In between the Korean War and the ongoing conflicts following 9/11, many of this nation’s young men had the opportunity to experience an entirely different lifestyle in the jungles of Vietnam. In 1968, after receiving “Greetings from President Lyndon Baines Johnson,” I became one of them.
It may shock you to learn that I did not want the all-expense-paid trip to Vietnam. In fact, I spent two extra semesters as an undergraduate at the University of Texas in the hope that the entire fiasco would be over by the time I graduated. When it became obvious that my hope was in vain, I joined the Peace Corp. Ironically enough, my Peace Corp assignment was Afghanistan. I never made it there. When I reminded the members of my draft board in Odessa, Texas that President Kennedy had suggested that Peace Corp volunteers should be draft exempt, they replied, “The Peace Corp is a communist front organization.”
There is little or no truth to the rumor that I single-handedly lost the war by leading our troops into Laos or China. However, my two years of misadventures in the United States Army could fill a book (hopefully mine). But right now I am going to focus on how I finally got out of Nam. It is not a method I recommend for others in similar plights.
Following my basic training at the ill-named Fort Bliss, the army wanted me to become a Military Policeman. But I was too clever for them and maneuvered my way out of that choice assignment. Instead, I became a combat infantry “grunt” in the 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles.
For me, and I am sure for many others, going into a combat zone meant I had to turn off all emotions. It wasn’t just the horror of battle we had to deal with. The tedium could be overwhelming. Ninety percent of the time we were just walking cannon-fodder, wandering through a strange and hostile land until someone decided to attack us. In some ways, we became dead men walking. What combat soldiers later discover is the difficulty in finding the “on” switch to your better emotions after they have been allowed to atrophy.
My company spent the better part of the spring of 1969 jumping out of helicopters into areas of Southeast Asia where we were not well received by the locals. Every night our ring of foxholes established a perimeter on the top of a hill. Five of us were to alternate guard duty at each foxhole while the others slept. One evening all of us in my group were awe-struck by the magnificent sunset. A soldier from New Orleans produced a joint. We happily passed it around. The next thing I knew, I was waking up to the sound of distant gunfire. After grabbing my rifle, I looked around at my fellow sentries. Everyone was asleep. Nobody was on guard duty.
Once everyone was fully awake, and we had established there was no immediate danger, I issued a proclamation. “If I ever again see any of you boys smoking pot on guard duty, I will shoot you.” None of them doubted my sincerity. But I immediately doubted the strength of my commitment. From then on I was looked at as a crazy man (not a bad way to be viewed in the army), and never had any real friends. That was the way I wanted it. Being a dead man walking seemed preferable to being a dead man in a body bag.
In early June we were sent to cool off a hot spot in the infamous A Shau Valley. On the evening of June 6th, after some of the boys played football with the detached foot of a dead Viet Cong, we established our perimeter atop a hill.
“Fuckin’ Billy Buddha a'pissing on us again,” proclaimed “John Wayne” when the rain arrived. John Wayne was a sergeant who earned his name by being the most gung ho soldier in our unit. He affected a southern accent even though he was from the mid-west. Anyway, the rain was falling on us an hour before dawn on June 7th. Three of us were chopping our way through the jungle. Our assignment was to scout ahead of the company before they moved on to the next hill.
The third member of our party was J.C., a nervous private from Brownsville, Texas. The tall, fair-skinned, boisterous sergeant and the short, quiet, dark-haired private were virtually inseparable. Although I noticed J.C. had refused to join his buddy in yesterday’s “foot” ball game.
“We heading into some heavy shit?” asked J.C.
John Wayne was quick with his standard response. “It don’t mean nuthin. It don’t mean a goddamned thing! If a bullet’s got your name on it, that’s it. If it don’t, it don’t.”
J.C. seemed no more comforted by Sarge’s philosophy than I was.
