January 1966: On Operation Crimp, a few days after Patrick had been killed (see Rants and Yarns # 134) my 3rd platoon, Alpha Company, 1st/28th Infantry, 1st Division was still in the Cu Chi area of the Iron Triangle.
After we had rested for a couple of day we received orders to move at first light against a VC controlled village to our front.
As we were getting on line early that next morning, preparing to move out, Pete’s platoon moved by on my right to reconnoiter in the front of our advancing line. When Pete and I saw each other, we smiled and nodded our heads in greeting. Pete looked tired. He raised his M-16 up in the air and then went out of sight.
As we started to move out, gunships passed overhead and buzzed the tree line by a rice field off to the left. Random artillery rounds landed across the field. We heard occasional bursts of gunfire around us as the men fired into suspicious bushes and tuffs of bamboo. In my platoon, Ayers was at the front of one file, Beck led another, and Sergeant Rome was off on the right.
Far off to our left across the field, Charlie Company was pinned down by fire from a VC machine-gun bunker. Arthur was ordered over to help. The VC gun crew retreated when they heard the tracks coming through the jungle. After sweeping the area, Arthur was ordered back behind us again as reserve and he fell in somewhere to our rear. We overheard Woolley talking with him by radio. According to the coordinates that Arthur gave, he should have been directly behind us, but no one could hear any noise from the tracks. Woolley was walking down the path that separated Duckett’s old platoon from mine. His point man spotted a trip wire running across the trail. We slowed down while the company first sergeant cleared the brush around the wire. When he found it led to a flare, we moved out again. Woolley went back to the radio and began talking with Arthur again. Duckett’s platoon encountered some heavy brushes, and Beck yelled for us to slow down so that we would stay on line.
Suddenly, an automatic weapon opened up on the company to our left front. Everyone dropped to the ground. I looked at Spencer and lit a cigarette. It was 0915, and I noted from my map that we were at the coordinates XT 637177. For no particular reason, I made a dot at that location on my map.
To our front, perhaps five hundred meters away, we heard a couple of shots fired, than a pause before a tremendous blast. The violent sound of a dozen automatic weapons followed the blast. Grenades went off. There were long sustained bursts of fire.
Breathlessly, I scrambled back to Spencer’s radio and turned it to the battalion frequency.
Up ahead, the grenades went off one after another — boom, boom, boom, boom — amid the continuing small-arms fire.
I recognized Pete’s platoon sergeant talking on the radio, “They’re on both sides, all around us, no place to go.”
He went off the air. I started to get up. The battle continued in front. There was no letup in the firing.
Why wasn’t Peterson on the radio?
The platoon sergeant came back on, “Almost every man’s hit. I ain’t got no one. Give us some fire. Help us! Give us some fire! Give us …”
I stood up. Pete was in trouble. His platoon was pinned down.
Someone came back on the radio, “This is the 1st Squad leader. We’re almost wiped out. The radio operator’s dead, the platoon sergeant’s been shot in the head, the lieutenant’s dead. Help us! God give us some help!”
Yelling for the men to get ready to move out, I crashed through the bushes to the trail where Woolley was listening to the radio. I told him I had to go help Pete.
“OK,” Woolley said. “Let me coordinate with Battalion.”
I had taken the captain’s arm as I talked and was pushing him along the trail. We had passed other men in his company headquarters group and were now well ahead of even the two platoons on either side. He and I were leading the company down the trail. I kept looking off to the right front, where the firing was still heavy. There had been no letup since the first blast. Hand grenades, M-79s, automatic rifles, machine guns.
With one hand still on Woolley’s elbow I turned around toward Woolley’s radio operator and yelled angrily for him to catch up, “Come on, goddamnit, I got to go.”
Then, the whole world exploded.
A mine went off beside the trail, midway back in the company headquarters group. Shrapnel flew by my head.
“Goddamnit to hell, goddamnit!” I dropped to one knee and was still looking back at the blast as dirt and debris fell around me. I was intent on getting to Peterson — all this struck me as just another delay.
