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Brotherhood and Loss in the Mekong Delta

Butch Eakins, standing, with Ronnie Bryan, seated on left, and the author in Vietnam.
Butch Eakins, standing, with Ronnie Bryan, seated on left, and the author in Vietnam.

It was the spring of 1966 and I was 19 years old, working nights at a General Motors plant in Van Nuys, Calif., and attending day classes at Pierce College, carrying 12 credits and a student deferment status. I owned a brand new 1965 Chevelle Malibu Super Sport, and I had a gorgeous girlfriend. Life was simply great! But I soon grew weary of my college curriculum and dropped out, intending to resume the following semester.

The next thing I knew, Uncle Sam sent his greeting. It read, “You are hereby ordered for induction to the Armed Forces of the United States.” I was to report to the Los Angeles Induction Station on May 17, 1966. To my disbelief, my perfect little world had instantly turned upside down.

My dad, a World War II Veteran, served with the Army in the South Pacific. Now it was my turn. President John F. Kennedy’s powerful words had galvanized America: “It’s not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” I still hold those words dear to this day. This, too: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

On that surreal early morning, Dad drove me down to the Los Angeles induction station. I’m sure he was proud, but I was a nervous wreck. At the station, I joined hundreds of other young men. There were guys from my hometown, guys from my high school. We were all in the same boat.

That afternoon a bus took us to the airport, where we boarded a plane to El Paso and arrived at Fort Bliss for one week of Army indoctrination. It was my very first flight. We received our olive drab fatigues, combat boots, buzz haircuts, countless vaccinations and a full dose of harassment from young noncommissioned officers who took great pleasure in aggravating us.

A week later, after a bumpy flight to Manhattan, Kan., we arrived late at night at Fort Riley’s famed Custer Hill Army barracks, confused and disoriented. Older and more experienced NCO’s were there barking at us — we could not get off that bus fast enough!

I ended up in the Second Platoon, Charlie Company, Fourth Battalion, 47th Infantry, regiment of the Ninth Infantry Division. Known as the Old Reliables from its World War II days, the Ninth had been reactivated for combat in Vietnam.

We trained for six months at Custer Hill, learning how to march, fire weapons, engage in hand-to-hand combat, throw grenades, use gas masks. In short, we learned how to kill, how to survive and how to aid wounded soldiers. After six months, we became a fighting unit ready for war, but more important, we became brothers for life.

From Fort Riley we rode a train Oakland, then boarded the General John Pope, a World War II troop ship. Three weeks later, we arrived at Vung Tau, South Vietnam.

The Ninth Infantry Division band sent us gloriously on at each leg of our journey. (Yes, we had a band in the war zone.) We were pumped and primed, firm in the belief that we would end the war by year’s end.

When we arrived at base camp Bearcat, outside Bien Hoa, northeast of Saigon, we found nothing but a wide-open space, sweltering hot and humid. Immediately, we pitched large tents, dug mortar trenches and filled sand bags. The conditions were harsh. Three weeks later water trucks arrived, and we all promptly stripped down for our first shower in Vietnam.

Soon we were conducting patrols outside Bearcat’s jungle perimeter, searching for the Vietcong and their weapon caches. The area was relatively safe.

Then, in early April 1967, we departed for a new base camp in the Mekong Delta, named Dong Tam, which in Vietnamese means “united hearts and minds.” This name was coined by Gen. William Westmoreland, who had served with the Ninth Infantry in World War II. Again, we arrived to a wide-open space with zero accommodations except our pup tents. It was wet, muddy and oppressively hot.

We experienced numerous small firefights and booby traps; often we mused that if the enemy didn’t get us, surely the treacherous terrain, excessive heat or the swarms of irritating red ants and mosquitoes certainly would. Our first significant action came on May 15, 1967, and the results of that engagement made our battalion commander, Lt. Col. Guy Tutwiler, very proud. We took a number of casualties and one good friend, Donald Peterson, was killed in action that day. The Vietcong lost roughly 90 fighters. The reality of brutal combat was felt by all.

