On 19 September 1966, at 0600 the Marines were chowing down on some of those special C- Rations that were left over from WW 2 or the Korean War; we had three choices to chose from, B one unit, B-2 unit and B-3 unit. Each meal contained 1200 calories. I was eating a B-3 unit which consisted of Ham and eggs, chopped, pork steak and chicken, boned. The cans actually had 1938 to 1945 stamped on the cans! After breakfast I was making preparations for the operation, I always packed as much as I could because we never knew the strength of the résistance. I started loading my unit one bag with battle dressings, morphine, ointments, scissors, ace wraps, aspirin, atropine inj., band-aids, airway, thermometer, casualty cards and the list goes on.
I was making sure the marines also carried battle dressings in their pockets. At this point I felt very apprehensive. After the C.O.s briefing, the troops were gathered and the team leaders informed us where we were going and what they expected. A high number of VC and North Vietnamese were moving into our sector. The mission was to encounter the enemy, estimate their strength, and report the data back to headquarters. My anxiety level was going up and I was already sweating profusely.
At many briefings before we started our patrols, I made it a habit to look around at the marines, wondering who would not return to our CP (command post). Lives would be taken and for many, due to their injuries, their lives will be changed forever. If a marine looks like he is becoming excessively nervous and draws my attention, I would make it a point to talk with that individual and try to console him. Upon close observation, he actually looked terrified!
I learned that his baptism by fire happened a week ago; a buddy of his was a KIA (killed in action) and he was scared for his life. I told him the root of war is fear; I also told him “It’s time to talk to God.” He shed a few tears at this point, even though he tried to suppress it. He was somewhat despondent and his voice quivered considerably. Emotionally, he was traumatized. He had only been in country less than a month, not seasoned yet. I told him to find a buddy in his squad and form a buddy system watch each other’s back. There were only three of us corpsmen and it was our duty to care for the marines. That was not only physical needs but emotionally as well. Now I was feeling sad, anticipatory grief, and many other emotions. I learned early not to make close friends, as I didn’t want to be hurt if one of them were killed or wounded; so alienation became one of my demons.
The next words I heard were “saddle up; choppers will be landing in five minutes.” I glanced toward the sky to see several dark specks gradually getting closer and then trooped toward the landing zone with the rest of the platoon. I heard the distant whop-whop-whop sound from the C-46 double blade Chinook helicopters landing, and we proceeded to boarding. The noise from the choppers and the marines yelling orders caused a lot of confusion, and the anxiety of the unknown was overwhelming. We would be in the air for 15 to 20 minutes before we made our LZ. These were tense moments; at this stage we were hyper alert and knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that war will start at any time. We are anticipating the inevitable. We are going to Satan’s playground, and he is ready for us. My anxiety level was running very high, and my heart pumping so fast that I thought I would start hyperventilating at any time.
As we jumped out of the helicopters, the point man started leading the way and the other marines fell in behind him. We were spacing ourselves out about 15 to 20 yards from each other. We do this for two reasons: we are less of a target for the enemy; and if someone steps on a land mine, fewer guys will be injured. I am following the radio operator; there was another radio operator with the third squad. We were broken up into three separate squads. I was attached to the second. We only had one corpsman on this operation; so consequently, the first and third squad did not have a corpsman with them. We were supposed to have six corpsmen to a company, but corpsmen were in high demand. Too many of us were either getting killed or wounded to keep up with the numbers.
We were 45 marines strong, we are lock and loaded, ready for battle. We crossed several rice paddies, from fifty to seventy-five yards in length. As we were walking, we remained vigilant for an ambush or booby traps. A short time later we heard some small arms fire coming from the west of our position. Of course, we all hit the ground. Now the fear began and we felt helpless, as we were caught in the rice paddy without any protection or cover. A few minutes later the dreaded call was made: “Corpsman up!” The marines would repeat this message down the ranks until I received the message. My adrenaline rush was running off the scale. The marines gave me fire support when I ran to that wounded soldier. Not only was I scared for my life, but I was also very concerned about the condition of the marine. I was hoping that I could help him. I quickly evaluated his life-threatening conditions. I then placed a battle dressing on him, dragged him to the dike, made out a causality card, and prepared him for a medevac to the BAS.
As we were walking on a rice paddy dike, I was watching a water buffalo grazing nearby, then all of a sudden it triggered a land mine….not a pretty picture, it shook me up thinking that it could as easily been one of our marines or me for that matter. This reminded us to be vigilant and watchful for landmines.
Later that day we were crossing another rice paddy into a grave yard near a village called Vinh Hoa, a hostile village where many Vietcong sympathizers lived. It now changed from a see and report mission and was now a search and destroy mission. Our platoons leapfrog from one cemetery to another. The final graveyard we enter is a little less than two acres with approximately a hundred graves. The Vietcong spring their trap, as each VC is lying on a tomb. We were overrun by the Vietcong. Each grave mound was above eye level with tall grass growing on each one. They were also approximately 6 to 8 feet across in diameter. They opened fire on us at a point-blank distance. Many were engaged in hand to hand combat. Everywhere you looked there was unbelievable mayhem. The platoon leader, Lieutenant Gaughan, seeing that we were significantly outnumbered ordered the radio operator, Corporal Gerace, aka “Bomar,” to call headquarters to send another platoon immediately for reinforcement. The third squad radio operator, Larson, radioed us stating that they needed a corpsman ASAP. I instantly began running across the rich paddy, I could hear bullets passing by me as I was trying to keep my body as low to the ground as possible.
