The story re-enacted 31 years later by the subjects.
Not the "Road to Damascus" ... but "The Road to Thoi
I was stationed in Vietnam in the years 1966-1967, and lived most of the time away from the large base camps. We were on a special radio team, nine enlisted men and a Staff Sergeant who was in charge of us. I preferred to live out in "the boonies", on a two man crew living with a few American MACV advisors. The rest of the people around us were Vietnamese soldiers and their families. One particular place was called Thoi Hoa, pronounced Toy Wah, not to be confused with the large seaport city of Tuy Wah (pronounced "Two e Wah").
Thoi Hoa was a small contingent of Vietnamese soldiers located on Hiway 13, that had earned the nickname "Thunder Road". The outpost was a triangular shaped affair, surrounded with a dirt berm and a mine field for protection. The American advisory staff was very small and many times there were only four or five Americans there, counting us. The members of my team had all enlisted in a unit which had been described as "Non-Combatant". So much for that. No, we didn't go out looking for trouble, but it did manage to find us, a number of times. In fact one of our team members sustained wounds which required about a year of hospitalization.
The accommodations at Thoi Hoa were very crude. We lived in a two room bunker made of sandbags. The "living room" doubled as a kitchen, bedroom,dayroom, and "basement" in the event of an enemy attack. The sanitation facilities consisted of nothing more than an orange crate type box with a waist-high privacy screen made of burlap bags. The shower facility was an old oil drum painted black, raised in the air to gain any solar heat available and had a shower head attached to it. This was the Vietnamese officers' shower, and we were their guests, so we were careful not to use the last drop of water, especially since the Vietnamese commander was usually the last to shower. We used the minimal water possible, a canteen cup full, maybe two. Drip enough water on you to be able to lather up with soap, then rinse off with just enough, but not too much water. Toweling off was the hard part, to get dry that is. It was so hot and humid that you would be sweating and as you toweled off, and you never got really dry, just refreshed.
Our hot meals were cooked on a small camp stove, and sometimes we barbecued meat on a charcoal grill made from an old oil drum cut in half. Many times we feasted on "C" rations and also ate a lot of rice from the local market. If we were fortunate to get something like fresh eggs, we ate eggs, five at a time till they were gone. The same went for potatoes, Lots and lots of french fries. Who knew about cholesterol? An ice man delivered ice every few days, just like "in the old days" back home. These conditions led us to venture out on a questionably unsecure/secure road to Ben Cat, the next camp up the road.
The first time I traveled the road was during the Christmas truce of 1966. Four of us had gathered at Ben Cat, a larger Vietnamese training camp and village. We decided to run the road to see our buddies at Thoi Hoa. Thoi Hoa and Ben Cat were located along one side of the "Iron Triangle", a Viet Cong stronghold, just above Saigon. Since there was a truce on, this should have been a "no sweat" trip, The enemy was not supposed to shoot at us, and we hoped we didn?t run over any land mines which might have been previously planted.
We left, flying down the road with our flack jackets and helmets on. Our rifles and machine gun were loaded and pointed at the sides of the road. I was scared, I'll admit, but in our group the peer pressure was such that you did not let on. We were a fairly tight group, having traveled together on the ship, and by plane and helicopter, stopping at numerous camps for a few days until we got working at our ultimate mission locations. The peer pressure affected us in a number of ways. When we drank, we drank to have fun, not to get drunk. Getting drunk would have been a sign of weakness, unable to "hold your liquor", ... not cool. Drink till you get sick ... cool! A number of times we came under attack, experiencing sniper fire, mortar fire, etc., but remember, don?t flinch, do not show any signs of fear, a weakness, ... not cool!
We did make it to Thoi Hoa that day without incident and had a good time with our friends. They gave us a tour of the compound and an area near there which had come under heavy attack a few nights before. A forward outpost had been flattened and numerous Vietnamese and Viet Cong killed. They told us of the events of that night and how they had guarded the front gate, the only entrance to this compound. We had listened to the events that night, monitoring our radio for any word on what was happening. I even took some time exposures of the fireworks in the sky, flares, and gunships covering the area with thousands of rounds of bullets.
