The Moe Harper Photo PROLOGUE>
Of all the photos I took in Nam, the photo I took of Moe Harper probably gave me most of the qualifications to exhibit “the famous thousand-yard-stare”. A state of mind when the person goes back in time—usually a distressful time—and the person appears to stare into space. Lot’s of veterans have the ability. All they have to do is recall something—something that will trigger a memory. A memory of something that can be so vivid, like a movie that can be played back frame-by-frame. They start to stare and can watch the replay. The photo, I took of Moe Harper, is one of those memories—one of my triggers to that thousand-yard-stare. The photo of Moe turned out to be the most terrifying photo I ever took. After that experience, I missed taking quite a few pictures that I would have liked, but due to the circumstances I couldn’t or just deliberately didn’t. One terrifying photo was enough.
—Sgt. John W. Stone
The Story behind the Photo of Moses Harper —Sgt John Stone
Damn it was hot. The temperature—about hundred and five degrees. My jungle fatigues were soaked with sweat. The protective mask container, on my left side, would absorb the sweat that my fatigues no longer could. I told the guys in a bragging sort of way, “I might be small, but I sure sweat like the big guys.” That usually got a laugh—me weighing only about one hundred and thirty—naked pounds. Since running around naked in Vietnam—weighing only one hundred and thirty pounds was against army regulations, Uncle Sam dressed me in jungle fatigues, jungle boots, a helmet, and a flack jacket. Attached to my belt was a scabbard and knife. Around my neck on a chain, were my dog tags and a P-38. Hanging down off my right shoulder was an M-16 and behind me was a LAW (light anti-tank weapon). Hanging around my neck, in front, was a bandolier of M-16 magazines. Attached to my pistol belt was a canteen of water, two loaded ammo pouches, a pressure pack bandage, and a few hand grenades. Strapped around my waist and leg was a pouch containing a protective mask. I had a sock tied to one of the straps to carry my c-rations and a piece of C-4 plastic explosive. In my pockets I had a wallet, extra pair of dry socks, a can of foot powder, and a bottle of mosquito repellent. Occasionally and depending on the mission, I carried a claymore anti-personnel mine, a trip flare, smoke canister and machete. A fairly heavy load for a guy my size. Evidently Uncle Sam figured I still wasn’t heavy enough, so he topped it off with a back rack of about 35 pounds of machine gun ammo. Just enough muscle left for the necessities—my camera, film, cigarettes and lighter, and a stinking green towel. No wonder I was sweating like the big guys, carrying all that crap. For many days, Company A 2/12th Infantry of the 25th Division had been on the move through rice paddies, streams, wooded areas and open fields searching for our elusive enemy. We hit some pretty dense jungle, which probably made it a little cooler being out of the sun, but the humidity was brutal—like being in a sauna. Thank God for the stinking green towel, that hung down around my neck. I grabbed the end of it, and wiped the sweat off my face and out of my burning eyes. It seemed like it was going to be just another usual day in one of the jungles in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. I don’t think I was in that jungle much more than one hundred meters and already started to smell that familiar pungent odor. Just a few minutes later, after passing through some trees and bushes, I felt that pain that I hated so much—as if I was a voodoo doll and someone was slowly pushing hat pins into the back of my neck—those damn red ants! I hated them. I reached up to the back of my neck and removed those little bastards by pinching them between my thumb and index finger and tossed them aside. I got rid of the rest of the stowaways by shaking the stinking green towel off and put it back around my neck. We were walking through some of the densest jungle I’ve seen so far. Consider it impenetrable in places where the bamboo was growing. Just walking with all that weight was bad enough—the equipment I was carrying was getting hooked on most every vine I would pass. I was so aggravated. The damn light anti-tank weapon that was slung around my shoulder would get caught on the vines and I would try to fight it. I’d try to just keep going and the vines would pull me back. The more I fought those vines, the more exhausted I got. Then I’d have to stop and move back to get it unhooked. I was blaming everything except my self—the weight, the LAW, the goddamn vines and the jungle. I felt everything was against me and I was irritated. I started to throw a tantrum like a little kid. Then—along came Jose Lopez. He said, “Stone…you’re wearing your self out…you can’t fight the jungle…you’ve got to take it easy… it’s tearing you up…you won’t win.” I couldn’t argue with anything Jose said—he was absolutely right. I was dying of exhaustion from trying to fight the unbeatable. I listened to him and learned how to control my frustrations. I started moving the vines, the branches, anything that I might get hung up on—carefully moving them aside. It was somewhat easier after that—that part anyway. Hours had passed moving though the jungle, and as usual had no enemy contact. I was beat. My shoulders ached, my hips hurt and my back was killing me. The sweat was coming out of every pore in my body. We finally got the word—we were stopping for a break. I found a low spot to settle near a small clearing. As I sat down, I wondered if I ever would be able to get up again. I reached around and unsnapped the cover on my canteen pouch and removed my canteen. As I began to unscrew the top of the canteen, my mind started to drift—I imagined about entering the side door at my parents house and pictured myself walking into the kitchen…getting a tall clear glass out of the cupboard and then turn the water on at the sink…I would overfill the glass with running water from the faucet and watch the bubbles appear…When the water turned crystal clear and ice cold, I would bring the glass up to take a drink— and the taste of the warm water from the canteen, would bring me back to reality. God, I can’t believe how many times I imagined going into that kitchen to get a cold glass of water. I never realized how much those things at home back in Kenmore, New York, meant to me. Many times I wondered if I would ever see that place again. There would be no promise that it would happen again, until the moment that it was actually occurring. I had eaten my C-ration lunch that I had fixed with turkey loaf mixed with cheese and spread on some crackers. I was finishing up some pound cake for dessert. As I was putting my canteen back, I heard “ Saddle up… were moving out.” I packed up my stuff and moved into position in line, in front of Moe Harper. As we were moving, I was thinking what Lopez told me and it seemed to be working. I had also repositioned the LAW to a new way of carrying it and it seemed to help. Yep! Just another usual day in the jungle—until I took a photo of Moses Harper. Moses Harper, a member of the machine gun crew, was walking right behind me. I thought I’d get a picture of him so I took my little camera out of my top pocket. I turned around and stood off the left side of the path waiting for Moe to get a little closer. He took a few more steps toward me as I brought the camera’s viewfinder up to my right eye. I had just enough time to focus my eye as Moe walked into the viewfinder. Holding it steady with both hands, I closed my left eye. When he was in the square, I pushed the button. Just as I snapped Moe’s photo, suddenly something in the far left side of the camera’s viewfinder caught my attention. For a fraction of a second, I thought I had seen someone—a figure—someone barely visible— lurking in the foliage.
EDITOR'S NOTE: I played with this extraction selection for hours, and although this is the best I could get it on the graphics program I have, it DOES show fairly clearly - the outline of a head wearing an NVA pith helmet. To the left,is the image I took the selection from. Ilightened it first...and it does seem to contain a camouflaged NVA, or a gorilla wearing a Pith helmet.Just below, for our viewing pleasure and to answer the posed question about negatives-- I negatized both the home pic and the enlarged selection
My heart started to pound. Instantly I shifted both eyes, subtly peeking around the left edge of the camera that was still up near my face. I was looking towards the right flank, desperately trying to refocus, but I wasn't seeing anything. Maybe I was blinded by the fear of the unknown, or maybe blinded by the fear of what I thought I had seen through the lens—I thought I may have seen someone—someone looking at me—possibly just one of our flank men. If it was, my heart was pounding for nothing. If it wasn’t one of our guys, I could be in some deep shit! I was totally unprepared—I was standing there with my 16 hanging down at arms reach and all I had in my hands was my camera. As Moe passed directly in front of me, he momentarily blocked my view that I desperately needed. It really probably didn’t make any difference—I just knew who ever I had seen, was watching me, and I didn’t want him to know that I knew it—I had one only option—I pretended I didn’t see anything—there was nothing else I could do and no time to do it. The instant that Moe went by, I stepped slowly to the left to follow him. My eyes were still looking toward the flank and without any hesitation, my head continued to turn left as I moved in behind Moe. As I was putting my camera back in my pocket, I thought the distinct noise of an AK-47 would start at any second. I thought all hell was going to break loose. It didn’t—but the deadly expectation continued. Preparing for the worst, I reached down and discreetly put my 16 on full automatic. I was taking slow short steps as I continued looking out of the corner of my eyes—forcing them to the right until I was no longer physically able. My peripheral vision was useless. Whoever I had seen, was no longer in sight. I had to turn my eyes to the front… “Geeshus Kreist!”—As I turned my eyes to the front I could feel the blood rush in my head—maybe out of my head. In one fraction of a second, the skin on my head, face and arms tingled. I had a sensation of being cold, but I wasn’t. I could feel the hair settle back down against the goose bumps and my heart felt like it was going to beat right out of my chest. I began to sweat profusely. It was absolutely terrifying to look away. I took another step behind Moe and stopped. The guys about five meters behind me could be walking into a world of hurt—I had to do something. I had to tell someone what I thought I saw, and I was afraid to go back. I was afraid in more ways than one. I was afraid if who ever was out there, saw me come back, he would know something was up. He would know I saw him and he might just open up on us. My fear was out of control, but I just had to find out if it was one of our men out in the flank, or not. If it wasn’t, my fear of going back was justified. Cautiously I turned around. As I started to walk back, my eyes were darting over every square inch of that flank area. By the time I took my second or third step, the next man in the file was almost upon me. Thank god I didn’t have to go back very far. I moved to the left side of the trail, and stopped—my 16 appeared casual, but aimed and ready for the unexpected…or should I say expected. As the next man approached me—totally unaware of what he just walked by—I asked, “Do we have any guys out in the flank?” “Don’t know Stoney—what’s up?” I couldn’t draw any attention to us or panic anyone unnecessarily—one was enough. I shook my head and shrugged my shoulder as gesturing nothing, and he walked around me. It was only seconds, but it seemed to take forever for the next guy to get to me… When he was near, I asked him the same question. He didn’t know if we had anyone in the flank either. Shit! I had to tell someone what I saw and thought maybe a sergeant would know if we had someone out there, and I didn’t know which way to go… I was about to tell the next guy what I saw and asked him, “Hey, how many more guys are behind you?” I can’t believe how relieved I was when I heard his answer. Thank god we were at the end of the company. We were the last platoon and the last few guys in the file. Boy, was I glad to get the hell out of there. With the rest of the guys past that area, I turned around and moved towards the front of the moving file looking for some rank. It took a few minutes and finally found a sergeant a few men up ahead of Moe. "Hey Sarge, do we have any guys out there in the right flank?" He didn't know either…. He was still walking …I was talking to the back of his head. “I think I…saw something out there.” He turned his head to the right and replied over his shoulder, “Yeh…what ya see?” “I’m not sure, but whatever it was, it sure didn't look like one of our flank men.”