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Sunday, May 05, 2013
A Veteran's Story I : Jerry Augustine
In honor of Memorial Day at the end of the month, the Insider Staff is putting out the call for veterans and those with military background to submit essay's. We put out the call in a previously published article with some ideas and plans for this project. http://www.middletowninsider.
com/2013/05/wanted-guest- blogs-from-veterans.html. Submissions can be sent to email@example.com
We are honored to publish a submission from resident veteran Jerry Augustine. Thank you for your sacrifice Mr. Augustine.
This is my story of service. I hope this is of some help. My dad was an orphan at 11 years old, born in Middletown and grew up in an area known as Duck Hollow. It was a predominately Polish neighborhood where Personal Auto Care, Connecticut Rental and the YMCA parking lot is today.
I was born at Middlesex Hospital, grew up on Ridge Rd. Am still living on Ridge Rd. I have many stories told to me by my dad about growing up in Middletown. He also worked on the Portland bridge in 1937-1938.
MY TOUR OF DUTY
by Jerry “AUGIE” Augustine
It was during my first few weeks of my one year tour. One particular night I will never forget. We left base camp and proceeded by compass to a predetermined ambush site. It was to be about a half mile from base camp. In most cases we would stay off trails and roads. It was a little past dusk and Sgt. Figueroa was leading this patrol. We all looked up to him as he was experienced and did everything right to protect our asses and always had the thought in his mind to bring us back alive. We trusted him. It was dark that night and I remember Sgt. Fig stating that we should travel through the back yards of the “hootches,” ( Vietnamese living quarters), in order to stay off of the well used routes. We did not want to fall into an enemies ambush. It was hot and humid as usual so wiping sweat and slapping mosquitoes was the norm . We would hear a cluck or two from the dodging chickens and an occasional groan from a water buffalo. The thick grass was nearly a half foot high and the palms and shrubbery native to the area was scattered thinly throughout the yards. To the rear of the yards laid thicker shrubbery as it was up against the edge of a wood line. No signs of a resident anywhere as there was a strict curfew in affect so no one was to be out and about after dark. I guarantee that they knew we were there. After about twenty minutes of navigating through the difficult terrain of the back yards, the earth came out from under me. I fell right down into a back yard well. I threw my rifle to the side to protect it and I began flailing my arms.
Luckily Sgt. Fig was close to me and he reached down with his rifle butt to pull me up. I was under water and reached up to feel the rifle stock. As he pulled me up he grabbed the harness to my web gear and was able to extricate me. After the shock wore off and some muffled laughter we were on our way to set up. Needless to say I was very uncomfortable all night being soaking wet and full of bugs and such. I performed my duty “well” and stayed awake all night and the best occurrence all night, no VC crossed our path.
Becoming a Soldier
I was nineteen years old at the time in the summer of 1965. Really not knowing where my life was going , I received my draft notice and was a little overwhelmed. I was a student at the University of Connecticut, Hartford branch.The classrooms were so overcrowded, there was standing room only. This was due to the Vietnam conflict going on. I didn`t question the notice, I thought it was my duty.
On Oct.5, 1965 I boarded a bus at the Middletown, CT post office and was on my way to New Haven, CT, then on to Fort Dix NJ for my indoctrination into the U.S. Army. Where I was headed to next was anyones guess. At Fort Dix our heads were shaved, medical and intelligence tests were performed. After two weeks some of us were bussed to Fort Devens, MA just outside of Lowell, to begin basic training with the newly formed 196th Light Infantry Brigade.
The 196th was to be a unit deployed to Vietnam after completing basic training, advanced infantry training, and advanced unit training. We did not know where we were headed all through our training regime. After completing basic training the entire 196th headed to Camp Drum, NY in April of 1966 for A.I.T. or advanced infantry training. After completing A.I.T. The entire 196th with its support groups headed to Camp Edwards Air Force Base at Cape Cod for advanced unit training in May and June of `66.
While back at Fort Devens after all the training our complete brigade was called to formation one evening. The announcement was made that we were to be deployed to Vietnam. A solemness came over everyone. A couple of mornings later word got around that a soldier had hung himself in one of the abandoned barracks.
Within the next few days it was announced that there would be a company sized guard duty formation. A company consisted of four platoons labeled 1st through 4th. Each platoon had four squads of about a dozen men each. On this day there were over two hundred men to be inspected. A challenge was made that if a soldier earned the position of colonels orderly, he would fly to Vietnam with the advanced party, a three day trip. The brigade would sail to Vietnam from Boston, Ma, on through the Panama canal, then to California and onto Vietnam. Two ships were to be used, one of them the Alexander Patch. It was to be a thirty plus days voyage. No one wanted to sail on either of these two scows. They would travel through the Caribbean, the Panama Canal, and up the west coast of South America. The heat and humidity would become unbearable. With the hundreds of troops on board and in close quarters, any illnesses could be passed on to one another quite easily.
I became determined to win the position of colonels orderly so I studied and worked on my gear profusely. I did not want to spend a month on a troop ship laden with horror stories of heat and sea sicknesses.
It is quite comical now to think back to what I did to achieve colonels orderly. Every chance I got I would study the general orders, chain of command, and the weapons manuals as well as general soldiering. You never knew what questions would be asked of you so you had to memorize everything. Your weapon and appearance had to be spotless.
I studied on and on and when it came to my appearance I put my heart and sole in getting ready. I actually had a patent leather coating I smeared on my boots after I polished and “spit shined” them for it seamed like hours. I bought a can of Niagara spray starch for my uniform. I used up the entire can on my uniform and leaned my pants up against the wall. They actually stood up by themselves. To blouse the pants legs I used two #10 fruit cans with the top and bottom removed to put into the base of my pants legs. They formed a perfect circle around the top of my boots for a finishing touch. All the effort sure worked.
