In September 2017, I talked on 15 national and regional radio shows. The expectations were that I would speak about my experiences in the war and as a Vietnam veteran and about my book When I Turned Nineteen. I spoke for 5 to 30 minutes on each show. All the talk-show hosts were gracious and treated me with respect.
On the radio interviews, the hosts asked the same question, “What was a typical day in Vietnam?” At first, my mind raced through many scenarios, searching for the best answer to describe an average day.
I answered, “Each evening when we stopped for the night, I prepared my dinner meal of canned beef with spice sauce, crackers with peanut butter and jelly, pears, and kool-aid. As I ate, I looked around at my platoon brothers and thought, Who’s going to die tonight? Once I finished my meal, I rolled into my poncho liner, and while lying on the hard ground, I felt the fear rush over me as the darkness approached. I closed my eyes for much-needed rest that seldom came. “When the sun rose, I got out of my poncho liner, thankful I’d survived another day. I made a breakfast of pound cake, peaches, and hot chocolate. Sipping my hot chocolate, I looked at my platoon brothers and thought, Who’s going to die today? After breakfast, we slung our 60-pound rucksacks onto our backs and started walking, with slow, deliberate steps, through rice paddies, hedgerows, and fields, and into the jungle. And with each step, I wondered, Who’s going to die today? All the while knowing the platoon was bait to draw the enemy out into the open. This was a typical day in Vietnam.”
Sitting on the ground left to right was James Anderson, Danny Carey, Bill Davenport, and Ray (“Alabama”) Hamilton. Standing to the rear of the seated squad members, left to right, was Mike Danker, Ronald Owens and Jerry Ofstedahl. Unknown to us, during the next three days, three squad members in the photograph taken that day would be killed and three wounded.
This morning I opened the envelope that held my passport. A ticket to the My Lai Memorial fell out. I thought of my trip to Vietnam in June 2018 and recalled visiting the My Lai Memorial and Museum with Mike and David. Mike and I thought we should pay our respects to the civilians that lost their lives that day due to one criminal, a lieutenant.
I found the Memorial and Museum educational and humbling. It was slanted towards North Vietnam and their people, but it should be, it’s their story. The American platoon (in 1968) shouldn’t have committed the murders under any circumstances. I had a woman in her mid-twenties, with her boyfriend and sister, ask me how I felt about the massacre, as she was crying. I told her I thought it was a criminal act, and I felt sorry for the villagers the infantry platoon killed that day. She thanked me and left.
In June of 2018, Mike Dankert, who I served with in Vietnam and my best friend, with my oldest son, David, returned to Vietnam. One of the places we visited was the Americal Division Combat Center in Chu Lai.
Stopping alongside the road we got out of the van and headed to an opening in the concrete wall that ran parallel to the street to the entrance to what we thought was the Combat Center. Of course, nothing was there from the days of the military base, just barren land covered in white sand and sparse vegetation. As we walked to the point where I thought was the entrance to the Combat Center, it wasn’t too hard to visualize the location of the Shipping Shed, and where my hooch was on the right side of the entrance.
I pointed out to David and Mike where Wayne and my hooch would’ve been when we arrived at the Combat Center. Then I showed them the area where we watched movies at the outdoor theater, and where the shower was when Wayne got me cleaned up from one night of me drinking too much beer. Assuming the road that paralleled the beach wasn’t moved over the years, the locations I pointed at were correct.
It was at my hooch that Mike came to visit after he got a “rear job,” working in supply, in Duc Pho. We sat on the front porch watching the South China Sea, sipping on our Jim Beam and Coke, while talking about our time together and our platoon brothers.
Being at the Combat Center held special memories for me because it was the location where I felt safe from war and shared time with my brother, Wayne. We flew to Vietnam together. Later, the Combat Center became my sanctuary after my time with First Platoon.
While standing on the white sand, I recalled the time Wayne and I spent at the Combat Center, March – April 1969. After the first roll-call, the Company Commander opted to keep us at the Combat Center, until he decided what to do with us. Two brothers in-country presented a problem. I was disappointed. For me, going to an infantry unit is why I enlisted in the Army and wanted to go to Vietnam and serve my country. It was my duty. I wasn’t trained as an infantry soldier to come to Vietnam to work as a supply clerk.
Having Wayne with me at the Combat Center was great because we were best friends, and I didn’t become lonely living away from home in a foreign land. However, the need and obligation to be with an infantry unit never subsided. After six weeks, Wayne went to Korea, and I joined First Platoon Alpha Company 3rd Battalion/1st Infantry Regiment 11th Brigade. We departed for our new assignments two weeks after my nineteenth birthday.
