"We gotta get out of this place
If it's the last thing we ever do
We gotta get out of this place
'Cause girl there's a better life for me and you."
-Eric Burdon, "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place"
In late July and early August, Mike Company pulled some pretty good duty. It was our turn to provide perimeter security for our regimental headquarters on Hill 55, which was located in the middle of an area dubbed "Dodge City" by those who came before us. The region was prone to sniper and booby-trap attacks, but not much in the area of enemy troop offensives.
Mostly we manned the wire, taking turns standing watch in the bunkers at night. There was a river that ran adjacent to the hill, near the gate, and it was kind of fun to sit in the watch tower and shoot at stuff in the river. Ostensibly, this was done to keep explosives from being floated down the river to blow up the bridge, but we made it a challenging sport. All in all, it was a relief from the daily patrols and nightly ambushes, now being conducted by Lima and Kilo Companies.
One of the regular missions we had to undertake involved providing security for a supply convoy that used the road that ran perpindicular to the dirt road that provided access to our base. This road was located about a thousand yards from our front gate. The routine for providing security was well established. A patrol of 8 to 10 grunts would meet up with an engineer and a tank near the gate and would proceed on the access road out to the area that required security. The engineer would use his equipment to "sweep" the road, looking for booby traps, and the tank would simply run over them to blow them up. If a particularly large explosive was detected, the engineer would mark the item and come back later to defuse it. During this activity, we grunts would form two files and walk on either side of the tank, watchful of the treelines on both sides of the road. There was about two hundred yards of open rice paddies on either side of the access road.
Here's the rub. If the tank and engineer failed to show up, we were ordered not to walk on the road as it would not have been cleared of any booby traps. This meant humping through the muck and water of the rice paddies, making a ball-buster out of what should have been a walk in the park. On August 3rd, I was part of the grunt contingent that made this convoy security run. At about 0730, it became clear that neither the tank, nor the engineer was going to meet up with us. We couldn't wait any longer as we had to get to our objective before the convoy arrived or it would be put at risk.
One of my good buddies, Tom K., had a particularly bad attitude about having to walk in the paddies. Our friendship was forged when we first met and found out both of us were from the Philadelphia, PA area. Tom's protests were loud and profane, and he insisted that he was going to walk on the road. Several of us tried to talk sense into him, but soon realized it was futile to continue our effort to persuade him to do the smart thing. His point was that there were NEVER any booby traps on the road and the risk was worth it if it meant not having to hump through the paddies. ( I don't think he was stoned that morning, although he was known to have developed a penchant for the local weed.)
I heard the explosion to my right. Not a particularly loud bang--more of a muffled thump, followed by a sharper retort. As I wheeled toward the sound, I saw black powder and a kind of red mist enveloping the spot where Tom had been. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a weird object flying through the air, but didn't have time to determine what it was. Several of us rushed to Tom as he writhed in pain on the dirt. It became apparent that his injuries were incredibly severe--including an amputated right leg, badly mangled left leg, and torn up right arm. (Turns out that the object that I saw was Tom's lower right leg, boot still on. He had stepped on a "Bouncing Betty", a particularly nasty little device that, once engaged, would project itself upward and explode at about thigh level). We used the thick bands around our helmets to tie off his extemeties as our squad leader called for a medevac chopper. Fortunately for Tom, we were close to the regiment's headquarters and Aid Station, so the chopper was there within minutes. I thought that would be the last I saw of him.
Fast forward to June, 1970. Out of the service for a couple of months, I was sitting in my mother's kitchen, drinking a cup of coffee and perusing the Philadelphia Inquirer, when I came upon the picture of a patient at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital, using a prosthesis to eat an ear of corn. It was Tom K. Coincidentally, our mutual friend Nat was visiting me from Florida, and he and I called the hospital to inquire about visiting. We were told that he was "ambulatory" and that we could not only visit him, but we could "sign him out" for a few days. When we saw him in the hospital, the extent of his wounds was nearly overwhelming. He lost both legs, his right arm and all of his male parts. We were instructed on how to assist with his catheter and wheeled him out of the hospital for his first bit of "liberty" in nearly a year.
We took Tom to New York City, at his request. It became clear that his horrible experience had taken more than a physical toll on him. Anyone passing by his wheelchair who dared glance at him was met with an obscene comment or gesture, and he spent most of the weekend zonked out on his painkilling drugs. (Think Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump). All of the frustration I felt about his responsibility for this condition was surpressed, even though I was quite angry when it happened--cursing at him as I tied off his stump.
Monday morning, we took him back to the hospital with a promise to stay in touch. I think it was too much for all of us, as the promise was never kept. I wish it was possible to provide a feel-good ending to the story, but there isn't one.