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by Rich Raitano, HHC 4/3 Medic
The Huey's turbine whined as it reached for peak power. The giant rotor blades accelerated smoothly above us, cutting into the hot air, sending a swirling, reddish dust cloud billowing in all directions. The chopper shook slightly with anticipation, and then at the pilots command, we rose gracefully and began our journey to LZ Sue. It was my first flight on a chopper and I was fascinated by the view through the opened hatch as we climbed into the sky. LZ Carentan slipped away below us and I watched with a disconnected calm as it grew smaller and finally disappeared. Carentan had been a village once, now abandoned it was our first combat staging area where all elements of the 11th LIB gathered before spreading out all over Quang Ngai Province . Carentan was where war and death introduced itself to us. I had just turned twenty-three and we had been in-country for two weeks with many more weeks ahead.
The convoy rolled into Carentan in the mid-afternoon of December 20th, 1967 , the day after we docked in Qui Nhon. LZ Carentan was a sandy encampment, fidgety with the restless enthusiasm of thousands of soldiers settling into a war zone. Large numbers of local villagers under conical straw hats and wearing silk pajamas were everywhere. It was a quizzical site, just as it was the day before in Qui Nhon, to see these people laboring within a military compound. There was much to learn. Jim and I left our gear in our FLA (Front Line Ambulance) and headed for the aid station, which was nothing more than a big, army green tent with most of our medical supplies stacked neatly to one side, waiting to be put in place. One by one the battalion medics arrived, and once we all were accounted for we discussed our next move.
It was decided that we should first erect the tent that would be our living quarters and let the organization of supplies wait until we were finished. Not having been tested by fire, we were having a good time laughing and joking while struggling with the construction of our new home. Our buoyant mood was more conducive to a weekend camping trip than a combat encampment. Deuce-and-a-halves filled with troops, and jeeps with officers continued to roll in throughout the day; sending billowing clouds of dust that covered our sweat drenched bodies with a fine red powder. We were having one hell of a good time.
Once the tent was up and our cots were in place, we headed for the aid station and began the task of organizing our supplies and establishing an operational medical facility. We worked the rest of the evening and well into the night, and once everything was in place we retreated to our new home, talked for a while, and exhausted, drifted off to sleep. The following two days, December 21st and 22nd , were spent filling sandbags and stacking them four feet high and two layers deep around the aid station and our quarters; blast walls to protect us from shrapnel and bullets. While we labored away, Santa flew in on a Huey dressed in jungle fatigues; white beard and red cap, and handed out candy filled mesh Christmas stockings to each of us. It was surreal at best and left us all with thoughts of home and family.
Two of our medics had been picked to join one of the line companies on a local patrol early on the 22nd while the rest of us busied ourselves around the area and making rounds around the perimeter. All was relatively quiet those first days, of course there was the constant buzz of Hueys and the distant thunder of artillery and muffled reports of a distant firefight could be heard now and then. So far the war hadn't introduced itself. In the evening of December 22nd, sometime after dinner, a few of us wandered off to an isolated rise that put us slightly above our bivouac area and offered a clear view of the countryside. I was easy to forget where we were. To our front, a large treeless hill rose in the near distance, and to the left, the rice paddies and open fields made a gentle incline towards a tree line, and beyond that, the mountains.
A joint appeared, was lit and passed around. A couple of Camel cigarettes were lit also and kept at the ready. We sat quietly, sucked in the harsh smoke and waited for the magical weed to entertain our brains. A sudden muted burst to our left turned our heads in unison. Beyond the open fields, maybe three klicks away, a steady stream of tracers caught our eye. Two choppers were circling over a clearing and hurtling their hot death to the ground. Bright flashes of light followed seconds later by the booming report of explosive ordinance were turned into merriment by the cannabis frolicking in our heads. We were watching the war, in awe and completely indifferent to the mayhem taking place. We heard someone approaching and quickly snuffed the weed and grabbed our Camels. PSGT Williams walked up, gazed back toward the clearing and turned again toward us. 'You boys should get back to your units ...' and with a knowing tone added ... 'Be careful'. That was all he said, turned and left.
