Stephen Ray McGrew

DELTA Company ’68/’69
[email protected]

atr_cib

My service to my country began in January 1968. I was drafted out of Hartford Kentucky. I had gotten married 10 months earlier thinking it would help keep me out of the draft. Raised on a farm all my life I was ready to see the world. I arrived at Fort Knox in mid January to take my basic training for 8 weeks, which was in the winter months and it was cold days and nights. So by mid March, I was headed for AIT at Fort Polk, Louisiana. 8 weeks of Infantry training in Tigerland, it was called. So I finished AIT about mid May 1968.

I was there when Martin Luther King was killed and there was an uprising by some black soldiers there. One night I was walking back to the barracks from church and was robbed by two black soldiers. They took $40 from me. That was about half months pay. My base pay was $89.50 a month.

So after AIT I got a 2-week break before I was to report to Travis Air Force base to fly overseas. So by the end of May 1968, I was headed off to Vietnam. Not understanding why I was going but that my country said to go.

My mother-in law was in the hospital when I left. She died while was on the plane traveling to Vietnam. My wife had lost her mother to death and her husband to war all in the same day. I did not learn of her death until I got my first letter 2 weeks later. I got to Ben Hoa after a 14-hour flight.

I slept that first night in a barracks with sandbags stacked to the roof. I heard mortar rounds most of the night. My first morning in the country, seeing it in daylight, I was told it would take 2 or 3 days before I would be assigned to a unit. So I would be doing several details while waiting orders. My first duty was a crap job. Yes there were these porta-toilets for the officers. You had to go to the back and lift up the flap and take a hook and pull out this 55-gallon drum that had been cut off to about 18 inches high. Pour in the diesel fuel and burn it down. Stir it and burn it some more until it was gone. I did it all day long that first day, a very stinking detail. End of day 1 in Vietnam.

My second day was a different detail. I was taken to an open field and for the next 2 days I filled sandbags. On the fourth day I got my orders. I was being sent north to the border near the DMZ. I was assigned to Company D 1/327th 101st Airborne. The base camp was near Hue South, Vietnam. Several of us were headed there so we were transported by a C-47 aircraft. We sat on the floor because there were no seats on this plane. From the small airport in Hue we were taken by truck to the base camp. This would be the last truck I would ride on. From this point on I would travel only by foot or by helicopter. At the base camp or the rear as it was called. There were these large OD tents with cots in them. I stayed at the base for the next 2 days before being sent out to an artillery base in the field. There were no tents at the artillery base only some underground bunkers.

The first night I was there the base was attacked from the east side. This was a small base maybe only about an acre on a hilltop. I guess us cherries were introduced to firefights. The next morning I went to breakfast there in the chow line lay the first dead North Vietnamese soldier that I saw. He was young and naked. His body had lots of bullet holes in it. I think I ate all right.

For the next couple of days I did some details getting ready and packed up to go into the jungle. During those 2 days I saw my first American wounded soldier. There came to the base was a large Chinook helicopter and it landed very rough and then I saw why. The pilot had been shot up through his seat into his buttocks. Also during those 2 days there was this 106mm recoilless gun there no one knew anything about. I though to myself I was trained on this gun so if I show them I can operate it maybe they will let me stay on the base. Even though I cleaned it up I still had to go into the jungle on patrol with my unit.

So my first day humping my backpack was rough. My rucksack weighted about 80 pounds with ammunition, food and water for 5 days. I weighted only 126 lbs. when I left AIT training. It was so hot and muggy too. It would probably be 3 weeks before I would get a shower and a hot meal again. I would be eating (C-rations) out a can everyday while in the field. I was in the Central Highlands, very hilly and mountains all around.

The first firefight the company was in I could hear the 1st platoon up ahead was engaged. A different platoon took the lead everyday. I was in the 3rd platoon. The firefight lasted only about 5 minutes. I could hear the Russian made AK-47s and our M-16s firing at each other. After we heard by radio that all was clear we moved up the hill toward the action. As I neared the area I stepped over a log I stepped on something soft in the weeds. I looked down to see a dead NVA soldier. There was a large hole in his head. A 101st patch was stuck in the hole. In his right hand was an ace of spade card. I learned that was the trademark of the company to do that to the dead enemy.

