Remembering the Elephant – Last Day

Friday, April 02, 2004
Easter Sunday, April 2nd, 1972 arrived at 12:01 AM with a bang, actually a whole lot of them. The NVA wanted to make sure we knew they had lots and lots of artillery and by then we really believed them. I had mentioned we got probed yesterday, but it was nothing too serious. What I meant was the probing action didn’t cause any American wounded or dead, but we did get some trigger time. If you’re not former military you may not understand “trigger time,” but it means we fired our weapons.

By now we were all pretty worn down. By then I, personally, had gained only a couple of hours of sleep in several days and had only eaten a couple of C-rats (rations), so we were running on fumes. The shelling would come in a flurry, banging around for a while, then subsiding. I think they hoped if they laid off for a bit, then guys would come out of the bunkers and move around, then they could shoot at us again. Everyone was wearing “flak vests” and their steel pots or helmets. The flak vests were to stop shrapnel from penetrating to your tender skin, but were not worth a damn for bullets. Bullets would blow right through the vests.

Once again it would be an understatement to say everybody at that place was wondering what was next. The Commanding Officer of the MAC-V detachment had been noticeably nowhere to be seen. His XO, Major Bundy, seemed to be running the show. Now, I have to stop for a second to relate something about this damned MAC-V Colonel. I wish I could remember his name but I don’t … but I do remember what this asshole had done not too long before the attack.

In Viet Nam, of course, the war had been going on for some 10 or 11 years by then. Americans, and here I mean mostly very high ranking Americans, could not bring a dependent there. I do not refer to troops, but civilians and the like. At 3 Star, just a few weeks before the offensive began, some of the more industrious MAC-V troopers had brought several Vietnamese girls onto the base. I will leave it to your imagination as to what was going on, but this Colonel had a standing order that no Viet civilians were allowed at 3 Star. Well, these guys had not seen a lady in quite awhile, and they really weren’t hurting anyone, but they got caught and the Colonel busted them. Okay, I really got no beef with that, but then this son-uv-a-bitch brought over his Filipino wife to spend a couple of weeks with him in the luxurious house trailer he had as the commanding officer. Well, let’s be blunt. (and remember I am talking about Young, Red-Blooded American Boys who like girls) The Colonel could get laid … probably because he was a Colonel … but the Enlisted Swine could do without! Well, in many ways that would sum up the military.

Sometime before daybreak I went back to the ASA bunker. I got in there and sought an empty corner and tried to grab a little sleep, and maybe scrounge up a ration. I found a corner and crawled into it and I went out like a light. I woke up a bit later and it was light outside, but very overcast. That whole week now seems like it was all on the verge of one hell of a rain storm. Well, we got the storm but it wasn’t rain. Several of us were crouched around waiting for the word to filter down from on top, and we might have been drinking some C ration coffee and smoking cigarettes and acting brave. I had given my M-16 with grenade launcher to someone else earlier, and had picked up an M3 A1 “grease gun.” The grease gun was a .45 caliber sub-machinegun that was quite a man-stopper at close range. It was developed during World War Two to replace the more expensive and hard to manufacture Thompson Sub-machinegun. (The “Tommy Gun”) Troopers in tanks still carried the grease gun, mainly because it was an “ass kicker.” If you had to shoot somebody with the damned thing, they really stayed shot.

I also had found my .45 caliber automatic, the venerable sidearm that the military had used since about 1911. I strapped it on. That day, I figured that you couldn’t by any stretch of the imagination be “over armed” and besides, I felt better wearing the damned pistol, and sometimes feeling better is just good enough. I remember one of the guys, who must have been trying to convince himself that things weren’t as bad as they were, started kidding me by calling me Audie Murphy. Here I was, all decked out with my flak jacket, steel pot, a .45 caliber sub-machinegun and my .45 auto. I suppose in hindsight it may sound funny but believe me, I was not laughing then. I went out and did another check between bangs and booms. And then went back to the bunker.

I got back and stripped off the flak vest and helmet. It was very humid and I was soaked. Suddenly, I heard a machinegun go off, then some rifles firing and a couple of booms. (Smaller booms, like a grenade, not artillery.) I grabbed the grease gun and charged out of the bunker looking for what was causing the ruckus. Just as I was jerking my head around like one of those toy doggie dash ornaments, I heard an incoming round screaming in. What I am about to relay next happened so fast, you could have blinked your eyes and missed it. I started to throw myself off to the side to hit the dirt when it felt like somebody slammed me in the shoulder and chest with a ball bat. The incoming round exploded and the blast threw me off into the dirt, face down. I was stunned, shocked and then knew I just had the hell knocked out of me. Nothing really hurt me yet, but I also knew it would only be a matter of time before I was gonna rue the day my momma had me. I moved my head, trying to look around, and then tried to move my legs, and not much was happening yet… and then I saw them. Two NVA troops coming through the wire, and I figured they were carrying satchel charges filled with TNT. I noticed (and you must remember, this was only a couple of seconds of time) one of those guys was carrying an SKS carbine rifle with an extended spike bayonet. From my perspective, the bayonet looked like it was at least four feet long.

