CSMS Magazine Staff Writer
On this day of remembrance, it is always difficult for former soldiers on both sides of the conflict to forego unforgettable memories. War has always been an ugly business, but too often, those who carry the weapons and their lives to battles are never the ones who decide in the corridors of strategic planning. Soldiers are always executioners. But when the war wears off and the survivors come home, its scars and its nightmarish elements linger forever; and this has always been the toughest fight left for veterans and family members to deal with. Between 1965 and 1975, more than one million Vietnamese and about 60, 000 Americans have died. Many of them could have been alive today, if it were not for the decisions of politicians who most of the times overlook the plight, the ordeals and the trauma that those, whose lives are directly impacted, face. In this gut wrenching article that follows, our staff writer, Andrew Robbins, a former Vietnam veteran, explains one of his extraordinary journeys of the war.
“I found his name on that wall,” he said. “I found his name on their wall. Sergeant Billy Smith, I went into the dead of night, I found his body and I dragged him in. The Army, they shipped him back to his family.”
“I knew you were in the infantry and you served twenty-one months in Viet Nam. Yet, not once have you spoken of those days, I’d like to write an article,” Robbins said.
“One article and my friend you can never give up my name,” he said.
The Journey Home
“Our mission was to cut a path through the jungle and get a firsthand look at what was out there. We had no idea if, what, or how many enemy soldiers we might encounter.
The triple canopy jungle was a tangled mass of vegetation. When you looked back at the trail we cut through this wilderness, it appeared as a tunnel full of armed men. Little did we know our path would intersect right in the middle of a Vietnamese base camp. Silently we worked toward a maze of bunkers and tunnels.
Knock-knock nobody home.
It had taken years for them to build this enormous complex. Yet, we met no resistance. But, signs of recent activity were everywhere.
The lieutenant was stubborn. All day he had us destroying the stuff they left behind. In the heat, we were exhausted, yet he wouldn’t rest the men. It was nearing dusk and we knew their ground was not the place for us to defend. Finally, he gave the order, “Pack it up, we’re moving out.”
Fatigue had set in, and the men pulling point walked us straight into an ambush. We barely cleared their bunkers when the shooting began. We circled into defensive positions.
The fighting was close and intense. To arm the high explosive rounds I shot from the grenade launcher, they first had to rotate, arm themselves, across the diameter of our perimeter before detonating at the opposite edge.
We had taken several casualties when the lieutenant screamed my name, “Crawl across and take charge of the team nearest you, shore it up!”
I crawled over and found two new replacements, black kids, this was their first mission. We had so many replacements; I didn’t know their names. The lieutenant liked to walk trails and we paid an exorbitant price. Half the men I started with were dead or severely wounded.
The lieutenant screamed, “Set your claymores, they’re about to overrun us!”
Days earlier, I traded ammo with another soldier, high explosive rounds for buckshot. I put buckshot into the chamber of the grenade launcher and started to crawl outside our perimeter. I glanced back and told my new best friends, “Brothers, don’t panic and shoot my white ass.” That comment made them laugh, settled them down and gave them confidence we would make it through this night.
Ahead I heard movement, listened and slowly moved toward them. When nighttime overtakes triple canopy jungle, you can’t see your hands. But, my ears and nose told me exactly where they were. As I moved in the darkness, I came across a termite mound. The insect’s shelter rose above the earth four or five feet. Hell, if I was going to shoot it out with us, this is where I’d start.
I inched my way back to the perimeter. “I found a spot to place the claymores,” I said. Quickly we attached the firing mechanisms to the blasting caps and I prepared to crawl back and place the mines. I’ll carry the explosives in one hand and the blasting caps and wires in the other. One man asked, “How will you carry your weapon?” “I won’t,” in total darkness I had my survival knife.
I stayed low to the ground, found the mound of earth, and carefully placed the mines. The last thing to do was to insert the blasting caps.
Hey, no big bang, white guy lives.
Back inside the perimeter I retrieved my weapon and told my comrades, “If they try to overrun us, blow the claymores. But when you do, keep your head low, there are going to be termites flying everywhere.” I knew these two men would be awake all night. I lay on the ground, rolled over and closed my eyes. My sixth sense advised the worst part of this night had passed.
Morning came and we quietly moved our dead and wounded to a clearing, then airlift them out. This action showed the enemy exactly where we were. As soon as the helicopter gunships withdrew, they attacked. In the daylight we recognized their uniforms and realized who we were up against, North Vietnamese Army (NVA). They outnumbered us and we were running for our lives, the chase was on. They chased us through the jungle and then abruptly their pursuit stopped.
Our radio blared, “A sister unit was taking heavy fire. They needed help.” The lieutenant offered us up as reinforcements.
We stayed off trails and tunneled a new path through the triple canopy jungle. Progress was slow but we knew, by cutting a fresh trail, no one was sitting ahead waiting to ambush us. Morning progressed to noon and then late afternoon. Air support and artillery guided our path and as the explosions grew louder, we drew closer.