The monkeys were screeching, the bugs were feeding and the sun was up when we entered a clearing halfway down the hill. Even the thick jungle around us could not conceal the enormous, bodiless head of a Buddha statue peeking through the relentless vines. I sat for a moment, resting on one of Buddha’s broken arms while “John Wayne” urinated on the idol’s ear. “You been a'pissing on me for months, fat boy! See how you like it.”
The next hill was rumored to be a key point on one of the Viet Cong’s invisible highways. It was hard to believe anyone could walk though the wall of vegetation covering the hill, much less transport supplies through it. At 0800 hours a napalm strike was called in to clear our path of forest and snipers. We saw the three jets before we heard them. John Wayne and I had to physically restrain J.C. from running away when the planes released their deadly cargo directly above us. I held my breath while the bombs sailed toward us, and then well past, crashing into the opposite hillside. First there was light. Then smoke. Then only smoldering ash and stillness where, moments before, a vibrant triple canopy jungle had teemed with life.
John Wayne was thrilled by the awesome display of American might. “Fourth of July arrive a tad early for you gooks!” He and J.C. practically bounded up the hill. I felt nothing ... that emotionless state I hoped to maintain for my entire tour of duty. Just past where the jungle had been, I could see the hill had once been terraced for rice farming. I wondered how long before anything would grow there again.
After climbing a few hundred yards, we discovered a series of bunkers dug into the hillside. I yelled a warning to the main body of the company, halting them at the bottom. “Fire in the hole!” John Wayne tossed grenades into the bunkers and performed some manic dance on top of them after each explosion. He soon coaxed J.C. into joining him.
Then I saw something I could not possibly be seeing. On the terrace just above me was an upside down bamboo basket covering a pile of grain and a hungry chicken. How could a chicken (ANYTHING) be here, alive after the napalm strike? It couldn’t. IT WAS. “Heads up!” I screamed at the top of my lungs. “Something’s wrong!”
I’m not sure if the word “wrong” was completely out of my mouth before I heard the shot. Blood spurted from under John Wayne’s helmet. He fell backwards, tumbling down the hill. I flipped my M16 onto “rock and roll” and opened fire. I emptied the first magazine with no idea what I was shooting at. Popping in a new magazine, I quickly emptied its 14 bullets straight up the hill. Then another. Didn’t take long on fully automatic.
Hearing something hit the ground to my right, I whirled, ready to fire. A grenade. A grenade launcher? A dud?
All sound and motion ceased. Then a realization that I was flat on my back. It was peaceful.
When did the ringing start? Wish it would stop. Who’s doing all that yelling? Why are they shouting my name?
“Medlin! Medlin, you all right? What’s happening up there?”
Why are they asking me? I’m just lying here not bothering anybody.
“Medlin! Can you hear us? Are you hit? How bad is John Wayne? How bad are you? Can you walk? Do you see Charlie?”
Charlie? Oh yeah, Charlie Cong. John Wayne? Hit? Grenade?
I have no idea how long I was in my daze. I could barely understand what was going on, the ringing in my ears was so loud. I looked around and got my bearings, sort of. I saw my M16 was shattered. I couldn’t feel my left arm.
“My arm’s blown off! No, wait ... it’s here. It’s just my hand ... no, no I see it. I may be okay. But John Wayne is dead!”
“Where’s J.C.? Is he hit? Do you see Charlie?"
My hearing began to improve, but I didn’t like what I heard. Gunshots. Automatic weapons. Explosions. A scream that deserved to be called bloodcurdling. We were in a full-fledged battle; I was flat on my back; and a chicken was staring down at me. When I tried to stand up, the entire hillside began swaying. I fell back down. The chicken vanished. J.C. was curled up in the fetal position crying softly.
How long did I lie there? Looking back it was probably close to two hours. You can make a lot of deals with The Infinite when helpless on a hillside in hostile territory. And you can find plenty of reasons why only the stupidest, least moral man on earth would allow himself to be in my position, in a country he knew nothing about, hunting residents of the country he was protecting and about to get his head blown off by whoever owned that grenade.
