Sunday, March 06, 2011

Saint Christopher

In 1998 I graduated from College.

I also got married.

Six days after my marriage, I reported to the Selective Service Induction Center in Portland, Oregon. I was assigned to the U.S. Army, and reported to Fort Lewis, Washington for Basic Training.

I spent three months in Basic, and another three months in Advanced Infantry School, all at Fort Lewis.

Then I was selected for Non Commissioned Officer School (NCOC) at Fort Benning, Georgia. This program, also known as "Instant NCO School", and "Shake 'n Bake", because it replaced years of experience normally required to achieve NCO status with a six-month program of intensive training and challenge, supposedly with the goal of providing needed SKILLS (note: not experience) required of a NCO.

I graduated in April of 1969 as an Honor Graduate (Staff Sergeant: grade E6) and immediately transferred to Fort Anniston, Alabama for On The Job (OJT) training. The duties there were to become a member of the training cadre at a Basic Training Company.

Having successfully completed the OJT portion of my NCO training, I was granted 3 months leave, which my wife and I used visiting friends and family between Alabama and Oregon.

In September, 1969, I reported to a Replacement and Transfer unit in Oakland, California, from which I was shipped (by air ... almost as Air Freight) to Vietnam. I was an 11B40 ... Infantry NCO.

Before I shipped out, my sister threw a "Going Away" party for me at her house in Eugene, Oregon. This was typified by heavy drinking and dancing, and my insistance upon constantly replaying "Vietnam Blues" (also known as "Feelin' Like I'm Fixin' to Die" by Country Joe and the Fish. )

Well, that was the feeling in the country when I was scheduled to report for duty in Viet Nam.

But my sister, bless her heart, would do everything she could think of to help me get through the war. Realistically, there wasn't much that she COULD do, but she reached deep into her faith and gave me the only shield available to her: a Saint Christopher Medal.

The Patron Saint of Travellers was as much as she could do at the time, so she gave me the medal on a silver chain and I was touched by her thoughtfulness.

I reported to the First Infantry Division, centerd at the Division Base in Dian, in III Corps, a few miles from Saigon.

After a week of "in country training", reviewing all of the tactics I had learned in Advanced Infantry and NCO school, I was assigned to 3rd Platoon, Lima Company, 1/16, 1ID. They needed a Platoon Sgt., and I was the closest to a "Platoon Sgt." available at the time. (This slot is usually assigned to an E7, but those "upper ranking" NCO's were usually assigned to positions such as Supply Sgt., Company First Sgt., and other essential positions.)

Knowing nothing about war except for what I had been told, I was choppered into my company Area of Responsibility near Thunder Road (Hiway 13) north and east of Saigon.

When I arrived at my Company Area "In the Rear", it was late in the afternoon, so I was given the rest of the day to get my gear squared away, draw ammunition, a weapon (M16A2), field gear (Alice Pack), rations and water. I was briefed on Division Policy ... which essentially was that they told me 1ID and 1/16 policy was that we worked as a company in the field, and existed on a light pack with 2-3 days rations and water with 'frequent' resupply by helicopters.

At 7am the next day, I was waiting at the chopper pad when a 3-bird "resupply flight" of Hueys landed to pick up ammo, water, C-rations and incidental "stuff". In fact, it wasn't until the end of the 30-minute flight that I learned I was to be inserted into a "Hot LZ" (Landing Zone), and the company was under fire from "unknown enemy forces". (That is, they didn't know if the North Vietnamese Army ... NVA ... or Viet Cong ... VC ... were shooting at them. Typically, they hadn't seen the enemy; they only knew that somebody was shooting at them.

This was typical of my entire tour of duty. We Deal in GHOSTS, Friend!

The chopper was loaded with a pilot and copilot, a Crew Chief and a Door Gunner, and a stack of C-ration cases four feet high and wide. The Door Gunner was chatty, and told me that his favorite sport was to machine-gun Water Buffalo in Rice paddies. (Was I on the wrong side here?)

