by Howard B. Patrick
When I ask myself this, I am not questioning my lack of good fortune—just the opposite. I want to know why was my life was spared. Why did others die, when I, facing certain death, survived?
Nineteen sixty-seven started off great. I was a twenty-three-year-old newlywed, a recent graduate of an electronics engineering program from a local Philadelphia technical school, and two months into a new job as a computer technician with IBM, the most prominent computer company in the country. My life could not have been any better. But a few short months later all that changed with the arrival of a letter that would thrust me into the most perilous time of my life.
I walked into our apartment after work, but instead of being greeted by my wife’s smiling face and a lingering kiss, I found Judy hunched over on the couch, sobbing nonstop, her eyes red and puffy, and her face drained of color. My immediate thought was that someone in the family must be seriously ill or injured, maybe even dead. Judy didn’t say a word. Still sobbing, she just looked up, and with a trembling hand gave me the tear-stained paper she had been clutching. It was a notice from my local draft board, instructing me to report to the Philadelphia Military Induction Center on April 17th. I had been drafted. And the first thing that popped into my mind was why me? No one I knew had gotten drafted, just me. Why none of my friends, why only me? There had been a deferment for married men, but that was revoked shortly before I got married. And since I was in perfect health, there didn’t seem to be any way to avoid going.
In spite of my technical training and experience, the army decided I could best serve my country in the infantry. I was offered Officer Candidate School, but turned it down because it meant an additional ten months of service. Following a year of training, including twenty-two weeks at NCO School, I was promoted to the rank of sergeant and given a reporting date to be in Oakland, California—next stop, Vietnam.
I was assigned to the First Cavalry Division as a squad leader with Echo Recon, (E Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment), a newly-formed reconnaissance company. On paper, our prime objective was to conduct reconnaissance missions in suspected enemy areas to provide information about the enemy to our battalion. However, during Echo Recon’s first year of operations we had the highest kill ratio of any unit in the First Cav in that same time period. This was deadly work, for us and the enemy, and soon led me to ask, for the first of many times, why not me?
As part of our normal ambush procedures we placed Claymore anti-personnel mines pointed toward trails that enemy soldiers might travel along. When triggered, the Claymore sends a wide pattern of metal balls into the kill zone, like a massive shotgun blast. On one of our night ambushes my squad set up a semi-circle perimeter, surrounded by the Claymores and trip flares. During the night we heard noises all around us, but no voices. The flares were not tripped, and we didn’t see any movement on the trail, in the bushes, or in the trees behind us. I made sure every man maintained extra vigilance, with rifles ready and hands on the Claymore plungers, but told them not to detonate them unless we actually heard voices or saw movement.
Luckily, we never set off any of the Claymores, and in the morning we realized just how fortunate we were. The noises we heard were indeed the enemy – hoping we would set off our Claymores, because they had managed sneak up and turn them around to face us.
When we realized what happened, we were all visibly shaken by how close we came to being blown to bits. Following that incident, we purposely booby-trapped each of the Claymores. Any attempt to pull them out of the ground would activate a pressure switch. If we had no contact, we would deactivate the pressure switches before removing the mines.
On a platoon-size ambush another night, we got into a pretty heavy firefight, and our platoon leader called for artillery support. He gave the coordinates to the artillery unit back at the base and requested one round to be fired for accuracy—a common practice. Either the lieutenant screwed up the coordinates or one of the artillery men did, because the round fell extremely short. I heard the whistling getting louder as the shell approached, but instead of continuing past our position, the whistling was replaced with a whoosh, followed by a loud thud. The artillery shell had burrowed into the ground close enough to a few of us that we could reach out and touch it. If it had exploded, there’s no doubt we would have been statistics. But it was a dud, defective in some way, which prevented it from detonating. Was it a miraculous incident or just plain luck?
A few other friendly fire incidents that I was involved in did result in casualties, like the day the two Cobra helicopter gunships fired rockets at us. It was a two-squad recon mission and we were walking down a trail on one side of a long ridge. Unknown to us, a column of North Vietnamese Army soldiers was going down the other side of the same ridge, and as one of our Hueys (Bell UH-1 helicopter) flew over the ridge it took fire. The chopper pilot immediately took evasive action and flew out of range of the incoming stream of bullets. As it turned away from the ridge, two Cobra gunships that had been hiding inside nearby clouds flew in to attack the enemy, who stopped firing and got out of sight the moment they saw the Cobras jump out of their cloud cover. We saw the gunships heading in our direction, thinking they had their sights on the other side of the ridge. But the only movement the lead gunship pilot saw was us, and before we had a chance to let him know we were friendly troops, the chopper let loose with his rockets. There was immediate chaos with everyone trying to get off the trail and behind trees. Our radio man threw out smoke grenades to mark our position and tried making contact with our rear command. But the second gunship also fired rockets before the crew realized we were the good guys. As the rocket barrages hit, shrapnel flew in all directions, concussions from the blasts literally blew us off our feet, and almost everyone got hit.
All of the men were wearing soft boonie hats, except one, who wore his steel helmet, which was something he rarely did. A pretty good size piece of shrapnel hit his helmet dead center above his eyebrows, but it didn’t penetrate the metal. All he wound up with was a minor concussion and a bad headache; there was no doubt whatsoever that the helmet saved his life. The unanswered question, of course, is what made him wear his helmet that particular day. Did he have some type of premonition that made him grab it at the last minute? He never talked about it, after coming back from a short hospital stay.
