William “Bill” Thompson
CPL – U.S. Army
4th Inf Div, 2nd Bde LRRP
9 April 1949 – 12 July 1968
Panel 52W – Line 20
planning a Claymore surprise for Charlie, which netted 2 NVA, May 1968
with our Montagnard scout Ebon Chue, May 1968
2nd Bde L.R.R.P. Team Hotel-2-Charlie – Central Highlands, February – June 1968
“Gator Man” Corbitt, Poz, Thompson, RTO Smitty, Sgt. Valeen
right arm wound, one week before KIA
Food! Thompson was always wet and hungry…but smiling!
Capture of NVA political officer, Thompson with CAR, Sgt. Valeen with the necklace
Back from prisoner snatch mission
Back Row: L to R – Thompson, Smitty, Poz
Front Row: L to R – “Gator Man”, “Ho Chi Minh”, Sgt. Valeen – Team Leader “Hotel-2-Charlie”
“Hotel-2-Foxtrot” Mission of 5 July 1968
Soule’s chopped 79
Lt. Hall crossing river to arms cache just minutes before our contact with the NVA
Cpt. Garnett landing in his bubble to evacuate wounded Soule and Thompson
Close call – my pack was shredded! The next day, 11 July 1968, back at the Oasis
Thompson is dead on 12 July…
4th Division Daily Operational Report, Camp Enari, July 1968
71st Evac Hospital, Pleiku; visiting wounded teammates Thompson, Soule, Lt. Hall, Flores… 12 July
Quintero, Cope, Finch, Johnson, Tex, Mayle
Service: Army (Regular)
Grade at loss: E3
Rank: Private First Class (promoted Corporal posthumously)
ID Number: 11824887
Len Svc: 1 year
Unit: 4 INF DIV, 2nd Bde LRRP
Start Tour: 01/18/1968
Incident Date: 07/10/1968
Cas Date: 07/12/1968
Age at Loss: 19
Remains: Body recovered
Location: Grid Square YA96154505, 15 km NE of LZ Oasis, Pleiku
Province, South Vietnam
Type: Hostile, died of wounds, ground casualty
Reason: Misadventure (friendly fire)
Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Combat Infantryman Badge, Vietnam Campaign
Medal, Vietnam Service Medal
Bayview Cemetery, Ketchikan, Alaska
* * *
Links to Remembrances:
* * *
A Cousin Remembers
3/10/15 – by Karl Gillette — email@example.com
I remember as a young kid my cousin Bill visiting us in Seattle and always managing to lose a contact on our front lawn when he looked up at the moon and everyone out on the lawn with flashlights trying to find it.
I recently came across several photos of Bill in Vietnam that I’ve had for so many year. I was able to post them on this site so everyone can see him again.
5/3/02 – by John J. Potts
Bill was my best friend. He and I and our brothers played in the woods in Alaska. We walked the beaches, read comics and just did the things kids do.
Several years ago while visiting Ketchikan, I went to where his house had been. It was torn down so I asked a man doing work in his yard if he knew Bill. He looked at me in a strange way and said that Bill had died in Vietnam. I walked back to my car and burst into tears.
I served as an infantry soldier in Vietnam.
Bill is remembered as a young man with his whole life in front of him.
John Potts, 173rd. Airborne Brigade, RVN
Nick “Poz” Posdniakoff
I remember Bill… he was my teammate in the 2nd Bde LRRPs from 1 February to 12 July 1968:
July 10, 1968; my watch read 0300 hours. My one-hour long shift on guard duty had just ended. Pitch black and raining hard. L.R.R.P. team “Hotel-2-Foxtrot” was settled in for the night, hidden in an impenetrable jungle thicket about 15 klicks from our firebase “LZ Oasis,” and the Cambodian border. The five of us had been inserted a week ago to search for one of the major NVA infiltration routes leading into Pleiku province, and its hidden arms caches, but we had not found a single trace of the enemy thus far. The only thing we encountered was difficult terrain, the monsoon rain, and the constant routine of marching slowly and carefully forward one step at a time. Yesterday, the Oasis canceled our scheduled helicopter extraction because of the low cloud cover, and the mood of the team was getting tense.
