November 1969 - November 1970

My path to and from Charlie Company was just another grunt’s story. Raider and I started reconnecting 35 years after Raider’s being wounded and med-evac’d out in May, 1970. We came into the company within days of each other in November 1969 and humped the bush together a lot. We went through the “remember this, remember that” part of the reconnecting but it didn’t take us long to start talking about what got us to the company and a lot of “what have you been doing since that day in May when Raider was shot and hoisted up, dropped and hoisted again later. We had no way to get in touch after Viet Nam. All I had was a double handful of nick names. I was Spider - others were Raider, Zippo, Remarks, Budweiser, Terrible Tom, Lil Tex, Booker T, Pinky, Jackass, Spoons, Jersey John, Jersey Dave, Checkmate - the list just keeps going.

Raider talked me in to telling my story. In December 1968, I was 24 years old, draft exempt, and married with a three year old daughter, working at McDonnell Aircraft, helping to build F4 fighters. I don’t remember when work orders started crossing my inspection bench stamped in big read letters with “Southeast Asia Emergency.” I had blood relatives and friends in Viet Nam. I had gone to the funerals of three close friends and had another come home in a wheelchair. Around Thanksgiving, I just couldn’t stand it anymore. I felt I had to do more than just work at a defense plant. Just before Christmas, I joined the Army. I can still see the recruiter’s face when I walked in and stated that I wanted to volunteer for Army infantry. Two days later, I was taken to Ft Leonard hickman photo 1Wood for basic training. At the first company formation, I was called to the front by the drill sergeant. Then he announced that I was the only regular army (RA) volunteer in the company. Then he pointed at me and announced the army could do anything they wanted to me . I was a volunteer! Basic in a Missouri winter is a story n itself. But as the only RA in the company, I ate every meal first. Many times in training, the drill sergeants would say, “I need a volunteer. Wait, no I don’t, I’ve already got one.” They would call me out to demonstrate some point of the training. The way I was treated evolved into what I call a “military sense of humor.” I say that they were trying to prepare us, not just physically, but also mentally for what lay ahead.

Advanced infantry training in Georgia went well and I tied for “top soldier” and was asked if I wanted to go to the NCO academy. I’d be paid as and carry the rank of corporal and go to Viet Nam as a “buck” sergeant. Early on, I developed a stress fracture in my heel and wouldn’t do a lot of the running and marching but went to all of the classes and field training, even though I couldn’t participate. They gave me the option to recycle through the training but not graduate with the rest of the class. I told the company commander that I had not joined to go to school. I wanted to get even for the friends that I had lost. He said he understood, shook my hand, and wished me luck. Two weeks leave at home, then off to Viet Nam.

I came into Nam through a replacement company and got orders to report to a unit based out of Camp Eagle. While hanging around talking with a few other guys, we heard an argument break out between an E4 and and an E7. It was loud and short. The E4 was ordered to leave and the E7 came over to where we were standing. He had a Vietnamese man with him wearing US fatigues. He said he needed a volunteer to be assigned with a Kit Carson scout - ex VC or NVA that agreed to work with US units.

It occurred to me that this Vietnamese had nearly ten year’s experience in jungle fighting. I might learn something from him that would keep me alive. I was right. The E7 took my orders and changed them. I was going to Company C, 1/506th Infantry. Neugen Dung and I started a two week language school and became a team. By the end of the school, we had become friends. The Kit Carson scouts were not allowed in the EM club or PX or the massage parlors so I refused to go in without him. Just that act seemed to mean a lot to him. We had started a close friendship that lasted a lifetime. He was later shot and killed by his brother in law who was a VC, while on a three day pass to visit his children. We reported to the company, drew our gear and weapons. Dung had me draw two extra bandoliers of M-16 magazines. Terrible Tom, Byron, and Dung walked my through what to pack and how to pack it in the rucksack and pistol belt. Dung was a stickler about noise containment. We would check each other for loose or shining equipment. The next day, we flew out to Firebase Jack - Terrible Tom, Byron, our lieutenant, Buckwhite, Doc Banks, Dung and I. When we got here we were assigned to SGT Fiekert who told us we were going to patrol and ambush for rice carriers, trying to supply the NVA beyond “rocket ridge.”

We moved by helicopter some distance from FB Jack. We formed up and SGT Feikert pointed at me and said, “you’ve got point.” He pointed to Dung saying, “you’ve got slack.” I thought of my friends I had been pall bearer for in 67-68. Without formal “point” training, I felt myself slip into the hunting mode I had learned growing up. I called it Missouri River bottom “sneak and peek,” something I had done since age ten. I felt I hickman photo 3was in someone’s crosshairs from the very start. I’d look back at Dung and he’d give me what I called his Buddha nod if I was doing good. I learned to read his facial moves and body language. There were so many things you had to be aware of and he and the short-timers taught me a lot. I feel I walked point a lot. I wonder now if Raider thought I was good at it or just expendable. 40 years later Raider says it was because I walked like a duck. If I got too far ahead of them, they could track me. I thank God that I never walked us into anything.

