A Time to Kill
Edited by Denny Roy,
Grant P. Skabelund, and Ray C. Hillam
Combat on the Ground
[p.21]Danny L. foote, Marine artillery, Vietnam
Combat is like no other experience you could ever have in your life. The first time I came under fire, it was like everything that the marines had trained me to do, I did—all of a sudden it was like I was a finely-tuned machine, and I worked. And because I worked, I was proud. And yet after it was all over, the anxiety and the fear that you weren’t able to manifest at the time, because you couldn’t let stuff like that get in your way, became manifested. It made me physically sick to the point where I’d just throw up.
Hyde L. Taylor,1 Army Airborne, Vietnam
When you are in a combat situation things happen [p. 22]so fast. You don’t have time to really think about it. You really only have time to react. I think the people who stop and think about it don’t come out. You think about it a lot afterwards and think about the mistakes you made. You react to the situations. I never even got scared until it was mostly over.
I think the times I got most frightened were when all of those things were over and it was a calm time, when you could sit down and have some good security and you could relax a little bit. Then you think back over those things. Then you let the fright come into your life a little bit.
I always said that you could look at somebody and tell how long they’d been there just by looking at their eyes. If somebody had just come into the unit or into the country, their eyes were soft and kind of searching. Somebody who had been there for a long time had eyes that were hard, penetrating. You could also see that reflected in their personality.
Pat Watkins,2 Army Special Forces, Vietnam
Every day was true adventure. [p. 23]It was an adventure in life and death. I liked that mode as a young man. As I grew older, I still liked it. I never regret one day I spent in the service. There were many times of joy and laughter. Even in combat you could find the funny side of things. There were also times of frustration and emptiness. Emptiness is felt everywhere, but more so in military life, because of the life-or-death environment.
I didn’t have time to be scared. I was too busy in a leadership position, keeping other people alive. I think people who are in a leadership position don’t suffer fear of combat as much as people who are being led. When you are being led, you can worry just about yourself. When you start worrying about yourself, you might do something dumb. When you have to worry about X number of men, you have to worry about maneuvering them, fighting, and doing the right things to perform your mission. You are so busy that you don’t have a lot of time to be scared until it’s all over with and you are out. You can sit down and be scared about it later.
Wayne A. Warr,3 Army infantryman, Vietnam
It’s difficult to describe the physical and emotional shock of being hit. Of course, the physical shock was great. It was like having someone hit you with a baseball bat with a full swing as hard as they can. It was a powerful jolt. I [p. 24]don’t remember the pain, I just remember the jolt. It actually knocked me down. It hit me in the arm and actually knocked me down right on my back, so there was the shock of that, a feeling of helplessness. I remember that one of my squad leaders got to me right after I got shot, looked at my arm and put a dressing on it over my shirt and everything. It probably took fifteen seconds. He said, “You are going to be all right.” With that reassurance I was back under control again. But I can remember a feeling of helplessness at that point: “How bad was it?” I really didn’t know.
David L. Evans,4 Army infantryman, World War II
The infantry was a good place to be snobbish because we could look down on everybody: “They don’t know what it’s like.” Then we saw tanks getting hit by fire and burning. The first time I looked into a tank that had been hit by an anti-tank shell, I became glad I was in the infantry, because it drilled a three quarter-inch rod right through the armor plating and ricocheted around inside. Everybody inside was really chopped up terribly. I think that was one of the worst sights I saw during the whole war. We got so we didn’t envy them too much. And then one of my friends was on a ship that got sunk in the Pacific and I stopped envying him, so it kept going. We envied the air force because of the way they slept at night. We’d watch them go over, twenty-four planes at a time, and then come back, twelve at a time. That wasn’t too hot, either. The one thing that irritated me more than anything else was getting mail from [p. 25]people who’d say, “Oh, how I envy you being there in combat. Here I am, stuck back here in the rear echelons. I’d give anything to trade places with you.” I was sorry we couldn’t trade places.
Martin B. Hickman, Army infantryman, World War II
After I got into combat and became part of a group, I found a very warm camaraderie. There’s a system about combat that develops very supportive relationships. After you have shared the danger of death with someone and seen some of your comrades get killed, there’s a drawing together and a supportiveness that’s exceptional. It’s hard to describe the kind of emotional attachment that you get with these people, people you wouldn’t have anything in common with in civilian life.
Norman Wade Sammis,5 Marine helicopter pilot, Cuban Missile Crisis
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, I was a First Lieutenant flying heavy helicopters out of New River, North Carolina. We were aboard the USS Boxer, a converted World War II Essex-class carrier.6 When you operate from a carrier you carry a Smith & Wesson .38-caliber revolver. The [p. 26]reason you carry a revolver is it can be loaded with tracer rounds so if you go down at night in the water, you can use them to signal the rescue helicopter. Well, we got aboard ship and wanted them to issue the ammunition for the revolvers, but nobody could find it. It was loaded aboard another ship by mistake.
So here I am, getting ready to go to war in Cuba. We’ve been briefed and all that and nobody has got any bullets. I remember thinking, “This is the most screwed up organization I’ve ever seen.” I think that’s when you say, “Do they really know what they are doing?”
Timothy Hoyt Bowers-Irons,7 chaplain, World War II and Korea
Bravery is the cheapest thing in a war. Almost everybody is brave. It isn’t something you need to be proud of. You are or you are not. We are all frightened. I never met a man who wasn’t scared of being shot at, but we are taught how to manage our fear. We are afraid of being shot. You can get so steamed up that you forget for awhile. You can even get to the point where you are reckless.
We had a little Mormon boy in Korea who got the Silver Star. He should’ve had a whole handful of them. I looked him up and talked to him about it. He said, “I didn’t even know what I was doing.” He got up and wiped out three [p. 27]machine guns, single-handed, and knocked off fifty gooks8 or something. It was really a tremendous feat. He said the last thing he remembered was that he was behind a rock down on the hillside, and he said the next thing he knew he was up there all by himself with dead gooks all around him. I don’t think he was wounded, as I recall, and he got the Silver Star for it. He didn’t know he was doing it. He just flipped out of his mind. He went berserk. They gave him a Silver Star and we praise him and say he was a brave man. He didn’t know whether he was being brave or anything else. He just blacked out and went up and did the job.
David L. Evans, Army infantryman, World War II
We had one fellow in our outfit who was one of the simplest humans you can ever imagine. He never realized there was any genuine danger in combat. I was walking down the street of a village one night, and I heard a mortar shell coming in and I could tell from the sound of it that it was going to be within a hundred feet. So without any kind of thought, I was down in a doorway just squashing as thin as I could, and he was still walking down the street, and the shell went off just where I expected it to. Shrapnel flew around and knocked sparks off all the buildings around him. He turned around and looked back and said, “Gee, that was close, wasn’t it?” And when he saw me, he said, “Oh, gee, did you get knocked down there?” And of course he went through the war unscathed.
Everybody else in our outfit got wounded at one time or another. A couple of them got killed. He was untouched. Our sergeant was also untouched because he knew how to delegate authority. The sergeant never left the command post.
[p.28]Ivan A. Farnworth, Army infantryman, World War I
Two of my cousins came back in caskets. They never did make it. I saw one of them before he left for the war. He said, “I don’t know. I’ll never be back.”
I said, “Don’t feel that way.”
But he kept on saying “I’ll never be back.”
He came back in a box. He got it right in the forehead. He knew he wasn’t coming back.
Another cousin came back shell-shocked. He didn’t know what he was doing. There were lots of them over there in France. The tears would run out of their eyes. They were just in awful condition. You can’t imagine it. They didn’t know where they were. They’d pick up anything and put it in their mouths. They had to be watched all the time as if they were animals. Their nerves had gone, absolutely gone. There was a tension on your nerves during the war. Your nervous system is just like an electrical system; it will just stand so much and then it breaks.
Albert B. Haines,9 Army infantryman, World War II
I was sent out on night patrol preliminary to the battalion attack a couple of days hence. I identified two machine guns, one of which fired at us. We could see where the other one was. Machine guns usually come in pairs; rarely do they come in threes. They cross fire and protect each other, and they are usually protected in turn by foot troops and individual soldiers.
We accomplished what we were sent out to do on that particular patrol. It was no surprise to me (although I didn’t relish it) to get the assignment the next day to be the [p. 29]attack platoon for that particular area. We made a very, very early start—it was like four in the morning, I guess. We wanted to get as far as we could—as I recall it was either a waning moon or lots of starlight with the high and heavy snow. We’d wrapped ourselves in sheets. They called them snow suits, but they were nothing more than sheets.
I headed forth with my platoon. We knew where the machine guns were. I deployed my platoon firepower as best I could with the bazooka at a certain position and the rifle grenade launchers at other positions. I focused pretty well on the two machine guns and the shots that we had.