Low and behold I was fortunate to win the title and was awarded the flight over with the advanced party. I also received two Letters of Commendation. One was from the Battalion commander and the other was from the Brigade commander. Also as a bonus was the fact that I would receive three day passes in succession for the twenty eight day waiting period we had before our flight.
On one of my three day passes when I got to go home I found out some heart breaking news. My mother had been admitted to the Connecticut Valley Hospital with a nervous breakdown. I had a tough time easing her mind when I visited her there. I also had a very trying time accepting this for I knew it was because of my upcoming deployment. I was devastated.
We flew from Camp Edwards Air Force Base to Juneau, Alaska the first day. After a wonderful breakfast and a view of the snow capped mountains we were on our way to Yakota, Japan the second day for refueling. Then on to Tan Son Nhut air base arriving at night. It was located on the outskirts of Saigon the south Vietnam capitol. It was August 4, 1966, 6 days after my 21st birthday. I will never forget the heat as I disembarked from the plane, and it was in the later part of the evening.
We stayed in a warehouse type barracks set up with double bunks awaiting the flight in the morning to my assigned post.
I was instructed to board a Chinook helicopter and after a 60 mile flight north west I was dropped off on a muddy air strip in Tay Ninh Province. There was nothing there but a wet muddy strip in an open field with a tree line circumventing it. Also in the distance was a high mountain that looked out of place in this flat land. It was called Nui Ba Den, or “Black Virgin Mountain.” It was named after a dark young Cambodian girl who wandered up the mountain and was attacked and killed by a tiger as the story has been passed down over the years.
It was monsoon season. Every day at approximately 4 p.m. you could look up in the sky and watch the very dark clouds move toward your area and open up with torrential downpours. I was given a pup tent and was instructed to set up on the edge of the airstrip and where to walk to get my chow three times a day. I was also told that my unit wouldn`t be arriving for about three more days.
While I was waiting for my buddies to arrive the downpours were so fierce that I had a stream flowing under my cot. Helicopters, some gunships, C-130`s, and the larger Chinook copters were constantly landing and taking off day and night. The first day that I arrived there I looked up at a Huey copter and notice a dangling body hanging from a rope of some sort. I asked the closest soldier near me what was going on. He responded that the person hanging from the helicopter was a south Vietnamese soldier, an interpreter and suspected “spy”, that he would be dropped if he didn`t “talk”. Needless to say it frightened the hell out of me and I became sick to my stomach. I looked up to the sky and said to myself, “what am I doing here?” I vividly remember this to this day.
During basic training at Fort Devens, Mass. I lifted weights every chance I could. I did start training during my senior year in high school and the results I achieved I wanted to keep up.
The results paid off. At the hand grenade training day I was able to throw the grenade far beyond the limit of the range. One of our platoon leaders, Lt. Lawson stated that I would be throwing the javelin in the upcoming battalion track meet. That surprised me because I was never on any sports team in school. I was fortunate to win the javelin throw in the battalion meet with no form whatsoever. That accomplishment put me into the forthcoming post meet.
I was able to borrow someones track shoes during my event. They helped immensely. I wish I would`ve trained with them before the meets. The three winning throws were in a one foot triangle. My throw was awarded third place overall. Previously I had never thrown the javelin
so this achievement sparked an inner desire to excel in other ventures.
After basic training, a short break and some three day passes the entire brigade headed north west to Camp Drum, NY near the Canadian border in Watertown. It was in April of `66 where we would train for six weeks. The purpose was for A.I.T. or advanced infantry training. At Fort Devens spring had sprung and the weather was to everyones liking. During our basic training most of our duty was taking place in the freezing cold, blizzards and deep snow. We welcomed the spring weather with open arms. This was to change drastically when we arrived at Camp Drum. It was just like going back into the dead of winter. Most of the training there was cold and in very deep snow. The purpose of A.I.T. Was to coordinate the various units of the brigade.
They all had to mesh together to work as one. Headquarters, artillery, fire support, mortar platoons, canine units, infantry platoons and mechanized all had to work together like a fine watch. The strange thing that bothered us the most that we trained in a freezing cold climate and was never told we were going to vietnam. We were constantly told we were going to South America for “police action.” The reason we were told this was the fact that there would have been many recruits going “AWOL” (absent without leave). The Fort Devens Base was reopened just for the 196th to train at. I`m sure all the bases in the country were utilized the same way as this was the largest troop build-up since WWII.
While at Camp Drum I continued with the weight training. The daily training regime was different from basic training. It was almost like a normal job. After morning P.T. (physical training), and chow, we would either patrol out to the ranges or hop on a deuce and a half, ( two and a half ton truck), and ride out quite far to no man`s land. There we would practice general combat soldiering and set up defensive positions. In most cases we would head back to our barracks before dark. We would have the evenings to ourselves. There was a large gymnasium complex that wasn`t too far from my barracks. I would walk there each night with a couple buddies to lift weights. Being twenty years old
I was impressionable and believed what I read and most of what I was told. I happened to buy a fitness magazine and read an article on how to “bulk” up and gain strength in a short period of time. I followed the course diligently. I became very interested in fitness right from the beginning of my deployment. Whenever there was a time out from training, being in classrooms, marching, or in the field, to break the monotony the guys would relieve themselves by picking on one another. It was called “grab ass”. Of course the men of smaller or weaker stature would be picked upon the most. When all the guys were wrestling or running around seeking another opponent, some would run toward me haphazardly and then think twice and veer off in another direction. I would chuckle to myself but it instilled in me to keep the weight training up.
Back to the magazine that I purchased. The article stated that one could gain ten pounds of muscle and the strength would come along with it. You would do heavy squats with as much weight as you could handle. The same with bench presses and heavy arm curls with a straight bar. At night you would drink large volumes of milk, actually force feed it throughout the night.
The transformation in me was incredible. After dinner I would take 6-8 cartons and sip it through the night. I went from 190 lbs. To 214 lbs. while at Camp Drum. One night I walked into the dining hall after my nightly training session and my buddies laughed at me. My fatigues were shrinking so it seemed. My sleeves were half way up my arms. My shirt buttons were popping and my trousers were skin tight. Headquarters company wasn`t too thrilled about issuing me a whole new wardrobe.