… “I thought I saw someone…I think I saw...a helmet but not sure what kind…maybe NVA.” In a patronizing tone he said, “Yeh …Okay.” "No bull! I really think I saw something. I was taking a picture of Moe and saw something in the lens. I think I saw… a regular out there.” He turned around and I could see the left side of his mouth tighten up—like a half smile—it quickly turned to a doubtful smirk and he asked, “What was he doing?” On the defensive I said, “How the hell do I know...it looked like someone was just standing there in the bushes.” It didn’t take any Army Intelligence officer to tell me he didn't believe me—and to the best of my knowledge, that's as far as my surveillance report ever went. I suppose I was pissed that the sergeant blew me off. Even if I wasn’t sure what I saw, at least he could have asked someone else if we had any flank guys out. A yes or a no would have eliminated any of my uncertainty. I guess because of that uncertainty of what I saw, I wasn’t going to argue with him. After all, he had the rank, nothing happened and I had no proof. Oh, I suppose I could have asked an officer too, but after the sergeant made me feel like an asshole, with me not knowing what I saw—one asshole that day was enough. I paused at the side of the trail while the company continued to move forward. I wiped the sweat off my face with the end of the stinking green towel and returned to my position in front of Moe. I reached down and flipped the switch on my M-16 back to safe. God I wished it was true. I briefed some of the guys about what happened, including the fact that no one had a clue if any flank men were out or not. That uncertainty remained an issue. After this incident of taking Moe’s photo, I guess I could be re-classified as a different type of soldier. In Army terms, I was much more alert, more observant and ready. In civilian terms, that is the equivalent of—one jumpy bastard on the edge. I was constantly looking on both sides of the file now, searching the flanks for anything that looked suspicious. The whole damn jungle looked suspicious! Every step I took, I thought we’d either get ambushed or I would see something again. As we continued to move through the jungle, I started to question my own mental picture of what I saw out there or rather what I thought I saw. The whole freaking company had just gone by that area and I was the only one that saw anything. I still wasn't sure what I saw, but I knew I saw something. I remembered how helpless I felt after I snapped Moe’s picture—feeling so vulnerable standing there with just the camera. Nothing in training ever prepared me for a situation like that. My mind was working overtime, imagining every possibility of what could have happened, if I had taken a different action. Even the possibility of what could have happened if, whomever I saw, had also taken a different action. My mind was constantly improvising with what-if this and what-if that—and I kept coming back to the same answer. What ever I saw, I believe pretending not to notice was my only logical option. Sometimes I really think I had no decision to make at all…as if it was made for me…like it was a preprogrammed human defense reaction deep inside my head telling me, don’t look now buddy, but you could be in big trouble. Like an inherited instinctive act of survival…don’t be making any sudden moves…just give the outward appearance of you’re no threat…pretend you didn’t see a thing…just turn your head and walk away... then you can reach down there and get your gun. Turning away was the most frightening part of that whole deceptive act. It was absolutely terrifying, not knowing if it was going to work or not. I thought of the overwhelming possibility, it could be my last mistake—ending not only my life, but also jeopardize the life of everyone near me. This legitimate fear was fueled by the experience of a previous ambush that occurred on October 25, 1967. This previous hostile action took the lives of five of our men and wounded perhaps twenty. If we had just passed by a similar ambush site, and it had turned hostile, we could have been easily cut off or cut down and my pretending not to notice, would have been the cause. What if I was trigger-happy and started shooting blindly after I got my hand on my gun…and it turned out to be one of own flank men. I could have killed him. Geeshus! I would never have forgiven myself for doing something like that. Either would my fellow soldiers. Maybe they wouldn’t anyway, taking a chance doing what I did, but I just couldn't take the risk of shooting an unknown target. I’m not sure when I started wondering if my camera had captured what I saw through the lens. I just figured Moe’s photo wouldn’t be worth a thousand words without having that proof—the proof of what I actually saw. It was quite some time before I got Moe’s photo developed… We were back at base camp Rainier… I was sitting on the cot in my hooch, going through the pictures I just picked up from developing. I was yelling, “I’LL BE !I WAS RIGHT! I GOT HIM!” One of the guys, a few cots away said, ”Hey, let’s keep it down over there.” I yelled over excitedly, “Hey! Remember that time I thought I saw something…when I took that shot of Moe…did I ever tell you about that?” “Not sure…” With the photo in hand, I got up off my cot and as I walked over to him, I filled him in with a little history of it. As I handed him the photo, I said. “Here…take a look. The photos’ kind of small…but you can see it…look on the left side of the photo…about three quarters of the way up from the bottom …about level with the top of Moe’s helmet. You can see what I saw. You don’t have to look very hard…he’s there…and he sure isn’t wearing one of our helmets! You can see his head, a portion of his face, his nostrils, and his sweatband under the perfectly curved brim of his helmet.” He looked at the photo for what seemed a long time. I was getting apprehensive that he wouldn’t believe me either. He brought the photo real close to his face. He finally looked up saying,” Geeshus! Stone—didn’t you know what you were looking at…couldn’t you tell?” “Nope…the view was too quick to be one hundred percent positive. I only saw it for a fraction of a second…you know, the camera only has a lens opening of less than three-eights of an inch square.” “Gee Stone…it looks like he was only about 35 feet away from ya.” “Here, let me see.” He handed the photo back. Examining the photo I said, “Yeh …maybe…maybe a little more…a little less… the area had so much foliage—so difficult to see out there. Boy! I wish I could enlarge this so I could see it better…. Sure looks like an NVA to me.” I continued to look at the photo…”Why didn't he just shoot us? Maybe he was caught off guard too. Maybe his gun wasn’t ready either… Maybe he was standing there taking a leak… Maybe he just wanted to get into a group photo.” He laughed and asked for the photo back. As he turned the photo toward the sunlight he said, “You know…maybe he was a scout—I heard that some scouts never were issued a weapon. Can you imagine that— being out there in the jungle without a weapon?” “ Yeah”, I said, “I found out what that was like the instant after I took the picture. All I had was my camera in my hand—my gun wasn’t ready, and I had no time to fumble for it… I guess you could say I didn’t have a weapon either.” You know it always bothered me that no one knew if we had flank men out or not. No body seemed to know what was going on.” He looked up at me and said, “Someone knew.” “Who’s that?” He replied, “The guy you saw!” He handed Moe’s photo back and the conversation continued, covering possibly every thing that could have happened. In spite of all the “what-ifs” and all the possibilities of what could have happened, I took an awful chancy gamble with that option and thankfully it worked. If it hadn’t—the responsibility for any casualties on our side would have been a horrible burden to carry. ***************** After this incident I always made it my business to know if we had flank elements out. I also took this experience as a lesson in safer photography. I always checked the surroundings first—and with a little practice, I got pretty good at taking one-handed photos—sometimes without even looking through the viewfinder. I would just hold the camera up, point the lens in the direction of the subject and push the button. I did okay for the most part, but botched some too. Just glad the photo of Moses Harper turned out. Also after this confrontation, I deliberately decided to skip a few pictures that I would have liked, but due to the circumstances I couldn’t or just didn’t take the chance. One terrifying photo was enough. Moe Harper—As far as I know, Moe made it home from Nam safely. I don’t remember the last time I saw him. I don’t believe I ever got the chance to show him the photo or tell him the whole story. Wouldn’t that be something if I made contact with him someday and had the chance to talk about this? I could show him some other photos I took when his head was all bandaged up after he got his first purple heart. I wrote in my diary "he got his second heart at Song Be near Phuoc Long, from an incoming mortar. After he was hit I asked him how he was—he said he’d be okay". I hope life was good to him. Jose Lopez—I nicknamed him “Trini” like the singer—Trini Lopez, but usually called him Jose to his face—because of the great respect I had for him. He was a soft spoken type of guy but wasn’t afraid to say what on his mind. I appreciated his concern for me when I was having a rough time. I listened to him and learned how to move through the jungle without getting so aggravated. As for the VC—I will always wonder why he didn’t just shoot us. I wonder what was going through this person’s mind when I took that photo—what would his story be like? Did he know that I saw him? I wonder if he was as scared as I was. I wonder if he or she ever made it back to civilian life. Probably not, if the person continued to pop up in other photos. Probably not the first time we were observed by the enemy while we moved through the jungle, but quite possibly the first time they were—without a shot being fired—from a gun anyway. Always questioned if the company had circled back, would it have prevented something that was to happen later? I figure, by the time I finished talking to the Sergeant, we were so far from that area—I doubt if I’d be able to find the same spot anyway and most likely that guy was long gone. My thoughts about this incident continue to this day—and once in a while you can see me staring off into space—about a thousand yards away. ***** Well there you have most of story behind the photo of Moe Harper. The date now is September 27, 2003. I don’t really know if I’ll ever know the complete story. I’m not sure exactly when or where this photo of Moe Harper was taken. Quite possibly sometime near December of 67. Maybe when I go through all the photos I may match up the group of photos using those little numbers they print on the reverse side to help reveal where we were and a more exact date it was taken. It’s too bad I didn’t have a digital camera with an instant view and date stamp back then. I could have examined the photo right then. I could have shown them what was in the photo besides Moe. History may have changed—for the better? —Who knows? Recently, someone asked me if I had the original negative of the scanned photo. I was told if I do, I might get a better photo and better enlargement from it. You can bet I’ll be checking my stuff to see if I do
The Thunder Road Mission December 1967 One mission from Vietnam Alpha Company 2/12 Infantry 25th Division —Sgt. John W. Stone Tour Date Aug 1967- Aug 1968 PrologueThe guys in Alpha Company disappeared without warning. They were here one minute and gone the next. I never really did know what happened to many of them. Some had been transferred to a different unit and others simply left because their year was up. Some just dropped out of sight, only to be noticed they were gone, well after their departure. Others vanished suddenly before our eyes—many of which, were wounded or paid the ultimate price. Whatever the reason or whatever the cause of their disappearance, it was one of those things that all soldiers had to face at one time or another. It didn’t make any difference if you were a cook, an infantryman, an officer or a private. There was no guarantee when or if you would see your buddy again or if he would see you. The result of these sudden departures left us with no farewells—no handshakes—or without any good luck wishes. More often than not—there was no time to say good-bye. My diary from Vietnam titled, “No Time To Say Good-bye”, started out to be just a letter I was writing to my parents. I decided not to send it because it contained too many details of what I was experiencing. I guess I just didn’t want to worry my parents anymore than they already were. That letter I never sent home, became a record of events of things I was experiencing and I just kept adding to it. Occasionally I wrote about what I did, what I saw, my feelings, my thoughts, and anything I could remember. If I didn’t know what happened, I would ask and wrote down what others told me. Soon it became the longest letter I had ever written. It took a while before I realized I wasn’t just selfishly writing about my own experiences; I was also writing about what the other guys were doing too. The difference was that many of the guys in the company were disappearing, while I was still writing. This diary, which I never intended anyone to read, was written in 1967 and 1968. In the year 2003, thirty-six years later, I changed my mind. Most of the following account is one of those missions transcribed from this diary and is documented with photos from my albums. I don’t consider myself a writer—far from it. I am sure other guys have much better stories to tell and a much better way of telling them. So let’s just say, I’m not a writer and this isn’t a story… It’s real and it’s some things that happened to my acquaintances, friends and me while in Vietnam.
—John Stone A - 2/12- 25th Infantry Division Thunder Road Mission —Sgt. John W. Stone DATE: Mid-December 1967 LOCATION: Base Camp
I finished eating chow and I was chuckling all the way back from the mess hall to my hooch (sleeping quarters) to get my gear. As I was leaving the mess hall, I had told the guys in the chow line, “It takes the human body seventy-two hours to produce shit, and these cooks can do it in less than half an hour.” I don’t know if the cooks heard me, but the guys in the line laughed. Hope I make it back from this mission to see what they serve me tomorrow. I always look forward to see if I can guess what’s on my tray. As I walked toward my hooch, the early morning sunlight was shining down through the rubber trees that were throughout most of the company area. The monsoon season was over and the ground was starting to dry out. I guess I was too. The guys told me, “Don’t get too comfortable—it’s going to get hot now …real hot!”— I just hoped they were talking about the weather and not the mission. Mission Briefing Company A, 2/12, 25th Infantry Division, was assigned a road-clearing mission for a U.S. convoy that was bringing supplies from the south. We also had to keep the road secure for the armored division that was expected to arrive in a few days. Our primary objective was to check the road for mines, booby traps, and VC (Viet Cong) ambushes. Basically, to insure the convoy and armored division had a safe clear passage through Binh Duong Province, the districts and villages to our base camp. Finally we got to work out of our base camp. When we came into base camp between two of the last few missions, 45 minutes later we were “hatting it up” (quickly getting our gear on and moving out) and right back on shithooks (Chinook helicopters), heading for a place called Loc Ninh. During the next few days, we’ll pull some security and when were done, come back into base camp as a standby reactionary force—kind of like a nine to five job—a big change from the wretched existence “out in the field”.
