The worst day — June 1st, 1969 in South Vietnam. I was scared shitless for the entire time.
I as an artillery recon Sargent, attached to an infantry fortified platoon. We were in the 9th Infantry Division and conducting operations in the Mekong River Delta. On this particular day, we were checking out an area way west of where we usually operated. Our intelligence had found what they thought was the location of the 5th ?Division or Battallion ? of the VietCong army, a ‘training division. Because we were out of our usual area near Sa Dec, we had, for the day, a 2nd lieutenant attached to us that knew the area. He was an advisor to a South Vietnamese fighting unit that operated in the area.
Our combat insertion helicopters, Huey troop transport choppers, had dropped us off in an open, reed covered area. A stream or canal were to the south and it had a jungle area extending
200 meters on both sides. Our intelligence said the Vietcong were this ‘forested’ area. We moved in usual formation, two lines, parallel with the wood-line and about 50 meters apart. The left line maneuvered closest to the wood-line. The other line was about 40 meters north of this and in the open swamp/reedy area. This open area had been rice paddies in the past. As usual, we had a point unit of about six to seven grunts and their squad sergeant. They were doing their job, probing ahead and looking for trouble. Perpendicular to the woods were tree lines with shallow canals on either side of them. They reminded me of my uncle’s farm in Michigan, with a narrow line of trees at the edge of each large field.
We crossed several of these ‘fence’ lines. As our point unit approached the wooded area, a gunfight broke out. The enemy gunfire pinned down the point in the open area. One private had taken a wound to the back of his head, just below the helmet line. He was still alive, but the wound was serious. He may have been unconscious, but I don’t know.
Our platoon commander, a first lieutenant, had us set up a secure perimeter. I was in the parallel line of soldiers nearest to the wood-line. Th lieutenqant asked us to protect the left flank. A common tactic of the Vietcong was to send some fighters to try to flank us and attack from that position. I ended up being in a group of about 5 US. infantrymen in a small canal that ran south into the forest area. From our position, we should have been able to observe any enemy trying to flank us.
The firefight was intense. Our helicopter gunships were firing rockets into the wooded areas both ahead and to our left. To us, these gunships were a welcome addition to our air support. Charlie couldn’t shoot at us if he had to keep his head down due to the gunship rocket barrage.
In a pitched battle, time has little meaning. I’m not sure when, in the course of the battle, that the next occurred. Maybe it was an hour or so after first contact. To our south, one of our Huey
helicopter support gun
ships fired a rocket that landed too close. I was third in line from the end of our group to the south and I took a piece of shrapnel to my right face. The fifth soldier, furthest from the rocket explosion, took shrapnel in his foot. It went through the jungle boot. I grabbed my face and held my hand over the wound. Next I remember Armistead, was crouching over me with his eyes wide open. Facial wounds look worse than they are because they bleed a lot due to the high number of facial blood vessels. Armistead pulled out a sterile padded bandage from his pack, tore it open and pressed it to my right cheek. He then took the long gauze bands of the bandage and wrapped them around my head and tied the bandage tight with a knot. He then left me to see what he could do for the soldier wounded in the foot.
What happened next turned out to be both amazing and tragic. Our platoon leader had his hands full trying to keep us out of serious trouble. He asked the attached second lieutenant (“medevac looie”) to head up the medical helicopter evacuation. Unfortunately for him and our new medic, he made a serious error.
Someone “higher up” decided that our battle zone was too hot for the normal med-evac helicopter to land. As it turned out, they were right.
But the helicopter pilots in our battle support were much braver.
The medevac looie selected the open area as the extraction zone. This open area was just north and to the west of the canal where I and the 4 infantrymen were. I admit I pieced all this together afterwards. Our medic (“doc”, all medics are called doc), the wounded soldier, and the looie.had made it from the battle front into this open area. Next, a spotter helicopter, called an LOH (Boeing OH-6A Cayuse Light
Observation Helicopter) landed near them. But it was immediately disabled by Vietcong gunfire into the motor. The pilot and co-pilot immediately evacuated the smoking helicopter, jumping to the ground and laying down for protection in the open area.
