Memories of an Unwritten Hero
WARNING: THE FOLLOWING COMMENTARY CONTAINS GRAPHIC DESCRIPTIONS OF WOUNDS SUFFERED BY AMERICAN SOLDIERS IN SOUTH VIET NAM. READER DESCRETION STRONGLY ADVISED.
“Older men declare war. But it is youth who must fight and die.” Herbert Hoover
Our history books remind us that the enormous “foot print” planted by the Viet Nam War in America’s military history and the psyche of its citizenry—as well as the psyche of just about every other nation on the planet–spanned the greater part of 15 years, from 1961-1975. And, depending upon which “reliable sources” you choose to believe, American casualties were about 58,479 dead, and 303,644 wounded. Over the centuries, throughout all wars, representing all nations that have ever been to war, I’m certain there have been thousands of “unwritten” heroes…their unheralded exploits having taken place, not only on the battlefield, but sometimes “behind the lines” as well. This is a short story of one such soldier…
The setting: January 31, 1968. The massive Tet Offensive. V.C. (Viet Cong) and N.V.A. (North Vietnamese Army) forces initiate surprise attacks on over 100 cities, including 33 of 44 provincial capitals. Their largest campaign of the war. We never saw it coming. Up to that point, according to our government, we were winning. Winning. Really? Forward to sometime in May, just a couple of months later. Everyone’s nerves still beyond frayed, tattered, ragged, unraveled—pick one, or two, or… Underground bunker. 155th Assault Helicopter Co. compound, Camp Coryell. About 10 miles outside Ban Me Thuot (Ban Mee Too-it). Provincial Capital, Darlac Province, Central Highlands. We’d been taking in-coming small arms perimeter fire, sporadic 81mm mortar, and 122mm rocket rounds throughout the late evening and early morning hours. We were pretty much protected from the mortar rounds. But those rockets? Approximately six feet long, packed with about 100 lb of explosives on the front end. Major damage and casualties upon impact. If one had scored a direct hit on our bunker, it would have been “Taps” for all of us. If you were lucky enough to hear them fly over you they made the “swoosh” sound of small jets. If you did hear them, you knew that none of those was the one that “had your name on it.” There was V.C. and N.V.A. activity all around us. The enemy used bright white phosferous-lit tracer bullets to distinguish them from ours, which were bright orange. You could see them crisscrossing each other all around the outer edges of our compound throughout the darkness.
Our bunker was already full of wounded soldiers. Painful cries and screams echoed throughout from some of those whose morphine had worn off. Pretty chaotic. Trying to treat everyone in order of triage priority. Then, over the radio we heard that several Dust-Off choppers (Med-Evacs) were hovering a couple of miles away, ready to bring in 6-8 more wounded as soon as there was a break in the in-coming barrage A small, advanced section of an artillery unit had suffered 100% casualties—everyone had either been wounded or killed. We didn’t know where we’re gonna put those guys. But soon, in they came.
One of the first guys I went to aid was a young black kid, staggering in, barely on his feet, much of his uniform “wet” in red from his bleeding wounds. Maybe 19 years old, 5’9’’ tall, and about 155 lb. His face was bloodied and one eye was puffed out and extremely swollen shut. One hand had been blown off. And what remained of that arm had a wound I had never seen before. The only way to describe it: It’s as if a small hand grenade had exploded from within the inside of his arm. It had swelled up to twice the size of normal and the flesh and muscle were shredded. Splintered bones were visible. Although his other hand was still attached I knew that he was going to lose that arm as well because much of the muscle was gone.
I tried maneuvering him around all the other wounded while trying to find an available stretcher. It was critical that I get him laid out with his legs raised above his head because he was showing signs of going into shock. I was amazed that he was still coherent. The only possible explanation is that the attack must have occurred very close by and they got him out quickly. (Great kudos to the “Dust-Off” pilots…in my opinion, ALL of whom are also unwritten heroes of the Viet Nam War. But theirs is another story.) I used my hands to help press his shoulders and back to the wall to help stabilize him a bit as he leaned there while I scanned the area for an available stretcher. He then looked at me and said, in a very calm and deliberate voice, “I’m ok, Doc. I’ve had morphine.” Then gazing down at his shattered limbs, added, “And I’ve got tourniquets on both upper arms, so I’m ok. But my buddy over there…” (he nodded off to one side) “…needs a stretcher. He can’t walk, cause he got no feet.” And there, just a few feet away, they were carrying in this white kid and laid him out on what looked to be the only empty stretcher. He had lost both his legs just below the knees. I vividly remember him because, after they laid him down, he kept trying to sit up to see “what was wrong” and why he couldn’t walk. And they kept pushing on his forehead, holding it down to save him from the additional trauma of seeing the reality of the severity of his wounds.
Moments later we started laying out the dead in body bags as close to each other as possible. This freed up several stretchers and some ground space. I went to find that kid. I did find him. Slumped to the ground. His back to the wall. Knees to his chest with the remnants of his mutilated arms crossed over his lap. Head hanging down. Gone. He left this earthly plane… Quietly. Honorably. Unselfishly. Without the slightest sound. Essence of a youthful spirit no longer held captive by a wretched, burdensome body.
No words can express the overwhelming sense of guilt and despair I felt for not being able to get to him sooner. Despite our greatest and, yes, sometimes “superhuman” efforts, we were not successful in saving the lives of every wounded soldier. I shed a lot of tears during my time in that country over the deaths that I witnessed, and the maimed, mangled bodies that I helped to send back home to those soldiers’ families. But I recall well the tears I shed at that precise moment. I instantly, impulsively, directed my eyes toward his friend who was going to be Med-Evac’d out on, what earlier had been, the last available stretcher.
I don’t know where this amazing young soldier was from; nor do I remember this…this brave, unwrittenhero’s name. But I will never forget him. And perhaps now, after reading his story, neither will you.
“Only the dead have seen the end of war.” Plato
Author’s Note: I make the racial distinction above for only one reason: The color of our collective skins shouldn’t matter as we go about leading our “normal lives.” Especially in war, for the overwhelming VAST MAJORITY of us, it just damn doesn’t matter what the color of your skin is. If we are in pain, we all cry out for our moms and dads, our loved ones. And we all bleed the same color blood—red.
Editor’s Note: P. Vincent DiNova is a veteran who served in South Viet Nam as an Army Medic, and also writes for the NVR.