Some memories are too bitter to share

Posted: October 11, 2010 in Uncategorized
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Some Memories are too Bitter to Share

By

Andy O’Meara

When I joined the Blackhorse Regiment in 1968, we fought day and night. We observed no holidays, which passed unnoticed in the struggle to halt the flow of communist troops, supplies and units moving into South Vietnam. The demands on the unit were many.

I directed the reconnaissance operations of the Regiment.  I flew with the scouts seeking targets for B-52 strikes, conducted bomb damage assessments when asked to verify an unusually successful strike. I flew with the Regimental Commander when directed; and I managed to find a ride to the major fights of the Regiment. Patton demanded detailed intelligence information on the outcome of every fight; and unless he saw me searching the dead, when the smoke cleared he would raise hell at the evening briefing.

The Blackhorse units in contact with the enemy tended to pursue the fleeing enemy, which posed the possibility that valuable intelligence on the enemy dead would be lost. Consequently, I adopted the practice of catching a ride with a scout ship returning to rearm and refuel, when a major contact was made, so that I was on the ground when the smoke cleared.

The Regimental Commander directed me to coordinate periodically with the Province Headquarters we worked with. And Patton directed me to accompany night ambush patrols to provide feedback on the efficacy of ambush patrolling, since I was the only Ranger trained member on his staff. When Patton directed me to check the ambush patrolling in a unit, I normally gave the intelligence officer a call the day before, letting him know I would accompany one of their ambush patrols the following night.

Regrettably, the patrols sent out by the cavalry squadrons tended to be last minute details. A platoon sergeant would receive word late in the day from the First Sergeant telling him that it was his turn to provide an ambush patrol. The troopers were dead tired from a long day of reconnaissance operations. Moreover, they had limited training in combat patrolling. The result was that the Regimental patrols tended to be listening posts at best. I informed the Commander that most of our patrols were ineffective.

The ambush patrols of attached infantry battalions of the 1st Division were far superior. The infantry units had many Ranger trained leaders, who were well equipped to lead ambush patrols. We in the Cavalry didn’t have Ranger trained leaders with the exception of an occasional volunteer.

When calling an infantry unit to inform them I would be joining them on an ambush patrol, I often baited them by saying that I didn’t want to waste my time on a patrol that didn’t make any kills, knowing full well they would rise to the occasion. Their approach was to select a trail that appeared to have been used recently to run messengers and supplies between the base camps in the jungle and NVA units located in the villages in the western third of the Regimental AO.

 The battalion staff supported the planning of the ambush. The intelligence officer and the operations officer selected an ambush site on the trail showing the best signs of recent enemy use. They coordinated with other units warning them to stay clear of the area; and they alerted the supporting artillery units of the patrol’s location and warned them not to adjust illumination flares during the time the patrol would be moving into their ambush site.

The patrolling techniques taught at the Ranger School were used by the infantry patrols. The infantry company selected to conduct the night patrol spent the entire day preparing for the patrol.  After the patrol members received the order, made a through map reconnaissance of the area, and rehearsed the actions during the patrol; they were allowed to rest. The company commander would personally inspect the patrol prior to their departure.

At dusk the patrol would move out and take up a concealed position well removed from the Battalion base. They would hold up in their position until well after sun set, allowing eyes and ears to adjust to the night light and night sounds. When they had time to adjust their night vision, they would take up their patrol formation and move to the ambush site. The troops would form an L shaped ambush in accordance with the pre-rehearsed patrol order. Claymore mines would be placed to get the best coverage of the enemy soldiers on the trail. All actions would be taken in complete silence.

Needless to say I always had a positive report to make on the infantry ambush patrols that usually made enemy contact that produced valuable intelligence. Colonel Patton always made a point of complimenting units that made enemy contact, which meant I was always welcome in the unit.

********

When the day was done and the night shift had taken their post in the tactical operations center of the intelligence section, it my custom to ask the radio operator to clean my weapons and to top off my magazines with pure tracer ammunition – making it easier to sense each round fired. This was seldom a hardship because the night shift was usually quiet; and if a fight developed, I would claim my side arms and await instructions from the Commander.

