Vietnam Memories

1st_splash

Tiger Force 1966

Phil Neel

One of my carry overs from that time is that I cannot eat white turkey meat to this day. Reason: the morning after my first battle (My Canh II), I knew I had to eat something so I pulled out the first can of C-rations I found. It was a can of turkey and was so dry I almost couldn’t swallow it. To this day, I do not eat white turkey meat although I love the dark meat. It is amazing some of the thing that stick to us for a lifetime.

Following the action at My Canh II, we moved into a forward area base camp which also included some 105 artillery pieces. I do not know how many. The camp was in the Tuy Hoa valley but exact location is unknown. I went on two or three patrols before being moved up to Team Leader. I can remember one such patrol. I was carrying the M-60 over my shoulder, barrel forward, when we received fire from our left front. The next thing I can recall is crawling out of the rice paddy, up to the top of the dike, with the M-60 in the firing position.  I don’t know how I did that, but it shows how instinct and training take over even when our mind is on hold. After silencing the enemy fire we checked the village and found an old lady chained to a tree with a machine gun. People still don’t believe that things like that happened to us.

I also remember one occasion when we happened to be at base camp that we received a report that we were going to be attacked. Two of us were chosen to set up a listening post about 100 yards past our lines. That was the longest night of fear in my whole life. We had just returned from patrol that day and were both exhausted and decided to sleep one hour and listen one hour. Both of us snored so we were punching each other awake all night so we would not give our position away in case the enemy showed up. Fortunately, they didn’t show as I doubt if we could have returned through our lines safely in the dark.

Due to the loss of so many NCO’s at My Canh II, I was moved from Machine Gunner to Team Leader. SGT Francis (Frank) Donovon was my Squad Leader and we became very close. The only other name I can remember is Bernie Grossman, whom I believe was our RTO. I do not remember any other names but I did find a copy of my orders for CIB and it includes 14 names other than mine who were assigned to HHC, 1st BN (Abn), 327th Inf. Here are the names:

CPL E4 DAVID K DEVER

PFC E3 BENNIE DANCY

PFC E3 JERALD J DOMINGUEZ

SGT E5 JOE T CUMMINGS

PFC E3 BERNARD E GROSSMAN (HE WAS OUR RTO, I THINK)

CPL E4 JAMES P NEEL (THAT’S ME)

PFC E3 FRANCIS J DONOVAN JR (YES THE SAME DONOVAN AS MY SQUAD LEADER)

PFC E3 TONY J BAKER (HE WAS FROM MY HOME TOWN OF ORLANDO, FL)

PFC E3 LESTER D THORNTON

SGT E5 PAUL KUKK

PFC E3 BENJAMIN W MYERS

PFC E3 DANNY W WANAMAKER

SP4 E4 MONTFORD A DESOUZA

SP4 E4 VIRGIL HARGRO JR

SP4 E4 BOBBY W LONON

I found one other name on my orders for the Purple Heart for my first wound (more on that later).  SP4 E4 KENNETH R. BALL. He was wounded the same date I was but I do not know how.

For the rest of our stay in the Tuy Hoa valley, we performed long range patrols in the valley. These patrols were primarily of squad size. On more than one occasion, we would be sent on a 3 day patrol and load up with enough C-rations for 3 days (two meals per day plus a fruit). Before the end of the third day we would receive a radio message that we were to stay out another two or three days and search a particular area. Before dark, we would move into an empty village and liberate some rice, chickens, and/or pigs and cook them in the pots we found in the village. After we ate, we would wait until after dark and move into an ambush position for the night. It paid off enough times to make it worthwhile. I can remember one such ambush which was triggered while I was asleep. (One hour on and one hour off all night). I was up and firing before my partner could get his rifle up. I just wish my reflexes were as good today as they were then.

On one patrol we heard a running gun battle and moved into position to see what was going on. It turned out that we were on a collision course with the Korean Marines who were chasing a bunch of VC. When we realized who they were, we pulled back and let them do the job. We knew better than get in the way of those guys.

One memory I have is the bodies of the VC that were left in place by the ROK when they worked the area. It got so bad that some of our troops were brought in to either cover them with lime or where possible burn the bodies. I will never forget the smell.

On one occasion, we were called in to clean up a battle field where we had lost a lot of men from one of our companies. I will never forget the positions some of those men were in when they died. It was also then that I was able to get a ruck sack and enough M-16 magazines and ammo pouches and canteens to feel comfortable on patrol. We were never able to get all the equipment issued that we wanted so we had to get it where we could. We needed it more than they did, that’s for sure.

I do remember the incident when two Tigers were captured. The story we received was that they were on a listening/observation post on the top of a hill. They did not report back and a squad checked out the area and found evidence that they had been taken prisoner. We did received several reports of American POW’s being paraded through the countryside and made one or two attempts to intercept the group but were never able to find them. The names of the men were Sgt E5 Donald S. Newton and PFC E3 Francis D. Willis.   (I found the names on the 101st POW list that was recently posted on the e-mail site.)

There was one incident which gives a glimpse of how some men act in combat. My squad was part of a larger patrol, location unknown, and we were moving through some very dense jungle when we were ambushed along our right front. The patrol was made up of at least three squads and possibly more. My squad was close to the middle of the patrol when the ambush was activated. We hit the dirt but since there was no enemy shooting at us, all we could do was wait until we received info from the front. About that time, a SGT, identity unknown, came running from the rear of the patrol towards the front. I remember a comment being made: There he goes again, looking for the CMH. After the action was over, we heard that he had received the CMH, only it was a Casket with Metal Handles instead of the Congressional Medal of Honor.

On one occasion, while in base camp, we received incoming mortar rounds. Since the only fox holes we had were large ones in the sleeping area, everyone headed for the same holes. I guess I was one of the closest as I wound up on the bottom of the pile. No one was hit by the mortars but I almost suffocated from all the men on top of me. On that occasion, I don’t think a direct hit would have got to me because of the number of men on top of me.

On another occasion, the base camp was attacked in the area of the 105s. They wound up leveling the guns and firing directly into the attacking VC. They did pretty good work, as that broke the attack and we were never even involved in the fight.

On another occasion, my squad was sent on a mission into a small valley that was totally surrounded by mountains. I do not know where this valley was located and do not remember when we went there. We were sent out with 2 Vietnamese soldiers who were supposed to be our interpreters. I spoke as much Vietnamese as they did English so there were no help in that area. Not only that, they were in such terrible shape that they slowed us down, couldn’t walk quietly and finally suffered from heat exhaustion. Our mission was to determine the veracity and location of a VC Battalion Base Camp, a VC POW Camp, and a VC Hospital. It took about half an hour to get there by chopper and we were told we were out of 105 range so we were completely on our own. Our instructions were to capture some VC and bring them back in. We were dropped of close to the middle of the valley and started our patrol. It was really hot, the Vietnamese soldiers were slowing us down and creating too much noise so finally, SGT Donovan and I put the squad in a defensive position and went out on a two man patrol. We could move faster and quieter and see a lot more than with the RVN along. Low and behold, we came upon 3 men and 1 woman sitting around a pool in the stream. We moved up and when in position, called for them to surrender (Dung Lai). The woman hit the dirt, on man reached for his rifle and the other two ran. Donovan shot the one with the rifle and I shot one of the runners. The third man was also hit but I do not know which one of us shot him. Fortunately we were not too far from the squad so Donovan watched the VC and I went back to get the squad.

The one I shot was in the running position and the bullet went in his arm at the elbow and traveled up to his shoulder where it exited the front. There was a small trickle of blood where the bullet entered but there was hole in the front of his shoulder you could put your fist into. Needless to say, he was unable to make the trip back so we left him there. The one Donovan shot was dead and bleeding into the pool of water. The third man was wounded but not so serious that he could not walk. After the squad got there, we filled our canteens in the pool, making sure we didn’t get any of the VC blood in our canteens, tied the VC and left the area in a great big hurry. No sooner had we begun shooting than we started hearing the VC whistles along the edge of the mountains on three sides of us.

We immediately called for extraction of the POWs  and headed for the center of the valley where there was some clearings and also away from the VC whistles. The RVN got heat exhaustion and we then had to help them along. When we got to a clearing, we contacted the chopper who arrived in about 15 minutes and we put the POWs and the RVN on the chopper. The pilot said he could only take the POWs but we told him to take the RVN or we would shoot him down. He complied and left with all four. We then took off again and moved several more klicks before we could get another chopper to take us home. There is no doubt in my mind that the Lord was watching over us that day. We never did hear what information was received from the POWs.

A funny incident happened during our trek to the water hole. We had been walking for about 3 hours and moved into a small clearing for a confab. We placed the men in the edge of the woods (more woods than jungle) around the clearing while the squad leader, the other team leader and I talked about the situation. All of a sudden, we heard a sound in the underbrush that sounded like a freight train (no lie folks) and all of a sudden a King Cobra came out of the brush and into the middle of the clearing. It stopped, raised its head and spread its hood. No lie folks, the head was over 3 feet off the ground and the hood was wider than both hands put together. As a man, the whole squad did an about face and pointed our M-16s at the snake instead of outside the perimeter. Fortunately, no one shot as we would have killed each other if anyone had opened up. The snake finally dropped down and kept on going the direction he was headed. Again it sounded like a freight train going through the bush. I think that was the most scared I have ever been, and I used to hunt snakes in Florida with a single shot 22 and no shoes.

On 19 Mar 66, the Tigers were told to move into a blocking position to set up a hammer and anvil mission with the ARVN being the hammer and us being the anvil. I do not remember where the operation took place but I do know that we had to travel a long ways to get into position. They made us walk as they did not want to warn the VC that anything was taking place. The movement there was so difficult that we had to occasionally move into a river and walk in the water as the jungle was so dense that we could not get through on land. We did not like it but we had no choice. Our Squad was on point and I was the point man. We reached a point where we had to move into the river and the bank was quite high. Due to the steep angle of the bank, I sat down and started to slide down the bank. Fortunately, I kept my right foot against my left leg because I hit a Punji stake and it penetrated the tongue of my right boot and into my leg. I let out a grunt and held up the rest of the patrol. Donovan was sitting at the top of the bank and was trying to help me back up when our RTO tripped, kicked Donovan off the edge of the bank and he came down on a Punji stake in the groin. It missed his family jewels by less than an inch. We requested medivac but it was refused as it would compromise the mission. Since we still had not reached the blocking position, we had to continue walking for 2 or 3 klicks before we set up. Naturally the VC never came through but it was about 1100 hours before they called medivac for Donovan and myself. If Ball was wounded on that mission, I do not know how.

We went back to Phan Rang for medical care. Donovan got infected and wound up spending a week or so in the hospital. I was told by the 1st SGT that I could go to Hong Kong on R&R. I protested that I had not been in country long enough and there were many other men who deserved it more than I. He told me that there was not enough time to get any one else out of the field and if I did not go, the spot would be lost. I had to go to finance to get an advance as I had not been paid since arriving in country. I did go to Hong Kong and did enjoy it, but I really don’t remember enough about it to even write it up.

While at Phan Rang, I attempted to find my duffle bag and other belongs but they were not to be found. I did see personal effects for men that I knew had been killed or wounded and evacuated out of RVN. I questioned Top about it but was told it was none of my business. I do know that when I got back to the 82nd after I got out of the hospital, I wrote the unit and received a letter from the XO that none of my belongings were found when I requested they be sent to me. I was really pissed that there was so much theft of personal effects going on in the rear area as all of the locks had been broken off of the duffel bags and foot lockers.

I also remember some of the dumb things the brass hats made us do. When on patrol, we wore boonie hats and carried all the ammo and grenades we could carry. When we got back to the forward area CP we had to put on Steel pots, flak jackets and carry our rifle. The problem was; we had to unload our weapons and leave the ammo in our tent. The reason: one of the men had shot off his trigger finger while supposedly cleaning his rifle, so we couldn’t carry ammo even though we were in a forward area CP with the chance to be attacked at any time. We decided it was safer on patrol than in the CP since we could at least fight back on patrol. It is a good thing we thought that since we weren’t in base camp more than 48 hours and generally not that long.

There was another funny/stupid incident. There was a new Officer put in charge of the CP and he decided that all officers would be saluted by all enlisted men while at the CP. That didn’t last long because when we saluted, we also yelled our battalion motto at the top of our voices. ABOVE THE REST for us. I think that lasted about 2 days before an even higher ranking officer put a stop to it before someone got killed by a sniper.

There was some conversation on the email site about getting rid of our scent before leaving on patrol. Our standing orders were no baths or showers for 24 hours prior to a patrol. Since we were in base camp so little, I doubt if I got bathed more than twice a month. If we did bathe it was without soap and we never used after shave lotion. Most of the time we did not shave.

I remember one incident which is humorous to think of now but it wasn’t so funny at the time. We had been out for almost a week and were traveling through some mountains after a rain which made the terrain extremely slick. Much to my chagrin, I split the crotch seam in my pants from the belt to the buttons. Since I did not wear underwear, I was literally flapping in the wind. It became very uncomfortable sliding down those mountains so I volunteered to carry the radio. Every time we went down a steep slide, I would kick back on the radio and keep my feet in the air all the way down. I still got a few branches and thorns in my butt but not as many as I would have without the radio. The RTO wasn’t too happy about having to clean the radio and harness when we got back though.

Here is another humorous story. We were on a long range patrol when we received orders to proceed to a location and determine the veracity of a report of pink elephants in the area. After many humorous comments to the radio operator about a hang over, we checked it out. Low and behold, there they were: Pink Elephants. It turned out that the elephants were being used by the VC for pack animals but had been allowed a break and had rolled in the local mud. The mud (red clay) turned pink when it dried and so, we had pink elephants. We reported the situation, gave the coordinates and watched as the helicopters came in and made short work of the VC burden bearers.

How our thinking changes once we have spent some time in combat: On another occasion, we had moved the CP and when we set up, we dug a fox hole that was about 2 feet deep, 6 feet long and 4 or 5 men wide. We put shelter halves over the hole and that is where we slept. One night we were awakened with incoming mortar rounds. It sounded like they were walking the rounds along the camp to get the 105s. I looked over at SGT Donovan, my squad leader, and ask what he wanted to do. Sleep, he said and we rolled over and went back to sleep. We both knew that if a round landed outside the hole the shrapnel would pass over us. If a round landed in the hole we didn’t stand a chance so why worry. Sleep was what we needed. Sure was a difference from the first time I went through a mortar attack.

The last action I was involved in was in Phan Thiet. We were sent in to join with a Nhung unit which was led by a Special Forces SGT. We were in the lead and I was training a new point man when he stopped, waved me forward, and said: There is a guy out there in khakis. What should I do? Shoot him, I answered, but by then the VC had spotted us (he was out of his hole taking a leak) and grabbed his rifle and fired. My point man hit and rolled right while I rolled left and opened up with my M-16. The rest of the group (except the SF SGT) hit the dirt and started firing. About that time, the VC set off a Chinese Claymore Mine and you could hear the shrapnel singing through the trees. I heard my Squad Leader yelling medic and turned to see who was hit. It turned out that it was me. When I turned, I saw a pool of blood next to my leg and thought it had been blown off since I didn’t feel anything. I pulled out my Randal Hunting knife and cut open my pants leg to see how bad I was hurt. It wasn’t too bad, I thought, so I called for the medic. We were still receiving incoming rifle fire and the medic told me that I could come to him if I wanted help. I crawled back to his position, spun around, threw my leg into his lap and went back to shooting at the enemy. He put on a field dressing and I was good to go for a while.

It turned out that 6 of us were wounded by the mine. Besides my leg wound, SGT Donovan was hit in the chest but a steel mirror in his pocket deflected the shrapnel along his rib cage and he was not seriously hurt. Our RTO was hit in his trigger finger which was directly in front of his face as he also was in the prone position. I am pretty sure he lost the finger but it did save his life.  The SF SGT was grazed on the top of his head because he knelt down instead of hitting the prone position. Two other men received minor wounds so we called for a medivac chopper.

We pulled back from the area and moved to a clearing a couple of klicks back. It turns out that a piece of shrapnel went in the back of my right knee at the outside of my leg and traveled down and across my leg exiting about 10 inches below the knee on the inside of my leg. The leg was useless at that point so they put me in a poncho and carried me to the evacuation point. On the trip one of the wounded men (arm wound) was carrying me. He tripped over something, dropped me, and then stepped on my leg. That is when it started hurting and bleeding again. The medic then put on a tourniquet and it really started hurting then. When the chopper arrived, it turned out that the hole in the canopy was not quite big enough for the chopper to come down. He did anyway. He brought that chopper straight down clipping small branches as he came. We loaded up and he took it straight up and out. That pilot was really good. Because the SF SGT was medivaced, the Nhungs left our guys in the jungle and went home. Our guys were fortunate to get back to base camp after that.
Footnote: Several years later I met that pilot and was able to buy him a beer which is something I had promised myself if I ever met a Dust Off pilot.

I spent about 10 days in the hospital at Vung Tau and then was medivaced to Okinawa. I spent 1 month there and was then sent back to the states. After a couple of weeks in the Hospital at FortGordon, I was allowed to go on convalescent leave and then was assigned to the 82nd Airborne in Mid August. I was able to jump in December which kept my jump pay going during my hospitalization and recovery.

Lessons learned: During my recovery period I got to thinking. I was sent out to verify the location of various enemy positions. That meant that someone, probably in Saigon, was receiving those unconfirmed reports and then sending someone like me to prove or disprove those unconfirmed reports. I decided that I was tired of getting shot at so I found out who that guy was back in Saigon and became one of them. Yep, after returning to the states, I applied for training in Counterintelligence. Later I was sent to collections training (spy school) and learned how to handle agents in the field. My second trip to Nam was with the 525th MI Group. I was stationed in the Delta from Oct 71 to Oct 72. I was a Warrant Officer but was documented as an Infantry Captain as I could talk the talk of the Infantry. Prior to going to RVN I was sent to language school so I was assigned as an advisor to the MSS (Vietnamese Gestapo). My prior training gave me the ability to spot false agents so I kept cutting off the money to pay for them. That put me on the bad side of the ARVN (everybody from the ARVN Generals in Saigon to the local handlers got a cut of the fake agents pay). That got me on the hit list for the MSS agents as well as being on the VC hit list because I advised the MSS. Needless to say, I didn’t go anywhere alone and I made it home in one piece.

I was caught in the reduction in force (RIF) with 15 years of service and released from active duty. Currently I have a 40 percent disability with VA and hope to increase that soon as my knee is getting worse.