The firing was still intense in front. Dust continued to settle as I looked back and tried to spot the radio operator. I thought it might have been a mortar round, short.
Then, out of the dust, Beck walked up with blood streaming from his ears. Bratcher, who had blood oozing out of his fatigue jacket near his shoulder was behind him. They had followed me over to talk with Woolley and had been caught in the blast.
I turned and saw several other soldiers, dead or wounded, lying along the trail. A round zinged down the trail over our heads. Bratcher and Beck, both in slight shock, quickly regained their wits and dove to the side of the trail.
Some men from Duckett’s platoon started firing.
Goss, the company medic, was still on the trail, lying on his back. His fatigue jacket was shredded from shrapnel. He was laboring for breath, his eyes open wide as if in surprise.
I knelt beside him and yelled for another medic. I took a bandage off my belt, opened it, and tried to remember what to do with a chest wound. Put the plastic from the packing next to the wound, I thought, when Bratcher yelled from the bushes, “The man’s dead, Lieutenant, get off the fucking trail.”
“He ain’t dead,” I yelled, as I placed the bandage on his chest.
“He ain’t breathing no more,” Bratcher said right above me.
Dirt and dust were settling on Goss’s eyes, but he was not blinking. He stared vacantly off in the distance, his mouth open. I knew by the smell that his bowels had emptied as his body relaxed in death.
“Get off the trail, Lieutenant,” Bratcher insisted.
I stood up and turned to look at the radio operator, who was laying half on and half off the trail. A bullet zipped by in front of me. Out of the corner of my eye, up the trail, I saw a VC rise up out of a hole.
I had reached a point where nothing was making much sense. I had been absorbed in moving out to help Pete — and then the mine blast and Goss dying and the radio operator lying dead and rounds coming down the trail. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion as adrenaline surges overloaded my mind. Trying to focus on each separate event, I saw things in flashes, as if my surroundings were illuminated by a strobe light. The VC was still coming out the hole. I started to turn and look at him, but then I thought about Pete and getting to him and I looked down at Goss and I turned back to see the radio operator’s feet lying out on the trail and I started yelling at myself: Think, Think, Think.
Another round whizzed by in front of me. I turned back around so that, for a fleeting moment, I was looking up the trail. Then I clearly saw the VC standing up in the hole near a ditch and aiming his rifle at me. Bratcher was in the bushes beside the trail, and I dove toward him. I saw the muzzle flash from the VC’s gun.
A searing pain in my buttocks brought me to my senses. In mid-dive, I knew that I had been shot. Bratcher grabbed me by my fatigue jacket and pulled me into the bushes, while Duckett’s men opened fire down the trail.
A medic crawled up. Bratcher said he was OK, to look after me. Lying on my stomach I took some deep breaths, pulled off my web gear and undid my belt. When I pushed my pants down, I felt blood collecting between my legs.
Woolley knelt down beside me. “We’re going to move out, Jimmy, and try to get to Pete’s platoon. I’ve called a medevac. You’re going to be all right. Sergeant Rome will take your platoon.” There were heavier mortar explosions now, in the distance to the front of us.
“Get to Pete. Hurry,” I said as I looked up, unashamed of my exposed, bloody rear.
The medic worked on my buttocks. I could not see what he was doing. He moved off soon without a word and started treating other wounded, including Bratcher and Beck. I lay on the ground and felt weak as adrenaline faded. My butt felt like a knife had been plunged into it.
Later, the less wounded in my ragged group carried the more serious wounded to the edge of the field and went back for the dead. Beck carried Goss in his arms.
In time, a medevac helicopter came down and landed near our purple smoke. It was almost completely loaded with other casualties when it landed and could only take the two most seriously wounded from our group. Bratcher and I were the last to leave, with the dead, a couple of hours later. As we lifted off, we could see rows of men in body bags by the edge of the field, close to where Peterson’s platoon had been hit. I knew that Peterson was in one and I felt like crying.