We came down a little closer and saw that we’d been detected because we could see a trail and tracks in the fresh snow where somebody had pulled back from a listening post. So we knew this attack was no longer a surprise to anybody.
There was a burst of machine-gun fire from a different direction. That burst killed one person, seriously wounded three of us, and superficially wounded four or five others. Then the two machine guns just kept firing at us. It’s what you call being “pinned down.” My first thought on being hit was, “It wasn’t supposed to happen.” But it had happened, and there I was. There was little that I could do in the condition I was in (a bullet through both thighs), but we did extricate what few we could and got down behind the hedge with the rest of the troops. I wanted the reserve squad to flank with the bazooka and try to neutralize one or more of the positions. The squad leader was a little more respectful of the fire than he was of me, so not very much happened. It was four or five hours later before another company was able to flank the positions and neutralize the machine guns and take us out. That was the end of the war for me.
Pat Watkins, Army Special Forces, Vietnam
We took off from an aircraft carrier in the Tonkin Gulfand went into the Son Tay prisoner of war camp. There [p. 30]was a Chinese engineer unit there when we went in. They were disorganized. They had their weapons locked up in the arms room. We were shooting them like fish in a barrel. The only casualty we took was a guy who shot himself in the foot. We captured seven Chinese. They were later used in an exchange for some pilots who had been shot down over an island that was part of China. The operation wasn’t completely unproductive because we did get some people that our government could barter with to get our people out.
Spencer J. Palmer,10 chaplain, Korea
I was eating at the mess hall one day and over the loud speaker I heard, “Chaplain Palmer, report to the emergency room.” I went to the emergency operating room of the Twenty-first Station Hospital. As I reached that room a handsome, fine young man, a dark-headed kid, was dragged off a helicopter that had just arrived. There was blood all over the place. It turned out that he’d been shot accidentally by a friend in a night security run. I remember the young man lying there on that table, grabbing my hand and yelling out, “Chaplain, I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die. I’m afraid of death. Just think, I won’t see my mother again. Save me, Chaplain. I don’t want to die.” Then he died.
David L. Evans, Army infantryman, World War II
After the Battle of the Bulge, we moved across the Saar River into Germany. We were nearing a crossroads in [p. 31]a small town when I heard the shell coming straight toward us. I felt it was a 105-millimeter shell that would fall short, and then it kept on whistling and I thought it must be a 120-millimeter mortar that must be going over. And then it dawned on me, when it was too late to move or anything else, it’s a 150-millimeter shell and it’s coming straight in. I suppose the only thing that saved me was the fact that it must’ve hit a wire across the road, because it went off about thirty-five feet in front of me and about fifteen feet high in the air. I didn’t hear anything; I just saw the big orange splash with all—well, the paintings you see of the infernal smoke mixed in with all that lurid flame—and that’s just what it looked like. I could see the smoke, I could see the flash of the flame, and with my peripheral vision I could see sparks flying across the street right in front of me and all around, and then everything just cut off totally at that moment.
Then I realized that I was on my back looking up at the bottom of a trailer. I tried to figure out where I was, and then I thought, “Well, I’m okay. I don’t feel anything, so I must not have been hurt.” And so I was lying on my back, and I reached down with my hand and put it on my leg and three fingers went down inside, and then I realized you don’t always feel it when you get hit. So I felt around and I could touch a piece of shrapnel about the size of a quarter. What I found out later was that the shrapnel that had hit me was larger than a silver dollar, but it was spinning when it hit. It went down and touched the bone and came back out and almost came outside the skin.
I looked around for Cone, my buddy, and the prisoners we’d been guarding. Then I saw that the prisoners had been right under the shell when it went off. Now there was nothing. They looked like just big blobs of hamburger out there in the middle of the street. Cone was lying about ten feet away from me. He’d taken a piece of shrapnel in the ankle. He wasn’t hurt too seriously, but he was convinced that he’d been disfigured—this was the thing that he’d [p. 32]talked to me about for weeks before. He’d carried so many maimed soldiers around, and he said he’d rather die than be maimed, and he was convinced that both legs were blown off. He couldn’t feel anything and he was so convinced that he went into shock. A couple of guys ran out from a nearby house to help us. They were running a large radio in there and heard the shell go off. They didn’t see us at first, but then they spotted us and one of them rushed over and kept telling me, “Help me carry this guy in,” and I kept saying, “I can’t, I’m wounded.”
“Come on, get up and help me carry this guy.”
And I kept saying it and saying it, and finally I grabbed his hand and pushed it down into my leg, and he said, “You’re hit. Why didn’t you tell me?”
So he got somebody else to help him with Cone and they called for a jeep to come up and take him back. They had one other badly wounded fellow about a quarter of a mile away, and they put the two of them on the jeep. They didn’t have any room for me, so I had to walk to the aid station. I don’t know how I ever did it, but I didn’t feel anything at the time. There was just enough shock in the leg to tighten the capillaries, so I didn’t bleed. The shrapnel had also severed the main nerve down the front part of the leg so I didn’t feel anything.
I was able to walk back, and I suppose I would’ve gone all the way back to the hospital without any problem if Cone hadn’t died. In the ambulance on the way to the hospital I realized the hand I was holding was turning cold. I was sitting there holding his hand, and when I’d realized what had happened I fainted. When I came to I was back in England.
Lincoln R. Whitaker,11 Army infantryman, World War II
I remember an occasion when we were in a foxhole. [p. 33]Two of us were guarding together. A man named Betts and I were talking about life and death. He was from Pennsylvania. He had emotional problems from time to time. On this particular occasion they’d sent a German patrol out and the patrol had come very close to us. We were forced to use grenades to drive them off. We didn’t dare fire our rifles because they could see the muzzle blast of our guns and zero in on us. We would’ve been helpless at that point. So we did everything with grenades whenever a patrol would come into our lines.
We drove the patrol off, and as we sat there pondering what might have happened, Betts went crazy. He jumped out of his foxhole without his gun and started running toward the enemy lines. He said, “I’ll kill everyone of those dirty S.O.B.s.” It fell my duty to jump out and try to save the man, because he was running right towards enemy lines approximately two hundred yards from us.
I know I chased him a good fifty to seventy-five yards before I caught him. Of course, we didn’t know whether or not there’d be mine fields out there. I gave him the old football tackle and took him down to the ground. I physically took him back to the foxhole.
Later I took him back to company headquarters and told the captain to send him back to the States for mental and physical evaluation. They sent him to a hospital, but the doctors always sent him back to us. I don’t know how many times I sent that poor guy back. He wasn’t physically and mentally adjusted to accept combat. He was a menace and a danger to all of us who had to serve with him, even though it wasn’t his fault. He just couldn’t handle it mentally. The army didn’t recognize those things. They would [p. 34]turn right around and send him back into combat time after time. He ended the war with us. He’s still alive today. I hear from him through Christmas cards. I felt sorry for him because he was unable to really cope with combat.
Jay Dell Butler,12 Army infantryman, World War II
Our two machine guns and the company I was attached to were assigned to walk right straight toward town without shooting back. The other two companies were to go around on the west side and walk through the town shooting from the hip at anything that moved. This was at eleven o’clock at night. So we started toward that town and got pretty close to it. Then the other companies started walking through the town, shooting from the hip. When you get every man shooting, it doesn’t matter what he sees, he just shoots. If you see something, then of course you shoot, but the main idea is to shoot and walk. So that’s what they did. They were lined up. I don’t know how far apart they were; five to ten feet apart. When you start to shoot, then you start to holler and cuss. You kind of scream, yell. You could hear that roar of war. You just can’t imagine that sound. Those men were walking and shooting. That’s the way they took that town. Everything, including basements, was ripped up as they went through. They were throwing in grenades.
The Germans had about five or six men on the north side of town, trying to protect it. But we weren’t shooting. We were trying to get in there with our machine guns. So we just walked, and they’d shoot at us, and we’d hit the ground and get up and go again, and they could hear us [p. 35]coming in the dark. So they’d just shoot in the dark toward us. This one time, I saw a fellow to my left, and I saw the flame of his rifle, and with the rest of them I jumped in the ditch to get out of the rain of the bullets. They were popping over our heads just like fire crackers.
As we got up to go, I looked to the right and saw another rifleman shooting at us, too. I could see the flame of his rifle. Just as I turned my head to the right, I got the bullet. I guess turning my head to the right saved me, because the bullet touched my jaw and it entered in through the top of my shoulder. The bullet went through me, but on its way, it broke my collar bone and top rib, and my rib punctured my left lung, and the bullet split the shoulder blade in my back.
So there I was in that ditch full of water. I couldn’t get up. I don’t know why, I guess it was a shock or something. The ditch water was ice cold, I knew that. Everybody had to go off and leave me. I said, “Lieutenant, I’m hit.”
He says, “Ahuh.”