End of the first day in the jungle. So my first night in the jungle approaches. All those nights of jungle warfare I prepared for back in Tigerland now was at hand. Not that I was afraid of the night. For I had been raised in the back country and had been exposed that sort of living all my life. We set up camp in a large circle. The first duty was to dig a foxhole. We then would put up a trip wire with a flare out in front of the foxhole and then set a claymore mine behind the trip wire and string a wire back to the foxhole with a detonator. One person of the 4 per foxhole had to be on guard at all times. As I was awake in the middle of the night for my watch. We slept on the ground fully clothed not hardly ever taking our boots off. You could only whisper to each other….no fires or lights of any kind. As I took my post, very tired and sleepy, I knew to be alert. This is what I had trained for the last 16 weeks. It was a moonlit night. I could see shadows all over, being nervous, I wondered what was out there. As I stared into the forest I thought my eyes was playing tricks on me. It was not long I saw a shadow moving into the moonlight. I thought maybe Charlie was crawling under the trip wire. Should I wake someone up? I had my M-16 lying across my lap. I had the claymore mine detonator in my hand. All I had to do was press the lever. My heart was pounding by now. I stared into dim light. Finally I saw it clear. It was a monkey. I almost blew up a monkey. Well it was the end of my watch.

The next morning I awoke with a wiggling feeling on my body. It was about a dozen leeches on me. I started pulling them off but I would bleed. Someone said, “don’t get them off like that”. He said to put a drop of insect repellant on the head and they would fall off without bleeding.

For the days to follow, they were pretty much the same. Every third day it was my platoons turn to take the lead. One soldier would walk the point; the second would be the slack man. The point man job was very dangerous. It was a lot of responsibility. To watch for booby-traps and ambushes and sometime had to break a trail. I was always afraid being up front. Sometimes the enemy would let the front platoon pass by and them ambush the middle of the company. We were always in single file, staying about 15 feet apart. We were on a search and destroy mission. We were on recon. We would have to make our food and water last for 5 days. We gave our position away every fifth day when we would be resupplied by helicopter. We moved on patrol about 1 click (1000 meters) in a day depending on the terrain. If we needed to move to what the army called a hot spot we would be picked by helicopter and drop into the elephant grass. With the blades of the chopper swirling the grass around, the grass could be 3 ft high or it could be 20 ft. You didn’t know until you jumped out with the 80-lb. rucksack on your back. It would drive you into the ground if there were not enough room fall right. After a few jumps I started to throw my pack out ahead of me with strap attached to it so I would not lose it. Almost everyday we came in contact with the enemy. Usually it was a different platoon everyday getting into a firefight. We found training camps of the NVA. which we burned and destroyed.

Sometimes, since I was a small guy, I would crawl into the tunnels to check for weapons, a tunnel rat you were called. After many days and nights we were getting closer to our objective. The Ashau Valley was controlled by the NVA. Their supplies and reinforcements to southern part of the country came through this valley. There was one dirt road that ran through it called “Highway One.”

Ashau Valley was near the DMZ and was also close to the Laos border.  As we got closer to the valley we came under artillery fire. Probably a 105mm Howitzer. As we looked at the map we could see that the gun was in Laos. By counting the seconds from the time you heard the round fired until it hit the ground near us it was about 15 miles away. Several were wounded by the shrapnel. We reached the edge of the valley on August 3rd 1968. The valley was about ½ mile deep by 5 miles wide and 25 miles long. We as a company were about 60 men. The Company Commander was a Captain. There were 3 platoons of 19 troops when we were at full force. Each platoon had a 1st Lt. as platoon leader, a platoon Sergeant, each had a RTO (radio technical operator) and then there were 3 squads of 5 each. One medic. I was now the RTO for my platoon Sergeant. The RTO was often a target because of the antenna. Many had been killed or wounded. So I asked for the job when it came open. Being the RTO meant I did not have to walk point anymore or have foxhole perimeter watch either. I did still have radio watch 1 hour in the middle of the night. By carrying the radio I had added about 25 lbs. To my already heavy rucksack. My platoon Sergeant was Sgt. Hermann. (more about him later) We came under small arms fire as we reached the valley. After a short firefight all was quiet. Only one NVA soldier was killed before they retreated. As I sat down later to eat a can of beans the dead man laid there near me. I studied him. He was an officer. He had carried an old Russian made rifle and wore a safari type tan hat, green fatigues, white low top tennis shoes. I guess I was somewhat harden by battle by now felt nothing as I took his belt, canteen cup, shovel and knife. Some of the guys dragged his body back down the trail and left him there for the enemy to find with screaming eagle patch stuck in a bullet hole. We spent the night looking out over the valley preparing to go down in the morning.

