I had caught an early morning CH-46 at Danang Airfield. It was a gorgeous June morning, clear, sunny, hot but not boiling. Perhaps it was the proximity to the ocean and the fact that I had spent the last two days at China Beach eating hamburgers, drinking beer and listening to salty-assed Marines lamenting about returning to their units in the bush and how much time they had left on this rotation, and I was loving it.
When I did speak, partake in the conversation, it occurred only because I was asked something by one if these old heads. Most often it was “How the Hell did you get an in-country R&R, when your ass has only been here for 2minutes, man? Who do you know?”
I don’t remember, but the ‘46 may have put down for quick second in Phu Bai Combat Base and then immediately continued unto its, and my destination, Dong Ha Combat Base.
When I got off the chopper, I saw my Team sitting about 50 yards away, on the tarmac, fully geared up and painted. I rushed over to them and came face to face with the answer to the China Beach question. Herman P. Vallalpando, Staff Sergeant, Team Leader, Team 4-2, 3rd Force Reconnaissance Company…and for everyone in the know, The Man...
I asked excitedly what was happening and where were we going, and he told me that a Huey Gunship had been shot down Northeast of Con Thien, and the Pilots had managed to get out and away before NVA soldiers got them. They were rescued by a ‘46 Crew and returned to Dong Ha.
4-2 had been assigned to lead a patrol that was to be accompanied by Engineers from the 3rd Engineer Bn to locate the downed craft and set up a defensive perimeter, so the Engineers could determine the downed aircraft’s fate. It was loaded with mini-guns, ammunition and rockets. Things we definitely did not want the NVA to get their hands on.
As I was looking around making eye contact with my Teammates and acknowledging them with smiles and head nods, I heard the rest of what SSgt Val was saying. “You aren’t going. We are going, and you’re going back to the hootch and taking it easy. See, we even have a Dog and Dog Handler to be in the Point element.”
I was trying to keep my response somewhat under my breath, but my straightened posture and lack of smile probably gave it away. My demeanor stated there was no way I wasn’t going, and no way a Dog was taking my place, as the eyes, ears, nose and Point of 4-2…but audibly I eased in respectfully with, “it will only take a few minutes to hitch a ride to the Company area” (my gear had been cleaned, tested and made ready to go, before I left for China Beach). From the sound of what “WE” were expecting to get into, I didn’t need to get any c-rations/chow, because the intent was to get in, make an assessment, and either call in a CH-53 with a sky-hook crane to lift it out if it were serviceable, or blow it in-place if it wasn’t.
I distinctly heard him say again, this time with a softer tone, “You’re not going.” Before he even cleared the “ing” in going, I again said “I’ll be right back.” He responded “listen you just got off a much-deserved R&R, you’ve been working hard and doing good things, that’s why I sent you! You don’t have to go.”
I started backing away scanning the area for a ride to the Company Area, and what I did wasn’t intended to be disrespectful, I loved SSgt Vallalpando. Looking him straight in the eyes for a quick moment, I softly affirmed “All I know is, I’m Going.”
When the lead chopper dropped down into the LZ, I was first off as usual. We deplaned, formed a defensive perimeter, and inhaled hot near-overwhelming JP4 fumes from the departing chopper. After a brief moment of cleaner, hot, near-stifling air, the second ‘46 came in and the 18 or so Engineers deplaned into the center of the perimeter, with A LOT of gear.
Due to the fact that the Huey had been down for several hours, there was no doubt that everyone in the 324-B Division NVA, anyone in the DMZ, or anyone near Con Thien, knew of the downed Huey and probably it’s whereabouts. Our insertion “airshow” pin-pointed it for the world, as did all of these guys in the LZ. It was unbelievable in the “snoop and poop” mindset of my day.
Val gave the word for me to move out, down from the LZ/knoll we were on, into a depression and then to work my way as quickly as I could to the top of a little tree covered knoll that was facing us, less than 100 meters away. He told me to check it out and then send our M79 gunner and the dog Team back so then they all could move forward to some shade and cover.
As I rounded up the Dog Team and my teammate Dennis Christie, I looked back again in disbelief at all the people, gear and ordinance, I was glad to get going, off that bald knoll, that had some elephant grass but not much else in the way of cover. The grass got taller and thicker as we, the Point element (the Dog and Handler ahead of me) worked our way down into the ravine.
When we got to the bottom of the ravine, the heat and the thick-heavy grass had overcome the dog and he was lying on his side in the hot sun panting very hard. We couldn’t stop moving exposed as we were, so I asked the Handler to watch his dog closely, which Dog Handlers always did, and to whistle lightly if and when the dog alerted, and then I pushed on past them and started breaking brush up the hill. Sweaty, cut up by the grass and super hot, I finally made it to the top.
