September 1970 to February 1971
After I had been in country for about two weeks our platoon’s medic went home, as it was the end of his tour. Since I had been trained as a special Forces Medic before being sent to Viet Nam, I was given the aid bag and told I was the new medic.
I didn’t want to be the medic and told the Platoon Sergeant that. He told me that he didn’t care what I wanted, the platoon needed a medic and since I was the only one trained to be one, I was it. I did get him to agree that would continue to be an infantryman while carrying the aid bag. That way I’d still be able to fight the war.
The first time I opened the aid bag I was shocked. The previous medic was a real slob. The aid bag was a complete mess. There were open tubes and jars of medicines and ointments that had spilled inside. There was old and bloody gauze, pills spilled everywhere, it was a real mess.
The first thing I did was throw out everything and order new supplies. The company medic just about had a fit when I told him over the radio what I needed in order to resupply the aid bag. The very next day, before I could receive the supplies I needed, I was sent on a “midcap” to the village nearest our compound.
I bet you’re wondering what a “midcap” is. Our mission was pacification, which is to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. One way we did that was to help the people as much as we could. As the platoon medic I was to go into the villages and treat the villagers for any medical problem they may be having. I got to play doctor at the villagers’ expense.
It wasn’t too long after I had walked into the village that the word got out, the “bak si” (doctor) was there. I looked into the faces of the people that had lined up at my table and I couldn’t help but feel a little intimidated. I was a green twenty-year-old kid who had never treated anyone for anything outside of Army medical training.
We had a “Kit Carson” named Monday who was our interpreter. One by one the people came to me to be treated for their various ills. There were mothers with small children that were sick or injured. There wasn’t much I could do for them however. The most I could do was bandage their wounds and give them an antibiotic and an aspirin. I would give all of the children a packet of three Ceprechol throat lozenges. They thought they were candy and loved them.
After I treated everyone that was in line, Monday took me to a small hut that was a little further inside the village. It was explained that the woman inside the hut was too sick to wait in line for treatment. I opened the door and peered inside to see a very old woman crawling across the floor towards the door. It wasn’t until she crawled out of the darkness that I saw why she was crawling. On her left ankle was the largest boil that I had ever seen.
I picked the woman up in my arms and carried her to a grassy area just outside of her hut where I could see better. I laid her down and began to take a better look at her ankle. I decide that the best thing I could do for her was to lance the boil and then pack it with gauze. I found the scalpel with its blade still on the handle. It was an old scalpel that was incrusted with dried blood. I found a new scalpel blade and then tried to remove the old blade from its handle. I was having a lot of difficulty removing it from the handle. I wrapped a bunch of 4×4 gauze pads around the blade and tried to pull the blade off.
When I tried to pull the blade off by holding the handle in my left hand and pulling on the blade with my right hand, I sliced right through my right thumb down to the bone. I was bleeding pretty badly and worried that my thumb would get infected from the dried blood that was on the scalpel. I quickly poured a lot of hydrogen peroxide on my bleeding thumb and then bandaged it the best I could. I still have a scar on my right thumb from that incident to this day.
When I lanced the old woman’s boil a whole lot of ugly puss came oozing out of it. I used a hypodermic syringe filled with the hydrogen peroxide to wash out the crater in the old woman’s ankle where the boil was. There was a hole so large that I could put my fist into it. I cleaned out as much of the puss as I could. I took a bunch of 4×4 gauze pads, covered them with Vaseline and stuffed them inside the cavity in the old woman’s ankle.
Every other day for the next few weeks I would go by the old woman’s hut and repack her boil with the gauze covered in Vaseline. By the time the old woman’s ankle was healed the whole village was calling me Bok Si number one.
One day we got a message that there was a dud 105 howitzer round in our area. The company commander wanted someone to go out and blow the thing up so the VC wouldn’t be able to make a booby trap out of it. Randy Jones and I, the only ones in the platoon who knew anything about explosives were sent to do the job.
Nether Randy nor I had ever blown up a dud before. We were both trained in explosives while in Special Forces training, but they didn’t teach us how to dispose of a dud. We were so young and naïve we decide we could do it.
That afternoon Randy, myself and Staff Sergeant Jim Curtis went on a special patrol to blow up that dud round. After we had walked for some distance we heard shots from the other side of the next hill. Once we got on the other side we found a patrol from our platoon in a firefight with a few NVA soldiers.
Our guys were at the base of the hill, the enemy was at the top of the hill. Randy, myself and Staff Sergeant Curtis were a short distance away watching the action before us. It was sort of like watching a movie. Our guys shooting at the NVA, the NVA shooting back, with us just watching it all happen.
Randy and I wanted to get in the fight, but Curtis wouldn’t let us. He didn’t want to get involved. He said we were only there to blow up the dud and that was all he was going to do. We just stood there watching until Staff Sergeant Curtis told us to leave. The fire fight was still going on.
We walked right past our guys as they were moving up the hill to engage with the enemy. Before we got too far away, we heard a big bang. We turned to see our guys fire a LAW rocket (light anti-tank weapon) at the enemy. The rocket hit a huge rock that the NVA had been hiding behind. The rock split in half. Our guys ran up the hill expecting to find dead “gooks” all over the place. The “gooks” had run down the other side of the hill. All they found was a small amount of blood and a few empty mackerel cans.
