Understandable, when I did report for duty I was odd man out. Almost to the individual, the entire unit had been bonded together through months of intense training in preparation for their deployment to Vietnam.
As the orderly escort walked me through the platoon bay to put me in contact with members of my new platoon, a mood of somber exhilaration filled the room. In the early morning hours of the next day, buses would arrive to transport us to our flights, which would deposit us on the west coast. From there we would make our way across the Pacific aboard the overbooked Navy troop transport ship, USS General John Pope. Frantic final preparations for this departure, made my stroll down the length of the bay, packing my every belonging, go virtually unnoticed. And in these critical chaotic first few moments, I the new guy, clearly realized that in this first encounter, the acceptance by my peers would define the quality of the environment in which I would reside, likely for months uninterrupted. The built up apprehension was instantly vented as a hand grabbed mine in a firm handshake, accompanied by a slap on the back and a genuine "Welcome to the 3rd platoon!". I had been imprinted by my first encounter; Shap was my friend, in much the same way a new born animal accepts as their parent the first one they see. This brief exchange assured me that even though we were embarking on an adventure, which could very well take us through 'hell and high water', my immediate living environment would provide sanctuary.
Shap was the APC driver for my new squad. Murphy may have been the squad's Jester and Tunnel Rat, but Shap was its rock solid pillar. Every squad had its designated Squad Leader of course, but we were fortunate to have one who, although he did not carry the official military title or rank, was a leader none-the-less. Add to this, by my way of thinking anyway, he was the best track jockey in the Battalion. This was to become apparent once we had begun operations in the field. When others were to suffer the indignation of sinking to the bottom of a river crossing, we stayed dry. When others settled into a rice paddy up to the top of their trim vanes, we got to enjoy a little comic relief.
As anyone who has served in a mechanized unit knows, it was the TDs (track drivers) who would work late into the evenings, making sure their vehicles were ready for the next day. As we got settled 'In Country', working our Area of Operation, it appeared to me that of all these hard working drivers, it was Shap who was nearly always working well after the rest had called it a day. If there was enough natural illumination at night to work on those external maintenance items he'd take advantage of it. If not, he would find something he could clean or repair on the inside, being sure to practice the strictest of light discipline. Clearly he was motivated by more than just a severe eye to detail. It was apparent that his compelling concern was for the men who depended on him and his machine. This manifested itself in so many other ways in which he interacted day to day with all he came in contact with. As a result, many of the other TDs felt comfortable in seeking him out for advice concerning their maintenance problems. All of these facts added together, resulted in the assurance that we could depend on him and our track for whatever circumstances might suddenly arise. We may have had a wide array of concerns facing us in those days, but the conditions and readiness of our APC would never be one of them.
In the period of time leading up to December 10th, he and I had still found many opportunities to spend time talking. Naturally, this would gravitate to discussions about our girlfriends back home. Likely, this topic of conversation was identical, and represented a continuation of a critical forum born of mental necessity, spawned by soldiers of all the armies from the beginning of armed conflict. In these lighter moments, we would each eagerly share our latest pictures as they were received from home. His girlfriend's name was Sheila, so I would taunt him good naturedly, by singing a most terrible rendition of Tommie Roe's song from the early 60's "Little Sheila". He would retaliate with the tune from the same era "Oh Donna", after the name of my girlfriend (now wife of 33 years).
Sheila and Shap, like so many other young couples separated by the Vietnam War, were actively making wedding plans contingent on the completion of his one-year tour of duty. Shap, like me, was fortunate. We both had girls who dutifully wrote everyday. And while the mail may not have caught up with us in the field for periods of time, when getting mail was possible, there was always a letter for every day of delayed delivery. These girls seemed to understand how important their letters were. Even if they were void of meaningful content, the envelope did possess minute, invisible trace elements of the one who sealed the letter. To hold such a letter was to experience the closest thing to a touch. This afforded us the opportunity to momentarily slip out of our surrealistic realities, and transport ourselves to a place of blissful fantasy.
Those days of relative routine would pass and soon deliver us on the doorstep of December 10th. The signal that something was amiss that day came with the abrupt order for our platoon to deploy on the right flank of First platoon. There had been some brief bursts of automatic rifle fire by the lead element of our advance. This in itself wasn't particularly alarming for those of us further back in the company's formation, as it was fairly common for the point element to run up against a sniper or two trying to slow our advance. However, these opening moments were a radical departure from what had been for us the 'norm', in that they had announced the beginning of a day, like none prior to it, whose destiny had now been put into motion. What seemed to the ordinary rifleman at the squad level as a benign contact was to those in command the realization that we had just crashed, and crashed at full speed into well prepared fortified enemy positions. This had resulted in us becoming fully engaged instantly, with the occupants of these fortifications. Similar to two automobiles meeting head on, the intertwined wreckage would now require extreme measures in order to pull them apart. The initial trickle of automatic rifle bursts quickly started building as those on their .50 caliber guns instinctively returned fire. As one gun lit off, it would sequence the next gun in a rapidly cascading roar that would peak in seconds. The roar would soon escalate yet further to another indescribable level as each of the track mounted M-60s contributed to the hellish chorus.