Now let me digress for a second.

When I got to Nam the first time, I never really worried about being shot. It was not necessarily being brave, it was just something I never thought about. Same thing about stuff that went boom–I never really gave it much thought. I figured that if it happened … well it happened. But being stuck!? By a long, stinking damned piece of sharp steel? That was the one thing that DID freak me out! And if you asked me why, I could not give you a coherent reason. But here was this shithead who had just shot me with the SKS, and now I JUST KNEW HE WAS COMING IN WITH HIS BAYONET TO FINISH THE JOB.

My right arm still worked, and I started groping around to locate my grease gun. All the time I kept my eyes on these two dinks working their way through the wire. I couldn’t locate the damned gun; I don’t have a clue to what happened to it. Then through my adrenalized mind I remembered my .45 pistol. I reached down to my right side with my good arm and pulled it out of the holster. I had a round chambered, the pistol was cocked with the safety on. (By the way, the Army made it very clear that was not the way to carry the .45, and in calmer times I might have received an Article 15. (Btw, that is non-judicial punishment… a fine or possibly a reduction in rank.) Except the Army Brass wasn’t there and I was, and people were shooting real guns, and I figured anything that gave me an edge was okay. And thank the Great Spirit I had this thing ready to shoot, because if it hadn’t, I couldn’t have worked the action of the pistol in time. Well, didn’t mean to digress again.

I pulled that big .45 out, took a site picture of the two NVA and started popping at them with it. They both went down, and I ASSUME I hit them. I really don’t know for sure, because I couldn’t go check even if I had wanted to … and I didn’t. Maybe they were just ducking, but probably not. Do I feel bad about that? Nope.

Somebody from inside the bunker heard the shooting and ran out and found me. He started to drag me back inside and someone else came out and helped him. I wasn’t doing too well by then, and then the medics showed up. My worst injuries were on my hips and back. I took a bunch of shrapnel there, and I had to tell him about the bullet wound in my chest. The round hit me high in the shoulder and came out above my left breast. He immediately started working on me to stop the bleeding. He packed the wounds in my hips, then examined the shoulder and chest and slapped a bandage on it. I heard him tell the Old Man that I was a “priority case” and they had to get me out of there. I tried to tell him that I fully agreed but I don’t think he heard me.

The first medevac chopper they flew in touched down at the base LZ, and several guys ran me out there on a stretcher. They put me on and were starting to lift off when the front of the bird took a series of .51 caliber machinegun hits. The pilot re-landed … very HARD! I don’t know if the pilot or co-pilot were hit and things were then pretty hazy. The next thing I knew, another chopper came in and they loaded me on it. There were a couple of GIs on this bird … and a Donut Dolly! Okay, you may wonder what a Donut Dolly is, if you aren’t a ‘Nam Vet. A Donut Dolly was a Red Cross volunteer chick “who came to ‘Nam to raise morale!” Now, I didn’t have a lot of contact with Donut Dollies, and the couple of times I did bump into them, I found them a bore. Here I was, a genuine jungle-fighting troop and this lame chick is trying to get me to play Parchisi or Monopoly. And I will NOT pass on the scuttle-butt I had heard about a lot of Dollies. Wasn’t there, so I won’t defame them now … but here I am lying on the floor of the chopper still bleeding. All I wanted was a smoke. Someone had stuck a cigarette between my lips before we took off but had failed to light it. I tried to get this broad’s attention so she could strike a match, but she totally refused to look at me. I guess I was “More Real” at that moment than she was prepared to deal with.