The Field Out in the field was a vague term for any remote location outside the perimeter of a base camp. Whether you were “humpin” (moving on patrol) in the jungle or boonies, boondocks or bush, you were in the field. It was where we conducted our missions and major operations while searching and fighting our enemy. It was the places Huey choppers took us on eagle flights and dropped us off in some wet rice paddy they called an LZ (landing zone). The field was where we went on the search and destroy missions, and where we set up ambushes and got caught in them as well. It was anywhere we set up camps, where we dug foxholes, taking turns defending them all night, and filled them in the next day. Out in the field were some of those places where you made friends and good buddies, and the same place where you lost most of them too. The field was where the war was and if you were out in it, and lived long enough, you could be damn sure you’d hit every type of terrain and everything else the field contained; thick tropical jungles, miles of enemy tunnels, huge underground bunkers, booby-trapped paths and roads, bugs, and of course, the enemy. The field—it was the place you either hated or loved, but most of us counted down to the day we’d be out of it.
Map1. Compliments ofOur field covered a large territory and was within one of the 4 military sectors of South Vietnam known as the III [Three] CORPS Tactical Zone. The South Vietnamese military called this area a tactical zone and some called it a military region or combat zone. It was within in this zone we had our field and anywhere we patrolled within the field was our AO (area of operations). Basically this zone included Saigon and the entire area north to Bu Dop at the Central Highlands. Cambodia and its three-mile wide buffer was the western boundary of this zone and to the east, ended at the South China Sea. The southern part of this zone included places such as the Cu Chi District, Ton Son Nhut, Ben Hoa, Long Binh and Thu Duc. Thirty-five miles northwest of Saigon, was the infamous Iron Triangle. This triangle, right next door to our camp, was plotted between the three villages of Ben Cat, Phu Hoa Dong, and Ben Suc. Farther to the north near the Cambodian border, was Katum. Still further north around a border area of Cambodia called “The Fish Hook", was Loc Ninh, Phuoc Binh (Song Be) and Bu Dop. To the west of our base camp was Tay Ninh Province and War zone “C” and to the east was the Michelin Rubber Plantation and War Zone “D”. The strategic significance to the importance of this III Corps zone was that it was the main land passageway and included the rivers used to supply the Viet Cong in all these locations in South Vietnam. With Cambodia bordering our entire far west sector and the enemy’s supply line of the Ho Chi Minh trail just across the border, eventually these supplies and troops had to come through our tactical zone. Part of the job of the U.S. forces assigned to this zone was to search out Viet Cong activity and to stop this traffic of supplies and infiltrating troops, and with no doubt, constantly occurring right outside our base camp. Camp Rainier Our base camp, Camp Rainier, is located in the Tri Tam area of South Vietnam at the village of Dau Tieng. The base camp is better known as just Dau Tieng (Dow-Ti- Ang. The base camp had quite a few comforts that the field didn’t offer. Tents provided us a dry place to sleep during the rainy season. A portion of trees from the Michelin Rubber Plantation gave us shade from the hot sun. We had a mess hall right in the company area and another mess hall down the path in 3rd brigade Headquarters. The PX or Post Exchange was down across the road from our company area. It was like walking into your favorite neighborhood department store, food mart, electronics store, camera shop, jewelers and mail order store, all in one. A place that will make you homesick while you’re picking up some commodities such as shampoo, toothpaste, soap, snacks, cameras, film, stationary, jewelry and watches and other non-Government Issue items. The camp also had a snack bar, the first and only one in war zone “C”, where you could get a burger, hot dog, fries and a cold drink or a milk shake that had the viscosity of napalm (flammable solvent gel). If those drinks weren’t your cup of tea, you could go to the club for a beer. If you needed to cool off, you could take a dip in the pool; a rather large above ground pool that looked completely out of place—like a large white houseboat. Base camp Security The perimeter of the base camp, except for a few gates or checkpoints, was bordered by continuous fencing and a few hoops of barbwire called concertina wire. In our area of the perimeter, on the other side of the wire was a road, and on the inside of the wire, was a clear swathe of land, about 50 meters wide. It was kept clear of any foliage and considered a “no mans land”. It provided an unobstructed view and field of fire that extended from the front of the bunkers to the wire and beyond. Unfortunately this view worked both ways. The bunkers, externally fortified with sandbags, were the defense positions of the camp. These structures were strategically positioned and spaced around the perimeter on the inside edge of this clearing, creating what was known as the bunker line. Between each bunker was a dike or low wall of earth or sand bags called a berm. This berm gave some additional defense positions and protective cover to the soldiers outside the bunker. In one part of the perimeter I was shocked to see that this particular section didn’t have this clear track of land. The bunkers were right up close to the wire and directly on the other side of the wire was a narrow road, just a few meters wide. On the other side of the road was the village—making this part of bunker line, just a hand grenade toss away. The troops or “base camp warriors” that remained inside the wire took turns on this watch called “bunker guard” day and night. If you were in base camp for any length of time, there was a good chance you’d have to pull some duty protecting the camp while the rest of the guys were “humpin” somewhere in the field or lucky enough to be partying or sleeping somewhere in the camp. The interior of the bunkers in our area were equipped with numerous weapons, such as a .50 caliber machine gun, 90 mm recoilless rifle, parachute flares, M-79 grenade launcher, fragmentation grenades, and what ever else the person that was on watch had. Each bunker had communication capability with HQ (Headquarters). If you saw any suspicious activity—and I assume it excluded fire engagement during a full-scale attack—you were suppose to call headquarters before taking any action. Most of the civilians were smart enough to stay away from the wire until early daylight, adhering to the after dark curfew. However, one of the few times I pulled base camp bunker guard, early in my tour, I saw someone coming down the road at about 0300 hours, transporting some cargo on the rear of a bicycle. When the bike got adjacent to bunker number 10, the bike stopped, the person got off and began to do something in the road, on the far side of the bike. After I observed a minute, I called HQ on the horn, (phone) and reported this unidentified activity. The voice on the horn asked me, “What’s he doing? I reported, “I’m not sure? He’s out there on the road in front of my bunker. I can’t really make out what he’s doing—it’s pretty dark out there. After a slight pause he said, “ Pop a flare and see what he’s doing, and call me back with a Sit. Rep.” (situation report). I said, “Roger that”, and hung up. I grabbed an illumination flare, sometimes called a slap flare, and removed the top cap, which contained the firing pin, and put the cap on the bottom of the tube and went outside the bunker. Holding the tube with my left hand and the top pointed skyward, I hit the bottom-firing cap with my right palm and WHOOSH—the flare was heading skyward. Two seconds or so later—Pop! The chute was open; the flare was lit and I ran back inside the bunker. I was looking out the bunker port as the flare was coming down and I got HQ on the “horn” again. He finally answered. “He’s still there on the road. I think it’s a papa-san (adult male Vietnamese) and he’s on the other side of a bicycle and it looked like he was up and then dropped back down again.” “What’s he doing now?” I said, ”I don’t know, but the last time I saw him, it looked like he was squatting on the road.” “Can’t you see him anymore?” “Negative… the flare went out—but the bike is still there.” Well, the guy on the phone said unless I was getting attacked, I only had permission to shoot hand parachute flares. “Just illuminate the area, and continue to observe and keep us posted.”… ”Roger that”,… and he hung up! So, with HQ’s permission, I popped few more flares and continued to watch this guy move up and down behind his bike. I couldn’t believe he stayed right there. After firing a few of these hand flares, I had a brainstorm. I was wondering if a hand parachute flare could be fired from of a cocked M-79 grenade launcher? Jeez…I didn’t know if it would even fit in the barrel, but I was going to give it a shot, so to speak. I grabbed a 79 and remember how excited I felt as I carefully inserted the flare into the barrel. It fit perfectly! The next question was—would it fire? I didn’t know, but was about to find that out too. I went back outside to test fire my newly discovered M-79 flare shooter, and as I pointed it up in the air, and just before I pulled the trigger, I had another brainstorm. I was thinking if this works, maybe I could aim it too. So, I brought the barrel down slowly, keeping it slightly elevated so the flare tube wouldn’t slide out of the bore, and I aimed it over the perimeter wire. I braced myself and pulled the trigger. Click… Nothing but silence… I thought maybe I had a hang fire, so I waited a few seconds—and nothing! I re-cocked it and put the flare back into the barrel as far to the rear as I could, and tried it again—click! Now, you’d think I’d be able to remember if my test fire of the M-79 flare shooter worked or not, but no pun intended, I’m drawing a blank! I can’t remember if the firing pin from that M-79 ever hit the primer of that flare or not. Maybe I fired it by hand? All I remember is hearing and seeing the flare heading horizontally across “no man’s land” towards the wire and the bicycle. God that thing was noisy! The flight path was a little wobbly at first, but sure was impressive from my end. The guy on the road must have been impressed too. After the flare stopped burning and spinning near his bicycle, I popped another flare into the air to illuminate the area— Whooosh…..pop, and once again, ran back into the bunker. I looked out the bunker port—the guy was gone, the bike was gone— and just about then, Buuuurrriiring— the phone rang, and scared the crap out of me. Uh-oh! …I thought I was in trouble… I picked up the horn and said, ummm …“Bunker Ten! Go ahead!” The guy asked, “ How’s it going down there—Everything okay? “Ummm…Affirmative! Everything’s okay—Uhhh—He’s gone now!—The guy di-di mau’ed” (Vietnamese for left in a hurry—Dee-Dee-Maued)! The voice said, “Okay, just stay alert, if you see any more activity let me know immediately.” “Wil-co, no problem”, and we hung up. Whew! Other than trying to find a new type of ammunition for the M-79, I don’t know if there is a significant ending to this incident on bunker guard that night, but I did learn that it was better to know where your target is, than to know where he isn’t. After I scared him off, [and I must assume I did] I spent the rest of my watch, wondering what the guy had been doing, what he was doing now, and where he was doing it? Oh, one more thing. When daylight came, I saw the parachute from the flare, hanging on the perimeter wire. I never got to see all of base Camp Rainier but from what I did see, being located in a portion of the Michelin Rubber Plantation, it sure was more picturesque than all of the base camps I saw. I’m not exactly sure of its land size, or its exact perimeter edge on a map, but a heck of a lot smaller than Cu Chi. Still, it had every support element needed, including a 2,500-foot airstrip, for Camp Rainier to be a major staging area for War zone “C” and other areas of the III Corps Tactical Zone. Mission Preparation I got to my hooch and was so glad I didn’t have to wear that thirty-pound ammo rack that I wore on other missions while I was on the machine gun crew. That freaking thing will not only drain you physically, but as it digs into your shoulders and hips, it will painfully torture you to death before it kills you. Yes, kills you! If your lying in the prone position and trying to aim and shoot, the top of the rack will stop you from raising your head up high enough to see, let alone aim. The first time I hit the prone position and brought my head up I almost broke my neck on the support. I said out loud, “What the —! Who designed this thing, the enemy?” So to make my self less of a target while I took the thing off, I rolled over and ended lying on my back. Until I got my arms out of the straps, I looked like an over-turned turtle struggling to get out of its shell. Traveling light was so much easier. I had my flak jacket on, helmet, a few hand grenades, protective mask, my 16 and ammo, my knife, smokes, lighter, my little camera and extra film, a p-38, C-4, some c-rations and a thin two inch red bible my mother sent me. I was almost ready to go. I just had to get some water in my canteen so I headed outside the hooch to the “blister”[lister] bag. While filling my canteen, I observed a few of the guys were scattered around the company area, some in groups shooting the shit and some were quietly by themselves. Many of these guys in the company had nicknames. Many nicknames were derived from their last name. Wesolick was “Wes” but also heard him called “Tex” too.
Culleton was “Cully”,
and I called Jose Lopez, “Trini” like the singer (photo 2 below)
Some of the guys called Swan, “Swanee” (photo 3).
Some nicknames were chosen because many didn’t know how to pronounce names like Ron Woycehoski
(photo 4). He was best known as just “Ski”.
Wilbert Theriot was “Frenchy” as any other French guy would be called. We arrived together and left “Shotgun” together!
Some names were picked from their job description. Fuller (photo 5 below) was “Shotgun”,
Dupont (see photo 6 below) was the machine gunner so we called him Mike Golf.
Saul McNeal (see photo 7 below) was appropriately called “Slick”, just because he was.
John Barfield, a radiotelephone operator (RTO) (see photo 8 below) was known to most, as just Barney.
