Barbara lived in present day Turkey and died in the year 267, over a thousand years before the first recorded use of a cannon. The legend of her death is a story of blood, thunder and lightening – good credentials for a patron saint of field artillery.
Barbara was the daughter of a rich heathen named Dioscorus. She rejected the offer of marriage he had so carefully arranged. Bitterly angry with her, Dioscorus ordered a tower built in which she was to be confined during his absence on a long journey in order to shield her from unwanted suitors. He directed the tower to have two windows from which his disobedient daughter might at least gaze upon the countryside.
As the tower was being built Barbara arranged for three windows to be put in, as a symbol of the Holy Trinity, instead of the two her father had commanded. When Dioscorus returned and saw the three windows, Barbara confessed to her father that she had become a Christian. Upon hearing this he dragged her before the prefect of the province, Martinianus. For refusing to worship the pagan gods, the prefect had her cruelly tortured and finally condemned her to death by beheading. Her father himself carried out the death-sentence. In punishment for this act Dioscorus was struck by lightning on his journey home and his body consumed in fire.
St. Barbara soon became the protector against lightning strikes, storms and all forms of sudden destruction. Only a hundred years after St. Barbara’s beheading, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, fueling widespread devotion to her. The first cannons, invented by a German monk named Berthold the Black in 1320, were primitive affairs and routinely exploded on their crews. Cannoneers quickly turned to St. Barbara for protection. Devotion to her spread to armies across the western world: Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Germany and England. On Italian warships it was customary to inscribe santabarbara – one word in lower case – above the entrance to powder magazines. Her feast day is December 4.
St. Barbara is often depicted holding bolts of lightning, as on the emblem of the Army’s Field Artillery School at Ft. Sill. Her arm, dressed in artillery red, holds aloft the lightening bolts that struck down her executioner.
The Orders of St. Barbara
The Honorable Order of St. Barbara is awarded to artillerymen who have made outstanding contributions to the Field Artillery. A more select award, The Ancient Order, goes to an elite few whose careers have embodied the sacrifice and commitment epitomized by St. Barbara, although it is seldom a requirement to have one’s head lopped off by a near relative.
The award medal pictures St. Barbara holding the palm of the martyr, in her case a virgin martyr, with her three-windowed tower in the background. The cannon side of the medal is worn toward the heart.
Not every boy of Battery B is an official member of the Order of St. Barbara, and not every boy in Vietnam was protected from death or injury. Why then is St. Barbara important? Because like all patron saints her life is meant to inspire. She became a Christian at a time when this strange sect was young, when refusal to honor the ancient gods was a crime against the sovereign and usually punished by death. Professing to be a Christian in the third century was akin in our time to answering the call of INCOMING, to leaving the safety of a sandbag hooch when the mortars were still falling, and to braving land mines on the road to Phan Thiet.
Every boy of Battery B is a son of St. Barbara. In Vietnam he rarely joined his hands in prayer or sank to the sand on his knees, but when the black blanket of night descended he said in his heart – and felt in his gut – this prayer to St. Barbara.
Do not let lightning hit me, thunder frighten me, or the roar of canons jolt my bravery. Stay always by my side so that I may confront all the storms and battles of my life with my head held high and with a serene countenance. May I do my duty, be grateful to you, my protector, and render thanks to God, the Creator of heaven and earth who has the power to dominate the fury of the storm and to mitigate the cruelty of war. Saint Barbara, pray for us. Amen.
Columbus Press is doing a GoodReads giveaway for Seven in a Jeep by Ed Gaydos.
This is a chance to win a free autographed copy of Seven in a Jeep. This book is a memoir of Ed Gaydos’s time in Vietnam. The giveaway started today, Monday April 28th, and will end at midnight on Friday, May 2nd.
Ed Gaydos was not a hero. Shipped off to Vietnam in 1970, he did not capture a single enemy soldier. or single-handedly dismantle the Ho Chi Minh trail. He sat on a remote patch of sand behind barbed wire with a bunch of teenagers, dodging incoming mortars, battling insects, and holding back an avalanche of paperwork.
This hilarious intelligent memoir of the regular soldiers of the Vietnam War will leave readers of all types hungry for the next story. With an unflinching eye for detail that spares no one, even himself, Ed Gaydos reveals his personal struggles to make sense of the war. He somehow manages to exit laughing in Seven in a Jeep.