I hollered at James Bradley and said, “I’m hit.”
He says, “Ahuh.”
But they had to leave me, and I understood that, so I didn’t feel bad that they’d go off and leave me out there in the middle of the field, because I knew they had to keep going. So I was left out there alone in the dark, in that ice water, and I couldn’t see anywhere. I heard one guy up the ditch a ways holler, “Medic,” so that’s what I did. Sure enough, four medics came up from behind us with stretchers. They knew we were getting into it, so they had the medics behind us, ready with stretchers. They were pretty scared boys. They weren’t used to getting into battles. The guy up the ditch a ways, he was shot in the ankle. So the medics went up there to see him, and made sure he was all right, and then they came back and got me because I was hit worse.
They picked me up and put me on a stretcher and put me on their shoulders and started me back. They were going to take me to a M.A.S.H. [Mobile Army Surgical Hospital] [p. 36]unit. Just as I got up on their shoulders, the Germans threw in a mortar. It landed 150 feet from us. It scared them so bad that they all dropped to the ground and I rolled off the stretcher. It was kind of comical because I got back up on the stretcher myself. It seems to me that if I could get on the stretcher myself, I could’ve got out of that ditch. Then I noticed that I couldn’t move my arm. I reached over, grabbed my sleeve, and pulled my arm up on me. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it.
They took me back to the unit where they cut my clothes off, and I suppose they figured I wasn’t going to make it because I was shot up pretty bad, and they wouldn’t take my boots off. My boots were full of that ice water, and my feet were freezing right off, but they wouldn’t take my boots off, so I suppose that’s one sign that they didn’t think I’d live. Then a minister came up and had a word of prayer over me, and when I said, “Amen,” he was kind of surprised.
Chris Velasquez, Navy combat photographer, Vietnam
The only wounds I ever received were from shrapnel. I was never hit by a round of ammunition. A round would tear a hole in a person. When I took a hit to my forearm I never even knew I was hit, I was so caught up in what I was doing. I took a few steps forward and noticed that my right side felt soaked. At first I thought I was perspiring, but then I felt my whole pant leg was soaked. I felt blood squishing in my boot and I thought I must have wet my pants. I didn’t give it a second thought because there was a lot of that going on. Ijustkept doing my job.
The corpsmen saw me, rushed over and tried to get me to lay down so they could take care of me, and I said, “No, no, no, I’m all right.” When I finally looked around, the muscle inside was starting to come out. It looked purple and ghastly. It looked like bubble gum! That’s just exactly what the muscle looked like. They told me to lay down again, so this time I did. Then it started to hurt.
[p. 37]Lincoln R. Whitaker, Army infantryman, World War II
One time we were fighting fiercely to take the town of Krefeld, Germany. They had tank pits surrounding the town, so we couldn’t get our tanks in there. It was up to the infantry to take it. We had to go through these mine fields with booby-trapped tank barricades. If a tank got close to these it would blow them up. We got through them and were crossing the field. At the end of the field were brick and stone courtyards. There was machine-gun cross fire across that field from both corners. When we started moving across the field, we just ran as fast as we could. The men behind us were trying to knock out those machine guns with covering fire. They didn’t succeed until we got into the town. My squad got right up next to the wall. We took a bayonet and put it on the end of a gun and poked a helmet up over that wall, and it got blown off immediately.
Our job was then to figure out how we were going to get over that wall and secure some part of that ground so the rest of the troops could come. We had to get in there and shut the machine guns off. Two of us would stand there and have a man run up and jump into our hands and we’d try to flip him over the wall before they could open fire. We got the first man over and we tossed his gun over to him. Got the second man over, and the third man and the fourth. We didn’t have any casualties getting over that wall.
When we finally secured the town we found that twelve-, thirteen-, and fourteen-year-old German kids were guarding it. We took them prisoner. They were fanatical. They’d been brainwashed so terribly that they were absolutely fanatical.
That night, when we finally had a chance to regroup, secure our positions, and wait for daylight to take the rest of the town, I discovered that I’d had two bandoleers of ammunition shot off from my chest. I had bullet grooves through the front of my clothes and two buttons shot off. I also had four bullet holes in one pant leg of my fatigues. Yet I was untouched by any bullets. I felt very fortunate.
[p. 38]There were a lot of boys who found that they had wounds after we’d gotten in there and got settled down. One boy had been shot through the leg but wasn’t even aware that he’d been shot until I noticed that his boot was bloody. We took his pant legs off and found that he’d been wounded. Another man had been shot through the lung and wasn’t even aware that he’d been shot. He said he just had a little sting in his chest.
Dennis E. Holden,13 Marine infantryman, Vietnam
One day I was on patrol, walking point14 along this trail, with a man walking behind me called the “slack man.” He’s the one watching what was going on in case you missed something. As I was walking along I felt a thump: something hit me in the back and knocked me over. I reached around and felt my back to see if I’d been hit and there was blood all over me. What had hit me was the slack man’s leg. He was seven or eight feet behind me and his leg had been blown off and had hit me in the back. This shook me up pretty badly. There was all kinds of shooting going on. There was screaming and yelling from all around. The shooting was so severe that I couldn’t even get back seven feet to tie off my slack man’s leg. He bled to death. As I was getting to my knees, a Viet Cong [VC] jumped out from beside the trail and smacked me in the face with the butt of his gun. Why he didn’t shoot me, I’ll never know. I rolled over, raised my M-1 rifle and emptied the clip into him. Today I wear a bridge where that VC knocked my teeth out.
[p. 39]George L. Adams,15 Army wheeled-vehicle mechanic, Vietnam
While on perimeter guard we stood our duty in a bunker. The bunker was protected by fifty-five-gallon drums of a jelly-gasoline solution called “fou gas.” The fifty-five-gallon drum sat on a one-pound stick of dynamite and had a white phosphorus grenade sitting on top of it. The “fou gas” was detonated by a Claymore mine charger. There were twelve Claymore anti-personnel mines on each side of the bunker, so there was quite a bit of armament used to protect the bunker. There was about forty-five feet of bare earth in front of the bunker, and then the first of five rows of concertina wire began. Concertina wire is a razor sharp coil of wire. Coils were stacked in rows, two coils on the ground and one on top. The rows of wire were spaced ten feet apart with trip flares on the ground underneath.
One night I was alone in the bunker. There was a requirement that two men be on duty at all times, but this particular night the individual who was assigned to me was out on patrol. A thick fog came in, and I couldn’t see out to the first row of concertina. I was in the bunker for about five hours without anyone to talk to, not knowing what was in front of me, and being alone, I became really nervous. At about 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. I could hear something in the wires. I didn’t know whether I was just hearing this or if there was really something out there. I left the bunker and moved out to the sides so that I could hear better. I definitely heard something moving through the concertina wire out in front, but I never was able to see what it was. At one point I heard what sounded like a kettle drum over in the direction of our “fou gas.” It sounded like someone was trying [p. 40]to take the white phosphorous grenade off the top of the “fou gas” container. I started yelling in that direction and giving orders like I was sending people in that direction. I heard some commotion and then nothing else; it was silent.
When daybreak came and the fog had lifted, the other individual returned from patrol and we went out to the area to see what had happened. We found signs that indicated someone had crawled through the full length of the concertina wire without setting off the trip flares. Someone had, in fact, been working on the grenade. We found where they’d moved the grenade. I guess my yelling and acting like there were other people with me scared the individual off. We found the areas where he came in and where he went out, but he didn’t actually get anything. Out on the farthest part of our concertina wire, the trip flares had been disengaged. The flares were set up on a butterfly mechanism so that if the wire had been pulled too far or cut, it would’ve been tripped. They’d immobilized the butterfly and cut the wire so they could go through it. A lot of stories ran through my mind about people who went out on guard duty and the next day, when the second shift came out to relieve them, they were found with their throats cut.
David L. Evans, Army infantryman, World War II
One night we heard a group of German tanks moving around on the ridge that we were facing, and when the very first light of dawn finally started to show I looked out with my binoculars and I couldn’t believe it. There were five German tanks sitting right out there on the ridge straight in front of me a quarter of a mile away. And then I realized what had happened. They’d been sent against our second battalion, which was on the far side of the ridge about a half a mile beyond. They’d apparently gone out during the night and gotten onto the ridge facing the battalion and then decided to spend the night and attack in the morning. They didn’t know we were on the other side, so [p. 41]they just came over and the tank crews were spread around on the ground sleeping. The tanks were completely unmanned, just sitting there.