One night when entering the dining hall, most guys were playing cards or just B. S. ing, a bunch of northern New York farm boys challenged me to arm wrestling. Stanley Buyea was the champ from his parts. Wouldn`t you know it, I cleaned house and was titled the arm wrestling champ of our company. It brought a lot of respect along with it.
During the training at Camp Drum there was a lot of individual, company, and platoon training as well as the training on the battalion level. Very many artillery, grenade, mortar and explosive simulator devises were employed there. The purpose was to give the troops the actual sense of combat. After our training there we were very happy to return to Fort Devens and back to the spring time weather. It was also closer to home for me, just 120 miles, and a three day pass was welcomed. I was also to be married on May 21st so planning had to be made and accommodations scheduled. Also it should be noted that every chance we got during the previous seven months of training when a pass was given out, every effort was made to find a way home even if it were for just a few hours. Sometimes as much as eight guys would pile into one car just to drive to Ohio and back on a weekend pass. It meant so much to see ones family. One time I borrowed a Chevy Corvair, a friends car, and drove to Middletown, CT from Camp Drum with three buddies. We were released Friday evening and had to return by curfew Sunday at midnight. Home sickness played a role all through our training.
Another training deployment took place a short time after our arrival back to Fort Devens in May.
The entire brigade traveled to Camp Edwards Air Force Base at Cape Cod for A.U.T., or advance unit training. That put the icing on the cake for the fine tuning of the unification of all the battalions and support groups. It comes to mind now, how gullible we were. All this training was for police action in South America?
Tay Ninh Base Camp
So it was Aug. 4, 1966 on the edge of the airstrip at Tay Ninh.
There was a forward reconnaissance party from the 25th Inf. Div. waiting for my unit to arrive. They were using the airstrip which they formed just by landing and taking off in an open clearing. The more they used it, the more it became a viable airstrip.
I was to wait for my buddies to arrive from their month long journey on the troop ships. During the previous nine months together we became very close. We were like brothers. It was a happy reunion that week when we began to build our base camp “hooch”. We immediately got into a scheduled pattern of rotating duties between the various companies, platoons, and squads. For the first month of our combat tour our main mission was to build the Tay Ninh base camp. It was to be on a huge tract of flat land just outside the city. During the day the weather was like a desert, hot, dry, and dusty. Our “home” tents went up pretty rapidly. They became a welcomed site when returning from extended combat missions. A wooden floor, bunk, and foot locker became a home away from home. The daily grind would consist of building perimeter bunkers. These were built by filling six thousand sandbags per bunker. They were stacked over a skeleton frame of eight by eight beams. They were built to repel small arms fire, R.P.G. rounds, mortars; and other explosive devices. We worked in the scorching hot sunshine well over 100 degrees. Many daily missions were also begun, search and destroy, recon patrols and such were the norm.
Many other duties had to be performed to make the base camp productive. Some of these were K.P. Or kitchen police, burning of the excrement, or stirring the waste and kerosene in 55 gallon drums cut in half horizontally. The latter was the most undesirable duty to be on. Also tending to ones gear on a daily basis was on everyones list. But the best times were had were spent in the base camp.
The most dreaded duty in Nam, I believe was going on an ambush patrol. Every day predetermined positions were established for a night ambush patrol to be set up. Suspected
enemy routes or known enemy activity would become the prime location for an ambush.
To this day I remember going on my first ambush patrol. I took place during my first week in base camp. Most ambushes I accompanied were squad sized, about ten to fifteen men. Some were two squad sized or even platoon sized. I averaged just under two ambushes a week or about seventy five during my tour.
A platoon was made up of four squads. Each squad consisted of approximately eleven men. It was usually lead by an e-5 buck sergeant. An RTO, (radio telephone operator), two grenadiers, a machine gun squad and riflemen made up the squad. The company was made up of four platoons and usually a mortar, (weapons), platoon. Each platoon had a platoon leader, usually a second lieutenant, and a platoon sergeant, usually a master sergeant. A Battalion was usually made up of four companies with the addition of a weapons company for fire support. The weapons usually consisted of Howitzers and/or heavy duty mortars. The Brigade usually consisted of 3 Battalions. Variations were often made in the previous sizes of the units.
We lined up at dusk, my platoon Sgt. Ronald S. Figueroa would take us out, a squad sized
ambush patrol. His R.T.O., (radio operator), my machine gun team, (m60), a couple grenadiers, (m40), and riflemen, (m16s), would make up the patrol. We each had a claymore mine that we would set up to the front of of each position about fifteen meters. I cannot describe the feeling I had in the pit of my stomach when I was standing there lined up getting ready to leave the base camp. It was the most sickening feeling I ever had I wondered if I would be coming back. I noticed that the other guys we all praying in their own way. We glanced at each other and noticed a look we have never seen before on each others faces. It was a form of horror. During my time in `Nam the feelings never changed.
The Million Dollar Wound
This happened during my first few weeks in Nam. We would leave our base camp in daylight and patrol the region around Tay Ninh Province. This was done on a rotating basis with other platoons and it would take the monotony out of filling sand bags and building bunkers around the camp perimeter. If the distance was further we would board helicopters to provide the element of surprise. This particular patrol brought us across a large rice paddy. I was to the right of my squad leader Sgt. Carvalho. We began to approach the edge of a tree line. All of a sudden out of a “spider hole” popped up a Viet Cong. “pop” went his carbine, a distinct sound that you could tell what weapon it was. Sarge doubled over as I hit the dirt. The V.C. disappeared. We brought the medic up and prepared Sgt. Carvalho`s poncho and placed it under him. I helped carry him to a med i-vac copter and his tour was over. We later found out that the round went through his canteen and into his hip and wasn`t life threatening. It sent him home. The term “million dollar wound” was heard throughout the camp the next few days. A million dollar wound meant that you got to go home alive and is worth a million dollars to you. Would you rather have a million dollars or your life? The V.C. That caused the turmoil escaped through the rear of the spider hole as they were built with a tunnel rear exit outlet. They used this form of combat often.
