Friday, April 15, 2011
FireBase 411, 1970 L to R Vic Smidt (Michigan), Sonny Barth (Oregon),me ,Doc Elliott (California), Steve Bittel (Kansas),Bottom: Howard Linhardt (Illinois), Mike Lomolino (Illinois).
11th Light Infantry Brigade
3rd Battalion, 1st Inf
Alpha Company, 1st platoon
Quang Nghai Valley, I Corps Vietnam
Except for our Medic, Doc Winder, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor (see previous post), we were not heroes. We were not part of any large military operations. No one will write a book about us. No one will make a movie about us. Our time "in country", in 1970, probably ran in the middle of the pack. We had it better than many, worse than some. We were for the most part draftees who tried to do our year and come home, let time give our Vietnam memories a gracious death and get on with our lives - most of us made it back, some of us did not - those that did not are the treasure.
When I was recovering from gunshot wounds in Chelsea Naval Hospital near Boston, in 1970-71, my sister Nancy bought me a non-descript photo album to put about 20 photos I had taken when I was in Vietnam. A lot of us carried a small Kodak Instamatic buried in our rucksack or when on the firebase, in our chest fatigue pocket so that when conditions were right (usually on the firebase and not humping in the mountains), we would take some pictures. Looking at them years later, it appears I took too many of me and not enough of the others, but I filled the album with the photos, put it away and rarely looked at it.
When you enter combat, you enter into a contradiction that never unravels. You want to use willful forgetfulness to overcome the experience, but always keep those who you were with in your heart. Forget the war, remember the people; especially those who never came back. I don't need photos to do that, but looking at them now helps. Someone once said that the strangest feeling he ever had was the first time he parachuted out of an airplane, because when he jumped, his brain had no synaptic path for that experience, no point of reference he could relate the feelings to. Combat is like that. Even a year after I returned, I was taking a nap at home and my mother made the mistake of waking me up by tapping me on the shoulder - I took a swing at her before I had even gained consciousness. Another guy I served with made it home to his parent's house and after the first night he went out to the backyard and dug a fox hole. He knew it served no practical purpose, but it made him feel secure; after all, he had slept in or next to one for a year. So I know we are all a sum of our past experiences - they are us - but at the same time those experiences can burrow into your future and eat its way into your individual and chronological life-line: birth, school, more school, war, adult employment, marriage, children, housing, retirement and death. War doesn't deserve a place in that line; its nature is so foreign, so disconnected, so dissonant. If life's a house, then combat builds itself an addition on the property - not attached or associated to the main structure.
I don't want to overdo this, but I always kept the guys I knew well, the ones who never came back, close to me. I don't think this is unique to me. I rarely looked at the pictures and tried not to think about Vietnam and to a large degree I succeeded. I've had a good life. Time really does heal. But at some point, when I got my first, real adult job, I took them with me and Wilson got a real adult job with me. When I met the love of my life, Donna, Doc and Al got married with me. When I had a child, Van had a child with me and when I retire, Al and Munson will retire with me. At some brief point in those events, I thought about them, remembered them and was humbled that I was experiencing good things that they never would experience. If life is a long race, they only got to run a few laps.
Then one day I couldn't find the album. Donna and I took a one day trip up to Washington DC to see the Smithsonian and the Washington Mall. I wanted to show her the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall near the Lincoln monument, but when I got there couldn't remember the name of someone I held in my arms as he died on hot morning in July, 1970. My forgetfulness really bothered me and when I got back home, I scoured the home for the photo album. I was sure I had everyone's name written on the back of the pictures (some I did, others not). I looked everywhere. We had downsized our house 5 years before and I feared I had lost the album during the housing move. I searched every box and drawer and the more I searched, the more I realized it was the most important thing I owned and like a fool, had lost it. Then one day, last November, I was in the garage looking for something in a carton and I found the photos under some old picture frames.
They need to be shared.
I'm pretty sure this was taken the first day back on the Hill. It was the first day I walked point which accounts for everyone sweating. Every 4 weeks or so we would be cycled in from the bush and surrounding mountains, an area generally called "The Horseshoe" North of a spine of mountains called the Central Highlands.
As a sports writer once said of an athlete he was covering: "Not only isn't he beloved, he isn't even be-liked". It was not a place anyone had real affection for, but being behind sandbags, sapper wire, and barrels of buried phu gas, and clear fields of fire, afforded us more protection than crouching behind elephant grass or a hastily dug hole. When researching this post I was amazed to find a website about the firebase 411 so perhaps I was wrong (just Google "FSB 411" for the site). We also got relief from the C-Rats (the cans of ham and eggs and caraway cheese would make any alternative an epicurean delight...bring on the chipped beef!) We also showered (what, once every 4 weeks wasn't enough?) and a haircut. But best of all was the safety. We got mortared every once in a while, and another company, during their stay, underwent a sapper attack, but overall it was quiet.
Walking point was like being a canary in a coal mine. You were first in line while walking on patrol and if something bad was going to happen, it would happen to you first. If you were shot or stepped on a booby trap then everyone else would know and respond accordingly. It was policy that married guys and those who were sole support of someone did not walk point. After 2 or 3 weeks, you would develop "the shakes", a constant trembling from the stress and without any words spoken; another would take over the slot. Not only was it dangerous and emotionally draining, but you would be on intellectual overload while on patrol. Why? Think about this.
While you are walking on a mountain trail slowly, eyes constantly moving in the 180 degree ark in front of you, you would constantly be running scenarios in your head. That stand of trees off to the right, would it make a good ambush site for the NVA? Does it have a good backdoor for them? Could the fire be laid down for maximum killing effect? No, the areas at my 10 o'clock by the rocks would be better cover. They could kill me better from there. Wait, I need to check up in the trees by the bend, but I can't see real well, too may shadows. And on and on. Me, I wasn't that good at point. I was too frightened and cautious and I was shot before I developed any proficiency at it.
Oh, and I almost forgot...the booby traps.
If there were traps, the point man would focus only the immediate ground in front of him and never looking up to canvas the terrain; thinking about each step. The cover man (2nd in line) would then scan everything in front and to the sides. Howard was our best point man as I recall. He had the ability to balance the possibility of his finality with a reasonable pace of forward movement; and he was no fool. We all trusted him with our lives. Needless to say if the point man made a mistake, he would die or become wounded, but also, his mistake could cost others behind him their lives. Just what was needed - more stress.
Much of the time our platoon was assigned Kim, a Chu Hoi or Kit Carson Scout. He was a Viet Cong who fought the Americans for years, then surrendered and acted as our guide. He lived with his wife and children just outside the firebase. He was very resourceful and had good survival instincts. We didn't completely trust him, but we never lost anyone when he was guiding us. It was expected he would not fire his weapon except for immediate personal protection. He was a mixed blessing as well. His presence meant our platoon was always up front and there were times when we were scheduled to be CAed (helicoptered) into the Horseshoe and he didn't show up. When that happened we knew it was going to be bad - and it always was; he was an unfailing barometer of trouble I hope though he was able to get out of Vietnam in 1975 when the war ended with his wife and kids; if he didn't I'm sure they all died.
To be continued in another post