One evening I returned especially wet and worn from the activities of the day. My weapons had been fired and my magazine needed to be refilled. After getting the briefing from the Tactical Operations Center (TOC), I turned to the radio operator and asked him to clean my weapons, if the shift were quiet. The radio operator asked me: “Major, why are you so aggressive.” He was a newly assigned trooper. He had a smirk on his face – no doubt the result of getting most of his combat indoctrination from Walter Cronkite and the liberal media.

I didn’t know what to say. I assumed that everyone felt about the war as I did: filled with anger at the atrocities the enemy frequently inflicted upon innocent civilians – actions that revealed the brutal nature of the NVA and were often ignored by the liberal, American media. The constant barrage of negative reporting on the war was changing opinions on the home front, which in due course influenced the outlook of our draftee soldiers.

I returned to my tent that I shared with the members of the intelligence staff with a heavy heart. It was clear that a serious problem lay behind the innocent remark of the radio operator. The Army fighting the war was becoming isolated from opinion at home – opinion that had begun to question the purpose of the War. More serious was the implication of the soldier’s question suggesting that he had more faith in the liberal media than in his leaders.

I sat down on my bunk. I pulled my stationary box from under my bunk. I opened it and took out pictures taken during my first tour of duty. Pictures of close Vietnamese friends were now pictures of the dead. Reminders of glad memories once prompted by the photos had turned to grief and anger for lost comrades. I could not look at the pictures without grief and feelings of hatred for our enemy; but I couldn’t get rid of the pictures, because I had been very close to my Vietnamese friends.

***********

I first arrived in Vietnam in 1962. I was the first advisor assigned to the mechanized infantry company I would help train and advise. The Vietnamese called the company a troop because it was part of the 1st Cavalry Regiment.

The soldiers took an instant liking to me and looked out for me. My ability to speak Vietnamese was poor and they helped me. They asked if I would like them to find me a girl friend to keep me company and help me to improve my Vietnamese fluency. I responded that I was newly married and a Roman Catholic. Instead of a girl friend, I asked them to tell me when we were in a Catholic resettlement village composed of people, who fled communism when the French departed the North in 1954. I told them I would like to attend Mass, if we were in Catholic village long enough for me to attend services.

Normally we passed through the villages without stopping during our operations against the Viet Cong in 1962 – 1963.  One two occasions, we took up positions around villages with Roman Catholic Churches. In the first instance the village was threatened by the communists and in the second case we occupied an assembly area near a Catholic resettlement village, while awaiting the start of larger operations.

In the first case our missions was to reinforce an infantry battalion of the Eighth ARVN Regiment guarding a Leper Colony that was overrun twice during my time in Country, inflicting heavy casualties on the Vietnamese Soldiers and stealing the medical supplies from the medical clinic. The Colony was run by French Nuns. They had a Catholic Church and a French Priest, who conducted daily mass early each morning. I would arise and wash in the dark to attend the services with my Classmate, Lieutenant Bill Mullen. We also shared our daily meal together with the ARVN Regimental Staff.

It was boring duty, because the enemy refused to attack, when we were prepared for them. Fortunately, I had Bill’s company, which was an unexpected joy in a boring assignment. One night we had an unexpected bit of excitement, when a large explosion occurred in the vicinity of the bridge on the road to the Leper Colony.

In the morning we investigated to determine the source of the disturbance and found a large hole in the road near the bridge. We counted nineteen feet in the vicinity of the crater. Evidently the VC were carrying a large shape charge – with the primer already set – on a litter made of wooden planks. We surmised that one of the VC lost his footing or grip on the litter jarring the primer and detonating both the primer and the shape charge. The foot count – ten left feet – indicated that at least ten men were assigned as security or litter carriers. The torsos of the dead had been demolished by the devastating blast of the cratering charge intended to take down the bridge. The directional blast of the shape charge blew a deep hole in the road as well as blowing away everything above the litter, sparing the sandals and feet of the aspiring sappers.

