Given the choice between the experience of Pain and Nothing, I would choose Pain. — The Wild Palms
After the carnage, killing and courage at the Ambush, Medal of Honor nominee Hagemeister was promoted to Specialist 5, reassigned to Headquarters Company in An Khe, and never returned to the field.
I was back in An Khe as well, for a debriefing at PIO, with the Chief, Maj Witters, where I received kudos for my reporting from the Ambush and interviews with Maj. Gen. Norton and Hagemeister. Yet, I remained a PFC for five more months — nine in all — a lot longer than my peers. I was told later, that it was a “clerical oversight.”
My infected, ingrown toenails were removed, and my previously unreported minor shrapnel burns from the Ambush were noted/treated at the dispensary in An Khe. Most painful were the toenails or the lack thereof which dogged me throughout my wet, hot, and humid tour. (Military issue jungle boots were known to be a bit uncomfortable, even when one could find the proper size.)
After a few days of respite in An Khe, I imagined my first field trip since the Ambush would be uneventful. My rendezvous was with a platoon from Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry. On a “search and destroy” mission north of Bong Son, they happened upon a dispensary, recently occupied by the VC or NVA.
It was still March barely, in the early afternoon of Friday the 31st* when I arrived at the enemy aid station. I taped an interview with one of the troopers who had discovered it. I don’t remember much about it, (except an empty vial of penicillin labeled: “North Korea”) or the nearest village, but I clearly remember the rest of the day.
It was one of our own here in the field who needed medical treatment, a trooper down with a high fever, headache, vomiting, all symptomatic of malaria. The platoon leader called for any Medevac that was not engaged or on standby for expected casualties. This was a low-priority request, although a person with malaria is really ill. In addition to combat wounds, heat strokes, accidental injuries, jungle related disease, and other disorders often resulted in requests for Medevac.
The platoon leader suggested, since I already had my story, that I might accompany the sick soldier on a flight to An Khe. I would replace a medic that might be needed more urgently elsewhere, he reckoned. Don’t think that was plausible, a Medevac probably was not allowed to fly a mission without a medic, unless it was an exceptional circumstance. That was the plan, nonetheless.
It’s possible he just wanted me out of his way. Reporters were not usually a welcome sight until the commanders heard of the positive stories we generated.
My rank was not displayed but, of course, I wore my uniform and Cav patch. Some Army correspondents wore “U.S.” insignia on their collar, instead of grade (should officers attempt to intimidate reporters, whom to my knowledge were all enlisted). Sometimes civilian reporters wore military type uniforms, and they could be confused with military correspondents, even though there was no censorship of media in the Vietnam War.
The platoon leader lieutenant had not bothered to see if there was a suitable Landing Zone (LZ). So, the platoon sergeant and about five others volunteered to find the best spot to make one. They choose a location, several meters away, across a small stream. I was near the site where they were clearing, awaiting the Dustoff, with the man to be evacuated.
The men made good progress with their machetes, but it wasn’t enough. With a small fire already burning, they molded C-4 around the base of saplings, fused, lit, and detonated the explosives. The fire spread quickly.
All around us, bamboo was popping in an eerie symphony as flames raced up their stalks. We were literally feeling the heat.
The problem, other than the fire, was the threat of explosions from the packs and pistol belts (flares, grenades and ammo) the crew ditched as they entered the small opening toward the clearing. It was not a safe escape route.
The Medevac, now on-scene, hovering above the LZ, realized his rotors were stirring the fire out of control. The pilot increased rpm, pulled up on the collective, and cleared the area safely.
The fire surrounded us on three sides, and our only escape was 10 meters away. We had to get to, and then thorough the triple jungle canopy behind us.
Through the haze of the smoke and fire, I’d lost sight of my patient. Just as I turned to pursue, and sooner than I could process the explosion that thundered behind me — flaming shrapnel struck me with a piercing sting, spiking the soft skin of my upper left shoulder, then another slashed into my lower back impaling me, and slapping me to the ground! Pain was intense, like nothing before, from white hot-burning-fragments. The ordinance was cooking off with deafening explosions.
Flat and face-first on the jungle floor, I thought my skin was afire, burning from the inside. My ears were ringing. I felt my heart racing on the sandy soil where I’d landed, my mouth dried, I smelled burning skin and hair.
