For some of us, the soldier’s sense of duty lingers unfulfilled for decades. Mine began as a promise made in the windy sky high above the Vietnam jungle’s triple canopy. At my feet was the ashen face of a fellow soldier who had lost his life — Staff Sergeant Charles M. Andujar. His body and the litter he was lying on were vibrating with the rest of us in the belly of the dustoff on our way to the field hospital at Fire Support Base Blackhorse, where we of Delta Company, 4th Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade (199th LIB) were based during that time in the spring of 1969.
During the flight, a voice in my head seemed to say that if this were a novel, we would be at the place where the soldier who survives has to go to the man’s family and explain what happened to his KIA buddy. Then I said to myself: ‘I hardly know this man. I’m just a draftee, a private first class. The Army will notify the family.’
Still, my thoughts kept churning. ‘What if they have questions? How would a fellow ever find his folks? Why even think about this now, when I may not make it out alive, either?’
But soon the matter seemed to get settled. Like many a soldier in any war, I began to consider the equalizing question: ‘What if I were this man and he were me?’ I began to work past the issue with the promise, ‘If I make it home, I should try to find his family in case they want to talk to me about this day.’
Unfortunately, I was not very tenacious with that promise. In my travels, I would occasionally look for the name Andujar in the phone book. Later, using the Internet, I found a few people with the name but none knew the staff sergeant as one of their family. Three decades evaporated.
I had been drafted after college and assigned to an infantry unit in Vietnam. For draftees like me, ripped from a secure and sheltered existence, entering the Army felt like being thrown into a snake pit and being forced to hiss and slither with the rest of them in order to survive. Infantry training teaches you to make buddies but not close friends. We were told we would be able to face the violence and death better if we were not too attached to the men in our platoon.
Personal survival and the survival of the fighting unit depended upon our ability to place the mission above emotion. All of this seems a bit incomprehensible now, as I look back at the experiences I shared with the other soldiers. Indeed, I now feel a tremendous respect and a sense of honor to have served with the men of Delta Company.
On that day in 1969, we were working out of FSB Blackhorse in terrain spotted with a few old French plantations but mostly jungle. The 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (11th ACR) had been operating in the area, sending out periodic armored patrols along tank and armored personnel carrier (APC) trails that carved up the landscape at five- to 10-mile intervals. In the spring of 1969 their orders were to relinquish part of the area. Elements of the 199th LIB were moved northeast, out of the rice and pineapple regions of Long An and Hau Nghia, south and east of Saigon. I remember the names of Firebases Elvira and Claudette from those early months. Soon Delta Company would know life in the jungle and frequent camps named Bear Cat, Blackhorse and Joy. Our new mission was to maintain part of the territory made secure by the 11th ACR. In reality, the jungles around Blackhorse were infested with NVA regiments, dug in and camping in the patchwork between the cavalry trails. No doubt they had been entrenched there for years.
Stateside, our nation had lost its resolve by 1969. By early April, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird was announcing cuts in the defense budget. Within a few weeks, President Richard Nixon announced that 25,000 U.S. troops would be withdrawn from South Vietnam by the end of August. From our perspective as foot soldiers, troop strength and resupply for our unit had already come under noticeable stress. Part of the predicament was that since the 199th LIB was a small unit, response to our requests for helicopters and supplies was often delayed. The larger divisions would help us if their troops were taken care of first, but without our own dedicated support we often felt we were getting the short end of the stick. When equipment failed, when weapons needed parts, or when men were taken out of the field wounded, killed or simply because they had completed their time, Delta Company seemed to find replacements a long time in coming.
By June, the neglect became more tangible in small but significant ways. I remember my frustration with having to wear filthy fatigues, saturated with bacteria, mold and mud. After a week or more without a change, the accumulation in the fabric would burn like fire as it pulled across our skin during normal activity. When the supply chopper brought replacement fatigues, the swapped clothes had been washed but also frequently had holes in them or were missing sleeves and lower legs. One’s imagination could go wild with thoughts of the places our fatigues had been and of the violence their previous wearers had endured. Besides, in the jungle, if we could not button sleeves and tie off pant legs, the leeches and ticks had a free run toward the soft, warm places under our clothes. Nevertheless, we tried to carry on with dignity.