When I realized what the situation was, I decided that if we tried firing and getting the range, they’d just jump in the tanks and go and that would be the end of that. So I called around to all the headquarters and fire control centers I could and they coordinated fire from every cannon and all the howitzers that were attached to the division or part of the division that were in the area. We had about twelve 155-millimeter Long Tom guns that had been assigned to the division from army artillery, and they were all in the vicinity. So we calculated to have all the artillery that we could summon fire time-on-target air bursts over the tanks, first of all, to get rid of the tank crews. They fired three rounds, here and there, coming in different whistles. Then everything went off at once and just shook the whole hillside. Then the second round went off and then the third. By that time the tank crews were running in circles falling down all over the place as the rounds went off. The ones who survived ran over the ridge. They came under fire from the second battalion, which had been alerted. They finally took off along the ridge. Some of them got away. But we had set all five of the tanks on fire.
Lincoln R. Whitaker, Army infantryman, World War II
When we got to the aid station the nurses asked my companion if he was all right. He indicated that he was fine. His name was Scales. He was a little country boy from down in the southern states somewhere. I said to him, “It’s going to be daylight before long. If we don’t get back to the holes we won’t get there today because we’ll be in broad sight of the enemy.” We got up to move and he said, “Boy, I’m stiff and sore.” I said, “Let me look at you.” I examined him and found he had a bullet hole through his back that he wasn’t even aware of. I took him back into the aid station and told him to report there.
[p. 41]I found out later that this man sat all through the night at that aid station and never complained to the surgeons or the people in the hospital unit about his wound. Finally, after they’d taken care of all the wounded we’d brought in, one of the physicians walked out and said, “Can I help you?” He said, “I’ve got this little hurt in my back. I’d like you to take a look at it.” It was a chest wound and the doctor said later that he was probably one of the worst wounded men there, but he didn’t want to go ahead of anyone else. He wanted the rest of the men to be taken care of before he was, yet he had the most serious wound of any of them.
David L. Evans, Army infantryman, World War II
At night we had to go out and lie in the snow covered fields outside the village so if the Germans attacked we could see them coming and be in a position to cut them down with automatic weapons and run back into the village. So we’d put on all the clothes we had—field jacket, with an overcoat across that, a little woolen cap under the helmet, and so on—and lie down on the sheet and pull it up around us so that we wouldn’t stand out too much in the snow. Everybody was automatically on guard all night, every night. Then during the day they’d attack with tanks and blow the place apart. During the daytime they’d be attacking and at night we would be out there, so for seven days we hardly slept. That’s the most exhausted I’ve ever been in my life.
Lincoln R. Whitaker, Army infantryman, World War II
The fighting was very fierce. We fought our way to within a short distance of Berlin. We then crossed the Ruhr River. When we got to the Ruhr River, the Germans were on the opposite shore defending their positions. We brought in enough artillery to lay down a barrage to cover every square yard from the far edge of the river for five hundred [p. 43]yards deep with one 155-millimeter shell, and we thought no one could survive.
We eventually crossed the river in small boats, a squad at a time. We no sooner hit the water than the guns were roaring so loud that we couldn’t hear ourselves think. We lost a lot of our good, strong combat men to nervous breakdowns at that point, and some of them were sent back. Some of them went berserk, and we had to hold them down and get them back out of the fighting so that we could continue on. We got across the river all right in my boat, but unfortunately a lot of them didn’t make it.
We were to regroup on the far shore and march to a certain area where we were to meet. We were marching down a highway with hedgerows. It was dark, because we crossed the river before daylight. I was bringing up the rear guard with my squad. As we were marching I saw machine guns bristling out of these hedgerows that could’ve just cut us to pieces. I made my way to the head of the line and got hold of the company commander. I said, “Do you see what’s in those hedgerows?”
He said, “Yes, keep quiet and keep moving.”
Why the Germans never opened fire on us we’ll never know because we could’ve been annihilated right there in just a couple of minutes. It’s an eerie feeling to walk in front of the enemy when you can reach out and touch a machine gun on the nose and you know the enemy can start bursting those things any moment.
Danny L. Foote, Marine artillery, Vietnam
There were many times when we had people working with us who were Vietnamese, and then at night you’d kill somebody who was trying to penetrate your perimeter and it turned out to be somebody that you knew. So it was extremely frustrating to realize that you didn’t really know who the enemy was. You felt extremely vulnerable. In a heated situation, your number one priority was to protect your life. You start thinking that you don’t know who the [p. 44]enemy is, and you don’t even know how old the enemy is, because I’ve seen Viet Cong ten and eleven years old, and I’ve seen Marines killed by nine-and ten-year-old kids. When you get in that atmosphere, your only instinct is to protect yourself at whatever cost.
Ninety to 95 percent of the fighting in Vietnam was done at night. That’s something I don’t think people realize. During the day our enemy blended in with townspeople, so it was foolish for him to try to do anything. The prime time for him to fight was at night.
From time to time we’d get ambushed, which usually meant sporadic sniper fire or machine guns set up to open up on you when you moved into a certain area. I’d say 98 percent of the time you never saw who was shooting at you. You just felt the effects of it. It would last for thirty seconds to a minute, and then it would be all over, and you’d be running around on adrenaline with nothing to shoot at. It was extremely frustrating.
Walter H. Speidel,16 German Army Africa Corps, World War II
Fighting a war in the desert was similar to fighting on the open sea. One night, after we had taken Tobruk and had set up camp for the night on our advance into Egypt, tanks and trucks suddenly rattled through the camp. Our guards had heard them coming, had even recognized them [p. 45]as British vehicles, but had just let them drive through. Since we had never taken the time to put our insignia on the vehicles we had captured, nobody was ever quite sure if they were “friend” or “foe.”
We had something of a gentlemen’s agreement with the British not to start shooting unless we were in combat or if we were ordered to do so. For example, in battles when the front was moving back and forth, field hospitals would generally not be evacuated. The doctors and medics would continue their work, treating the wounded, whether German or British.
On at least one occasion I experienced this unofficial understanding. While in the desert near El Alamein trying to find and repair a broken cable, we were surprised by a British armored vehicle. The soldiers stopped, got out, waved, and came over to us. We talked for a while and then went our different ways. That was something I appreciated most and remember most vividly about the war in North Africa.
However, this could also be dangerous. During the final attack of the Allied forces on EI Alamein in October/November 1942, a British “Dingo” shot up our “jeep” even though we had started to wave when we had seen it approaching. Apparently, they had not heard about our gentlemen’s agreement. Luckily, only one of us was slightly injured, but we were stranded in the desert until a retreating German tank picked us up before nightfall.
Jerry L. Jensen,17 Army Special forces, Korea and Vietnam
They gave us an order to go out and neutralize a village. It was in an area that was strongly VC. The village [p. 46]itself was considered to be Viet Congo. We had been through there several times and had good experiences with the people. We didn’t want to kill these people. The order didn’t really say we had to kill them, it said “neutralize.”
We went in and talked to the chief and told him what our orders were, that we were to neutralize this area, and asked him if he knew what it meant. He shook his head, yes, he knew what it meant.
I said, “Why don’t we move you? We’ll move you about fifteen kilometers?” I even had some helicopters brought in. We moved the whole village. After they pulled out, we torched the area. It was neutralized. That’s how I handled that. I couldn’t see killing these people. They were good people. They were very strongly involved politically and they were anti-Saigon, but they weren’t VC.
Lincoln R. Whitaker, Army infantryman, World War II
A lot of our own artillery fired into us. As a result of our own artillery, many of our forward observers were killed. If the enemy could determine that there was a forward observer for artillery out there, they’d do everything they could to knock him out because they knew that the artillery then couldn’t be directed towards them. We stood as much chance of being hit with artillery as the enemy did. I remember three instances in which we were caught in the midst of a rolling barrage. A rolling barrage is where they fire a barrage of ammunition in front of the infantry as they move. The forward observer keeps that artillery fire going [p. 47]over our heads and lighting one hundred to two hundred yards in front of us, and then we’d move up behind it. If the forward observer gets killed, the orders are to keep moving. At that point you move right into your own artillery fire. We had a lot of men wounded in those types of situations.
Michael R. Johnson,18 Marine infantryman, Vietnam
One of our guys who was a short-timer, about to rotate home, took a patrol out. (You only spent thirteen months in Vietnam, which was one of the major problems there, I think.) Since he was about ready to go home, he wasn’t about to run a night ambush out where there might be some gooks. He was going to run a night ambush somewhere real safe where there’d be no chance of seeing anyone.
A lot of guys did that. They’d take a whole patrol of eight, twelve, fourteen men, lay them down and say, “If you make a noise, I’ll shoot you. You don’t make any noise. You lay there. You take care of the radio and if it talks to you, you give the required signals to tell them we’re okay and we’re in our area and everything is secure.” The whole time they’d be maybe one hundred meters away from the base in the tallest, thickest brush they could find, hiding.
