The 160 men of Charlie Company trained together for nearly a year before combat in Vietnam. Only 30 returned unscathed.
In May 1966 the United States was ramping up its combat forces by conscripting tens of thousands of young men, many headed for the 9th Infantry Division, the only division of the era to train and deploy together as was done in World War II. Although the 160 men who formed Charlie Company, 4th Battalion, 47th Infantry, 9th ID, hailed from big cities, small towns and rural areas, months of training forged them into a band of brothers, ready and eager to serve. However, their first action in April 1967 in the Mekong Delta’s Rung Sat Special Zone, as told in an excerpt from Andrew Wiest’s The Boys of ’67, was a portent of things to come.
Charlie Company normally entered the Rung Sat by landing craft or helicopter and operated for three days on the ground, with each platoon usually working separately while searching a prescribed area for the Viet Cong. Operations longer than three days risked disabling the company through foot casualties—immersion foot, much like the trench foot seen in World War I. The company headquarters group would accompany one of the platoons on a rotational basis. Maneuvering through the swamp was slow and dangerous, and there was always the possibility of wandering off course in the morass. Some days the platoons struggled to move forward only 200 yards, but on they trudged. Charlie’s primary mission was to find and destroy enemy base camps, typically small hills of mud piled up just above the high-water mark with a few bunkers and shanties for comfort. Although the company found several such encampments, some with food still sizzling over fires and laundry strung on lines, the noise of hacking through the mangrove roots and slopping through the mud usually alerted the Viet Cong to the Americans’ approach, giving them ample time to slip away.
Whenever possible, Lieutenant Jack Benedick had his men of 2nd Platoon wade in the streams, which produced much less noise than hacking though the mangrove. One morning in early April, after a fitful night of battling mud and mosquitoes, medic Bill Geier could have sworn that he smelled fish cooking and reported the find to Benedick. Thinking the olfactory intelligence worth pursuing, Benedick ordered Sergeant George Smith’s squad to wade up the stream and check it out. Sure enough, after a few yards Smith and his men caught sight of a small mud island with a cooking fire—a Viet Cong base camp. Smith sent three of his men forward, certain that the Viet Cong had heard their approach and fled—another missed chance.
Walking point for the tiny group, Idoluis “Bear” Casares was the first to reach the small berm surrounding the camp. When he looked over the side, he found himself staring into the eyes of a Viet Cong who had popped his head up at exactly the same time. No more than five feet apart, the two stared at each other, wide-eyed—not knowing what to do. Suddenly the VC came to his senses, let out a yelp and galloped off into the undergrowth. Only then did Casares seem to remember that he was carrying a rifle, but it was too late. Casares returned to his friends with a story that they would retell for months—a story that he would never quite live down. Good naturedly, Geier loved to remind Bear of the time the VC had gotten away.
Charlie Company always had to be on the lookout for booby traps, typically small grenades of Chinese manufacture attached to a tripwire of fishing line that hung slack in the water. The grenades themselves were usually tucked away unseen, often waist high, in the dense foliage. Booby traps could be anywhere, but they were especially thick around Viet Cong camps. In such areas the VC frequently dug small holes designed to make the unwary stumble into the tripwire of a nearby booby trap.
Late one afternoon in early April as 3rd Platoon searched a tiny base camp, Larry Lukes, perhaps lost in a daydream about his young wife back in Nebraska, got his foot hung up in a hole and fell. On the way to the ground, he felt the tug of a tripwire and glanced to the right in time to see the wire pull the pin from a grenade. Standing next to Lukes, Terry McBride, a tough kid from California, also caught a glimpse of the grenade, lodged a few feet from his waist, but he did not have time to react. Lukes thought to himself,“Aw shit! This is it!”But the grenade only fizzled a bit—it was a dud. Lying there in the mud, with McBride shaking in relieved laughter, Lukes was assaulted by a series of quick, difficult questions. Why had the grenade not gone off? Why was he saved? He was just a country boy; he didn’t yet have a family, didn’t have a college education. Why him? The questions hovered nearby for the rest of Lukes’ tour—and they became more insistent as others in the unit, his brothers, with families and so much more to live for, began to die.