The unsung heroes of the infantry were the commissioned and noncommissioned officers serving at the platoon level. They were the big brothers and the father figures who kept the Army on the move. These heroes endured every bit of hardship that the men at the bottom experienced, while bearing the responsibility for the life and death of their men. The NCOs and lieutenants of the infantry platoons were the men in the middle, who walked a difficult line between taking orders and giving them. They were expected to have expert knowledge in numerous areas of day-to-day survival, weaponry and human psychology. They were not able to choose the men of their units. Soldiers often came to them as boys and grew to manhood under their leadership.
Occasionally these leaders were assigned individuals with troubled pasts, men who had experienced conflict with the law or trouble with authority. Leadership in the war zone was especially difficult when some of the men you were assigned to lead could not be trusted. You had to watch your back and trust that other men would help along the way, all the while knowing that platoon officers were the enemy’s preferred targets at the outset of every firefight. Facing danger from potential ignorance and incompetence higher in the chain of command, as well as from some men below, platoon-level leaders toiled on through seemingly endless missions, trying to keep their young troops alive and functioning as an effective unit. Staff Sergeant Andujar was such a man.
I can tell the story of how Andujar died because I was hit in the same firefight in which he was killed. After several prior operations involving accidental friendly fire, booby traps and various contacts, my platoon, led by Lieutenant Peter Joannides and Staff Sgt. Eugene Elias, had dwindled to 14 men. The platoon led by Lieutenant Gary Grady and Staff Sgt. Andujar was also short of men, and on that day, the men of Grady and Andujar’s platoon were our point.
As usual, each man walked alone to avoid group casualties from automatic-weapons fire. Delta Company was spaced for nearly a mile through the mountainous jungle. A radiotelephone operator broke the silence to report that two NVA had been spotted moving across our line. Our point later caught a glimpse of another NVA soldier, a trail watcher. The forward element of our unit split up, and Andujar was the ranking man in a squad that worked its way down the jungle growth of a large hill. At the bottom these men found themselves right under an NVA encampment, with bunkers hidden in foliage at the crest of a ridge. Andujar halted his men, moved them to cover and quietly explained that he smelled rice cooking. Then, within seconds, as Andujar stepped back out to investigate, he was hit by AK-47 fire.
After three months with the unit as a rifleman, I had been assigned to carry the M-60 machine gun and .45-caliber pistol. Although my training included these weapons, I lacked solid experience with them in the field. Our platoon had been positioned in the middle of Delta Company that day, and I remember the silent hand signal to halt. With the delay, some of the men sat down and rested, waiting for orders. Suddenly, distant small arms ruptured the silence.
Soon after the firefight began we could hear the men calling for a 60. A fellow named Hartu in the squad ahead of me had an M-60, but it was in need of parts and would not fire. My M-60 also had problems, but with the help of some wire from a C ration box, I had secured the trigger mechanism so the weapon was still working. I was the gunner next in line up the trail.
It was one of those times when you just started putting one foot in front of the other. You tried to focus on getting where you had to go and on what had to be done when you got there. You tried to shut out the screaming of adrenaline in your ears and the noise from the firefight.
I topped the hill at an awkward trot, lugging the machine gun and three ammo belts. Nearing the squad under the bunker, I could see the medic with Andujar. The rest of the riflemen were returning fire, shooting up at the ridge. I could see no free cover at the line. Stopping about 15 feet up the trail, I flopped the loaded ammo belt free, checked for a round in the feed tray slot and opened up with six-round bursts at the ridge where the flashes from the AK-47s could be seen. The men in the squad below did not like the M-60 rounds going out only a couple of yards over their heads. They barked at me to get down in line with them. I eventually made it down to the medic, stepped over Andujar and opened fire again from a sitting position on the trail below. The medic was trying to work on Andujar, but his blood had been draining down the hill toward me. Soon I was sitting in it. There were flashes at the ridge, and I tried to return fire in force.