At a medevac clearing station, Maj. Gen. Jonathan O. Seaman, commander of the 1st Division, came through and passed out Purple Heart medals to us. Later, at what must have been the most impersonal, the most insensitive aid station in Vietnam, I had my wound cleaned and stitched. Beck and Bratcher had their wounds treated and were discharged to return to the battalion base camp. I was admitted to the convalescent tent next to the operating room.
The next morning, I was aware of the trucks before I opened my eyes. The air brakes hissed as the tractor trailers came to a stop. When the trucks started out again, they whined in first gear and then, after a pause, more whining as the driver shifted into second.
I shared the tent with six men who were talking amongst themselves, undisturbed by the trucks. The sides to the tent were raised and only the mosquito netting was between me, lying on a cot in the corner, and a busy intersection of two dirt roads. Heavy olive-drab transfer trucks were passing, one after another, throwing up billowing clouds of dust. It was barely past sunrise and I was already covered by a thin layer of dust.
“Get used to it, man,” said one of the soldiers from the other end. “It goes with the territory here. But look on the bright side, it’s better than the fucking field, right?”
I lay on my stomach most of the day and thought about Peterson. I remembered when we first met in OCS, Pete’s exhausted face during the eleventh-week run when he kept say, “We’re going to make it, we’re going to make it, we’re going to make it,” and then a few days later when Pete’s friend scared us into thinking Pete was going to be paneled. I could see Pete’s shock as the man came to our door and just stood there. For days thereafter, we said, “Oh no, Mr. Death, get away from our door. Get away!” Other memories flashed through my mind — our nights drinking in that honky-tonk bar in Junction City, laughing together, racing our sports cars over the prairies of Nebraska, sitting on the top deck of the USNS Mann on the way to Vietnam, talking about the past, wondering about the future. Ours had been a rich, robust, and trusting bond. He was my best friend, ever. Now, he was dead.
More trucks hissed and whined outside and dust continued to settle on my bed. The men joked and talked loudly among themselves at the other end of the tent.
I felt so terribly lonely.
I recalled how Pete and I had silently shared the sorrow of Patrick’s death a few days before, how we had walked alongside each other as my platoon headed back toward the perimeter, and the pain in his face later that same day when he came back in with his dead. The last time I saw him, he was lifting his M-16 in the air as his platoon went out of sight to recon in front.
Every word that I had heard over the radio when I switched it to the battalion frequency came back to me. Pete’s platoon was wiped out. “The lieutenant’s dead,” the platoon sergeant had said. The platoon sergeant, himself to die within minutes, had eulogized my best friend with the noise of battle in the background: “The Lieutenant’s dead.” Pete was so proud of his commission. Maybe it was the way he would have wanted to go, but for me, I had never felt such sorrow.
I tried to write a letter to his parents that day, but it was blubbering nonsense. I crumbled it up and threw it toward the trucks outside.
That night after supper, the medic came down the aisle of cots. He was humming and had a gigantic needle in his hand. “Needle time, Parker, show me your fanny.”
I reacted angrily, without thinking, telling the medic to stick the needle up his own ass.
The man walked away but he soon returned with a Medical Corp major.
“Specialist Wallace says that you are very uncooperative,” the major said with a frown, “that you refused to let him give you your tetracycline shot. It is not helpful if you act like a child. You can understand that, can’t you? We won’t stand for any more outbursts. We have too much to do to hold the hands of everyone here.”
He was right, of course. After he left, the medic jabbed me with the needle and I yelled.
About midmorning the next day Terry Mulcay, the Battalion Headquarters Company commander, walked in. I yelled out a greeting, happy to see a familiar face from my old battalion.
He sat on a nearby cot and handed me some mail. He told me that the battalion had secured the area around Cu Chi before being replaced at night by the 25th Division. Some VC had popped up in the middle of the substitution of forces and fired off a couple of rounds. The 25th Division, new to ‘Nam, returned fire with everything they had. It was a hell’va show there outside Cu Chi that night, he said.