For months Duffy Black had been asking Captain Rollo Larson for a chance to take command of Charlie Company in the field. As company executive officer, Black always had to remain behind, taking care of logistical chores and endless piles of paperwork while Larson led the men on patrols and ambushes. Having taken such a role in their training, though, Black ached to be in the thick of the action with the men he had come to love so dearly. He felt useless back on the base and wanted to be out there. He wanted to matter. Even while he pressed for a chance to enter the fray, Black continued to confide to company 1st Sergeant Lynn Crockett his fears that he would never leave Vietnam alive. Crockett always responded by saying that Black shouldn’t worry; he would return home to his new bride, and Black always seemed to agree.When the company returned from its first mission into the Rung Sat, for a short break to clean weapons and dry out feet and gear, Black once again asked Larson to be allowed to go out with the unit. His timing was finally right: Larson had come down with a bad case of stomach flu. Larson gave in to Duffy Black’s request. He could lead the company on its second mission into the Rung Sat, but Larson gave Black strict orders to stay close to one of the platoon commanders. These men—Benedick, Lieutenant Lynn Hunt, and 3rd Platoon leader John Hoskins—knew what they were doing out there and would keep Black safe. Black agreed to abide by Larson’s wishes and went to his tent to prepare for his first combat command. Before the night was over, Black paid a visit to company supply sergeant Josef Cerveny, the master scrounger. Black gave Cerveny his duffel bag, packed with all of his possessions, and strict orders to have it sent to his wife, Ida, if he did not make it back.
On April 8, with Black accompanying 1st Platoon, Charlie Company reentered the Rung Sat. During the first day’s slog, although he never saw any movement, Lieutenant Benedick got the strong feeling that the Viet Cong were shadowing his 2nd Platoon. Benedick called his unit to a halt and ordered the men to hide on both sides of a small stream to await events. Within minutes, and while Benedick’s machine gunner, Frank Schwan, was still crossing the tiny stream, a sampan carrying three Viet Cong slipped into view. For a few seconds Schwan and the VC who stood at the rear of the sampan stared at each other, until, breaking free from the trance, Schwan yelled, “Halt!” The three VC suddenly burst into motion, diving from the sampan to get away from the killing zone. But, as Idoluis Casares realized, the VC“didn’t stand a chance.” Twenty rifles and Schwan’s machine gun opened fire and riddled the Viet Cong until the water ran red. As the bodies of the VC bobbed nearby, Casares and the others searched the sampan and collected what weapons and intelligence they could find. It was Charlie Company’s first upclose kill. There had been firing before and even a few blood trails, but this was different. There were bodies to search, bodies that the men had seen explode in fire. Somehow, though, it all seemed more mechanical than anyone had expected. They had done their job, reported their kills, gathered intelligence and weapons and moved on. It was the Army way.
During his 1st Platoon’s operations on April 8, Lieutenant Hunt believed that he was close to finding the Viet Cong, and he warned Black and the headquarters group to be on alert, but nothing happened. The next morning, the platoon had just moved out when the pointman for the day, Kirby Spain, a country boy from Arkansas, reported back that he saw something that might be a Viet Cong camp. Hunt ordered two squads of the platoon to spread out and move cautiously toward the camp and told Black to stick by his side.When Spain made his way across the berm, he delivered the disheartening news that everyone expected. The camp had been recently deserted, and the VC had gotten away.
Approaching the middle of the tiny base, Spain peered into the cooking pot and noticed it contained rice that was still boiling and thought to himself, “Christ, we spent the night 50 yards away from the VC!” Hunt then ordered the platoon to surround the small 40-foot-wide camp and thoroughly search the area while he informed battalion headquarters of the situation. It seemed a very routine find, just a couple of ramshackle cots and a cooking fire. Nothing new, nothing special. His men all knew how to handle it. Still, Hunt yelled out a reminder:“Be on the lookout for booby traps. They could be anywhere!”