Only later would it be fully appreciated that our point of contact had been right into the strongest area of their concealed defenses. Not only were their fighting positions laid out with interlocking fields of fire, but our ability to roll through them at this location was prevented by either a natural drainage trench, or a constructed tank trap like obstacle. The approach to this encounter had been completely arbitrary. We had been operating in an area on the coastal plain whose terrain afforded our track's the tremendous freedom of full mobility. This meant that our entry into the small hamlet of Truong Lam could well have been from any number of other directions. Likely any other approach would have had an entirely different outcome, but all this became irrelevant in the opening volley.
Following the order that positioned us on the right flank of the 1st Platoon, a second order was received instructing each of the squads to dismount. As the back ramp dropped and we left the relative safety of our tracks we still had little information as to what lay ahead, but it didn't take long to figure out that we were in our most serious engagement to date, and with an enemy force that seemed to be everywhere, and yet not seen anywhere. We were now advancing across an open area towards a hedgerow some 100-150 yds away, and for the moment closing fast. Our only cover was being provided solely by the continuous torrent of fire being poured into the hedgerow in an attempt to keep the enemy gunners down in their holes.
Initially, the majority of the squads had tucked themselves close behind their respective APCs in an attempt to determine for themselves, the scope of what they were going to be exposed to once they stepped out into the open. Eventually, more and more individual soldiers peeled away from behind the tracks to take up positions online between the APCs. For me, the decision to do so occurred when I realized that the only sounds I was hearing were that of the diesel engine roaring in my ear. I arrived at the conclusion that this presented a greater danger than that of being out in the open, only because there was no way of hearing the sounds of battle that would tell if you were specifically the focus of enemy fire. If you were, you could be dropped without a clue. Only the sound of the bullets snapping by could tell you for sure. While this hardly appeared to be a particularly attractive option, I was likely to be asphyxiated by engine exhaust anyway. So the thought of having my cause of death listed as 'asphyxiation' may have also come into play, forcing me to move further away from the track. Apparently others were completing this or a similar thought process, because more and more were doing the same. The whole scene became reminiscent of what a person might associate with old archival combat footage of a WWII European type assault, and not the jungle warfare associated in people's perceptions of Vietnam.
As the battle developed, the APCs would continue their steady forward movement. For us afoot in the wide open, we had been driven to fire and maneuver as we got closer to the hedgerow. This is what we had trained for all those months at Ft. Hood. But no amount of simulation, however real, no matter how intense it could be made to seem, could ever come close to the reality of hearing the urgent cries beckoning a Medic to tend to the wounded and dying. So numerous would these calls become on this day, that at times it seemed as if 1 Medic was needed in 5 places all at the same time. Only with these added features could the true chaos of battle be fully appreciated. As the confusion of the situation continued to intensify, the roar of combat still continued erupting to higher levels of intensity as the added staccato of grenade and rocket explosions made their presence known. Each passing minute would make all our preparatory training of less and less value as it had little or no resemblance to our immediate reality. It would however, give us sound principles on which to improvise.
Their was at that moment, a certain amount of envy for the TDs, seemingly protected from small arms fire in their cocoons of armor, and oblivious to the problems we were having out in the open trying to keep up with them. For us on the other side of that armor, we could only watch as many of the APCs pulled further out in front of us. Somewhere during this phase of battle, my mind took its final recollection of Shap as he was continuing to press his attack steadily forward into the direction of the hedgerow. There was one quick adjustment where he deliberately veered his track off to the left. I remember wondering if he had been ordered to do so, or if he was responding independently to someone in need of help. The latter would have been so consistent with his personality.
As he pulled further away to be devoured by the battle, I gave no thought to the dangers he might be rolling towards. I had become preoccupied with a problem of my own. If I was to follow Shap's change of direction, then my problem was serious. At some point I had drawn the sole attention of an enemy gunner located somewhere directly in front of me and was pinned down. A strategically positioned palm tree in an otherwise flat and open area provided me a place of cover but it was now being shredded by a low grazing fire. While this seemed to continue for an eternity, in real time it was likely no more than a couple of minutes. But as the gunner shifted his attention elsewhere, ending that problem, I quickly noticed rounds hitting around me coming from a location to my rear and slightly off to the right. The angle of impact suggested that the shooter was in a tree somewhere. This posed a major dilemma. I could reposition myself around the other side of the palm, but this would likely mean being exposed again to the machine gun fire. I had been hoping that he was suitably convinced that I had been killed or wounded, and wasn't real anxious of notifying him otherwise. However, circumstances demanded the making of a choice, and staying where I was didn't seem to be an option. I needed to eliminate one or the other of the 2 threats, and opted for the sniper to my rear over the machine gun.