They flew me to the 85th Evac Hospital in Phu Bai. I got some medical attention but then they flew me down to the 95th Evac Hospital in Da Nang. However, before I left Phu Bai the brass wanted to “debrief” me. A light Colonel and a Major came in and wanted to know what had happened. Well, hell, I told them I got shot! Nah, that didn’t satisfy them, they wanted DETAILS. So, putting on my bravest face, I explained how the dink with the SKS and bayonet had blasted me, I blasted him right back and, why was the bottom half of my ass was missing? . . . well, something went Ba-BOOM behind me. That’s what happened. Would you believe that still didn’t satisfy them? They wanted to KNOW WHAT WENT BOOM BEHIND ME? Was it a 122 MM rocket, was it a 130 MM artillery shell, was it a 82 MM mortar? What was it? Now I figured that I had latitude right then. Usually we Enlisted Swine had to grovel before the Brass. It is a time honored tradition in all Armies. Enlisted Swine are expected to grovel, it’s just the way of things. But here I am lying there still bleeding, and now I am hurting like hell and this Fu****G Light Colonel wants to know just what removed the best part of my butt. I said, and I quote, “Sir, are you FU****G serious? How the FU** would I know?? It could have been part of a FU****G A-bomb for all I know!” They left me in a huff.

After arriving at the hospital in Da Nang, the NVA shelled it. It seemed I just couldn’t get away from it. I was rushed into surgery that afternoon. I had eaten a breakfast ration that morning, and if you remember your doctor’s warning, if you are going to surgery you must not eat anything for . . . what? Eighteen or 24 hours?? Well after they put me under for the surgery, I started to vomit and they couldn’t get me to stop. I was choking to death on the vomit, and somewhere during all this my heart stopped, a nurse later told me, so technically I died. They brought me back, because here I am. I did make it. I stayed there for two or three weeks, and then was shipped to Guam. Finally I B-S-ed my way back to Okinawa, and finally back to the States. I got out of the Army in August to go back to school.

You may wonder why I bothered to write any of this. After I got home, I needed someone I could talk to about the war, ‘Nam, and what had happened to me. The only person willing to listen was my Mom and I would never have subjected her to any of it. No one wanted or cared to hear what I had to say. The anti-war movement was vicious toward returning troops and I was called a baby killer, a warmonger, a mercenary, just because I served when I was asked to. I learned to suppress my feelings, and over 32 years I almost got to the point where I could convince myself I did forget. Nah, never happen. It will be here inside me as long as I am here.

Not too long ago, my friend Dwight Schultz suggested I ought to talk about ‘Nam to our radio audience, to give depth to the knowledge base on what is currently happening in Iraq and other trouble spots around the globe. I didn’t feel comfortable doing that, but then March 30th was fast approaching, and every year I get very depressed for a week or so. I finally was willing to confront what was making me depressed, but I secretly always knew what it was. I decided to complete a blog each day from March 30th to April 2nd and relay the events as I recall them. Believe it or not, I feel better getting this out on the computer and out of me. For any of you who read this, I hope you can take something away from it. Even if it only causes you to stop and think once a week about the young men and women in uniform who are willing to die to defend you. I was once one of those young men … a long time ago. And I still remember it . . . almost every day.

Addendum

Saturday, April 03, 2004

My decision to relay the four days in 1972 that changed my life were in some way’s liberating … and in other way’s a point of much personal pain. I decided to sit in front of my computer, allowed my mind to drift back and then I composed the narrative as the memories came to me.

Of course there were a lot of things I left out, some by necessity because of space, time, and also because I didn’t recall them until later. You see, I made a choice a long time ago to try to forget that stuff. But, I have heard from a number of readers that told me they were moved by this narrative so I thought I might try to add a few things into the overall story.

Case in point, while waiting for an evac to Da Nang from Phu Bai, I was lying there in the hospital and had not received anything for the agony I was now in. For some reason they would not administer morphine to me. I suppose it was a medical decision. I was trying to keep it to myself when suddenly my mouth … of its own accord … shot out a very loud “Jesus H. Freaking Christ!” Just at that moment “Father Tony”, the Catholic Chaplin popped in. He looked at me and grinned and said “You Rang?” I was embarrassed but he patted me on the shoulder and asked me if there was anything he could do for me. My mothers favorite bible verse was the 23rd Psalm and I asked him to read it. Since my records had me listed as a Lutheran, he went looking for a Protestant Bible. I tried to tell him it didn’t mean a damn to me if it was Protestant or Catholic but he was determined to get that bible. He found one and came back and we read it together. He was a good guy.

After I woke up in the intensive care ward at the 95th Evac in Da Nang, I was lying there drifting in and out when this nurse came by. She was Lt. Mary Miller and she informed me she had been looking for me for a long time. I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about until she told me that we both came from the same town. She was from my home town in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Yeah, I was shocked.