The amazing happened next. As one would expect, the other helicopters in our support were aggressive in protecting their
own. A Cobra gunship landed just to the north of the downed LOH, and came in with it’s mini=guns blazing into the Vietcong to our west. The two LOH pilots were quick to jump onto the skids of the Cobra, which then exited the battle with it’s mini-guns still blazing away. We soon understood their urgency to get the f*ck our of there. A Vietcong sniper had already begun to pick off our troops on the ground, including the medic and 2nd lieutenant. Although the doc, our medic, had been in Vietnam for just over 2 weeks, I had gotten to know him. The sniper had shot the 2nd lieutenant in his thigh, his femoral artery severed by the bullet. He bled out in five minutes. The medic, right next to him, was already dead and couldn’t treat him. Sometime after the battle, people assumed that the Cobra gunship minigun fire had killed the sniper.
Next, our platoon leader decided to retreat to the area just to our northeast and east of the downed helicopter and our dead. This area just looked like just a wood-line that jutted out from the main woods. It ended up being much more extensive – a 40 meter or so square of wood-line. Inside this was a square of shallow canals. Inside the canals was a raised wooded area with an abandoned farmers hootch in the middle. We stood in the canals to get as low as we could. We were well protected.
The platoon leader called in airstrikes to the battle zone to our west. The jet fighters / bombers required that we be at least 200 meters from the target zone and asked us to throw a smoke grenade out to our front so they could see where we locate us. The platoon leader knew we were too close to the bomb target, but really felt we needed to have that airstrike. So, he instead had someone toss the smoke grenade out the rear of our position, leaving us within 200 meters of the Airforce target restriction. Sortie after sortie of jets came screaming in to drop their bombs. I never kept count of how many there were. I was quaking in my boots the enire time but, somehow, no bombs ended up landing on us. Pieces of bomb shrapnel came screaming over our heads after every ground-shaking bomb explosion. On occasion, severed tree limbs came crashing to the ground around us.
Sometime after this, a safer medevac helicopter came in to extract our wounded. The platoon leader asked me if I wanted to go with them, but I refused. I couldn’t forget the Vietcong had shot down the last one and then a sniper picked off our soldiers laying on the ground. I guess I was a coward, and although my wound had been bloody, I didn’t feel all that bad, just a sore face.
After the air strike, all was quiet as evening approached. Before sunset we evacuated our safe place. We had to crawl on our hands and knees through the reeds towards an isolated wooded area about 100 meters to the north. As we were crawling out, several grunts joined us from the west, dragging the bodies of our slain comrades. One entered our retreat line dragging the slain medic by his feet. The rest of our crawl, I looked at his face, with a bullet hole in his forehead about an inch above his left eyebrow. I’ve never forgotten this and it broke my heart. He had been in country about two weeks and this was his first and last combat. During a break on another mission earlier that week, he showed me a photo of his wife and two little boys, one about 2 and the other 4 years old. The wife was now a widow and the boys were fatherless.
It took us a while to crawl to the woods where we were to spend the night. Once there, we set up the security perimeter. As usual when in the field, I checked my topographic map and chose some nighttime targets. These were locations around us and far enough away that an artillery barrage would hit the Vietcong and not us. I usually set up these nighttime target locations ahead of time so if we got attacked from that direction it wouldn’t take me any time to call in artillery. In other words, I had obtained all of the clearances on these targets ahead of time. Also, during the night I sure didn’t want to use a flashlight to look at my map in the deep darkness. And show Charlie exactly where we were.
This night, I also set as a target the combat area from our position during the day. Just at dusk I called in a few rounds of artillery to remind Charlie we hadn’t forgotten about them.
As the night progressed, my face injury hurt more and more. Just before daybreak I asked the platoon leader if I could catch the morning supply helicopter for a ride back to base-camp. I wanted to have my injury looked over by a doctor at our infantry battalion field base. He agreed and set it up. I was grateful for this.