When we finally reached our objective, we found the dud to be blown up wasn’t a dud at all; it was an empty shell casing that really couldn’t hurt anyone. Curtis had us blow it up anyway, after all that was our mission. We put two pounds of C4 plastic explosive on top of the casing and lit the fuse. The casing blew into a million pieces. The gooks would never be able to use it to hurt our GI’s.
When we got back to our position we caught hell from the guys that had been in the firefight. They were mad at us for not helping to get the gooks. Randy and I tried to tell them that we wanted to help, but Sergeant Curtis wouldn’t let us. Sergeant Curtis said that he wasn’t going to do anything that would jeopardize his mission. I thought our mission was to kill the enemy. I later found out that Sergeant Curtis was deathly afraid of dying in Viet Nam. That’s another story.
Every four days we would get resupplied by helicopter. It was like Christmas on resupply day. Along with our regular supply of C rations, ammo, medical supplies, drinking water and ice, we would get a hot meal and an SP (sundry) pack.
Inside the SP pack was paper, pens, cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, toothpaste and toothbrushes along with soap and candy. Everything inside the SP pack was divided among the platoon members. Since I didn’t smoke I traded my share of the tobacco products for candy. I got hooked on Tootsie Rolls. To this day I can’t control myself if I’m in a room with Tootsie Rolls. I also liked the Chuckles candies. They came in packs of five candies. There was red, orange, green, yellow, and black. I didn’t really like the green (lime flavor) or the yellow (lemon flavor) so I’d throw them away. I did like the red (cherry flavor), orange (orange flavor), and the black (licorice flavor).
We were also issued one beer and one soda at each resupply. I didn’t drink beer so I would trade my beer for the soda. You never knew what kind of soda you’d get, but my favorite was Pepsi Cola. We could also order a case of soda (cost $4.00) but again you never knew what kind of soda they sent. If you got something you didn’t like, too bad for you.
One day we were sent five gallons of strawberry ice cream. Here we were in the middle of the hot, hot jungle with ice cream melting almost faster than you could eat it. Anyway it was wonderful. I hadn’t had ice cream for at least three months. We all started to eat it real fast, before it melted. One of our squads was on afternoon patrol when the resupply chopper arrived with the ice cream. We radioed them right away and told them we had ice cream waiting for them. We told them that it was melting fast and if they didn’t hurry it would be melted and they wouldn’t get any. After some time and the patrol not arriving in camp and with the ice cream melting, we decided to eat it. After all we didn’t want it to go to waste. It wouldn’t do anyone any good to let it melt without eating it.
My most memorable resupply was on Thanksgiving Day 1970. Most of the hot food we would get in the jungle was just edible, but Thanksgiving dinner was another matter, or at least that’s what we hoped. I, along with my friend Chris Petersen, a kid from Salina, Utah, were given the job of filling sand bags to be used in fortifying our defensive position.
One of us would hold the bag open while the other one filled the bag with sand. The easiest job was sitting down and holding the bag open while the other person dug the sand and filled the bag. Before we started to work we got into an argument about who would do the hardest job. Let me make myself clear here. We didn’t fight about who got to do the easiest job, but for the privilege of doing the most work, not the least work. We started to wrestle over control of the shovel. We would fight until one of us couldn’t fight anymore. The winner would dig the sand until the other was rested up enough to tackle the other one and wrestle the shovel away from him.
We wrestled and fought and filled sand bags all morning while waiting for the resupply chopper to arrive with our turkey dinner. When the dinner arrived, Chaplin Burger arrived with it. Chaplin Burger was a Catholic Priest who really wanted to be an infantryman. Every time he came out to our position, he would borrow someone’s rifle and shoot at old beer cans.
Chaplin Burger didn’t come to shoot our guns this trip; he came to preach to us. He want to tell us all of the things we should be thankful for, such as being forced to fill sand bags on a national holiday. As Chaplin Burger was preaching, I kept my eye on the murmite cans full of our dinner. There was turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, candied yams, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. These were all of my favorite foods just sitting in the hot sun with the hot food getting cold and the cold food getting hot.
It seemed as if he was going to talk forever. We were all getting anxious, we wanted to eat, celebrate the holiday and enjoy the rest of the day. Chaplin Burger finally stopped talking and said a blessing on the food, a very long blessing. Eventually, that too did end and we got to eat. After that long wait we were all very disappointed in the food. The turkey and dressing was dry. The mashed potatoes and gravy was lumpy. The yams were ok, but they didn’t send any cranberry sauce. After we ate our dinner we took the foil off of the pumpkin pie. We couldn’t believe what we saw. There in front of us was a large sheet pan with a pie crust on it. The pumpkin filling looked as if it had been applied with a paint brush it was so thin.
Once dinner was eaten, Petersen and I went back to filling sand bags and fighting over the shovel. As I look back on that day, I realize Chaplin Burger was right; there was plenty I should be thankful for. I was alive, I had friends, and I loved the adventure I was living, and this would be the only Thanksgiving Day I would spend in a war zone, I needed to remember that and be appreciative of what blessings I had.
A true story as remembered by Ski Ingram