Claymore Mine Safety
While spending time in base camp the first month bad news traveled fast. A soldier in “A” company, not too far from our “B” company, was demonstrating the use of a claymore mine to a new recruit. He was showing him the proper use for an upcoming ambush patrol. While showing him how to arm the device he placed the detonator on his cot. He proceeded to install the blasting cap into the orifice. Someone picked up the detonator and squeezed it setting off the mine. A soldier walking by the tent was killed. The recruit standing in the isle lost both legs to his knees and landed on his stumps and rolled over.
Word was passed that detonators would only be placed in claymores at the ambush sites.
It happened during the first few months of in-country. We were getting used to the routine of climbing on choppers every few days and using the element of surprise when contacting the enemy. This particular mission was to be about two to three weeks in length. The reason we knew was as we were dropped at our LZ we began to set up a base camp. It was a battalion sized operation. When we exited the choppers we immediately secured a perimeter. This was S.O.P.,(standard operating procedure). I knew we would be there for a while as I noticed a lot of colored smoke canisters going off in the LZ. These indicated positions for supplies being dropped by parachutes. We were instructed to set up defensive positions and that we would be there for some time. We were also supplied with sandbags to fill.
While we were setting up our positions we heard the engineers blasting the remaining trees in the LZ with C4 blasting putty. C4 was like a soft clay. It was amazing. All you had to do was shape it where you wanted to blast, stick in a blasting cap, form the putty around it nice and tight, and wire it to a claymore mine actuating device, for an electrical charge. You would then get back far out of the way and detonate the detonator and Kaboom! The engineers would just place a ring around the base of a tree and one blast took it away. When it came to chowing down our “C” rations we would use a pinch of C4 under a can of beans or other main dish, light the marble sized C4, and watch it burn like gunpowder and heat up our meal instantly. We all carried a pound in our “ditty” bags.
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The secured area was about the size of 3-4 football fields. There was enough room for about six to eight choppers to land or take off in succession. The heat and humidity was almost unbearable~even for the choppers. Word got around through the grapevine, that some officers were parachuting into this LZ so they could earn their “wings,”jump wing badges for parachuting during wartime. They were jumping out of cargo planes. This all backfired on them as some broke their legs as the altitude just wasn`t enough to open their chutes properly. Hate to say it but it was an ongoing joke between the troops for a while.
Another thing that happened at this LZ with the choppers was the effect the heat and humidity had on them. The choppers were lined up one day to begin a search and destroy mission. We would usually load 8-10 troops with gear, a squad size, on each “Huey,” (UH-1 Helicopter). It happened to be just past noon, probably the hottest part of the day. I didn`t see it but we heard that the choppers had a tough time clearing the tree tops adjacent to our base camp. On one particular mission one chopper had a tough time gaining altitude and hooked its landing frame on some tree limbs and somersaulted over. Some of the troops had injuries, broken legs, arms, and such. From then on the chopper crews told us to lessen the loads accordingly. The weight was a factor along with the heat and humidity so the chopper engines required this relief. While all this action was taking place during setting up of this temporary base camp our positions were just about ready by the end of the day. We built a wall of sandbags about four feet tall and twelve feet long in the front of our position. It was enough to protect us substantially from incoming fire, mortars and such from outside the perimeter. We were positioned in three man teams so through the night one soldier would be on watch and rotate his time with the other two. One hour on, two hours, hopefully, of sleep.
Our claymore mines were places about fifteen meters to the front of our position in the afternoon. On the first night my watch included midnight to one a.m. While my buddies were getting their much needed Z`s, I was leaning my head, with steel pot attached, up against an eight inch diameter tree. I was sitting up on the sandbag wall. It was dead silent as I was looking out into pitch black darkness. We had to keep blinking not only to stay awake but to erase the false images that you began to think were real. I was just checking my wristwatch and was just about ready to wake up the next watchman. It was one o`clock. I was still leaning against the tree when all of a sudden I was thrown off, blasted back onto the ground with an amazing force. The whole sky lit up in front of our position. Flares from our base camp began to light up the sky. We didn`t know what happened or what it was. As things settled down and we knew it wasn`t caused by the enemy we settled back into the night routine. A warrant officer came to out position within fifteen minutes of the explosion. I explained to him that I was thrown off my roost next to the tree. Using his flashlight he then checked around our position and the front of the tree. He dug out a steel piece of shrapnel that weighed about a pound right next to where my head was resting. It took him all of ten minutes to dig the fragment out. He also explained to us that a soldier from another platoon who was sitting on top of his bunker roof got a piece of the same round lodged in his butt. He was med i -vaced out immediately to a hospital. His position was about three hundred meters behind ours on the other side of the base camp.
The following morning two warrant officers came by to check the tree again and the front of our position. They informed us that the “explosion” was “friendly fire”. It was a 155 Howitzer round fired from Cu-Chi Vietnam, twenty five miles away at a major artillery base, (headquarters of the 25th Inf. Div. It was meant to hit our area as Vietcong were suspected to be in this area. This was common practice. Evidently they didn`t realize we were operating out of this area at that time. Gladly we didn`t hear from them again during our stay.
The round happened to hit a large tree 50-100 meters to our front. We began to think where would it have landed if it didn`t hit that tree!
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Base Camp Completed
When the base camp was completed we began to participate more in search and destroy missions in and around Tay Ninh Province known as war zone “C”. We were located sixty miles northwest of Saigon right near the Cambodian border. Our main mission was to defray the infiltration from the Ho Chi Minh trail which ran along the Cambodian border from the north. Operations in the Boi Loi Woods and the Iron Triangle were prevalent.