So this one night he ran us out to an area right in front of our base. It couldn’t have been fifty meters away. We all got into this tall brush and lay down and he assigned, “You’re awake. You’re asleep. You’re awake. You’re asleep.” [p. 48]He’d rotate every couple of hours. Around one o’clock the base got hit big. I mean the base really got hit. We could hear things going on around us while we hid in the bushes. The base was rocketed. Da Nang, which was near our base, was rocketed. They blew up our artillery, so our artillery couldn’t take care of the rockets. The rockets could fire for a long time before we could get something trained on them to knock them out.
So here we are lying in front of our base, all this massive firepower pouring out into where the gooks were supposed to be, and they are firing at us because we are right in front. We were scared to death, and we couldn’t do any shooting. We could hear the gooks running all around us, and I suspect they knew we were there and just avoided us because they figured we’d be killed along with them anyway. The big bases behind us fired up a bunch of big artillery flares that hang in the air for fifteen minutes from big, big parachutes. Those flares light up everything just like it’s day. I mean it’s so light you could read a letter. With twenty of those all around the air, it’s just like daytime all around the base.
Here we are lying down in the weeds, and it’s daytime all of a sudden. We were worrying about who was going to see us—the gooks or our hill? And how was our hill going to know who we were, since we weren’t where we were supposed to be? We couldn’t call our hill and say, “Hey, we’ve committed some kind of military treason because we aren’t in the right spot.” All we could do was lie there and keep dead quiet and hide—completely hide, I mean just make ourselves invisible if we could. It was a really tight situation in which we couldn’t win. We couldn’t shoot, couldn’t run, couldn’t do anything but lie there.
[p.49]Calvin William Elton, Jr.,19 Army Air Forces aircraft mechanic, World War II
We were at Nichols field in the Philippines at the time the war broke out. I was on the crew of a B-40 aircraft. We were digging a foxhole. We were parked next to a softball diamond and we were ordered the morning of 8 December 1941 to dig foxholes. We decided that we’d dig it over by the softball diamond because it was away from our aircraft. We first agreed, “Let’s dig it right here on the pitcher’s mound.” Then we decided, “No, let’s not do that, because it will ruin the diamond.” We went over behind third base and dug it. Three of us dug a large foxhole that we could get into. At about eleven o’clock in the morning air raid sirens sounded, so we all jumped into the foxholes.
While we were still down in the foxhole we heard the bombs dropping. One dropped right near us. We donned gas masks because of our inexperience and everything. At that time I was nineteen years old, and the other fellows were just about the same age. We donned our gas attack gear. We had those on for about ten or fifteen minutes and we decided to take them off because everything had settled.
After about forty-five minutes, when the bombs stopped dropping and they sounded an all-clear, we crawled out of the foxhole. The foxhole was four to six feet deep and about six or eight feet long. Right on the pitcher’s mound there was a big crater. A bomb had hit right there. All across the rice paddy you could see bomb craters. We were right in line with the bomb craters. We were between two of them.
[p. 50]Eugene E. Campbell,20 chaplain, World War II
We were still heading north towards Berlin when I got orders to report to our headquarters in Fulda. I got to within ten miles of the city where a bridge was blown out. I talked to a farmer who was working in a field. He said there was a smaller bridge on a dam and he showed me where it was. My driver and I were all alone. We had a carbine with us, and that was the total amount of protection we had. We were under the impression that the whole region was under American control. Patton had sent his tanks down the main highway and taken the main cities, and then the infantry regiments like ours would come in and occupy the cities. He’d push on ahead and the infantry regiment would move forward on each side of his tank force and capture the little towns. That way we’d sweep across Germany. So the city of Fulda had been taken, and the Twenty-sixth Infantry Division occupied it. We were assigned to clean up the little towns on one side of the thrust. I crossed the bridge and came into a little town and I noticed that people were hanging out their sheets. I knew that this is the way Germans air their bedding. They do it almost every day. I heard some small arms fire, but it didn’t seem like it was very close. We even had a flat tire in one town and we stopped and fixed it. We went through another town and finally drove into Fulda, but we couldn’t find the Seventy-first Infantry [p. 51]Division. We found the Twenty-sixth Division Headquarters and finally got to talk to the Commanding Officer. He asked, “What are you doing in here?”
I answered, “I had orders to come here, as this is where our headquarters was supposed to be.” He said, “There’s been a delay and they aren’t in here yet. By the way, how did you get here?”
I showed him on the map and he laughed and said, “Congratulations, chaplain, you just conquered two towns.” I didn’t know it, of course, but they were surrendering when they were hanging out those white sheets. I thought they were just airing their bedding. I asked him what would be the best way to get to my headquarters and he said, “You need to go on the other side of the river.” He gave me directions and we headed back. On the way back I passed our artillery outfit, which was setting up for a night attack. I saw German soldiers lying dead with their heads blown off. It was horrible. It was about ten kilometers back when I found one of our infantry divisions that was marching off for a night attack. I’d been all through that area and didn’t even know that it was German territory.
Timothy Hoyt Bowers-Irons, chaplain, World War II and Korea
I remember one day close to the end of the war. Maintenance headquarters was up in a big old castle up in those tall mountains. I’d gone back to one of the other outfits and on the way back we saw some deer over in a field. I thought, well, fresh venison might be nice. So I said to Riley, my driver from Iowa, “Hold up a minute.” He jumped out with his rifle and both of us felt a certain kind of feeling I don’t know why you get it, whether it’s some secret sixth or seventh sense, but somehow you feel things aren’t right. Maybe they are never right. Anyway, we took a couple of shots and I said, “Riley, let’s get out of here.” We got in that old outfit and away we went. We got up to headquarters, and about an hour later here came an armored car patrol that had picked up what was left of a whole company of [p. 52]Germans. When I talked to them, I found out they’d been up in the timber in the hill right behind us trying to decide whether to shoot us or surrender to the two of us while we were trying to shoot those deer.
David R. Lyon,21 Army artillery, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam
The achievements of which men are capable were evident at some of the bridges across a major river in northern Korea. Our Air Force took pictures of these spans with rails hanging down from the bank that they’d blown out with bombing attacks and were satisfied that no supplies were getting across the bridge. When we approached that bridge, I was in an advance party and they were still contesting it. We managed to survive only by being in the remnants of the only building in town with concrete walls, the vault area of a bank where large quantities of Korean currency were used to build fires and cook and to otherwise exist in the increasingly cold part of the year.
We were able to see how each night the North Koreans reconstructed the bridge, ran trains over it, and sent supplies on to the forces south of the bridge, and then apparently destroyed the bridge again before morning. This is something that boggles the mind. It was a manifestation of the enormous skill, dedication, and effort that can be brought to bear on tasks that are thought to be impossible.
[p. 53]Edmond S. Parkinson, Army Corps of Engineers, Vietnam
The old French colonial roads were narrow, curved, worn out, and caused considerable damage and congestion to Vietnamese commercial traffic as the war raged on. Our job was to eliminate the meandering of the road by constructing new cuts and fills, building new bridges, providing proper drainage, widening the traffic way, and paving the new road with asphalt.
Strangely, the Viet Cong seemed appreciative of our efforts in these upgrades and used the roads each night after we’d retreated into our secure base compounds. For this reason—the fact that we were perceived as contributing to the country rather than tearing it apart—the VC didn’t particularly bother us; they seemed to appreciate what we were doing. It became a war of schedules. We, the U.S. troops, would use the road in the daytime, and the VC would use it at night. However, they had to let us know that they were always there and could wield their power whenever they desired. They harassed us with ambush attacks on the road periodically. We were fired upon in the supply and construction convoys we ran from base to base, and they probed our base camp perimeter defenses on a weekly basis with sapper attacks.22
Hyde L. Taylor, Army Airborne, Vietnam
I remember we were coming out of the mountains one time and were supposed to stop at a Special Forces camp that had a few rice paddies around it. We didn’t work in open areas very much in the unit I was in. As we came out of the mountains and down into this open area, we thought for sure that the Special Forces camp would have this area all secured. We just let security go. We brought in all of our security and we were walking down a road just [p. 54]like farmers going to work. We walked right into an ambush. They ambushed us maybe two hundred yards from the camp.
The road was higher than the rice paddies. The Viet Cong were on one side of the road and everybody jumped off the other side. The radio operator and I jumped on the wrong side. We jumped on the side of the road that the fire was coming from. They had us pinned to the bank. I remember him cussing me out for making him jump on the wrong side of the road. It was almost in jest. Nobody was hurt and we were lucky. We were very close friends. Several times we were in that same situation. All of this firing was going on and here he was cussing me out for jumping on the wrong side of the road.
