Excerpt (Ch. 12)

Absent of Grace and Mercy
by Rich Raitano

USS Gordon (courtesy: Naval Historical Center)

On December 19th, 1967, four days after my twenty-third birthday, the USS Gen. W. H. Gordon slipped slowly and gently into Qui Nhon Bay, Republic of South Viet Nam. I was a medic with HHC (Headquarters and Headquarters Company) / 4th Battalion / 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) / 11th Light Infantry Brigade.

In early March, 1968, after spending time on LZ Sue with Bravo Company, and stays at the aid stations on Hill 54 and LZ Bronco, I was assigned to 2nd Surgical Hospital in Chu Lai as Casualty Reporter / Hospital Liaison for our battalion and Task Force Barker. My primary duties were to assess, evaluate and interview our unit wounded when they arrived from the battlefield, and report to Battalion S-2. I made daily visits to the wards, spending time talking with each man, bringing Red Cross supplied sundries or requested materials from the PX, and when called to do so, tour with unit officers who came to visit with their wounded troops.

The most difficult function of my assignment were the visits to GR (Graves Registration) to identify, assess, evaluate, and confirm cause of death. Most of these men were known to me from the early days of our training at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. Many were friends. All were brothers.

An insufferable despair hung heavy along the murky waters of Acheron. Thick, black clouds tumbled and swirled with frenzied rage in a blood red sky. Dark, unearthly shadows drifted uneasily above the charred and ashen landscape. It was an eternally damned place, chosen to serve as an un-holy tabernacle for mayhem and carnage; for fear and endless sorrow. No God or gods dare walk there; it was absent of grace and mercy. The dog tired and sweat drenched platoon stumbled into the clearing. web-gear and tired asses hit the ground. Smokes were lit. Small talk
and muffled laughter rolled uneasily in the sticky May night. It was good to stop, to finally end their nomadic trek through jungle brush, and rice paddy muck in search of an elusive enemy. One by one each man settled in for the night. All was not well.

As quick as a raging torrent and roaring thunder comes in an unexpected storm, the jungle erupted into a deadly and frantic fury. Hot, angry projectiles stampeded through the musty air, cutting a path of instant death. Shouts and screams filled the windless night. Then all was as swiftly still and silent.

The foul stench of death hung heavily around them, clinging to their
clothes, filling their lungs. The deadly incense of cordite pierced the air in
the retreating twilight.

A tattered paperback lay on the grassy rise; an outstretched hand gripped the curled and sweat stained pages. Bloodied fingers clawed in vain at the soft earth in a hopeless attempt to escape the coming tempest. The weary, faltering rhythm of his fading heart summoned the demons to gather in ghoulish anticipation; waiting patiently for the moment when all is forever lost and the profane feast that would soon begin. The vital glow of his life grew pale and dim. One last image lay unseen in
empty cold eyes, one final thought fell short of lasting memory. And in the ominous silence between now and never, the desperate struggle for life and death began.

His life’s blood ran warm through the hands of those who worked in
vain to save him. They could not comprehend that he was already gone;
the life they knew to be his had been torn from this world and flung carelessly
into another.

Only the dead and dying heard the pitiless triumphant mockery as it
moved in the ground beneath them…

May 8, 1968

My thoughts were wildly conflicted as I sprinted through the maze
of screened wooden hooches of 2nd Surgical Hospital in Chu Lai. Delta
Company had made contact and the wounded and dead were on the
way. I waited uneasily at the pad for dust-off to arrive. My heart
pounded in my ears and my lungs sucked in the heavy night air.
One of our medics was a casualty. Andy, Fred, and Leroy were
medics with Delta Company. In the distant darkness the familiar cadence
of blades slicing into the dank air worked its way into my
anxieties. I watched with pained anguish as dust-off approached,
touched down, and the wounded were off-loaded and rushed into the
ER.

Gathering myself, I took a deep breath and followed them. The
smell of blood and torn flesh filled the room. Doctors, nurses, and hospital
medics went from litter to litter treating first those with the best
chance of survival.