I was aware of failed attempts by my guys to come up the hill. I was just glad nobody got killed trying to get to me. Then, all of a sudden, Doc was there. You’d think we would have had a more original name for our medic, but we didn’t. And to this day, I don’t know the name of the man who saved my life.
“Hey Medlin, what you doing fucking off up here. Don’t you want to play with the rest of us?”
Doc was the closest thing I had to a friend in the company. Early on he had revealed that physical pain was not a requirement for getting Darvon. He would provide some of the little capsules just to break the monotony. That’s what friends are for.
Doc made some encouraging small talk while he examined me. My left hand and arm alternated between numbness and intense pain. I could not move my fingers. And I was certainly in shock.
“Doc, we’ve been through a lot together man, so I want you to be straight with me.”
“No problem cowboy.”
A burst from an AK-47 kicked up dirt ten feet above us.
“No really. I know you’re not supposed to talk to a wounded man about the severity of his wound, but….”
“Don’t worry, you’re doing fine.”
“Sure, sure. But there’s something I really need to know.”
“Shoot. Oops -- maybe that’s not the best choice of words. What’s eating at you.”
“Please be honest. Will I be able to play the piano after this.”
“Sure. Don’t even worry about it.”
“That’s great, because I couldn’t play at all before.” (Definitely in shock.)
Doc glared the meanest look ever directed my way. Without giving me the shot, Doc put a syringe back in his bag. “Okay tough guy. Real funny. No morphine for you till you get down the hill.”
“Aw come on man…”
“Fuck you Bob Hope!” He turned to J.C. “J.C. get off your ass and help Medlin down the hill.”
J.C. cried more loudly. Doc kicked him. “Get the fuck up!” J.C. curled up tighter. Doc kicked him harder. He grabbed him by the throat and pulled him to his feet. “Get Medlin the fuck down the hill or you’re leaving here in a body bag.” That’s the thing about the 101st, nobody got left behind. Even if you got shot by one of your own guys.
The next thing I knew, my right arm was on J.C.’s shoulder and we were running (or staggering) a zigzag pattern down the hill. I don’t know if we were the target or not, but bullets seemed to fill the air around us. Then we were at the bottom, in a ditch behind a huge boulder with a dozen of our guys. Safe.
I stretched out on the ground. My right hand lifted my left arm up and placed it on my chest. J.C. lay down beside me. Lieutenant Potanski was leaning against the boulder, attempting to direct the battle over the radio. In the movies, battles always seem so organized with officers moving soldiers around like chess pieces. In my experience, battles are total chaos and nobody knows what the hell is going on.
“Delta this is Central. Is that you on the north side of the hill?”
“Hey Lt. Potz. Which side is north?”
“Delta this is Central, promptly cease saying my name on the radio. In 5 seconds, Alpha will light up north section! So you best learn to read a compass or get turned into ground chuck.”
We started hearing voices on the radio telling Potanski about Whiskeys (wounded) and Kilos (killed). They were talking about our guys! Holy shit! We could lose this battle. That thought had never occurred to me.
We heard about the three surfer dudes from Southern California. Their tour was almost over so they were assigned to walk rear guard. But when we got ambushed, the heaviest fire was coming from the rear. One of them got shot and went down in a clearing. A second surfer tried to rescue him and he got shot too. The third surfer went after them both and he got shot. The first two died on the spot. The third had a sinking chest wound, but survived.
It dawned on me I no longer had a weapon. Just as I turned to ask one of the guys if there was a spare, machine gun bullets kicked up dirt at the end of the ditch. The kicked-up dirt started moving toward us, like a shark toward a tasty seal. Twenty feet away; ten feet; five. When we tried to scrunch up next to the boulder, J.C. cried out and grabbed the side of his face. His hand turned red from blood. I pulled his hand back and looked at the wound. A bullet had gone cleanly through his ear. I can’t remember what I used, or where I got it, but I pressed a cloth object against the wound.
As suddenly as it began, the shooting stopped. My dizziness had subsided and I discovered I could walk unassisted. While the shadows grew longer, we climbed back up the hill we had come down that morning. I felt naked without my M16. But the adrenaline and the fear kept me motivated -- the morphine helped some too. When we passed the giant Buddha head, did it give me a look? No, that had to be in my imagination. Right? Definitely shock.