In the course of moving toward the direction where I believed the shots were originating, I heard rifle fire open up in a large thatched structure that served as a barn. Entering the building I was surprised to find another G.I., a squad leader from another platoon standing over the body of what appeared to be an old farmer. Evidently, as the battle had come to life, it constituted a call to arms for the local VC organization, where each one promptly retrieved their rifles from those secret hiding places we could never find during our village searches, and then rushing to join the conflict. This particular unfortunate soul had been positioned in the peak of the rafters, where he could fire through a small ventilation cupola. From this perch he would have been well concealed, with clear visibility of my position behind the palm some 50 yards away. This had apparently been the source of my problem. Fortunately for me he wasn't the best of shots.
In the confusion, the two of us had drifted far right from the rest of the advance and would now need to work our way back to rejoin the company.
There would be many more hours of this battle. Blocks of time go unaccounted for in the memory, as if mercifully removed surgically for the benefit of the patient. Platoons and their squads would gradually meld back together, like a Midwestern community easing out of their shelters after a tornado. Only after the battle field fell silent would we learn the fate of all those with whom we started the day with. Under these circumstances, empathy can rise easily concerning the feelings of loss felt by the survivors. All of us can fill in the blank of the person(s) we were devastated to learn we had lost. But on this day it was for me this wonderful blonde haired track driver, this dynamic young man from Colorado who had been killed. Several of the tracks had been taken out of commission by rockets. In this instance however, it had been more personal. An enemy marksman understood that the only way to stop the intimidating advance of Shap's Armored Personnel Carrier was to shoot its driver. Shap had been shot through the head.
Letters from Sheila were likely still in route, on their way to Shap. These would inevitably be returned to sender, extending Sheila's intense grieving process. Several more would no doubt be in various stages of composition, sitting on the desk where they were composed as part of her daily routine, each expressing the love and hopes for the future to someone who now could no longer be comforted by them. Sheila too, would likely continue receiving the last final letters containing the thoughts of one now rendered unconscious in death. How cruel to contemplate that the potential now existed, in which during the savoring of a letter just delivered to her, Sheila's long distant embrace of love is suddenly interrupted by the innocent ring of a phone or a knock at the door. With letter in hand and her thoughts communing intimately with Shap, she would have no knowledge that the annoying interruption was merely the shadow cast in advance by the unfortunate bearer of the news.
December 10th, 1967 wasn't to be the worst day Vietnam had to offer during my year in country. It wouldn't be the last time the conflict of emotion would leave me dazed and confused. Over and over again the euphoria of surviving a particular event, to see the sunrise of another day, to feel the exhilaration of being alive with all of the senses processing the joys of life, would be tempered with the anguish of guilt that you had survived and others hadn't. At the end of a year, the compounding total of these conflicting emotions would leave its scars on all who were guilty of surviving.
The cliché' phrase 'War is Hell' may be understood intellectually, it can be visualized by the most graphic of film footage, enhanced with Hollywood's special effects, but only experiencing firsthand, either as a combatant or a terrified civilian caught in the middle, does the complete definition reveal itself. December 10th, 1967 was the day of my total understanding. Prior to that date we may have thought we understood those words - we didn't. All of us who were there now share a common understanding which sadly bonds us.
The lingering memories create yet another dimension in our comprehension of the phrase, known only by us. For the vanquished, that hell ended upon their untimely death. For Sheila and the others of war's survivors, that hell continues. It continues a lifetime, until we too are relieved of conscience thought.
Yet all is not lost from war's exercise in insanity. Wars have been fought, many times in the noble hope that it will end the need for future conflicts - It hasn't. Each side justifies the cause, but in the end there never seems to be an equal justification for the expense. This has not gone unnoticed by mankind's creator who promises that he will soon, "Make wars to cease to the extremity of the earth" (Psm 46:9), ending mankind's failed experiment at self rule through a kingdom (or government) prayed for over the centuries in the 'Lord's Prayer' (Matt. 6:10). Accompanying this kingdom is also the promised assurance that those asleep in the grave will be restored to perfect life in a peaceful paradise earth (Isa. 25:8). I take my place aside Shap's grave, ready to extend a firm handshake, along with a slap on the back, and a genuine "Welcome home, Shap. Welcome to the real life!"