I was in more firefights than I care to think about, any of which could have resulted in my death, but one particular incident was like nothing I could have ever imagined happening. Even though we had a few guys who were exceptionally good point men and often volunteered for it, I felt I should not assign my men to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. On one of our platoon-size recon missions I decided it was time for me to take point. Early on a December morning, my squad was leading the patrol and I was out front. We had been flown by chopper to a spot about ten klicks from our base camp. We jumped off the helicopters into some pretty thick elephant grass but we made it into the woods without incident. We walked along a trail thick with branches, vines, and underbrush, which limited visibility considerably. I was about ten yards ahead of the rest of my squad when the trail took a slight curve to the right. As I cautiously followed it around, I was suddenly facing a young NVA soldier who had just turned onto my trail from a smaller cross trail. We could not have been more than twenty feet from each other. My M-16 rifle was on full automatic and the safety was off, but the barrel was pointed slightly downward. If I fired, the best I could have hoped for was to hit him in the legs. His AK-47 was pointing directly at my chest, so firing without raising my rifle would have meant instant death for me. And if I raised my rifle he could shoot me before I could get him, so I just froze. The closest man behind me saw that I had stopped, but because of the curve in the trail he couldn’t see why, so he stopped and motioned for the guys behind him to do the same. The NVA soldier and I stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity but was actually no more than a second or two. Then he just lowered his rifle, quickly turned back to the trail he had turned from and continued that way. I immediately ducked down into the brush and counted about a dozen NVA soldiers as they followed their point man and walked right past my trail. As soon as I was certain they were all well past me, I moved back to our platoon leader’s position and reported the NVA movement, but without mentioning my encounter with the enemy point man.
After a later disagreement with my commanding officer over using sound combat tactics versus what I believed was an emotional decision on his part, I was transferred to the Brigade Civil Affairs Unit as the NCO-in-charge. The goal of the army’s Civil Affairs effort was To Seal the Victory in the so-called secure areas of Vietnam by Winning the Hearts and Minds of the Vietnamese People. This was to be accomplished by helping the civilian population in the nearby friendly villages improve the quality of their lives, mainly through Medcaps (Medical Civil Action Programs), humanitarian efforts, and recreational activities, such as movies. My duties also included assisting the Psyops Unit with their propaganda missions, like leaflet distribution and live audio broadcasts from the air. Those propaganda techniques were meant to persuade the local population to support their nationally elected government, the Government of South Vietnam in Saigon, and to convince the VC they should surrender and change their loyalties.
My last Psyops mission was the day my chopper got shot down, less than a month before my scheduled departure from Vietnam. There were always six of us on board, the pilot and copilot, two door gunners, a Vietnamese interpreter who broadcasted the messages over a thousand-watt speaker system, and me. My job was to dump the propaganda leaflets out of an open chopper door when we were over the target area. We loaded up the leaflets, tested the speaker system, and took off around mid-morning from one end of the long base runway.
On that day, the pilot did a wide 180-degree turn, and climbed to about 500 feet. We soon started receiving very heavy .51-caliber machine gun fire from the woods below. The loud noise from the engines and rotors normally muffled the sound of ground fire, but anytime our door gunners began firing their machine guns, I knew the enemy was trying to shoot us down. Seconds after our door gunners started firing, red lights flashed on the cockpit instrument panel, loud beeping noises filled the air, and the sound of the engine changed. At least one of the rounds had knocked out our engine. The Huey was designed so the rotor blades could auto-gyrate if the engine loses power, but normally the helicopter has to be at a higher altitude than we were at for auto-gyrate to work. We should have fallen out of the sky like a giant rock, but, thanks to the pilot’s exceptional skills, we didn’t. He pulled up on the control stick while the co-pilot flipped switches on the front panel. We were going down pretty fast, but he somehow managed to execute another 180-degree turn and maneuver the chopper back to the runway. The chopper’s skids did hit the ground hard and we bounced a couple of hundred of feet back into the air. This hitting hard and bouncing up continued down the entire length of the runway, with each bounce not as quite as high as the previous one. We came to a stop at almost the exact spot we had taken off from just a few chilling minutes before.
We scrambled off fast, wondering if the helicopter might explode from the impacts and leaking fuel. The crash crew arrived and immediately hosed down the chopper just in case. As we looked at some pretty big holes in the side of the helicopter we thought it was miraculous it hadn’t crashed and burned. Many helicopters did get shot down in Vietnam, and often from much less damage than ours sustained. It was a frightening experience and it took quite a while before I calmed down.
The next morning, when my Lieutenant told me I was scheduled for another Psyops mission later that day, I flat-out refused. Even under the threat of a Court Martial, I told him I was not leaving the base under any circumstances until my processing-out day. Nothing ever came of his threats, and my last days there were mainly spent eating, sleeping, and reliving my experiences since arriving in Vietnam. My mind was filled with questions. Why didn’t the helicopter crash and burn? Why didn’t we set off the Claymores the night we heard noises during the ambush? What about that dud artillery shell and the one that bombarded the area with shrapnel from above that never touched a single man? And, of course, there was that face-to-face encounter with the NVA point man. Why did he let me live? Was it simply luck or just coincidence that I walked away unscathed from those incidents? Or could life actually be predestined? Did I have a guardian angel watching over me?
Why does one man walk away from a firefight unscathed while the two guys practically shoulder-to-shoulder on either side of him get wounded or killed? Why does nothing happen to one man who picks up something off of the trail as a souvenir, while someone else does the very same thing and loses an arm or his life to a booby-trap? Why does one guy get sick minutes before going out on a mission and the helicopter he would have been on crashes, killing all those on board?
Almost fifty years after Vietnam, I’m still haunted by these questions. Why am I still alive and what is my purpose in life? Why didn’t I die in Vietnam? Who or what kept me alive, and for what purpose? I want to believe that I was saved from an early death for a reason. And, if that’s the case, maybe it was to help my fellow warriors and those who care about them. I’ll never know for sure, but it is that possibility that has led me to write my story.