My first day down at the bottom of the valley, we came to the dirt road Hwy. 1 as we humped the road we checked for land mines. About mid morning we came under artillery fire again. Two soldiers were wounded as we found cover for a couple of hours. Five helicopters came and picked us up to take us north up the valley. As I climbed aboard the Huey it was full. There was no room inside so I rode the skid hanging on. I rode that way for a few miles and then was dropped into the tall elephant grass, as it was a hot spot taking small arms fire.

I remember being so tired all the time. Never getting an uninterrupted night of sleep wore on you. Not having good food or a refreshing bath. I hoped I would break a leg when I jumped out of the chopper. To get out of the field into a hospital bed sounded inviting.

Another day I was going down a mountain slope and as I was holding on to vines, bushes, limbs about anything I started falling so I thought I don’t care if maybe I will break something and get out of this misery. I rolled over and over hitting rocks and trees and finally came to the bottom. I hoped something was broke. The men in my platoon came to check on me. I was hurt but nothing was broke. I had bruises and scratches that were all. So no getting out of the field today.

We were in and out of Ashau Valley for the next 2 weeks. We were losing men every day and not getting new troops in. We had come here with almost 60 and by the time this mission was over we would get back to rear with only 22 left. That meant we would lose 2/3 of the company to death or being wounded.

One thing I observed was when we got a new 1st Lt. in was if he thought he knew it all he did not last long at all or he got troops killed by his mistakes. If he came in with common sense he would come to the platoon Sergeant and say I am new here so you lead the platoon for a while until I get my feet wet then I will take over. One such lieutenant I remember was Lt. Farmer who did it that way.

Anyway back to the valley. I recall seeing a helicopter hit by gunfire. It was out of control on fire and going around in circles. It was about 200 ft up when I saw the door gunner jump to his death rather than go down in the burning chopper. I called on my radio the location and tried to get a medivac chopper out to them but it was too late.

Another day we were pinned down by a lone sniper. We called in a F-4 jet, which blew the whole hill away. That took care of him.

One day a strange thing happened. We were being fired on from a hillside. Three of us, myself included, made our way up the hill. One at a time moving from tree to tree, rock to rock, covering each other as we made our way toward the bunker. Then a crazy thing happened that was really silly when I thought about it later. I was behind a large boulder that had a niche in it as bullets glanced off the rock. Then I saw it. A very large wasp or hornets nest and they were very mad and they started after me. Well, I left there in a hurry, taking my chances with the bullets. I could see them but not the bullets. We backed off down the hill and then called in artillery on the hill.

The next day, 1st platoon took the lead and we started our assault on Hill #1100. It was called that because of its altitude of 1100 feet above sea level. One year later it would be called Hamburger Hill. We knew they’re intentions well. An air strike was called in to soften their position. I was in the 3rd platoon. We covered for 1st platoon as they moved up the hill. They came under heavy fire from AK-47’s. They soon were driven back carrying their wounded with them.

They had 8 wounded but no KIA’S, so we, as a company, set up for the night after medivacing the wounded out. The plan was that 3rd platoon would be the first to go up the next day. Needless to say, I did not sleep much at all that night. I ate my c-ration beans and had a date cake and rested the best I could. I made a hammock out of my poncho liner and straps from my rucksack. It got me off the ground out of the numerous insects. Everyone must keep watch for one hour each night, so unless you have the first watch or last watch, you can never get full nights sleep. Every night you are awakened by your turn to watch or Charlie would shoot off a few mortar rounds, just enough so you are never rested. That is the enemy’s plan; to break you down and make you weary before they attack your unit.

I slept what little I did with my full canteen of water to keep my own comrades from taking it during the night. I had my usual can of pears or fruit cocktail the next morning, checked my water supply. Two gallons of water was to last me 5 days. A lot of it went on the green towel around my neck, which must be kept moist all day long. I carried four quart canteens and two half-gallon plastic canteens. Water was not used for bathing, shaving or brushing teeth unless you really could not stand your mouth feeling grit in it any longer. No shaving because your face could get infected. Shaving could wait for two more weeks.

So up the next morning and time for 3rd platoon to try to get up Hill 1100. I remember we started up the hill and had not been fired on yet. We moved from tree to tree or rock to rock and kept moving but staying low. We soon were taking fire from the hill…mortar rounds and AK47’s.