At the beginning we were involved in Operation Attleboro. We were working along with the 25th Infantry Division who were fighting the 272nd V.C. Regiment. In five days of fighting 758 dead VC were actual body count statistics. There were many more dragged off by their compatriots. Amongst the recovered goods from the enemy 1000 tons of rice was hauled out by the 196th and distributed to the south Vietnamese populace. We came upon caches of rice on stacks of hand built pallets about six inches above ground to protect it from the elements. Many of the 100 lb. sacks had CARE stamped on them which baffled the heck out of us. Where did the rice originate? We proceeded to place all the rice on the heavy duty Chinook copters. You have to remember most of the fighting took place in the jungle where the VC could easily hide and couldn`t be spotted from the air. If they happened to be in the villages they were routed from them. If there was ever a major battle in an open field it was likely provoked by an attacking VC regiment or group. That occurrence was very rare.
After Attleboro the 196th became very involved in Operation Junction City, the largest operational thrust of the entire war. This operation utilized 22 battalions as the attacking force. This huge force was supported by 17 artillery battalions and over 4000 Air Force sorties. An aerial armada consisting of 249 helicopters were flown in this assault. This number remains today as the largest U. S. Army accrued assault ever undertaken, never again duplicated during this conflict or any future American assault in any war.
The 196th was also utilized in in operation Cedar Falls and Gadsden during `66 and `67. We were also deployed in and around Dau Tieng, the Michelin rubber plantation and the headquarters of the 3rd Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division.
A mission that comes to mind was when our company was to relieve units of the 25th Infantry Division. It was during Operation Attelboro just after a major battle they had on the Ho Chi Minh trail. For three days the dead American G.I.s were unable to be extricated from the battle zone. My platoon had the duty of carrying out the thirty plus bodies to the choppers to be put into body bags and sent back to the friendly lines. I`ve never seen such a horrible site in my life.
The bodies were stiff like plastic manic-ans. I was horrified when I saw a majors body with a hole through his head where his eye was supposed to be.
That night we set up in the same positions where the battle took place. There were so many of us that most of us had to dig our own fox holes. It was one of the worst nights I had in Nam. First of all no one should ever witness a fresh battle seen. Most of the trees were blown away 2-6 feet above ground. There were holes of all sizes in the ground everywhere around us. Flies were buzzing throughout. There were dead carcasses of deer and other animals familiar with Vietnam. The worst thing of all was the blood everywhere and the horrific stench of the smell of death. It is the most grotesque smell of rot especially that they laid there in the heat for three days. Guys in my unit were puking as they were digging in and setting up their defensive positions. It was no place to be. We set up in two or three man positions not knowing what was to come during the night. The sickening feeling was overwhelming. Field of fire orders were given to everyone. Some were to fire ground level, others were to fire at standing height, and the rest into the trees-what was left of them. We rotated sleeping times that there was always one awake per position throughout the night, if one could sleep at all.
Deep into the night all hell broke loose. It became brighter than daylight with the use of parachute flares by our support teams. We opened up with our weapons as instructed. We repelled the enemy and were fortunate at this time to have no casualties on our side. We were so very pleased to leave this area in one piece.
Being new soldiers in Nam wasn`t easy. We would look up to the “short timers”, (guys with little time left in their tour), and constantly ask for advice and listen attentively to their war stories.
We heard from them that if you survived the first thirty days of your tour you would have a good chance of making it home. We also learned from them to always lay low, hug the ground, and keep your steel pot on. Lt. R. Brockman didn`t bide by this advice. He was a replacement Lt. assigned as a new leader to our platoon. His first week in country he made the extreme sacrifice.
During a patrol he stood up tall and a sniper round found its mark and killed him. This proved the point of what we had been told. From then on many of us abided by the rules more closely.
Another close encounter to a body bag that I should mention was when we were attacking a suspected VC stronghold on the crest of a small hill. My platoon was in a line formation in what was called a sweeping motion. We charged at the village and I disappeared from site. I went down a small hole dug into the ground that was covered with branches and growth. It has been referred to as a “pungi pit”. Pungi pits were used extensively throughout the Vietnam war. Even before the occupation of American forces they were used. I believe the idea came from the trapping of animals. The human trap is dug into the ground about 6-8 ft. deep Bamboo stakes were stuck into the ground vertically and sharpened into a fine point. At times human excrement was placed on the bamboo tips to cause infection to the victims. To camouflage the pit the opening was covered with small tree branches and growing grass of the surrounding landscape. We were issued jungle boots with steel plates in their soles to prevent the stakes from going into our feet. Luckily for me this pit had been there for quite a while. The vertical sharpened bamboo sticks were rotted. When my body landed on them they just collapsed under me. Fate was on my side, as I crawled out of that hole pretty shaken up. I got my senses together and continued on the mission.
Dealing With the Locals
Being out in the “boonies” for days on missions would become a common occurrence. Searching for “Charlie” was the priority of course. Some days when we checked out villages and interrogated the locals I would try to make friends. Especially the children. I got to be pretty good at speaking common Vietnamese phrases. I carried a Vietnamese to English booklet with me and studied it every chance I could. Upon entering a village or just running into the populace I would immediately draw the people to me when I spoke a catchy phrase. I became a conversation piece to them as they thought I spoke their language fluently. I continued to study and learn more phrases. At different times we would enter a village and I would call out a phrase and some villagers would bring me an ice water or cold soda. It was fun as the other soldiers were wondering what I was saying to be rewarded this special treatment. At times I was even brought up to the front command to help out with the interrogation processes. The most fun I got out of it was with the local children. One day on a break I was swimming with a group of young Vietnamese children under a bridge. Being very strong at the time I was able to “shot put” them into the air like a catapult. They absolutely loved the adventure. This along with the catchy phrases made me a hero to them. I have some great photos of that happy time. Unfortunately
it was short lived and we had to move on.