Leaning against a tree, I constantly adjusted my rubber poncho to keep the rain out, but water was seeping in just the same. I had been wet all day and hoped to dry out just a little during the night in my warm nylon poncho liner. I did not want to use my knife to form a contour in the ground to sleep more comfortably, because in this downpour, I would be lying in a puddle. I slid my hand over my CAR-15 under the poncho, carefully checking if it was wet. I had carried this weapon round the clock for six months now and knew every shape and bump by feel. I could take it apart and assemble it in the dark. My CAR reassured me, but still I could not fall asleep.
Six months in the L.R.R.P.s and this was my first mission as TL. Was I really ready for this job?… I asked myself in the dark. The week before, I had returned to the Oasis from a month long mission to train the ARVN LRRPs at the 4th Division’s RECONDO School at Camp Enari. Cpt. Garnett had then designated me to become a team leader. However, I was none too eager to accept such a serious responsibility over the lives of five men.
One morning, Platoon Sergeant Blake just told me to get ready to go on an over flight of a suspected NVA arms storage area in the jungle, take photos and notes of stream locations, and mark potential LZs on my map. I would then be taking a team out on my own the next day – to find this hidden enemy arms depot.
The L.R.R.P. teams in the field functioned without much regard to rank. It was experience, smarts, confidence, stress management, and the ability to deal with multiple issues all at the same time that counted. Each person’s strengths, weaknesses, and motivation were brutally dissected amongst the team, and each person performed the job that he could do the best on patrol. When a major problem surfaced, we knew exactly who the leader was because everyone would look at him for the solution. He would find a way to get the team through a jam. I accepted the job as TL, but retained my point position, because for me, the leader of the patrol had to be in front. So nothing really changed, except when there was contact with the enemy. Then, I had to move quickly back to the radio, and take full responsibility for the team.
As I sat thinking about tomorrow, my hand mechanically caressed a warm swelling on my inner thigh that continued to grow: a clump of leeches gorging on my blood. Soon they would drop all by themselves. If I pulled them off now the wound would bleed and become infected. I hated those tiny bastards that were everywhere in this wet jungle and attracted to the heat of our bodies. I groped around in my pack for the small handheld IR night vision scope to check on my four teammates spread out in a close circle in the dark. They were also sitting up, awake, and trying to keep dry. Thompson, the ATL, was on my right, rubbing his bandaged forearm. His mouth grimaced crookedly in a silent curse. A few missions before, an enemy grenade had wounded him, and tiny metal fragments were now popping up regularly from under his skin, making him very irritable.
Back in February, Cpt. Garnett, our CO, had accepted Thompson and me into the L.R.R.P.s on the same day. Thompson had joined the Army after high school in Alaska. He was then sent to communications school to become an RTO, but in the end, volunteered for combat in the infantry in Vietnam. We often competed for the point position on the teams, because neither one of us wanted to carry that heavy PRICK 25 radio set again.
After having both graduated from the Special Forces’ RECONDO School in Nha Trang, we stayed together on the same recon teams. For several months now, we had been working closely together on Sgt. Lyn Valeen’s team “Hotel-2-Charlie.” But since Valeen was returning shortly to the States PCS, the TL position for “Hotel-2-Charlie” was becoming vacant. A number of candidates were being vetted for this job, with me being tested first on team “Hotel-2-Foxtrot.” Thompson was next in line.
Thompson was soft-spoken, and had a great sense of humor and good judgment. Just past 19, he was adept at quickly settling conflicts and differences among some of the older team members.
Looking through the IR scope, I scanned to Rob Soule, who was the newest member on the team and carried the hefty PRICK radio and spare batteries. To compensate for the extra weight, we had given him an M-79 grenade launcher with sawed-off stock and shortened barrel to carry as a weapon. Known as the Blooper, from the sound it made, the 79 fired a canister round of buckshot at close range, or a 40mm grenade that would arm itself after 15 meters of flight and launch to a distance of up to 400 meters. For a closer range, some L.R.R.P. sharpshooters would jam the stock into the ground and fire it vertically at a slight angle towards the enemy, much like a mortar. The chopped 79 was a bit harder to fire after our unapproved modification to the barrel and stock, but was very compact, so it did not get in the way of the soldier carrying the bulky radio equipment. It was an effective and accurate weapon, universally feared by Charlie.