When leaving the Combat Center to join my infantry platoon, I was young and naive about war. It was eight months later that I came back to this same spot looking for any job that would be safer than being with an infantry platoon.
While serving with First Platoon, it took no time to discover that war wasn’t about service to my country, or duty, or fighting communism, but daily survival for my platoon brothers and me. During a firefight, I didn't think of the American flag, defending the United States, patriotism, or even keeping the ground we stood on, my thoughts were of my brothers to my left and right. Nothing else mattered but watching over each other and going home.
Little did I know how the hardships, the horrors, the killing, and the dying would affect me during my time in Vietnam and long after the war ended. The fear and guilt that war and combat created have since followed me every day of my life.
1st Platoon Company A 3rd Battalion/1st Infantry Regiment 11th Infantry Brigade Americal Division
May they be remembered. On this day (August 15, 1969) Paul Ponce, Joe Mitchell, James Anderson and Danny Carey were killed in action (KIA) by an enemy ambush west of Quang Ngai.
It was early afternoon, August 15, 1969, as the platoon moved through the rice paddies and then a large field toward the river, east of Hill 4–11, in search of the large NVA force that had attacked the platoon earlier when the enemy detonated a 500-pound bomb. The explosion killed Paul Ponce, Joe Mitchell, James Anderson, and Danny Carey, and wounded seven other platoon members. It took several hours to get the wounded and dead removed from the battlefield and flown back to the division firebase hospital. The wounded were: Ryan Okino, Charlie Deppen, Tommy Thompson, Mike Dankert, Glyn Haynie, Bill Davenport, and Ray Hamilton.
This was most of the second squad - seated from the left is James Anderson (KIA), Danny Carey (KIA), Bill Davenport (WIA), Ray Hamilton (WIA) - Standing from the left Mike Dankert (WIA), Ronald Owens and Jerry Ofstedahl (KIA). This photograph was taken east of FSB Hill 4-11 by Glyn Haynie August 12, 1969.
Paul Ponce at Duc Pho, Brigade Firebase Bronco, on the left, with Leslie Pressley on the right.
Specialist 4th Class Paul Ponce, from Santa Clara, California, had arrived at the platoon in November 1968. He and his wife, Juanita, had no children. Paul was always friendly and talkative, and he would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it. It was one hot day in May, while we walked along Highway 1, that Paul bought and gave me my good luck charm, the peace sign. He’d gone to Hawaii on R & R to meet his wife and was a happy man upon his return to the squad. I learned in February 2016 while talking with a niece that Paul had a son conceived while on R & R.
Joe Mitchell in the center, Maurice Harrington on his right, and Mike Stout on his left on Firebase Debbie.
Specialist 4th Class Joe Mitchell, the first squad leader, was from Chicago, Illinois. Joe had arrived at the platoon in November 1968, which made him an old-timer with experience. He and his wife, Barbara, had no children. Joe was always friendly, talkative, and willing to share his experiences and knowledge with the squad members. We were never close, but he taught me a great deal while I was in the first squad.
James Anderson, Basic Training photograph. A photograph of him in
Vietnam can’t be found.
Private First Class James Anderson, 20, was from Smiths Grove, Kentucky and had a southern drawl. He was one of the newer guys, an FNG, with the squad for only two weeks, having arrived at the platoon the end of July 1969. James married Janice before coming to Vietnam and had no children. James was quiet but always paid attention to his surroundings, and you could tell he tried to learn as much as possible by watching others. He was adapting to Vietnam and fitting in with the second squad.
Danny Carey, Basic Training photograph. A photograph of him in Vietnam can’t be found.
Private First Class Danny Carey, 20, from Utica, Illinois, was unmarried.
Danny liked to kid around and laugh. He found the good in any circumstance. It was great that we had someone with his disposition in the second squad. He’d arrived at the platoon the end of June 1969 and was with us when we built the Hill. Danny was an asset to the squad, and we could count on him during the hard times. Danny’s hometown, Utica, dedicated a park in his name, the Danny Carey Memorial Park.
This is the location today where the platoon was ambushed. The photograph was taken by Glyn Haynie in June 2018.
1st Platoon Company A 3rd Battalion/1st Infantry Regiment 11th Infantry Brigade Americal Division
May they be remembered. On this day, August 13, 1969, Jerry Ofstedahl, Richard Wellman, and Robert Swindle were killed by an enemy ambush outside Quang Ngai. Frank Brown (no photo of Frank available) was critically wounded.