A little bit of humor now. When I took over the battalion a guy by the name of Farrell was the first sergeant. Captain Ridgeway was the battery commander, a darn good one. The executive officer was a sharp kid from Boston and had a New England accent big time. (1st. Lieutenant Chuck Monahan)
A typhoon with heavy rain came through one night and hit right there at Phan Thiet. LZ Sherry had a little bit of elevation to it, not much, but some. The lower surrounding territory got flooded, and a whole bunch of cobras came from the wet area into the battery.
The XO was in his hooch in his bunk and he felt something hitting him on the rear end, a bump-bump-bump kind of thing. He got out his flashlight and looked at the wall, which was made out of ammo boxes, and he saw this snake’s tail between the ammo boxes. So this kid reaches in there, grabs the snake, pulls it out and it was a cobra. Shocked into action he pulls out his 45 pistol and starts shooting. His hooch mate Sgt. Farrell came in and calmed things down, but Farrell was really afraid of snakes. He just had to look at them and he’d get sick on his stomach.
Six or seven cobras were killed in the firing battery area. None of the snakes were real big. It looked like a whole family that was just born to a mother cobra; her nest got flooded and they all came up into the battery area. That was the excitement for the night.
The next day after the typhoon I went out with a supply of anti venom serum.
It might be a myth, but this is what 1st Sergeant Farrell told me. There were two guys smoking marijuana on guard duty.
Guard duty was always serious business, more so during this period of heavy enemy activity.
The rest of the guys in the battery picked up on it. They got the pot smokers and took them outside the wire and told them they were leaving them there overnight – in VC infected territory. What they did not tell them was the guard tower guys watched them on the starlight scope, so they had protection. Supposedly they never had any more problems with people smoking marijuana on guard.
I do not remember having any big problems with drugs throughout any of the units in the 5/27 or the units that were attached to us. Of course the battalion commander was the last to know.
John Crosby continued an important protocol begun by John Munnelly in the early days of the battalion.
I was very proud that I had a standing order for every one of the batteries that when they went on an operation, air mobile or whatever, they did not go to bed at night unless they had three strands of concertina wire around their perimeter and they had adequate overhead cover for every soldier in the battery, a place to sleep at night with overhead cover. And we had lots of people on the move. During the time I was battalion commander, about seven months, our batteries executed 256 airmobile operations. It took a lot of supervision and a lot of work on the part of battery commanders and officers and NCOs to make sure it was done. We had good discipline in protecting ourselves at night, and I am very proud of that.
I could never get around and spend enough time with the batteries that I wanted to. Where possible I tried to spend the night, but I don’t believe I ever spent the night at B battery. I still think I never did enough for those soldiers. Regardless of how many hours I had in the air, and how many times I visited them, I never thought I did enough. And we had great soldiers. All the great things that our soldiers did over there all went down the drain because of politics.
The Best Officers
My firs job out of Vietnam was in Washington, where I was put in charge of assignments of field artillery colonels. It was called the Colonels Division of the Office of Personnel Operations. I was still a lieutenant colonel, and it was a very educational assignment. I got to see how many really great guys were in the Army. I met and talked to a lot of the upcoming people in the field artillery, one of which was Jack Vessey, who later became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (the top job in the military). He had also been my gunnery instructor at Ft. Sill. He was the best instructor I ever had in the Army or in civilian life, including college. He was a wonderful person with people. He began as an enlisted man in the Minnesota National Guard, and went to war in WWII. He fought at Anzio and coming out of that operation earned a battlefield commission. He went on to fight in Korea and Vietnam.
The officers who started out as enlisted men and then earned a commission were better officers in my view. They knew what being an enlisted soldier was all about, and they just hit the ground running as an officer and knew what was going on.
Ft. Sill Commanding General
The majority of those who served with B Battery – officers, NCOs and enlisted – were trained at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, an enormous field artillery and air defense post. In 1982 Major General John Crosby, one of our own, became its commanding general. I asked him how his experience commanding the 5th Battalion influenced his approach to the job.
First of all I had a greater appreciation for the importance of training in the Army, and especially what Ft. Sill did for both enlisted soldiers and officers. My experience in Vietnam was key to thinking about how to train people. I tried to emphasize the basics of field artillery, which were safety, accuracy and efficiency, and overall being sure that you gave support to the infantry. That was our whole reason for being, to support the infantry and the armor. The important thing was to make sure all the lieutenants and advanced course captains and NCOs knew that our job was to support the infantry and the armor. I commanded the post for almost three years and left in 1985.
