by Ski Ingram
Date: April 1971
Place: RVN (Republic of Viet Nam)
Unit: N Company 75th Rangers, 173rd Airborne Brigade (separate)
I had just been assigned to “N” Company, 75th Rangers, 173rd Airborne Brigade at Landing Zone (LZ) English, RVN. (Republic of Viet Nam). I had only been there a short time when it began to rain and rain hard. By late afternoon the rain turned into a raging typhoon, my first typhoon. I was assigned to the bunk in November Hooch. The first thing I saw as I walked in was a full-size California State Flag hanging on one wall.
I started to unpack my gear and settle in when Doc Brent entered the hooch. He stumbled toward a bunk and collapsed in a drunken stupor. A few moments later Pat Beltz entered the hooch. He walked over to the bunk under the California flag and laid down.
Being from California myself and wanting to make friends in my new unit, I started talking to Beltz. I found out he was from Barstow, California and had gotten the flag from Governor Ronald Reagan after it had been flown over the Capitol building in Sacramento.
It was getting dark, and the rain was really coming down hard. The wind was also blowing pretty badly. Beltz said that he wanted to take a shower but didn’t want to walk to the showers. He decided to go outside and take one in the rain. After all, why should he get wet going to the showers, get wet taking a shower and then get wet walking back to his hooch when he could just step outside and get it done all in one step.
He stripped down to nothing and walked out into the storm with only a bar of soap. By this time the wind was blowing even harder. Beltz was back inside in only a few minutes. The water was so cold he needed to get back to where it was dry and warm. Beltz was shivering and drying off while I sat on my bunk talking to him about California. Doc Brent (we called him “Doc” because he was a medic, all medics were nicknamed “Doc”) was asleep on his bunk at the other end of the hooch.
Beltz was still naked when we heard it. It started out as a low rumble then almost immediately we heard a loud crash as the lights when out. The roof of our hooch had caved in, and the rain was coming in on us. I dove under my bunk and Pat dove under his in order to get away from the flying debris. Beltz was trying to locate his pants while I tried to figure out if I was still alive.
We found out that the mess hall from the 17th Cavalry had been picked up and tossed over the fence that separated our unit from theirs and landing on top of the November hooch. As it was tossed across the compound it hit the shack our generators were in. The generators were still running, and the live electrical wires were loose and crackling and sparking all over the place.
While Pat was looking for his pants, I crawled over to Doc Brent’s bunk to see if he was alright. As I was making my way over there, I had to avoid the live wires and duck from the flying debris that was being tossed around by the wind. I’m not ashamed to admit it, I was scared. I was afraid of being killed and afraid I’d find Doc Brent still lying in his bunk but as flat as the proverbial pancake.
When I finally got over to Doc Brent’s bunk, I found him asleep and un-touched by the caved in roof, the electrical wires or the flying debris. He was so sound asleep that I had to almost roll him out of his bunk to wake him up and then he didn’t want to get out of his sleeping bag. I guess in his drunken state he was having a hard time assessing the danger of the situation.
Once Beltz got his pants on he crawled over to where Doc Brent and I were hiding and trying to keep out of harm’s way. It took a while to convince Doc Brent that we should get out of our wrecked hooch and find somewhere safe to sit out the storm. We decided that the best safest place was in the Tactical Operations Center (TOC). The building was made of concrete. It contained all of the radio equipment that we used to communicate with Rangers in the field. We figured if the TOC was made strong enough to withstand a direct hit from a howitzer, it would be strong enough to withstand a direct hit from the 17th Cav’s mess hall.
As I look back on that night, I remember it as if I was watching a movie with me in it. I can see in my mind’s eye three people, myself, Pat Beltz, and Doc Brent, slipping and sliding in the mud and rain while dodging flying debris and electrical wires.
By the time we made it to the TOC we were soaking wet and covered in mud. We must have been quite a sight, especially Beltz who was only wearing a pair of pants. He had grabbed a pair of boots and a shirt but had lost them in the storm. Once inside the TOC we discovered that most of the other Rangers had the same idea and had gotten to the TOC before us. There was nowhere to sit down, it was so crowded. By this time, it was getting pretty late, and I wanted to lie down and go to sleep, but there was no room to do that.
The only other safe place to go was a concrete bunker about 50 yards from the TOC. I don’t remember what happened to Doc Brent, but Pat Beltz and I decided to make our way to that bunker in hopes of finding a warm, dry place to get some sleep as the storm raged on outside.
Beltz and I crawled out into the stormy night. We had to run and crawl all the while avoiding the debris that was still being tossed around by the wind. When we finally got to the bunker, we found it almost as crowded as the TOC. Looking and feeling around in the dark we found a small patch of the concrete floor that was still dry. It was about 4 feet by 4 feet, just big enough for Beltz and I to lie down in if we didn’t plan to stretch out. Beltz and I lay down and huddled up close together to keep warm and tried to sleep.
That wasn’t the worst night I spent in Viet Nam, but it was close to it. The worst night I had was on my first night ambush when I was stung by a scorpion. But that’s another story.
The next morning the storm had moved on, but it left behind a lot of damage. We were lucky that none of the Rangers had been seriously injured or killed. The only thing we had lost was a few roofs and a building or two. Our biggest loss was the Ranger Club. The club was about the size of a barn. In it was a bar, a pool table and a cinemascope size movie screen along with our movie projector. It was a major loss. The building had been blown about three feet off its concrete foundation. Amazingly the building was in pretty good shape, except for being moved off its foundation.
Some smart guys decided that we could move the building back on its foundation by tying a steel cable from a tow truck around the building and then pulling it back to where it belonged, so that’s what we did. We got a tow truck, wrapped its steel cable all around the building and then began to pull. The building did not move. The cable completely sliced through the building, cutting it in half which caused the building to collapse on itself, thus destroying the building. No one thought to remove the bar, the pool table or the movie projector. When the building collapsed it destroyed everything inside.
It took days to clean up after the storm. During that time, I got to know many of the other Rangers and made many new friends. Pat Beltz and I moved into “Oscar” hooch and met another soon to be good friend, Johnny Vaught.
Beltz and I never did serve on a Ranger team together, but we remained good friends until I was sent home at the end of my tour and Beltz went to another unit in country. Pat could have gone home with me; however, he chose to remain in Viet Nam and serve as a door gunner on a helicopter.
After I had been home for a few months I heard from another guy from Barstow that Beltz had been shot down on one of his mission and was killed. As I sat there listening to what the guy was telling me I couldn’t help but remember the first night Beltz and I had met. I thought of the rain, the wind, the mud, the sparking wires, and the warmth from each other’s bodies as we spent the night in a small concrete bunker a world away from where I sat and heard that a friend was gone.
A true story as remembered by Ski Ingram