A Story about James Doss in Vietnam
By Charlie Weidner
I don’t remember when I first met Jim Doss. We were both in the same LRRP Class in the 4th Infantry Division’s Base Camp near Pleiku, South Vietnam. It was in September of 1969 and the mornings were cool there in the Highlands. That was a good thing because our pre-dawn workouts and long runs with a full pack and rifle were physically very strenuous.
Days were filled with physical challenges which built confidence and weeded out the weak or those who lacked determination. Classes provided training in map reading, LRRP tactics, indirect fire support, radio communications, marksmanship, weapons, explosives etc. Those who couldn’t learn well or devote time to study were flunked out. Others were removed from training for disipline problems, not showing leadership abilities, failing to work well in a team setting or psycological quirks that may compromise the mission of a four man LRRP Team on which every member must make their full contribution.
From our class, four graduates were selected for additional training at the MACV Recondo School in Na Trang. Doss and I were among those four. Our LRRP training laid a good groundwork for the Recondo School which was even more physically taxing and academically intense. I read that the MACV Recondo School was the only school in the U.S. Army that included an actual combat mission. I guess that no one told them that our 4th Division LRRP Class included a combat mission as well. But our LRRP Training prepared us for the challenges of Recondo School and three of the four of us graduated and received the Recondo Badge which we could then proudly wear on our right shirt pocket. Doss and I were among the three graduates.
Jim Doss was a big man. Tall and strong, intelligent, with a quiet nature, he was a natural leader. Soldiers wanted to be on his team and serve with him. And after a few missions he quickly moved from Assistant Team Leader to Team leader. He had a loyal group of new rangers with him. The three team members were inseparable. Whenever I would see one the other two would be nearby. Clowning and joking when in basecamp was the norm for them. Doss hung out with the group but avoided them whenever hi-jinx was involved (which was nearly all the time). One night we came under indirect fire attack at our base camp. We were directed to get out of our bunks and report to the main como bunker for safety. After some time waiting and being bored, one of Doss’ team members stood up and went to the center of the bunker and lifted up one leg. Of course the other two did the same. All three were determined to be the last soldier to remain standing on one leg. At least it was entertaining for the rest of us.
I knew that Doss was married and had a son. He told me how much he missed them. Although I was 22 years old, I wasn’t mature enough to understand just how significant that was. It wasn’t until eight years latter when I became a father myself that I could appreciate the sacrifice that he and the other married guys and fathers were making. I’m sad that I didn’t know enough about life to thank these brave men who despite their great responsibilities chose to volunteer for duty as Rangers with Company K of the 75th Ranger Regiment.
Because patrolling as a LRRP Team member was such dangerous duty, all the men of K/75 were volunteers. One day Doss’ Team suffered an unbearable loss. Three of the four members lost their lives. Doss was the only survivor. I was saddened by the loss of those three brave soldiers, my comrades-in-arms. But I was saddened and worried about this loss upon my my good friend, (Luther) James Doss. He continued to patrol and I worried that he was determined not to leave Vietnam alive.
The General Mission of the Infantry is to close with and defeat the enemy. Anyone who participates in close and deadly combat as an infantryman will experience the extraordinary violence of war. They will be forever changed. As I continued to patrol for K/75, I had my opportunity to survive as the soldier at my side did not. Time and again I felt how lucky I was that the bullets missed my body. I didn’t sense that Doss felt lucky.
Years later during a conversation with a counselor, he drew out of me an overwhelming feeling of guilt I bore about my experiences in Vietnam. I did not feel guilt about the noble actions I took as a soldier. But walled off in a darkened corner of my sub-conscious mind, I suddenly realized the enormous feeling of guilt I was suffering with because I lived when others did not. Some years after that, I heard the phrase Survivors’ Guilt. These two words put such an appropriate title to the feelings I carried with me from Vietnam.
Whether Jim Doss was simply a dedicated Ranger with a desire to participate in achieving the goals of the Armed Forces of the United States or a sensitive soldier suffering the pain of survivors’ guilt I will never know. But Sargent Doss left Vietnam as a distinguished hero and if there is a Ranger heaven, he is back leading his team, caring for their safety in the field and being amused by their antics during downtime in base camp.