That year Ft. Sill was named the best post in the Army, recipient of the first Commander-in-Chief’s Award for Installation Excellence. From there John Crosby received a third star and command over all Army training (TRADOC). Today Training and Doctrine Command oversees 32 Army schools.
Field Artillery School Insignia
The arm clad in red rising from the turret and grasping thunderbolts belongs to Saint Barbara, patron saint of the Field Artillery. Next week is Saint Barbara’s story.
John Crosby was a spanking new lieutenant colonel when he took command of the 5th Battalion in May 1968. However he did not come unprepared. He had graduated at the top of his class from two artillery programs at Fort Sill, and in Germany had served for three years as the fire direction officer for a direct support artillery battalion with the 4th Armored Division. In the course of his many assignments after Vietnam he was commanding general at Fort Sill, where almost all the boys of Battery B were trained, and after 35 years in the Army retired a three-star general.
I was destined to be in the military from the get-go I guess. My grandfather was in the military for 45 years. He fought down in Mexico with Gen. Pershing, and he fought in World War I, World War II, and in Korea. My father was an NCO at the beginning of World War II and then converted to a warrant officer. He was in the Army for a total of 34 years. Both of them are buried at the National Cemetery at Jefferson Barracks.
Like many officers of his generation, getting to Vietnam was not easy.
I went to Vietnam in May 1968, my first and only tour. I wanted to go earlier, but the Army had sent me to the University of Southern California in what the Army called Guided Missiles, it really was mechanical engineering. I was a classmate with Norm Schwarzkopf; as a matter of fact he and I carpooled during that time. My assignment after graduate school was what they called a ”utilization tour,” meaning I had to use the education on my next assignment. I went to West Point and I taught mathematics for three years. During that time I tried to volunteer for Vietnam, but the army said no, you have to stay and finish your tour at West Point. Then I volunteered again for Vietnam and they said no again, you’re going to the Air Command and Staff College. I graduated from there in 1968, and finally got shipped to Vietnam and took command of the 5th Battalion headquartered at Phan Rang.
I was prepared to take over an artillery battalion because I had finished first in my two training courses at Ft. Sill, and had been a fire direction officer for three years for a direct support artillery battalion. That was with the 4th Armored Division in Germany.
The 5th Battalion was the largest battalion in VN, spread over four provinces. It had eight artillery firing batteries, three organic to the battalion and the others attached from other artillery and infantry units. And there were a lot of other attached units, such as radar, search light, and helicopters – in all about 1500 people. Then there were assorted other units like the tanks, the Quad-50s and the Dusters that were not attached but we took care of them anyway. We fed them and supplied them and all that sort of thing.
One of my biggest challenges was trying to see all of my battery commanders to know how things were going. And sometimes I felt like I was not doing enough. I wasn’t getting close enough to them to really find out what their thoughts were, because you had to be there in person. In my mind every unit and every battery no matter what its size was important. So my S4 staff officer went around to all the operations. And my communications officer was also in contact with all of them. At one time I believe we had 48 forward observers. Some of them I never saw, because they were in place when I got there and they stayed in the field with their units.
Today he talks about the soldiers he commanded in Vietnam with a special affection.
An Enduring Regret
One thing I was really was remiss about as a commander, and this is a confession, OK?
I deeply regret that I did not take my S1 Personnel Officer, send him around to the different batteries, and get those guys that did really good work, and put them in for a Bronze Star or something to recognize the good work that they did, battery commanders and soldiers alike. I just kick myself every time I think about that. I just didn’t think about it over there, for whatever reason. It was back in the states when I got to thinking about it. My first job out of Vietnam was in Washington in charge of assignments for artillery colonels. I saw these guys getting medals for doing nothing. That made me think about the soldiers that I had in the trenches out there every single day, isolated and facing danger every day – and I didn’t take care of them. In my view I did not take care of them.
People like you and soldiers just like you were isolated in those firebases and felt like they were exactly that, isolated. They did not know when they were going to get an attack, or what was going to happen, or if anybody gave a crap about what they thought. That was part of my job, to recognize the people that did the hard work and I really regret that.
January 12 Ground Attack
When I got to Vietnam in July of 1968 B Battery was at LZ Sherry outside Phan Thiet. Of all the batteries, as far as I was concerned, B Battery had about as much activity down there near Phan Thiet as any. Phan Thiet and the surrounding area was very heavily controlled by the Viet Cong. B Battery certainly did a lot of firing, and had a lot of attacks on the battery, to include the road to Phan Thiet that the Viet Cong mined on a regular basis.