Another guy was just called “Gomer”. When I first arrived at “A” Company, I met a couple of short timers that were almost ready to go home. One was Sergeant Hernandez (see photo 9 below). He told me just call him “Pineapple” derived from where he was from—Hawaii. Another guy was Charlie Jacobsen. He was known as “Jake”, and Roger Masten (see photo 10 below), an RTO, was “Chief”. Even the enemy had a few names. The Viet Cong, abbreviated VC, were sometime just called “Charlie”, and the trained North Vietnamese Army soldier, known as NVA. Some other nicknames for the enemy was just “gook” or “dink” and just by the sound of the words, I assumed they weren’t very nice. I thought I better pick a nickname for myself before someone picked one for me that wasn’t cool… so I had “Stoney” embroidered on my bush hat. Apparently a lot of them couldn’t read and just called me Johnny. Never told many guys, that John Wayne was my real name. I guess I didn’t want to get ribbed—John Wayne Stone. Wayne is my middle name. Boy did I look cool. I really thought I looked good without all that other crap hanging off me. John Wayne in the movies never looked this good. I looked around and found someone who would take my picture. Maybe it was Dan Hollister, or possibly Frenchy. I’m not sure, but I handed him my little camera and hoped he knew what he was doing. If I was going down, I’d look cool going, and I wanted a picture in my camera for everyone to see how cool I looked before I went. (See photo 11 below) While some of the guys were still running around doing last minute equipment checks, I noticed something different. I saw two jeeps pull into the company area. They both had fifty caliber machine guns mounted on them. Doug Buhl (see photo 12 below) was one of the gunners and his driver was
Frenchy (Wilbert Theriot).
Not sure of the other driver’s name, but I took a photo of the other gunner.
(See photo 13 above) These guys looked more like they were from the TV show Rat Patrol than a bunch of ground pounders. Boy, Doug sure looked pretty good standing up on the back of that jeep hanging on to that fifty. Maybe it was the goggles attached in front of his helmet that gave him the look. I guess I wasn’t the only one that looked cool. I wondered how he ended up on that job? Whether he volunteered or was assigned, I just know, even with my machine gun capability, I wouldn’t want that duty. We got the word we were moving out and everyone was told to “group-up” and I headed towards the CP group. THE COMMAND POST GROUP The CP or command post group was the controlling part of the company. On this mission the CP group had three radiotelephone operators. Photo 14. Melvin Houk “Harvey” The first RTO (radiotelephone operator) was Harvey (see photo 14 below). At least that’s what he wanted to be called. His real name was Melvin—Melvin Houk. He hated the name Melvin. That’s what I was told. I don’t think I would like to be named Melvin either. He sure didn’t look like a typical Melvin. I’m sorry, but when I hear the name Melvin, I imagine some stereotype goofy looking guy that is short, over weight, and wears thick glasses. Harvey was just the opposite. He had to be at least six foot tall, the perfect weight and one of the most handsome guys I had ever met. I don’t think the guy had a pimple on his face—just a real good-looking guy. Carl R. Swan was the second RTO. Swan was probably only a few inches over five feet tall, making him the shortest of the group. His fairly large bushy mustache probably made him appear older than he was. He’d often make a funny face when I’d take a picture of him. (See photo 15 below)
I’ve seen his name spelled two ways. Swan with an A and Swon with an O. I always thought it was with an O, but the company CIB (Combat Infantry Badge) award roster (See Document 1 and 2 below) dated October 4, 1967, spelled it with an A. Some of the guys and the Captain called him Swanee.
The third RTO was Barney, who carried the radio for the artillery officer. He was known to most only by his nickname “Barney”, but his real name was John R. Barfield. Barney was a lightweight kid like me. He was easy going and had a good sense of humor. I once ran into Barney (see photo 16 and 17 below) standing in the company with this big Polish sausage sticking out of his mouth. The thing was huge.
I asked him where he got it and he said the mess hall. I said, “I didn’t know horse c**k was on the menu.” When he heard that, he started to laugh and could barely hold on to the sausage with his teeth. I quickly whipped out my little camera and took two photos. Oscar Draughon was the First Sergeant and we called him “Top”, as most First Sergeants were called. He was the highest-ranking non-commission field officer on this mission with a rank or grade of E-7. I have to assume that Sergeant Droughon was the eldest of the group. A quiet, well seasoned career sergeant, who could take charge in an instant. A photo taken by an unknown (See photo 18 below) shows me checking out my little camera and Sgt. Draughon behind me. Not quite sure if he was doing anything other than reading the stars and stripes. Our Commanding Officer or CO (see photo 19 below) was Captain Jack Merrill.
From the first time I met him I liked him. Possibly because he seemed so relaxed. He was a fairly large man. Not fat, just a big guy. I really didn’t get a chance to talk to Captain Merrill much or try to be chummy with him. I never called him “ the old man” as some of the guys did A distinguishing thing about Captain Merrill is he had a cane or walking stick that he carried. I think they also called it a swagger stick. The top of the wooden cane or handle had a carved dragonhead. Several photos that I took from our chopper on past missions show the silhouette of the head of his cane. His cane (see photo 20 below) really looked cool but it had one major shortcoming. It didn’t shoot.
In spite of that, it was an honor to be part of the command group and I was proud to be chosen for my job. My job…was the Commanding Officer’s bodyguard. Bodyguard Bodyguard—Kind of a peculiar job title for describing the act of trying to keep some one alive. Even kind of humorous when you really think about it. Even contradictory— Like I was against all odds of succeeding before I even started. Bodyguard—It sounded as if I was assigned to guard a person whose vital signs had long stopped functioning. I always wondered why they selected me CO’s bodyguard. I was a Weapons Specialist E-4, but only had been in country about two months or so. That’s not very long. Other guys that were here longer were more qualified than I was. I really didn’t know a heck of a lot yet, but on the other hand, felt I’ve already seen enough blood, bugs, and body bags, to last me the rest of my tour. Maybe I’ve just seen enough for the new guy look to fade… on the outside anyway. On the inside, I still was an FNG (F**king new guy). Maybe I just looked cool enough. Boy, did I fool them. According to data from my diary and photos from prior missions, I was his bodyguard, starting some time in November of ‘67. As the Commanding officer’s bodyguard, I went most everywhere the Captain went. We rode the same choppers, the same vehicles and walked the same paths. I followed him and watched his back, his right, and his left as much as the circumstances let me. When the Captain was discussing plans or strategy, or even taking a break, I was pulling surveillance. Even though I used to joke that I drew the line when he was using the latrine, I took the assignment of being his bodyguard very seriously. Being the commanding officer’s bodyguard had good points and bad ones, and it was hard to distinguish between most of them. It was a toss up between which target was the enemy’s most popular— the machine gun crew, or the command post group. Many times the CP group was at the front, wherever that may be, and so very often it was hard to tell where the front really was. Being with the command group and the RTO’s, you had first-hand information. Whether the information was good or bad true or false, going out or receiving it, you had most of it first. When the RTO’s were on the radios, and being distracted, I watched them as well. I would watch the surroundings, the bush, the woods or people. By watching out for the group as well as I could, I was watching my own ass as well. I occasionally would monitor the radios when we set up camp. I felt real comfortable working with these guys. They were easy going, and all had a good sense of humor. It was the best job so far—especially now that I didn’t have to carry thirty pounds of ammo on my back. It will tear your ass up! During some idle chat one day someone asked me, “Being the Old Man’s body guard, why don’t you carry a forty-five?”(.45 caliber pistol) …… I told them of the first time I fired a forty-five in Nam, I was trying to hit a beer can lying on the ground about thirty-five feet away. After the third miss, I started to laugh. I looked at the end of the barrel and said, “Is there anything coming out of this freakin’ thing?” The guy said, “ Yeah, but it is a little sloppy and wore out.” I told him, “I’d have better luck hitting the can if I just threw it! “ I defended my inability to hit the can with the forty-five by telling him I qualified expert with the sixteen in AIT (advanced Infantry training) and almost with the M-14. According to my SPECIAL ORDERS NUMBER 220, from basic training, only four of us, out of sixty guys hit fifty-nine targets with the M-14. Pretty sure if I had hit one more stinking target, I would have made expert with that too… I replied, “I’ll keep my M-16.” HIT THE ROAD…. “JACK” It was a nice sunny day for a morning walk and the company was ready. Captain Jack Merrill gave the signal and we moved out of our base camp area and headed to one of the checkpoints or exits of Camp Rainier. We emerged outside of the base camp perimeter and the company traveled along in single file. (See photo 21 below)
Our first objective on this mission was to prevent a convoy from getting ambushed along a section of road they were coming in on. We had to get there and secure the area before they passed by. Much of this route to this destination was a narrow road. There were reports that this road was mined and booby-trapped. I guess you could say mines and booby-traps were part of the territory, and the VC were experts at constructing and hiding them. Many booby traps were put together from unexploded U.S. bombs and other munitions. The enemy could either make these devices self-detonate or explode by a remote control. Avoiding these frightful death traps was crucial to survival, but first they had to be found. Detecting them before they were triggered or detonated was extremely difficult and was the real key to continued existence. In the next few days we were to find out how heavily booby-trapped this area was. While the CP group walked point in the center of the road, the company followed behind, keeping it spread out between each other. (See photo 22 above). As we walked the road, we would check approaching civilians
(see photo 23 below) for ID (identification).
At least they looked like civilians, the way they were dressed. Some adults rode motorbikes (see photo 24 below)
and some were kids on bicycles (see photo 25 below).
At some point along this road we changed course and headed into the bush to our first objective (see photo 26 below).
We emerged from the bush, into a wooded area and set up a blocking type ambush for the convoy. We set up our positions about forty-to-fifty feet from the point where we came out of the brush. We were spread out pretty much in what appeared to be an uncultivated rubber tree area, with rather young trees. The ground between the trees had a lot of foliage or undergrowth. I found a low spot and settled down. I was on the outside of the CP group and could not actually see the roadbed surface. I do not know if both sides of the road were protected, but I was on the right. From my position, the thick foliage behind me wasn’t too far away—maybe twenty feet at the maximum. We could have been right in front of an enemy ambush position with no chance of survival. Way too close for comfort in my field manual. In this situation, the more distance between the wood line and me the better—starting at fifty meters is good. I frequently did a three hundred and sixty degree scan of the area while waiting for the convoy. I also ate and even played with my camera a couple of times. It wasn’t too long—I could hear the engines of the trucks. As the convoy passed by from my left to right, I could barely see the vehicles through the trees, as if they were camouflaged. I took the photos anyway (see photos 27, 28, 29, 30 below).
Ed Note: Above is an M-109...Self-Propelled(SP) 155MM Howitzer. Probably B/3/13FA, "The Clan"
ED Note: Above is another,or the same one. 155MM Howitzer. Probably B/3/13FA, "The Clan" Considering it was Dec. '67, the road security may have been for 3/13 and other units on the way up to FSB BURT. I think scince they were so slow, they may have had to leave 1-3 days ahead of us...the 105's....and the Mech. and Airmobile infantry troopers. --End
Ed Note: Above looks like either a "Deuce" (2-1/2 Ton Truck, used a lot in Field Artillery units) or a 5 Ton Truck. Not used quite as much in 105 units, but scince 3/13 is 155's and 8 inchers...who knows? --END
Same thing. a Deuce or a 5 Ton. With a trailer
I was just getting comfortable when the last truck had passed by and heard “saddle up, were moving out”. With the first objective complete, I rejoined the Captain and the RTO’s and the company headed to a fire support base to meet up with another convoy. We arrived at this base, which was located on a sharp curve on a road. Just real disappointed I never recorded the actual map location of this place in reference to base camp but it may have been FSB (fire support base) Allen. I don’t believe this location was too far from our previous position, but the total mission time used a large extent of the day. From what I saw from the road, the support base didn’t look like much. More like a small compound. I remember seeing one armored personnel carrier (APC) and maybe one or two trucks when we arrived here (see photo 31 below).
In a short time, some more trucks, jeeps and a lead tank came out from nowhere. Our company boarded these vehicles and headed back to base camp. I rode back to camp Rainier on a jeep (see photos 32,33,34 below) with the Captain, Sgt. Draughon Swan and Harvey.
