
I was steaming inside, and I had already decided to kill that stupid Sergeant as soon as we got back. Believe me when I say that killing somebody on either side in this war was easy for me, as it was the easiest solution to a problem that I'd ever found.
I remember there were some snipers as soon as we approached the village, and then someone tripped a 'Bouncing Betty.' A 'Bouncing Betty' is an anti-personal mine meant to do maximum damage with minimum materials. Once it is stepped on, it bounces up about waist high and then explodes.
I tried to get the grunts to slow down so that I could check for trip wires; but with the snipers popping at us, the infantry guys just went right on into the village. The poor guy who tripped this one was laying there trying to hold his intestines in while the medic was doing his best to patch him up. Seeing there was nothing that I could do, I moved up the hedgerow, which is where the enemy had laid most of his booby-traps.
As I was searching for more, I heard the 'crack' of a snipers bullet as it went over my head. This really sucked since, without a weapon, I couldn't even return fire. So I just laid down behind that dike until they cleared the area of snipers.
As I lay there, every once in a while I could hear one of these booby-traps go off and usually hear screaming afterwards. Without a weapon, there was nothing I could do. Finally, I could stand it no longer; and I got up and moved to the hedgerow where some of the grunts were guarding their wounded comrades. I asked if there were any weapons that I could use, but they told me that the weapons stay with the man they belong to, period. So while the shooting was still going on, I started looking for mines or booby-traps and laying charges on the ones I found.
When the grunts had the village cleared, I blew the ones that I had so far and moved on up to where the grunts were waiting. After listening to some more shit about not carrying a weapon in combat, a couple of the guys took me around and showed me the shit that they wanted blown up; and then they told me that I had to hump out with them as another unit was in a big firefight, and there were no helicopters available.
When I pointed out to them that I didn't have a weapon, they told me that if I wanted to go out so bad, I should have rode out with the Medevac chopper, and the fact that I didn't have a weapon was not their problem. Boy, I thought, 'now' you tell me.
Now things started to get real scary as we headed back to base camp a few miles away. There's no more helpless a feeling as humping the boonies with no weapon. We passed through deserted villages and came across a trench that had been an ambush site; but it turned out to be a mass grave instead when the grunts outflanked the enemy and hit them from their exposed rear.
We passed by yet another battle site with still-bloody bandages laying all over the place. At both of these places were the bodies of our enemies, lying in the grotesque shapes that only the dead lie in, their wounds showing the ferociousness of the fight that took their young lives.
All at once we came to a stop, and the signal to keep quiet was passed back. Then the word came down that there were fresh tracks of at least a company-sized enemy unit crossing the trail in front of us. That was far more than we wanted to tackle, especially just at dark. That would put our small unit of 30 against an enemy unit of 100+. Not good odds. So after a bit, we started out again, only in a different direction.
Then we were picked up by some choppers, the firefight that had tied them up apparently over. By the time we arrived back at our base camp, I could've killed the new sergeant with my bare hands. Sgt. Schaeffer met me at the helicopter landing pad, thinking that he could calm me down. When he saw my face, however, he backed off and got on the radio; and somehow they got that asshole, who sent me out without a weapon, to leave. I figured that I could kill him after a good night's sleep, so I let it go. I was really beat by then.
Curiously, the new sergeant was gone the next day; and I never did see him again, although I did hear that he got fragged while he was stationed on the other side of the base. That was definitely the last time that I went out on any kind of patrol without a weapon. And once again I was a survivor.
I think one of the worse things about Vietnam was the monsoon rains. I live in Northern Arizona now, and they say we have monsoon rains here. HA! Not anything like the monsoons over there. We had to build some bunkers for somebody during the monsoons; and the best materials around were these really big palm trees, which also were probably the heaviest things around. So we ended up getting these infantry dudes to provide security for us and went out of the base camp to this little grove of palm trees.
On the way there, it started raining as it was the monsoon season; and we couldn't see two feet in front of us. I gave up trying to stay dry and just let it come down. It was raining so hard that I wondered if my rifle would still fire or if somehow the rain would keep it from functioning. It was actually pretty scary because the enemy could've been ten feet away, and we wouldn't have been able to see them.
We finally got the trees cut and then started back to our perimeter with them, but nobody had told us that they were this heavy. I'm only 5'9" and weighed about 137 pounds, but a lot of the guys were closer to 6' tall; so, whenever we went across a low spot in the ground, the log would come completely off of my shoulder and the guy in front of and in back of me would all of a sudden be carrying my share of the load, too. Of course, this was all right with me, but there sure was a lot of moaning and groaning going on.
I went on several patrols when it was raining so hard that we had to hold on to the guy in front of us so we didn't wander off and get lost. A couple of times there was shooting up in front of the column, and I never did find out what was going on. Building bunkers was a major chore because they'd fill up with water and/or collapse.
Bill and I were on guard duty at some little isolated firebase when we heard these sticks, kind of like drumsticks being hit together, only it was definitely some kind of code; and whoever was doing it was right outside of our perimeter. Soon an infantry officer came around to our position and gave us some extra ammo and told us to be especially alert as these were the signals the enemy made when they were getting ready to launch a human-wave assault.
It wasn't long after that when a green flare went off from outside of the perimeter. Then a monsoon rain started, and it came down so heavy that our bunker caved in. We had to go outside in the rain just to keep from drowning like rats. Our perimeter was probed all night, but there was no attack. Charlie probably didn't like the damned rain any more than we did.
It was during the monsoon season, also, that I found myself deep in the jungle with some grunts on what I assume was the Ho Chi Minh trail. I don't remember what I was doing with them, but I remember setting up an ambush on this fairly wide trail and the infantry guys that I was pulling guard with telling me that this was a critical situation and that I must, absolutely must stay awake for my shift of guard duty.