One night a VC sapper unit tried to get into the battery area. There was a tank platoon that loggered in with B Battery every night, and they picked up the attack by a starlight scope. The tanks at that time had a 90 mm cannon and they had a beehive round. One of the tanks was in position and fired a beehive round and wiped out the whole sapper unit except one guy, and he was taken prisoner. I think it was 14 KIA.
I got the report the night of the attack and I went down early the next morning. The Task Force South commander also came down that morning. I took pictures of all the dead VC, their rockets, their AK 47’s and other ordnance. We knew that we wiped out the entire sapper unit because the leader had a roster of all the sappers in his loincloth, and so we were able to count the people in his sapper unit and the KIAs and the one guy that was captured. We got ‘em all. We counted them off and every single one of them was laying out in front of us.
This attack is stamped deeply in the memories everyone who was there, especially those who walked among the bodies and pulled them from the wire. Personal accounts vary in detail – Rik Groves for example noted in his journal that 18 were killed – but all agree on the major facts: the attack began on the southern perimeter, the tank crewmen were heroes for saving the battery from being overrun, and they got all of the sappers.
To the Vietnam vet there is no such thing as a little thing. The powder blue wraparound from Aunt Beverly hanging blood soaked in the shower is not a little thing in Rik’s memory. That image carries the entire weight of the early morning hours of August 12, 1969 when wounded himself he held the dying Stanley in his arms.
Neither is a mustache a little thing.
When I got wounded I had 32 days left in Vietnam. Now I’m really a short timer, full of sass such as, “I’m so short I can’t see over the curb.” The doctor comes to me after about ten days or so in the hospital at Cam Ranh and says, “Sergeant Groves, I see you’re to ETS (get out of the Army) when you leave Vietnam.”
“You know, normally when we have guys that are that close to getting out of the service we automatically Medevac them to Camp Zama in Japan.”
I say, “Sounds great.”
“You need to understand if you go there and you are about to leave the service, they will make sure everything is looked at. They’ll do your dental and all that stuff. So you could end up spending a little more time in the Army.”
By now I’m down to maybe 20 days. I say, “Then I don’t want to go to Camp Zama.”
“OK. When you’re done here you’re probably going over to 6th CC. That’s a convalescent center here in Cam Ranh. Then you’ll go back to your unit, but I don’t want you going out in the field anymore. You’re not healed enough.”
So that was on my orders, not to go back out to the field. But I want to pop out to Sherry for a few hours to say good bye to everybody, and that’s when I have the run-in about the mustache.
For ten months I had a mustache. It’s what guys did who went to Vietnam, they grew mustaches. It had been that way since WWII. You grow mustaches. So we grew them, and I had mine for nine or ten months. But they couldn’t control the people back in Phan Rang, the mustaches got too raggedy. So they made the rule that if you don’t have a mustache on your ID card you can’t have a mustache, knowing full well that the vast majority of guys in the battalion are going to have ID cards from their doggone basic training picture, when they had no hair on their head let alone facial hair. So that eliminated 99% of everybody, if not everybody. So we all had to shave them off.
I am in the hospital 16 days, and during that time I grow my mustache back, with the idea that I’d get a new ID back in Phan Rang. And I did get a new ID. I’ll be damned if I was going home from Vietnam after all that time and not have a mustache.
Now I’m down to 12 days left in Vietnam and trying to catch a ride out to Sherry to say good bye. I cannot get a chopper until 4:00 in the afternoon, which I am not happy about because I know in my heart I’m gonna get stuck there overnight. And you don’t think I’m a little jumpy? Holy shit, I don’t know how people function very well after getting wounded and having to go back into the field. Tommy Mulvihill was hit five times and he kept going back. I don’t know how he did it.
I get off the chopper at Sherry and Captain Marquette is there. That day I write in my journal:
Captain Marquette was really nice. First thing he said on seeing my mustache was, “You grew it back didn’t you, you rascal?” I replied, “Yes sir, and I’ve got a new ID card too.” We both had a good laugh. September 2, 1969
I do have to spend the night at Sherry, I don’t even remember where I slept that night. Of course nothing happens. It is at the 1:00 formation the next day that the trouble begins. The first sergeant and the XO tell everyone to take out their ID cards, they are checking for mustaches. If you had a mustache and it was not on your ID, they were going to make you dry-shave it off in front of the formation. First of all it hurt like hell, and it was humiliating.
