A Three-Part Account of My Experience
Part III: A Grenade, A Chicken, and The Bird Home
On June 7, 1969, I woke up at 5 AM and made sure my M16 was in working order. My company of the 101st Airborne was camped on top of a hill in the A Shau Valley, right in the middle of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
“F**kin’ Billy Buddha a'pissin' on us again,” proclaimed Sergeant “John Wayne” when the rain arrived. John Wayne 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. I suspect that every company had a John Wayne. Anyway, the rain was falling as three of us chopped our way through the jungle an hour before dawn. 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., the nervous private from Brownsville, Texas who had inadvertently fired his grenade launcher. 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. And whereas John Wayne couldn’t wait to discharge his weapon, J.C. had a reputation for freezing up in combat.
(photo, above: a group of American soldiers deep in the Vietnamese jungle)
“We heading into some heavy shit?” asked J.C.
John Wayne was quick with his standard response. “If a bullet’s got your name on it, that’s it. If it don’t, it don’t.” Then he echoed my old Platoon Sergeant. “It don’t mean nuthin’, it don’t mean a goddamned thing!”
J.C. seemed no more comforted by John Wayne’s philosophy than I was.
The monkeys were screeching, the bugs were biting and the sun was melting our faces 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'pissin' 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 through 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.
(photo, below American GIs on patrol)
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 woven bamboo basket about two feet tall. Through the weaving I could see a pile of grain and a happy 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 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. Thinking back, I must have had a concussion. 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.
“Yo Medlin, should’a known you’d be f**king 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 ‘til you get down the hill.”
“Aw come on man…”
“F**k 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 f**k 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 f**k 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.
(photo, below: A wounded GI is helped away from combat)
The next thing I knew, my right arm was on J.C.’s shoulder. We ran (or staggered) 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 and placed it on my chest. J.C. lay down beside me. Lieutenant Potanski leaned against the boulder, directing the fighting over his 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 sucking 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 with 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. We moved on. 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 lifted off, my heart sank when I heard an officer say we couldn’t get any more in because it was getting dark and they were taking fire. 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 ever want to see me again, you best come to Austin, Texas.” Tillotson’s was the last face I saw looking up at me as the helicopter lifted off. So much for his well thought-out plan.
J.C. and I were the last two medevac’d out 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 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 when the hospital was hit by a rocket attack. I slid to the floor and tried to crawl under my bed, forgetting 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 up 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.
(photo, above: a military field surgery room)
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 missing 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 airlifted 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.
I vaguely recall a doctor stopping by my bunk the next evening. His voice could barely penetrate my drug haze. Sounded like he was telling me how the doctors had screwed up ... how my wound had not been properly cleaned before surgery … how I could file a charge of malpractice. The vague memory of that doctor’s visit didn’t return to me for several years.
My wound was severely infected, so I was flown to Japan for another surgery. While walking through the hospital in my pajamas, trying to find my assigned bed, I noticed a neon sign proclaiming “PATIENTS’ BEER GARDEN!”
It had been months since I had sipped a cold brew. In the field, the choppers would occasionally drop off some cigarettes and a few cases of warm beer. I always traded my cigs for a couple of extra beers.
(photo, below: a nurse and other medical staff work on a wounded soldier)
The hospital beer garden was a jolly place. Lo and behold, I ran into a fellow from basic training named Boone. After a pitcher of cold beer, I learned that Boone had been on guard duty one night at a base camp when he decided to shoot himself in the foot. He then claimed a sniper had shot him. The Army was skeptical.
After a few more pitchers I staggered on to my hospital bed. I knew the hospital staff would be pissed off, but what could they do — send me to Nam?
I passed out on my bed and dreamed of Viet Cong soldiers throwing grenades at me for stealing their beer. Two hands grabbed my shoulders and shook me awake. I looked into the face of a Viet Cong. Reflexes took over. Using my one good hand, I grabbed him by the throat and wrestled him to the floor. I pressed my forearm down on his Adam’s apple and applied pressure. My hand-to-hand combat instructor would have been proud.
Two screaming nurses pulled me off of him. “Stop it, you lunatic! You’re killing Doctor Tanaka!”
I’ll never know if Dr. Tanaka deliberately botched the surgery that evening. Couldn’t blame him if he did. All I do know is that I was soon shipped back to The World.
I don’t recall much about the flight home. Not even sure how many of us they loaded onto the plane. Twenty? Thirty? Fifty? We stretched out on cots and were carried onto the plane, strapped down and shot up for the entire flight.
We must have landed somewhere along the way, but I was too doped up to notice. I assumed I was still dreaming when they said we were deplaning at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. Not only was I back in the World, I was back in Texas just ninety miles from Austin.
After six months at Fort Sam, it was determined that my hand was as good as it was going to get, and no more surgery was scheduled. But I was kept there for another six months with nothing to do but receive therapy two hours a day and drink beer every night. Sometimes, events from those days emerge through a psychic, cerebral and, occasionally psychotic fog. I remember a male nurse working on my feet when I first arrived in country. During those months in the jungle, I rarely took off my combat boots. We never knew the temperature at any one time, but were told it varied from the high 50s to the low 100s. Fearing a night attack, most of us slept fully clothed — clutching our weapons while wrapped in our ponchos as shelter from the rain. The bottoms of my feet had literally rotted. The nurse scraped off the dead skin every day for two weeks. I'll always appreciate his dedication to such an unattractive task.
I also recall the first time I got a Pass. Someone gave me a small square of paper blotter and told me to swallow it. I was taken to an auditorium where Joe Cocker, Leon Russell and the Mad Dogs and Englishmen were playing. The colors were vivid. The entire crowd seemed like part of my family, and the music was clearly visible as notes floated over my head. Other memories are not yet clear enough to relate. They may be too embarrassing to ever do so.
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. Particularly when I recalled the time J.C. accidentally discharged his grenade launcher while our platoon was moving through the jungle. Where did that grenade come from that wounded me? Like my Drill Sergeant used to say, “It don’t mean nothing, it don’t mean a goddamned thing!”
One last item. When we arrived in Vietnam we called our Viet Cong adversary "Charlie." When we left, we called him Mr. Charles.
(photo, below: Private Medlin's Purple Heart, June 7,1969)
End of Part III
James BigBoy Medlin © 2019
James BigBoy Medlin was the sports writer for the original Austin Sun. His column was called "Why Not?"
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