Once again I found myself in the throes of plausible death — doomed by fire? There was no time to revisit special memories like Momma's fried chicken; pinned in my seat when cousin Jackie floored his Biscayne 409; the first time I heard Elvis sing Are You Lonesome Tonight; when I kissed Marty for the first time; my inaugural shift at WAMY or my most recent letter from Marty. No time for any; they would vanish, evaporate, be extinguished forever.
Pain be damned, I needed to get up, remain lucid, and escape this chaos.
Get up hell, I needed to stay flat, make myself as small as possible, hug the earth.
With my heart pounding in my ears, I low crawled a few feet through the smoke, and found my patient, on the ground near me (apparently uninjured) and screamed, “Goddammit move with me,” hoping to startle him into action from his fever and confusion. I low crawled with him in tow, fast as we could, toward the jungle’s triple canopy.
We had to get through the web that surrounded us if we were to escape the fire. Should I ditch my explosives, so we could move faster? Are we going to die in a fire our fellow soldiers started? Not exactly the heroic battlefield death I had imagined.
On our knees with the flames licking dangerously close behind us; together we broke through with bare hands and bayonets the triple canopy of wait a minute vines, thickets, brambles of prickly pear cactus, and anthills into a maze of banyan tree roots while struggling to maintain my M-16 that tangled with every conceivable obstacle.
Helmets, canteens, grenades, clips of 5.56 ammo, and C-rations gave way as we lost our footing in the soft-sandy dirt, stumbled, fell, and rolled 15 meters until we landed into precious water.
My patient and I were in the comfort and safety of cool water, marvelous H20, liquid gold — our savior. I wallowed like a pig in mud, reveling in a foot of cool water, nursing my pain. My tape recorder lay submerged, in the bed of the stream, and I didn’t care.
Sooner than I could fathom, LZ fire under control, came the most beautiful sound. Finer than an Elvis ballad, sweeter than Marty’s voice, more soothing than Momma humming a gospel tune; the unmistakable thumping of a Huey — a Dustoff chopping through dense air over the jungle, rushing to relieve me and my patient from pain.
The medics retrieved my munitions, cut off our wet uniforms, inspected my shrapnel wounds, documented his malarial symptoms, validated our dog tags, covered us with blankets, and secured us for flight.
As the frequent flyer I had become, I knew what was happening in the cockpit. One of the pilots twisted the throttle to 6,600 rpm, pushed the cyclic slightly forward, pulled up on the collective, lifted the Huey, dipped her nose and bolted us north toward An Khe.
Under the care of those 1st Cav medics, we were in cool air at altitude — rotors rushing the air in that beautiful bird at 110 knots — on the way to medical aid for my (erstwhile) patient and me.**
After a Lidocaine injection, shell fragments were removed (from my upper back shoulder wound) cleaned, and disinfected. My puncture wounds (approximately) 40-mm wide and 30-mm deep were stitched at the 17th Field Hospital in An Khe, and I was given antibiotics and a tetanus booster. I overheard the doctor tell a medic that some of the shrapnel (in my lower back wound) entered dangerously close to my lower spine, and they elected not to remove the fragments. The doctor placed me on light detail status, for 48 hours, “duty permitting,” gave me care instructions and when to return for follow-up care. After two days of light duty with the PIO in An Khe, I was ready and anxious for more field duty.
Two decades later, x-rays showed shell fragments in my lower back had migrated dangerously close to the base of my spine and in 1986 were removed in a meticulous surgical procedure along with more shrapnel from my shoulder wound.
*Another thing burning on that day was the guitar of Jim Hendrix, who set it afire in London.
**I never learned the name of the soldier with malaria that I assisted that day, and I do not take credit for saving his life. Helping a bit, maybe? I’m no Chuck Hagemeister. We both arrived in An Khe for prompt treatment, and that’s all the really matters.
With my book classified as a work of fiction, I have taken a few liberties in the sequencing of some incidents, including their operations and movements for continuity, dramatic effect, clarity, transition, and people’s privacy. Nevertheless, My description of the episodes, in and about Vietnam, are from actual events as I remember them more than 50 years later. Every detail, time and place, type of weapon, or conveyance would not necessarily withstand archival scrutiny. (Not written by a lawyer).