Just as I slowly entered the tree line, and as I scanned the area in front of me, I heard this melodious sound, and I thought it was some exotic bird. Fortunately I had my trusty M-14 at the ready, because that melodious sound was emitted by an advancing NVA soldier, and what he was saying was “Marine!”
I opened fire, he went down, and the treeline exploded, lit up, every tree branch splintering around my head. Falling forward to the ground and into a small depression, I was still firing, because to my immediate right there was another soldier, and I could then hear shouting of other voices on both my right and left forward, where the two dead soldiers now lay. Their team was moving on-line, and was trying to get to the crest of the hill in an attempt to flank us and catch us out in the open.
A lot of things happened quickly. I was out of my pack and harness in an attempt to really hug the ground. I pulled my grenades off the straps and placed them on the ground in front of me. As I emptied a magazine into the treeline, I replaced it and put another in front of me so I could get to it quickly. I could hear the Point element of my Team behind me scurrying back up to the LZ, and I knew that’s what they had to do. I suppressed the urge to call out, because I didn’t feel I wanted to yell out to them at that minute, with the enemy closing in on my position.
The NVA continued to try and crest the hill, and I continued firing, which was an indication to SSgt Val and the Team that I was still alive. Things got very quiet around me, and the smell of blood and guts mixed with the heat was sobering. The truth was I thought I was not going to make it. I thought when they, the NVA, realized that the treeline would be their only hope for some protection before artillery and gunships arrived and started really decimating them, they would have to make an all-out assault on my position. They knew from the amount and sound of the gunfire that a single Marine was all that stood in their way.
I didn’t feel scared or frightened, just fatalistic. While checking my gear in preparation for the inevitable assault, I was at peace, and then my mind drifted for a bit. I was a preschooler, in the play yard at Morris High School directly across the street from where we first lived on Jackson Avenue, riding my first bike. The training wheels were off, it was hot…summer perhaps… I was laughing, happy and having a great time, riding fearlessly on my white two-wheeler as fast as I could, and when my mind’s eye zoomed out to a wider shot, I was laughing along with my father, who ran beside me.
Hang with me, I’m going to introduce a sidebar. The main take away for me and my life, going forward from that 10-minute episode, that was by then the afternoon of Saturday, 3 June 1967. My father and mother had separated when I was in the 8th grade, after a year of tension and feuding. I loved my father dearly, but was glad to see him go. I was extremely hurt, disappointed, and angry with him. My life changed, I started “acting like a man”, and that caused problems with me and my mother. I insisted I needed to get a job, and behaved differently. I did these things because he was our protector, and when he left, we were vulnerable, and all kinds of things began to happen.
Declaring that you are, and acting like you are, doesn’t make you a man. Needless to say there were unpleasant consequences and growing pains... Long story short, I never really forgave him. I visited him when my mother insisted when I was younger, but by high school the only time I went to see him was when I was expelled at 16 for truancy, and went to the Brooklyn construction yard where he was Foreman, to ask for a job. It didn’t go well. He told me in no uncertain terms that I had to return to school, period. I needed to get my academic act together and graduate. I felt I needed that job, I was already walking a thin line between what I knew and had been taught was right and wrong, and I wasn’t in the mood for his response.
I argued that he had hired one of our cousins who worked alongside of him, “and now you’re telling me you won’t give me a job?” I was so incensed that I really didn’t hear and certainly didn’t internalize what he said to me. “Fred came up here with a family, from Georgia, where he didn’t have a future and had no hope of doing better. That’s not your case, that’s why I’ve worked out here all these years, so you’d never have to.” Showing respect because he is my father, I took the hour-long “D” Train ride back to the Bronx, vowing I’d never ask him for anything else in life.
Back to the DMZ, I was going to die and wasn’t afraid, then I was thrilled at first and then saddened by my vision. Deep down inside I’ve always loved my father, he was always my main man. I was happy we had a chance to revisit spiritually, but I was saddened and then ashamed of the way I had treated him all those years. With love in my heart and the joy of admitted truth coursing through my body, I heard my teammate Wilbur Case calling out to me from the bottom of the hill. I yelled back “Case, Case” and shortly after Case, the Dog Handler and the Machine Gunner came crashing, breathlessly into the treeline.
Immediately the Machine Gunner got sick and started throwing up from a combination of heat, humidity, running up that hill, and the putrid smells of mangled bodies. He was weakened and exhausted. Case and the Handler helped him back down and then up hill to the LZ. I gathered my gear, and his Machine Gun, and turned back into the treeline to see if I could see my father again. I didn’t so I about-faced and headed down the hill. Alive and Forever Changed.