We had set up our ambush in a spot that had been a small firebase for some other grunts, who just happened to have been overrun by a large NVA force the day before. They abandoned the firebase, as most of their unit had been killed or wounded. I had never fallen asleep on guard duty before, but these guys didn't know that and had been having some trouble with their own men, who were kind of new...hence the stiff warning.
There was quite a lot of debris scattered over this area from the previous battle, which was kind of freaky. It started raining at about dark and pretty much rained all night long. When I was awakened for my shift, I was cold, wet, and very tired.
We had an M-60 machine gun set up in a fighting hole right in the middle of the trail; and when I jumped down into that hole, I went ankle deep in water. That shouldn't have bothered me, as I had been sleeping on the wet ground all night anyway; but for some reason it really bugged me that I had to stand guard duty in ankle deep water. So I got out of the hole and grabbed a wooden pallet, obviously left over from this previous battle, and threw it into the water so that I could stand on it.
After I got situated at my guard station, I draped my poncho over my head and peered down the trail at the blackness of the night, hoping that the enemy soldiers would stay under their ponchos tonight, too. It seemed like the longer I stared into the wet blackness of the jungle, the more things seemed to be moving. I was quite aware of this phenomenon, having stood guard a lot by this time.
To fight off the fatigue that was trying to get to me, I pulled out a packet of C-Rats hot chocolate, pulled the poncho over my head, and knelt down in my hole. Now I was really glad that I had thrown a wooden pallet in my hole to stand on, as it sure made it easier to heat my stuff. After I used my C-4 to heat my chocolate, I stood up and took a quick look around. Cool, all clear.
We weren't ever, ever supposed to smoke on guard, as the smell travels forever in the jungle, spreading out over the jungle floor like water. After that hot drink, I was sure tempted to have a smoke, but I'd been there long enough to have heard more than one story of how some fool had gotten his friends killed by doing something stupid that he thought he could get away with just once.
Instead, I started counting how many bushes there were near our position and then how many there were on the trail; but, man, did I ever want a smoke. Well, after my first count, I did it again, only this time there was something wrong with my counting. I didn't think I was that tired, so now I started getting real serious about this counting shit. Just when I thought maybe I'd made a mistake, one of the bushes started coming right at me.
BULLSHIT, I thought; and I opened up with the machine gun. I laid down a low fire along the trail and the ground around me started jumping from the grenades the gooks were throwing at my tracers.
I don't remember if I was yelling or not, but I usually did during a firefight; so I suppose that I was this time, too. Grenades were going off all around me, lighting up my area like daytime; and I was real thankful that their grenades weren't as good as ours.
I couldn't figure out why none of the infantry guys were joining me or why they didn't even seem to be shooting. I cut loose the two claymores we had out in front of our position and continued to pour a heavy concentration of fire on the trail.
It wasn't too long before the infantry Lieutenant was beside me, asking me what I was shooting at. I told him what had taken place and asked why his men weren't up there shooting with me. He left, then came back and told me that all of his men, who had been on guard at my hole, were dead. It didn't seem possible to me, like it wasn't real. They had been alive when I came on guard; and we had talked about the days patrol, and why was I out there if I didn't have to be, etc.
It turned out that rather then getting into their holes, where it was wet and cold, they had just lain down on the ground with their ponchos wrapped around them. When the shooting started, they were all hit almost immediately; and then, when the grenades started flying in, they were just blown to shit. Once again, I was a survivor, although I could feel no happiness in being one.
This little fight only lasted maybe 10 minutes, as it was apparently just a small group of the enemy moving from one place to another on our trail. The problem in a war, though, is that you never know how good the unit will be that you engage. This particular unit just happened to have enough experience to keep their heads in an ambush and fight their way out. We didn't even find any bodies, so you can bet that these guys knew what they were doing.
The infantry Lieutenant told me that there were certain people in the 'Nam' who were 'survivors' and didn't even know it, and he thought that I was one of those people. I've often wondered how the hell he knew.
I was with this same unit a few days later, and it was raining to beat the band when we walked into an ambush. Red and green tracers were flying everywhere, and they pinned us down so that we couldn't move. I found myself lying in the middle of four or five dead guys and was told to hold my position.
It was almost dark; and as we usually received a water-drop in the evenings, I had already drank almost all of mine. As the firefight heated up, I finished my water by giving it to the wounded and was getting thirsty as hell.
When it got dark, the enemy broke through our lines, firing and poking dudes with their bayonets; but, as I was on the opposite side of the perimeter from where they came through, I didn't even know they had penetrated. I found out soon enough and helped fight them off and was dying of thirst in a short time.
There was a small pool of water near me, which was pretty brown and dirty looking in the daylight; and I thought, 'Why not?' So, I got myself a drink; and even though it tasted pretty weird, at least it took away some of the thirst.
Both sides broke contact, and we waited till morning so we could get our dead and wounded out. When it got light, I thought about that pool of water again because I was thirsty as all get-out. When I approached the pool, I could see that the water had a reddish tint to it; so I got a little closer and peered into it.
There was a body lying half in and half out of the water. It was one of our guys; and he was, of course, dead. Knowing that I had drank some of his blood the night before was kind of sickening, but what could I do? Needless to say, I didn't drink any more. I don't remember getting sick from this, which is a miracle; so I just figured that it didn't do me any harm.
We'd been humping since daylight, and it was somewhere around noon. We were crossing this rice paddy, heading toward a mountain range in the distance, when we came across their bodies. There were about 30 or 40 of them, enemy soldiers lying in a sprawled group as they fell when they tried to escape the death from above. A couple of them had empty shell casings laying around them, preferring to at least to go down fighting.
I found out later that this was the reason that we had veered off our course earlier in the morning. Some gunships coming back from a mission just happened to spot them in the open the night before.