I slowly made my way to each litter, taking names and assessing
wounds while searching for the medic. He was not among them. One of
the wounded told me that “doc was hit” but could tell me nothing more.
I rejected the thought of where he could be and struggled with the
persistent gnawing truth as I made my way out of the ER and trotted
down the darkened road to Graves Registration (GR). I had done this so
many times before and I knew he was there, but I would not say it; I
would not dare think it.

The fridge room was dimly lit and cool. I had come to appreciate
this room and the macabre opportunity it offered for escape from the
hot and oppressive air outside its walls. On most occasions, the attendant
would pull cool beers from an empty drawer while I examined the
bodies of fallen comrades. With emotions shut down it had become
nothing more than a daily routine: assess and evaluate the dead and
wounded, drink a beer and exchange smalltalk. Such is the stolid necessity
that separates the living from the dead.

GR was nothing more than a grim crypt with a never-ending supply
of dead. Time and countless visits had kindly dulled my senses. But
that night, May 8th, the room would not willingly receive me. Struggling
against my desire to turn and walk away, I made my way to the desk
and asked about the recent delivery. The attendant led me to a drawer,
pulled it open and unzipped the body bag.

It was Fred.

I stepped back as the hopelessness of his death struck me. The
room went silent, and my head filled with an incredulous roar as the
sinister, cold specter of death rushed past me once again; looked me in
the eyes and moved on.

“GSW to the back of the head,” the attendant reported with a casual
indifference as he turned and went about his business; his own
senses numbed long ago.
A tight, knotted pressure began building in my chest and my head
ached as I looked on the lifeless body of my friend. His face was unshaven
and sweat streaked…and warm still to the touch. I gently lifted his
head and located the entry wound. No exit. I wept silently for my friend;
his life now gone. My tears fell on his body.

I was just two months into my duties as a Casualty Reporter and I
had seen much death and mayhem already, and much more would follow
before my tour was over, but this one was personal and filled with
cruel irony.

In mid-January 1968, while pulling guard on LZ Sue, the word had
come to us that another friend, Dave, had been killed. It was a friendly
fire incident. As the platoon was moving through rice paddies, Dave
reached up and grabbed the barrel of Fred’s M-16 to pull himself up. A
shot rang out and a round entered Dave’s chest under his arm. In a
matter of seconds he was dead.

Fred was devastated and noticeably changed when I saw him again
sometime later. He was more subdued; quiet. The weight of that death
hung heavy and hard on his spirit.
And now he was dead.
I turned and walked into the humid oppressive air. My body shook
with anger and grief while the past, present and future collided in my
head. I was physically and mentally exhausted from the goddamned
daily bloody mayhem of torn and shattered bodies and watching men
die. I had had enough.

