Soul Shaking Experience
It was 1968 and I had been in Viet Nam for less than 20 days. I had no idea how quickly my life was going to change.
I was assigned to A Battery, 7/11 Artillery. It was currently located in Dau Tieng base camp, home of the 3rd Brigade 25th Infantry Division. Base camps provided support to the field units delivering everything they required to function: food, water, mail, ammunition, and an assortment of other supplies. It was typical for a few field units to also be assigned to base camps on a rotating basis. This provided a chance for the soldiers to get some well-deserved rest and to refit their gear. Mainly though, the soldiers served as protection for those delivering the supplies.
Dau Tieng was none of these. It was a Fire Support Base (FSB) that drew regular mortar and rocket attacks and frequent ground attacks, including nightly sniper fire from within the base camp itself. It was an extremely dangerous FSB and just two weeks before my arrival had been partially overrun by the enemy.
Delivering supplies was always risky, and that August and September the enemy was especially active. Convoys required significant manpower and materials including large numbers of APC’s, tanks, trucks, jeeps, and grunts. Helicopters accompanied the convoys to provide cover and to evacuate the wounded following an ambush.
Our convoy route took us from Dau Tieng to Tay Ninh. This was the only road in area and it was really more of a dirt path winding through the rice paddies, jungle, and rubber plantations than it was a road. Pedestrian traffic was always high, and it was impossible to tell friend from foe. Being the wet season, September, the roads were ribbons of mud making the trek even more difficult. But there were no other options – and the enemy knew it. The Vietnamese enemie would pick spots with the most cover and wait for convoys to roll into their traps.
Ambushes almost always started with a bang. A land mine would take out one of the leading vehicles with the intent of blocking the road and trapping the rest of the convoy. Then the enemie would open fire on the convoy with mortars and small arms. The key to survival was to escape the killing zone. This meant a mad dash through the trap, edging around damaged vehicles, or simply pushing them off the road. The Vietnamese foot traffic knew in advance the attack was coming. They’d come to a halt at a safe distance then wait for the conflict to end so they could resume their trip.
I was about to experience my first ambush.
After a three-day delay waiting for word the route was declared open and the convoy headed for Tay Ninh. Early on we passed through a rubber plantation. To eliminate easy hiding spots, the rubber trees had been cut off on both sides of the road for about one-hundred feet leaving a sea of five-foot stumps. The road was littered with blown-up APC’s and trucks. As we emerged from the plantation into the open paddy country a mine exploded, destroying an APC and blowing a huge crater in the road. All soldiers were ordered to seek cover in the water-filled paddies and prepare for attack.
We were stranded waiting for a bulldozer to repair the road so we could move on. I was an FNG and was totally freaked out. Luckily the soldier beside me seemed to know what he was doing so I decided to follow his lead. As we settled into the 24-inch deep water he yelled at me to get down (HOW?). We listened intently as we heard mortar shells leaving their tube, then begin to explode between us and the tree line just 200 feet away. With each round the mortars fell closer as the enemy zeroed in on us. By the end of the barrage, the mortars were very close, I was sure they were going to hit us but my buddy assured me we were safe.In two minutes the barrage was over. As the immediate fear subsided, my buddy started to laugh. He thought my efforts to dig a foxhole in the water were quite amusing. I joined his laughter and my tension began to ease. I had secreted away a bottle of Chevis Regal but, as alcohol was prohibited, I had not had a chance to drink it. Now seemed like a good time. Using the water from his canteen we polished off half the scotch in the 45 minutes it took for the road to be cleared.
Ordered back to our vehicles, I jumped into my truck and my buddy took his place atop his APC facing forward with his legs dangling over the front edge. We were on our way! Then a couple miles down the road the unthinkable happened. Another ambush! Standard procedures called for the convoy to run the ambush and we did. As tanks and APCs entered the kill zone they peeled of the road and attacked the ambushers. I saw this going on ahead of us. Just after our 2 ½ ton truck entered the kill zone an RPG round exploded just behind my truck right in front of my buddy’s APC. As I turned around I saw his legs catapulted into the sky then disintegrate in a stream of blood and liquefied flesh. I remember his mangled body on the ground. I remember his screams for his mother. I was stunned. His mates were blown off the top of the APC but immediately grabbed him and tossed him inside the APC. Just beyond the ambush we stopped and a LOCH command helicopter landed, a passenger got out and the wounded soldier was loaded onto the chopper. The pilot made a beeline to the evacuation hospital and it must have been a horror for him as my new friend spurted blood like a fountain and was screaming a sound I had never heard from another human being. To this day I have no idea of his fate. He never leaves me, even today.
Though I had been trained to return fire during an ambush I simply couldn’t process what was happening. I never fired a single round from my M-16. As our truck made its way on to Tay Ninh I realized I had urinated, defecated then vomited when I saw my wet and soiled pants.
Back at base camp I played the scene over and over in my mind. The sudden attack. His legs flying skyward. His screams! I didn’t even know this man’s name. After I finished my required paperwork with the battery clerks I got very drunk and sat down on a wooden sidewalk made of used 105mm-round boxes. I started to cry. It was the first time in years I had cried and I couldn’t stop. Soldiers walked by, gave me a glance then went on about their business. One soldier stopped. I didn’t look up. He sat down and put his arm around my shoulder. He sat quietly with me for more than twenty minutes as I continued to cry.
As he stood and walked away he turned and said, “its cool, man – you’ll be OK.” That’s when I finally looked up to see Bob Kelly – a black man.
This was the first time in my life a black man had put his arm around my shoulders. This was 1968, and I was prejudiced. It’s not that I had had any bad experiences with blacks. In fact I had known very few blacks growing up and had never been in fights with them or had direct conflicts. But, I accepted the stereotypical negative remarks some of my fellow “honkeys” freely shared.
Then it struck me, as I sat crying, many white strangers had walked right by me. But for whatever reason a black stranger decided to sit down and put his arm around my shoulder. His action challenged my prejudice and my clouded judgment about soldiers around me. It made me rethink who it was I could count on. I’d just come face-to-face with death (not mine). If I was to survive I was going to need to know I could rely on each of my fellow soldiers regardless of their race. I needed to put aside my preconceived prejudices when judging fellow soldiers; so others could count on me to leave aside prejudices and do my best and help them survive.
Bob and I became friends but for the next eight months he would not explain why he sat down. He was from Harlem, New York and I was a kid from Kansas. We discussed race, prejudice and growing up, over those eight months. Some of those talks got to ugly subjects but he would not talk about that night. Perhaps he had no idea why he stopped but he did not say. In 2011 Bob still comes to me when I meet a new person and Bob reminds me to be open. I wish he knew how much that act of kindness affected me.
This story was co-written by Tim Anderson. He is a professional writer and can be contacted at www.r2llc.net.