I am at the front of the formation, without a section of course, so they come to me first. They say they cannot see the mustache on my ID. It is real light, because the quality of the picture is crap, but it is there. Still they claim they can’t see it and I have to shave it off, and I refuse. After the formation they haul me off to their hooch and say some things to me that really hurt. I was a sensitive kid . . . too sensitive.
Finally they say let’s go see the battery commander. I say that would be great. I go up to the BC’s hooch, first on my own. I sit down facing him and tell him what had happened. He had not seen the ID before, because on the chopper pad the day before I had just told him about it. He looks at the ID – I remember this so well – he looks up at me, looks down at the ID, up at me again and says, “You know it is kind of hard to see, Sergeant.”
I say, “Yes sir, but it’s there.”
He says, “Yeah, it’s there.”
And just then the XO sticks his head in, starts to rail on me, and Marquette tells him to beat it. That’s when I break down in tears. “I can’t believe they’re doing this over such a stupid thing. I just came back to say good bye to friends I’m never gonna see again, I been through so much, just got wounded, Stanley died in my arms, and they’re doing this crap over friggin’ mustaches?” I was broken hearted is what I was. I remember it so well like it was yesterday. I couldn’t believe it was happening.
I felt that pain and anger for 38 years. But today that XO, Hank Parker, is a great and forever friend. We were all so young then, including the officers. Hank and I laugh about it now. I have the last word, and he may agree, that they were misguided in their approach to mustaches
My two best friends over there were Dick Graham and Paul Dunne. Paul being a Boston guy he called everybody pal, always saying, “Hey pal.” When the last guard would wake us at 6:00 in the morning I’d get up and go around to all the hooches and make sure everybody was awake. That was my routine. The hooch Paul was in had beads across the door, and I’d pull the beads apart and in a heavy Boston accent say, “Gud mawnin’ pal.”
He’d sit up in his cot and say back, “Aawh, gud mawnin’ pal.” It was an unwritten traditional thing we did.
We became very good friends, him an Irish Catholic from South Boston. His family had a house out on Cape Cod. He’d say, “When we get home we’ll have you out to the Cape. We got serfin’, you think California’s the only place that serfs? We serf all the time off the Cape.”
I was home two months when I got a letter right around Thanksgiving from Dick Graham that Paul had been killed. It was just devastating for me. I never heard the story of what happened until I met Jim Kustes in Washington in 2007. Paul was killed when his jeep hit a road mine. Jim Kustes was sitting on the fender of the jeep, literally right over the blast. He is so lucky to be alive, but it messed him up. The pictures of his jeep I only saw within the last two or three years.
After Paul died I wrote his family, sometime in the early 70s. His mother Edna worked for Massachusetts Bell, and his dad Paul Sr. was a painter. I wrote them expressing my sympathy and grief. I said, “I don’t know how you feel about the Vietnam War, but I just want you to know your son died serving his country. I miss him greatly.”
One day Edna called, and then we corresponded. Every Christmas she would send my baby daughter a present. And then one day in the Spring of 1974 she called – she had kind of a high pitched Boston accent – “I’d like to invite you and your wife and Heather (my daughter) out heah to the Cape house. I nevah got to see ya with Paul.” I went out and visited them, saw Paul’s grave, and stayed a few days. Since then Paul Sr. has died, but I continued to call Edna. Now no one answers her number. The number is still good but nobody ever answers.
It’s the same thing with Stanley’s family. I found his older sister maybe ten years ago. I felt guilty about never contacting his family. I found her through a columnist at the Akron newspaper. Her name is Eula, but she went by ‘Fay’. She called me and I had some long conversations with her. This columnist wrote a story about it in the Akron paper. I sent her cards every Christmas and letters during the year, and she’d send letters back. And then one day my letter got returned. I don’t know what happened to her. And it’s the same thing, I’d call there and the phone’s not disconnected, but there’s no answering machine and no one answers. There’s a void there I feel really bad about.
Every Sunday in church, and I’ve been doing it for many years, toward the end of the service we have outreach prayers: for peace in the world, wisdom for our leaders, people who are ill, and whatever. While this is going on I’m half listening, but in my mind I list all seven guys – Sherlock, Gulley, Handschumaker, Johnson, Stanley, Pyle, and Paul Dunne – and ask the Lord to be with that family today and let them feel your peace today. In the past few weeks I’ve added the other three men from B Battery that were killed . . . Bobby Joe Marsh, Jeff Davis and George Beedy. I honor their memory this way. It’s a way for me to remember and pay my respects.