As we rode back past some small farms and villages, I took a few photos. The villages appeared so peaceful—some even too peaceful (see photo 35 below).
Many people were hard at work on their farms and in the fields (see photo 36 and 37 below).
The villagers, mostly kids (see photo 38 and 39 below) were so cute and friendly, waving as we went by.
Always a possibility any civilian could be a VC sympathizer. You really couldn’t tell just by looking at their appearance. You just had to be aware of this and stay on the alert. I would always look for anyone that was covering their ears with their hands or plugging their ears with their index fingers—a real good indication that some thing was going to blow, and they knew about it. I even saw a few village stores on the trip (see photo 40 below) back to Dau Tieng.
A few times during the trip, the convoy slowed down, sometimes coming to a complete stop, making us a fairly easy target for sniper fire. That made me nervous. Once in a while the Captain would stand up to see what was happening towards the front of the convoy. He almost looked like Patton standing up in front of the jeep like that. I took his picture. (Photo 41 below)
I never really did like riding convoys much, but after walking for most of the day, it seemed like a pretty good deal to me. During the ride towards camp I was amazed at how much distance we had covered on foot during the day. Not sure if I could accurately calculate the distance, but let’s just say I was beginning to know why the combat infantryman is also called a “ground pounder.” It would have been one heck of a long walk. Back At Base Camp Rainier Well… we made it back to camp. Once again I am forced to take my chances of survival with the cooks…Just kidding…I love these guys! It’s always nice to get back to base camp in the least amount of time, the least amount of effort and no casualties—at least on our side anyway. Pretty much had the rest of the day to ourselves. While in base camp many of the guys would go to the EM (enlisted men’s) club for a beer. Others would just hang around the company area and wait for the mortars (Explosive shelling) to come in. A typical day or night off, I would hang around the hooch (see photo 42 below) and write some letters and write about all the crap that happened.
Sometimes I’d get together with Bill Klevins (see photo 43 below, taken at the bunker line)and play our Vietnamese acoustic guitars.
One night in particular there must have been six to ten other guys in one of the hooches, listening to Bill Klevins and me play some blues and rock & roll. Then we discovered that Doug Buhl and Bill Carle were real good singers and they’d take turns singing some songs while we provided the music. Pretty sure it was Bill Carle started singing a song called "Funky Roberta” and taught the rest of the guys the back up chorus. The funniest damn song I ever heard! Boy it was really something! So I grabbed my little tape machine and recorded the show for posterity. (Song one on disk: “Funky Roberta” with Bill Carle singing lead vocal. Song two on disk: “Run Away” with Doug Buhl singing lead. Both songs with me playing lead and rhythm / Bill Klevins playing chords and the guys in the hooch singing back up. Not really sure if it was exactly this night, but one of our performances got rudely interrupted. Right in the middle of a solo, someone outside started yelling, ”Incoming, Incoming!” Maybe our VC neighbors didn’t like the music. They sent a pile of mortar rounds right into the company area. Boy did we Guitar pickin' buddy scatter! I started running toward the bunker but the mortars were dropping right in the area so fast and precise my pathway got cut off. I had to turn around and run back. Some of the guys dove into the water trench near the road and I found myself trying to bury my head into a wall of sandbags right at the outer protective wall of the hooch. What a Jerk! I would have been better off just staying inside and laying low. When the shells from one of these little cannons hit, they make an exploding sound that is very hard to describe, but once you’ve heard it, you will never forget. Not exactly like a BOOM sound… Possibly like a crunching noise! Possibly, with some imagination, like the sound a large paper grocery bag makes as it opens up while the bag is violently swung through the air, but a whole lot louder! Crunch! —Crunch! Maybe like the sound of the air escaping from a steam locomotive engine just when the wheels begin to turn on initial startup—then speeds up—Puufff! —Puufff! —Puufff! — Never did understand how the VC was able to drop those babies into that tube so fast while changing the strike path? The VC must have dropped in at least ten of those things, walking them through our area to the company next door! After it was over I told the guys, ”Jeez — I know they made lousy guitars, but the music wasn’t really that bad!” Base camp wasn’t all fun and games but we sure made the best of it the few times we were there.
DAY TWO Even though I had a good breakfast, I asked the cook, “Hey, in case I need to go on sick call, what should I tell Doctor Rhodes you guys served today? The last time he asked what I had eaten, I had trouble describing it!” Without waiting around for a answer, I hurried out of the mess hall to get my gear. By the time I got fresh water in my canteen, the company was ready to hit the road again. We left base camp and stopped at the roadside just out side one of the main perimeter checkpoints and waited for some heavier security than the rat patrol jeeps. About fifty tons heavier! Our security was a 51-ton tank with the name the “Baron” painted on the side of the turret. Our company was lined up on the sides of the road as the Baron rolled towards us (see photo 44 below).
The closer it got, the smaller I felt. The Baron was huge (see photo 45 below). I didn’t get real close but I’d be lucky if my height would allow me to see much over the top of the track treads. I was feeling much safer with the tank along with us.
I am not sure when the engineers and minesweepers joined us. According to my diary and photos, the EOD or Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit was not with us the first day. These engineers (see photo 46 below) attached to our company, consisted of five demolition experts. These minesweepers, as they were called, would use electronic mine detectors to check the road for any buried mines.
When the engineers would detect a mine in the road, they would investigate it closer by probing the area by hand, with a bayonet. If they found one, we would give them plenty of distance and they would put a charge of C-4 plastic explosive on the suspected area or mine and blow it up (see photo 47 below).
If by chance it really was a mine they were detonating, it could leave a pretty large size hole (see photo 48 below) in the road.
One engineer told me the detector worked well on metal mines but it was useless on non-metal powder type or buried plastic explosives, such as C-4. Those had to be hand probed. Probing a command-detonated mine was suicide if a VC was on the end of the wire with a remote trigger—the enemy could blow one of these on “command”, at any time they saw fit. I was told they lost one of their engineers the first day at the other end of the road while he was probing the road with his bayonet. The explosion killed him instantly. As the Baron and engineers were in lead position, the company trailed behind them as they inched their way down the road. While the minesweepers checked the road, the company was checking ID’s of approaching villagers. I kept my eyes open for anything that looked suspicious, or even obvious, such as a walking booby trap. It wasn’t long before the company (see photo 49 below) started to spread out—not walking to close to one another.
At some point along this road, I took a photo of Sgt. Draughon (see photo 50 below) walking at a distance behind the rest of the CP Group.
We got to a bridge the VC had already blown up. The bridge was in rough shape but I don’t think it was actually or presently in use. The CP group navigated around the right side of it with the Captain. Captain Merrill (see photo 51 below) went to take a look and stood at the edge on high ground.
I took a few group photos of some of the company coming over it as they passed by the Captain. One photo shows Sgt. Todd in the foreground and behind him are Lt. Harris, Frenchy, Ski, Moses, Palacio, and another guy on bridge center. (See photo 52 below)
We waited there for a while for the engineers to assess the situation. These multiple photos show a sequence of the guys coming over the bridge (see photo 53 below).
Also, for the record, Frenchy evidently is not driving the jeep this day. After everyone passed over the bridge and the civilians were out of the way, it was decided the tank would do some recon fire. The tank (see photo 54 and 55 below) was put in position to shoot along the road surface with machine gun rounds.
The game plan was, if one of the machine gun rounds happened to hit a mine or explosive device planted in the road, it would blow. I thought the chances of hitting one were pretty pathetic. I may have been proved wrong. I recall at least one round creating more than just dust. Much more. The round had to have hit something in the road to make such a cloud of dust. The recon continued on the road surface for a while and then the target was adjusted into the wood line. (See photo 56 below) This gun was extremely loud. Even the Captain plugged his ears with his fingers. After the gun smoke cleared, the company continued down the road.
The engineers were up with the front of the company with the tank. At a distance of two hundred feet or so, we moved behind them as they cautiously checked the road for any indication or markers for mines. When they suspected anything, they would tell us to hold up and then detonate the mine by setting off a charge. Some of the holes left from detonated mines were large enough to fit a jeep in—well, at least part of it anyway. (Photo 57 below)
As some of the guys walked by some of the craters left by an exploded mine, one of them looked at me and shook his head side to side…as if a person was indicating “no” by shaking his head. I assume he was thinking “unbelievable” or a “what a big freakin hole”… I know what I was thinking. I hope these sweepers don’t miss any of these things. Sometimes it was hard for me to tell if the engineers were actually blowing up an explosive device in the road or just using a lot of explosives themselves. I had just got done taking my camera out of my pocket and put it up to my eye to take a shot and suddenly there was this large explosion down the road. (See photo 58 below)
At first we all thought it was just another explosion the engineers set off. I took a picture of this blast, and as I removed the camera from my eye, I heard someone in the group yell, “ Oh shit!” Instantly, the CP group started running. I was running toward the blast and I still wasn’t sure what happened, but I know I couldn’t see the Baron anymore. All I saw was dust and smoke. There wasn’t any big flash, and it really didn’t make a hell of lot of noise. More like a muffled thump. I believe I felt it more than anything else. I don’t really know when I was fully convinced the explosion wasn’t just another big charge set off by the engineers. Maybe when I got near the cloud of dust…maybe as I passed a soldier, who was crouching at the right side of the road… Quite possibly, I was fully convinced the tank was blown up when I saw what was lingering above the tank. An account of what I saw follows… As I came up to the rear of the tank, I passed someone crouching just off the right side of the road near a bush. I continued to follow the CP group and about half way down the side of the tank, I paused behind Sgt. Draughon. I couldn’t see a freaking thing. I had Sgt. Draughon in front of me, the tank on the left and this big freakin’ bush on my right. As we were moving again, I looked up to see if anyone else was still on the tank and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Hovering up in the air, around twenty feet or more above the tank Photo 58. Just dust and Smoke was this huge unbroken smoke ring. It appeared to be perhaps twenty feet in diameter and was off-white in color—maybe grey. The instant I saw it, I knew exactly how it was created. I’ll cover more about this smoke ring later. I continued to follow Sgt Draughon. When we reached the front of the tank, there were two guys lying on the ground. I assumed one was the gunner and the other was the driver. The driver never had a chance. The explosion from under the tank had blasted the driver out of his seat. I’m reluctant to make such a callous description of what I saw, but what was left of him could have fit in a duffle bag with room to spare. The majority of him ended up on the ground at the right front corner of the tank. It appeared at least one of his limbs remained on the tank, centered under the gun barrel. I assume he was killed instantly, suffering no pain. The tank gunner was on the grass, face up motionless. When I first saw him, I had a tough time making out if he was “ toast” or a black guy. God, I hoped he wasn’t toast. He was all covered in what appeared to be black soot making it obvious he must have been right in the midst of the blast. His t-shirt color blended right in with his skin. Even his fatigue trousers, except for the wrinkles, were highlighted in black soot. I distinctly saw a wound on his hand and wrist, pink in color, but not bleeding. I do not know if he jumped off the tank after it blew or was catapulted here by the blast, but it certainly would have been a long jump. I moved around Draughon’s right side and faced towards the side of the road to give them some cover. I thought for sure we were going to get ambushed so I crouched down and looked out into the field for incoming fire from out of the wood line. To describe these previous scenes in words makes it appear it took a long time to travel from my arrival at the rear of the tank to the front of the tank. It wasn’t really a heck of a long time. Total elapsed time: I doubt more than thirty seconds. While giving coverage to the wounded GI at the front of the tank, I took a photo (See photo 59 below)
while we waited for the Medevac chopper to arrive. I believe (but not positive) it was Draughon crouched at the casualty’s head. In addition to the tank, Draughon’s knee and gun barrel appear in the photo. I really couldn’t see into the field very well. My view towards the field was obstructed by a bush at the shoulder of the road and interference from few more bushes in the field. Once again, I moved a short distance past the shoulder of the road and positioned myself to the left side of the bush. From that location I could I see quite a bit more. I checked the field and the dense foliage in the distance. I was ready with my M-16 on semi-automatic and two of my magazines in my top pocket for quick access. I turned around to see what was going on. I quickly took a one-handed picture and turned back to the field. The photo was botched. (See photo 60 below) All I got was the tank.