Douglas T. Hall,23 Army Special Forces, Vietnam
As a kid I’d seen several war movies in which a soldier would say, “Here, sarge, take my stuff and this letter. I just know I’m going to get it in this next battle.” And then he’d get killed. I thought, “Well, if ever have a feeling like that about a mission, I’m not going to go.” Near the end of my tour, we did get a mission, and I had a funny feeling. I thought, “I shouldn’t go on this mission.” I told this to Jim Vessells, my team sergeant, that I had this funny feeling. I said, “I promised myself that if I have a funny feeling, a negative feeling about a mission, I wouldn’t go.” Jim said, “I’m not going to make you go, I’ll find somebody else.” He was pretty understanding about it in the sense that although [p. 55]he couldn’t understand why I said that, he wasn’t going to force me to go with him. So I sat and stewed upon it for about an hour; then I changed my mind and said, “Okay, I’ll go.”
Jim said, “Fine!”
We packed up all of our gear and headed off to Bu Dop, which was Jim’s old Special Forces camp. From there we’d run our operation.
On that operation several things happened. The first thing was that we moved out to the river that separated Vietnam and Cambodia. At that river we sat up for the night with the idea of crossing at a fording area the next morning. When we got up the next morning, I tried to raise our air cover on the radio and I couldn’t get anything. I checked out the radio and I couldn’t make it work. We couldn’t operate without the radio, so we decided we’d go back into Bu Dop. When we got back to Bu Dop and were checking out the radio, we discovered that the only thing that was wrong with it was that the antenna post was loose, which normally would’ve been the first thing that I would’ve checked out. But I didn’t check it out that time. I tightened up the post and everything was fine. While we were sitting there getting ready to go back in to complete the mission, one of the camp spies came in. He reported that he’d crossed that same ford earlier that morning and had walked right into a North Vietnamese Army [NVA] patrol that was lying there in ambush. We knew that they would’ve been there when we’d planned to cross. Had the radio not caused us a problem, we would’ve walked right into them that morning.
If that didn’t teach me, nothing would. So we turned around and made arrangements for the next day to go out with a company that was going on a sweep operation. We’d be the point element, and when we got to the border area we’d just slip away from them. While we were the point element and getting close to the river, the company ran into an NVA patrol and we got caught in the crossfire. That’s [p. 56]where I got wounded. I suppose I’d call it a premonition that I ignored.
Dallis A. Christensen,24 Army Airborne glider pilot, World War II
After we’d all landed, we tried to get the small groups together into large groups and to orient ourselves by maps and by the terrain of the ground. Then we headed for the area where our whole division was supposed to assemble. We had to fight our way there. We were surrounded by Germans and the Germans were surrounded by other Americans. We finally got to our assembly area by evening after we’d fought our way along all day. We established our unit, got our security out, and found out what the situation was like. I happened to be commanding a heavy weapons unit. We set it up and had a rifle platoon for security.
Unknown to us there was a German group in a barracks in a wooded area a couple of hundred yards away watching us dig in. They watched me kind of half-lying on the ground giving orders where I wanted the weapons and stuff put. They pretty much knew then that I was a leader, at least in the unit. One of them opened up on me with a Schmeizer machine pistol that shot about one thousand rounds per minute. It missed me by about six inches; it was just like a sewing machine going by. I was lucky.
[p. 57]Jerry L. Jensen, Army Special Forces, Korea and Vietnam
We had two teams working in one area. This was down in the delta. In the delta you are mostly in swamp, with water up to your neck. It’s pretty messy. We sent two teams in during this one operation. Charlie25had been in part of the delta. We were going in really to feel him out, to see what strength there was in that area. They put two teams together—two reinforced teams—so there were twenty-four troops. We went in from one area and the other team came in from their area. We met in a relatively dry area (relatively dry: if you lay in it you had to keep your head up).
There were some downed trees up ahead and as we approached them I rotated to point. We figured twenty minutes at point in the type of work we did seemed like a lifetime, and thirty minutes truly was; if you stayed at point for thirty minutes, your chances of being killed were probably around 80 or 90 percent. So we’d rotate about every twelve minutes.
I was at point, and finally we made contact with our other unit. I saw their point man. I signaled him to gather and meet. He came over. Of course, we’d gone forty to fifty meters ahead of our columns. We got out together and then we started moving over towards a little bit of high ground. It was out of the water and out of the muck. We started going over. I signaled him down and we started crawling in. We came up to some dead wood that had been knocked down or blown down. I started along this big, big log. I’m not quite sure what kind of wood it was, but it was hard wood. I was crawling along this thing, and I was going to look up to look over. To this day I remember there was just a voice that was as loud as can be: “Don’t put your head up. Flatten yourself.” I did, I just flattened myself right in the muck. I figured it was the other man who said it. Just at that [p. 58]time a machine gun raked the top of that log. They’d watched us and they were expecting us to pop our heads up. Obviously it wasn’t the other man who told me not to put my head up, because he caught a bullet right between the eyes. If he would’ve said, “Keep your head down,” he wouldn’t have stuck his head up himself. I asked my column, “Did any of you guys yell?”
They said, “No, all we heard was the machine gun.”
Danny L. Foote, Marine artillery, Vietnam
I had one experience where I woke up in the middle of the night on the floor yelling, “Rockets!” and alerting my bunk mates that we were having incoming projectiles. We waited for something to happen, but nothing happened. Somebody said that Dan’s just having a bad dream or something. Then all of a sudden we started getting all these rockets, and part of our hooch26 was blown away. If we hadn’t been on the ground when the rockets came in, we would’ve sustained casualties. Why I woke up when I did I really don’t know.
Dallis A. Christensen, Army Airborne glider pilot, World War II
When we got our first taste of combat we were in a wooded area and I was company executive officer. I’d been given the assignment of taking the mortar sections of the company over to the edge of a grove of trees and setting them up. There was a foot of snow on the ground at that time. That was one of the worst winters Europe had in twenty-five years, and it was somewhat foggy, so we couldn’t see the Germans. I guess they could see us a little bit. Anyway they knew where we were and they were firing on us.
I and some of the men I was leading heard a barrage [p. 59]of German shells coming in, which happened every half hour or so. I jumped into a little foxhole on one side of a log. Two or three of the men in the mortar section hit the ground on the other side. They didn’t happen to hit a foxhole, so they just went down on the level ground. After the barrage was over, I got up and looked around. Just on the other side of the log, a shell had hit the tree above me. Because I was in the hole I was pretty well protected. I looked over on the other side of the log after the shelling had stopped, and there was one of our men. All there was left of him was just from the waist down; the top of him was gone.
Howard A. Christy, Marine infantryman, Vietnam
In March 1966, guerrilla warfare dominated the action in Vietnam. The Viet Cong operated throughout the country in small detachments carrying out raids of intimidation against the native populace and carrying out hit-and-run attacks and ambushes against U.S. and Republic of Vietnam [RVN] forces. It was still several months before the first large elements of the North Vietnamese Army crossed the Demilitarized Zone [DMZ].
The northern military zone was under the operational control of the marine corps, specifically the Third Marine Amphibious Force. The primary tactical element was the Third Marine Division, and I was the company commander of Company A of the First Battalion of the Ninth Marine Regiment of that division. Our primary mission was to root out the Viet Cong in the sectors assigned, then extend protection and assistance to the local people.
The Ninth Marines controlled a sector south of Da Nang, and the First Battalion controlled that part of the regimental sector that surrounded Hill 55, about fifteen miles southwest of Da Nang. The area was quite flat, dotted by numerous tiny agricultural villages separated by large rice and corn fields and coursed by several meandering rivers. Because of the flatness of the terrain, Hill 55 (fifty-five [p. 60]feet above sea level) somewhat dominated the surrounding area, and for this reason the battalion command post was located there.
On the morning of 21 March, Company A was given a mission of carrying out a “county fair” operation in one of the villages north of Hill 55. The village was quietly surrounded in the early morning darkness and at dawn troops entered the village in a “hammer and anvil” maneuver to trap any Viet Cong who might have been there (there were none), then waited for vehicles to arrive with food and medical support for the villagers. Two tanks and two amtracks27 came into the village with supplies, and the villagers were invited to take the food and to receive medical care. We settled into the day-long routine of the county fair.
In the meantime, Company C of the same battalion moved to a position about two miles to the west across a river that determined the north-south boundary between our two companies. As the operations of the county fair were quiet and I had little to do, I listened in on the battalion tactical radio net for anything of interest. At about noon, Company C ran into an unusually large Viet Cong force and a substantial fire fight ensued between Company C, on the west bank of the river, and the Viet Cong force, estimated at company strength,28 on the east bank. I alerted [p. 61]one of the platoons of my company to get ready to move and put the rest of the company on alert. A few minutes later the battalion commander ordered that one platoon be detached to battalion control and moved by helicopter to form a block position in the Company C area of operations. I detached the Third Platoon.