Our path now intersected with a well-traveled trail. The radio screamed, “The fighting had escalated.” The lieutenant made the decision to charge down the trail. My sixth sense kicked in; “We’re dead! You are being lead by an idiot!”
Then the radio screamed, “They had repelled the attack, gunships provided close air support and artillery was about to pound the ground separating us, get down and take cover.” Quickly we circled into defensive positions as total darkness overtook us.
I rejoined my team and made a quick check of the perimeter. Spread too wide, we can’t hold off an assault!
As we settled in for the night, an M-60 machinegun began grinding up the jungle. Like a swarm of fireflies, tracer bullets continuously flew through the vegetation. The shooting lasted several minutes and instantly ended with a blast from a rocket-propelled grenade. The jungle fell totally silent.
We had no visuals in our kill zone. “Don’t give away your position, hold your fire,” I whispered.
Several minutes passed and then I heard the lieutenant call my name. “Find Sergeant Smith and bring him back,” he barked.
We had taken up defensive positions that left us spread so wide a heard of elephants could have wander through and never stepped on anyone. Yet, the lieutenant sent Sergeant Smith and two of his men to set up an ambush along that damn trail.
I asked, “Where is Billy?”
“He is out there, out near the trail. One of the men from the ambush said he is dead. Bring him back, bring him back and I’ll promote you,” he responded.
I asked, “What happened to his men?”
“There in shock, traumatized, they won’t go back and get him,” the lieutenant whispered.
As I loaded the grenade launcher with buckshot he inquired, “Who you taking with you?”
I replied, “No one, don’t send anyone after me, I’ll kill anything that moves!”
As I left the perimeter, I glanced back and whispered, “Don’t get trigger happy, when I find Billy we’re coming in!”
Outside the perimeter, I vanished into the jungle’s darkness. I had no idea where to start. I stopped, listened and smelled the air. Death hangs in the air, it has its own scent, and those who live through this hell know exactly what I’m telling you.
Intense gunfire creates its own cloud of fog. It produced a haze, particulates trapped in the air by the jungle’s vegetation.
It took a while but I found Sergeant Smith. I have pleasant memories of him, when he greeted me; he always had a smile on his face. He was a big muscular man, good natured and good-looking. He outweighed me by ninety pounds or more.
I checked for life signs, he was dead. I rolled him on his back and at his shoulder grabbed his webbing harness. With one hand I tried to pull his lifeless body while pointing my weapon in the direction of the faintest noise.
As the clouds parted, the moon’s illumination provided a sliver of light that filtered through the vegetation. In the faint light, I could see bodies up and down the trail, bodies everywhere! I had never seen so many dead people. To the end Billy fired that machinegun; he killed a multitude of people, soldiers.
With just one hand, I could not pull his weight. I dragged him a foot or two and I had to release my grip and start over. This wasn’t going to work! I left him in the jungle surrounded by the fallen.
The lieutenant asked, “Where is Sergeant Smith?” “He is out there, I am going back,” I replied. I gave my grenade launcher to a fellow soldier.
The lieutenant asked, “What will you use to defend yourself?” “Knife,” I replied.
It took time to quietly work through the darkness and return to Billy. With both hands now on his web harness, I firmly gripped Billy’s body.
My senses served me well. In other skirmishes, they forewarned me and I was only slightly wounded. They now screamed, “Danger, not everyone is dead!”
Holding Billy, the nearest wounded soldier slowly sat up. He looked directly at us and saluted. In the moonlight, he had to see both of us. Conceivably, he saw I carried no weapon. I was retrieving our dead. Perhaps that is why he chose to salute and not fire on me.
As he lay down, I thought, “One man is dead and another, NVA soldier, is dying. I will draw no blood, too much blood lay wasted soaking into this ground.”
An aircraft circled above. They patiently waited for the lieutenant to confirm we were back. The aircraft’s crew, spotter, coordinated artillery fire. Throughout the night ordnance exploded outside our perimeter.
At daybreak, we ventured out. Bodies were everywhere. The lieutenant gave the order, “Stack em like cordwood.”
I retraced my steps and sought out the soldier that saluted Billy. He too was dead. His uniform told me he was a North Vietnamese officer. Gingerly I moved his body and carefully placed it next to his comrades.
We moved our dead to a clearing and airlifted them out. That is how Sergeant Billy Smith went home!”
Robbins, “What happened to the lieutenant?”
“Destiny separate us, I was not with the lieutenant when he died. Bad decisions, bad karma, he was suicidal and he did his best to get me killed! He earned his spot on that damn wall,” he said.
Robbins, “Did you get that promotion?”
“My friend,” he replied, “old men start wars and young men die in the firefights. There is no glory, there are no heroes, only shattered dreams on their side and ours.”
Memorial Day is a privilege for each of us to honor those who influenced our lives. Though they no longer remain among us, their everlasting memories arouse timeless passion.
Note: Andrew Robbins is the author of “It Took My Breath Away: One Man’s Experience May Save Your Life.” By email, he may be reach at: firstname.lastname@example.org