We were ordered to check the bodies for any documents and to collect the weapons. For us, it was a welcome respite from humping the jungle-covered hills that rose all around us. At least, we thought so at the time. Damn, but that sun beat down hard and hot on a man out in the middle of the rice paddies. The infantry sergeant laughed and said he just couldn't please us.
I guess death was becoming an old friend, since I had to deal with it so often. Sometimes I thought that death followed me around, like maybe he knew that where I went, tragedy followed. I suppose that sounds a little hokey to some people, but fuck them and feed them fish heads. It seemed like I was putting someone I knew in a body bag every other day, but I know now that it just seemed that way. I was probably getting "dead people syndrome" or something.
We made a major move to a place called Duc Pho, which is on the coast of Vietnam in the sand dune country. The Marines were just moving out. I mean, this was a MAJOR MOVE. As soon as we got there, we were ordered to start laying out the concertina wire, set up the flares, and put out our perimeter defense system.
It wasn't long before Bill and I were heading out into the boonies--this time with the 11th Cav, a unit of Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs), and tanks. Meanwhile, the rest of the engineers were building roads, bunkers, sleeping areas, etc. The 11th Cav was supporting the grunts, and we were to pick up mines and clear tunnels.
When we arrived at the Marine base, they told us that they had taken fire just about every time they left the safety of their camp. I don't know if they had armored vehicles or not, but I don't think so. This was an area up near the ocean, with a lot of sand and palm trees. One of the first times out on patrol with these armored guys, we ended up in a firefight not too far from our base camp.
I remember being on the back of an APC with the track's M-60 machine gun; and we spotted these gooks bookin' across a rice paddy, heading for the hills. All of a sudden the tracks were all on line, and we were charging at those poor guys who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. With seven or eight .50 caliber machine guns blazing, we charged the enemy soldiers; and I'll be damned if they didn't get away. They ran up into the hills and disappeared into some caves. Those boys from the armored unit had to call in some grunts to go up into the hills to kill the NVA that they had chased into the caves.
We started moving further and further away on search and destroy missions, until we had to erect some firebases for the artillery so that they could reach us if the need arose. One of these small firebases became like our home at night because somebody had spotted some gooks on the hill right beside it, and they practically begged the APC's to spend the nights there.
This base sat up on a great big hill, which was barren except for some weeds and stuff growing on it. There was a long, dusty road up to the top, with some old fighting holes that ran alongside of it. When we'd come back from patrol at night, we had to sweep the road to the top with mine-sweepers in case the gooks had managed to somehow plant a mine while we were out. Of course, we would have to do the same thing when we went out in the morning.
While working with the armored vehicles, we quickly learned that the worst thing you could possibly do when driving one of these was to go over your old tracks, no matter when you made them...especially if they were in a place that made it the least bit difficult to go around. It didn't take the enemy long to figure out how lazy a G.I. could get, probably because their soldiers were just like ours.
The armored commanders told Bill and I, when we first started working with them, that we were in charge when it came to going over old tracks; but nobody ever asked our advice, so the only time we checked for mines was when the track commander ordered us to. So of course, it was quite a shock the first time one of these big APCs hit a mine.
We were near a village, but I sure don't know the name of it. As we moved through the sand, we had to maneuver around hedgerows and palm trees; and during one of these maneuvers, I just happened to be watching this APC when 'Boom,' it hit a mine and stopped dead in its tracks. I actually saw the drivers head bounce up and the track commanders body fly upwards from the force of the blast. I can't remember the TC's name; but as soon as he recovered from the shock of the moment, he jumped up and started firing into the village and at anybody he saw moving. It didn't do him any good, however, as the people in the village had all gone down into their bunkers, probably because they expected just such a reaction.
When everybody had calmed down, we found that the mine had only succeeded in blowing the track off. Another was sent out, and we went on our merry way.
Most of the mines, at this time of the war, were made from unexploded artillery shells. A 105 round would usually just blow the track off a vehicle, while a 155 round could possibly penetrate the armor. These were buried and then wrapped in plastic with a thick wire around them that I took to be a booby-trap wire. Cut it, and it blows. Sometimes, if the enemy commander of the area was really pissed, they'd bury a 500 or 1000 pound bomb and really go after one of our tracks. More about this later.
I guess the enemy must of got tired of these tracked vehicles, because they stepped up the battle against them with rockets and mines. We started finding more and more mines, and of a bigger variety then ever before. One day some fool in the rear called and asked if we could possibly dig up one of these newer type mines and send it back to the rear for study by the experts. I responded by telling them to send one of their experts out to the field to dig up the mine himself, but apparently this suggestion didn't appeal to them because nobody showed up to give it a try. I told Bill never to try such a stupid stunt, as more than likely they were booby-trapped to go off if monkeyed with.
We were with the armored guys one day when we came to a spot with only one way to get around it, so I decided to give it a sweep with the mine-detector. As I approached the most likely spot, I got a reading and looked down to see three prongs sticking up. The mine was placed right in a previously made track, and then they had taken the time to trace the outline of the track back in. I had never seen this before and knew that I was dealing with a very experienced demo man. After I blew the mine in place, which is the only way I dealt with these instruments of mega-death, something told me to check it out again.
When I went back over the tracks, I got the detector tangled in some grass and started jerking it to free it from this obstruction. As I kicked the grass out of the way, it seemed to hang up again. This spot was directly across from where the first mine had been, in the other track; so I didn't figure it was anything but garbage getting in my way. (Garbage being shrapnel or fragments from the mine I had just detonated.)
As I banged the obstruction with more force, I looked down to see just what the hell was in my way and realized that I was banging on these three prongs sticking up. My heart went up to my mouth, which was ironic as that's exactly where it would have gone had I managed to detonate that mine. Well, it didn't go off; and I blew it in place. We moved on, and I never thought much about it after that.