When the guard mission of the leper Colony came to an end the, Mechanized Infantry Troop        (Company) I advised received orders to proceed to the North. We participated in several small operations and then were directed to proceed to Dong Xoai to await further orders. Dong Xoai was a resettlement village carved out of the jungle. The majority of the population was Roman Catholic. The village was protected by a company of Regional Force militia and an Armored Car Troop, a sister unit of the 1st Cavalry Regiment. The villagers had constructed a humble church built of hand sawed lumber with corrugated sheet steel roofing.

After we established our assembly area in Dong Xoai, a soldier alerted me that mass was about to start in the village church. I stank. We had been in the field for weeks; and I had not had a chance to shower. I felt unworthy to enter the church, but decided to sit in the last row to avoid offending the congregation. I removed my helmet and slipped into the last row. An altar boy spoke to the Priest, who stopped the mass and came back and insisted that I take a seat in the front row. He would not continue until I came forward and sat in the first row of seats. I was embarrassed, but pleased to be able to participate in a Latin Mass, which I understood.

After the mass, the congregation surrounded me and made me feel welcome. They had never had an American Advisor stay in their village. They all knew of JFK’s pledge in his inaugural speech to bear any burden to preserve liberty. They believed that I was a living symbol of that pledge to help them in their struggle to build a country free of communism.

I was invited into the homes of the parishioners, many of whom were members of the Cavalry Troop stationed in the village. I was fed the best that poor people had to offer and they made me feel as if I were a son or brother of their own. It was the most touching experienced I have ever known. The demonstration of love and appreciation was sincere, even if I was a very modest symbol of President Kennedy’s pledge to protect people threatened by communism.

They asked me to pose for pictures with them, which I did. Those pictures became prize possessions that I treasured long after I left the village.

The communists hated the Vietnamese people, who chose to flee the Red River Valley, when the French pulled out in 1954. They were totally unsuccessful in infiltrating the Roman Catholic community, who had seen the crimes of the communists in the North. Consequently, they resolved to overrun and kill every man, woman and child in the Roman Catholic villages that fled the north. Two years after I departed South Vietnam in the fall of 1963 I received word that Dong Xoai had been overrun by soldiers from North Vietnam. They killed everyone and they torched the village. Nothing remains of Dong Xoai except the ruins of a camp built on the location of the village by American Special Forces later in the war.

The pictures I treasured as reminders of the love and generosity of the people of Dong Xoai suddenly became painful reminders of the massacre of the innocent villagers, who attempted to flee communism. I was stunned by the news. I kept the pictures, because they still held precious memories, even if my fallen friends were now reunited in the Kingdom of God.

I didn’t know how to tell my new radio operator how much I loved those people the communists had slain without mercy. However, I realized that perhaps the picture could speak for me. I took one of pictures of me with several of the parishioners of the Catholic Church in Dong Xoai to the operations draftsman. I showed him the picture and asked him if he could frame it on chart board and cover it with acetate to protect it. And I asked him to print on the chart board below the picture the words: “Charlie has killed all of these people except one.” The draftsman said he would have it for me in the morning.

That was the best I could do by way of explanation. I could not speak of the events, which were too emotionally charged for me to mention.  Early the next morning the draftsman gave me the picture he had mounted with the inscription that told of the fate of the Vietnamese people, who were my friends. I took the picture to my M577 command track and I mounted the picture with tape above the radios. It told a story I could not tell. I hoped it would help the new member of the intelligence section to understand that Major O’Meara was not aggressive. I had not invaded North Vietnam. Nor had I slain innocent villagers from the homeland of the North Vietnamese soldiers, who were ravaging the villages of South Vietnam in savage attacks that went unreported in our news media.

I received no more questions from my radio operator, who gained some insight into the burden of sorrow I carried with me into battle, as well as the anger I harbored for those who butchered the innocent men, women and children of Dong Xoai.

Comments
  1. harryrlarsen says:

    So glad I came across this account of other’s experiences in Vietnam. Credible and accurate.

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