A grenade sailed out from the ridge above and exploded just up the trail. To make matters worse, our unit positioned M-79 grenade launchers at the top of the hill behind us. They had no idea where we were, and their rounds would hit the canopy and explode in the trees above us. Behind the hill, someone called for artillery and tried to direct the gun crews located at the fire support base. In the confusion, the big guns walked two massive rounds toward us from the right, and a third came in over us, hitting just to our left. Small trees and clumps of mud were falling every which way. When we yelled for them to get on the radio and stop the artillery, someone in the rear called for a Cobra. Soon the thing was in our area, putting out a lot of rounds. With a tracer every fifth round, Cobras often looked as if they were pissing in the night sky, but this was the daytime and we were right under one, feeling its terror. It came in right behind us. The rounds chopped up the jungle between us and the main body of the unit. We thought we were going to be out of the picture soon, with the Cobra’s second run coming straight in at us. All we could do was pop smoke grenades and mark our position under Charlie’s bunkers. Thank God the pilot saw our smoke drifting up through the foliage, realized something was wrong, cut the gun and flew on over us.
The M-60 machine gun is air-cooled and belt-fed. At a sustained rate of fire, we were supposed to change barrels after 10 minutes. I had no replacement barrel. Manning the gun was a mess on the incline of the hill. To fire, my only choice was to sit, but it was very awkward. I would lean forward into the weapon and start the bursts slightly below the crest of the ridge. The rapid recoil would soon force me backward, causing the rounds to go out in a diagonal path too high. I would rock forward and repeat the process, trying to get out as much horizontal fire as possible toward the bunkers before the weapon again knocked me back, sending the rounds out above the ridge and into the trees behind the enemy.
Meanwhile, the medic soon realized that Andujar was dead and that he should concentrate his efforts on his own survival and that of the remaining men of the squad. He began crawling back and forth in the underbrush, constantly under fire, moving out to the men in the squad and then dragging whatever M-60 belts they had over to my position. In an infantry squad the gunner was expected to carry a heavy load, but each rifleman also packed one or two extra belts for the M-60 in addition to his own ammo. My weapon could put out over 7,500 rounds per minute at the cyclic rate, but unless the fire was restrained, I knew the gun would heat to the point where it would cook off rounds as soon as they were chambered. Lacking experience, I lost my focus, and the gun began pulling the rounds in and discharging them without the control of the trigger. With the rapid-fire kicking, I was set back over the body of the sergeant, and rounds were aimlessly flying high over the bunkers once again. The only solution was to hold the gun with one arm while reaching out with the other to twist the ammo belt apart, letting the last rounds chamber and cook out to the end. The men continued their M-16 fire, and soon the pinkish glow on my hot M-60 barrel was gone. The gun was not very cool, but I decided to risk all and chamber the first round of the remaining section of the belt. It worked. I was then able to continue the fight with more restraint, using fewer rounds with each burst of fire.
Eventually the flashes from the ridge ceased. Our enemies melted into the darkness behind their bunkers. Someone in the squad yelled, ‘Cease fire!’ Firing slowed to sporadic pops and then stopped. The jungle was thick with silence, and a gray haze of sulfur hung in the air.
In the strange new quiet, adrenaline, or the previous noise of the fight, kept up a steady ringing in my ears. By this time I had one hell of a stomach cramp after continually rocking forward and being kicked back while firing the M-60 from such an awkward position. I did not realize that I was also bleeding from a spot at my shoulder blade. The medic was behind me, reaching over Andujar’s body.
He began pulling at my shirt, then startled me with a quick rip of the fabric. Noticing fresh blood, he began asking questions about my breathing. The wound was small, entered from behind and did not appear to have traveled very deep. I could breathe, and no air seemed to be sucking in at the wound, so he told me the grenade fragment was probably not in my lung. With a smile, he said, ‘This is your ticket to the good life…well, a couple weeks anyway.’
After a few minutes passed, and we were confident that the fight was really over, some of the squad moved forward to explore the enemy camp and blow the bunkers with C-4 plastic explosive. In situations like this, when the NVA would engage and then run, they seldom left their wounded or dead behind. Our captain came over the hill and down toward us. He asked for a body count, but the men could only report that there were bloodstains left behind in the camp.
Andujar’s body was strapped to a stiff litter and hoisted out of the jungle canopy through an opening created by one of the artillery rounds. Earlier we had placed him in a body bag, but we realized the closest LZ was about three klicks through the jungle. None of the troops wanted to drag the body to the LZ where the resupply chopper could pick it up. In the Army, if you want to go by the book, a body is to be transported on a supply vehicle, and only wounded soldiers are to be extracted by medevac. The officers decided to claim that Andujar was wounded but alive, hoping to evacuate his body along with me. We took Andujar out of the body bag and strapped him to a stiff litter. The chopper crew dropped the hook and cable. He was hoisted up and out. I was the next to ride the jungle penetrator. I will never forget that trip up, fighting branches, swinging around and watching my buddies turning into ants on the jungle floor.