As evening approached, we were loading our gear in the jeep for our return to Ben Cat. A Vietnamese officer noticed this and urged us not to travel the road anymore that day. "Stay the night - it will be safer traveling tomorrow morning!" Did he know something we did not know? Well, we macho guys, fearing nothing, decided to go anyway, regardless of the warnings. We made it okay, but I was scared, ... again.
Weeks later I was rotated to duty at Thoi Hoa. As time dragged on, we were tired, dirty, and with not the greatest menu of food to look forward to, started to venture out onto the road in the evening, and then beat it back the next morning unbeknownst to our team sergeant. Ben Cat offered hot and cold running water, hot showers, real toilets, meals served by Vietnamese women on real plates, beds with real springs and mattresses, movies in the evening, and even TV!
One particular morning my partner Mike Donahue and I got an early start on the road leaving from Ben Cat. There was a bit of fog laying in the low places, and we traveled at the highest speed possible. Going as fast as we dared, in the belief that we were a harder moving target for any enemy who might have us in his sights. Also if by chance you ran over a land mine, presumably with your back wheel, you would clear the blast area a little quicker and possibly escape injury. Guess we didn't take into account what happened if you hit one with a front wheel!
Anyway, I was driving on this narrow gravel path, not much more of a road than would be classified as a "minimum maintenance" country gravel road back in the states. Just as we "flew" over one rise and then another, I suddenly had to jam on the brakes. In the little bit of fog just ahead we saw a huge tank, an M-60 type, I believe. It was as wide as the road. Behind it was a column of Army vehicles, tanks, armored personnel carriers, trucks, jeeps, you name it. And just in front of this huge tank were two foot soldiers. They were wearing headsets and slowly sweeping the road with metal detectors searching for any recently planted mines. The entire convoy was traveling at the walking pace of these two men. Mike and I looked at each other in astonishment and with a big grin and a wave of our hand pointing behind us, said, "Well, It Is All Clear Behind Us! " We had just "tested" the road for them. The men in the lead vehicles of the convoy looked at us too, with a look of "where in the world did these stupid G.I. dudes come from?" We laughed and proceeded on our way. We had to be on the air on our radio net very shortly.
One morning, after repeating these "hot shower" runs, on a more frequent basis ("familiarity breeds contempt"), we were "flying low" though this enemy territory when the jeep's engine started acting up. The engine started to surge and sputter. I pumped the gas pedal, and the surging smoothed out. Then it surged again, I pumped again, and so it went. The engine seemed to run smoothly as long as I pumped the gas pedal, but if I held the pedal steady, it started to sputter and surge. Fuel line? Fuel pump? Carburetor? I couldn't tell, but just kept pumping the gas. We had just passed alongside a VC village. Village is too strong a description. It was a group of bamboo roofed shacks on one side of the road, which had not come under the "Pacification Program" other villages had. It was the classic VC Village. Do NOT stop, just get through the area as fast as you can! They had been known to take pot shots at travelers, so "keep it moving buddy". Well, the jeep started to sputter again. Sputter, sputter, cough, cough, it surged, it slowed. I pumped the gas, I held the gas pedal steady, it did not seem to matter now, as we slowed to a stop. And silence.
Stranded in VC country! Terrific! I tried the starter. Nothing, no grind, no noise, ... not even a click! The jeep we had was equipped with special radio gear, and on the dash was a voltmeter, rather than an ampmeter. The gauge showed the amount of charge or voltage available in the battery. I turned the ignition switch to "on" and the needle didn?t even move! Flat Dead!
We tried the two-way radio too, to no avail of course, no power - no radio. It really didn't matter much though. We only communicated on a special radio net among ourselves and it was too early for any members of our ten man team to be monitoring the radios anyway. We may have raised some help if we could have found the right frequency to place a distress call, then of course we would have had to convince them who we were, where we were, why we were there, that we were friendly, and were not setting someone up for an ambush. The point was moot. The jeep, and the radio, were dead.
