A Memorial Day tale

Pete Garza was telling me, “this is where we were ambushed a couple weeks ago” when the automatic weapons opened up on us from the summit of the hill just ahead. We were in a saddle between that hill and the one we had just left, and there was a fairly fresh shell crater to our right. We dove into it, as did the Pathfinder who was with us.

It was early evening and overcast, and darkness was coming on fast, as it always does in Vietnam and everywhere else in the tropics. We were facing a serious problem, because the hill from which we were receiving heavy fire was the one where the two platoons were planning to spend the night. We should have known there were enemy there.

The Pathfinder, whose name I no longer recall, got on his radio, switched to the company frequency, and learned there were casualties. For Garza, the senior medic with the unit, this meant it was time to go to work. He wrestled out of his ruck sack and other gear and, armed with just his medical bag and pistol, crawled out of our sanctuary to go care for the wounded.

Shortly the company commander crawled to our crater and, after briefly considering a retreat, said, “Hell no. I’m tired of being thrown off this hill. We’re going up.” I remember thinking at the time that this was a gutsy move. Later I would realize it was a big mistake.

The firefight was over in 10 minutes. The enemy — about a platoon in strength — abandoned the hilltop and we went up. By this time it was almost dark.

The brief fight had left us with two dead and three wounded. At the summit there was a small clearing, just big enough to accommodate one helicopter, and the Pathfinder guided a Medevac chopper in to pick up the three wounded plus one other soldier who had broken his ankle during the fight. The two men who had been killed would have to wait until first light for evacuation.

We settled in for the night. A listening post (LP) — six men with a radio — was sent 100 meters out into the jungle to give us early warning of any attack from the east. The Pathfinder, a company radio operator — sans radio, which was kept back at the command post — and I were assigned to man a defensive position on the east side of the small perimeter. Technically I was just an observer who was out with the unit to gather stories for the division’s newspaper. But I was also a member of the battalion and had an infantry MOS, so I was pressed into service that night.

The enemy, as it turns out, wasn’t finished with us.

Around 5 a.m. the LP reported heavy movement between their position and ours. We got our weapons ready and waited. It was still pitch black.

At 5:30 they hit us, with grenades and satchel charges — one-pound blocks of TNT that could be used as concussion grenades.

As I recall, my position was hit first, but, other than shaking us up, they didn’t do any damage. Most of the missiles the enemy threw went over our heads, and all but one proved to be duds, including one that landed practically in my lap. There was a foxhole at our position, with water in the bottom from recent rains. We decided not to use it because of the chance the enemy might have booby-trapped it before abandoning the hill, and also because it provided almost no protection against what they were throwing at us.

We held our fire, partly out of fear of hitting the LP and partly to avoid revealing our position. And, to tell the truth, in the darkness we couldn’t see any enemy to shoot at anyway. However, I did throw all but one of the four or five fragmentation grenades I always brought along when I went out in the field. (Carrying “frags” was not something correspondents usually did. It was a habit left over from my short time as a “real” grunt, and I brought them along for situations like this one.)

The daily staff journal kept at the battalion’s tactical operations center reported that we also received small arms fire on our side of the perimeter, but I don’t remember any.

One of the defensive positions to our left, on the northeast side of the perimeter, was taking casualties. Some troopers had taken over one of the bunkers abandoned by the enemy when they fled the hilltop, and a satchel charge landed inside. This one wasn’t a dud, and the explosion collapsed the bunker, seriously wounding the man inside. Another one exploded near his squad leader’s head, stunning him and puncturing his eardrums.

Pete Garza had come over from the command post and was back at work, trying to save the man who had been in the bunker when it collapsed, while at the same time trying to avoid becoming a casualty himself. Every time a grenade or satchel charge landed near him, he jumped to the other side of the wounded man. He was wounded by one of the grenades, but didn’t know it until later when someone pointed it out to him. The wounded man he had been trying to save didn’t make it.

The attack lasted an hour, ending when the eastern sky began to redden with the approaching sunrise. I had never, before or since, been so happy to greet the dawn.

The casualty list for the entire night was three dead, six wounded, and two with other injuries. If there were enemy casualties, we didn’t know about them — we recovered no bodies and took no prisoners. The score, as far as we knew it, was 0 – 11. To put it bluntly, we got our butts kicked.

This story has a disturbing sequel.

Except for the dead and wounded, who all got Purple Hearts, nobody was put in for any medals or awards for that night – until three months later.

The battalion commander was due to rotate to an assignment in the States. Like most people of his rank (lieutenant colonel) at the ends of their tours, he was up for a slew of awards and decorations. One of them was a Silver Star, the nation’s third highest award for valor (after the Medal of Honor and Distinguished Service Cross). I was writing a press release about it and, while reading the citation — with its usual boilerplate about his constantly exposing himself to the “withering” fire while having no concern for his personal safety — I realized that the action it was describing was the ten-minute firefight that began that long night three months earlier.

There was just one problem with the citation: the colonel wasn’t there. Well, not exactly. He was on a hill nearly a kilometer to the west of the one from which the enemy was firing on us. And he was there, more or less, by accident — usually battalion commanders fly around in their command helicopters above the action. I knew the guys who were on that hill — it was my old platoon — and they later told me they heard the firefight and went to full alert, but didn’t receive any direct fire, “withering” or otherwise.

Even worse, the “eyewitness” to the colonel’s actions wasn’t anywhere near him. He was the company commander of the unit that was actually in the fight, and he was huddled in the shell crater with me. I believe the company commander also received a Silver Star for that action, but I admit my memory is not quite as clear on that.

This episode made me something of a cynic whenever I hear about officers above a certain rank being “highly decorated” as a result of their military service. Having seen officers game the military’s awards and decorations system for personal and career advantage, I had little trouble believing, for example, the allegations of the swift boat veterans against Sen. John Kerry.

That is not to say that these officers aren’t in harm’s way. The previous battalion commander was killed when his command helicopter was shot down near Khe Sanh. Even so, the dangers they face don’t begin to compare with those faced by the ordinary grunt in the field.

Most citations for military decorations — for merit as well as for valor — are exaggerated to some extent, no doubt to reduce the likelihood of higher commands “downgrading” the award to a lesser honor. And the higher the rank, the greater the exaggeration.

Of course, none of this compares to the ultimate exaggeration — falsely claiming to be a veteran of a war one not only was not in, but went out of the way to avoid. The fact that Connecticut Attorney General and Democratic U. S. Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal didn’t lose many points in the polls after his lies about Vietnam service were exposed shows that most people don’t seem to care about someone’s war record.

Or, maybe they are just as cynical as I am.