A relentless rain of mortars and rockets fall on LZ Sherry the summer of 1969. While Medevac helicopters travel in and out of LZ Sherry like commuter trains, Staff Sergeant Groves is counting off his remaining days in Vietnam.
Cry of the Short Timer
I considered myself short at 60 days left in country. In the morning I’d come out of my hooch and yell at the top of my lungs across the battery, “SHOOOOOOOOORRT.”
And then I’d hear, “FUUUUUUUUUCK YOOOOU.”
It became a daily ritual and I loved doing it.
So far Rik has escaped injury, suffering only a frightening but harmless slap on the jaw from the smooth side of a piece of shrapnel. Then comes the early pre-dawn of a fateful day in August.
August 12, 1969
Guys would normally go around in a towel after a shower. My aunt Beverly, my godmother, sent me a terrycloth shower wraparound for Christmas as a joke. It was powder blue with white trim around the waist, and it had little snaps to hold it on. There was a little pocket with white trim, and on that trim “Rik” was embroidered in blue. Whenever I’d go to the shower I’d wear it as kind of an on-going joke. It drew catcalls from the guys, “Oh Sergeant Groves, you look beautiful.”
My gun was the one assigned to shoot illumination rounds. We kept a separate mini ammo bunker of illumination rounds already pre-cut and ready to go, so we could get a lot of them up in the air right away if we got mortared. We’d often get six or eight rounds up in the air at the same time. The way I ran my gun section, I would be on the gun with my assistant gunner Gonzales, and I would load and he would pull the lanyard and traverse the tube so the next round would go to a different place. There would just be two of us on the gun, and I kept everybody else in the ammo bunker cutting more rounds and leaning them against the parapet, and hopefully more out of the way if mortar rounds hit close. That way a mortar round would not take out the whole gun crew. It would just take me and Gonzales out. That was my rationale.
We were on 50% guard rotation, meaning we started the first guard about 9:00 at night and it went to 1:30 in the morning, and second guard went to 6:00 AM. I just came off first guard and was sleeping in my hooch right beside the gun. In Vietnam you know when you’re sleeping you’re still listening, and you can tell what your own H&I and illumination sounds like. It went on all night. If our gun shot a round and I’m laying in bed I would not wake up. But if somebody shouted INCOMING, or if a mortar round came in and hit, it would wake me up. That’s when I first learned that your brain can sort things out even when you’re sleeping.
That particular morning I was asleep after my guard duty and I heard someone shout INCOMING. It woke me up but there was nothing landing yet. I laid there and I heard INCOMING again. There were some flares up, but no explosions. That was because the guys on the guns could hear a mortar leaving the tube, and by the time it landed we always had one or two illumination rounds in the air. So I jumped up and I grabbed my steel pot and flak jacket – and for some reason that morning I put Aunt Beverly’s wraparound on and ran out. Why in the world I took time to put that thing on I will never know.
As I come out of my hooch a mortar round hits close by and showers my hooch with shrapnel and sand and rocks. I jump about a foot and dive over the parapet wall. I grab a round out of the ammo bunker and bring it out to the parapet wall and lean it up against the wall. As I do that Theodus Stanley is on my left. We called him Stan, or Yodo sometimes, because his brother couldn’t pronounce Theodus and called him Yodo. I liked Stanley a lot. He is doing the same thing, leaning a round against the wall to have it ready
I am turning to my left and Stanley is turning toward his right, we’re turning toward each other, when a mortar explodes right in front of my hooch close to us. If I had been coming out of my hooch I would have been five feet from it. I feel this tremendous blow on the right side of my neck, like someone had hit me as hard as they could with their fist, or I had been hit in the neck with a bat. The blast blows us both down to the ground. The next thing I know I’m facing the other direction and I’m on my hands and knees, and my helmet is bouncing away in slow motion. Everything is in slow motion. As it’s bouncing away the edges of the helmet are kicking up little sprits of sand and dirt. In my mind’s eye my right arm comes into view as I’m reaching for it, still in slow motion. Just as I almost reach it, I’m back into full speed again, and the helmet is out of reach.