I was still working with this same unit when we got a call on the radio to go help some grunts that were pinned down and getting hit hard. As we approached the battle area, the track commander told me to take Bill and go find a way through the thick hedgerows to the infantry lines. We took off towards the sounds of the battle; and, as we got closer, it started to look like a scene right out of the TV show "Combat." Smoke covered the area, there were little fires burning everywhere, the trees had been sheared off at the tops, plus the ground was chewed up by the incoming artillery. We couldn't see very far in front of us, but the sounds of the battle told us that we were close.
All of a sudden the smoke cleared a little, and we could see that we were on the enemy's flank, right beside a trench. There were some dead gooks lying in the trench, and others were returning fire at the grunts on the other side of this small clearing. Obviously, we had wandered into "Injun country." Bill indicated that we should perhaps move over toward the good guys' side; but just about then a gook jumped up and started firing at our guys, so I naturally shot him. Boy, was that a mistake.
It seemed like every gook for miles around was shooting at us; and, for some reason, Bill was blaming me. Anyway, we got out of there and circled around behind our guys' line; and as we approached them, they started yelling at us to get down. I casually walked up to where they were all lying on the ground and sat down, telling them that those gooks couldn't hit the broad side of a barn if they were inside of it. I was a cocky bastard by this time, as you can tell.
So there we were, the tracks and the grunts all lined up on one side and the gooks all lined up on the other. Then out of nowhere, or so it seemed, came this P-38, which is a W.W.II dive bomber, dropping straight down onto the enemy trenches with machine guns blazing. Here was this W.W.II fighter plane, with the pilot waving at us as he buzzed the VC lines and this silly scarf of his waving in the wind; and, believe it or not, this guy was actually smiling at us. It was a pretty wild scene, I'll tell you.
This one gook was really a pain in the ass, as he had quite a commanding view of the battlefield. He was in a bunker that was so well constructed he seemed invincible. Every once in a while, he'd pop up and take a shot at us, then duck back down in this bunker that was positioned in a bamboo thicket. It seemed like we shot everything we had at this guy, but he just wouldn't give it up. Finally, we attacked behind the cover of the tracks; and when we got close, I set a charge at the base of his bunker. When it went off, it blew him out of his hole. He quickly scrambled back in, and everybody was quite amazed that he was still alive, until the infantry officer ran up and emptied his '16' into the guy.
After we had finally killed this gook, we noticed that the enemy soldiers were escaping in every direction. I hopped up on an APC and grabbed the M-60 machine gun that goes on the back and prepared to do battle with whatever enemy troops we came across.
As we swung out of the contact area and crossed this small creek, a young enemy soldier popped up out of the water behind us with his hands up, and then another popped up right beside him. I cut them both down with a long burst from the M-60, bending them at the waist as the slugs tore into their bellies. The sarge riding on the track with me said that was close to murder; and I told him we didn't use that term out in the bush, no more than we used the term "fragging." He understood perfectly, and no more was said about it. There was no such thing as murder in war, at least as far as I was concerned. So we killed quite a few of the enemy in this battle, with minimum losses to ourselves.
A few days after this contact, we had come up on an infantry platoon coming in from patrol. A lot of times when working with the infantry and the armored units together, the grunts would pile on the tracks so they wouldn't have to walk. I knew most of these guys, and three of them had come over with me; so, it was like a greeting party for us. They piled on the tracks, with eleven of them getting on the track behind the one I was on but none on ours as they knew I was the demo-man and probably had explosives on board. Nobody likes to ride with the demo-man.
When the explosion first went off, I thought that our track had run over a mine because the blast was so powerful. It actually lifted our track clear off of the ground. I had chosen that time to bend down and get a drink of water, which was located down inside the track. I hit my head as soon the mine detonated, then quickly looked up to see what had happened.
There was a big crater where the track behind us had been; and, of course, all of the vehicles came to a stop. I found out later, through talking to the guys, that the track commander's body had flown right over the top of the track behind his and been thrown some 100 yards or so, landing in front of his friends' track at the rear of the column. It was total chaos for a little while, until the officer in charge took over and made people do their jobs.
I jumped off of our vehicle as soon as we came to a stop and started looking for a place where the mine could've been command detonated by an enemy soldier. I didn't find one and was soon ordered to look for body parts. There were two or three guys missing and it was getting dark, so we had to move it if we didn't want to spend the night out there in Injun country. As I looked at where the mine had gone off, I could see some guys standing around staring, so I went over and looked.
There was about a seven- or eight-foot crater; and there were three GIs in the bottom of it, all burned and their clothes gone. They were moaning and their skin was smoking; and I think, looking back, that we were all in shock. Somebody asked the medic to put them out of their misery; but he said he was a conscientious objector, and he just couldn't do it. So someone else tried to pull one of them out and his arm came right off, burnt through. I don't know what made me recognize him, but I knew that he was a kid from Texas who came over from Germany with me.
Finally, I couldn't take it anymore; and before anyone could stop me, I jumped down into that hole; and when I came out, their suffering was over. I'll never forget how the rest of the guys looked at me, as if I'd done something wrong. Nobody ever talked about it afterwards or at least nobody ever said anything to me, but I could feel the difference in the way they looked at me. It pissed me off, too, because none of them had the guts to do what I did; and yet, it had to be done. So I was the bad guy after that, but who gives a damn?
So I went back to looking for the dead and spent the next hour or two picking up body parts, some as small as fingers and some as big as the trunk of a man. We picked up scalps and just about every body part you could think of. I knew all eleven men who were riding on that track, plus the men who were assigned to it. I had been in country quite a while by this time; and I guess the deaths were getting to me by now, as I was pretty jumpy and getting emotional, which was quite unlike me. I don't remember crying over any of these guys like their best friends did, but their deaths did stir something in me that had been missing up to this point.