Our battalion was now located in a defensive position near the Cambodian border. It had taken heavy casualties, and he named some of the men who were killed. I waited for Peterson’s name but sensed that Mulcay would name Peterson last, out of respect for our friendship, or so that he could offer his personal condolences.
He didn’t mention Pete.
“Pete? Pete wasn’t killed?” I asked incredulously.
“Nope,” he said.
I knew before the word was completely out of his mouth that Pete was alive. Happiness surged through me — incredible joy. Peterson, that son of a bitch, wasn’t dead. He’s alive. That son of a bitch.
“He was one of the first ones hit in his platoon,” Mulcay said. “Took a round in his right shoulder. It knocked him back and as he was spinning around, he took another round in the same shoulder from behind. The first one took out most of his shoulder bone, and the one in the back took out a lot of meat and muscle, but he’s OK. He’s going to live. I just saw him in the 93d field hospital. He’s heading back to the States tomorrow or the next day. No more war for him.”
Peterson was alive. That son of a bitch.
Later that morning on the way back from the latrine, I shuffled down to a Jeep ambulance parked in the shade at the rear of the tent. Behind the wheel, Private First Class “Richardson” [alias] was reading a Playboy magazine.
“Howyoudoing?” I said in my best “good ol’ boy” tone of voice.
The driver looked first at my face and then down at my gown. “OK,” he said.
“Where’s the 93d field hospital?”
“It’s about twenty-five miles from here. Nice, very nice-looking nurses there. Round-eyed beauties. Got me some lady friends over there. Why?”
I said, “I got a friend there, too, who’s heading back to the States tomorrow. We’ve gone through a lot together.”
Richardson continued to look at me.
“No problem in driving over? You can just get on the road and go? Can you go there, Mr. Richardson?” I asked.
“Well you’re supposed to have an armed escort. When we’re carrying people back and forth, we get an MP (military police) detail to come along, but it’s no problem. Only once in a blue moon does anyone ever get shot at.”
“What do you think about us going, you and I, over to the 93d? Who you got to ask? You got to ask anybody, Private Richardson?”
“You got any war souvenirs? VC flags, guns, that kind of thing?”
“Nope,” I said, but I had hope. This guy had a price. This guy would go.
Suddenly, I had a thought and left without a word. The Purple Heart medal General Seaman had given me was still in a pocket of my fatigue pants. In the ward, I bent over awkwardly and pulled my fatigues from under the bed, took the medal out of my pants pocket — dried blood was on the box — and carried it outside to Richardson.
“General Seaman gave me this Purple Heart,” I said, opening the box as if it were very special, “and I’ll give it to you if you take me to the 93d today. Twenty-five miles there, I’ll spend an hour with my buddy and twenty-five miles back. No problem. You’ll have an interesting day, I’ll have an interesting day, and you’ll get a real trophy for the rest of your life. What do you say?”
Richardson examined the medal closely. He finally looked up and around to see if anyone was looking.
“OK, go get dressed, we’ll go.”
“Get dressed?” I asked.
“You ain’t going like that, with your ass sticking out of that gown, are you?”
“No, I reckon I’m not,” I said, knowing that the only clothes I had were the bloody fatigues I was wearing when I was wounded.
Specialist Wallace, the needle man, watched me as I came back in and shuffled to my cot. I smiled at him, the fatigues at my feet. He must have noticed a change in my attitude and thought something was up. He started toward my cot.
“I wonder,” I asked in a friendly tone, “if there is a shuttle that runs from this aid station to the 93d field hospital? You know, a bus or something?”
“You can’t just check into any hospital you want to, you know. You’re here, you belong to me, I’m going to make you whole again. You can’t make no reservations at the 93d.”
“No, you don’t understand. A friend of mine is there, leaving tomorrow for the States. Got shot up pretty bad. Need to see him. Just over and back, that’s all. Shuttle?”
“No shuttle. The doctor has ordered bed rest for you until your wound has healed. Even if there was a shuttle, you couldn’t go. You can’t even sit down.”
“What if I were to catch a ride? Say, a helicopter ride over and back? What do you think? Would the major go along with it?”
“No,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest.
