Jim 1968


Jim 1968

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I  lay under my poncho that was strung up between two trees blocking the midday sun. My platoon was resting about five hundred meters from "Sandy"; a small firebase east of Hue in what was then the northern part of South Vietnam. Sandy had artillery and mortars and we stayed under its protective umbrella of fire.

My radio operator, Jim, lay near leaning up against his pack reading a letter from his fiancée. She had sent a picture, and it looked like one taken for a high school annual. She was not pretty in the sense most looked for, but you could see the sincerity in her face. Jim was much that way; he didn't say much. He talked about fishing and about his home in North Carolina. Jim was eighteen or nineteen years old. I was twenty-one and one of the oldest people in my platoon.

We had been re-supplied that day and had received ammunition, rations, fresh water, and letters. It was late afternoon; we were resting on a high sandy ridge overlooking the Perfume River. On the flood plain below was a small village of people, most of whom were working the rice fields in the hot sun. Directly below us, where the sandy plateau rose out of the river's flood plain, was an abandoned village that must have protected the people for many years before the Americans came.

I nodded off in a light sleep as I thought about when I had been here before - about three months ago, right after the monsoon rains had stopped.

Sandy was only an idea then and it was our job to break ground for the new firebase. When we first came in, I was a fresh member of the company's second platoon. I was a platoon leader that was scared to walk. The first day we landed on the sandy ridge, we lost a man to an anti-tank mine that had been modified to accommodate people. He was blown a hundred feet in the air. I don't think I ever knew his name until I read it off the roster. At that point, I was terrified and could not function. I told my platoon sergeant so and asked him to pull slack until I could adapt. Without a word, he did, and I carefully followed someone else's footsteps in the soft sand so that I would not be destroyed.

We made camp for the night and I was lost. The sergeant took care of setting up the perimeter and checking it. Doc, our medic, the sergeant, and I set up in the middle of the circle. Jim and Doc dug in and I sat there wondering what to do. The first night was uneventful and the first morning came. We were aroused by the sergeant and started another day. The company commander called me to his command post and told me to send out two patrols and leave a security squad behind. Jim, Doc, and I went with one squad patrolling the abandoned village between the open rice paddies and the sand ridge.

There were very few houses left standing - the remains left the impression that this was once a beautiful place. It was thickly overgrown now and eerie. There were many well-traveled paths through the village --- we followed the main one through the wasteland.

The squad leader of the patrol was named Marty Cantu - he was young, as all of us were except the "old" sergeant left back at the camp. The squad leader laughed a lot and did a good job. Most everyone functioned as a team without being told what to do. I watched and asked questions of the squad leader. Each day for weeks our company sent out patrols while the engineers built Sandy. Soon I learned my role and took over my job. As I became able to do my job, the old sergeant relinquished more and more of my duties to me. We never said much to each other; we both had our jobs to do and he gladly let me take over mine as I could. I continued to patrol with my squads and learned the trade. Most of these men were veterans of the Tet offensive and were skilled in their craft.

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As the weeks drew past, the firebase Sandy took shape. We started making longer patrols into the countryside and covering more and more ground. Things had been quiet except for some small incidences. We had only lost one man to a booby trap but he was injured only slightly - but enough to go home. The engineers had had one man killed by another antitank mine, but it did not affect us for we didn't know him.

The country was strange and in a way beautiful and, all in all, life was peaceful. The old sergeant had taken the top sergeants place in the company command post and had been replaced with a young, tall, lanky, Oklahoman named Gene.

I was dozing and Jim stirred me from my thoughts. The third squad was coming back from patrol. Jim had taken our ponchos down and readied his pack for the evening. The patrol had spotted two North Vietnamese. This was unusual in recent weeks and we all thought about it as we strapped our gear on.

We moved out for the evening ambush. By day, we patrolled the wide areas around Sandy and by night we set up ambushes along possible routes that Charlie might attack Sandy. That evening we moved south of Sandy toward where the North Vietnamese had been seen. We snaked single file across the dunes of the sandy plain. It was much like a desert except the sand was fine white like a beach. There was little vegetation growing there and it made for secure night camps.

Our ambush was crudely set up. We moved in right at dusk and stayed in full force as a platoon - most nights we split the platoon into two ambushes, but not this particular night. Each position was near the top of a dune so to give a good lookout for the watch. Each position had four people to it - some nights we dug in; some nights not.

Each person got to sleep three hours and guard one hour--- that way the broken sleep was manageable. Doc, Jim, Gene, and I stayed in the center and monitored the radio. That night it was dark about an hour and then the full moon came up. The stars were out and it was quite a spectacular sight, especially over the white rolling sand. It was getting to be late fall and the nights were cooling some - the bugs seemed to be easing off. It was easy to sit up and take watch, many nights Gene, Doc, Jim and I would talk for hours. Gene and Jim were pure country and Doc was from some city in the Northeast. Doc only had one month to go. He was good and it gave us confidence to have Doc near. Doc traveled with every patrol that was sent out. He was indispensable. If we would have to send out two patrols, the one that could not have Doc grumbled and wouldn't go very far. Doc had nursed us all at one time, not to mention patching those that had been wounded. Doc gave an air of confidence and cockiness that we all appreciated.