Somehow, I had managed to bury most of the feelings concerning the death of anyone that I knew; but now something was starting to grow in me, some inner resentment or something. Hell, I don't know. I ain't no shrink now, and I sure wasn't one then. But I remember thinking that I was a pretty cold person up to this point, and now feelings that I thought were no longer a part of me were coming to the surface. I must have hid them pretty good, though, cause everybody kept saying how cold and hard I was; and, of course, I didn't tell them any different. On the other hand, maybe there just wasn't any room left to bury these feelings. Maybe the feelings' pit was full at this point.
Things started going downhill from here. Bill and I weren't able to spend much time together, so I would just go off by myself and isolate. (I kinda like that word, in case you didn't notice.) When we did manage to get together, we didn't laugh like we had in the past; and I noticed that Bill's smile was missing something now. There seemed to be a sadness that had settled over everything about us. I only say this in retrospect, as I don't remember consciously thinking this; I only remember things got different towards the end. Maybe it was because we were getting short-timer blues. Hell, I don't know.
I was out with the 11th Cav, on a patrol through the rice paddies one day, when we came to a fence line that went along a deep ditch filled with water. There was only one place to cross so I got out and began sweeping for mines. As I got to the middle of the ditch, I was standing in water up to my knees when I got a signal on the detector indicating metal. I wondered if it was the fence itself, knocked down and lying under the water. So I put the metal detector down and started a hand search in the mud to try to determine what was down under this brown colored water.
I felt what I took to be a coffee can; so, to get it out of my way, I started trying to yank it clear of the mud. It was stuck in there pretty good, so I gave it what for; and it finally pulled clear. As I lifted it up out of the water, I could hear the tracks revving up their motors as they began backing up. My "coffee can" had Chinese writing on it and wires hanging down, obviously a detonator for a large mine.
It was only then that I realized I was straddling what was probably a 500-pound bomb or even bigger. I knew that if it hadn't gone off yet, I was more than likely pretty safe and was simply amazed that they hadn't booby-trapped the detonator. This was, in fact, my first and only experience with this type of a large, Chinese-type detonator.
Knowing that I was straddling a big-ass bomb, which couldn't go off without a burst of fire and some concussion, I guess I probably got a little cocky. I urged the track commanders to go ahead and cross the mud puddle, telling them that the mine was now harmless. No one really wanted to take my word for it, so I told them that I would stand right beside the crossing until all of them were past.
Afterwards, I blew the detonator up, almost getting an old Mama-san with it. I guess you could say that I was out of control at this point, daring death to come and get me. But old man death had a different surprise for me in the near future.
There were a few more good firefights out in the sand dunes, but the next real memory-filled event overshadowed anything that had happened to me up to this point in my life.
Bill and I were back in the rear with our own unit as the armored guys made some repairs on their vehicles. Early one morning--in fact, it was the 3rd of July--we were ordered to get our gear together as we were going out to do a sweep for mines. As I was getting my pack on and putting some fresh clips of ammo in my gear, my partner comes up to me and says, "Take this stuff and give it to my Mom; I'm not coming back from this one."
There were tears in his eyes.
This really threw me for a loop; and I refused to take his stuff, saying "You're not going to die on me now, Bill. We've been through too much together. Besides, no gook can kill us; we're the best."
Well, he didn't look too convinced; but what could I do? To take his stuff would be to admit that maybe he was going to die, and there was just no way I was gonna do that. He stuck his papers back into his pocket and didn't say anymore about it. There wasn't much time to say anything else because, when you're going out on a patrol, the last thing you want to do is keep a bunch of nervous GIs waiting.
We loaded up on the tracks and headed out just like we'd done a hundred times before. It was about 10:00 a.m., and we were going through some sand dunes in a place where we had been hit previously. Nobody likes to see a track stop in a hot area because that's when you become a sitting duck for a rocket-propelled weapon, which the enemy had plenty of. Some chatter came over the radio, and all of a sudden we came to a halt. The "TC" told us that the other "pick & shovel" had found a mine.
Then there was an explosion, and I looked to where they had stopped and saw a black cloud of smoke rising; and somehow I knew. It seemed like my heart had stopped beating. I was on the ground, and the sarge from the armored unit was trying to stop me from going to my partner; and then I guess that I probably made a threatening gesture of some kind because everybody was telling the sarge to back off.
There Bill was crumpled up on the ground, the whole left side of him blown away. There were tears falling down my face, and something inside of me was coming apart. My partner was lying in front of me dead, and I couldn't even hold him in my arms and say good-bye because his guts and everything were all over; and it seemed like the world was spinning, and I wanted so bad for this not to be real. But it was real.
I was mentally crushed. Devastated. Bill always carried his stuff in his top left pocket, and that was the side that was missing. Gone in a mass of blood and smoke and internal organs. I've never felt so guilty about anything in my life.
The insanity started then; and from that moment on, I just wanted to kill. A coldness settled over me which was to last for a long, long time. I started smoking dope every night and dared anyone to say anything.
We had some prisoners a couple of days later and had to stop so that some officer could come in and question them. Before anyone could think to stop me and just when the officer's chopper was coming in, I cut loose with the M-60 and killed all of those gooks. I don't remember how many there were, but I do know how many there weren't when that officer stepped off of that chopper. He talked to the infantry officer who had brought the prisoners in, and I could pretty much tell what they were saying. Nobody reprimands a crazy man with a machine gun in his hands.