After about 30 minutes of futile searching, Hunt was ready to call for the platoon to pick up and move out when there was a muffled THUMP about 40 yards away—the telltale report of a booby trap. Hunt blurted out,“Holy God, what was that?” He quickly formed up his platoon to get a head count. Everyone was there. What the hell could it have been? It was so close. Could it be the VC coming back for a fight? Not knowing what he would find, Hunt grabbed five of his men and slipped out into the thick of the mangrove to investigate.
As they closed in on the source of the explosion, Hunt caught sight of movement in the undergrowth and heard a man moaning. That explained it, he thought; a Viet Cong must have made his way back to the 1st Platoon perimeter and had been planting a booby trap when it had gone off. Realizing that the VC might have planted more than one mine, Hunt warned his men to watch for more booby traps. Hunt then looked to his right just in time to see a tripwire tighten around the leg of Danny Bailey. In surrealistic slow motion, Hunt watched in amazement as the grenade went off, hitting him first with an intense blast of sulfuric heat before peppering his left leg with red-hot fragments.
Danny Bailey, from Hot Springs, Ark., had never before been far from his rural home. Gangly and “not much on book learning,” Bailey had often been a step behind his peers during training, the butt of many jokes and pranks. Soon though, it had become clear to the men of Charlie Company that Bailey was the most genuinely good guy in the whole unit. He was always cheerful, wearing a perpetual bemused grin, and, though he often took his time, was the hardest worker of the bunch. And when he finished his task, he would go straight into helping others finish theirs.
Once Hunt had shaken off his daze and realized that his injured leg could support his weight, he hobbled over to check on the wounded. He first came across Kirby Spain, who had taken fragments in his arm and back, perilously close to his spine. Spain assured Hunt that he was OK and could walk. Hunt then made his way over to Bailey. The blast had laid Bailey’s left leg open to the bone from the thigh nearly to the ankle, a wound so ghastly that Hunt could not help staring for a few moments.
When he looked closer, Hunt noticed that Bailey’s steel helmet, which was dangling from his pistol belt, was riddled with shrapnel holes; it had taken much of the blow. Had he not decided to strap his helmet to his belt that day—strictly against regulations—the grenade would have blown his groin to bits and likely killed him. Hunt leaned close to ask the boy how he was, and Bailey, seemingly oblivious to the pain, responded in a normal voice: “I’m sure sorry, sir. I heard what you said about booby traps, but right then I felt something tug. I looked down and it went off. You know, it damn near blowed my ass off.”
As the dust and smoke from the blast settled, Hunt joined up with Clarence Shires and Marty Renert, who had been a student at UCLA but volunteered for the draft, and they made their way toward the source of the moaning. As they parted the foliage, Hunt was stopped short at what he saw.“Jesus Christ, it’s Duffy Black!” Somehow during the confusion created by the platoon’s search of the enemy base camp, Black had wandered off into the mangrove alone. There he lay, with fragment wounds in his extremities and a gaping hole at the base of his neck. Given the nature of the wound pattern, Hunt thought to himself,“Oh no. Duffy found a booby trap and tried to disarm it himself, and the damn thing went off in his hands.” Field veterans could disarm these rudimentary booby traps with ease, but this was Black’s first time out with the unit. Shires knelt by Black. He was still breathing, and making horrible gurgling sounds. Shires told Black to hang in there; help was coming. For a few moments Black seized up, and Shires gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until Doc Maibach arrived on the scene.
Maibach did what he could to make Black comfortable and applied dressings to the worst of his many wounds, but his training had taught him that Black had little hope. The shrapnel that had torn the hole in his neck had traveled up into his brain. After checking the wounds of Hunt and Spain, Maibach then went to work on Danny Bailey. He just had to save that leg. As Maibach worked, Shires and Renert sat with Lieutenant Black. For Renert, Black had always been a kind of hero. He had been there all through training, urging him on. He had been a constant presence in Vietnam, always sure of their purpose. Black looked up into Renert’s eyes and asked,“Am I going to die?” Renert didn’t know how to respond. This was his leader, his hero, his friend. He replied:“Sir, you are gonna make it. The medevac is coming, the docs are going to sew you up and you are gonna be fine.”As Black closed his eyes and struggled for breath, Renert fought back his tears and had to look away.