Moving through the fields and hedgerows on August 13, 1969, the point man engaged several NVA soldiers. Jerry Ofstedahl, SSG Robert Swindle, and Richard Wellman moved toward the sounds of the weapons firing to locate the enemy positions. A large enemy force in a well-concealed ambush opened fire, with AK-47s, Rocket-Propelled Grenades (RPG), and a 51 caliber machine gun, on the platoon, killing Ofstedahl, Swindle, and Wellman in seconds. The enemy wounded Frank Brown as he moved toward the sound of the weapons firing. Mike Dankert and a medic administered lifesaving first aid to Frank Brown during the attack.
Jerry Ofstedahl, 2nd Squad Leader on FSB Debbie.
Specialist 4th Class Jerry Ofstedahl, from Napa, California, was the squad leader for the second squad. Jerry had arrived at the platoon in December 1968, which made him an old-timer with experience. He’d married Claire, his longtime girlfriend, while on Rest and Recuperation (R & R) to Tokyo, Japan, the month before; he had no children. I found Jerry to be an outstanding leader, someone I wanted to emulate. He always shared his experiences
and knowledge to help us survive our year in Vietnam and treated the
squad members without favoritism.
SSG Robert Swindle after getting resupplied, in the hills off Highway 1.
Staff Sergeant Robert Swindle was from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He was married to Celsa and had a son. Staff Sergeant Swindle, a career soldier, had arrived at the platoon in June 1969 and was assigned as the platoon sergeant. His assignment to Vietnam was in February 1969, but I’m not sure what his first job was. I didn’t know him personally but respected him as our platoon sergeant. He was aloof but maintained a professional relationship and didn’t socialize with the members of the platoon. He was a caring leader and always looked out for our welfare and safety. Swindle had my respect because it wasn’t often a career noncommissioned officer was assigned to the platoon or Company.
A photograph Richard “Rebel” Wellman had taken and sent to his family while in Vietnam. Photograph provided by Brenda Jones (Rebel’s sister).
Private First Class Richard Wellman, was from Gastonia, North Carolina, and had a Southern drawl. That’s how he got the nickname “Rebel.” He was 20 and had married his wife, Deborah, before coming to Vietnam. He’d received his assignment to the platoon March 1969. Rebel was quiet but always willing to speak if you engaged him in conversation. He proved himself during his first six months while in the first squad and was assigned as the platoon sergeant Radio Telephone Operator (RTO) after Terry Daron left for a rear job. Rebel was well-liked and trusted by the men of First Platoon.
This is the approximate location today where Jerry, Swindle, and Rebel were killed, and Frank Brown wounded. Where you see the water was a trench used by the NVA in August 1969. The photograph was taken by Glyn Haynie in June 2018.
Honoring First Platoon members of Company A 3rd Battalion/1st Infantry Regiment 11th Infantry Brigade Americal Division
Awarded the Purple Heart
June 14, 1969
Bruce Tufts (KIA)
July 2, 1969
July 14, 1969
Juan Ramos (KIA)
Eldon Reynolds (KIA)
August 13, 1969
Robert Swindle (KIA)
Jerry Ofstedahl (KIA)
Richard Wellman (KIA)
August 15, 1969
Joe Mitchell (KIA)
Paul Ponce (KIA)
Danny Carey (KIA)
James Anderson (KIA)
January 14, 1970
Roger Kidwell (KIA)
Gary Morris (KIA)
March 15, 1970
Willmer Matson (KIA)
I want to give a special thanks to my oldest son, David, for taking time away from his job, wife, children, and grandchildren to be with Mike and me as we make this journey.
David was more than just a helper on the trip. I noticed his concern as Mike and I climbed Hill 411, walked across dikes and trails and through heavily forested areas and climbing up Debbie.
He was our navigator with my cell phone and Google Maps, and he learned phrases in Vietnamese, Left, Right, Straight and bathroom so he could communicate with the driver. For Mike and me, bathroom was the most important.
He helped make our trip a success – Thank you son, I love you.
I know why I went back to Vietnam – it was to say goodbye to all my brothers that didn’t come home. I knew I had to be at or near the spot where they took their last step and breath, I needed to be close to them. I wanted to talk to them one last time.
It was through their leadership, friendship, caring, brotherhood and sacrifice that made it possible for me to have a wonderful life that I’ve had over the years, and continue to have. I owe them that life.