I screamed at God that night as I made my way up the road. I could
no longer contain my rage or my tears. I wanted the forces of Heaven to
explain this to me.
The urgent cacophony of busy choppers was the only reply I heard
that night as I made my way back to the ER under a star filled sky.
God was silent…and Heaven was far from near.

~~~

The aged USS Gordon cut smoothly through the blue-gray ocean,
slowly rising and falling, sending a glittering salty mist over the bow in
the early morning sun. We gathered to watch in fascination as a school
of porpoise frolicked alongside; rising and plunging, leading the way.
Later that evening as the sun was setting; Fred, Jim, Andy, Lee,
and I sat on the steel deck talking in low hushed tones discussing our
impending fate. We were in a reflective and somber mood that December
night as we steamed towards Viet Nam. Up to that time we had
managed to avoid any discussion of our private thoughts and fears. We
laughed and joked and ran about the ship as if on a cruise, or another
training exercise. But it could be stilled no longer.

The disquieting reality of what lay ahead of us had finally surfaced
and demanded that we acknowledge its presence. From that sullen
moment forward we saw each day as if it were the last, and one another
as if for the last time. That sense of powerless never left us. It was a
simple fact; one year from that moment it was a certainty that one or
more of us would be dead. It was an un-welcomed and forbidding
thought.

Somewhere on deck, accompanied by several low voices, a guitarist
strummed softly amidst the many muffled conversations around us.
The whole ship seemed to have been gripped by the same haunting uneasiness
that night.
The sun now long set, we sat silent, lost in our private thoughts.
Fred quietly disturbed the silence with what now seems to have been a
prescient thought. It has remained with me through all these years…
“If I die…” he softly announced, “I want to die for a cause, not just
be-cause.”
Just twenty-five days from his twenty-first birthday, Fred failed to
get his wish.
It was silent and still. The shadows grew restless; aroused with vile
expectation and hungry for the souls delivered to them in this bitter
place.
A shrill and demonic wailing echoed from the depths of the blackness.
The time had come.
Death rose from the putrid depths and stood triumphantly above the
tragedy before him. And with a cool indifference, he raised his staff to
signal the gruesome feast to begin.

December 5, 1967

We watched in apprehensive silence as the glittering lights of Waikiki faded slowly into the inky black South Pacific night. It was December 5th, 1967, and our time in the Hawaiian paradise had come to its end. Months of training had shaped us, the 11th Light Infantry Brigade, into the Jungle Warriors. We were called to action by General Westmoreland who believed we were ready to battle the communist
enemy on the other side of the globe.

Huddled aft on the USS Gordon, we strained to catch the last fading glimpses of the world we were leaving: warm sandy beaches, tanned and bikinied beauties, and most of all…our youth. The shoreline shimmered softly like a strand of diamonds resting on the obsidian night as we sailed away to war. It flickered as if to say
aloha…and then was gone.

The mood on ship was pensive and solemn as we stared into an empty and dark ocean. Quiet and reserved conversations could be heard as the gray merchant ship cut its way through the water. We knew that within this coming year many of us would be killed. Who amongst us would not return? The answer was out there yet…somewhere beyond the horizon… waiting for us.

LZ Carentan (December 1967)

The Huey shook as the turbine whined and reached for peak power.
The giant rotor blades whistled and accelerated smoothly above us,
cutting into the hot air, sending a swirling, reddish dust-cloud billowing
in all directions. The chopper shivered slightly with anticipation,
and then at the pilot’s 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 open hatch as we climbed into the sky.

LZ Carentan slipped away below us and I watched with a detached indifference 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
Light Infantry Brigade gathered before spreading out all over Quang Ngai Province.
Carentan was where war and death introduced themselves to us. I had just
turned 23 and we  had been in-country for two weeks with many more weeks ahead.

The convoy rolled into LZ Carentan in the mid-afternoon of December
20th, 1967, the day after we docked in Qui Nhon. Carentan was a
sandy encampment, fidgety with the restless enthusiasm of thousands
of soldiers settling into a warzone. Large numbers of local villagers under
conical straw hats and wearing silk pajamas were everywhere. It
was a queer sight, just as it was the day before in Qui Nhon, 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, armygreen
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 appropriate 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
140 More Than A Memory
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, Santa flew in on a Huey dressed in
jungle fatigues, white beard and red cap, and handed 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 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 of the perimeter. All was relatively
quiet those first days, except of course for the constant buzz of Hueys,
the distant thunder of artillery, and muffled reports from a distant firefight.
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.
It 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 treeline, 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 clicks 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 23rd, 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 Bob, ran into the tent and called for medics. There were wounded on the perimeter and they needed
FLAs…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 Ralph 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.

Ralph 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 aidbags
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. Ralph disappeared further down the perimeter and I picked
up my patient. Another grunt assisted me getting him into the FLA,
and once he was on board, I raced to the pad and waited for medevac.
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 unit’s strength, 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 sawhorses.
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 had joined our brigade while we were still in Hawaii,
three months before we shipped out. He had been in Viet Nam 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.

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