As I was landed in a small clearing, it wan't until I jumped out of the door of the grounder chopper that I realized that I was hanging onto my M16 with one hand, and my St. Christopher Medal with the other.

It must have worked. As soon as we were re-supplied, we grabbed our still-boxed supplies and loaded onto another flight ... an eagle Flight this time (five choppers plus gunships for protection) and lifted out to another area ... the Heart Shaped woods.

I and the small group I was attached to were on the last of 3 flights to lift off. (It was a Company Size Operation .. one of the few where the entire company was involved in a single battle, during my entire tour of duty. At the time, I had no idea how unique and important this operation was.) Just before our choppers landed, one of the 5 men I was attached to declared that he thought the incoming fire was coming from a woodline across an open field from us. He was carring an M72 LAW (Light Anti-Tank Weapon ... a rocket in a disposable tube) and he was going to fire the LAW at the woodline just before the last chopppers landed. He was forbidden to fire the LAW without permission from a 'superior'. Having no desire to have our lift-off chopper be downed by enemy fire, I readily gave him permission! The rocket, having been fired, hit the base of the trees in the opposing woodline. I didn't understand how well-placed the shot was, until I much later tried to hit a woodline as commander of a tank.

We lifted off successfully, and in 20 minutes joined the rest of the company at our "cold" LZ in the Heart Shaped Woods ... another area where the VC was usually in command. We were lucky this time, not having taken fire upon landing. There I met the Company Commander and learned that his chopper (the one which had left our old position immediately before mine) had received fire upon extraction. He reported that several rounds impacted upon the floor of the cargo compartment, but had passed through without significant damage to the machinery and NO injuries to crew or cargo. The cargo, of course, was the CO and the HQ cadre.

The St. Christopher Mojo was apparently working for all of us.

When we landed and disembarked at our new LZ (cold), we first grabbed our resupply, then waded through a hip-deep swamp for about 50 yards. The 2nd Squad RTO (Radio Telephone Operator, or "Kilo") lost his SOI during the crossing. The SOI is Strategic Operational Information .. or the codebook to all of our radio callsigns, one-time codebook, and other highly secret information. We spent 10 minutes searching for the swamp and finaly the Company Commander (Captain Determan) made the call: if we couldnt' find it with a company of men searching for it, knowing that it was somewhere inside the 2-acre swamp, Charly was unlikely to happen upon it by accident.

Besides, if Charley was in the area he knew where we had landed, and an extended search would only draw his attention. That is, if we were obviously searching for 'something', then that 'something' would obviously be important to us. Charley would not quit searching until he found it. The codebook was "administratively" declared "irretreviably lost" and the search was abandoned.

We took our ration cased and 2-gallon water jugs to the opposite shore, and broke them down. That is, we uncrated the C-rations and distributed them, along with the water and the ammo and the sundaries packs and incidental resupply (some uniform parts and one pair of boots) and radio batteries among the company. Some of it was random and equal distribution; the battery packs went to the RTOs; the uniform replacements and the boots went to those company members who had reported uniform components which were too damaged and/or worn to be sufficient to their purpose. Curiously, this was the only time when I saw boots and uniforms replaced in the field. Apparently, it had been a hard campaign so far. I was grateful that I had missed the worst of it, and once again I realized that I was gripping my St. Christopher Medal.

We dug a fire pit wherein we dumped the unselected C-rations, along with the old radio batteries, and discarded uniform parts (trousers, blouses) and disintegrating Jungle Boots. We added a few quarter-pound segments of C4 explosives to provide initiating fire to the discards, and to provide sufficient heat so that the discarded C-ration tin cans would burst. We also included incidental discards .. jelly and peanut-butter tins, which were extremely flamable under the great head from the C4, and would add to the indendary nature of the fire.

Then we moved out, along the perimeter of the Heart Shaped Woods.