On one particular day I stayed in the water too long and as I came out I discovered about 25 leeches all over my body. Their heads were already under my skin. They were even dug into my scrotum. My squad leader, Sgt. “Moke,” (Mokalahua), our Hawaiian Sgt. used a burning cigarette tip and some insect repellant too coax them out. You were not supposed to pull them off. If you did their heads would break off and infections would most likely occur.
Another creature we weren`t fond of was the fire ants which were just about everywhere. One day while taking a break for lunch on a patrol I happened to sit next to a tree. I didn`t notice the red fire ants and I abruptly shot up screaming in pain. It felt like a hypodermic needles sticking me. We were also warned about banded viper snakes. These were snakes about a foot or two long with alternate one inch bands of white and brown. They were so deadly that we were told if you get bitten you would only get to walk three steps until you would die. I did get to see some vipers that some soldiers killed and was happy never to confront any live ones.
The bright side of every day was, in most cases, mail call. A letter or package from home was always a spark to keep moral high and bring a feeing of hope and caring. Every once in a while there was news from home that everyone would dread. It would change the nature of the soldier, his performance and sadly would affect his fellow comrades. One such letter affected yours truly. It came from my mom in November `66 while my wife and son were staying at my parents house while I would be completing my tour. In the letter was the news that every soldier dreaded. My best friend was seeing my wife. I became totally humiliated, angry and saddened. It changed my outlook of my purpose of soldiering. I wanted out of this whole mess. I wanted to go home.
I was offered the opportunity to go to go to O.C.S. (officers candidate school), by headquarters company as word got around that there was a shortage of officers in the military. Along with this you would have to serve an additional two more years of active duty. With all that was going on now I just wanted to complete my eight months remaining so I refused the offer.
At times we had to become counselors to our buddies when they received a disheartening letter from home. Once in a while while cleaning our weapons or settling down at our night positions some of the counseling took place. There was always talk of the easy way home. Mostly it was to shoot ones trigger finger off by “accident”. I saw many of my buddies point a 45 cal. pistol at their fingers or at their toes. We would talk each other out of it.
During the last week of October `66 I was called out of my hootch at the main base camp the company executive officer. He notified me with a letter from the Red Cross that I had become a father of a boy on October 26th. Deep feelings came over me. I was elated and confused all at once. Would I ever get to see my son? When I got word from my wife that she suggested Gerald for his first name, I thought to myself, “is that a premonition”?
The first week of December `66 I was part of a platoon sized patrol, a search and destroy mission not far from our base camp. I don`t know where it came from but I was surprised by a flying tree branch. It hit me in the face injuring mostly my left eye socket. I was treated on the spot and sent back to base camp. Back at base camp I was treated again and was found that I needed more care. Preparations were made for me to be choppered to Tan San Nhut air base in Saigon. In Saigon I was to be treated by a South Vietnamese female surgeon who was about 82 years old, a specialist. It was important that I was to wear civilian clothes. This was a precautionary measure so I wouldn`t be noticed as a soldier and an easy target. No one knew how many North Vietnamese perpetrators were in and around downtown Saigon at the time. I was fixed with a black eye patch. The trip to Saigon was quite an experience. All I had with me was my paperwork, an address of the surgeons office and fortunately my old Brownie Hawkeye camera. That crude camera proved to be worth its weight in gold for I have the most wonderful photo collection of my time spent in Vietnam.
I ate at the officers mess hall in downtown Saigon. There were MP , (military police), bunkers in front of many downtown buildings including where I stayed. 'I was shocked at the accommodations while eating my first meal at the officers mess hall. The provisions were better than I had experienced in all my military life thus far. The hall was air conditioned and there were young Vietnamese waitresses prevalent. One seventeen year old waitress caught my eye. Her name was Lin. She seemed to be overly friendly toward me and I was overwhelmed. Of course I had been spending weeks in the jungle so maybe it was my mind playing tricks on me. I went to my appointment that morning not too far from downtown. When I was treated by the Vietnamese surgeon I was told that time would be the only care she would recommend. She applied lubricant and medication to my eye socket and instructed me to wear the eye patch until my eye healed. I left the office and walked back to the mess hall for lunch. On the way I took some great photos of civilian life in the capitol of South Vietnam. I was to stay overnight at a downtown hotel which was used by the American government. I would then shuttle my way back to my unit.
Back at the mess hall I noticed that Lin was still working. I got her attention when I remarked ,”Co dep wah”., which meant hello to a pretty girl. It surprised her that I spoke in Vietnamese so I tried my best speaking with her further. I just spoke in the phrases that I knew. I guess I did fairly well because she requested that I join her for a movie that evening. I accepted and met her in front of the mess hall after dinner that night. I thought to myself that this would be a good opportunity to learn more about this countries culture.
We entered the movie theater and I was suddenly taken aback. Here I was a tall, white, American, civilian clothed with a patch on his eye. I was accompanying an attractive young Vietnamese girl. All eyes in the theater seemed to focus on us. Things settled down after we seated ourselves and the film began to project.
The theater was full and my blushing slowly subsided. It was very difficult to absorb the entertainment qualities of the film. The speech was in French, and half the projection on the screen was filled with captions. Vietnamese, Chinese, English, and another language that I was not familiar with covered most of the film. I was so glad I attended the movie, it was a great learning experience.
I told Lin in the best dialog I could muster that I would be going back to my unit at Tay Ninh in the morning. I would see her for the last time at breakfast. We exchanged addresses and I received one letter from her a few days later. I never heard from her after that.
I hopped on a shuttle after breakfast. It took me to the Tan Son Nhut air base to a daily chopper run to the Tay Ninh air strip. After experiencing the lifestyle of downtown Saigon I felt sadness for what my buddies were going through in the field. I had a need that came over me that I had to join them as soon as I was able. I arrived late morning back at my platoon. It was too quiet, something wasn`t right. I was told that on the previous ambush patrol that two of my dear friends were killed and two others badly wounded. The sadness in camp didn`t go away for days and it still lingers in my thoughts. Whenever I visit the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C. I place my hand over Dec. 12, 1966 and the names of Anthony Schiavolino and James Van Cedarfield. They will always be remembered.
