Booby-traps, scorpion bites, heroism & more

Veterans recall their experiences - both good and bad - from their days in Vietnam

THIS STORY WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED OCTOBER 30, 2007

Recently, the Daily News asked its readers to submit their own stories of wartime. The contest was in conjunction with the Ken Burns film "The War," about World War II, which aired in Philadelphia on WHYY TV12.

We received several letters in that contest about Vietnam experiences. Here are a few of those personal accounts.

 

MY NAME is David D. Robinson. I'm one of 14 children, and my parents, Frank and Betty, have both passed away. I have three older brothers and we all served in Vietnam. I joined the Marine Corps on April 5, 1966, and we left for boot camp after I graduated from North Penn High School. I went right to 'Nam after ITR and was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, first platoon as a rifleman.

There are a lot of stories I could mention, but I want to tell you about my best friend in 'Nam. His name was Roy Mitchell Wheat from Moselle, Miss. We had a lot in common; we became best friends and celebrated our birthdays together. Mine was July 23, Roy's was the 24th. Roy was one of the bravest guys I knew and he was great in the bush.

On Aug. 11, 1967, after a night ambush, Lt. Peters asked if we would provide security for the SeaBees who were going to fix Liberty Road. I was squad leader by then, and Roy was my first fire-team leader. Although we were tired we provided security for the construction team working on the road. We moved to another area about a quarter mile from where they had finished up working, and the machine-gun team asked if they could ride to the next site. I said yes, but told them to wait on the road and I'd set them in position.

This is where the story gets confusing, but someone left the road and walked down a tree line. Someone tripped a 82 mortar booby-trap. Roy threw his body on the device to save the lives of the fire team and the machine-gun team.

Roy was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.

- David D. Robinson


 

Every war extracts the good and the bad from human nature: courage and cowardice; honor and disgrace; sacrifice and self-preservation.

And with rare exceptions, those called to do the fighting are regarded with the gratitude of those who are not. The citizenry are the benefactors of the sacrifice, and the warriors are due every heartfelt measure of reverence they receive.

Those of us who served in Vietnam had a different experience. To be sure, some exaggerated claims survive that war: I was never spit on, and no one ever called me "baby burner" to my face. But other vets did have those encounters, and it happened enough times to them to crystallize things for the rest of us. We knew where we stood at home: unpopular strangers coming back to a lions' den of either overt hostility or unspoken rebuke.

So we hid our pride of service, or else be accused of endorsing an unjust war and siding with corrupt men who lied to justify the slaughter of innocents. Patriotism was thought to be misguided, and not to be worn on the sleeve.

No matter one's opinion of the current war, it seems we've learned a lesson: Our sons and daughters should never be seen as the enemy. In recent years Vietnam vets have received some sincere expressions of overdue gratitude. But to this day, I can't help thinking that belated thankfulness doesn't seem enough for those who never came back.

- Larry E. Owens


 

It was around 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. on June 27, 1967. I was due to go on duty at 8 a.m. as a radio operator in the Tactical Operations Center. I saw the Recon Platoon getting ready to check for land mines on the main road from Fire Support Base Martha, which was about 35 miles northwest of Saigon, to Trang Bang and GoDauHa, which was about five to 10 miles away from Martha.

I had become friends with Lt. Gaiser and Sgt. Snyder. The lieutenant had just come back from R&R in Hawaii. It was about time for them to leave and for me to get ready to go on duty.

While I was on duty, the Recon Platoon would radio in every 15 minutes to give me a report on their progress. Around 10 a.m. or so, they called to let me know they had found a mine and were going to detonate it. A few minutes later, I got another call that the mine had been remote-control-operated and that it had exploded. They had 2 KIAs (killed in action) and 3 WIAs (wounded in action).

I asked if they needed a dust-off, which is a medical evacuation. They said no, that the 3 WIAs were minor so they would return with the two bodies and have the wounded treated at Martha.

I had a bad feeling about Lt. Gaiser. We weren't allowed to use names or ranks over the radio.

I finally got the word that Lt. Gaiser and Sgt. Snyder were the 2 KIAs. It is a bad feeling when two friends are killed, especially when you had just been speaking with them a few hours before.

- Jon W. Wright


 

My name is Dominic DeGrado, I served in Vietnam with Company B, 1st Battalion, 8th Calvary Regiment.

I remember one incident back in April or May 1969. We were picked up around 14:00 hours and taken to a point north of Ah Kne near Highway 19 to set up an ambush to stop supplies from coming in to the NVA [North Vietnamese Army].