And I remember the ride on the dustoff, with Andujar’s body at my feet. A couple of times the chopper banked in the turns, and the litter started sliding. With the open doorway, the body could have slid right out the side of the chopper. Each time the litter started moving, the door gunner and I would catch it and drag it back to the center of the bird. After we were well on our way, I remember watching the gunner lean over and close Andujar’s eyes with two fingers. I remember how breezy, cool and free it felt in the wind up over what had been our jungle world. It was as if we were on our way to heaven on that chopper ride. Looking back, I think it was just a reaction to the easing of adrenaline and the realization that I could relax for a few days in a base camp. It was at that moment that I began to contemplate my obligation to the man’s family.
The last I remember of the sergeant was the sight of the chopper crew and base camp medics offloading his body while I walked to the operating area of the field hospital. I remember Sergeant Andujar as a muscular, quiet man of dark complexion, a man well respected by the officers and men in his platoon.
Thirty years later, on a Sunday afternoon in March 1999, our daughter Ruth and the other band members at Floresville High School were asked to play at the ceremony for the traveling Memorial Wall that had come to the local park. My wife and I went over to support her at the event, but I was not prepared for the experience of the Wall. The speakers at the ceremony were retired officers from the U.S. Air Force, and it was obvious from their remarks that they knew little of the lives of the infantrymen in Vietnam. With the old ‘flyboys’ honoring their own, my thoughts turned to life 30 years past and the brave men that I had known. I forced myself to confront memories of buddies and our wounded. Eventually, the KIAs from Delta Company, 4th Battalion, 12th Infantry of the 199th LIB began to slip quietly into my consciousness, as if they were reluctant to awaken from their sleep in some sad corner of my mind. The naming in my mind stopped on an image of Sergeant Andujar.
After that afternoon beside the Wall I began to reflect a great deal about those months in 1969, and once again I thought of trying to locate Sergeant Andujar’s family. I also realized that the Wall might not make much sense to future generations unless they could grasp how each individual name represented a tragedy for the families of brave and honorable people who were asked to live and die under extremely difficult circumstances. For some it is just a black wall of names, but for others it is a sea of violence, of tragedy and of death.
Upon returning from the memorial ceremony I began writing a partial version of this account. The memory, with some confusion of facts, found its way onto the Web, where it was soon read by Major Reinaldo Andujar, a retired infantry officer who had also served in Vietnam. He began to wonder if Sergeant Andujar was a relative. At a family reunion in the summer of 2000, he discovered that Charles Andujar had been a second cousin.
Military records indicate that Staff Sgt. Charles Manuel Andujar from Newark, N.J., was killed on June 13, 1969, by small-arms fire in an area called Phuoc Tuy. For most, it is brief mention of a stranger from an obscure unit who died in an even more shadowy place. For some of us, there is a great deal more to remember.
On July 6, 2000, I received e-mail from one of the sergeant’s sons. Emotion welled up in me at the thought of finally having an opportunity to complete my duty and answer questions for the family. In the communication I learned that Andujar had a daughter and four sons, and that his widow was also alive. The family seemed very appreciative and asked about photos and about other men who might have known Sergeant Andujar.
Several of the men from our unit have helped to double-check facts, locate photos and e-mail memories of the man and the place where he died. It seemed to us that the family should know of other soldiers from Delta Company, including those who were wounded and especially those whose names can also be found on the Wall near their father’s. In this effort, I salute the kindness and compassion of Peter Joannides, Gary Grady, Robert Williams, Robert Wagoner, Patrick McDermott, Charles Fink, Robby Broadaway, Marty Gushwa, Wayne Garret, Rodney Lewis and Ricky Jones, all brave and honorable men. I value the recent opportunity to work with these men in support of the Andujar family.
The Andujar children were very young when the war took their father. He, in turn, was a father denied the joy of watching his five children grow into talented and productive citizens of the nation for which he gave his life. Yes, there is much indeed behind a name on the long black Wall.
This article was written by Robert Fromme and originally published in the June 2002 issue of Vietnam Magazine.
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