The next morning we packed up early. We were going to start easing west toward Hue - also toward the "eight click vill," so named because it was eight kilometers long. The month before I joined C Company, they lost their whole company command post to a mine there - six people dead. This company had fought over that village for a year now; each time they pulled back and licked their wounds; each time they eased back in closer and closer. We started out early and the day was clear. We could expect dry weather for a couple or three months anyway.

We walked for a couple of hours across the sandy plateau. No one hurried for we never forgot our first day on this ridge. We came close to where the sandy ridge ended and the rice paddies started and we rested. At this end of the plateau the sand gradually went down to the rice fields --- on the other side near Sandy, it was more of a drop off. We set up a camp near where the trees and the abandoned village started. I told Cantu his squad would patrol into the tree line, and that Doc, Jim, and I would go along. Gene was to wait with the other two squads until we set up in the tree line and then he was to bring the rest of the platoon in.

As we approached the tree line, the entire group spread out more, so that two or three people would not be hit at one time. These were usual precautions and we approached the area calmly. Jim followed me then Doc behind Jim. The main force of our patrol was pretty much in front of us. We entered the tree line and the brush was light. There was a building about one hundred meters ahead of us. It was unusual because it had a tin roof, which was not pocked with holes. Its walls were clean and there was a wooden fence surrounding it. The fence was about thirty meters away from the building and seemed to be the boundary between the sandy plateau and the wooded area. The building looked to be a Christian church; not a Buddhist temple - there were both in the area. Jim commented that it looked like a small country church at home. The breeze blew through the pines surrounding the church as we moved toward the building. The squad passed over the fence and I passed through a small gate in the fence; it was just an opening, there was nothing for the fence to keep in or out. The fence was made of small bamboo poles - two driven into the ground and two lashed cross wise. I passed through the gate and Jim was about ten to fifteen meters behind me; Doc was about equal distance behind Jim. As Jim passed through the gate, his foot came down center between the two fence posts. A tremendous explosion knocked me forward and crushed my eardrums. A black dust filled the air, and I was stunned, not knowing what had happened.

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Out of the darkness and confusion, I heard someone calling "Medic!" - screaming in pain, but in a tone that stayed the same. "Medic!" - a clear call that sounded - that sounded like he was calling the medic for someone else beside himself. By the time I found my senses, Doc had gotten to Jim and removed Jim's rucksack. Jim lay on his back still conscious looking at Doc with pleading eyes. Both of Jim's legs were stubs to his trunk. His nose was gone and one arm was gone.

I was still in a daze - the gray dust seemed to frame Doc and Jim in a picture. My mind started to un-fog and Doc called to me to get a medivac. Doc had already started wrapping Jim's nubs with bandages. I called back to Sandy for a medivac. Doc helped me with the directions. Doc continued to patch Jim as we waited for the helicopter. I heard the chopper. The pilot radioed and asked the conditions of the landing zone. I was still stunned and Doc told me to tell him the LZ was green - no hostile fire - I did. Doc had patched Jim, started an IV solution, and shot him with morphine in the few minutes it took the medivac to get there. We took a poncho, placed Jim on it, and loaded him on the bird. He did not weigh very much.

I was still in a state of shock. Doc and I moved toward the building and sat down on the steps. The squad leader during all this time had dispersed his men and secured a perimeter around the building. He never hesitated -- he knew that it could have been an ambush against all of us and the mine was just a signal to start it. We were lucky, it wasn't. I looked at Doc and he at me. I saw Cantu walking beside the church toward me. He didn't say anything, but just stood there a few feet off. I looked around and saw his men alert and watching. I shivered. Pull your squad back with the others sergeant. Yes sir, he said. He turned and signaled a withdrawal. He had a man pick up Jim's pack.

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Cautiously we moved back, and when we got on the sands, we walked in our old footprints back to the rest of the platoon. The squad moved back to their place. No one said a word. The rest of the platoon had heard over the radio. Someone dropped Jim's pack next to mine.

We all sat quietly. I don't know how long it was, and I am not sure of the exact order of the events that then took place. Firebase Sandy called and asked if I wanted artillery support. I picked up the mike from Jim's radio and confirmed. I plotted the volley for deep within the tree line. I took a long period of time to talk. I called for artillery support to destroy suspected booby-trapped areas. I plotted and called the coordinates,

Artillery fires in a battery of three guns. The first three shells hit well in to the tree line. I adjusted the firing and walked the explosives toward us. At midpoint in the firing, I saw tin roofing flying into the air. Once the rounds hit the sands, I stopped the firing and thanked them for their support.

I sat down, lit a cigarette, and thought how glad I was that I stepped over that damn mine. Someone rustled through Jim's pack, took out his cigarettes and soap, and gave some to a friend. Gene assigned me another radio operator and took Jim's few personal effects to be sent in. He passed out Jim's rations and water.

Later, "White Owl," the brigade commander flew in and said we would be moving down to the flatlands and into the "eight-click vill" and that my platoon needed to be in position tomorrow morning by daylight. He did not mention Jim, nor did I.


Sometime later, we learned that Jim lived and went home after a long stay in the hospital in Japan. I do not know what happened to Jim after that.

John Herschelman C Company, Recon, and D Company 1/501, (1968/1969).