Well, it was about 16:00 by the time the whole company was in place, and like a hundred other times we would dig in for the night only to move the whole company by foot to another location very quietly after dark. So around 22:00 hours myself and 14 other men left the company area for the night.

We went to a ravine that we had located earlier in the day, about three hundred yards east and about two hundred yards north of the main company area.

About 0:300 hours one of the cherries who was on guard at the time came over to me and said, "Hey, Sergeant, I see them out there." So we got everybody up. They all took their positions and waited about five to 10 minutes, but did not see or hear anything, so I told the private to keep his ears and eyes open.

About 20 minutes later, he said, "Sergeant, I see them again," and damn, he was right. We heard thwnp-thwnp-thwnp and saw the flash from the mortar tubes; they were shelling the company area.

But they did not know the company had moved after dark. They were shelling an empty area. We had one star scoop and two M-60 machine guns and 2,000 rounds of ammo for the guns. After we opened up on them with the 60s and M-79 grenade launchers and small-arms fire, they turned their firepower on us.

We did succeed to knock out the mortar tubes, and now they were coming after our position with small-arms fire and automatic weapons. The first attack we blew our first line of Claymores after they ran in to our trip flares and held them off. I called the company commander's radio man, told them "we are under heavy fire from a force of two platoons, running out of ammo."

I told C.O. [commanding officer] we were going to blow all Claymores on the next attack, and I was ordering 12 men to make their way back to the company area.

The second attack came. We let them have all we had. The 12 men took off; the other two men (who volunteered to stay) and myself were left out there.

By this time, the sun was just starting to come up. After making my last transmission to the C.O. and the few rounds we had left, we destroyed the radio. We were out of ammo and surrounded by about 16 NVA.

Myself and the other two men were taken POW to a camp with our hands tied behind our backs and blindfolded. We were placed in a bamboo hooch.

But a girl was there who had sold us soda from her scooter sometime before. She remembered one of the men, and lo and behold after two days being asked a lot of questions, on the second night she let us out - and to never see her again.

If it was not for that girl, we may have never made it out of Vietnam.

That night, after the girl let us out, we started making our way back south. We finally found Highway 19 and kept walking south until we saw American troops.

We were taken to their C.O. and told him what happened two days ago. They gave us some C-rations and we were taken back to Ah Kne. When we did make it back to our company, we then knew the other twelve men from my squad had made it OK.

I gave my report to the C.O. He told me the morning we were taken, the company did go out to the ravine. The destroyed radio and two M60 were still there.

This will be something that will stay with me for the rest of my life, and to all POWs and MIAs, now I know what it is like to be in captivity, even for only two days.

About 36 years has past, since the incident and it will always stay with me.

- Dominic DeGrado


 

On Jan. 21, 2006, I had a conversation with my 8-year-old grandson, Gary. As a result I wrote him a letter in answer to his question about how I got stung by a scorpion during my tour of duty as a young solider in Vietnam.

After the letter I kept writing, and eight months later I began the process of self-publishing a book, a short story with the title, "The Scorpion and the Four Day Patrol." What follows is an excerpt from "The Scorpion":

"I sat with my back against a tree. I noticed these small mountains of dirt. They looked about eight feet tall, some taller. The base was as wide as they appeared tall. The dirt looked like mud turned inside out and clumped up to dry in the sun.

"They had a flattened top with a large hole that was slightly off center, surrounded by loose granulated soil falling down the sides. Nothing was growing on these mounds of earth.

"I looked closer, I saw bugs running in and out of holes scattered around the mounds. The holes were uniform in size and shape. The bugs were big and grayish red in color. I had never seen anything like them. They were all around me, 15, 20 maybe 30 mountains as far as my eye could see.

"They were termite hills. We were camping in a termite city. This is where I would have to spend the night!

"Then it happened. It was almost dark. I was lying down with my poncho rolled up as a pillow. He came out of nowhere. I never saw him. I felt him hit my arm. The pain was intense as though a huge needle pierced my skin. My arm began to itch and swell. I saw two or three of them running across the ground.

"Scorpions! I began to curse! The scorpions were probably eating the termites for dinner and one decided I would be his big dessert.

"My M-16 was useless against a bug. I sat up, nervous and afraid, pulled my pants legs down and tucked them tight into my boots. I unrolled my poncho, pulled it over me and pulled up the hood and tied it tight. Sitting there with my back against the tree, I must have been a sight to behold. It wasn't raining and here I am on a hot sweltering night sitting with my poncho on and it's tied real tight. My weapon lay across my lap, and there I sat! I guess I had been in country about 5 to 6 months when I met my little scorpion friend."

- Gary Pizzuto