The Vietnam Veteran Memorial Fund (VVFM) posted an article on Facebook recently that caught my eye. And the reason it resonated with me was because I learned I had survived the deadliest week of the Vietnam War. The VVFM reported that May 5-11, 1968 was the worst week of the war with respect to losing soldiers to death and losing soldiers to the enemy as in missing in action.
I arrived in Vietnam in February 1968, and after a too short, cozy, stint with an engineering outfit in Cam Rahn Bay, I was reassigned to HHC 1/6th 198th Light Infantry Brigade, Americal Division. Shortly after my arrival with the 198th, Sergeant Webb prepared me for my departure out to the field and attached me to Charlie Company. He helped me decide what was to be placed in my ruck sack and he helped me pack up my medic’s bag. Everything I needed to help me survive in the field was put into my ruck sack and everything I had to try and save lives was put in my medic’s bag.
When I arrived out in the jungle by helicopter I reluctantly got off because I couldn’t see anyone on the ground. I did see yellow smoke but that didn’t mean anything to me at the time because nobody explained the landing to me. The yellow smoke grenade was thrown out into the clearing by American soldiers on the ground so the helicopter pilot knew where to land. The chopper touched down and the door gunners yelled for me to get off. I yelled back there’s nobody here. They yelled louder for me to get off. Against my better judgment, I got off and the chopper disappeared in the sky.
The yellow smoke cleared and American soldiers who had been hiding in the brush and thus camouflaged came out to greet me. First among them was Al Torsiello from Union, New Jersey who had arrived in country a few weeks before me. I met Al and then was introduced to Gene Lynch, Louie Panteleone, Ed McCracken, Daryl Herlocker, Bob Scott and several other guys who would become my second platoon mates. I was then introduced to the man who would be my supervisor Sergeant First Class Leroy Ferguson followed by my lieutenant Ernie Carrier and to the chief officer Captain Hurtado. I was told I would travel with Sgt. Ferguson, Lt. Carrier and radio operator Pye, but it was made clear I reported to Sgt. Ferguson.
Sgt. Leroy Ferguson was an African American who was a large and strong man. He was very fit and very reserved. He was a stickler for formality in the jungle which I discovered alienated some of my fellow soldiers. Ferguson was a career soldier supervising guys who had been drafted and some like myself that enlisted and he insisted on having the same discipline and structure out in the jungle as you would have in a base camp. Many guys rebelled against that because to them the rules out in the jungle were different and much less regimented. We couldn’t get haircuts, we couldn’t and didn’t shine our boots and we didn’t shave. And we wore the same clothes for weeks at a time. So naturally conditions were different. Add to that the fact we were all armed and shooting for real, the lines between guys like Ferguson and infantrymen became somewhat blurred. Despite theses differences, Sgt. Ferguson was a first class soldier and one of the few senior enlisted men who were out in the field with us.
in February, March and April 1968, we conducted operations around LZ Baldy. We provided support for engineering teams that were clearing bombs and booby traps from Hwy 1. It was critical to remove bombs from the roadway because the road had to be open to transport troops and war materials to different outposts. When the engineers would quit for the day, we would conduct search and clear operations in the local villages and the countryside. During these months, we were regularly mortared and had firefights with the Vietcong. We did not take many casualties during this time period, but I treated several sick and wounded soldiers and Vietnamese soldiers and civilians.
As the calendar turned to May 1968, specifically the week mentioned in the VVMF report referenced above, we were told we were going to take a hill known locally to the American forces as Hill 352. We were warned we would likely encounter elements of the 2nd NVA (North Vietnamese Army) Division. At this time, we had a full company of approximately 130 guys and to my knowledge we had never encountered the NVA before at least since I had arrived in Vietnam.
On May 8, 1968, we began scaling the hill which was actually a mountain range and it took us most of the day to reach a plateau still some distance from the top. It was decided that we would establish a perimeter on the plateau to spend the night. A squad was sent out to check out the area and they captured a heavy duty machine gun and some other weapons and reported seeing enemy soldiers in green uniforms off in the distance. This confirmed to us we weren’t going to battle against guys in black pajamas (Vietcong); rather, we were going to go up against premier soldiers of the 2nd NVA Division. Before the evening came, we set out our claymore mines and established our defensive positions. After all these years, I don’t have a clear recollection whether we were hit by the enemy that night, but Al Torsiello remembers we received some rocket and mortar fire.
