"Recollections Of Vietnam"

9. Somebody - A Mission Of Mercy

 

Written as Remembered by Cpl. Dennis M. Soldner, USMC, Retired

May 24th, 1999

BellísRidge

March 23rd, 1969

Mission: Initial Mission Scrubbed In Lieu Of One To Recover The Body Of A Fellow Recon Marine Who Had Fallen From A Helicopter After An Emergency Extraction.

Team Call Sign: Amanda

Team Composite: 6 Members of Team 1 C 2

Team 1 C 2 Members: L/Cpl. Dennis M. Soldner - (Patrol Leader/Point), Pfc. Franklin J. Butcher (Butch) - (Primary Radio), Pfc. Frank J. Ladzinski (Ski) - (M-79/Asst. Patrol Leader), Pfc. Harold L. McIlwain (Mac) - (Scout/ Tailend), Pfc. Wilson (WeeWilly) - (Scout), HM3 L. B. Blume (Doc) - (Corpsman)

 

 

It was March 23rd, 1969. My team and I were waiting at the Quang Tri pad for the choppers to pick us up for our insert; Butch (Pfc. Franklin J. Butcher) our radioman was monitoring the radio.

He said there was a team that was in contact and it needed an emergency extraction. He was keeping me abreast of the situation when his face went pale. Then he told me what happened and I felt sick and angry. I think the whole team went into shock.

Apparently the extraction bird, it was one of the Army's Slicks (Huey) which we had started using, didn't wait till the whole team was on board before beginning to lift off from the extraction zone. One of the team had to leap for the bird as it left and had been hanging on outside. A crewmember tried to hold him but the team member fell from the bird at cruising height into the hills in the jungle.

I can only imagine what had gone on in his mind. The fear as he was being left behind and desperately leapt for the slick; then maybe as he hung on outside he had a glimmer of hope because he knew he had escaped the enemy. Perhaps, a feeling of panic as he felt himself slipping and then a feeling of hopelessness as he was falling to the earth. I hope he had time to pray. Damn that pilot!

Our Command was apparently as distressed and angry as all of us who had listened were. I had immediately requested and was granted permission to have my team inserted to recover his body. Neither my team nor I knew who it was but we were anxious to make sure that he would be brought back.

Marine CH-46ís were sent to pick us up at Quang Tri. With the exception of Butch who carried the radio in his pack, we traveled light with just our weapons, ammo, ass-packs, and a body bag.

One of the Gunship birds had stayed on station to act as an AO, circling the general area where his body had fallen. This I donít think could be helped but it was sure to make the enemy curious. After being inserted I assumed point and we went in search of the recon marine. We were guided to the general area by the AO. Needless to say I located his mangled body in the jungle on the side of a hill, it was all twisted out of proportion, parts and organs sticking out all over and just oozing.

As we approached his body I cursed as tears and a sickening feeling came over me. From where I stood and the position of the mangled body ahead and above me, it looked like his head was missing. It wasnít, it was just that his body was so contorted you could not tell what belonged where. We advanced carefully and fanned out searching for signs that enemy had been there before us. Finding none we set up in a defensive wheel around his body. The whole team could now see his body and several got sick. My God, how could this have happened.

Doc and I carefully and tenderly put him in the body bag and I can still remember the smell, the blood and the jelly like feeling of his body, it did not seem real. I donít recall looking for his weapon, loose gear or for that matter taking it off his body, but we must have. We zipped up the bag and called for the extraction birds, unfortunately there was nowhere for them to land. We were not going to be able to boot back to our insert site with his body, as we had movement coming from that direction, and no maps of the area.

It was decided to drop a hoist and we would send his body up on it. We attached the body bag as best we could. As his body was being hoisted I was on the radio with the birds. The body bag was halfway up and straight overhead of us when I noticed the bag ripping. It was probably torn as it went through the treetops. Suddenly his head appeared; then his shoulders were beginning to come out. Just as I screamed into the radio for the bird to move from directly overhead, which it did, the rest of his body and fluids came tumbling out and went crashing through the treetops further up the hill.

We trudged further up the mountain and I located his body again, it was in worse shape now. We again carefully gathered up his remains. We had the bird lower the hoist again and we tied his body in the bag and wrapped a poncho around it. His body was then hoisted out oozing as it went. I remember cursing out loud because now there would be no way for his folks at home to have an open casket. Shit, I donít think he could have had one anyway. Damn that pilot!

I felt a sense of relief that he was now on board. Then they hoisted us out one by one; we had movement and took some sporadic fire on the way up. I was the last one up and as I got close to the top the hoist stopped, the cable was all frayed, it probably got hit, they pulled me in the bird the vision of falling and ultimate results still fresh in my mind.

We then flew on to BN Med..

I think we all just stared and wondered who it was that was in the bloody bag.

When we got to BN Med., someone came out and confirmed he was dead and we were told where to take him. I carried the body with someone else on stretcher to the morgue. The guy in the morgue was eating when we walked in, I asked where to put the body of one of our own, he pointed to a place where there were bodies strewn all about. I am glad I did not have my weapon then. I glared and went about finding a comfortable place for him to rest.

We were sent as a team on an in-country R&R to China Beach down in Da Nang after the mission, there was another team their and I never put the two together until recently, but I think it was one of their teammates that we had recovered. One member of the team was a friend of mine; I had known him from stateside duty at MAS Cherry Point. He had been with the grunts when he was wounded and sent home, but re-volunteered for Vietnam and Recon. His name was Jeff McCormick, and I never thought to ask him. I am sorry.