It's worth noting that the Heart Shaped Woods was actually a several-acre area populated by chest-high brush. It was impossible to move through, except for a few animal-created trails. The general consensus was that ALL of the trails were mined and /or booby-trapped, which was the reason why Charley owned the area, and we avoided any attempts to cross it. The 1ID burned the woods occasionally, but that only made the next growth richer, taller and thicker. Recent division policy, I learned, was to avoid passing through or attempting to irradicate the intrinsic cover and concealment afforded to Charley (VC -- Viet Cong or "Victor Charley"). Instead, we would patrol the fringes from time to time, and if Charley chose to engage American Troops. we would call in artillary and/or Air Support and eradicate the woods. And Charley. With no expectation thta we could win and "own" the Heart Shaped Woods.

In the meantime, we were content to patrol the fringes, at irregualr intervals, as the mood struck our commanders.

Observant Charley, of course, was already fully convercent with the basic Tactical Response: "Observe, Evaluate, React". He had decided to mine the fringes, in the hopes of decimating our infrequent patrols.

So it was that, three hours after I had truly entered the "Twilight Zone" of Combat Vietnam, the man immediately behind me in the single-file formation that was Charley Company circumvating the Heart Shaped Woods raised his voice and one finger and said: "Excuse Me, Platoon Sergeant?"

Everyone in the range of his voice stopped, and I turned to see what he had to say.

"Uh, Sarge, I think I got caught up in something. I think it's a booby trap."

I moved back near his position 10 feet behind me, knelt to look at the ground where he was standing. Sure enough, there was a web of thin wire around his boots, a couple of strands tangled up in the laces of his combat boots. There was just enough of the wire (held 3" above the ground level so it would easily be caught by a slow-stepping infantry-man) which was obviously part of a booby-trap.

I carefully remove the wires from the trooper's boots, got him OUT of there, and then called for the Tiger Scout.

The Vietnames Chu Hoi took a look, said "yep, that's a booby trap", and told us to get out of the immediate area.

He set a Claymore Mine over the trap (apparently a three-some of American hand-granades with the trip-wires attached to the pull-pins) and blew it up from a safe distance. No obvious secondary explosions, but we couldn't find grenades later, so we assumed that they had exploded,

And yes, I found myself again clutching my St. Christopher Medal as if it were indeed a direct limk to God ... who knows He had not obviously andswered any of my prayers "directly", but I had indeed been very very fortunate this first day in the field.


A few m0nths later, I had become much more "comfortable" in the field, and much more confident of my ability to lead. We all looked out for each other, and as my platoon learned that I would look out for them, they assumed the responsibility for looking out for me, too.

After about five months, the silver chain on my St. Christopher Medal finally broke. I suppose it was, in part, because the web-harness for my equipment was sufficiently heavy that eventually the accumulated stress on the light chain overstressed the material. I was fortunate, though, that the medal itself got caught in the folds of my uniform and equipment, so I saved the most important part: the medal itself.

That night, one of my platoon showed me how to braid a boot-lace into a 'chain". I laced the center of the lace through the pierced ring of the medal, and created a 20" chain with the medal at the center. Then I put it around my neck, and one of the platoon members 'melted' the nylon lace with a butayne lighter, so there was no chance that it would fall off.


After a few months, I was eventually rotated to "the rear", which means I was reassigned to the administrative position of "Labor NCO" of the Headquarters Company of the 25th Infantry Division. (The 1ID had rotated out, leaving me to be assigned to a new division .. "Tropical Lightening".)

Life became delightfully boring from that point on. We had no attacks on the base on Cu Chi. I had been promised a post of Senior NCOIC at Division HQ, but that fell through. It was a matter of Tripical Low-Expectations for the rest of my tour. Showers every day, assigned to share a hooch with a guy who worked in what was essentally a "Human Resources" department (and if I ever get to hear from Gary Grant again, it would make my day!)