When the supply helicopter arrived, I was surprised to see my Artillery commanding officer get off. He was our Forward Observer, who had been happy and loafing at the base-camp all the previous day. He showed real concern on his face over my wound. The helicopter ride back to base-camp was uneventful. Once there, I went straight to the field clinic and the doctor there checked me out. The right side of my face was quite swollen by this time, like I had a bad tooth or something. The doctor couldn’t feet anything through the swollen tissue. He told me the shrapnel had probably fallen off without penetrating any further. Later, when the swelling went away, I found that the shrapnel piece was still in my face. It’s location was about 2 inches below the corner of my right eye and an inch or so above the jaw. 47 years later on this Memorial Day Weekend, 2016 – it’s still there. A revisit to the field doctor and he said, Oh, I guess it didn’t fall off after all.
I could feel the scar tissue path the shrapnel had taken from the entry wound to the where it had stopped. It was amazing that this path broke neither the skin inside my mouth nor on my outer cheek during it’s trek. This wound is what got me a Purple Heart medal.
My combat buddies returned to base after their continued mission a couple of days later. They told me what they found during their sweep of the Vietcong position from yesterday’s battle. A few dead Vietcong were strewn throughout the area. This was unusual because normally they didn’t want us to know how bad we had damaged them. Their usual action was to drag every dead body out when they retreated. Some surmised that these troops were a ‘suicide’ squad. Their job was to protect the retreat of the much larger training battalion/division. Maybe, maybe not. Also found dead was the sniper that had killed our medic, point member, and 2nd lieutenant advisor. The soldier, on point, that first discovered him also found found the sniper rifle clutched in his hands. The weapon was in beautiful condition. I can’t remember the specifics, but it had a telescopic sight and the body was wooden. It was an older rifle (?WWII vintage) of Czechoslovakian make. Our soldier showed it to anyone who cared to look. He later had our supply people send it to his home, even though a general and others had offered him a couple of thousand dollars for it. I’ve wondered if it ever got to his home in the US.
About two days after the battle we had an awards ceremony at our home base. Besides the Purple Heart, I got a Bronze Star for valor pinned to my chest by our Division Commander, a 2 star general. I later got to read the citation and it was pretty much bullshit. I’m not going to look up the actual phraseology now, it’s stashed somewhere deep in a closet. But it went something like “Wounded and ignoring his own safety and refusing medical evacuation, Sgt. Strayer called in devastatingly accurate artillery fire on the Vietcong position and continued to do so throughout the long night”. Recall that I think I was cowardly in refusing a dustoff (as we called a helicopter medical evacuation). And that the artillery fire, devastatingly accurate or not, was called in several hours after the battle. I never had a chance to call in a fire mission during the battle because of our immediate and overwhelming air support. In other words, incoming artillery rounds and helicopter gunships and jet bomber airstrikes are ‘mutually exclusive’. Most of the time I got to in my artillery missions before the gunship and bomber attacks, just not this time. My devastatingly accurate artillery fire landed hours after the main battle. The Vietcong were either already dead or had evacuated long ago. My rounds landed on no one.
As a side note to this, I had a good friend from my basic (Ft. Leonard Wood) and AIT (Advanced Individual Training – Ft. Sill, OK). Jim had arrived in VN close to the same time as I, but the Army assigned him as a clerk typist in the Post-humus Awards section of our Division. In civilian life he had been in law school in South Carolina when he had to enter the Army. I guess someone thought he should be able to write a fitting citation to the medal awards. I had a few beers with Jim whenever I was in the 9th Division base camp in Dong Tam, Vietnam. I rarely got to visit him because I was busy humping with the infantry guys out in the swamps, jungles, and rice paddies of the Mekong Delta. He told me Army medal citations were required to use such language as my Bronze Star citation. It had taken Jim a while to learn how to write this way. I had quite a good laugh over this. He was going to eventually become a lawyer. Have you ever tried to figure out what a lawyer or a legal document was saying? Jim: “Your Honor and distinguished members of the jury. My client, Mr. Charlie the VC, suffered, serious, painful, and debilitating injuries due to the actions of the Defendant, Sargent Strayer. These actions included devastatingly accurate artillery fire on my Clients location, and, although my Client had shot at Sgt. Strayer repeatedly, this was war. . .” Ahem.