When I arrived at the replacement center in South Vietnam on Feb. 11, 1969, I knew only two people, Robert Heldt & Joseph Herbert. We received our basic training together at Fort Campbell and our Infantry A.I.T. (Advanced Individual Training) at Ft. Lewis, & then we traveled together in a plane halfway around the world and landed at an airport with a very funny name, Tan Son Nhat. Looking out the plane’s right-side window, before landing, I observed a WW II plane dive & engage a ground target of some sort. The ground attack resulted in multiple explosions that were close together & distinct, so I figured the fighter fired a burst of 20 mm shells. In my youth, before witnessing today’s event, I watched a dogfight between a Japanese Zero & an American Bearcat on a TV documentary, & the South Vietnamese plane outside my window looked like a Navy Bearcat. For the first time, the reality of war pierced the small window & compelled me, as if someone smacked me across the face, to seriously consider my mortality. We landed shortly thereafter, & my war had begun.
I knew very little except I didn’t want to be assigned to any outfit located in the Delta. I’d heard bad things about that area. I had no say with whom or were I’d be stationed. The replacement center had complete control over my future deployment. One thing I did know for sure was that there was no turning back. I felt satisfied when I received my orders to head North to the 101st, close to the Hue & Phu Bai area. I was even happier when I read my orders & found Heldt & Herbert on them. Delta Company, 1/502 here I come.
By good fortune I went to a good unit, well organized with a good cadre of leadership from top to bottom. On Easter Sunday, 1969, I found myself walking point down a winding trail shrouded by triple-canopy jungle in enemy infected Ashau Valley, named officially as the Massachusetts Striker Campaign. I moved so cautiously & quietly that day, partly out of fear & partly out of training, that I surprised a couple of regular NVA (North Vietnamese Army) soldiers on the trail up ahead of me. Coming around a hairpin bend in the trail, I caught them unaware a split-second before they saw me, but that brief instant gave me the advantage. Despite my slight advantage, there was a time in space when our eyes met. It seemed like an eternity as the adrenaline shot through my whole body. With my M-16 on Rock ‘n’ Roll (automatic) I opened up with a burst of fire on the fleeing tall, thin NVA soldier. The red tracers from my M-16 bracketed his trunk as he ran five or six strides off the trail & found cover behind a tree just large enough to conceal his whole body. The tide had turned now that he was behind a tree while I remained out in the open. I quickly peppered the tree with my remaining rounds to anchor my enemy there–the tree bark flew everywhere. Years later I joked that when the NVA soldier turned sideways he almost disappeared & that’s why I missed him. There was a very large tree nearby that had been uprooted by an artillery shell or missile the day before. I quickly took cover behind the huge root structure. I felt safe there, no longer out in the open.
In the background I heard an explosion take place behind me during the beginning of the engagement. It turned out to be our blond-haired, short-statured M-60 assistant machine gunner who took cover when he heard the automatic fire coming from my M-16. We heard later that he triggered a booby trap as he scrambled off the trail. He received a severe shrapnel wound to one of his arms & received immediate aid from our medic. I never saw David again, but I new he was going home alive. I wondered about my own future & how I would go home. One of our old marching songs rung in my ears: “If I die in a combat zone, box me up & send me home.” Our medic, covered with blood, had to endure the stench of David’s blood on his uniform for several days before a supply of clean fatigues came in by helicopter.
Early in the action, while I hunkered down behind the huge root section of the fallen tree, Heldt hollered to me, “If we get out of this situation, I’ll give you my pound cake & peaches,” a C-ration surprise we mixed together to form a sumptuous dessert favored by us grunts. At the time we expected more action as we had engaged the NVA several times recently in serious firefights. After the initial contact & bobby-trap explosion, nothing else happened except for some tense anticipation of further combat, which never took place. In due time we received oral orders to continue down the trail in search of the enemy: find him, fix him, engage him, & kill him. Walking point, I found my enthusiasm to engage the enemy much less than the generals sending us forth. To my delight we marched uneventfully through the jungle until evening, where we stopped to set up our NDP (Nighttime Defense Perimeter). Later, after all was calm, Heldt came by & gave me his pound cake & peaches. They tasted so good to me that night that I’ve never forgotten his kindness to me. “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”
Wayfarin’ stranger: garland dale