So, after a tiny bit of small talk Mary told me I HAD TO PEE. They have a very strict medical requirement that the body HAS to discharge a set amount of urine. My body was not co-operating with their requirement. Now, it had been sometime since I had been around any American women, not to mention a pretty cute one. But there I was lying there full of holes and this gal was telling me I better get my plumbing working! Well she stood there (and geeze, I was embarrassed) and I tried to do what she was asking of me. It was a definite NO GO. Well, they had a sink in ICU and I asked her to turn on the water, thinking that if I heard running water it might help. She did and I tried and still nothing. But … I felt just a TINY LITTLE URGE. I asked her if she could help me sit up, thinking that if I stood I might be able to better manage the request. She came over, wrapped her cute arm beneath my shoulders and helped me swing my legs over the bed. I started to get up and BINGO … complete blackness. I passed out.

Now, at that time I stood 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighed about 185 or 190 pounds. I was not a little guy. I never found out until later that when I passed out, she tried to catch me and we both ended up on the floor … except I dislocated her shoulder. When finally I found that out, I felt bad.

A few days later she brought in a number of her nurse buddies to say hello. And I might add, there were some real “lookers” in that group. Hell, I didn’t know what to say so I pretty much just smiled and kept my mouth shut. Mary wrote her parents about me and they got in touch with my mom and dad. They became card playing buddies.

After the Army sent me out of Nam, I ended up at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Guam for several weeks. For some reason I was getting worse instead of better and when those Navy doctors examined me closely it became clear. The Doc’s in Nam had wired my butt back together but they closed me up way too soon, I had developed a roaring infection in the wounds and the anti-biotics were not handling the job. They had to open me up and re-do the whole damned procedure.

Now, after about 3 weeks at Guam, one day this Navy Doc came in and told me that they were going to ship me back to the States. By this time I had been in SE Asia for about 24 months and believe it or not, going back Stateside was the very LAST thing I wanted to do. Too much “ChickenSh*T” Stateside so I put my devious little mind to work. I came up with a story and convinced this Navy Doctor that I had a very pregnant girlfriend in Okinawa and if he shipped me back to the States I couldn’t marry her. He bought it. He agreed to ship me to the Camp Kue Army Hospital in Okinawa. (Before Nam I had been stationed in Okinawa, twas’ like a second home. And yes, I did have a girlfriend there but she was not pregnant, at least not by me!)

They flew me in on a military transport plane, and I was sitting on canvas seats. These aircraft were designed to ferry equipment and as an afterthought could carry some troops. What I am going to describe next actually happened. At the time I roared with laughter and it stills causes me to let loose with my “girlish giggle.” My wounds in my hips started leaking, I could feel the blood running down the backs of my legs. I told the aircraft crew chief and he went to check if there were any medics on board. He came back to me with a Captain who was wearing Medical Insignia. I thought “Cool, I got a doctor on board.” Well not quite, he had a medical degree BUT IT WAS IN ANIMAL VETERINARY! This doggie doctor ended up changing my bandages and re-packing the wounds. I found that Funny as Hell!

After landing in Okinawa I was bused to the Camp Kue Hospital and I credit the next month and a half with keeping my sanity. I continuously went AWOL out of the hospital and partied … very hearty. Some memories are just too personal to relate, some were funny, and some are very poignant and I will carry those to the grave. I buddied up with a Marine in my ward, and we became party buddies. I used my Okinawa contacts to get us out of the hospital at night, and we went downtown and raised some genuine hell. I figured someone owed it to us, wasn’t sure who that was but … whatever.

When they shipped me Stateside I ended up for a day or so where I started in the Army … at the hospital located in Fort Dix, New Jersey. The Staff Doctors told me that they would send me to the nearest military hospital to my home of record. The closest Army Hospital then was Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Yes, the same Valley Forge you know from your history books that George Washington served at with such distinction.

I was owed a month’s leave since I had been wounded. It was just a week or so after I got to Valley Forge when I applied for my leave. They approved it and I was to leave the following Friday. Friday dawned and I was getting ready to split when that hurricane hit Florida and ran all the way up the east coast. If I remember it was Hurricane Agnes I think? At any rate, the railroad tracks running through Harrisburg, Pa. were washed out and I ended up postponing my leave until they could be repaired. I was bummed out. A week or so later I did leave, and spent the month of July at home. I was still mending.

I left the Army on the 18th of August. I can not say I was sorry to go, but to be honest I would not have sold the experiences for a large sum of money. All that shaped me into the person I am today.

Now you know “most” of the rest of the story … and I have gotten it off my chest. I suppose there is nothing left to say except this, do with it what you will.

Don Ecker

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