I was not a very impressive Officer Candidate having the command appearance of a Boy Scout and the command voice of a Girl Scout. Nevertheless I was determined to be the best Lieutenant I could, including in combat if that came to be. After jump school that is exactly where I ended up.
Being in the infantry is always difficult and the Vietnam War was as bad as any. At best we were uncomfortable, and at worst our lives threatened. Mostly we did what we had to and hoping just to get home some day. But once in a while something would happen that you sense would change you forever.
For me, that was the rescue of Dustoff 65. It was a rainy, foggy night on April 3, 1968, when my platoon came under attack. A savage firefight followed, which lasted most of the night. Two of the several men who got hit were critically wounded. We needed a medivac if their lives were to be saved. With no place to land a helicopter, it was necessary to use a device called a "jungle penetrator" to lift the injured men through the triple canopy jungle.
That was a dangerous mission as the aircraft needed to hover for several minutes as the evacuation took place. Pilots, First Lieutenants Mike Meyers and Ben Knisely, crew-chief James Richardson and medic Bruce Knipe of the 498th Medical Company accepted the assignment. At first light they headed for us.
Using radio contact, Meyers and Knisely got close and identified the purple smoke we had put out to help locate our position. Coming in at treetop level and just before they got to us they were hit by a North Vietnamese Army rocket, which blew away their tail section. They managed a controlled crash some distance away from us. We quickly put together a search party and set off to, at least, find and secure their bodies. With a little help from God, we might even find survivors.
Finally, we smelled smoke and knew we must be close. We were in a race with the enemy to get there first. The terrain was rugged and hostile. It took four hours, including a brief firefight, but we were successful. We found three of the four crewmembers alive. The crew chief had been killed and it would be weeks before another unit is able to find and recover his body.
It took the rest of the day to move the injured back to our company's position, and another three days to secure an area suitable to carve out an LZ (landing zone) large enough for another medivac to land. It was three days of being constantly wet, covered with muck, eating cold C-rations, unable to sleep. We were unable to move to a more secure position due to the need to protect the wounded. We used plastic explosives to blow trees for an LZ. The hole we created in the jungle was barely large enough for the rescue helicopter and we marveled at the skill and courage of that crew. Eventually we were all taken out to safety.
The entire mission took five days.
It is now difficult to explain those five days. They were not the most remarkable of my Vietnam tour. That mission won't be mentioned when great books of the era are written. Few will know the lousy food, lack of sleep, being scared or being brave. Most of the world will never know what happened on that mountain. The one thing that cannot be changed is that three brave men were saved because a band of mostly teenage soldiers persisted in a dangerous jungle search just to find them.
This Veteran's Day, I placed the American flag in front of my house in honor of my friend Don and the crew chief who died in that crash. The apologists for that war can say what they want, but I will never forget the sacrifice these men made to the cause of freedom we enjoy. I am proud to have served with them.
U.S. Army Sgt. James Richardson of Deville, La., and U.S. Marine Sgt. Don Barrington of Pasadena, CA. - I salute you.
Reunion was first published in the Ft. Bend Sun on November 6, 1997.
There were eight others attending this reunion. We had served together in Vietnam in 1968, part of the elite Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division. We were all paratroopers who were part of America's most unpopular war. I was their platoon leader.
We had a ceremony where I approached each one of them and hung a Purple Heart and a medal for bravery on his chest. I looked at each with pride, and remembered what he had done to earn his medals. There were all heroes without a doubt, but most people would never know of their heroism. They were very young men at the time, some just teenagers, who were serving their country out of a sense of duty. They were scared, but served with bravery.
The one thing these eight had in common was that I saw each of them die. Hecter died from a bullet through his heart while setting up a perimeter defense. Mac was shot walking point. Gene, Les and Frank were killed during a fierce night firefight that lasted until sun up. Sarge, I can't remember his name, our platoon sergeant, was killed by a 60 millimeter mortar round that just landed to close to where he was positioned. Jack and Kenny died as we attacked a fortified rocket-launching position.
They were from New York, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Texas, Puerto Rico, Mississippi and other places I now can't remember. They returned my salute and graciously accepted their medals. Then they seemed to disappear, having left without speaking. I don't know when I'll see them again, but if there is place in heaven for soldiers killed in action that is where they will be.
My salutes turn out to be nothing more than me wiping my eyes and my audience are seatmates on a cross-country flight. This reunion takes place entirely in my mind. I come close to making a spectacle of myself and I'm saved from such a scene when a flight attendant asks if I'm okay. I excuse myself and seek the privacy of the airplane's lavatory where I break down and cry. It is one of those uncontrollable cries where your whole body shakes.
I don't know why it took me nearly three decades to cry for these guys, as hardly a week goes by that I don't think of them. Maybe I've seen too much since we were last together. Maybe I wasn't crying for them alone. Maybe I was crying for myself, or for what's become of the America they gave their lives to defend. Thankfully, they would not return home to the taunts and glares that greeted so many of us.
Every Memorial Day and Veteran's Day I will again salute them when I see the flag that they served.
The revisionists of that war would like to minimize or otherwise distort the contributions of those brave heroes to the freedoms we now enjoy. I will work hard to keep that from happening. When the time comes for history - and finally God Himself - to judge our actions, I will choose to stand with the courageous men in my dream. I am proud of them and I am proud of what we did and what we stood for.
Used by permission of Tim Lickness
Tim can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Rescue of Dustoff 65 is also posted on the web site of the 498th Medical Company. The medic on that mission saw my essay and published his own response at http://www.angelfire.com/ny2/longbeach1/do65.html
Ben Knisley, one of the pilots gave a speach at a Dustoff Reuion, where I was the guest of honor and inducted as an honorary lifetime member of their organization. His speech can be found on their web site at http://www.dustoff.org/newsletter/benscommentstext.htm
That piece was first published in the Ft. Bend Sun on May 28, 1998.