"Keep your cool" I thought inside, "Think man, think!" I was the ranking member of our two man team, I was in charge, I was responsible for us ... the highly sensitive, highly classified material and equipment we were carrying with us. We weren?t even supposed to be out here, unprotected, and with our whereabouts unknown to our superiors.
We waited a minute, still no go with the battery. I then asked Mike if he wanted to try to walk to the next post, Thoi Hoa, through enemy country, alone. Not a good idea to say the least. It probably would have been suicide. We weren?t trained for something like that. Sure, we went through basic training, but we were no combat veterans, and they were using real bullets here! "No, not really" was his reply, "yeah, me either". "Do you want to stay with the jeep, alone, unprotected while I walk to the next post, or back to where we came from"? "No? I understand." Going off on foot together, or just sitting there together would have not been any better. We were in a real fix. The advisory post from which we just left had no way of knowing that we did not make our destination and our counterparts at Ben Cat would only realize something was amiss when they tried to contact us when our radio net opened up, in maybe a half to three quarters of an hour. A lot could happen in that time.
Like, fear ... sweat ... panic ... death! What am I going to do? How much danger are we really in? Has anyone spotted us from the village, from the bushes or tree line? Do they realize we're in trouble, an easy target, a quick kill or capture to be led away as POW?s?. My mind and my heart were going faster and faster. "Think, what are our options, what is going on here, are we going to die? Die? Now? "Hey!", wait a minute! I'm not ready to die yet! It?s not fair, I haven?t lived a whole lifetime yet!"
They say when a person is about to die, their life passes before their eyes. I understand. Probably the panic which was starting to set in caused a self examination of my own life. I needed an answer. "Is this it? Am I going to die here on the roadside? Is this why I was born, to die here in Vietnam? Was I about to be shipped home in a body bag? For what purpose was my life?" Many early childhood experiences came to mind, like the cold Nebraska winters I had endured, walking to school, or the store, taking a chance with frostbite, (we had no car till I was 16). I remembered the hardships of delivering my paper route in the winter on my bicycle more than a mile from home. School days, and the struggles I had in studying, and other visions came quickly to mind. "Hey, wait a minute, I still have not experienced love, marriage, kids, grandkids" ... " Is this IT?"
In the 60's there was a hit song entitled "Is That All There Is?" It was a song with questions about life, with a haunting refrain, "Is That All There Is?". That summed up my feelings at the time perfectly. "Is That All There Is?" Was this IT? Was that all there was to my life? Was this my time to die? At the tender age of 21?
I started to shake, not visibly I hoped, but my legs were getting very weak. They felt like they were turning to rubber. I tried not to show it to Mike, who also shared our predicament. Panic, Panic, "Don't panic, oh, what to do?". This was not a bad dream, it was real, and it was happening to ME!
I don't remember all the events that happened, but I do know this was a great time to pray! I don't remember exactly what my prayer was, it would not have been very long though. I'm sure it didn't start with a proper salutation as I had been taught in eight years of parochial school. It may not have ended "In Jesus Name", It might not have ended with "Amen." It might not have been worded as a request if "He willed it." It might have been as short as one word. "Help!"
HELP! ... Is that a prayer? ... I think so, if the Person it was directed to understood it as such, and He would have. It was not directed to the local god, Buddha, it was not directed to St. Christopher the patron saint of travel, it was directed to my God, my Father in Heaven.
"HELP!" ... Addressee ... understood!, if You will it ... understood! and Amen ... understood!
Trying to keep my wits about me the only logical solution I could think of at that time was "Let's try to push it to get it started". Now that did not really make much sense if you think about it. The jeep had been rolling at a much faster pace than we could ever push it, and it had stopped. What I knew of auto electrical systems led me to believe pushing really was not an option if the battery had absolutely no power, no spark, and maybe even a short in the wiring or something.
Just as we were about to try to push it, and believe me my legs were still shaking, and feeling very weak, (more panic I guess) some small children from the "VC Village" came running out to see what was going on. None of them appeared to speak any English, but we convinced them to help push the vehicle. The more the better!