When I turned around toward the tank to see what was happening, I saw another man down behind the tank. I said, ”Where the hell did he come from?” He wasn’t there a minute ago! At least I don’t think he was. He was lying on his left side with his feet pointed toward the rear of the tank. I believe it was one of the engineers, but I am not sure. If he had been there when I first got to the tank, I would have had to walk over this guy to get down the side of the tank. Therefore he must have just recently got there in the last minute or so. There is no freaking way I came down the side of the tank and not see this guy. After I became aware of this GI behind the tank, I observed what appeared to be a company medic heading toward the tank and me. I pointed three times in rapid succession towards the guy at the rear of the tank and returned my attention to the field. I turned around and took a photo of the (assumed) medic (See photo 61 below) attending to the injured man behind the tank and turned back to watch the foliage border in the distant field.
I wasn’t at this last location long. Sgt. Draughon told me the Medevac (medical evacuation) chopper was coming and to secure an area for it to land to evacuate the wounded. I moved away from the bush, and headed for the open field. God, I felt so alone out there in that field—like a sitting duck—no cover—just a small log laying in front of me and a couple of bushes which were all behind me. I had this unusual wide-open feeling—like the opposite of claustrophobia— whatever that is? Laying down in the prone was useless to see toward the wood line—I had to crouch and kept raising my head up and down. Half the time I was wondering what was going to come in first—the dust-off (Medical Evacuation) chopper or incoming fire out of the foliage border. It wasn’t long before the bird (helicopter) was down. With the chopper on the ground, it was really kicking up the dust from the roadbed. Looking through the dust, I couldn’t see much past a bush in the field that was in line of sight with the chopper. It (See photo 62 below) appeared to be three or four guys at the chopper door and they were loading or preparing to load in the WIA’s (wounded in action).
I whipped out the camera and snapped one off and turned back to watching the field. Every once in a while I’d turn around to see what was going on…I saw this guy running from the chopper and I took his picture. He was running towards the tank and Sgt. Draughon, who was bent over at the right side of the bush. Draughon and another guy were both at the same bush I was at before. (See photo 63 below).
Then next thing I heard was another explosion. It wasn’t very loud. Maybe muffled because of the chopper noise. I heard later, shrapnel from a booby trap in that bush, which was located at the side of the tank, wounded Sgt. Draughon and another guy. Supposedly the other guy was Morales. That was the last time I ever saw Sgt Droughon or Morales. Shit! That could have been me. [More on that later.] After the chopper left with the wounded and the dust settled, it was so clear. More clear than you can imagine. The whole thing was a planned setup. From the VC’s point of view, it was an effective one too. I guess from our viewpoint too. Mine the road and booby-trap the bushes near by. From that day on, in a circumstance like that, I tried to avoid using bushes for cover as much as I could. Prone position, or even squatting in an opened field, proved to be much safer. I don’t remember how long I remained in that field, but I remember feeling a bit relieved we didn’t get ambushed—always a very vulnerable time when evacuating wounded. It’s hard to hear above the chopper noise, and hard to see clearly through the dust. It’s even more of a risk evacuating at night. When I got back to the road, I took a few pictures of the front of the tank and the driver that remained there. He was neatly covered up with a poncho (see photos 64 and 65 below).
We lost our security. The Baron was about as useful as a fifty-ton paperweight. We left it there in the road. While the company reorganized, I took a photo (see photo 66 below) of Sgt Todd and Lieutenant Harris.
I asked if they were going to just leave the tank there and someone said it would be towed back into camp later. I was really surprised they did that. Not knowing much about tanks I said, “I hope someone’s got the (ignition) key to that thing.” I really didn’t know if some VC or Papa San (Adult Vietnamese male) could come along and take it for an afternoon joy ride. At some point in time here, I noticed my weapon was still on semi. I’m always forgetting that. I called my self some type of idiot and turned it back on safe. With the company reassembled we moved down the road keeping it spread out in case Charlie (Viet Cong) decided to blow more mines and also to make less of a target, should we get ambushed. The engineers continued to check the road. No one got near the guys probing for mines. (See photos 67 and 68 below) In the background, the Baron was abandoned in the road.
We ended up at a farmhouse or possibly a small village. While some ate some rations others just took a break. I wasn’t very hungry so I walked back and forth between Lt. Harris and the Captain, keeping a careful eye on those hooches (see photo 69 below) that were positioned behind them.
Lieutenant Harris and his RTO, Ray Palacio, have a picnic lunch. (See photo 70 below)
Some were looking at maps and talking about route numbers. Maybe route thirteen or fourteen and some other roads or areas were mentioned. Captain Merrill brought in some artillery on some of the suspicious areas. As the artillery was coming in, it sounded so much like thunder. When it was quiet, I said,” They should have called it Thunder Road.” One of the guys said, “ That’s fitting—sounds pretty good to me.” I am puzzled why I can’t remember much of the rest of the trip back to base camp, but possibly just because it was un-eventful. Who knows? Maybe I just don’t remember because my memory is jammed full with what happened today. I’ll have to take better notes for the photos. I have to assume we humped back to base camp and passed by the Baron. It was still in the road but the tank had been moved a few feet away from the killing zone, revealing the crater caused by the blast. (See photo 72 below)
Back at Camp Rainier
At base camp, I recall looking at the bottom plate under the driver’s pit in the front of the tank. I believe it was removed or possibly just opened—maybe for air circulation. Who knows why? I just remember thinking it was so freaking dumb to do that. The blast came up through the opening and blew the driver out like a cannon ball. I was thinking of that freaking smoke ring above the tank. What an eerie look it had, rising above the tank. It had such a ghostly look to it and was moving so slow, like it wanted to stay. I hope I’m not the only one who saw it. God I wish I had time for a photo but that one would have been pushing my luck. The smoke ring was created when the blast came out of either the top turret opening or the driver’s port. Like the trick you can do with a pack cigarettes and the cellophane wrapper after you burn a small hole in it and fill it full of smoke. A perfect smoke ring is created out of the hole every time you tap the cellophane. How could I have not seen the guy lying behind the tank as we came up to the rear? I do not think he was there yet! Since there was no gunfire heard in those few moments after the blast, I kept wondering what was the cause of his demise? If he was there, which I doubt, I’ve got to learn to how to control my senses under stress. Yeah…sure! I remember that bush that was near the side of the tank. The explosive device that was in it, got at least two men… I was right next to the freaking thing quite a while…it blew shortly after I moved away. Shit, another close call. The booby trap in this bush could have been trip wired or possibly set off by the wind from the chopper shaking the branches. Originally called a cane pressure mine and intended to destroy choppers as they came down to tree top level. The simple physical principle that the blades of the helicopter will create enough down draft to set off a device if the chopper gets close enough to cause the branches to be disturbed. They were extremely effective in the bush as well as in the trees. If Sgt. Draughon hadn’t sent me to secure an area for the chopper, there is absolutely no doubt I would also have been either on that chopper or lying under a poncho too. Oh! By the way— Merry Christmas! Yeah … sure! Every time I walk by our Christmas tree in the company area, I think of everyone back home enjoying the yuletide festivities. I suppose I should be glad I didn’t make it home for Christmas this year. A photo (see photo 73 below) shows our tree in the area.
I was talking to Ski, and he told me something about Thunder Road. I just looked at him…I was thinking I heard that somewhere before…Other than saying we had another day on Thunder Road, I don’t remember exactly what else he told me about it. Maybe he told me the company was looking for men to go out on a midnight ambush or something…anyway, I sure heard him say Thunder Road…It sure had a ring to it. Like the words to the song—“and there was thunder-thunder over Thunder Road”—Little did I know the thunder over Thunder Road was going to get louder.
THE LAST DAY
The day was Tuesday, and the date was December 26, 1967. It was the last day of scheduled road clearance and the armored division was on its way towards us. We headed out of base camp with the minesweepers in the lead. Some guys walked the road and some walked the shoulder. Every step on either path could be your last. The guys were really spreading it out. Not too many walked near each other. I guess each of us had our own little safe zone for each step we took. That safe zone was governed by that voice in your head telling you to step here, don’t step there. Crazy as it sounds, it was working for me, but it wasn’t going to work for everyone. We weren’t too far out of base camp and there was an explosion up in front on the left side of the road. We weren’t even at the thick foliage yet and most of the company was already stopped and kneeling. When I got closer to the front I was told a command detonated 105 round just killed Sam Buffington. I walked up to Buffington who was lying on the ground. His body had already been partially covered up. His body was all distorted. Shit! I couldn’t even tell if he was face up or face down the way his arms were positioned over his head. I got closer and saw Sam moving. I continued to see him twitch and move about and I quickly went back a few yards to the medic that was standing on the road. I actually told the medic, …”He’s still alive... He’s still moving… He’s not dead yet, can’t you do something?” The medic told me very calmly, “Johnny, it’s his nerves and his muscles are contracting—he’s gone. Not sure which medic it was but possibly Doc Collins. Just not sure, being so focused on Sam. As I came back from asking the medic to check him again, I remember feeling foolish or even embarrassed for asking. After seeing Sam moving, I actually thought someone had made a mistake covering him up like that. I thought maybe they didn’t check him thoroughly enough. Maybe I just didn’t want to believe he was dead. After I got back near Sam’s body, I did something that I thought might appear to be insensitive—or even something I myself shouldn’t do—like it was wrong. I even thought someone was going to say something, but no one said a word. Maybe no one noticed the way I did it with one hand. I took two photos of Sam lying in front of that wood line and slipped the miniature camera back into my top pocket. (Photos 74 and 75 below)
I paused in front of Sam’s body and thought about his family and friends back home. Their reaction of horrifying shock to the devastating report he isn’t coming home flashed before me. What a grave thing to bear especially at Christmas time. I became extremely aggravated. I looked up into the woods directly behind him. Inside I was pissed. I didn’t show it but I was pissed. Not one shot was fired into the wood line. I was told then and there it was a command detonated 105 round that killed him. If it was command detonated, why didn’t someone do some recon? I couldn’t understand that. Just line up a few guys in front of that wood line and blast away. It wouldn’t have taken very long. The gook (Viet Cong guerilla) could have still been there. Maybe a lucky round would get revenge. I looked into the trees hoping I would see something. It was fairly well open in there. Well…up to a point. Damn, I didn’t even know if we had flank men in there. As I stood there, I wanted to spit a magazine into the woods so bad. Even if it was a anti-personnel mine or booby trap that killed him, I still would have felt better if I would have popped off a few rounds. I kicked my ass for not asking the Captain for authorization…Shit! —I’m in a freaking war zone and one of us just got killed—I shouldn’t need to ask—I should have had some balls and just done it! With my watery eyes still fixed toward the wood line, I slowly walked away giving it one last vengeful look and then returned my focus back to the road. My attention to the road was constantly being interrupted by glimpses of Sam’s body twitching and jerking. I knew at that moment, I would never—ever forget seeing that. We moved on. We didn’t get too far and had to pause again. We waited at the side of the road for the minesweepers and engineers to examine a section ahead. While waiting there, I took a photo of the Captain and Barney shortly after Sam was killed. They tried to smile but couldn’t. Nobody could. (See photo 76 below)
Some point in time, we took “volunteers” from the Vietnamese village to assist us in finding these mines and booby traps. This was pretty common to take villagers and use them as human mine detectors. You never know if it was one of those same villagers that stayed up all night tiling the whole freaking road with new mines or decorating the bushes with pineapple grenades. We grabbed some villagers and one of our guys, that was suppose to be an interpreter, did a better job of roughing one up than talking Vietnamese. At first I didn’t approve of our interpreter’s communication skills; he had this villager by the collar of his pajamas, almost picking him up and shaking him around with one hand. I doubt if the villager could keep both of his feet on the ground the way our interpreter was communicating with him. After thinking of all the losses we’ve had, I accepted the reality that this villager may have had more information of where these booby traps really were hidden, and I put my ethics aside. Despite that, our interpreter showed the villagers what to do and they “volunteered” their services. (See photos 77 and 78 below)
At some point along the road, male villagers seemed to have been scarce so a village woman (see photo 79 below) volunteered her services and assisted the engineers.