IN THE EARLY HOURS OF JUNE 19, we disembarked from Navy landing crafts, called Tangos, to begin a major search and destroy mission in rice paddies near Ap Bac Village, south of Can Giouc near the Vietnamese coast. I was the point man for the company’s Second platoon. Intelligence reported a major Vietcong battalion was operating there, but after several hours trudging from one rice paddy to the next, we were alerted that the enemy was spotted elsewhere. Our Navy Tangos moved us several miles away. We began trudging across yet another large rice paddy that ran parallel to a small tributary. Suddenly, all hell broke loose.

Heavy automatic rifle fire and rocket propelled grenades screamed in along with small weapons fire. My buddies were dropping left and right, but by the grace of God I raced safely back to a small berm next to the creek where everyone able was scrambling. On the other side of the creek, our enemy was situated in heavily fortified bunkers, giving them a major advantage. We did, though, have air superiority and artillery support. Our Huey gunships soon arrived on the scene delivering heavy fire with M-60 machine guns and rockets blasting away from behind our positions over our heads into those bunkers.

As the battle raged our Second Platoon medic, Specialist Fourth Class Bill Geier, busied himself tending to our wounded. Lying near me was Lt. Jack Benedick’s radio operator, Bob French, who had been shot in his back right under his radio. I’ll never forget his scream when he was hit. Our machine-gunner, Ronnie Bryan, was also next to me writhing in pain. He’d been hit in the buttocks, and Geier gave him a shot of morphine. These were my friends.

Soon Geier was hit under his armpit. The bullet penetrated both his lungs and exited the other side of his torso. I scrambled to bandage him, but he was the medic, not me. I worked frantically, asking him what to do. I tried to keep him talking, but it was no use. He fell unconscious, and by the time our Third Platoon medic, Elijah Taylor, known as Doc, got to us, my buddy Bill Geier was gone.

We hunkered down all day. At one point a medevac Huey sat right down on the berm, so we loaded in several wounded, including Bob French. Ronnie Bryan refused, figuring it was insanely dangerous. As soon as the pilot attempted lift off, the Huey was hit, and abruptly sat right back down, throwing its rear rotor hard left and tossing Bob French onto the ground. Later, another chopper landed to our rear and some of our wounded scrambled aboard as it quickly lifted off. This Huey was up about 100 feet when it was hit. It lurched about as we hollered, “Go, go, go!” But it fell to the ground killing almost everyone on board. Specialist Forrest Ramos had tumbled out, and the damn thing landed right on him. I can still see that awful moment unfold in my mind to this day.

Finally the order came to pull back to our boats to prepare an assault on the enemy. As I was reloading my grenade launcher, a bullet blasted through the barrel, missing my head by inches. After all I had seen that day, I was sure storming across that creek would be the last thing I did on earth, but I lucked out. I got hit only by shrapnel from an enemy mortar round, and after a Navy corpsman bandaged me, I was lifted out with several others. When it was over, 47 American soldiers had lost their lives and many more were wounded. Our Alpha Company was nearly completely destroyed. More than 250 Vietcong fighters lay dead. There was no telling how many more were wounded.

A few weeks later, on July 11, Charlie Company was caught out in the open by the enemy and we lost five more brave soldiers, including my high school classmate Phil Ferro and four buddies. The Vietcong escaped that night, so we were unable to exact our revenge.

The remainder of our tour of duty was back to the grind of routine patrols, dodging snipers, booby traps and brief firefights. It was dangerous, but my tour finally ended and I came home through San Francisco’s airport to throngs of hippies harassing me.

Months after returning home, my mom told me about the phone call she got in mid-July 1967 from my buddy Phil’s mother, Helen Ferro. She said: “Marie, the Army officers just left. My son has been killed, but your boy is O.K.”

Bill Reynolds is a Vietnam veteran and the director of veterans’ affairs for the Santa Clarita Valley Signal. His combat experience with Charlie Company is featured in the documentary Brothers in War and the book The Boys of ’67, by Andrew Wiest.

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