The next morning started out like virtually every morning, we ate something, drank some coffee and smoked cigarettes until we were told to saddle up. We dropped our ruck sacks within the perimeter and started out on patrol. We began walking and after going a very short distance, Sgt. Ferguson said to me “Doc do you have your morphine with you and I said no it’s in my ruck sack“. He said “you better go back and get it because we may need it”. I immediately ran back to get it and fell into formation but not behind Ferguson where I normally walked as the formation had moved forward without me. We had a newer officer out with us that day Lt. Myers who had replaced Lt. Carrier and he was walking in the vicinity of Ferguson with some other soldiers. We hadn’t gone far when an extremely loud burst of firepower exploded towards us hitting and presumably killing Ferguson instantly and wounding guys near him. Because of the withering fire, we were pinned down and told to pull back which we did to a fallback position.
Lt. Myers said to members of the company we need volunteers to crawl out to Sgt. Ferguson to retrieve his body. I stepped up immediately saying as a medic it was my job to do it. I started crawling towards Ferguson with two other volunteers that I didn’t personally know as they were from different platoons. I only knew the guys in the second platoon. As I progressed towards Ferguson, the NVA opened up on us wounding the other two volunteers. I moved to the closest soldier and I dragged him back to the new defensive position and then went back and got the other guy in the same fashion and brought him back. I had supporting gunfire from our guys. It was decided at that time by leadership that we weren’t going to risk any more soldiers to get to Ferguson at least at that time.
The battle raged on all day in what seemed like 100 degree temperatures and several guys were wounded by gunfire and mortars and some suffered from heat exhaustion. We had a new medic with us that day and I had him write down the medical issues and attach the cardboard cards to the soldier’s uniform. I treated the wounded and assisted in loading them into helicopters. Off in the distance, I heard a loud call for medic and I raced over to an area and saw my friend Bob Harris gravely wounded and the color had been erased from his face. I was told by a senior officer to give him morphine and because my hands were shaking so much I had difficulty sticking the needle end into another small end to puncture the seal. I was finally able to do it and I injected Bob with morphine. I kept telling him he was going to make it when I had serious doubts about it. Over and over again Bob moaned I love my wife, I love my wife, I love my wife. I remember that so clearly today 52 years ago on this date. Bob was loaded onto yet another helicopter and he died in route to the hospital.
I continued racing around the hill from one guy to the next all day and never took the time to replenish fluids and as a result I became ineffective and became a heat exhaustion casualty. Lt. Spencer late in the day told someone to put me on a medavac helicopter and I was put on it, but jumped off the other side before it lifted. I resumed treating guys until Lt. Spencer realized I was still out there. The next helicopter that came in I was put on it and told to stay on it. I learned later Sgt. Maene had to lay on me because while in midair I tried to get off the chopper.
The helicopter landed and I recall men in white uniforms coming towards me and I slugged one of them until they restrained me. At this time, I was hallucinating and had no idea where I was. I was placed on a gurney and restrained and fluids were started by IV. I stayed at this aid station for a few days recovering before I rejoined my unit.
When I got back to my unit, I learned the battle went on for another day until Charlie Co., received assistance from Alpha Company. We went up Hill 352 with 130 guys and came off with 39. We had experienced our worst battle of our lives and it was the worst day of my life.
Many years later, in my mind I relived this experience in my life and realized Sgt. Ferguson likely saved my life by asking me to return to the perimeter and retrieve the morphine. I normally walked directly behind Sgt. Ferguson and when he went down, I would have been directly in the line of fire. Instead, I went back to get the morphine while the formation moved forward and fell in line where I could. But for Ferguson asking me that one question, I likely would not have been here to document this.
In a way, I was a bit surprised to learn recently I had survived the worst week of the entire Vietnam war as documented by the VVMF. But recalling the horrible battle on Hill 352, I knew I and my platoon mates had been through a hellfire which was certainly the worst week of our young lives.
I provide more information about this battle in my book Vietnam: There and Back - A Combat Medic’s Chronicle. And keeping with my blog theme of Viewing the War Through Music, Ricki E. Bellos, Al Torsiello and I wrote a song titled “Hill 352“. Song snippets can be heard at www.vietnamthereandback.com