On July 9th, 1967, my sergeant in the rear sent out a new guy to train and try to break into combat. This was only a few short days after Bill was killed, and I was still pretty much fucked up ... so much so that I refused to go back to the rear or come off the field. Things are still pretty blurry to this day, but I know I kept thinking that I wasn't through killing yet. God had other ideas; but I wasn't exactly close to him at the time, unfortunately.
We were on a patrol going from somewhere to somewhere. As we approached a tree line between the rice paddies or the rice paddies between the tree lines, we came upon an enemy pack, just lying there on the ground. Obviously the gook had been surprised by us and had dropped his shit and beat feet. I could plainly see his tracks and asked the track commander if I could take a couple of guys with me and track him down, but our "TC" was afraid that we'd get nailed in an ambush, so he declined my more than gracious offer.
So, we continued on our way; and I was having a rough time trying to convince this FNG to keep his eyes on the tree line as there just wasn't anything to look at out in the rice paddies. No doubt, I was still in some kind of shock from Bill checking out so abruptly; and I was ragging this guy relentlessly. As I turned to tell this asshole to get his fucking eyes back on the tree line, I saw the flash out of the corner of my eye and had just about enough time to mutter 'Oh, shhh' when the projectile hit and sent me up in the air in a flip.
I landed inside the track, and everything was smoking or on fire. My right leg was twisted behind me, and I figured it was pretty much broken at the knee. It burned like hell; and then I looked and saw that there was no knee, just a piece of tendon holding the top of my leg to the bottom. I said about twenty 'Oh, Gods,' and then I could feel us slowing down. I could hear the enemy machine gun bullets hitting the side of the track.
Guessing that they were going to try to get our machine guns and our ammo, I stood up and grabbed the M-60; and, on my way to standing up, I gave this idiot who refused to keep his eyes on the tree line a small butt-stroke that broke his jaw. Then I started to return fire. I wasn't aware that the calf of my left leg was severely wounded, too.
I tried to get my tracers to come down to where the enemy's tracers were starting to come up at me. As we went over the rice paddy dikes, my right leg would swing back and forth -- that is, the part that was hanging on by a thread, so to speak.
Just as my tracers were approaching his, I was knocked back down into the track again. One of his tracer rounds had caught me in the shoulder, knocking me down and going through a smoke grenade, setting my web gear to smoking and making the whole scene even more weird. I rolled over and grabbed a frag and pulled the pin out, then laid down on top of it, figuring that when the gooks turned me over the handle would fly; and we'd all go to hell together.
My next memory is someone turning me over and hearing that "ping" as the grenade armed itself, and then someone grabbed it and tossed it out into the rice paddy. I was dragged out of track, or carried, because I remember someone putting their hand into the wound on my left leg as they picked me up, then freaking out and almost dropping me. When they laid me down, I felt like I was on fire; and they started pouring water on me -- I suppose treating me for shock. I remember looking up and seeing all of these guys staring at me, and I said something to the affect that there was no reason for them to look so gloomy as I was going home alive.
My whole body felt like it was on fire; and as they were pouring water over me, somebody else was taking my joints out of my pocket so that I wouldn't get busted at the hospital. I guess I pretty much went into shock, and the medic said to go ahead and scream and let it all out. So I did, and I think I kept screaming until the chopper set down back in our base camp. This is not a proud memory, and I wonder if it helped or not. I think that I was probably screaming more out of anger then pain, cause I don't remember the pain as being that bad at first, probably because of the shock.
In the rear, the Army has a field hospital set up to care for the wounded who need immediate care; and this is where they took me. I was put on a gurney or something, and the medical staff went to work. Somewhere in there, I remember asking the Doc if he could save my leg; and he said that he would do his best. Then I saw my leg and my boot go flying through the air into this big 55 gallon drum. I was in so much pain that I don't even think that it bothered me; I just wanted the pain to stop.
I was flown to Quin Non where there was a much larger hospital and, of course, underwent immediate surgery. Thus started my ride into the world of pain and "real" drugs. I remember waking up in a recovery room in this clean, white world, while this unbelievable pain weaved its way from my leg up to my brain. I never would've guessed or even believed that a person could feel pain like this and still stay conscious. I was pretty doped up so these memories of what it was like at first are fuzzy, but the memory of that pain is very clear to this day.
Between the pain and feeling the loss of my partner, which I now had time to dwell on, I was really miserable. Not a minute went by that I didn't think of Bill and wished that somehow we could have died together. I missed him more than my leg and longed to be with him in Valhalla or whereever the good Lord had sent him.
I believe that I stayed at this hospital for about two weeks, and then was sent to Yokohama, Japan. This was when I found out what happened to all of those guys that I saw lose limbs. We were put on an amputee ward, where there were all sorts of wounds -- literally any kind of wound that you could imagine. There were guys with arms and legs missing ... with all of their arms and legs missing, I mean, as well as guys who were in body casts and just about anything that could be imagined. If you want to learn about courage, try visiting an amputee ward during a war.
This is where they sent us to see if we were going to heal enough to go home or have to be sent to a permanent ward or were just going to give up and die. There was a guy in the bed across the room from me who did just that. He had the same wounds that I had, right down to the wounds in my left leg. I remember the nurses telling us that if we didn't help him, he was going to will himself to death. Some of us tried, but it was no use. He wanted to die, and he did. One day he just wasn't there any more; and when I asked what happened to him, the nurse informed me that he willed himself to death. I didn't know that a person could do this; but, as I found out later, this was all too common with guys who had lost limbs and couldn't face the thought of going home a cripple.
At first, it was really hard in this place. I hurt so much that I began to think that I would be better off dead. It wasn't just the physical pain I was feeling but also the mental anguish of having lost my best friend. Plus, I really wasn't done killing yet. I felt like I still owed the enemy for taking my partner away from me. Night after night I would lay there and cry because I wouldn't or couldn't cry in the daytime where somebody might see me.