Artillery had pounded the hill before we started up the hill but did not drive them away. Maybe 30 minutes later we came to a clearing, which was about 50 feet across. We moved across in single file about 15 feet apart. That’s when it happened. The most scary time ever. I was almost to the center of the clearing when we were ambushed. There were three of us in the clearing now. I fell to the ground and could see the muzzle blast of an AK-47 firing at me from about 50 feet away. I turned my body and head toward the firing to make a smaller target. There was only a few weeds and twigs to try to hide in. The bullets were hitting the ground and kicking up dirt and hitting my face. Some twigs were being cut off by the bullets and were falling on me. I raised my M16 the best I could in the prone position. I began firing in the direction of the muzzle blast. It must have driven the NVA soldier back.

That’s when Sgt. Herman came from my left and started charging toward the nest. I watched as he disappeared behind a boulder and heard him firing his M16 (modified) and also heard AK47’s firing. Then a grenade went off and I saw the sergeant coming back but he was wounded. The three of us helped him back to cover. We moved him and the rest of the platoon back down the hill. As we moved to safety, I was still shaking. I realized how close I came to dying today. It was then that one of my comrades said, “look”! I looked back from where I had been walking and saw a bloody foot print. I had not realized that my left boot was full of blood from a bullet to my ankle.

The medic took my boot and sock off and it was a glancing shot that did not hit any bone. I was treated and put my boot back on. It is late evening now. Maybe one hour until it got dark. We had to get Sgt. Herman out before dark because the medivac would not land after dark. About ½ hour before it was dark, the medivac helicopter came for the wounded and bodies. Just as the chopper got down to the treetops, the chopper started taking AK47 rounds. I saw the bullets ricochet off the blades and the thin body of the chopper. We had given Sgt. Herman a shot of morphine thinking he was being picked up but the medivac left when it took on the rounds. So now it was getting dark and with wounded men and bodies, we had to move. The decision was made to move back to our last LZ (landing zone) which was cleared 3 days ago. It was about a click (1000 meters) away, back through thick jungle in the dark. This would be my worst night of my duty. Our medic was killed so we had him in a poncho, carrying him by 4 corners. I took my turns of about 15 minutes each. Carrying a dead body is very heavy. My rucksack after about 4 days was down to only maybe 60 lbs.

The jungle area we were trying to go through was littered with fallen trees from bombings. Trying to get over the fallen trees with a body in the dark was difficult. So we called (Red Leg) artillery and had them to fire illumination rounds with parachutes so they lit up the night for about 5 minutes. We would rest until the next round would light up the night sky. As we climbed over logs through the night, probably three hours before dawn, it started to rain. Tired, hungry, sleepy and scared, we trudged on. Some time before dawn, I fell asleep in a mud puddle. We had reached the loading zone. I awoke after daylight to the unmistaken crawling of my skin. I was covered with leeches. As my sight adjusted I looked at who lay near me. It was the dead man I had been carrying all night. I did not realize how bad he was because he was covered all night, but now the wind and rain had opened the poncho to reveal a faceless man. I was sick. His entire face was blown away. There was one ear and a partial scalp left. I covered him up again. I was too numb to sleep now. Slowly others around me started waking up. I now was busy removing the leeches, figuring they had their breakfast. The best way to remove them is not to pull them off the attached skin, but to put one drop of insect repellent on their head and they would drop off. They were usually small…about 3” long.

After that, I tried to wake up enough to eat a can of fruit cocktail. I usually ate fruit in the morning rather than the bad powdered eggs and salty ham in a can. About mid morning, a medic helicopter came to pick up the wounded and dead. After the evening before when the medivac chopper left, I saw a brave pilot do something I thought was great. I saw as the helicopter came against the side of the mountain, with only a small ledge to land on. He could only get one skid onto the ledge because the turning blade was very close to hitting the side of the mountain. He somehow held the chopper steady on one skid while the wounded and dead was loaded. Then he did not try to lift up, but instead, just dropped over the side of the cliff. I went to the side to look over into the ½ mile deep valley and listened for the Bell engine and after 30 seconds, I saw the chopper flying low in the valley. It was the end of three hard days.

At this time we were not a company anymore but the size of a platoon. The next day we returned to the rear after 29 days in the jungle. It was good to get even a cold shower, shave, brushed teeth, a hot meal and a cot after a month in the jungle.