Later in that early star filled morning of the twenty-third, the beast came to pay us a visit. Charlie decided to test our mettle and hit the perimeter hard. The sudden and ferocious rattle of gunfire and ground shaking explosions woke us abruptly from our sleep and thrust us into the reality of war. Someone, I think Grant, ran into the tent and called for medics. There were wounded on the perimeter and they needed FLA's ...STAT! I jumped up and grabbed my boots from under my cot, slipped them on and stuffed the laces inside. No time to lace and tie. The commotion in the dark tent sent us colliding into one another. I made it out and ran to my FLA, with Tyo right beside me headed for his FLA , and the two of us started our journey to the perimeter. The rest headed for the aid station. Tyo and I made our way slowly to the perimeter where the fighting was in full fury, red night driving lights softly illuminating the way. Stopped short of the wire by an anxious grunt, we grabbed our aid bags and went the rest of the way on foot.
My heart was pounding hard in my chest and in my ears. Flares drifted crazily in the deep black sky, casting dizzying shadows on the ill-defined landscape beyond the wire. The crackling chatter of gunfire and violent roar of mortars and M-79 rounds grew louder as we made our way forward. Red and green tracers streaked back and forth from all directions like so many hurried fireflies. The tumbling buzz of hot, angry projectiles passed overhead and beside us. A sudden quick clank resounded behind us when a round hit an FLA. Up to the wire and into the melee and confusion, we found our wounded. Tyo disappeared further down the perimeter and I picked up Godwin. Another grunt assisted me getting him into the FLA , and once he was on board, I raced to the pad and waited for Medevac.
Dressing his wound, I asked what had happened. Trembling, and with a stress filled voice he told his story. He had gone out on a night training ambush led by Sgt. Maddox and they stumbled into a VC unit making its way toward our perimeter. A firefight erupted and Maddox went down. Godwin played dead as the VC moved over them and fired AK rounds into their prone bodies. Godwin was struck in the foot and continued to play dead while Charlie crawled over him. Godwin's story was interrupted by the arrival of the Huey and I helped him onto the Dust-Off chopper and watched as it disappeared into the dark night. I made my way back to the perimeter and was told that all the casualties had been removed. The battle had subsided, but I was more than happy to head back to the aid station. The assault had been a probe to test the units' strength, abilities, and to identify weapon locations. It was an explosive event that had come and gone like a sudden summer thunderstorm. Perhaps the conflict we witnessed earlier had slowed this attack down.
I walked into the aid station, and in the dim light of lanterns, I saw several of our medics standing around a litter propped up on two saw-horses. A body lay on the litter. I was waved over and asked to join the group; our battalion doctor and company commander wanted us to see this dead man. His fatigue shirt had been opened exposing his chest and his pants had been removed. Edging closer, I saw that it was Maddox. He had been shot several times and was covered in blood. One round left a gaping wound to his left cheek and tore away a piece of flesh, two rounds into his torso, and one into his thigh allowed the deep red of his blood to seep from his lifeless body. We were silent as we looked at this fallen man killed in combat. The realization of where we were had suddenly made its presence known to us.
Sgt Maddox joined our brigade while we were still in Hawaii, three months before we shipped out. He had been in Vietnam with the 1st Cav and was sent home on emergency leave. There had been a fire and two of his children had perished in the flames. His wife and one other child had survived. It is my understanding that he didn't have to ship out with us, but he insisted on returning to finish his tour. And now he lay dead on a bloody litter, surrounded by army medics made to view his bullet ridden body. Sgt Maddox was the battalion's first KIA, just four days after arriving in-country and one day after his twenty-fifth birthday.
It was unpleasant and unnerving to see this dead soldier. Our hearts still pounding and our senses yet raw, we stared at this man lying in a pool of his own blood. No amount of training prepared any of us for this moment. We stood there in stunned silence for what seemed like a very long time. This was not a movie or a field exercise, the man before us was dead and he was not coming back. We were dismissed after half of us were picked to pull aid station duty while the rest of us went back to our tent. No one slept that night. A few days later five of us were chosen to relocate to LZ Sue.
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