The Recon Marine who lost his life was indeed from Echo Company. His name was L/Cpl. Steven A. Bell; he was nineteen (19) years young at the time of his death.

His name is etched in that cold stone we call the "Wall" on Panel 28W, Row 018.

Damn that pilot for wasting his life!

I never really trusted or felt that I could rely on the Armyís birds or pilots especially after this mission. On several occasions my team and I experienced near disaster due to what I feel was incompetence and cowardly behavior. During one particular insertion my team and I experienced a scary moment when the pilot got turned around entered Northern airspace, thus making his approach to the valley from the north instead of the south which would have then placed us a valley and ridgeline away. To top it off he went to insert us in the middle of the camp that we were being inserted to observe; we woke the enemy who started coming out of their holes and as they looked in disbelief they grabbed their weapons and nearly shot us down. In another instance the pilot had to be persuaded to lower his bird to just above the ground, rather than the 15 - 20 feet off the ground from which he wanted us to jump. His crew even compromised our insertion by firing their m-60ís because they thought they were taking fire. It was the goddamn rotorís hitting the top of the elephant grass on the outer edge of the LZ. I was the last one off of that bird.

I never encountered a Marine Pilot and crew that would not jeopardize themselves so that we could survive, and in many cases they did just that.

 

Retrospect:

If someone were to ask "Why would you risk your life and the lives of your teammates for somebody who is dead and that you donít even know?", what would your answer be? My reply is a simple one, a no brainer as far as I am concerned, and I think I can speak for my team as well. "He was Our Brother, He is Family".

The reading of a poem brought back the memory of this mission; of the feelings I had and have as I remember that horrible day. The poem is not factual based, however, it inspired me to write this story as it reflects the pain we all felt at the loss of a brother. It was written by a Recon Marine and teammate of mine about a Charlie Co. team that met its fate in January of 1968 on Mutters Ridge at Hill 484, the same site of our last mission with team Fire Raider in June of 1969. The following is that poem.

 

"LITTLE GULL"

When I arrived in country, you were in the bush. I was assigned to your team, call sign "LITTLE GULL". You were on patrol; I was in your tent. I did not know you. I saw your pictures your Mother and Father, your wife your children, your sweetheart, your friends, Miss January. People you knew and loved, people who knew and loved you. I saw your Bible, your prayer book, your cross and beads. I picked up your mail, and laid it on your bunk. I picked up a care package from home, it smelled so good. It must be filled with lots of goodies, packed by loving hands. I thought, when you get back Iíll have some of this good stuff. I did not know you.

For two days I went to the comm. Center and followed your progress on the map. Little colored pins were placed, when you reported your position as you made your way through the mountains. I looked at the contour lines, and thought how terribly steep they were and far in you were. How difficult that climb must be for you. But I did not know you.

Then I heard on the radio, "Contact! Contact! Contact! Little Gull, Contact!" The company commander said (donít worry) it happens all the time, they will be all right. We could hear the gunfire when you keyed the handset. We could hear the explosion of hand grenades. We heard your last choking words that sounded like GASS. I heard your voice; I did not know you.

Silence, the radio operator called you again and again, "Little Gull, Little Gull, sit. rap. Little Gull do you hear me? Little Gull go to secondary frequency." No answer, only silence. A reactionary team was put together, I made sure I was on it. We flew out as darkness set in and landed several miles from your position. There was no moon. In the darkness we stumbled up one mountain and down another. It was too dangerous; we set in for the night. I wondered how you were? What happened to you? I did not know you.

At first light we set out climbing one mountain sliding and falling down another. We were fourteen, carrying weapons and ammo, you were just six carrying three times as much, how difficult that must have been for you.

We found your position. I was not prepared for what we saw. All your equipment, your weapons, your radios were gone. You were strewn about, hacked apart, tears filled my eyes, rage filled my heart, I gagged and chucked. I saw you, but I did not know you.

We called for an airdrop of body bags. Six bags for six men. Six bags for six boys who became men, so far from the people in the pictures. So far from the people in the letters, so far from those who knew you. But I did not know you.

I picked you up carefully and placed you in the bag, piece by piece, trying to put the same person in the same bag. We moved out, back to the L.Z., I carried you the smallest. I carried you, I felt you, I smelled you, I did not know you.

I tried so hard not to drop you; I tried to keep you from hitting the ground, as we went up and down the mountains. I could not, please forgive me. The bag ripped, blood and body fluids seeped out and over me. I can still feel it.

I placed you in the chopper and flew back with you to the base. I placed you on a litter as if you were still alive and watched them roll you away, I never saw you again, I did not know you.

All these years you have been a part of me. You have lived with me every hour of every day of every year. A secret to be kept, a memory to grow, pain to be nurtured until the secret was too great, the memory overwhelming, the pain unbearable. I must let you out; I must let you go, I must tell the secret.

I will always remember you; I will always honor you. I never knew you.

Dedicated to the Memory of Team Little Gulls Fallen.

KIA January 19,1968

Bodies Recovered January 21,1968

Pfc. Lawrence E. Bisonett

Panel 035 E Line 003

L/Cpl. Merle C. Eicher Jr.

Panel 035E Line 005

Pfc. Thomas J. Moody

Panel 035E Line 009

L/Cpl. Thomas H. Retschulte

Panel 035E Line 009

Pfc. James L. Siron

Panel 035E Line 009

Semper Fi Written by Thomas E. Shainlin