The Third Platoon was dropped in the vicinity of Le Son 5, a village on the east bank of the river on the west limit of my area of responsibility and just across from Company C’s battle position. But rather than being placed where they might have been an effective block, the helicopters dropped the platoon into a dry rice paddy virtually on top of the Viet Cong company engaged with Company C. It was a hopeless situation. Many men were hit as they jumped from the helicopters. Seven were killed outright. The enemy had at least four machine guns, which raked the paddy with fire; all the marines could do was scramble for cover. Those not already killed or wounded jumped into bomb craters here and there and pandemonium reigned. It was impossible to get control of themselves let alone attempt to gain fire superiority; too many unit leaders (including the platoon commander) were hit by the initial fire and both the platoon’s machine guns jammed and remained out of commission for the remainder of the battle.
Soon after the Third Platoon was detached, orders came to move the entire company into the fray at the river. We boarded the tanks and amtracks and headed due west to the river, where we jumped from the vehicles and quickly [p. 62]formed a skirmish line, two platoons abreast, the left platoon guiding on the river, and began to move north toward the firing. Within one hundred meters we met the lead element of a sizable VC force, those who had engaged with Company C. They’d apparently broken contact with Company C and, not anticipating the presence of any other marines in the vicinity, were withdrawing southward along the river bank—directly toward us. A desperate battle ensued at very close range, including hand-to-hand combat.
We didn’t know where the Third Platoon was or how it was faring. But as the company moved north up the river, a faint cry came over the battalion tactical net. It was a badly wounded marine, a radioman, calling for help. The battalion commander personally came up on the radio and began to talk soothingly to the wounded marine: “Now son, hold on; we’re coming to get you. Where are you?”
A faint reply, “I don’t know. I’m all alone. Everybody is either dead or evacuated. Please come and help.”
Eventually the battalion commander ascertained from the marine that a white-star-cluster signal flare was within his reach. The colonel explained how to employ it, and, at the count of three, the flare popped above me from a position only a few hundred meters away.
I told the colonel I had the flare in sight and that I was moving to that position with a small detachment. We found the wounded marine, alone and bleeding from a serious shoulder wound, lying among several dead troops. As there was no firing when we arrived, it was apparent that the enemy had left the field; indeed, they’d since met their fate upon running pell-mell into our skirmish line. We soon located two other pockets of live marines, still in their holes—one group of eleven men under the Third Platoon sergeant, and another group of five men.
I ordered every able-bodied troop to take firing positions and proceeded to call for a medevac [medical evacuation] helicopter for the wounded radioman. I needn’t have called. A medevac crew had been in and out of that [p. 63]field all afternoon. In at least five sorties they’d already lifted out all the twenty or so wounded and were coming back for the dead. I helped the medevac corpsman put the radioman and some of the dead marines on the helicopter.
In about a half hour the helicopter returned for the last of the dead. Again I helped hand up the bodies, which we had to dump in a heap in the main compartment. Since there was no room left, the corpsman had to sit on top of the bodies. As the helicopter lifted off, our eyes met and I perceived the overwhelming sadness in him; he seemed to be in anguish and I was deeply moved by his compassion and sorrow.
By late afternoon all again was quiet. The company linked back up and we moved toward a nearby village with the intention of establishing our position for the night, sending out the last of the wounded, and getting resupplied. (The troops, having just experienced their first heavy contact with the VC, had rather recklessly fired almost all their ammunition.) But as we approached, we received small arms fire from the village. We went to the ground, returned fire, and I called for artillery.
The battalion commander, knowing what we’d already experienced, told me I could have all the fire support I wanted. I answered that I wanted it all. First came 105-millimeter howitzer fire, then 155-millimeter field-gun fire, then eight-inch howitzers. The rounds screamed in from every direction and blasted that little village. Then the guns ceased firing and two sorties of jet aircraft came in, one with napalm and the other with machine guns and rockets, which set what was left of the village on fire.
Then out of the smoke came a Vietnamese family. There was a grandmother, horridly burned. There was a mother, who was carrying a badly injured little boy about five years of age. And there was a girl about nine, apparently unhurt. They’d been caught, probably out working in the fields, by the barrage and couldn’t get to the safety of the tunnels that honeycombed all the villages in the area. I [p.64]ordered an immediate medevac for the injured grandmother and boy.
The mother placed the little boy in my arms—I don’t know why—and as I held him he died. Shrapnel had penetrated his brain, judging from the deep hole in his forehead. The mother dropped to her knees, unhooked her long hair, and began to sway back and forth and wail in a manner that apparently is common for women in that culture. The little girl then went into a rage and beat her fists on me as I still held her dead brother. We stood there, stunned. All I could do was stammer that I was terribly sorry. Through an interpreter attached to the company, I tried to explain the previous battle and all the casualties we’d experienced—hoping somehow they’d understand and not hate me for what I’d done to them. It was pathetic. I think they could see how badly we felt, but they couldn’t see why we had thrown all the firepower of a mighty army at their little village.
That night, after we’d moved to another village, set up defenses, and I’d written a report of the battle, I went to the back of the amtrack to get some rest. I lay down among the packs taken from the casualties and unknowingly put my face in the brain matter splattered on the pack of one of the dead. It was a fitting end to the events of an unforgettable day.
John C. Norton, Jr.,29 Army infantryman, Vietnam
On 9 July 1972, I had my singularly most anxious experience. We’d been in heavy contact with the enemy that [p. 65]day. Late in the day, the North Vietnamese opened up with a mortar barrage that I’ll never forget. I was in a two•man foxhole. Fortunately, we’d cut some logs to put over top, so we had some overhead cover. I was down at one end of the hole and my counterpart, a South Vietnamese major, was at the other end of the foxhole. One of the mortar rounds came in and landed right on the corner of my position. When the round came in and landed and the explosion went off, our first reaction was, “This is it.” As I was lifted up and then thrown back into the bottom of the hole, I thought to myself, “It’s all over.” As I began to regain consciousness, I thought to myself, “I wonder where I’m going to be when I open my eyes.” I was totally amazed that I was still in the foxhole and still in one piece. My counterpart, as well, was kind of dazed. I got on the radio and got some air support to drop a few more bombs. The mortar fire quickly died down, but it looked as if we were going to be hit by a major attack that night. The reports were coming in from our security outposts that the enemy was moving in around us.
At that point I did something that I’d never done before. I found a little place there within our perimeter,30 a little bushy area where I could be alone. I got down on one knee and I said, really in desperation, “God, if you get me out of this situation in one piece, I want you to know that I’m willing to dedicate my life to your work.” And I thought to myself, “Gee whiz, that’s a tall statement coming out of you.” But I was totally sincere! And then I thought to [p. 66]myself, “Well I believe in God, but what would that require of me?” I thought, “Well, would I become a Catholic priest, or a Baptist missionary, or an army chaplain.” I had no idea. Regardless, I got back in my hole that night and I felt better for having done that. Little did I know that a year later I would join the Mormon church. For the moment I was totally wrung out from the day’s emotional drain. I leaned against the side of my foxhole and dozed off.
1. Hyde L. Taylor was born 30 October 1937 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Taylor graduated from Brigham Young High School and attended Brigham Young University and the College of Southern Utah (now Southern Utah State University) before he went to Vietnam. Taylor left his wife and two daughters (ages ten and nine) when he left on his tour of duty as a thirty-year-old. Taylor retired as a sergeant major from the U.S. Army in 1981. He currently works in property management.
2. Pat Watkins was born 20 October 1938 in Waynedotte, Michigan. He graduated from Sullivan (Indiana) High School and attended the University of Maryland and Oceanside Junior College before joining the Army Special Forces. Watkins was married, and he and his wife had a daughter (born in 1964), before he began his first tour of duty in Vietnam in 1965. A second daughter was born in 1967. Wounded after ten months of his first tour, Watkins returned to Vietnam for a second tour beginning in October 1967. Between his second and third tours in Vietnam, Watkins received a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. A second battle wound shortened Watkins’s third tour. Watkins, a life-long member of the Catholic church, retired as a mastersergeant from the U.S. Army in 1980. He worked for three years as the athletic equipment manager at the University of Utah before assuming a posi[p.23]tion at Hercules Aerospace in Salt Lake City; he is currently a supervisor of documentation and training at Hercules.
3. Wayne A. Warr was born 17 September 1946 in Payson, Utah. He graduated from Grand County High School in Moab, Utah. Warr began his military experience as an eighteen-year-old. He did a TDY (temporary duty tour) for three months in Vietnam in 1965. After a second tour of duty in 1967, Warr got married and had a son, who was six months old when Warr went on his third tour in 1970. After twenty-two years in the U.S. Army, Warr retired as a sergeant major. Warr is now a letter carrier with the U.S. Postal Service in Provo, Utah.
4. David L. Evans was born 13 June 1925 in Billings, Montana. He graduated from Pocatello (Idaho) High School. After spending a semester at the University of Idaho-South Branch (now Idaho State University), where he studied meteorology, the nineteen-year-old Evans joined the United States’ World War II effort. A Presbyterian at the time, Evans subsequently joined the LDS church in 1948. He also earned a doctorate in English and currently is a professor of English at Brigham Young University.