Next to Soule, sitting in the rain, was Lt. Hall, our XO and an Airborne Ranger, who was supposed to be based at the Oasis, but instead, preferred patrolling in the jungle with us as often as he could to get away from his lonesome command bunker. Lt. Hall was a very deliberate and careful operational planner. He had infinite patience and often tempered some of the quick decisions made by the team. I was glad that he was with us. Lt. Hall was here to evaluate my performance as the new team leader of “Hotel-2-Foxtrot.”
Lastly, the IR scope illuminated Flores on my left. In the hazy green glow I saw that Arty was sitting up, half covered by his poncho, eyes wide open and completely ignoring the rain.
Before being drafted into the Army, Flores was a professional boxer in California, just starting out in his career. He had a quick temper and an even quicker punch, and not much regard for any authority. Flores was a natural fighter and always looked for some trouble, especially with Charlie. On an earlier mission, on Sgt. Terry Johnson’s team, he had killed one with his massive Bowie knife. Just slit his throat with it. A great asset to any team. Now, it looked like Flores was meeting up with the rain like some old opponent in a long-fought boxing match. Tough son of a bitch, I muttered to myself, regretting the silent railing about my own misery.
The night dragged on. I looked at my watch every 15 minutes. Maybe this would help the dawn come faster. Impatient for that sunshine. How could this jungle be so cold?
Daylight finally! But there was no sun, the rain was blocking it out. We radioed the Oasis for instructions on our extraction. The mission was over and we wanted to come in. No helicopters again, the clouds were too low. We were told to move towards a dirt road that joined Highway 19, running from the Cambodian border to Pleiku. A way would be found to extract us later. We looked at the map, planned a route, rolled up our ponchos, and recovered the claymores set up around our night position for defense. No time for breakfast, it was too wet.
I picked up my pack and took the point. The 80-pound load warmed me up quickly, as the morning rain drenched us to the bone again. It was covering up the sounds of our movement, though, and we stepped out quickly. Charlie was probably still asleep in his dry hootch.
Mid-morning. We ran into a network of fresh trails. First sign of any people in five days. Skirting carefully along the side of the main trail, we reached a clearing that revealed on one side a large square bamboo hut without walls, camouflaged by a few tall trees. There were no agricultural fields nearby. It looked like an enemy transport way station, given the number of empty baskets stacked up on the raised floor.
We watched and listened, concealed by the foliage. No one else was here. We approached slowly and carefully dug around. My suspicions were confirmed when I found a U.S. hand grenade hidden under a mat.
The arms cache had to be hidden somewhere nearby.
We discussed ways of booby-trapping the hootch with the same grenade but Lt. Hall pointed out that such an action must first be coordinated and recorded with the brigade. No time for such a complicated procedure. I slipped the grenade into my pack. Couldn’t leave it with Charlie.
As the main trail descended southwest, the jungle thinned out gradually. We reached a narrow grassy plain. A small river with steep banks blocked our way. On the other side, the plain continued about 50 meters to a wood line where the dense forest backed up a steep slope. We had to cross this open field and the river to gain the cover of the opposite tree line.
I chose a log spanning the river and quickly waded to the other side, hiding in the tall grass under the bank. Thompson and Soule crossed next and provided cover from the top of the bank. Lt. Hall came after them, with Flores following last.
Stepping backward in the tall grass while covering the crossing with my CAR, my foot broke through loose soil shifted by the rain and I stumbled into a deep hole carved into the bank. It was man-made! I was sitting on top of foot-long olive drab carton tubes with Chinese writing on them. Hundreds of them. I did not touch them. They looked like enemy rifle grenades. From above, Thompson reported that there was a trail leading from the river 50 meters to the wood line and up a ridge back into the dense jungle.
“Call for the choppers… Let’s ‘EOD’ the damn pile and get the hell out of here…” he proposed impatiently, pulling a packet of C-4 explosives with fuze and blasting cap from his rucksack. Thompson was ready to blow the arms cache, while I was plotting its location on my map.
We were now operating in 10,000 meter grid square No. YA9645. I radioed the coordinates of the cache to the Oasis — “966452.”