Thank you, and you will never be forgotten: Goodbye Bruce Tufts, Juan Ramos, Eldon Reynolds, Jerry Ofstedahl, Robert Swindle, Richard Wellman, Paul Ponce, Joe Mitchell, James Anderson, Danny Carey, Gary Morris, Roger Kidwell, and Willie Matson. Until we meet again.
I will continue to repeat their names every day.
After getting up early, I got ready for our last day of visiting locations that are important to Mike and I. We had the buffet breakfast and waiting for our driver to pick us up at 7:30. The last couple of mornings we moved the pickup timeout 30 minutes so we could get a little extra rest.
Ben pulled into the hotel street and open the side door for Mike and me and David climbed into the front passenger seat, navigator seat, of the van. We departed for My Lai Massacre Museum in the Quang Ngai area.
If you aren’t familiar with the My Lai Massacre - A young lieutenant, William Calley, a platoon leader in the 11th Brigade Americal Division, and his platoon killed over 500 civilians. Being a career soldier, I wore the Americal Division insignia on my right shoulder for 20 years, and it was immediately associated with the My Lai Massacre. Mike and I were with our unit one year after the massacre occurred, in March 1968 and the area we operated in was just across the river. Mike and I thought we should pay our respects to the civilians that lost their lives that day due to one criminal, a lieutenant.
I found the Museum and Memorial educational and humbling. It was slanted towards North Vietnam and their people, but it should be, it’s their story. The platoon shouldn’t have committed these murders under any circumstances.
I had a woman in her mid-twenties that was with her boyfriend and sister ask me how I felt about the massacre, as she was crying. I told her I thought it was a criminal act, and I felt sorry for villagers that were killed that day. She thanked me and left.
We departed Quang Ngai for the last time and headed north towards Chu Lai. Chu Lai was the Americal Division Headquarters and the location of the Combat Center. The Combat Center is where all division soldiers entered to get transportation to their unit. It was also the location of my rear job, after I left my infantry platoon, where I was responsible for shipping these soldiers to their unit.
After an hour drive, we reached the Combat Center. Of course, nothing was there, but it wasn’t too hard to visualize the layout of the Shipping Shed and where my hooch was. It was at my hooch that Mike came to visit after he got a rear job, and we sat out front watching the South China Sea and sipped on our Jim Beam and Coke and talked of our time together and our platoon brothers. It was the same location we hugged, for what we thought would be the last time, when I left Vietnam to go back to the states.
What a fitting ending to an exciting, unforgettable, and emotional trip back in time. A trip I could only do with Mike.
More to come tomorrow.
I am back in my room after having dinner with Mike and David. We decided to eat at the hotel restaurant again because of the long travel day. The meal was good, and a little different for my taste. I had “beef” and potatoes with a strange sauce. It was the same meal Mike had last night, so I thought it safe to eat, Mike was still with us. They had pizza.
After we left FSB Debbie, we headed south towards the fire we outran May 24, 1969. We located the hill, but the highway was moved about ¼ up the hillside, therefore by the pictures it does not look as tall. We walked down a trail on the other side of the road, and you could easily add another 200 or more feet to the elevation. Chuck I couldn’t find the stagnate pond we drank from that day.
Next, we headed north toward FSB Charlie Brown and the bridge. We had to make some corrections with my navigation instructions, but we made it to Charlie Brown without a problem. After stopping alongside the road Mike, David and I got out and started taking pictures. We didn’t try to go to the island, seeing it from a distance was good with us. Charlie Brown was the first firebase that Mike and I served on. My memory was mostly pulling KP and poop burning duty. We did get to swim in the South China Sea. Getting to know the platoon members was my best time at Charlie Brown.
After taking many pictures, we loaded back into the van and started driving to the bridge which was only 10 minutes away. At first, we couldn’t find it, but Mike and I saw terrain we recognized and had the driver pull over. We crossed through a small neighborhood and found the road where the bridge should be located. The bridge was moved about 500 meters south, and the river rerouted. However, the area to our front was identical to the last time we were there in 1969, I mean no changes that we could tell.
While standing in amazement of our view, we talked of the patrol that Mike went on into the foothills to our front. The patrol ran into about 17 NVA soldiers, but the platoon sergeant told them to remain hidden. I talked about the Buddist Temple that played strange music, and the monks chanted at night, making the darkness even more strange. David overheard me and saw part of an ornate building through the trees to our rear. We retraced our steps and walked up a path right through the gates of the Temple. I couldn’t believe it.
Tomorrow we are going to My Lai and then the Combat Center in Chu Lai.
When I Turned Nineteen Soldiering After the Vietnam War.