The Death of Gerrit John “Doc” Schouwburg

JUNE 23, 1967Gerrit John Schouwburg was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan on January 28, 1945 and, at some point after graduating from high school, enlisted in the U. S. Army as a medical specialist.  After serving a stint with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Schouwburg received his orders to serve a tour of duty in Vietnam.  He arrived in country on September 23, 1966 and was assigned as the field medic to the 1st Platoon of “A” Company, 1/8 Cav, 1st Cavalry Division.

Lt. Pape  
Wall of Faces  

Edward House, Larry Nunn, Don Schmidt and I were all assigned to the same unit, and we arrived at the platoon location on May 30, 1967.  Approximately ten days to two weeks later, the platoon was on one of our, what seemed to be, daily search and destroy missions.  We had been traversing though some heavy foliage, but luckily the ground was relatively flat, we weren’t having to climb up and down the tall hills that were prevalent in our area of operation.  Then we came to an open area that seemed to be a very lightly traveled dirt road.  The open area was approximately ten meters wide and was covered with grass that was less than one foot tall.  In the middle of the opening were two bare ruts that seemed to have been created by carts traveling over the location on an infrequent basis.  The area on both sides of the opening was covered with heavy foliage and Lt. Pape, our Platoon Leader, had one guy walking flank on both sides of the clearing.  I remember Robert Cerny walking flank on the left side of the formation because I could hear him grunting as he was using his machete to clear a path for him to walk.

My squad was walking point and, since I was still new and relatively inexperienced, I was at the back of the squad.  I was walking on the open area that seemed to be a road and my mind was wandering back to the TV series Combat! because it was one of my favorite shows before I was drafted.  Then, all of a sudden, my daydreaming came to an abrupt halt when someone came up from behind me, grabbed me by the shoulder, turned me around, and handed me a hand grenade!  It was “Doc” Schouwburg, and he told me to be more careful with the grenades because he was “short,” he had less than 60 days left in the field, and he didn’t want to be killed by someone who was careless with his grenades.  I took the grenade from “Doc” and noticed that the body of the grenade had unscrewed and fallen on the ground, and the lug, clip, lever, powder train, and detonator were still attached to the ammo pouch on my harness.  I was very surprised that the body of the grenade could get separated, and I was very concerned that the grenade would explode while it was still attached to the ammo pouch.  I thought back a couple of weeks to the time when I was at LZ English checking out my grenades, and I remembered that at least two of my four grenades were not new ones just out of the box.  Instead, they had been previously assigned to another soldier who had been killed, medevaced to a hospital, or returned home at the end of his tour of duty.  The cumulative effect of all the times the recycled grenade had been bumped, hit, snagged, dragged and made contact with the ground, trees, foliage, and other objects had caused the body to become slightly loosened from the other section.  I screwed the two parts together very tightly to make certain that they would not come loose again.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get it tight enough because it unscrewed again less than a week later, and this time Lt. Pape picked it up and, after a few choice words, handed it to me. 

A few days after the second incident we were on another search and destroy mission and we had stopped to take a break.  As we were cooling down from the heat and humidity, we heard movement in the bushes to our left.  I took advantage of that opportunity and threw the bad grenade in the area of the movement. After it exploded, I didn’t know if I had killed or wounded an enemy soldier or some animal, or if I broke some branches off a tree, or if I just made a small hole in the ground.  All I knew was that I was very relieved to get rid of the grenade that had unscrewed and fallen to the ground twice within a week.

Doc Schouwburg   Terry Johnson
Wall of Faces   Lt. Jerome Church

Our platoon was on yet another search and destroy mission on June 23, and we set up for the evening at coordinates BS912210.  We didn’t dig our holes very deep because we were scheduled for a cordon and search mission, so we would be moving from this location in less than six hours.  We saddled up and started moving out at 0310 hrs. toward the village we would surround.  We arrived at the designated location (Tấn Lộc) in Quảng Ngãi Province, coordinates 919195, at 0420 hrs., linked up with “C” Company, and began setting up a perimeter around the village.  We set up our two man posts all around the village, and kept the distance between each position close enough so no one could enter or leave the village.  I was paired up with Terry Johnson and we would alternate pulling guard duty and sleeping until first light.  We would then wait for the South Vietnamese National Police to arrive and sweep through the village as they searched for VC and NVA soldiers, as well as caches of ammo and/or food to be used by enemy soldiers.  It took 30 minutes to complete setting up the perimeter, and since first light would be in less than two hours, we decided to pull one hour guard shift each, and I would pull the second shift.  I laid down at 0455 hrs. and went to sleep, knowing that I would have to get up in less than an hour to pull my guard duty.

I was awaken from my sleep at 0530 hrs. with the sound of an explosion, then I heard the sound of several rounds being fired by small arms.  I grabbed my M-16 and asked Johnson if he knew what had just happened.  He told me that he had no idea, but he did see the flash from the explosion of what seemed to be a grenade, and he saw the muzzle flashes produced when the small arms were fired.  He also told me that he was afraid someone in our platoon had been hit because all the flashes were in a close proximity to our location.  A few minutes later, Sergeant Sam Witcher, our squad leader, called for Johnson and I to move and join him at his location.  We crawled about ten meters until we arrived at his position, which was in a dug out area similar to a wide foxhole that was about three feet deep.  Witcher told us that some of the positions were being consolidated because we didn’t know if VC or NVA soldiers were in the village and, if so, how many we had surrounded. 

Since we did not know what to expect, all six of us in the shallow foxhole were on 100% alert, we all were awake and alert and scanning the area around us looking for any movement and listening for any sounds.  At 0545 hrs. we heard the sound of a chopper coming to our area, and we realized it was a medevac to pick up any dead and wounded soldiers.  Less than half an hour after the medevac left the area, an ARA gunship began circling the area to search for enemy activity, and to provide additional protection for us.  Since we had not seen or heard any signs of any enemy activity, Witcher told me to stand guard while the rest of the guys in the foxhole went to sleep.  He also told me to keep my head down because some enemy activity was still a possibility.

At first light we began moving around and asking questions about what had happened.  We learned that a VC had gotten caught in the cordon and tried to escape.  He threw a grenade and fired a .45 caliber pistol at one of the positions in his attempt to break out of the village.  He had killed Doc Schouwburg and wounded two other soldiers before he was killed.  After learning about his death, I thought back on the incident several days prior when Doc Schouwburg had picked up the body of my grenade, handed it back to me, and admonished me to be more careful because he was “short” and wanted to go back to “The World” alive and with all his body parts intact.  His death really hit me hard because he was the first soldier to be killed after I had joined the platoon, and because he was so close to completing his tour.  As we were leaving the village to go on another search and destroy mission, we walked by the body of the VC who had killed Doc.  Some dirt had been thrown over most of his body, but I could still see his black pajamas, and the lower part of his legs were exposed.  I took out some of my frustration by stepping on the left ankle of the VC, both to make certain he was dead and to take some semblance of revenge on behalf of all the family and friends of Gerrit John “Doc” Schouwburg.

An aerial photo of Tấn Lộc, 1967.  The approximate site of the incident is in the center just past the bottom edge of the photo.
Tom Ebrite in Panoramio

LZ English — see the map, Bồng Sơn, An Lâo, and Tam Quan.

A map showing where this incident took place is found in the Odyssey series for June 19 - 25, 1967.