I get up onto my knees. I hear the sound of like when you turn on your water faucet in the back yard but you don’t have a hose attached to it and the water is splashing on the grass, a slapping sound. I turn around still on my knees and see Stanley on the ground cross ways to me. The only thing off the ground is his chest, as if he had done a bunch of pushups and can’t keep his whole body off the ground anymore. The only thing elevated are his shoulders and upper chest. His head is up. The splashing sound is a torrent of blood coming out of a hole in his upper chest or his neck.
I turn him over. I cannot hear any sound like a sucking chest wound. I had enough training to know it could be the top edge of the lung. I’m back on my haunches with the weight on my heels and I pull him across my legs. I hold him to me and push on that wound as hard as I can to seal it.
He never says a word. There is not a sound out of him. Now there are more mortar rounds coming in. Then Doc is there, our medic, I think his name was Gilyard, a very religious guy. He had dashed through the landing rounds and now drops down next to me on the other side of Stanley and starts working on him, trying to patch him up as best he can. He starts giving him mouth to mouth, because Stanley isn’t doing anything. I’m still half cradling him and he’s just laying there with his arms to his side. And then his arms start to raise up from the elbow. As he’s doing that I’m yelling, “Come on Doc, hurry, hurry, he’s going, he’s going.” Stanley’s lower arms are rising up perpendicular to the ground, and then they stop, and there is an exhaling from him, and he is gone. But Doc keeps at him.
Gonzales who is on the gun sees it and he goes to pieces, falling to the ground yelling, “No, no, no.”
I say to Gonzales, “Get back on the gun,” and he does it immediately.
Somebody else starts loading and he goes back to pulling the lanyard. He’s screaming profanities, “Those son-of-a-bitches, fuckin’ bastards,” but stays on the gun.
Dick Graham, who a few weeks before had been moved off my gun to Motor Pool as a clerk, had been over talking to the guys when the rounds started coming in. Graham was on my gun crew when they discovered he had a college degree and could type. So they sent him off to school and brought him back as a clerk. That’s how I lost him. The Maintenance and Commo guys, unless they had duty on the towers, they could stay in their hooches. But Graham stays with the crew and helps hump ammo, the son of a gun, he stays there in harm’s way.
All of a sudden Graham’s standing in front of me and I turn to him, I’m still on my knees, and for the first time I start hurting. Doc is still bent over Stanley, his arms still perpendicular in the air and not a sound out of him. I turn to Gonzales and say, “I think I’m hit, can you check me over.”
We’ve got all these illumination flares in the air and it’s like daylight. He bends over me – I’ll never forget this – he looks down at me and with fear in his eyes and voice says, “Oh my god!”
I look down and I’m solid red, blood all over me, my arms, my hands, my legs, my chest, blood everywhere. For the first time I get a little scared. I’m not differentiating whether it’s my blood or Yodo’s. I say, “Can you see where I’m hit?”
This is another image I’ll never forget. He bends over and points and his whole hand is shaking. That image of his shaking, pointing hand has stuck with me all these years. He says, “I see one in your neck.”
I say, “Yeah, I can feel that one. It hurts like hell.”
Then he points to one in my chest up by my collarbone. “You got one there. And there might be one in your arm.”
By then Doc says, “Let’s look at you Sergeant Groves.”
The mortars have stopped now. Doc is walking me over to his hooch so he can check me out. He says, “Can you walk?”
I say, “Yeah.” It’s really starting to hurt now quite a bit, and I remember saying to the Doc as I’m walking, “Doc, you got any morphine?”
He says in a light tone of voice, I know now he was trying to be comforting, “Sergeant, we don’t do morphine much anymore.” Meaning that’s a WWII kind of thing, that’s not the first thing they give you anymore. He says, “We got some other stuff.”
We get to his hooch and he sits me down in a chair and he’s working on my neck. He’s off to my right out of my sight. At that moment Captain Marquette sticks his head in and says something like, “How you doing, Sergeant?” And then he looks at the medic and says, “Doc?”
Doc doesn’t say anything. Now I get scared a little more. Did Doc shake his head, like no he’s not going to make it? I don’t know.
Doc patches me up as best he can, but he can’t stop the bleeding out of my neck. They carry me on a litter to that open area in front of Maintenance. I’m waiting there for the Medevac when I find out that Paul Dunne also had been hit. He got a nasty gash on his bicep. Dunne, me and Stanley’s body all get Medevac’d together back to the aid station at LZ Betty.