We managed to get it rolling somewhat, and with one hand pushing on the windshield frame, and the other hand on the steering wheel, Mike, the kids and I pushed it as fast as we could, I jumped in and "popped the clutch". Sputter, sputter, it fired!! Gently giving it a just a bit of gas I managed to keep it running! It was running! Mike jumped in then and I slipped it in gear. We were rolling! Some of the kids thought this was great sport and jumped on the fenders. They wanted a ride! "No, no, you can?t go! Get off! Thanks, but get out of the way we've got to get going!" Of course our knowledge of the local language wasn?t that great, but they got off and we were on our way!
We rolled along the road rather smoothly, until almost a quarter mile or so from our destination. Then, sputter, sputter, surge, surge, it was doing it again! It stopped, again. This time Mike volunteered to walk in and get a Vietnamese with a jeep to give us a push. I stayed behind, feeling rather secure as we were almost within yelling distance and the safety of our camp.
Mike returned with a jeep driven by a Corporal from the Vietnamese motor pool. We pushed the jeep down the road ... fast, but it wouldn?t start. We tried again, and again, pushing it with the other jeep. It wouldn't start! No way, no how! Finally we gave up and pushed it into the compound and used the U.S. advisors? radio to call in our predicament. "The jeep is dead! ... and we are out of service", severely putting a cramp on the mission of our whole team. We needed at least three sites in operation to develop any useful intelligence.
We were safe, we were saved! I don't know what thoughts Mike ever had or what he recollects, or if it affected him in any way. He was an easy going type guy, maybe it never fazed him, or maybe he never realized the gravity of our situation and the possible outcomes that could have happened.
Later a mechanic was flown out by helicopter from Cu Chi, our base camp, with parts to fix our jeep. I don't really remember what all was wrong, but it was a lot! It seemed to be a fuel problem by the way it responded to my pumping the gas, but when it quit it was all electrical! As I recall it turned out to be a combination of both.
A few weeks passed after that incident on the road. It was near dusk and the gate to our compound had already been pulled shut. The war was over for the day. A jeep with two Americans passed by our compound headed for Ben Cat or perhaps the big artillery base at Lai Khe. Not long after they passed there was a commotion among the Vietnamese soldiers. They were standing on top of the berm looking down the road. We joined them and using binoculars we could see the jeep had stopped in the middle of the road. Stopped at just about the spot where our jeep had quit running for the second time on that previous occasion. In the zone of safety, we thought, just beyond the village of Thoi Hoa which was across the road from our compound.
A squad of Vietnamese soldiers went out to investigate, They approached the jeep and found the two Americans, dead. They had been shot with their own weapons. The Viet Cong had jumped out in front of them, stopped them and shot them. Then when the local village people came out for a "look-see" the VC just melted into the crowd and got away. A medi-vac helicopter was called in to remove the two soldiers.
That was it! No more "road runs" for me! If they wanted me to go anywhere from now on they could come and get me, just like in the original plan. "Bring a big helicopter, a Chinook, if you want me out of here!"
Years later at my wedding, our Pastor used Psalm 23 for the scripture reading. Part of it reads like this. "Yea, though I walk through the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me ... surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life." Appropriate indeed! I thought we were alone that day, but no,I am convinced now that we were never actually alone!. If I were an artist and could draw, I would draw a picture of a jeep and a dashed or invisible hand, gently clutching the back of the jeep, coming from above, perhaps through the children that gave us that extra boost to get us going again! Luck? Chance? Divine Intervention? I can't prove it, but I do know in my heart there was someone greater than me that helped us that day and answered my question, "Is That All There Is?",
"NO!", "There will be more ...", And there was, ... much more!
(Note: in rehashing this event with Mike
some thirty years later, Mike says he remembers leaving me in the jeep
alone that day in our "zone of safety" and looking back as he walked away
to get help and seeing me sitting there by myself and thinking to himself
"that doesn't look good, this just isn't right!") And I imagine I was
thinking "Hey Mike, could you walk a little faster!"