Wounded, but still in command of the situation, Hunt ordered that a landing zone be cut into the swamp and called for an emergency dustoff. Men flew into a frenzy of chopping with their machetes to carve a hole in the undergrowth big enough for a helicopter to land, but the going was difficult. An engineer wrapped detcord, a flexible cord filled with explosive, around the base of several small trees and the explosion created an LZ just big enough for the purpose. The chopper thundered in, spewing water and mud in every direction, and the men placed Black and Bailey on board, while Hunt and Spain were able to climb in on their own. The helicopter rose out of sight, and just like that, the wounded were gone.
A few thousand yards away, near enough for the explosions to be barely audible, 2nd Platoon under Jack Benedick continued its search pattern. Their morning had been much less eventful, with no Viet Cong in sight and no hints of traffic to be found anywhere. For 2nd Platoon April 9 was just another dreary day of slogging through the endless mud. In midafternoon the platoon reached another of the Rung Sat’s limitless supply of small, nondescript rivers. In what had settled into a normal routine, Benedick swam across the 30-foot-wide stream and tied a rope to a mangrove tree on the far side. While Benedick was in the water, some men busied themselves with blowing up air mattresses and getting their gear ready, some stopped for a much-needed smoke. Willie McTear and Ron Schworer stood near the back of the group talking while they blew up their air mattresses. As nonswimmers they would cross in the middle of the pack, flanked by some of the better swimmers, and pull themselves across hand-over-hand along the rope while floating on their air mattresses.
When about half the unit had reached the far bank, it came time for McTear and Schworer to enter the water. McTear led the way, with Schworer behind and Benedick swimming alongside to make sure that nothing went wrong. Suddenly Benedick heard a roar off to his right and looked in horror to see a U.S. helicopter gunship skimming about four feet above the stream,beginning an attack run on his men. Before Benedick could scream a warning, the chopper opened up with its machine guns. Those still in the river made a mad scramble for the nearest shore.
Frank Schwan watched in almost detached amazement as machine gun bullets cracked and hissed past him, and left trails of bubbles as they zoomed by in the water. Idoluis Casares and the youngest man of Charlie Company, Stan Cockerell, were already on the far shore waving madly at the pilot, whom they could see clearly—even his eyes—he was so close. But the chopper zipped by too fast for the pilot to notice. Amazingly nobody was hurt.
As McTear clambered off his air mattress, Benedick emerged from the water and sprinted to his radio telephone operator. Furiously Benedick ordered Schwan to ready his machine gun and fire on the helicopter if it came back for another pass. Benedick then screamed into the radio: “You had better get that goddamn helicopter the hell out of here, or we are going to shoot it down. I mean I will shoot those sons of bitches down! Do you get me? They had better get their asses out of here!” The men could not see through the thick canopy, but they knew that the helicopter was still there, and they listened helplessly as it wheeled back to its original attack position. Within a few minutes it had reappeared above the stream and seemed to be getting ready for another run. Benedick screamed at Schwan to be ready as he furiously repeated his radio message to have the helicopter call off its attack. Just as the chopper started forward, instead of leveling off for another attack run, it climbed vertically into the sky and flew away above the trees. Somehow the message had gotten through.
As the frenzy died down and the men of 2nd Platoon marveled at the fact that they were still alive, Benedick looked out into the river. Schworer’s air mattress was still floating there undamaged, but Schworer was gone. Frantically Benedick dove into the water to search. In all of the commotion nobody had noticed Schworer fall off his air mattress—nobody had gone to his rescue. The stronger swimmers all joined Benedick in the effort to find Schworer, but there was nothing to find.
The tide was on its way out and the strong current must have dragged his body away. As Benedick dove into the water again and again, McTear just couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Ron, his buddy Ron, had been right behind him. How did he lose him? Where was he? He couldn’t have drowned—not like that. Not such a senseless death so far from home. Not Ron; he was the genius who was going to get rich by putting a computer into every home. Not Ron. McTear knew that soldiers weren’t supposed to cry, but as the unit sat there for hours while Benedick searched under every log and in every deep hole, he couldn’t help it. McTear just sat there and wept. His best friend was gone.