“Would you please go ask him? Just ask him if I could get a pass to go to the 93d. That’s all.”
“He’s going to say no,” he assured me, but he turned and walked out of the tent.
After dressing in the latrine and slipping on my boots with the laces cut to shreds by the hospital staff when I arrived, I shuffled down to the ambulance. The stitching hurt when it occasionally caught in my pants. Richardson started his Jeep and I walked around to the passenger side. Suddenly, I realized the corpsman was right, I couldn’t sit down. I went to the back and painfully climbed up. Some of the stitches came loose and blood ran down my leg. As I crawled onto a stretcher behind the passenger seat, the bleeding stopped.
Richardson jerked the Jeep in gear and I grabbed the stretcher like a rodeo rider. On the open dirt road he floored the accelerator and whipped around the first turn without breaking. My legs flew off the stretcher and I ended up half on and half off of it. Screaming in pain, I yelled for Richardson to stop while I got myself back on the stretcher.
“Personally, my friend, I’m not that interested in getting there, you know, real, real fast. Fast is good enough. So you don’t need to speed just for me, and the VC weren’t that good a shot anyway, they only got me in the ass,” I told him as I crawled back up on the stretcher.
Back moving again, we did not go slower, however, and we hit bumps with jarring thuds. Passing a slow-moving truck, Richardson whipped out to the left and I was slung off the stretcher again. Finally he stopped and tied a strap around my legs. Back on the road, he went as fast as he could, playing chicken with oncoming traffic, bouncing wildly over bridges, and missing farm animals and people by inches. He remained nonplused and slowed the Jeep only when we arrived at the 93d field hospital. He parked, asked for my friend’s name and went into the administrative building.
Richardson was gone for what seemed like a long time. I tried to reach down and undo the big, broad strap holding my legs, but I could just barely reach it. The buckle was on the other side from the way I was reaching, and as I turned around and stretched out my right arm, a stitch popped. I yelled from the pain and jerked my arm back, which threw the stretcher off balance and my upper torso fell to the floor. The stretcher turned on its side although the foot end stayed on the bracket because of the strap around my legs. I was trapped, tied upside down in the ambulance.
“Aaaaaauuuuuuugggggg,” I was moaning when Richardson returned.
“You’re dangerous, you know that,” he said quietly as he stood at the rear of the Jeep and looked down at me. “You sure you didn’t shoot yourself?”
He helped me out and gave me the number of Pete’s ward. He was going to see some friends and said he would meet me in Pete’s Quonset hut in a couple of hours.
I found the right building and straightened my bloody, dirty fatigue uniform as best I could. Smiling, I walked in.
Classical music was coming from speakers on the wall. Concrete floors. Bright lights. Clean sheets. Metal bed frames with thick mattresses. Pretty nurses. Air conditioning. Smiling people.
I saw Pete halfway down the aisle on the right. A nurse was sitting on the edge of his bed writing a letter for him. His right shoulder was covered with thick bandages. He had his left arm through the sleeve of his pajama top. Sitting propped up, he was watching the nurse as she wrote. His hair was wet and combed.
“You son of a bitch,” I said softly.
He looked up, his face expressionless and then he smiled.
“Well goddamn,” he said after a moment. “You look like hell.”
“I’m alive, though,” I said and I shuffled around the bed to grab his left hand.
“This guy is a good friend of mine,” Pete said to the nurse as he continued to look at me. “Can you look after him?”
They brought in a rolling dolly and put it between Pete’s bed and the man next door. When the nurse helped me up, she noticed fresh blood. She insisted on looking at my wound. I told her that could cause me some embarrassment here in an open bay with all these people looking on. She wasn’t listening to me and had my pants down to my knees in a matter of seconds. I told her that I thought she had undressed men before.
While I lay there talking and laughing with Pete, she called for a couple of corpsmen, and they restitched my wound.
Pete showed me the bullet taken out of his shoulder, which he kept on a bedside table. Someone produced some champagne, and we drank it from bedpans, even though glasses were available.