It was truly the saddest and the most lonely time of my life. Thoughts of Bill filled my head; and it didn't seem like there was any way to escape them, except for the drugs they gave me for pain and the pain itself. Sometimes, to keep from crying when people could see me, I'd grab my stump and squeeze until the pain would overwhelm me; but it was better than being embarrassed in front of all of those other guys. This changed over time, but these were my feelings at first.
It seemed like I would just start to get used to the pain, and then I would have to have another operation; and the pain would start all over again. Then one day they brought in a guy who had been hit in the shoulder by an RPG round meant for a tracked vehicle, much the same as I. He was all trussed up in a body cast and in traction to boot. They put him in the bed right beside me. He couldn't move much and neither could I, as I was lying on my belly; and the hole in the back of my left leg had a skin graft from my butt over it, with a stick taped horizontally across to keep me from rolling over on it.
Every morning they would come in and change the dressings, which would dry up and stick to my wounds in the night. Then the old ones were peeled off and new ones applied. It felt like they were ripping the skin off and starting all over every time they did this, and soon I felt like crying every time I would see them coming. But I didn't because men didn't cry at this time in my life. Actually, they don't now, either.
Anyway, I couldn't move right nor left; and to top it off, my right leg, or the stump, had some kind of strings or whatever attached to the skin on the end, which were attached to a weight, whose purpose was to stretch the skin enough to sew it completely around the stump. And, I would get these spasms in my stump as if my brain was determined to make sure that I didn't forget that my leg had been blown off. I don't have the words to describe these spasms, as I don't think it exists in the English language. The nearest I could come is to say is that this was pure, unadulterated pain in its rawest form.
So, they put this guy in the bed next to me who had to undergo very much the same thing as I did, right down to the skin grafts. His left arm was in a cast and elevated above his head to give the bones a chance to heal properly. Well, this was a pretty big guy and was he ever full of war stories; but the best part was when they came to give this guy a shot. He was really afraid of needles and would do anything to keep from having to take a shot.
When all of us on the ward, who were getting several shots a day, heard this, it put this poor guy's life in jeopardy. Or maybe I should say his mental stability. He was constantly harassed; and every time anybody saw the "meds" coming, they would let the rest of us know so we could be ready to let him have it. The meds would come out on a tray, and anybody who was having a hard time with pain would be relieved to know that help was on the way. Except this guy.
Someplace I found a feather big enough to reach his armpit, which just so happened to be his left one, the one that the cast was on. In my need to show how cruel that I could be, I would tickle this poor guy until he'd cry or pee in his bed. Sometimes I'd wait until he fell asleep or just started nodding off, then I'd give it to him. Of course, everybody on the ward would crack up; but nobody was exempt from our cruel and unusual jokes on the amputee ward.
It seemed like every one of us had his own little hell to live with, and mine was Bill. Over and over in my mind I would think "What if?" and even though I knew there was nothing I could have done different, somehow it became my fault that Bill had died. I only knew that we should have died together, fighting the enemy to the last. Now I was truly alone, left to face this world as a cripple all by myself. I missed his easy smile, his ability to make me laugh; and I felt so very, very guilty that I had ignored his last request, which would have been so easy to do. All I had to do was take those papers and then give them back to him after our mission for the day. At least then I could have honored my fallen friend and presented his folks with his last letters.
So Bill became my focus of attention for a long, long time. To this day, I've never bothered to get in touch with his family. I tried once, but it was his brother that I managed to reach; and his attitude was nothing but negative, and I've never tried since. When I told him that I was with his brother in Vietnam, he said something like 'So what?' Anyway, he embarrassed me, so I never bothered to get in touch with him again.
Being on the amputee ward was one wild experience because nobody really gave a damn what kind of threats the Army people threw at us; and, in fact, most of the people crazy enough to threaten any of us pretty much stayed clear of our ward.
When I first arrived there, the nursing was pretty bad. Most of us were bedridden and had to rely on the male and female nurses to help us with baths, bedpans, and stuff like that.
In the daytime, they had these male nurses working; and they really hated emptying bedpans. A guy would have to wait forever to get one emptied. Finally one day, several of us rebelled at this lousy service and threw our full bedpans down the aisle. It sure got the results that we wanted, as a full bird Colonel came up to our ward and listened to our complaints. One of the male nurses was busted for leaving the ward and going out to smoke a doobie, and several others were given stern warnings.
This resulted in a couple of the other male nurses threatening to exact some vengeance on the patients who were causing trouble. Dumb thing to do. Practically everyone on the ward had lost friends and were grieving at night like I was. All of us had been in combat just recently, and we were not about to be threatened by no rear echelon mother fucker.
It wasn't long before they found one of these dudes who had made some threats hanging in the stairwell. I never heard if they figured out who did it, but things really changed after that. Some new male nurses showed up, and they turned out to be pretty good guys. We were soon having wheel chair races where anything went. We would race down the stairwells in our chairs, and whoever made it with the least amount of blood flowing was the winner. Those were some crazy times as well as some very lonely times at night.
After about three months in Japan, I was sent to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, to the military hospital there. Most of the really serious pain had subsided by now, but I was still using those pain pills like I was on my deathbed. It seemed like there was some new shrapnel coming out of my body every day. Being in a military hospital had its drawbacks, as we couldn't sue the doctors no matter how bad they were or what mistakes they made.
I had a so-called doctor cut some shrapnel out of me without using anything for pain what-so-ever, using the excuse that I should be used to pain by now. This almost cost me some grief as I picked up the scalpel he'd been using and was about to give him a demonstration in pain when some of the guys on the ward jumped in and stopped me. Of course, I was reprimanded by an officer later; but, when I told him what had occurred and that I would follow through on my threat the next time I confronted that man, he was transferred out of our ward.