Losing our first “brothers”, those that we trained with from the beginning at Fort Devens, had an affect on all of us. We became more cautious, suspicious, and realized to a greater degree of the reality of war, how horrible it was and what it could bring. The general mood throughout our company changed to a more serious nature. Grab ass was down to a minimum as we buckled down to make sure we did our job to a higher perspective. What happened in the past week was a wakeup call that let us know that some of us wouldn`t be going home alive.
The bright side of every day was , in most cases, Mail Call. A letter or package from home was always a spark to keep moral high and bring a feeling of hope and caring. Every once in a while there was news from home that everyone dreaded. It would change the nature of the soldier, his performance and sadly would affect his fellow soldiers. At times we had to become counselors to our buddies. Once in a while while cleaning our weapons or settling down at our night positions out in the field some of the counseling took place. There was always talk of the easy way home. Mostly it was to shoot ones trigger finger off by “accident.” I saw many of my buddies point a “45” pistol at their finger or at their toes. We would talk each other out of it .
The Aborted Mission
“B” Company was set up for a couple weeks far from Tay Ninh. A planned company sized search and destroy mission left the LZ at 1 p.m. Most patrols left early in the morning in order to beat the excruciating heat of the day. If the patrol took you through the jungle it would help because of the overhead canopy that would provide shade from the sun. This particular day we set out directly across a large rice paddy in the glaring sun. We were spread out in the usual 5 to 10 meters between one another covering the size of a few football fields. The lead command was toward the front of the left front flank.
My machine gun squad was toward the center of the right flank. Only about twenty minutes into the mission a medi-vac chopper arrived to extricate a soldier overcome by heat exhaustion.
A fellow soldier shouted out that his thermometer read 130 degrees. The reflection off the water beamed into our faces and bodies was unbearable. After about five or six episodes of medi-vac extractions the gung ho commanding officer decided to call off the mission and sent the company back to the LZ. We found out later that heat cramps were affecting him and he finally realized that it was a mistake to patrol at that time of day out in the open in the water. The following morning we restarted the mission and took a different route. More planning was incorporated into future missions.
The Worst Day of My Life
Another company search and destroy mission was to take place. This time we were to sweep directly through a dense jungle. Through surveillance and intelligence it was known the enemy was in the area. Approximately a regiment sized VC encampment was expected to be lurking in these surroundings, upwards of up to 2500 insurgents. Being in Nam for about four months now, the search and destroy missions were becoming routine. We learned the fact that you had to look out for your buddies asses as they were looking out for yours. We were a close knit group and had become very good at what we had to do. We were performing the tasks at hand in order to bring each other home alive. Individually we became extremely cautious.
Caches of rice and weapons were being found everywhere. A large sized enemy unit was expected to be encountered. Master Sgt. James Durfee, my platoon Sgt. from day one, abruptly gave me a machete and commanded me to be on point on the right flank of this company sweep. Besides being a “tunnel rat”, or being on an ambush patrol, the duty of being on “point” was the most feared and hated duty in Nam. I believe it is the worst duty.
Through all my training Sgt. Durfee and I never saw eye to eye. He despised me. Being such a “strack”, (soldier of perfection), soldier, it was strange that he had two downfalls. One, being that he was a physical failure. He couldn`t perform one push-up. His nickname throughout our training regime was“spoonchest”. The other downfall was that he actually couldn`t measure up to the pressure of combat. Everything he taught us he couldn`t personally handle. He had a nervous breakdown and was sent back to the states.
He held back my promotions a few times as he just had it in for me. I was the physical specimen that he wasn`t. All through basic training we just didn`t hit it off. I would mention his chain smoking as being unhealthy and he would counter with more push-ups or more K.P. (kitchen police), duty. He was self conscience that his derogatory nickname came from me. I therefore became his “whipping boy.”
So on this company mission Sgt. Durfee thought that he would have his day. I took the machete from him and gave him a stare that would remain with him for the rest of his life. I began to cut through the thick jungle undergrowth with aplomb. I left my M60 machine gun with my crew. We were spread out in two flanks with individual scouts ten meters parallel to the flanks . I was at least ten meters ahead of the nearest soldier swinging a machete with an M16 at the ready in my left hand. I was witnessing common jungle noises as I moved ahead.
Trudging through the jungle in the intense heat and humidity for over an hour, I occasionally glanced back to see my buddy signaling to proceed. Wiping the perspiration constantly and slapping mosquitoes didn`t help the task at hand. Eventually I entered a small clearing. I began to notice a dead silence, an aura that you can only imagine that takes place viewing a horror film. Some of the trees were stripped of foliage.
All of a sudden in a split second of time a loud shot, a thud and popping of bullets began to whiz all around me.
An RPG, (rifle propelled grenade), round hit a tree only five feet to my left and fell next to my left boot. It hit the tree at an angle without detonating the firing pin at the nose. I immediately dove to the base of an ant hill which was directly to the right front of me. The perpetrators took off running down a trail behind them. Lucky for me they took off and unlucky for them they immediately ran into a unit of the 25th who cut them to pieces with an M60 machine gun. It turned out that this was the closest near death experience of my tour. It has always been on my mind that if they just used their rifle to shoot me in the chest I wouldn`t be here today.
Being the strongest man in the company had its drawbacks. Not only did I not have the fun of the grab ass games as was always avoided, I became the “mule” on the forced marches and extended company patrols. When the company had to relocate to a new area to work out of, the mortar platoons naturally had to join us. I was chosen often to carry the 35 lb. base plate of the 3.5 mortar. It was strapped to my back and was in addition to my 35 lbs. of my combat gear. Try carrying 70 lbs. Of gear all day long in 100 plus degree sweltering climate. Many times at the end of the day when we were to set up our defensive positions, I would fall onto my back like a turtle unable to roll over. My buddies would have to help me get my gear off. I remember being so sore that it would take me all night to recuperate.