While Benedick dove into the murky water in search of Schworer, the dustoff carrying the wounded of 1st Platoon touched down at the 24th Evacuation Hospital at Bien Hoa. Hunt needed surgery, which would keep him out of action for several weeks. Bailey required extensive treatment on his mangled leg but refused a trip to the hospital in Japan. He wanted to stay in Vietnam with his buddies. The surgeons were a bit worried when they saw Kirby Spain’s X-rays, which seemed to indicate that he had fragments in his stomach. Spain tried to tell them that they were wrong; he had been wounded in the back, not the stomach. He informed the surgeons that the X-ray must be picking up what he had for breakfast that morning, “beefsteak, taters and gravy.” Still, to be on the safe side, the doctors performed exploratory surgery, leaving Spain feeling much worse than before. After he came out from under the anesthesia, the doctors informed Spain that he had been right. They had found no shrapnel, only “taters.” Spain then informed the surgeon that “taters are tasty when you cook ’em over C-4.”
Worst by far, though, was Duffy Black. Placed on the bed next to Hunt, Black mumbled incoherently and was plainly in bad shape. Rollo Larson visited his young friend in the hospital and was crushed by what he found. He blamed himself, a deep blame that wouldn’t leave him for the rest of his days. He kept telling himself that he should never have let Duffy go out with the company. If he had been there, none of this would have happened. When he had heard about the tragedy, Chaplain Bernie Windmiller, Black’s confidant and close friend from Fort Riley, also hurried to his side. Shortly after Windmiller arrived on the scene, the doctors rushed Black into surgery, and Windmiller went off to the chapel to pray. Windmiller wrote of what happened next to his wife:
After surgery the doctor said that his condition was grave and that he could offer us no hope of recovery. Said he had done all he could and it was now out of his hands. They’ve operated 3 times on Duffy and the Doc said they could operate again and save his life but it would mean a vegetable life for Duffy—and he couldn’t do that. Duffy’s father-inlaw [who was also in Vietnam with the 9th Division and who had also arrived at the hospital] took this report very hard, so we both walked outside. We stood in the silence of the night, trying to find some answer—trying to find some cohesion to our confused thoughts. I walked over to Sgt. Acevedo [from 1st Platoon] and put my arm on his shoulder—and said nothing for a few minutes. What can one say? Sgt. Acevedo and I slept about 2 hours. At 0400 the neurosurgeon woke us and said that he had abandoned all hope and death could come at any time. His pupils (Duffy’s) were dilated and fixed and there were no voluntary responses. Poor Duffy, he just lay there, a hunk of flesh breathing.
Somehow Black held on for several hours more, lingering between death and life. But on April 11 he finally passed away, leaving Windmiller with the difficult task of writing to his widow, Ida.
Duffy was popular with his men. He himself had been among their enlisted ranks and knew their needs, their problems. He understood them. He worked hard for their welfare, nothing was too good for Charlie Company…. So you understand why you weren’t alone in sorrowing your husband’s death. In a sense, he was married to Charlie Company; his death was their death….
For the men of Charlie Company there was no time to mourn. In the civilian world people often die in hospitals with their family around them, and there is nearly always a period of cathartic mourning. But the boys in Charlie Company had just learned how different things were during war. One minute Black and Schworer were there, and the next minute they were gone: One never to be found and the other whisked away on a helicopter to a distant hospital. Maybe there was a moment to cry, and later Chaplain Windmiller memorialized both men in a service, but out in the field the beat went on.
The boys of Charlie Company had to put the past behind them immediately and go about their business. Any slipup, any blubbering might cause more men to die. It was a difficult lesson to learn, a lesson that was the first step in hardening the hearts of the young soldiers who were so far away from home and the civilian life they had once known.
Andrew Wiest, Ph.D., is professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi and author of 14 books, including The Vietnam War 1956-1975 and Vietnam’s Forgotten Army. His latest book, The Boys of ’67, was released in September.
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.