From the Key Peninsula News Interview
I was in the National Guard in ‘65 when I was still in high school. My parents signed for me. It was a little town called Winter in South Dakota. I graduated in ‘66. In December, I came out here to Fort Lewis to do basic training. I’m 18 years old, my parents didn’t have a lot of money, and I wanted to go to college, so I thought, “Hey, I’ll get the G.I. Bill.” So the Guard allowed me to enlist on May 1 in ‘67 and on July 23 I landed in Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam.
I started in the 173rd Airborne in the Central Highlands. I only had basic training on an M-14 and by the stroke of a pen now I become an infantryman and they give me an M-16. I’d never fired one. Five days later, I’m in the bush walking point. The only thing that saved me was, back in South Dakota, I’d been hunting since I was 14 years old so I knew how to move.
By November of ‘68, I’d worked my way up. I’d volunteered for an LRP company, a six-man team on long-range patrol. I made sergeant the first year I was there. The second year, I became a bullet magnet.
It was a real hot area, up in a big LZ (helicopter landing zone), which we didn’t like because by that time of the war we knew they were being watched. But we were trying to get into this area where nobody’d been for a year.
So we get a clean insertion—a heavy team, with 12 guys—all the ships leave, and we move about 200 yards and right into the middle of an abandoned base camp. That raised the hair on the back of my neck, because that told me there was some serious activity going on. We set up an ambush on a trail and within an hour this armed guy comes down the trail like he owns it and we hit him, search him, strip him and leave him.
This is about getting inside the enemy’s head. The standard operating procedure was to make contact, then call the lift ships and get dropped in a new LZ because we’re compromised. I asked to be picked up and dropped into the secondary LZ, to put some space between us and the body. For whatever reason, they come back with “CM.” Continue mission.
This was particularly hairy because we’re out 60 miles. We had no artillery support. It was already late in the afternoon, so we moved back in a different direction and found a really good place to set up. It had a huge tree that had fallen over and we set up behind that, in an arc. That night, we could hear an ox cart up on the trail, so we knew they had picked up the body. This is not good, because they know that we’re somewhere in the area. After that, we heard one little bump, like a canteen striking something metallic, but that was it.
Normally, you would move after sunrise, but I told the team, “We’re not moving today, we’re sitting it out.” So it became a waiting game. About eight o’clock, the enemy got bored and sent two guys in.
I hear ‘em coming and I don’t want to move because I’m afraid they’ll see me. My assistant team leader, Sgt. Boldt, is sleeping down in the rootball hole, holding his rifle across his chest. I see him open his eyes. He rolls over and just starts shooting, and all hell broke loose.
During the night, they had moved in heavy machine guns and two RPG (rocket propelled grenade) launchers on a hill south of us, and they had actually dug in 30 or 35 fighting positions around us and we never heard a sound, which tells me they were NVA (North Vietnamese Army) not VC (Viet Cong guerillas). They were very well disciplined, excellent jungle fighters.
We got seven or eight RPG rounds so fast, I thought they had crawled in and were throwing hand grenades. There’s so much going on in a firefight, you can’t really tell. That first round got me, Boldt and one other guy, and then we had successive rounds and one of them hit a tree or something and we got an air burst, and that’s what got the other four guys. Seven out of the 12 of us were wounded.
My machine-gunner got hit really bad. It blew up right over him. I could see he wasn’t firing his gun, and I crawled over there. It looked like pizza on his back. I took the gun and crawled back, and then it was just basically a shootout for 30 minutes.
They started to break contact when the gunships showed up, but they left a squad behind to make sure we didn’t follow them. Every time Boldt fired his grenade launcher, they had a sniper that would take a shot at him.
I told Boldt, “Fire in their direction and as soon as that guy fires at you, I’ll get him.” So I hammered him with the M-60: 20, 30 rounds. He never fired after that. He either got hit or he got smart.
I had shrapnel in the shoulder and the chest. They left some in after surgery. I was there till July of ’69.
I was really close to re-enlisting, to go to Special Forces, but I already had two Purple Hearts. So, I thought, maybe I should just call it good and leave while I’m still alive. I was almost 21.