Back at our old campsite, two helicopters were already coming in to pick up the dead and wounded. Three cherry new arrivals from The World hopped out of the first chopper. The replacements for the three California surfers.
After the two choppers were filled and lifted off, my heart sank when I heard an officer say we might not get any more in because it was getting dark. But then two more birds sat down. I was placed on the last chopper out. Lieutenant Potanski ran over to shake my hand. “You’ll be back in two weeks Medlin. I’ll see you then.”
“Lieutenant, if you want to ever see me again, you best come to Austin, Texas.”
We were medevaced to the 312th Evacuation Hospital at Chu Lai. Medics placed me on a stretcher and carried me into an enormous tent that served as a hospital ward. It was air-conditioned. I had not been under a roof for four months, much less in an air-conditioned room. I began shivering uncontrollably. When I asked for more blankets, my nurse, Lt. Sharon Lane, took my temperature then hurried away. She returned with ice bags instead of blankets and packed them around me. I was extremely rude to her. But she knew best -- I had a temperature of 106 and her action probably saved my life.
At some point I was taken to an operating room to remove the piece of shrapnel lodged in my wrist. My memory of the surgery is understandably blurry. But I was awake. I think I had a spinal tap. I do recall ranting at one of the doctors about the injustice of war. Possibly not the shrewdest move in a military hospital.
That night I slept in a bed. What a luxury. My drug-induced dreams were shattered in the early morning hours by an explosion, when the hospital was hit by a rocket attack. I slid to the floor and tried to crawl under my bed, forgetting that my left hand was in traction and my right arm had an IV in it.
Don’t know how I got back in bed, but that’s where I woke shortly after dawn. A nurse stopped by to say my surgery had been successful but there was still a possibility of infection, severed tendon and nerve damage. When I asked if Lt. Lane was on duty (I wanted to apologize for berating her when she was helping bring down my fever), I learned that she had been hit in the rocket attack. She was the first American nurse killed by hostile fire in Vietnam.
I did receive some good news the next day when J.C. and John Wayne stopped by my bunk. Yes, John Wayne lived! The bullet had penetrated his helmet, altering the trajectory, and narrowly missed his brain. He spoke haltingly and sounded drunk, but he was alive.
The three of us had been among the lucky ones. That night, after we had been air-lifted out, our company’s perimeter had been overrun during an intense rainstorm. I never learned who survived and who didn’t, but the casualties were said to be heavy.
This part of my story ends here. My hand was severely infected, so I was flown to Japan, and then to a hospital at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio (Yippee! 90 miles from Austin). There are stories about Japan and Ft. Sam, but that’s for another time.
I do want to add an account of a strange occurrence on July 4th several years later when I was living in Austin. I went to lunch at the Alamo Lounge in the old Alamo Hotel. The door to the lounge was at one end of the block and the entrance to the hotel at the other. As I started to enter the lounge I thought I recognized a short dark man entering the hotel with three women. But assuming that Independence Day had me thinking about the war, I decided it could not possibly be J.C. So I went in and ordered a chicken fried steak.
Before my food arrived, J.C. came in and sat down at my booth. “Thought that was you, Medlin.” I couldn’t see any evidence of his wound. His hair had grown out enough to cover his ears. He just happened to be in town for a hairdressers’ convention.
“Medlin, I just wanted you to know I was never scared that day.”
“Really? I sure was.”
“No, I was never scared.”
We chatted for a few minutes and he went back into the hotel. I never again saw J.C. or anyone else from my army days. And I never knew what to make of J.C.’s statement. It did cause me to ponder.
One last thing. When we arrived in Vietnam we called our Viet Cong adversary "Charlie." When we left we called him Mr. Charles.
James BigBoy Medlin © 2016
James BigBoy Medlin was the sports writer for the original Austin Sun. His column was called "Why Not?"