There were no drills, no emergencies, nobody was shooting at me and I even got a second bronze star ... as nearly as I can tell, because I didn't get shot. We had Philipino bands coming by every week to serenade us with their version of "Innagadda de Vida" and the most excitement came from (1) somebody got an aviation Parachute Flare and tried to disassemble it in their barracks, with the resulting spectatular pyrotechnics of the burning of the barracks; (2) There was an investigation of the tendency for Labor NCOs to bring vietnamese hookers on the base for the comfort of the troops; (3) the Division Top Sgt's hooch maid was found to be hooking all over the base, so the Labor NCO of HQ Division (who "took care" of the situation) was give a very good performance review by the HQ Company C.O. (who also had a "personal Hooch Maid"), and (4) there was not a single attach on the base during this period.

The only truly significant even was that, one week before I was scheduled to DEROS (Date Estimated Return from Over Seas), I was taking my daily shower and discovered that the St. Christopher Medal was no longer attached to my home-made Combat-Boot Lace Necklace.

I searched the entire shower area. Asked all of the troops and the Vietnames Laborers to be on the lookout for it. For four days, the business of the Headquarters Company of the 25th Infantry Division was distracted by the imperative to look for my Saint Christopher's Medal.

But to no avail ... I was never able to find, or cause to be found, the good-luck charm given to me by my sister, one year ago.

[Not that my sister had been lax in her attention: during the past year, she had arranged to have my combat platoon 'adopted' by her church youth group. so every man in the platoon received at least one letter per week during their period of service, and many of them received letters even after their DEROS; on Christmas of 1969, the church sent no less than 3 live Christmas Trees to the platoon, along with a 20' wide banner stating "WE LOVE YOU!" in bright red letters; and CARE packages containing food and other treats were regularly sent to my troops.]

Stull, when it came time for me to take that big silver bird back to The World, I no longer had my Saint Christopher Medal to keep me safe.

So I guess God decided I didn't need any "extra help" to get through the Bad Year. Except for one thing:

On the plane flight from Viet Nam to Oakland, California, the civilian staff of the commercial airline (United, if I recall correctly) broke up the monotony of the 9 hour flight between Tan Son Hut and Guam with a lottery. Every man on the plane contributed one dollar, and wrote his name of the bill. The stewardesses put them all in a big plastic bag, and drew the 'winning dollar' to see who got the contributions.

They drew my name.

One dollar invested, $85 returned .. no tax, no problems, it was all gravy. I bought my maximum amouth of duty-free booze at the Guam airport, and still had most of the winnings left to buy a room at Oakland the next night while I waited for my flight to Oregon.

I still had the bootlace necklace around my neck, and I caught myself grabbing for the medal even though it had been left behind in Vietnam.

Perhaps God decided I didn't need it any more. Or maybe it was all just superstition.

All I know is that it was a source of support, in a land where the only tangible support was the troops and support forces who never really knew who I was.

And perhaps it was all in my mind; I needed to believe that some greater power was watching over me.

The fact remains that I made it through a year in Viet Nam; a year which I never expected to survive. I was absolutely astounded when that Great Silver Bird lifted off the runway of Ton Son Hut Airbase without being downed by mortar fire.

So perhaps faith, or "Faith", has some power which I had never before (and never sence) acknowledged, or believed in.

On the other hand, I spent a significant amount if my Tour of Duty reaching for, or clutching the Saint Christopher Medal. I'm not going to say that it made a difference. I'm only going to say that I never had any true faith before, yet I went through firestorms, firefights, incoming shrapnell (both friendly and "otherwise"), misery and agony for 12 months. I saw friends and comrads die or become disabled by bullets, bombs and even a "Step-and-A-Half" viper ... but only one man under my direct command actually died.

The worst injury that I even encurred was Bamboo Poisoning, and the sorese finally cleared up about 8 years later. I can live with that.

I've never replaced that Saint Christopher Medal. In the past 40 years, I've never found myself in a situation where I needed one, as much as I did then.

Thank, Sis. I owe you one.
Update: March 8, 2011

Seems as if I'm not the only one to take such comfort "wherever we can find it".

No comments: