The Road to Disaster

by Richard Dieterle

JULY 4, 1967 — I spent the third of July on LZ English cleaning the weapons of the dead. However, on the completion of this unpleasant durty, I went to a nighttime, outdoor movie during the middle of which a fire mission erupted. The artillery shells came flying directly overhead on their way out to the boonies, sounding almost exactly like jet aircraft. It was rather eerie to hear them whoosh overhead. Then, from time to time, the movie would be punctuated by streaking green and red tracers from gunships and twin forties firing out across the weak points in the perimeter. We sat there in this strange environment on crates, and on the whole, it seemed to be a splendid performance all the way around.

B. Potvin, The Flying Circus Aviation Unit   Jerry Prater
The Outdoor Movie Theater on LZ English, 1967   LZ Geronimo on July 2, 1967

The next day, while I was writing a letter home, we got the call to saddle up and get ready to join our unit. Since there had been a firefight just the day before, the chopper pilots were not taking any chances. They took us on a roller coaster ride just feet above the surface of the rice paddies and trees. I thought any number of times that we would collide with a tree for sure, only to skim mere inches above the branches. Finally, an LZ came into view ahead of us. There was no vegetation on it, only a pale, pastel color that swung from yellow to pink. This was LZ Geronimo, built by A Co. 1/8, but at the time just a little short of completion. It was still early in the morning on a very sunny day when we landed at the helicopter pad. I reported to the CP, which I remember not as a bunker, but was a hooch of some kind, where the Captain had a desk. Lieutenant Pape was standing next to the CO. I marched up to the CO's desk and smartly saluted as I barked out, "Private Dieterle reporting for duty, sir!" He gave a cursory salute. We had some brief, mundane conversation about my hospital time, then Lt. Pape gave me a stern look. The mustache that I grew while at the hospital was not regulation for the field, so he said, "Shave that thing off. You can't kill gooks with a mustache!" Rather than explore with him the obscure connection between facial hair and deceased Orientals, I just said, "Yes sir!" and shaved it off at the first opportunity.

I made my way down to the perimeter and around it until I found my gun crew. My adventures with cellulitis seemed hardly worth telling since they had just had a firefight two days before, and the dead were fresh on their minds. Later that afternoon, one platoon held a memorial service. I remember watching it from higher ground, so that I looked down on the scene. There wasn't much left of that platoon, I think it was the Third Platoon. Empty boots were placed in front of their formation, and some words were said. Almost all these guys were paratroopers, since the entire First Brigade had originally been airborne. It was always their proud tradition to yell, "Airborne!" when any excuse offered itself. Now the officer in charge yelled, "Let's hear an 'Airborne!'!" The survivors muttered, "Airborne," in a way that is hard to capture in words. It was more like they were saying, in a cynical mood, "Bullshit." It was an odd context for an enthusiastic battle cry, and it did not receive the passion it normally got. Who could blame them? Most of their friends had perished in grim ways, and there was truly nothing to celebrate. As far as defiant high morale being cultivated, who cares? Eventually it is just as my father used to say: "Every time they send you out, it's just like they have a gun pointed at your head." Enthusiasm eventually gives way to a grim resolve. This is mere realism.

The thought that some units of the enemy force might still be in the area, seemed to offer the unpleasant prospect of yet another collision with its attendant carnage and agony. We were not too pleased with the plans for today's activity. We were going to go out with three tanks and two plows, and between them they were going to gouge out a wider road from LZ Geronimo to the sea. We would be trudging through this area just to make sure that no more enemy units were in the vicinity and, of course, to protect the plows. So we saddled up and began walking in a column of two behind the plows and tanks as they scraped out a broader road. The ground was practically sand, so the plows moved right along. We were progressing at our normal walking speed. I took plenty of salt, recalling the problem that I had had with salt deprivation some time prior. The time that I had spent in the hospital indulging myself was now to catch up to me. I had put on a little weight, and I had not exercised at all; nor had I spent time in the heat. Now I was carrying 200 rounds of machine gun ammo and another 200 of M-16 rounds, plus the weight of all the canteens of water and other paraphernalia, not the least of which was the steel pot that I wore on my head.

When we got going, around 10 am, it was beginning to get hot. It was always humid, but the heat seemed to predominate. The road was almost sand colored, tending only faintly towards orange. Ammo bearers tend to lean forward a bit anyway, so I saw mainly my boots and the road. The heat gradually built up until it was almost unbearable. The yellow road below my feet seem to radiate back the same oppressive heat that streamed down from the yellow sun. We came to a vista where in the distance there stretched a vast plain cut short by an ocean that overreached the horizon. It was beautiful to behold, but the incessant cooking of the sun was beginning to overwhelm all other thoughts and sensations. After what seemed an eternity, we finally reached the area near the sea, but I don't believe we actually went as far as the beach. At that point, we simply turned around and went back the way we came. I kept trudging on. I began to shuffle along. My trousers and shirt were soaked with sweat, just as if someone had turned a hose on me. This was true of everyone. Now I was beginning to feel like I might collapse in a heap; I was beginning to wish that something would happen so that we could stop walking. The near exhaustion was starting to overwhelm my conscious mind. I said to myself, "Jesus, if only something would happen so that we can stop, even if it were contact." Just then I looked up. The road ahead went up a gentle incline, then curved right and went down out of view. Just then as I was hoping that anything would stop the agony of heat and exhaustion, Bam! a V-shaped explosion fired off right at the top of the road, and blew off Davis' foot. He angled to the right as the explosion went off, and dropped without a sound. In an instant, almost a blink of an eye, every soldier on the road disappeared off the shoulder and squeezed behind any kind of embankment that he could find. The speed of this dispersal was amazing. We headed off the left side of the road, the same side where Davis had been hit with the presumed grenade. Soon someone scrambled down to where we were with the gun, and said that it was Davis and that his leg looked like hamburger. An officer called for flank, what in the old days was known as a "skirmish line." Three guys went out to the front of the left side of the road where we were laid out in a line. We still did not know whether someone had thrown a grenade, or whether Davis had tripped a booby trap. The presumption, I think, was that it was a booby trap, but because there had been a firefight just days prior, it was not a belief held with any conviction. Ahead of us, which is to say on the left flank which we were facing, there was a strip of scrub vegetation. The scrub nearest us was tall enough to obscure the view behind it, then there was lower scrub behind it. Sgt. Witcher and three men went through an opening in the taller scrub brush and into the knee-level brush behind it. As they went through, they got bunched up. They disappeared from view for a moment, then with a loud bang, there was another grenade explosion. One guy came tumbling back. This was Larry Nunn, but at that time he was a complete stranger to me. He was cut all over: he had cut marks on his face, up his arms, and on his legs, but fortunately they were all relatively superficial wounds. He came right up to the little mound behind which we were curled up. He dropped down in front of me and next to Yelland, who was on the machine gun. He blurted out breathlessly, "It's Sergeant Witcher." He went on to say that there was an explosion and Sgt. Witcher had been seriously fucked up along with two other guys near him. We still did not know whether it was a thrown grenade or a booby trap. Now I had thoroughly repented of hoping that "something would happen" so that I could lay down. Under the circumstances, this form of reclining was on the whole not particularly comfortable. We got to hear the obvious: "Somebody's got to get those guys out of there." "Maybe I should go," I said. I was scared to death, but I had a strong conviction that whether booby trap or sniper, the enemy had exhausted his resources. However, Yelland said, "No." And for good reason: I didn't know what I was doing, and I was probably not thinking straight. Better to have someone with more experience, someone who could spot the fishing line of a booby trap string. However, that per usual was not what happened. Instead, a young and green medic ventured forth rather like someone crossing a pond that was newly frozen over, each step a cautious march into increasing danger. In this tentative manner, the medic moved forward. Finally, he crossed over the scrub screen and announced that it was clear of booby traps. A few others soon followed in a less cautious way. The word came back that Sgt. Witcher was dead, and three others had been injured. In five minutes we had one man killed, one man with his foot blown off, and two men who were thoroughly peppered with shrapnel. This is where I had an epiphany: there are things worse than heat and exhaustion.

Once we were satisfied that we had been the victims of booby traps, we stood back up and milled about in position. The right side of the road faced a gradual hill that was moderately covered in coconut trees. Beneath the trees was a beautiful dark green grass, naturally short, and worthy of the best golf courses back in The World. Oddly enough, on that side of the road was a young, but somewhat dumpy looking, mama-san holding a child about one year of age. Suddenly, one of our guys rushed over to her with a grenade in his hand, and planted it firmly in her own hand, then turned with that odd masked smile of bad actors, and said, "See ... she's got a grenade!" He was inviting anyone and everyone to open up on this foolish woman and, in the lingo of the time, "waste her." She looked shocked and appalled, and fearfully said something in Vietnamese. I felt a pang of pity, and was prepared if necessary to at least speak up, but immediately someone in authority took the grenade out of her hand, and thrust it back to its owner. It was quickly agreed that nothing was going to happen to her. Someone yelled, Di di mau! and she did not have to be told twice before she made a swift exit. As a certified nobody, I don't think that I would have been able to stop murder, but fortunately, people seem to have had enough of death and dismemberment for the day. I think that the young woman learned that war is not a spectator sport. The real enemy, in any case, had clearly watched us as we had come through, and deduced that we would certainly return via the very road that we had just improved. Knowing our methods of operation, they had even set a trap for the flank that was sure to go out. It was a good day for them.

The Medevac chopper came in and evacuated our dead and wounded. To protect ourselves from further booby traps, we brought a tank up. It slowly ground its way up the incline, a lumbering leviathan, yet a kind of irresistible force. We would use it as a screen: if there were booby traps, the tank would trip them before any soldier could encounter them. So, with the tank in the lead, we trudged back along the road to LZ Geronimo. I have no further recollection of either heat or exhaustion, as my mind now traveled in a different groove. Despite all this, I was still a cherry, not a veteran. This was not combat, just booby traps.

For a map of this patrol, see "The Odyssey of A Co., July 3-4, 1967."