In honor of Memorial Day, I’m including a second excerpt of my father’s memoirs when he was in the Vietnam War. Thank you to all our service members – to those who fought in the past and to those who still continue to fight.
It was quiet except for the sound of choppers in the distance. No birds were singing. The air was hot and still, but somehow there was a chill. As the sound of those old D-Model Hueys came closer I heard a Crack! Crack! Crack! It was definitely fire from an AK47. They were being fired on in broad daylight, but no one could’ve been down there. Nothing was moving. Then, without a sound, two jets black as coal dropped from the sky. They went straight down and looped straight back up. Black objects fell out from underneath them, then the jets roared, and out came the awful fire balls. It was like looking into Hell. The planes were Navy jets, Phantom jets, from a carrier in the South China Sea. I was so proud to know they were there. Then, here they came again. This time they flew so close I could see the numbers on the pilots’ helmets, and it looked like they would take the top of my head off. They went over low, tilted their wings from side to side, and were gone. My thoughts went from witnessing what had just happened to my friend, S.M. Marlow, a boy I came in with. He had gone to the Bloody 1st – the 25th Infantry Division. I remember thinking how it sure would’ve been nice to see him again. Then, as if by fate, the radio from someone’s hootch (bunker) started to play. It was country music, but Hanoi Hanna started talking about Christmas not so far off, about 15 days away by then, and that the 25th Infantry Division had lost 25 or 30 G.I.s in a battle. I believe near Huế somewhere was the Demilitarized Zone (D.M.Z.) up north. That was S.M.’s outfit, I just knew it. A bad feeling came over me all day.
Well, the mood quickly changed because those choppers from before had landed while the jets were dropping napalm, and those same seven guys that I saw disappear came walking up from the chopper pad. They walked by me without saying a word, went to their hootch, and the choppers left. I sat there on some sand bags and thought about what Hanoi Hanna had said and I reckon I was hurting about as bad as a person could. It seemed as if everything in Christmases past was now so plain to me. I remembered the time I was a little boy and played over there near Jacksboro [Tennessee]. That’s where I was born, in a house down behind that vast pine thicket by Hugh Mars’ big farm and the old Elkins farm. I remembered a yellow school bus I got for Christmas and my first bicycle. Then my thoughts went to that bluegill fishing hole at Madison Bridge. Boy, those were some times. But this was really the first time I’d been away for Christmas. I just sat there thinking of home, my fiancé, and all my family. Then the boys came out of their hootches with their mail. Each of us read our letters aloud and we made jokes at one other and told tales of home. But, by nightfall, our hearts would begin to loosen the bond that we had all used to mend the broken pieces. It seemed as though our hearts would melt away, come up through our throats, and run out our eyes. The world was beginning to change. I had become more of a man today and I was back running nighttime missions with the big infrared light and infrared binoculars. I could see in the dark like it was daylight. On one particular night, things were quiet, except for the sound of firefights in the distance and you could see the tracers. Then, a flicker of red light as small as a lit cigarette caught my eye. Charley had just made a fateful mistake. I picked up the radio and received a grid coordinate almost simultaneously.
“Calling sitrep Red. SLT to War Bird 9, 9, niner, niner. War Bird niner, niner!” I called.
And, through the sound of choppers, their answer came on the radio,
“This is Warbird niner, niner.”
“Victor Charley Action. Northwest one o’clock. Fire on my beam,” I said.
Then, the light I had seen switched from red to white, and the Vietcong soldiers ran for their lives. But it was too late. They lay in pieces. Would God ever forgive me for things this boy becoming a man must do? I remember thinking these words. I remember a lot of things now and then, but, the memory that most stands out was spending Christmas in Vietnam as I fought a war for my belief in freedom.
The days went by and it must’ve been January, I guess. But it was still sweltering hot there. Back home, it must’ve been snowing and below zero. I never had too much of a will to get close to anyone there because it seemed like about the time you got to be buddies, they were gone or even worse. I remember Larry Sedgwick. I won’t go into detail but it like to have killed me when I heard how he died. But I know in my heart he felt the same way I did about our country and the thought of another soul in the arms of God. Larry was a good boy.
We moved from the LZ to a place called Phù Cát. There was to be a landing strip cleared for jet fighters inland, and it had to be taken and cleared. Christmas and New Year’s had gone and it was February by then, and each month seemed like a year in itself. I was still fourteen thousand miles away from home and, honestly, I was scared to death. But I believed God was with me, and I knew somehow, somewhere inside me, he would see me through. I don’t remember what day it was when we got to Phù Cát but I can remember the Marines had been pinned down there and the 1st Cavalry went in and airlifted them back to the LZ and the Combat Engineers cleared the airstrip. The landing strip was a dirt runway and when a jet landed, it became a ball of dust, like a storm. They flew bombing missions from that strip around the clock. I remember we ran missions at different locations, but we were in a valley then and this LZ was as flat as a sage grass field back home, except it was elephant grass, about 4 or 5 feet tall. Vast jungles were located beyond our field with a rice paddy or two here and there. The monsoon rains had started, and would worsen as the days and weeks passed.
The TET offensive was beginning. Hanoi had been bombed by B52’s and the rumble was like an earthquake. You see, people back home saw only what the news media wanted them to see. It’s an awful feeling when people protest against us boys overseas fighting for freedom. The North Vietnamese was all that people back home thought we were fighting. They didn’t know that China was supplying guns, ammo, and personnel to Hanoi, along with a lot of Russian arms and weapons. But we also had allies – South Korean, Turkish, and Australian troops offered their lives for freedom’s sake, too. I was on LZ Geronimo for about 2 months and the only ones who spoke English there was me and Sergeant Villera. The others were R.D.K. Tiger Division South Koreans. They were nice to us and they liked and respected the G.I. because of the Korean War. I remember getting my first taste of kimchi with what I thought was beef. I soon found out it was “number one yelp, yelp,” or, dog meat. I admit it tasted like beef. The thought of it sure would make your stomach turn inside out.
By that time, I was learning some Vietnamese. The first word was dừng lại which means “Halt.” I remember being on patrol checking the outer perimeter of a part of an LZ called English and being hollered at by a soldier in a guard tower. He said,
“Dừng lại! Dừng lại!”
I answered back and he told me to come on around slow and, believe it or not, it was a familiar voice. The recognition came to me. I said,
“Verlin, is that you?”
“How’d you know my name?” he asked. I replied,
“Verlin Blankenship – how in the world did you get here?”
Verlin was from Tennessee, up around Duff, between LaFollette and Jellico. I believe he was the one who told me, during our happy reunion, about S. M. You see, S. M. Marlow had been in that fire fight that Hanoi Hanna had talked about, up next to Huế near the DMZ. Verlin said S.M. was in really bad shape the last time he saw him. He had taken a ChiCom rocket frag and was hit bad, but a medic had been close by, took some hemostats, and clamped off some major blood vessels, even a jugular on the left side of his neck. His ribs and a part of his left lung had been torn away. His left arm and hip were cut up bad. Hearing this hurt me so bad. I didn’t know if I’d ever see him again. Verlin and I talked of home and of my fiancé and his wife, but I had to finish my check so I left. It was months before I heard from Verlin again. The time was getting to be close to my birthday, June 25th. I’d be 19 years old. Ain’t it funny – I couldn’t even borrow money at a bank back home because I wasn’t old enough. I remember thinking this.
**Featured Image: Picture of my father, Benny Franklin Shown, Sr. in Vietnam, 1967-1968.