In the meantime, Lt. Hall sent Thompson, Flores, and Soule to the tree line to set up a defensive position securing the trail, while I remained at the cache to examine its full contents. We stacked a large pile of the OD tubes on top of the bank, but there were plenty more in that cave. The size of the find overcame our natural caution about booby-traps. Lt. Hall was in the hole passing up the tubes. I was on top of the bank sorting the pile.
Sudden bursts of automatic fire from the trail at the wood line! They sounded like our CAR-15s. Throwing on my pack, I left Lt. Hall with the tubes below, and sprinted the 50 meters to join the team quickly which had the radio. Incoming rounds sliced through the wet leaves just over my head.
Whsheet… Whsheet… Whsheet…
Startled, I low-crawled the remaining 15 meters, heavy pack still on my back. The gunfire stopped.
Thompson was already on the radio with the Oasis, reporting the contact. A squad of NVA soldiers had come down the trail towards the river and the hasty ambush set up by the team had driven them back up the ridge. Thompson passed me the handset as I was nervously calculating our new position on the map. In the rain, I had marked a dot with my pen on the plastic cover, just over the river crossing, and put my transparent plastic protractor on it to measure the coordinates to the right and then up – for our reckoned position plot on the grid square. We had to be accurate within 10 meters to call in close artillery fire support. The slightest mistake, and we could all end up dead from our own artillery strike.
I mumbled the eight digits to Thompson… 96154505… and then made a second reading to be sure – and transmitted the number to the Oasis.
I asked the Oasis for artillery support. It was raining hard again. Radio contact with the Oasis faded out. Shit!
I pulled out my SOI. Where was the other nearest 155mm artillery support unit? Fourteen kilometers away… just barely in range. Shit! Dialed up their frequency. They answered! Thank God!
New calculations, grid coordinates, my new location… YA96154505. Azimuth and distance to target. I wanted to put those rounds quickly between our team at the tree line by the river and the ridge up which the NVA had fled.
“Fire Mission! First round smoke!” I called into the radio – to register the first impact on the ground, and to give me a visual reference from the smoke where to start placing the next artillery rounds.
Blaaam!… It crashed high on the ridge above us. Had to walk it down quickly now with high explosive rounds.
“Down 30 meters! One round HE” I yelled into the handset…
The radio went dead. Damn! Damn! The artillery support unit would not respond. Quickly, I tried the Oasis again. Got their frequency. Only static.
It was the damn handset, shorting out in the rain!
I jiggled it back and forth. Finally, radio contact again.
Oasis came in loud and clear. The voice on the other end sounded highly concerned. Where the hell were you?
“Quick! Fire Mission!” I cried out.
“961…..?” I had completely forgotten the eight-digit number of our position, and the red dot of my previous plot was already washed off the map. The plastic cover on my map was fogging up; I couldn’t read the coordinates with my protractor.
Damn rain. Couldn’t hear anything either in this downpour. Handset was cutting out once more.
Shit! Opened my pack. Screwing the back-up handset cord terminal into the radio, my fingers were shaking.
“Say location… say location,” the shrill voice from the handset demanded persistently. I tore the plastic cover off the map to read the coordinates better, but the heavy rain instantly turned the paper into a coagulated mess that was falling apart in my hands.
“Say location!..” The PRICK cackled again. I was in a panic, trying to think what to say.
“Karta mokraya. Ne mogu prochitat,” I heard myself yelling back in Russian from somewhere far off – my map is wet, I can’t read it. The stress of trying to find my words involuntarily pushed me back into my native language.
Radio Oasis suddenly went silent… Were they thinking that the enemy had already overrun us?
Suddenly, there was movement on the trail directly in front of us. Thompson fired his CAR inches from my left ear. I was deafened. Was that initial smoke round forcing the enemy down from the ridge? Were they trying to charge us to escape the placement of our next artillery rounds on them? The four of us were in a close semi-circle, facing the enemy at the wood line and ridge, packs in front for protection. Our backs were against the open field and river.
We were trapped!
Movement in the brush very close in front of me. Heavy rain poured down; I couldn’t see what it was. I dropped the handset and radio. Where was my CAR! Pack was open. I automatically picked up a grenade that was on top and pulled the pin. Throwingâ€¦
Instinct said don’t throw, it was that enemy grenade I had found earlier. Had it been booby-trapped by the VC? Maybe it would explode in my hand?