We’re nervous about going in there because we wonder how competent they are. Guys had gone in, not our guys, and had died that were not hurt that bad. I’m laying there right next to Stanley’s body on another table five feet away. Doc back at Sherry had covered his face.
They work on me, and here’s the weird thing, they wrap an Ace bandage around my neck. I’m thinking, I understand an Ace bandage to apply pressure on an arm or a leg, but around my neck? It didn’t feel right to me. Then they tell me to go in and take a shower and wash the blood off. Here I’m wounded and still bleeding and they have me go into a shower and wash off. I remember hanging that blood soaked wraparound from Aunt Beverly on a hook in the shower. I’m thinking, Wait a minute, I’m a wounded guy standing in the shower washing the blood off myself, and it’s hurting like hell. Shouldn’t I be laying down and you guys doing this for me?
What pushed me totally over the edge, I’m later laying in bed at night and Paul Dunne, God bless him, is sitting up with me. I can’t sleep and I’m hot and sweaty. I ask him to go get me a towel. He gets me a towel, I sit up and he says, “Oh shit.” I wasn’t sweating, I’d bled through the bandage and I’m bleeding like mad and the pillow is soaked in blood. I’m still bleeding with an Ace bandage around my neck. Why they can’t put a stitch in to stop the bleeding I don’t know. I proceed to raise holy hell, because I’m going to bleed to death here. I’m screaming, “Get me out of here!”
After dawn they bring in a chopper and Medevac me out of Betty. The chopper has racks where you could put one litter over another. They slide me into a rack, put a wounded ARVN above me, and take me to Cam Ranh Bay to the Air Force Hospital. We land and the doors barely slide open and there’s guys right there. They slide my litter out, put me on a gurney, push me down a sidewalk, turn a corner, bang through swinging doors, I remember seeing the word Hospital over it, take a right turn into the first bay, and immediately there are four or five guys working on me.
One of them says, “Where you from?” They say things like that to relax you.
He says, “Oh, I’m from St. James.” It’s a small town in Minnesota. There’s more small talk as they’re putting IVs in me and probing around. They have the blood stopped in maybe a minute.
I have an Air Force doctor, a captain, who’s very attentive. He comes around several times to see me, cleaning me up, probing around some more, and pulling the pieces of metal out of my face. The third or fourth day he tells me he did not take out the bigger pieces because he doesn’t think they’re going to bother me. He says to get at them he’d have to make much bigger scars.
That night while Staff Sergeant Groves is recovering at Cam Ranh, mortars are again falling back at LZ Sherry. An incoming mortar explodes directly on Gun 3, killing Howie Pyle and wounding the entire crew.
Of course I don’t have my journal with me. I write on hospital paper, and then transpose it over into my journal when the guys bring it to me from Sherry. I did not realize until last year, when I was reading my journal again, how I had already stuffed, had internalized all that trauma so completely the very next day. I put it deep down inside me.
Here’s what I write on August 13, maybe 30 hours after I was hit and Stanley died in my arms. You’d think I was in there for a tonsillectomy.
The next day I learn of Howie Pyle’s death.
I had a couple of visitors today: Chuck Labarbera and Sgt. Cotton came up from Phan Rang. I had phoned Chuck this morning and they brought some of my things up. They told me some bad news too. We were mortared Wednesday morning and Pyle was killed. That was a blow. I guess a round landed inside their parapet and also wounded most of third section. Enge is hurt pretty bad they think. I felt so bad to hear that. God be with them.
They actually told me wrong. It was really Tuesday night that Gun 3 was hit, the evening of the same day my gun was hit in the early morning. Howie died instantly, we called him Gomer you know, and the entire rest of the crew was wounded.
After a few days there were little bitty small pieces of shrapnel still in my face. I’ll always remember this, the first time I shaved I caught one of these little pieces and dragged my razor over it. It hurt like hell.
I spend 16 days in the hospital. There’s a bunch of us in this long ward, we’re laying there and all of a sudden the doors bang open and here comes a guy who says, “Miss America and her court are here and would like to say hello to the guys if they could.”
Everybody sits up and guys are saying, “You got a comb?” Everybody wants to look their best for Miss America and her court.
On the 16th I write five lines and mention I watched some TV, a show I liked watching at home was on. Amazing. I understand now how deep I’d buried everything.
August 12 is a date sacred to the boys of Battery B, and an anniversary each in his own way has commemorated since 1969. Paul Dunne, the crewman who was wounded with Rik that morning, and sat up with him at the aid station, would die three months later from a road mine.