One of the bullets came so close to my ear that if the projectile was one inch closer, my name would have been on the Vietnam Wall. It was the most horrifying and frightening sound I have ever heard in my life. The sound seemed to magnify and was very eerie. Another close call came right after. One of my three canteens was hit and water started running down my leg. At first I thought it was blood, but then I saw it was water, one of my three canteens was hit. This was the worst day of my life, and the water running down my leg actually made me laugh momentarily about the event.
Somehow I escaped death once again; was I losing it or was I in a twilight zone? I have never been as scared in my life. As I was running toward the graves with my adrenaline running so fast and the suction from the mud wearing me out. It seemed I was running in slow motion. When I got to the first grave, I fell down and tried to catch my breath. I was really worn out.
At this moment I was having a fight-or-flight reaction. I was terrified and thought this could very well be the last day of my life: despair! This suicidal waltz is known as “doing your duty.” This day alone, I could have been killed several times. Only God knows why that did not happen.
The sound of weapons firing and grenades exploding is deafening, I can hear marines yelling from being wounded and in pain. As I go around the graves looking for wounded, what I see is overwhelming. There are bodies everywhere, marines and Vietcong. I am confused and in a panic. Who am I going to treat first? Where’s the other corpsman? I scream in my head, “I need help.” When will the second squad arrive? I also need to watch for the Vietcong. I try to use triage as much as possible, but with so many marines needing medical care, I just have to do the best I can. I am not prepared for as many causalities as we endure. Consequently, I run out of battle dressings. Some of the marines carry them in their pockets, so I always check their pants first. I also run out of morphine, which causes more agony for the maimed.
I never encountered guerilla warfare of this magnitude. The Vietcong want a great victory. This was the only battle where we encountered hand-to-hand combat during my tour in Vietnam. This battle gets personal and up close, a fight to the death. It is a life changer that crushes all I perceive of what life is about. Chaos is everywhere. We are all fighting for our lives. I am constantly looking for wounded marines and watching for the enemy; they too are everywhere. While I’m treating a marine for a gut wound, I look up and see a Vietcong looking at me. He is about twenty feet from me with a rifle in his hand, the barrel pointing slightly downward. My hands are busy treating the marine. My 45 caliber pistol is in my holster, and my rifle is lying on the ground next to me. I have no doubt that the VC is contemplating on whether to kill me or move on. He’s about my age with black shorts, black shirt, and sandals. His hair is dark black, thick, and unkempt. The dark eyes stare at me with a haunting glaze. It’s as if he is looking through me. My life is at his discretion. All he has to do is lift the rifle up and fire. So many things are going through my mind. Was this the last day of my life? Will I ever see my family again? What will happen to the marine I am treating and the rest of our casualties?
The shock is so great that the boy I was died of fright. At this moment, the world around me seems to be suspended in time. The noise of the battle ceases and everything is at a standstill. I am in a twilight zone where it is hard for me to digest the events taking place.
Suddenly, a thought occurs to me that perhaps he is not going to kill me. I start to feel calmness. I no longer feel fear. I start to look at him as a warrior who is doing what his superiors trained him to do. He does have a conscience, and he is contemplating what is right and what is wrong, He can see that I am treating a fellow marine. Would he not do the same thing for one of his comrades? I start to feel compassion for him, and at that moment I want to live. I start to yell at him telling him I am a “bac si” a doctor. I tell him “didimau” go quickly. I know that if a marine sees him, he will kill him instantly. The marine I am treating is in much pain. I look down at him and he is in shock and bleeding out. I look back at the Vietcong and he is gone. At this instant, the chaos of the war returns and we are no longer suspended in time.
During this time the second squad arrives and we are finally taking control of the battle. We were defiantly outnumbered; usually the Vietcong were not as brave or experienced. It was later learned that these combatants could have been North Vietnamese. Out of 90 marines doing battle, only 26 from the first platoon walked out without an injury. Later that day I started to feel very melancholy. I felt unworthy to be called a corpsman. I could probably have saved some more lives. I learned later that this was a common thought among other corpsmen or medics. I know that I did the bestI could.
After the battle, we counted 28 Vietcong, normally we never count the bodies because the VC drags them away as soon as they are killed or wounded.
Reflection: This is hard for me to put in words; it was one of the worst days of my life. I have had many flashbacks and nightmares from this operation alone. Much of my PTSD was born on this patrol. Each time I dream it, it reinforces my belief about what I think happened. My emotions were on overload the whole day. And I have tried to sketch them for you as I related this story.
The number of causalities that day was overwhelming; the fear and anxiety I was experiencing was beyond description. Some of the marines who were injured were beyond help; it was not easy to leave them and treat those who could be helped, but I could only be in one place at a time. However, seeing marines lying in pain, shock and despair was heartfelt. Triage is not easy to accomplish, but you have to priorities to maximize the number of survivors. At the end of the day, I felt that I let many of my comrades down, but I can honestly say I did the best I could. During my 13-month tour in Vietnam I have always felt survivors’ guilt; why did I live and others die?
The irony is that this is the combat action for which I was awarded the Silver Star “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity.” How the Navy evaluated my actions is different from what I relive in my dreams from time to time.
HMCM Ronald C. Mosbaugh
Master Chief Corpsman (E-9)
USNR (retired) 31 years