Too late, it was already sailing into the underbrush. It hit a tree. Bounced. Rolling back towards us! The grenade was going to explode just next to us!
“Grenade!” I yelled to warn the team as the blast went just over our heads protected by the packs. I sensed the impact of thousands of tiny metal fragments peppering the trees around me in a forceful whistling gust.
Short bursts of automatic fire very close and very loud. I couldn’t tell what was incoming or outgoing fire any more. So loud…
Gunfire stopped. The radio was working again and I reported the contact to the Oasis. I must not have been very calm, as the voice on the other end focused me on providing location, distance to the enemy, numbers, and compass azimuths. I took a deep breath and concentrated on the requirements.
Lt. Hall was here. He had brought an armful of those Chicom rifle grenades and we dumped them together with my LAW behind us. He set up to the right of Soule and I passed him the handset. The Oasis had sent Cpt. Garnett in his bubble (Bell-47 light observation helicopter) as well as two Cobra gunships to support us, and we could already hear their rotors angrily whipping up the air in the distance.
The big helicopters arrived quickly on station, ready to strafe with their miniguns, 7.62mm Gatling machine guns with six barrels, each one firing 4000 RPM. They wanted to confirm our position. Right hand fumbling, I mechanically reached behind me to unfasten a smoke grenade from my web harness, pulled the pin, and dropped it directly in front of us to signal the birds where we were hiding in the jungle.
A cloud of red smoke seeped out slowly around us and up through the cover of the jungle trees.
Damn! I had thrown the wrong grenade! Green was for marking our position, red was for the enemy’s!
Lt. Hall, his body tensed up, was on the radio with the choppers.
“My location is red smoke, repeat, my location red smoke. Enemy target is 33 degrees from red, repeat, target is 33 degrees from red. Distance to target 20 meters, repeat, 20 meters. NVA squad with light weapons… ” He cried out insistently.
After reconfirming the enemy position and distance from our red smoke for the gunships one more time, Lt. Hall dropped the handset into his lap, as we all anxiously watched the helicopters swinging around in a tight arc, heading unerringly towards our red smoke. The gunships would strafe closely around us and continue along the tree line, parallel to the river. They were coming in quick and low.
A thousand chainsaws roared! The two ships were side-by-side, spewing out fire from their miniguns just 100 meters to the left of us. The thunder was deafening. I dove face first into the ground, as a green dust cloud was whirling to overwhelm us. Leaves shredded by thousands of bullets. They were going to kill us!
Hot empty casings were falling everywhere. Each one hitting me felt like a real bullet. My lungs pounded from the impact as the soil churned up on both sides of us just meters away. Absolute terror.
In an instant, the gunships separated, leaving us untouched in the center as they continued to devastate the tree line along the river. It was over in less than ten seconds. We were alive.
The gunships banked sharply to the left into the ridge and came around for another attack on the wood line, almost perpendicular to the red smoke and the river in front. The first ship fired. A rocket exploded right where we had the last contact with the NVA. A blanket of heat scorched over me, sucking all the air out of my lungs.
Damn that was close!
The second gunship followed low and was almost on top of us. He was going to fire! Thompson was sitting up next to me watching it coming in. I yelled to him. Down!
Diving under my pack, I heard Lt. Hall calling stridently into the radio:
“Check fire! Check fireâ€¦!”
A huge bright and fiery fist slammed my pack backwards into me while a second hard concussion from behind tossed me up into the air like a helpless doll.
Silence. Total relief. It had finally happened! All the constant anxiety and fear waiting for the unknown to arrive, and now it was actually here. It was all over and I didn’t have to worry about it anymore.
All bright… warm, inside. Relaxed… So, this is what it’s like to die… not so bad after all.
Calm. Letting it all go. Curious. What would happen next?
Blacking out… slammed to the ground. Couldn’t move. Deaf; ears ringing. Lungs burning, couldn’t breathe. Numb. Acrid stink of explosives. Couldn’t see anything. There was dense smoke on the ground, even the wet grass was burning.
I heard cries of pain.
I wasn’t dead? Couldn’t be. Get up! Get up! You’ve got to get up now.