I found that I was very violent about the least little thing; and although I must have known it was wrong, I seemed incapable of doing anything about it. There were still guys dying all around me and on the different wards, and it seemed like we were constantly hearing about someone we knew who didn't make it.
After I'd been at Valley Forge for awhile, my dad and stepmother came down from Michigan to see me. It was a very, very sad time. They took me out on a one-day pass, and we went to the Civil War battlefields. I remember my dad and I just sitting there and staring out across these vast fields, where so long ago so many had given their lives. We didn't talk much, my dad and I. There really wasn't much to talk about.
I was quite bitter that the world was just going on as if nothing was wrong, while across the oceans their sons were being killed and maimed. So they went back home; and I stayed at the hospital, filled with this bitterness that was slowly becoming my personality.
A lot of strange things happened while I was in this hospital. One day, a guy who had been in one of the outfits that I'd worked with, came up to me on the ward and told me I just had to go with him. So I did, and we picked up another guy we knew and had fought with us at one time or another. The first guy led us to this ward where a dude I knew well lay in this bed with no arms or legs. When he saw us coming, he started crying and asked us not to look at him. Not long after I got hit, his small recon platoon had been ambushed; and grenade after grenade had landed near him. When it was all over, this was the way he woke up.
It seemed his folks were coming to see him, and he just couldn't stand the thought of it; so he wanted us to help him commit suicide. Well, none of us knew what to say; but then he asked us how we would feel if we were in his place. For the next three days, we saved up our meds; and then, on the third night, we went to him and had all of this stuff cooked up and in a syringe.
We all stood around him and asked him to say hello to our friends who had gone before us; and, as the tears ran down our faces, one of us injected the meds into his IV; and he went to sleep. It was one of the saddest times in my life and made me want to just get high and stay that way.
We waited and waited for an investigation to start, but it never happened. I guess some of those doctors and nurses had some compassion, too.
When my mother found out that I'd been wounded, she had a nervous breakdown and was never the same. My father (they were divorced) had a stroke and almost died. I felt like I had destroyed my folks and felt like my brothers felt the same way -- that is, like it was my fault. I know now that they didn't know quite what to think; but at the time, I was real conscious of my wounds and found it easy to blame myself for anything.
So I came home and found out about my mother and my dad and heard about some of the other guys from our town that went to the "Nam," and I realized that something had happened to me as there seemed to be a hole where my heart should've been. I couldn't seem to feel much for anything or anybody. I've often wondered how my wife and I managed to get married, but I know now that I wanted so much to be normal that I must've lied and lied to her and myself and anybody else that I deemed it necessary to lie to. When I found some of my old friends, they were doing drugs; and, since I just didn't give a damn, I started doing drugs, too.
My friends seemed to enjoy them more then I did, as there seemed to be a mean streak in me that required the use of alcohol with the drugs to keep me from going over the deep end. I didn't care about much of anything; and I began to live my life that way, taking more than was my share of everything that I could.
I couldn't help but blame myself for not taking Bill's stuff the day he died, and now there was no way to make it up to him. It seemed like my whole life was absorbed in his death, if that makes any sense. I was carrying around a lot of guilt and self-pity in those days; and I seemed to always be on the edge of a precipice, ready to jump at the slightest excuse. So, to be able to live with myself, I buried my life in a world of drugs.
Oh, the memories! Sometimes they seem to ooze out like blood from a wound, and other times they're like pulling wisdom teeth. This is a very hard thing to write about as it requires me to think and to remember stuff that I'd just as soon forget. Right now I'm getting depressed, and that means it's time to put this away for now.
After awhile, my choice of friends kind of dried up; and even some of the other guys that I knew and had been to the "Nam" refused to hang around me. I probably represented everything that they wanted to forget. I started carrying a gun every place that I went and was poking whatever I could find in my veins -- smack, coke or a combination of those. I missed my partner more then anything; but, as he was dead, I tried and tried to forget him. I went through a hell that I wouldn't want my worst enemy to have to go through. Why couldn't I have been allowed to die with him, fighting side by side as soldiers the world over had died in the past? Why was I left to make my way alone in this world?
I couldn't talk to my wife about it because she would give me that age-old answer of "I'm here for you, just talk to me." Didn't she understand that I couldn't talk to anybody? Only the dead could understand me now. So I found myself talking to the dead at night in my bed. I felt myself losing it, passing over into another world that I didn't understand. By this time we had moved out west, where we live now. I made a decision to try to get some help, a decision that saved my life.I found that I wasn't crazy; but if I kept drinking and drugging, I could certainly get there fast enough. From the time that I came home from the "Nam" until a mere two years ago, I did drugs, drank like there was no tomorrow, and generally raised hell in a fog-shrouded world of self-pity and confusion. I thought I was being tough and independent, but in reality I let my wife take over the bills and the household chores that most guys do themselves. It wasn't my leg that was handicapping me, it was the booze and drugs. They controlled my thoughts, my actions, and my life. Oh, there were times that I was "OK" and somehow managed to make things work for me; but mostly, my time was consumed by the drunkeness that had become my world. Today is different than those days, in that I did one of the bravest things that make up my life. I checked myself into a place called "Aspen Mental Health Clinic," as there was no way I was going to trust the VA to take care of me. They managed to show me how I'd become a drug addict and alcoholic and couldn't possibly fight this PTSD until I cleaned up my life. They were right. They convinced me that I should go to "AA," and that act saved my life. Now, after a full two years of being clean, I'm truly "free at last." Or am I? The dead still come to talk to me when I least expect it, and I still miss my partner more then ever. I don't guess that I will ever be the sane man that I've always wished I could be, and thoughts of suicide still cross my mind when things get really heavy; but I think with God's help I may live to die a natural death. I sure wish that Bill could be here with me, though.