After spending six months in Nam it became obvious that the 196th LIB couldn`t go on with the same members for the entire one year tour. The unit couldn`t just pick up and return to the states, the base camp would be empty. Beginning in Feb.`67 deployment began to send a percentage of the troops of the 196th to other units in Nam to finish their tours of duty. Some were lucky to be placed into non combat units such as serving in an MP unit. I was not so lucky. I received my orders in March of `67 to be relocated to the 3rd Brigade of the 4th Infantry Div. 2nd battalion 12th Infantry Co. “C”. Their headquarters were located twelve miles north of Tay Ninh at Dau Tieng, the Michelin Rubber Plantation, closer to the Cambodian border, still in war zone “C”. I would be finishing my tour in a combat rifle platoon. I was not a happy camper. I left Tay Ninh on a convoy in early March with all my gear, foot locker, and military records. Being a replacement soldier I answered many questions about my previous service. I also had to make all new friends. I fit in quite comfortably as we were all in the same boat as it were.
What stands out while serving the last five months of my service was being part of the largest one day battle casualty rate of the Vietnam war for the enemy. On March 21, 1967 Fire Support Base Gold or LZ Gold for short was attacked. It was also known as the battle of Suoi Tre. The camp was manned by two infantry companies of the 3/22 and an artillery battalion of the 2/77 totaling 450 men. They were attacked by the elite 272nd main force regiment of the 9th VC Div. reinforced by two additional battalions that raised the hostile forces to 2500 troops.
The support base had withstood almost three hours of attacks with the help of the Air Force flying 31 sorties around their perimeter. The 2/22 with their APC`s (armored personnel carriers), and the 2/34 armor arrived and the rout was on. My “C” company 2/12 was just outside the perimeter and pinned down while the APC`s attacked firing their 50`s into the LZ. Beehive rounds from the artillery inside the perimeter were fired extensively. The rounds emulated a large shotgun shell. One such shot obliterated a quad fifty, (four fifty caliber machine guns mounted on a deuce and a half). A bunch of VC were trying to turn the weapon to fire it against the American forces. They didn`t have a chance. The rounds were fired into the ranks of the attacking VC. Some of the VC had claymore mine like devices strapped around their waists. They would run around in the perimeter and face their enemy and blow themselves up. Many of the dead were found to be carrying large amounts of drugs to help them carry out their goals. 647 enemy troops were killed that day not counting those dragged off. Bulldozers were brought in to bury the dead. I lost a good friend that day, Jim Brewer. He was one of the originals from Tay Ninh. He happened to be in the center of the perimeter when a direct hit from an enemy mortar found him. He totally disappeared.
All participating American units received the Presidential Unit Citation for their heroic defense of the support base.
As time went on my feelings of making it home grew every day. I would write on my helmet cover each day the number of days left in my tour. Being a short timer had its benefits. I became very good friends with my new platoon leader of “C” 2/12. During idle chat he questioned me why I hadn`t received my promotion to Specialist 4th class. I told him about Sgt. Durfee`s rift against me all through training and my in country service. My promotion was submitted within the next few days. My R and R, (rest and recuperation), was coming up at the same time. I left for Bangkok, Thailand the following week. The four day R and R was a great relief from the hell of war. I got to tour the Buddhist temples of Bangkok and took some fine photos. The golden Buddhas were amazing and delights everyone who sees them in my albums. The trip back from Bangkok to Dau Tieng was somewhat uneventful. I was traveling with Sgt. Ron Davis, also a transfer from the 196th, and we decided to spend an extra night in Saigon. I don`t know what got into us but we toured the city and when nightfall came we searched out a place to stay in the suburbs. It seemed like a middle class neighborhood where we started to bargain for a place to spend the night. My skills with the Vietnamese language paid off. For a case of 7-up we got to stay at an elderly woman`s home. She stated that it was an honor for us to stay in her own oversized bed. She set it up for us and let us be. There was even a large paddle fan directly over us. Can you imagine the thought of our throats being slit that night only slightly came to mind. The following day I made a small mistake that cost me my promotion. On my return to my unit I followed along with Sgt. Davis and went back into downtown Saigon to check out the bars. We didn`t realize their was a curfew at 11 p.m. and abruptly picked up by MPs. The following morning we were shuttled to Tan Son Nhut and choppered back to our units. Wouldn`t you know it, a couple days later a report came down to our first Sgt. and I was issued an article 15. An article 15 was a misdemeanor charge, a minor infraction on my military record.
My platoon leader felt bad about it and promised me that when I had thirty days left of my tour he would assign me to guard the front gate of our post. It was one of the happiest days of my life when I had thirty days left of my tour. I spent eight hours a day guarding the front gate inside a bunker. It was just like having a normal job. No more ambushes or search and destroy missions. I was elated.
Home to Civilian Life
August 4, 1967 couldn`t come soon enough. I was transported to Tan Son Nhut Air Base in my dress uniform. All my personal belonging I packed into a wooden crate. I gave my civilian footlocker to one of my buddies. The crate would be dropped off on my mothers front lawn about two months later.
I flew to California on a commercial jet then onto Mcguire A.F.B. In New Jersey. After about spending a week of disembarkation with the military I arrived at Bradley Field in CT. When I exited the plane and stepped onto the runway I literally kissed the ground. I had survived. My family was there to bring me home. I had this strange feeling while walking through the airport. Here I was dressed in my military uniform and people were totally ignoring me. They were purposely turning away from me. I wasn`t concerned with myself but my uniform represented my fellow soldiers and what they were going through on the other side of the world. To this day I have a hard time understanding that. I`ll always remember the infamous quote, “All gave some-some gave all”.
The experiences I witnessed for the twenty months of my service during the Vietnam War certainly had a bearing on my life that has lasted me my lifetime. Good and bad. I am just so happy to be here.
God bless all my military comrades.
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