I stood up. The only one up. Felt head, arms, stomach, legs. I wasn’t hit! Shaking.
Just me standing all alone in the smoke…
What do I do now – focus on the enemy advancing on our position? Where are my other teammates? Check again for my wounds to make sure?
Cries of pain again, but not as loud. Smoke drifting away…
To the right, Soule was sitting up holding his elbow and rocking back and forth. The bone was shattered and blood was spurting a foot into the air. Soule’s eyes told me that he was going into shock.
“Stop shooting; stop shooting…” he repeated quietly.
Couldn’t think straight. Automatically reached for the medical kit all team members carried in the same side pocket. Mumbled to myself… clear the airway… stop the bleeding… treat shock… Countless hours of repetitive first aid training took over as hands mechanically worked tourniquet, pressure dressings, blood expander serum tubing. It was over in minutes; the bleeding had stopped. But, I was drenched in Soule’s warm blood that was saturating my tiger-striped fatigues with the sour aroma of copper.
There was so much blood…
The smoke was dispersing. I saw a jungle boot on the ground, empty, still laced all the way up. How could this be? It was Thompson’s!
His leg was naked from the thigh down. All white, thin, and strangely distorted. Limp like a rag, like there was no bone left inside. No blood anywhere, but I could smell that terrible sweet scent of burning flesh. No other wounds. I looked at Thompson; he was conscious and trying to say something. But there was no sound coming from his lips. His eyes were like hooks holding on to me. He was trying to say something to me, but I couldn’t understand. I tried to reassure him.
“You’ll be O.K! It’s just your leg, only your leg. You’ll be O.K.”…
I bandaged the leg, but didn’t know what else I could do. Inside, I felt that something was terribly wrong.
Close by, Flores was convulsing and slowly coming to on the ground; the concussion had knocked him out. Blood was trickling from his nose and ears, and his gaping mouth was wheezing for air. I yelled out if he was O.K., but he couldn’t understand what I was saying.
On the other side of Soule, Lt. Hall was sitting up holding his leg and talking rapidly into the radio. I looked at his foot. A metal fragment had passed completely through his ankle, leaving gaping holes on both sides of his canvas jungle boot. A pool of blood was seeping out of it, already turning black in the warm air. I bandaged the wound and gave his leg a shot of morphine.
We had taken a direct hit from the gunship’s rocket. It exploded in front of us and the pack I was using for shelter was shredded. The Claymore and other gear inside had deflected the shrapnel away from my head. By a miracle, the mine in my pack somehow did not blast off. The LAW rocket and the Chicom rifle grenades stacked behind us were all gone, detonated in a secondary explosion.
Cpt. Garnett landed by the river in his little bubble and Flores and I, still in shock from the blast of the rocket, were stumbling and slowly dragging Soule to him. Strapped him in next to the pilot. We ran with Thompson. He was heavy and it was far across the field. That terrible scent of charred flesh again. Couldn’t throw up now; had to run!
We must make it quickly to the Dustoff again or the helicopter would leave!
We strapped Thompson in on the other side of Soule. I looked up into Thompson’s eyes and they had that same strange look. Hooks grabbing onto me. They were desperately pleading…
“Don’t leave me… You can’t leave now…”
Thompson was trying to say something, but no words were coming from his mouth. Mouth slack and open, lips twitching. His head rolled over to the side. There was a small dark hole in the base of his skull! I could see deep inside.
Nooo!! The helicopter lifted off.
Wait! Stop! Have to put a bandage on!
Too late, he was already high in the air. I sat on the ground gasping for breath.
Cpt. Garnett appeared, .45 in hand, looking at me as if waiting for instructions. Relief. Glad that he was here. Somehow, I thought that he had left, but he had given up his place on the bubble for the wounded and was now on the ground with us. Cpt. Garnett was concerned that the NVA could attack again. Shit… since the explosion and the wounded, I had forgotten all about the enemy!
We quickly formed a defensive position. Cpt. Garnett picked up Soule’s chopped 79, giving it an odd look. He didn’t say anything – I hoped he wasn’t thinking about destruction of U.S. Government property. I pointed in the direction of the trail leading up from the river into the jungle where we would face the enemy until the birds returned to pull us out.