Some place in time on this last day, I followed the Captain out in some field, off the right flank. While he was examining some bushes for booby traps and wires, he was tugging on a bush and heard a metallic click and he ran like hell…and I was close behind. It’s vague what happened but, I remember telling him, “It’s a good thing you got good hearing.” As we proceeded on we were notified there was going to be a delay in our rendezvous with the mechanized units that were headed our way. They ran into trouble when the VC blew up another bridge and it had to be fixed before they could continue. We cautiously headed their way. When we arrived at their location it didn’t look like they had even started to repair the blown bridge. I don’t know what it looked like a few hours ago, but they weren’t going get over it like it was now. (See photo 80 and 81 – below. 81 is the same photo but a lighter view)
I figure they had big trouble—the bridge explosion had killed another engineer. What was left of him could be put in a one-foot square. His ID (identification) card was on the top of the poncho. (See photo 82 below)
While standing there I turned to the right and saw this guy standing on the blown bridge. He was wearing one of those Vietnamese straw pointed hats [non la]. Not too bright to wear that in a free fire zone. I hope he takes it off if the shit hits the fan. I took his picture. (See photo 83 below)
I tagged along with the Captain up this incline. He met up with a commander of the 2/22 mechanized unit that was lined up on the hill. Captain Merrill and the other commander (see photo 84 below) started talking and I moved away a little so I didn’t crowd their conversation.
I stood behind them and did a couple of three-sixties to get acquainted with the area. I was looking at the row of “tracks” or “APC’s (armored personnel carriers) that were lined up, and I recognized one of the guys that was standing on top of one of them. Without interrupting the Captain’s conversation, I softly called over to the guy, “Hey, don’t I know you?”, and at that time I took his picture (see photo 85 below)
he was bent over. When he heard my voice, he stood up on the track and turned around, and I took another picture. (See photo 86 below)
I didn’t move away from the Captain very far, but motioned to the guy and two of them met me half way. Holy cats! …I knew them both from AIT (Advanced Infantry Training) and jungle training! (see photo 87 below)
They seemed to be very excited to see me. The one on the left said, “ Gee Stone, I heard you were dead.” I rolled my eyes and said,” The day ain’t over yet!” We talked a bit about some of the guys and it turned out that I knew all the guys on that track and some of the others too. It was really nice to see some familiar faces ninety-two hundred miles from East Tujunga. We didn’t talk long. We wished each other the best and said goodbye and I moved back near the Captain. As I stood there, I took a photo of the mechanized unit (see photo 88 below)
while waiting for the bridge repair. I was thinking that it was so cool to run in to these guys. Always enjoyed seeing people I haven’t seen in a while. This was extra special for me. Shortly, the engineers reported they had the bridge fixed. I gave my buddies from AIT one thumb up as the Captain and I walked over to the repaired bridge crossing to leave. I looked at the bridge as they were working on it. (See photo 89 below) It looked like an engineering disaster.
I wouldn’t even want to drive a jeep over what they fabricated, and they’re planning to drive APC’s and fifty-ton tanks across it? Gee, I wouldn’t even want to walk over the freakin’ thing. I told the Captain that it would never hold. It didn’t. The first track barely made it and the second one almost tipped over. I took a few more photos (see photos 90, 91,92 below) and decided it was getting too dark to take any more.
After calling for supplies, the engineers continued to work on the bridge, and Alpha Company reformed and headed back down the road towards base camp. I don’t remember what time it was but it sure was apparent that our nine to five job had gone well into overtime. Even though moving in the shadows of night wasn’t one of my favorite pastimes, tonight it didn’t bother me at all. I was feeling pretty good. As the CP group was walking down the center of the road, we were just shooting the shit, and the Captain asked us, “How old is your ammo?” I replied, “My brass isn’t green yet, but it’s been a while since I fired it”. I guess that’s when the plan to recon by fire began. This free-fire is also known as a “ mad minute” where every body can shoot. It was decided that our company was going to recon, or shoot to the outer flanks as the tanks and tracks came down the center of the road between the moving files. We were going to empty out our magazines containing old ammo which, in time, the brass shells can corrode and turn green. Green corroded ammo can jam your gun. Not a good thing to happen when you need firepower. Shooting your weapon occasionally is a sure-fire way (so to speak) it will work when you need it and always fun when no one is shooting back. As Alpha Company continued moving down the road, we were finally notified the bridge was fixed. I think we were about half way back to camp when we got the word the tanks, trucks, apc’s, jeeps and whatever were coming. I was specifically told there were one hundred vehicles heading towards us. Just shortly before, or as the lead vehicles caught up to us, the Command Post Group located a spot to begin our recon fire and we moved down past the shoulder of the road into the foliage on the right side (direction towards base camp) of the road. We ended up in a very peculiar grouping best described as a letter “T” formation, and we were all facing toward the right side of the “T”. Starting from the left at the top of the “T” was Barney, Swan, and Harvey. They were sort of grouped together on my near left in a staggered line. Captain Merrill was standing to my immediate right. I was told Williamson and Palacio were on the Captain’s right, in that order. ^ : Road To Camp : : Barney/ Swan / Harvey APC : Stone Men facing this direction à : Captain Direction of our recon fire à : Williamson *? : Palacio The Captain was going to give the signal for the company to commence firing by firing the first shot. My 16 was on semi (single shot) and I was looking down to my right for the first flash from the Captain’s barrel. He fired off the first shot and I pulled my trigger. I never heard my second shot! Maybe I never even got the chance to pull the trigger. All I heard was a deafening noise. I turned around and in the darkness behind me, I was looking up at the iridescent blue flashing muzzle of a fifty-caliber machine gun firing 550 rounds per minute directly at us. It was coming from the track on the road—directly behind us! In a fraction of a second, the Captain and I were diving for the ground— I dropped flat on the ground and melted into the earth below me. I pulled my elbows in close at my sides and tried like hell to make myself as small of a target as possible. My feet were toward the track. Maybe half way through the firing, I drew my feet and legs closer together and pressed my thumbs of my clenched fists tighter to each side of my jaw. There is no doubt I was bracing myself for a hit, but got even smaller as I shrugged my shoulders upward even tighter and driving my body and face deeper into the ground. That muzzle of that fifty couldn’t have been much more than twenty feet away from us and at that range, it was not only deafening, but the compression on my eardrums was brutally painful. I could feel the pounding percussion of the air that surrounded me and may have been what I felt pushing me down. I am not sure how long the firing lasted—possibly five long seconds but no less. Maybe even seven seconds or more. Whatever the length of time, it was the longest seconds of my life. The firing had stopped. It was quiet. Real quiet. Maybe I was momentarily deaf from the noise. Someone from the right was moving towards the CP group yelling, “Cease Fire! Cease Fire!” Maybe he was yelling cease-fire before the firing stopped…who knows? All I know I was glad it was over! I was actually afraid to relax my tightened body. I thought if I did, I might find out that I’ve been hit…I wasn’t feeling any pain, or burning sensation, but I actually checked anyway. I relaxed my shoulders and my fists. Still nothing. I moved my right arm down to my side to feel my own right leg—still no pain. I was OK and slowly got on my feet. I still wasn’t sure and actually checked my self again. Yes! I was okay! I saw Captain Merrill on his feet and was thankful those machine gun rounds went over the top of us. Because we were all right, I thought everyone else would be too…I really did! I readjusted my weapon John Wayne style, suspended over my right shoulder with the gun barrel angled down and the pistol grip waist high. I turned back in the direction of the captain. In the gloom behind Captain Merrill, I saw a beam of light. Someone was coming at a very fast pace and the beam from his flashlight was bouncing and darting left and right with every advancing step. As the light got near, both the Captain and I followed the beam of light as it aimed past us. What I saw at the end of the light beam would be a permanent “visual flashback” for the rest of my life. I could faintly make out two or three figures down on the left but immediately focused on Harvey, who was obliquely positioned farther right and facing the Captain and I. He was sitting with his legs straight toward us and slightly leaning back on his radio that was resting against some type of foliage or tree. His head was facing toward his right and I heard him making a gurgling noise. Just as the flashlight beam hit Harvey’s face, he abruptly rotated his head to his left, most likely to avoid the brightness—Harvey turned his head so fast, the momentum forced his jaw to swing around and it seemed to disappear somewhere past his left shoulder. Shit! The instant his head suddenly stopped turning, I heard “Ugh!” All that remained attached to his cheekbones were dangling threads of raw flesh—everything else down to his neck appeared to be gone! I was looking at his open esophagus or throat and all I saw was red. As the guy with the flashlight and others continued to move toward Harvey, Swan and Barney, they blocked out the horrific view of Harvey and I turned back toward the Captain. Ignoring the white spot from the flashlight and what else lingered in my vision, I could make out the Captain was leaning on his cane. He turned toward me and softly said, “John, don’t tell Harvey how bad he is.” I said, “Yes Sir”, but my exact un-said opinion was—I think he knows. In the shadows behind us, some voice asked, “Are you okay?” I said, “I’m okay… I think I am?” I looked toward Captain Merrill. I could see his dark silhouette. As he turned around he appeared to be favoring his leg by resting his weight on his swagger stick. Then I heard the Captain say softly, slowly, and casually “Yeah, I’ve been hit.” “Son-of-a——!” I stepped to help him and—WHUP—WHUP—WHUP —WHUP—WHUP! Suddenly, I heard the loud thumping blades of a chopper. It sounded so freaking loud I thought this Huey was coming down right on top of us. I turned to follow the sound and the view proved my assessment wasn’t too far-off! I looked up on a sharp angle to my upper right and really don’t know which I saw first—maybe the chopper or maybe another beam of light. The searchlight on the underside of the chopper was shining down through the trees, and it gave us a spectacular view of how these Medevac (Medical Evacuation) pilots handle these birds in the unknown darkness of night. The Huey had snuck in at a low altitude of fifteen to twenty feet. Its flight path had passed by the front of the track on the road. It suddenly appeared just above the tree, positioned within twenty-five feet from the right front corner of the track. Its direction was moving from my left to right. The chopper was pitched rearward with the nose slightly up, and the treetops were swaying like in a bad storm. It appeared the pilot was using every bit of downdraft the rotor blades could create, to slow down his descent. As the landing runners raked through the top tree branches, the bird slowed down, leveled out, and hovered above the trees near Barney, Swan, and Harvey. I couldn’t understand how the dust-off pilot got here so quickly. Only a few minutes had passed since I heard someone yelling ceasefire, and the pilot was looking for a place to land to pick up the wounded, but it wasn’t going to be here — too many trees. The pilot had to reverse his direction. As the pilot skillfully maneuvered his craft rearward toward the track, the bird shifted left and dropped down and hovered above the Captain and I. It was so freaking close I could see the filament behind the black thing in the center of the spotlight. I tilted my head back—I was looking up at the pilot partially through the lower shin bubble and upper windshield—perhaps ten, maybe twelve feet away and I don’t remember feeling the slightest breeze. The pilot then raised the bird up and moved it rearward, between two trees, and then over the top of the track, clearing it by only a few feet. As the chopper and the spotlight slowly descended behind the track, it lit up a pyramid shaped area like daylight. I turned back to the Captain, and saw him walking away—and the spotlight disappeared behind the silhouette of the track. That was the last time I saw Captain Merrill. Not much more than one minute had passed since the chopper arrived and the pilot made touchdown. Within a few more minutes, Swan and Harvey were quickly carried to the waiting bird for evacuation—never to be seen again either. I was taking a look around the area—kicking the weeds—looking for any unseen equipment and making sure we didn’t miss anyone, and I noticed Lieutenant Harris walking towards me. I said to him “Anything I can do Sir? I’ll grab a radio and come with you, if it’s alright?” He said, “Sure, I’ll need an RTO now.” I never asked, but took his meaning that Ray, his radiotelephone operator, was also hit. I don’t believe I ever saw Ray Palacio again either. We took one last look around. I then grabbed the radio and walked up the moderate incline to the other side of the track on the road. I wasn’t really aware anything happened on this side of the road yet, but like they