I never knew dark till the sun went down in the jungle. And that’s when the real bugs came out. There was a lot of uphill, downhill. Both were difficult under the best of conditions. Gravity became your enemy. “Wait a minute” vines would grab on to you and impede your forward movement. In mid December 1969, I was walking point and witnesses told me later that we had just started off a ridge going downhill. They said it looked like I dropped into a hole. “You were just gone.” I woke up on the floor of a medevac helicopter. The medic kept telling me to lay still and that I’d be OK and that I was going to live. While practicing my “hail mary’s” and taking inventory of body parts, I found I had a few abrasions and bruises with two goose eggs. One on the back of my head and one on my forehead. I had a headache for about two weeks. When I rejoined the guys and asked what happened, Dung pantomimed by flailing his arms and legs in a cartwheel motion, then stabbed the extended fingers of one hand into the palm of the other and then shrugged. I took a lot of ribbing over that.

What caught me off guard was the bond we all had formed. We had shared that moment when shit hit the fan. The emotion we had to deal with when someone was killed or wounded. Most times we never heard back about the wounded. They were just gone. Dead friends had brought me to Nam, now losing more really tore at my heart and soul. Bonds had been formed that most people don’t understand. I still find it hard to find the right words. In Nam, we would never have said it but 40 years later we never hesitate to say,”Hey, I love you ,brother.”

In the rear we would split into loose groups. The juicers, the heads, and by music preferences - country and western, rock and roll and rhythm and blues. The black power guys with their bootlace braided bracelets and crosses around their necks. Buckweat and Byron taught me some of the complicated handshakes. But all of those differences were left on the helipad when we got back on the slicks and went back to the bush. I arrived in Nam truly hating all Vietnamese. Dung changed that. He helped me see the war from his side. I still grieve his death as much as the others. I think we help control fear with anger. One day we were split into two teams to recon some area they were sure bad guys we in. We were told to stay off ay trails or dikes due to possible ambushes and booby traps. I assumed we all knew better. We had not gone very far when we heard an explosion followed by Rippy yelling on the radio that the other team had tripped a booby trap. The headlong rush to get to them. The scramble to help the medics while trying to maintain security until the dustoff got there. More friends gone. I still revisit that day in my dreams.

Sometime in the midst of all this I got my “Dear John” letter from my wife’s lawyer. It stated: As to marital property, everything in her possession was hers and everything in my possession was mine. The guys would rib me about that point for months. We’d laugh till we had tears in our eyes until the end of my tour. Thanks to the guys of WWII, she couldn’t divorce me until I got back to the world, which she then did.

It’s hard to summarize the “Viet Nam experience.” Some many moments run through my mind. Like a slide show on fast forward. Most of Firebase Granite is a blur. All hell broke out on the top and other side of the hill from where I was. Our LP’s got back in the wire OK. But just to the left of us, Danny Richards and his Kit Carson got caught in a crossfire and were wounded. Raider led a team outside the wire to them and helped get them hickman photo 2back in the perimeter. A few days before we got hit, Danny Richards on the ass-kicking climb up to FB Granite, went back down several times to help carry rucksacks up the hill for guys who were “running out of gas.” That’s the kind of guy he was. When the fighting stopped, my ears were ringing real bad. It took awhile before I could hear well again. Raider seemed to be everywhere, checking on us. Among the dead was Jim Davis who had been trying to get off the firebase for several days. His wide and newborn baby were waiting in Hawaii to start his R&R. The survivors flash through my mind like a slide show on fast forward. The emotion that comes with them still tears at my heart and soul. The “friendly fire” deaths of McKee and Sams were my last straw. I walked off Granite in the middle of the night angry at everything and everybody.
The list is long of the men I owe my life to.

If Zippo and Raider wanted to march through Hell, I know a lot of men who would follow them. I’d walk point. I came home hooked on the adrenalin rush. Ended up a street medic in St Louis and used my GI bill to become an emergency room registered nurse. I then turned that into a trauma nurse specialist and flight nurse for air-evac in the Ozarks of southern Missouri.

As Zippo says, we are all thieves, taking things from those we respect. All the skills and knowledge I have come from those I chose to emulate. All the accolades that have been bestowed on me belong to those who showed me the way to be all I am.

My greatest moment was when Zippo and Raider told me I was “a good soldier.”