The bubble came back for Lt. Hall. The rest of us were extracted to Pleiku by medevac without incident. On the way, with my face pressed hard to the cold metal deck of the helicopter, eyes closed, exhausted, I tried to relive what had happened just 40 minutes before.
My first mission as TL, and “Hotel-2-Foxtrot” was no more. I didn’t fire a single shot. I didn’t even see the enemy. I was the only one of my team left standing, without a scratch on me.
* * *
The battalion commander was waiting for me at the LZ. He had helicopters standing by to return to the site with troops and examine the cache. The colonel looked at my tigers, ripped, stiff with the stains of dried blood, and kept asking me:
“Soldier, are you sure you’re not hurt? Are you really sure…” Mechanically, I checked all over again. Hands passing over my stiff fatiques. No. It was just Soule’s caked on blood.
We flew directly to the log crossing and easily found the pile of enemy rifle grenades still sitting on the riverbank. After some discussion, the helicopters landed some distance away and the troops gingerly searched the area. No one touched anything, especially that pile we had made on the side of the stream. The troops found a series of other weapons caches along the riverbank.
I walked back alone to the site of our contact. Devastation. The ground was plowed up by the gunship miniguns: thousands of empty casings, large chunks of metal fragments sticking up, burnt grass, bits of our gear. Black oval patches of blood in the soil. It stank. All the bark and leaves of surrounding bushes and trees had been blown clean from their trunks from the ground up. How the hell did we survive this?
I started walking up the trail near the tree line where the NVA had been. Maybe we got some of them. But the colonel called me back; the choppers were ready to lift off.
Back at the Oasis I didn’t talk to anyone. I went straight to my tent, put on headphones, and turned the music up very loud to drown out any thoughts, and to let the numbness take over. Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence” record played over and over again…
Hello darkness my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again…
In restless dreams I walked alone…
* * *
On July 12, 1968, a visit to the wounded team at the hospital in Pleiku was organized for the unit that morning. I couldn’t go. They were all wounded, and I was not. Guilt.
Would they blame me? Should we have split the team up along a known enemy trail and left it in a vulnerable position? Did the gunships confuse our position for the enemy’s because of my red smoke? Did I treat Thompson’s wounds correctly? Did I make a mistake?
Thompson was dead by the afternoon.
Why was he dead and I alive? The shrapnel had torn through my pack and hit him. We should both be dead. As his closest teammate, I was asked to go through his personal effects, next to my bunk, to separate what could be sent to his folks. This was very hard and I declined. I couldn’t touch the belongings that he had held only a short while ago in his own hands when he was still alive.
* * *
July 19, 1968, I received orders to escort Thompson’s remains home to Ward Cove, Alaska and be present at the military funeral. Days later, I was in the Oakland airport in uniform waiting for a commercial flight up north. Two burly MPs guided me persuasively to the nearest restroom in the terminal. My unauthorized black Ranger beret with the L.R.R.P. patch had their attention. They wanted to see orders for my Recondo insignia and Combat Infantryman Badge too. Take them! I ripped off the CIB and threw it on the floor. Shaking with rage, I measured the distance to strike the MP nearest to me. But they saw my escort orders and quickly backed off without saying another word. Alone, I picked up my CIB and tried to calm down, hands shaking. Thompson’s blurred reflection stared back at me dimly from the mirror.
The funeral was held with full military honors. I thought back to a conversation some weeks before where Thompson had a premonition of being killed. He had several close calls on his last patrols and felt that his luck was running out. But he continued to volunteer for missions. The job was important, and he had to be with his teammates. Thompson specifically asked me then:
“Poz, I’m not going to make it out of here. I know it for sure. If I’m killed… make sure there’s no formal wake for me. Just something simple with my friends. Promise me?… ”
He did not want to be the center of some official ritual attended by casual spectators who had no idea why he had to keep going out on those missions. To him, this was a very private commitment, not to be shared with outsiders. And here I was, endorsing a formal public ceremony and failing to fulfill his last wish.
I folded the flag up slowly in that tight triangle along Thompson’s coffin 13 times, with the four white stars showing uppermost at last. I closed my eyes, and let my tears flow freely to block out seeing all the strangers standing nearby. I imagined that Thompson’s teammates from the Oasis were all around him instead.
Goodbye, old friend…