say, this kind of news travels fast. While tagging along with the lieutenant I was hearing the firepower on this side of the track was even more devastating. I was hearing five more guys in real bad shape. That’s bad enough. Then it gets more upsetting when you hear the names of these guys, especially if you know them personally. Maybe that’s why I didn’t ask. I didn’t find out their names until later. I do not remember when the dust-off chopper lifted off. I just remember it only took a few more minutes for the company to reorganize and we were ready to get out of here. I walked with Lieutenant Harris to a jeep and I flung the radio up and over the side rail and climbed in the left rear seat. The rest of the company boarded the vehicles behind us and we headed down the road toward base camp. The driver was doing pretty well moving this jeep down the road—maybe twenty-five or thirty miles per hour at times. If anyone was talking, I wasn’t listening. Shit, I don’t even remember whom or if there was anyone else on the jeep besides LT. Harris and the driver. Oh yeah, I do recall there was somebody in the right front seat, but my entire focus was on that left flank and looking for any signs of getting ambushed. I now despised convoys—either as a bystander or passenger. What a shitty hayride this was. Past the shoulders of the road, it was very dark out there. I don’t know if the moon was out, but I couldn’t see a freaking thing. I couldn’t wait till we got inside the base camp perimeter—As the jeep was moving down the road, I didn’t say it out loud, but you can bet your ass, I was mentally saying it…”Get this son-of-a-bitch going”, over and over and over—I kept real low—my 16 was on full auto and the barrel was pointed at the foliage we were passing along the sides of the shoulder. My eyes were wide opened, waiting for another muzzle flash at me, and I was ready to jump off at any second. One ambush was enough tonight… even if it was caused by “friendly fire”. Who ever named it friendly fire ought to be shot! Yeah! He should take his own freakin’ gun and hand it to his best friend and say, “Shoot me!” You can’t get any friendlier than that! Then let him tell me that’s friendly fire? There’s no such thing as friendly fire. Just ask the guys that got hit. Just ask Harvey. Just ask Swan or the Captain. Shit, I wasn’t even hit and I’ll tell you…. there’s no such thing as friendly fire! As we traveled toward base camp, maybe my night vision started to kick in. It seemed the dark field was getting brighter. Off in the distance, above the tops of the trees, the sky was getting lighter. I could see the red flashing lights on transmission towers. As we passed the base camp checkpoint, I thought I would feel a little better. I didn’t! I felt like shit! I think I realized we were completely inside the base camp at the staging area when the driver said, “You guys wana get off here? I’ll take you where you want, but first I’ve got to make another stop.” I cannot be one hundred percent sure, if this night, I got out and walked or rode to the company area. So much for controlling my senses under stress! I just don’t remember carrying that radio the distance to our area. I believe Lt. Harris and I rode to the driver’s area first, stopping behind one of those metal Quonset buildings that looks like half of a sewer pipe on its side. When the driver came out, he drove us to our company area. Maybe I can’t be sure because my mind was on overload. I guess I had a good excuse for overload. After all, the whole freaking CP group just got wiped out except for Barney and me. I don’t know if ‘s possible to be numb and cold at the same time, but I was. I was numb. I was cold, and I was sick about everyone that got hit. I was just freakin’ sick about Harvey. Shit! I didn’t even know what happened to the other guys yet. The whole freaking thing was stupid and I didn’t really know how such a thing could happen. The only thing I knew was when we started firing, the track or armored personnel carrier (APC) that was directly behind the Command Post Group, opened up on us. …Didn’t those freaking guys know we were there? Maybe that one track …maybe they never got the word we were going to recon by fire…. They must have thought we were the VC and we were ambushing them. Maybe the guy on the gun was trigger-happy…who knows? I vaguely remember pulling up to the front door of the company office in a jeep— but vividly remember getting out, grabbing the radio and entering the company office door. The clerk was standing in a dim light at his desk— I said, “ I have a radio…. where do you want it?” As, he pointed, he said, “Put it over there in the left corner.” I leaned the radio against wall in the corner and stepped back towards the office doorway to leave. He said, “Come and get yourself a drink.” I turned and saw these full paper cups on the counter. The guy in the office said,” It’s the Captain’s birthday and he was going to have a party.” “It is? He never said anything to me”, I said. He replied, “Yeah, it was supposed to be a surprise” “Just what I need is a another surprise.” I rolled my eyes and asked, “What’s in the cups?” “Whiskey Sours…go ahead…you look like you could use a couple of drinks and from what I just heard, there’s going to be a lot of extras.” I grabbed one and downed it…It was warm. The short conversation I had with the clerk is vague, but for some reason, after the company had faced all that firepower, I believe the Captain had been in contact with the office or como (communications) bunker. It just seemed like the clerk knew more than you get from just monitoring the radio. I thought he said the Captain was going to be okay. Other than that, I didn’t retain much said. I grabbed another drink, thanked the clerk, and drank it as I headed toward my hooch through the company area. It was unusually quiet. There was no one around. I wondered where everybody was? Needless to say, it sure put me on edge wondering who or how many were actually still with us. I tossed the soggy empty paper cup in the drum near the hooch and went up the steps. One guy was sitting on his bunk… He said, “What happened to you?” I was thinking to myself…maybe I didn’t look so cool anymore…. I told him, “Nothing compared to the other guys.” “Are you okay?’ “Yeah I guess so”, I replied. “Are you sure?”, he said, as he was pointing at me. “What?” He pointed at my fatigue trousers. I bent over and looked down. My fatigues had some openings at the right inside pant leg, near my crotch, and I was hanging out. I felt a peculiar tingling that started at my forehead and continued over the top of my skull to the back of my neck. I slowly looked up and said, “You gotta be shittin` me…I never felt a thing.” I guess I was too numb…. While I explained what must have been the cause, I examined the pants more closely—2 holes, and a long ragged tear. All the edges were lacking the green color as if they were finely frayed like they were “teased”. It’s difficult to believe how those bullets came so freaking close without hitting me. Just unbelievable! He said, “Stoney, It’s a good thing you’re skinny!” That was the first time anyone ever said anything about me being skinny and I didn’t take it as an insult. As the conversation ended, I laid my crap on my footlocker and noticed weapon was already on safe. I remembered! I went outside the tent and was overwhelmed by this peculiar feeling that the darkness of the night was focused on me—as if the dark sky above the base camp perimeter was closing in on me and my own little world around me was shrinking. I still didn’t see much activity. The company area looked like a ghost town. Maybe the guys went to the EM club (enlisted men’s club) for a beer. I thought about going there just to have some company—didn’t go there very often—not a drinker, but I really didn’t want to be alone either. I remembered one of the few times I went to the club. I just had walked in the door and Ski said, “Hey Johnny, you just missed all the excitement!” He was telling me, “A big freaking snake was crawling around on the floor and cleared the place out.” Although snakes didn’t bother me—just in case the snake returned—I figured I had enough excitement for the day—I decided to go back to my hooch. I sat on my bunk and lit up a smoke and tried to unwind from what happened tonight and during last few days. Sometimes it helps me cope if I pick up my guitar and pick a little. Not this time. It just wasn’t right or even possible. I just left it in the corner. Shit! I couldn’t even write in my letter. I was just too overwhelmed by the events. I kept thinking of Buffington, Harvey, Swan, the Captain and the rest of the guys and all the crap that happened on this mission. I laid down on the bunk and after blowing a few smoke rings started thinking the damn tank made a better smoke ring than I could. I don’t remember how many times I said, you lucky bastard, silently without moving my lips. Maybe I said it each time I reached down and stuck my fingers into the holes in my fatigues. Once again, fate smiled on me. I was right in the center of the fire zone and wasn’t hit. Everybody on both sides of me got hit. It’s a miracle to face that much fire power and survive to tell what it looks and feels like. I will remember looking dead center of the barrel of that fifty-caliber machine gun the rest of my life. The baby blue iridescent color of those muzzle flashes started small from the center of the barrel. The flashes instantly expanded outward from the black hole in the center of the muzzle a foot or more, producing sharp jagged random points in multiple layers in all directions. I can remember the brightness of the flashes that illuminated the cloud of smoke billowing around the outside of the barrel. In front of the burst, I can see the silhouette of the branches from the foliage on the right of the small clearing where the fifty-caliber machine gun barrel was actually positioned…and once in a while I could still smell the gunpowder in the air. If fate had not smiled on me while looking up at the barrel center of that blazing gun, I would not be here. Amid thinking of all this stuff and the noise from the outgoing base camp artillery, it all kept me awake a long time… The next morning upon awaking, I went outside my hooch. Even in the daylight the company area had this weird look to it or should I say weird atmosphere. It’s always like that when we lose guys. I get this feeling that I haven’t figured out how to describe. So many guys I get to know; they're gone and it's a depressing thing for me. No matter how hard it is to loose a buddy, it’s not even close to devastating grief the parents, families and friends of these guys back home will have when they get the sudden news that (some of) these guys aren’t coming back? I'm so sorry they will have to face this. It's happened so much lately it makes me sick.... Why them and not me? I can’t believe I'm still kicking. I shaved, combed my wet hair, and headed for the mess hall. I didn’t know if I was sick or just hungry. Probably both. I hadn’t eaten since sometime yesterday. On the way, a guy passed me that I didn’t even know. He said, “ Hey Stone, I heard you almost got your balls shot off?” My easy and only answer, “Well one of them anyway!”…I wondered if he understood—pretty close huh? I entered the mess hall and walked to the serving line. I usually joke with these guys and the cooks, like asking for eggs Benedick or Beef Strokemeoff, Chicken Crotch-a-tori, or some impossible shit like that, but just didn’t feel like talking. I think all they had was scrambled eggs and toast. As I ate, I was still thinking of Harvey, Swan, Buffington, and everybody else that we lost in the last three days. I still didn’t even know who “everybody else” even was yet, and once again, wasn’t sure that I wanted to. God that is so hard for me to understand. Maybe I just want to avoid that sick feeling I got when I found out who didn’t make it. I still have about two hundred and thirty five days to go and at the rate that guys are disappearing it sure makes me wonder if I will be here that long. With every passing day, there is always that increasing probability I might not. I’m no mathematician but I’m wondering at what day in this year, does the odds change to my favor? Maybe I shouldn’t even bother to keep track? Now that the CP group, which I felt so comfortable with, had just been eliminated, in the next few days I’ll be with a new crew. I wonder who is going to be in charge? What the hell is going to happen next? In the days ahead, I asked a few of the guys about the men on the other side of the track—who was there and if they knew what happened to them? Even though their welfare was a sincere concern of mine, I always felt like a jerk when asking for information too. As if I was being nosey or something like that; and that feeling certainly discouraged me from asking others that I didn’t know too well. Therefore, with the limited sources, what the guys told me might not be one hundred percent correct, due to some contradictions I found later, but just the same, it is what I heard and wrote it in my diary. The information received was: The total line up of men, on the left side of the road opposite to me is not totally known, but the section of men on the immediate left side of the track was described to me as follows. From left to right, facing toward the flank from the track were: Estrada, Given, Slick, Mosely, and Hayashida. I added the names of these guys to my growing list of casualties received on this mission. No time to say good-bye to: Sam Buffington Captain Jack Merrill Carl Swan Engineer Engineer Estrada Given Harvey- (Melvin Houk) Hayashida Houston Williamson Morales Mosely Palacio Sgt. Draughon Slick (Saul Mc Neal) The tank driver The tank gunner David Petry (Petrie) (added to list) Not sure of spelling Sammy Williams (added to list) Mission Debriefing My diary continues, but as far as the Thunder Road Mission was concerned, I guess you could say it was over; but it remained in my thoughts all the time. Oh yeah, I had a list of names of the guys injured or lost on this mission, as well as other past missions, but not much information recorded—only what I witnessed. As the days went by I continued to seek information to add to my diary. Once in a while I would hear something and wrote it down. It took a long time to gather data—a very long time! It wasn’t until my final mission I would get some more answers for my incomplete mourning report.