A doctor came in and wanted to know if I was registered in this ward. I explained that I had just come over for the day from division, which he took in stride and then he left.
Pete and I finishing OCS at Ft Benning, Ga, 8 months
prior to Operation Crimp, South Vietnam
Pete and I talked without stopping.
“It’s going to be hard at times, telling people I got shot in the ass,” I said.
“Couldn’t have happened to a better guy,” Pete assured me. “There is that irrepressible conceit about you, Parker — getting butt shot’ll be good for you.”
“Well, fuck you. I got shot ’cause I was all atwitter about you.”
“Appreciate the thought,” Pete said.
“I’m glad you’re OK, Pete.”
We looked at each other for a moment, and Pete said, “I ain’t OK. I hurt.”
“But you ain’t dead.”
“You’ve already said that. Don’t change the fact that you’re basically a mulky, lousy ne’ar do well — you really do belong there with those bums in that honky-tonk bar in Kansas.”
I looked him deep in the eyes, hoping to convey how sincerely I cherished his friendship. Then thinking about what he just said, I asked, “Mulky?”
Richardson came back late in the afternoon. He said that we had to be leaving soon so that we could get back before dark. By this time, most of the people in the ward were around Pete’s bed — telling stories, laughing with the nurses, drinking champagne.
I told Richardson it’d only be a few more minutes and invited him to have some champagne.
We continued with the bedside fellowship until Richardson said that he was leaving in five minutes. I could come or not. Either case the Richardson freight left in five minutes.
I grabbed Pete’s left hand and we shook, nodding, not talking. I bounced my eyebrows, he smiled, and I crawled off the dolly.
As I started shuffling down the aisle, Pete said, “Be careful. Your mother told me to tell you. Be careful.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Take care. See you in the States.”
“Hey, by the way,” Pete said suddenly, and I turned around. He reached under his bed, “Take this back with you.”
He pulled out a box and, with a grimace, put it on the part of his chest that wasn’t covered with bandages. I returned to his bedside, and he extracted a bathroom scale.
“Momma sent this. Maybe she was thinking I was getting out of shape.” Pete handed me the scale with his good hand. “Put it by the bar at the base camp.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, trying to think of something silly to add, but nothing came to mind and besides, for some reason, the scales were nothing to laugh about.
Outside, Richardson strapped me in, and I grabbed the stretcher. Racing the setting sun, we took off for Di Ann.
We arrived about dusk. The MPs were putting the barricades across the road at the perimeter’s main entrance and we just squeezed through. Specialist Wallace and the doctor were standing in front of the tent when we approached. The headlights from the ambulance passed over the tent as it came to a halt at the rear, near my cot. Both men walked toward us while Richardson was unstrapping me and helping me to the ground.
“There are several things here,” the major said. “that we need to about. Like AWOL. You were ordered to bed. Corpsman Wallace told you that you couldn’t go to the 93d and you went anyway. No one authorized the dispatch of that ambulance. You’ve been nothing but a problem since you arrived.”
“Sorry,” I said, but my tone and the set of my jaw probably indicated to the two that I didn’t care.
“I am going to discuss your case with the adjutant general. You can’t just take a vehicle like that and go out on unsecured roads. You can’t do it. You are in my hospital ward and you answer to me. You understand?”
As I walked by them with Pete’s scale in my hands, I said, “Yes, sir.”
I put on the fresh gown lying by my bed. One of the men from the other end of the tent said in the half-light, “Man, you are in some heavy shit. These people are mad.”
I didn’t respond as I awkwardly crawled on my cot and went to sleep.
When I woke up the next morning, I put on my fatigues and jungle boots with cut laces, picked up Pete’s scale, and shuffled out the rear door of the tent. Ignoring the looks from other people, I crossed the busy intersection near the hospital tent and shuffled to the division helipad. I located the dispatcher and got a helicopter ride to the 1st Battalion 28th Infantry base camp, arriving for lunch at the Alpha company mess. I stood at a table in the rear, the scales beside my plate. (above extracted from The Vietnam War Its Ownself.)