5. Norman Wade Sammis was born 5 October 1937 in Hackensack, New Jersey. After attending Hackensack High School, Sammis earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. As a married thirty-three-year-old Marine, Sammis participated in the Cuban Missile Crisis. At that time, Sammis was a member of the Methodist church; he joined the LDS church in 1971. Since his retirement as a major from the Marine Corps, Sammis has worked as the manager of End-User Computing Support for the LDS church.
In October 1962 the United States and the Soviet Union collided over Soviet placement of missiles in Cuba. The missiles, which would have reached the U.S. mainland, were dismantled after an American threat of force.
7. Timothy Hoyt Bowers-Irons was born 2 October 1915 in Nephi, Utah. After graduating from Juab High School in Nephi, Bowers-Irons attended Snow Junior College and Brigham Young University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Bowers-Irons and his wife had a six-month old daughter when he was drafted into the army in 1943. Bowers-Irons was commissioned as a chaplain in 1944 in the European Theatre of World War II. He also saw active duty seven years later in Korea. After retiring as a lieutenant colonel from the U.S. Army, Bowers-Irons ranched near Nephi for several years before poor health forced him into complete retirement.
9. Albert E. Haines was born 23 July 1922 in Pocatello, Idaho. He graduated from Carson High School in Carson City, Nevada. When he began his service in World War II at age twenty-one, Haines was married and had a one-year-old son. After retiring as a colonel from the army, Haines was the director of space utilization at Brigham Young University until he retired in 1987.
10. Spencer J. Palmer was born 4 October 1927 in Eden, Arizona. Following high school, Palmer attended Eastern Arizona College and Brigham Young University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. Palmer, who was single, served as a chaplain in the U.S. Army in the Korean War. After his military service, Palmer received a doctorate in history. A professor of religion at Brigham Young University, Palmer is currently on leave; he is serving as the president of the Seoul (Korea) LDS Temple.
11. Lincoln R. Whitaker was born 12 February 1920 in Willard, Utah. He graduated from Box Elder High School in Brigham [p.33]City, Utah. When he was twenty-three years old and married, Whitaker began his service in the U.S. Army. He and his wife had two children at the time, a three-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter. Following World War II, Whitaker received a doctorate in optometry. He is an optometrist in Gering, Nebraska.
12. Jay Dell Butler was born 6 July 1923 in Tetonia, Idaho. After graduating from Teton High School and attending Brigham Young University and the LDS Business College, Butler began his World War II service when he was twenty-one years old and single. Butler has worked as a farmer, meat cutter, merchant, and Soil Conservation Service officer. He is presently a church custodian.
13. Dennis E. Holden was born 5 November 1947 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. After graduating from Anaheim Union (California) High School, Holden went to Vietnam as a single nineteen-year-old. A life-long member of the Methodist church, Holden is the state education advisor for IBM in California.
15. George L. Adams was born 15 September 1949 in Provo, Utah. He graduated from Provo High School before going to Vietnam as a single nineteen-year-old. Currently, he is a service technician for Mountain Fuel Supply. He recently retired from the U.S. Army Reserve after having served for twenty-one years.
16. Walter H. Speidel was born 5 December 1922 in Stuttgart, Germany. Before entering the German army, Speidel completed his gymnasium education (thirteen years). He received his Abitur (diploma) after taking general education courses with an emphasis in languages and humanities. Speidel joined the army as a single eighteen-year-old. Since his military service, Speidel has been a radio and television station administrator, an account executive in advertising and public relations, an office manager of a hospital, and a translator. He also received a doctorate in German, and he is currently a professor emeritus of German at Brigham Young University.
17. Jerry L. Jensen was born 22 May 1932 in Olympia, Washington. Following his graduation from Twin City High School in Stanwood, Washington, and some university work, Jensen completed an eleven-month tour of duty in Korea. He received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Washington State College [p.46](now Washington State University) and a doctorate of divinity degree from Seattle Pacific College. A former Methodist, Jensen joined the LDS church in 1955. When Jensen left on his first tour of duty in Vietnam (1962-63), he was married and had two daughters (ages three and two). After his first tour, he completed two TDYs (temporary duty tour) in 1964 and 1965. Following his military service, Jensen did post-graduate work in counseling and guidance. He is currently an academic advisor and counselor and an instructor of religion and career education at BYU.
18. Michael R. Johnson was born 7 January 1948 in Huntington, West Virginia. Johnson graduated from Huntington High School and attended Brigham Young University for one year. At eighteen he joined the marine corps during the Vietnam conflict. Johnson’s tour of duty ended when he stepped on a booby trap and lost both legs. He returned home, continued his education, and became a junior high school science teacher. He currently teaches in Nikiski, Alaska.
19. Calvin William Elton, Jr., was born 2 November 1922 in Dividend, Utah. At nineteen, after graduating from Payson High School, Elton joined the U.S. Army Air Corps, which became the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1941 before the United States entered World War II. Elton retired as a major from the U.S. Air Force.
20. Eugene E. Campbell was born 26 April 1915 in Tooele, Utah. He graduated from Tooele High School. After spending time at Snow Junior College in Ephraim, Utah, and graduating from the University of Utah with a bachelor’s degree in history, Campbell married, had two children, and taught LDS seminary classes in Bicknell, Utah. When the United States became involved in World War II, Campbell volunteered to be a chaplain. Following his service, Campbell earned a doctorate in history, taught LDS Institute classes at Utah State University, and became a professor of history at Brigham Young University. Campbell died in 1986.
21. David R. Lyon was born 21 June 1920 in Salt Lake City, Utah. After graduating from Bingham High School, Lyon attended the University of Utah where he received a bachelor’s degree in English. Soon thereafter Lyon received his army commission; he saw active duty in both World War II and the Korean War, and as an officer he was involved in a support role during the Vietnam War. He and his wife have four sons (born in 1944, 1948, 1952, and 1956) and one daughter (1958). Lyon’s last military assignment, from 1968 to 1972, was as the first professor of military science at Brigham Young University. He then served as director of community affairs at BYU before retiring.
23. Douglas T. Hall was born 9 March 1947 in Payson, Utah. He attended Montrose (Colorado) High School and graduated from Orem (Utah) High School. Following a year at the College of Southern Utah (now Southern Utah State University) where he studied geology, Hall went to Vietnam as a single twenty-two-year-old. He is an attorney in Salt Lake City and has been a member of a Special Forces unit in the Utah National Guard since 1979.
24. Dallis A. Christensen was born 25 August 1912 in Chester, Utah. After attending Ephraim (Utah) High School, Christensen graduated from Salina (Utah) High School. Schooling at Snow Junior College (Ephraim) and the University of Utah qualified Christensen for a bachelor’s degree in political science and a teaching certificate before he entered military service at the age of thirty. He and his wife had a daughter while he prepared for combat at Fort Benning, Georgia. Following his World War II experience, Christensen worked for the Veterans Administration and then served as the executive director of the Central Utah chapter of the American Red Cross for seventeen years. Christensen died in 1987.
28. A division is the basic military unit that goes into combat. It is commanded by a major-general (a two-star general) and has 15,000 to 16,000 soldiers. However, in some circumstances, divisions have had as many as 22,500 troops.
Generally, three regiments make up a division. A regiment is commanded by a full colonel and has 3,000 to 3,500 troops.
Three battalions make up a regiment. A battalion is commanded by a lieutenant colonel and has 850 – 1,000 soldiers.
Three companies form a battalion. A captain commands a company and is responsible for 200 to 250 troops.
[p.61]There are three platoons in a company. A platoon is commanded by a lieutenant and consists of 35 to 45 soldiers.
Three or four squads, with 9 to 15 troops each, make up a platoon. A sergeant E-4, a “buck sergeant,” commands a squad.
In addition to the above divisions, the Marines divide their squads into a unit known as a fire team. Each fire team has at least four troops: a fire team leader, an automatic rifleman, an assistant automatic rifleman, and a rifleman.
29. John C. Norton,Jr., was born 19 July 1947 in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Norton attended Hampton Roads Academy in Newport News, Virginia, and graduated from Columbus (Georgia) High School before attending the United States Military Academy, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering. As a single twenty-four-year-old, Norton began his tour of duty in Vietnam. A member of the Episcopal church when he went to Viet[p.65]nam, Norton joined the LDS church in 1973. Norton is a lieutenant-colonel in the U.S. Army. He has been a professor of military science at Brigham Young University since 1987.
30. Or area of responsibility. During much of the Vietnam War, a perimeter was generally a 360-degree area around a military unit. In more conventional wars, such as World Wars I and II, a unit’s perimeter was the area on its front, tying into other units on its left and right.