This was about August 20th 1968. So for about 3 days, I ate hot meals, slept under a tent and went to get medical aid for my ankle wound and get the jungle rot off my hands. Jungle rot is infection that comes about from being dirty, insect bites, scratches. The doctor would use penicillin to treat the infections. I had a big spot on the left side of my right hip that I got from a canteen rubbing the skin and got infected. It took maybe 2 months to heal. So after being in the rear for 3 days, we found out we had new assignments.

Now we were back to company size again. That meant that 2/3 of our unit were cherries (new men from the states that had not been in a firefight before). Because we had so many new people and because we had such a hard month in Ashau Valley, we were given an easy assignment…. so they said. There was a new artillery base being built on top of a mountain. Company ”D” of 327th Infantry and 101st Airborne was to patrol around the bottom of the mountain and there was not suppose to be any NVA in the area. About our second or third day out, on August 29th, 1968, we were on a ridgeline. Early in the morning, we awoke from our foxholes and brought in the claymore mines that were set up in front of our foxholes. The M60 machine guns were brought in from the perimeter.

I guess Charlie must have been watching us all night, waiting for the opportunity when our guard was down a little. As we got into our rucksacks, I, myself, weighed 125 lbs.. When I put my backpack on, it was so heavy with the radio, extra battery, food, water, grenades, entrenching tool and ammunition…about 80 lbs. this day. I had to sit down with my back to the pack, put the straps on my shoulder, put my wet towel around my neck, then I would roll over and get on my hands and knees, then stand up and be ready to hump. This morning we got out of circle and started heading up the ridge. Then I heard it… the sound of an incoming 37mm. RPG round. This is a direct fire weapon made in Russia. So there is only a second once you know it is coming. No time to get down like when we heard mortar rounds coming in. The round hit about 8’ to my left . I saw the blast and felt the concussion. The blast ripped me from my rucksack. I was tumbling into the air. I landed maybe 50 ft away. My body was hot from the shrapnel. My left eardrum was busted. I lay on my stomach and could hear the AK47’s as the NVA attacked. I smelled the gunpowder. I knew I was hurt. As I looked at my left arm, I could see the bone was exposed. Then I thought about my radio. I must call 1st platoon for help. I had the only radio in 3rd platoon. The radio was with my backpack. I must find it. As I lay there for maybe a minute, I could hear other wounded calling out for help. I gathered my muscles under me to get up and run to find the radio. Only my right arm was able to move. My legs were numb, so I started crawling, dragging my body with my right arm. After a couple of minutes, I found my pack. I was screaming into the radio that we were pinned down and needed help. There were about 8 wounded comrades around me. Soon 1st platoon came and backed off the attack of the NVA that had ambushed us. We received first aid pretty soon. After the medic evaluated us, I was the 3rd worst wounded.

They said that because there were only 2 medivac helicopters coming with baskets to lower down through the trees they could only take 2 out. The other wounded would have to wait until a landing zone was cleared. I was carried into a deep bomb crater to be attended to by a medic. It would take an hour or so to clear a landing zone. Soon I was given morphine for the pain. I remember talking out of my head about my high school days. I was aching all over my body. After awhile, a medivac landed. I was laid on the floor of the chopper and taken to a mash unit. I was taken first to x-ray and a little later remember being in the operating room. I saw people bathing me, shaving the hair of my legs. Then came the gas mask. I was out for maybe 6 hours. I remember slowly waking up. I could hear out of my right ear. First was the sound of a woman’s voice. It had been months since I heard that sound. After awhile, I opened one eye, then the other. I looked at my body, wrapped like a mummy in gauze. I was told I had 17 scars.

So from this point I went to two other hospitals in Vietnam…Da Nang and Cam Ranh Bay. After a few days, I was headed for Japan for 16 days and two hospitals there.

I was told I was going home. I was taken to Illinois and then to Fort Knox, Kentucky. I had about 40 days of recovery and rehab. I had to learn to walk again. My legs were damaged badly.

In late November 1968, I was to report to Fort Hood, Texas. I finished my assignment there for the next 14 months. I made Sgt. E-5 after only 20 months in the Army. I was discharged in January 1970 with 60% disability.

I am now a Life member of Military Order of Purple Heart, Life member of VFW and Life member of DAV.

I am proud to be an American. I’m proud to have come home to have two great children and grandkids to come.

Yours in service, then and now,
Stephen McGrew