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Posted: October 29, 2013 9:00 p.m.

Vietnam vet tells a gripping story

As I reviewed Covington native Jimmy Cronan’s personal Vietnam War journal, I realized the best way to articulate his story was to let Jimmy tell his story of war and survival, as it happened, in his own words. The following is an edited, abbreviated narrative of his combat diary.

Arrival

"We’re 19 years old, 10,000 miles from home, uncertainty painted all over our faces. As we deplane at Tan Son Nhut, I notice a tear trickling down the stewardess’s cheek.

"The heat is unbearable; sweat popped out on my forehead and rolled across my eyelids. While we waited for a bus, a company of seasoned soldiers looked us over as they boarded a C-130 for another mission. Their jungle fatigues revealed the tattered fabric of war; their arms were suntanned into golden leather. Many carried four canteens and extra C-rations stuffed into olive-drab socks. Their hollow eyes bore the stare of combat. One soldier yelled, ‘You’ll be sorry!’ Then his buddies chimed in.’’

Combat school

"We boarded a bus for the replacement center at Long Binh. Wire mesh over the windows supposedly deflected grenades or explosives thrown by the VC. We ate chow at Long Binh before being issued bedding for a much-needed rest, but the night-long roar of artillery kept most of us awake. A few days later I received orders for the 1st Infantry Division.

"I’m assigned to Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment at Di An, just north of Saigon. We attend ‘combat school’ to learn VC tricks, their tactics and weapons. That night we’re on ambush duty; we stay 10 feet apart, (and) it’s dark and lonely. No worry about falling asleep on duty, because the mosquitoes are well-organized to keep you awake. At 0700 we broke the ambush and moved back to Di An."

The field

March 26 — "My first chopper ride, exciting yet we’re a little anxious. We flew into an LZ (landing zone) marked with purple smoke. Once on the ground, I spotted empty ammo cans, a discarded helmet, and spent brass. The LZ was a hot zone the day before. Our company commander said we’re in Tay Ninh Province to join operation Junction City.

"Today is my second day in the field, only 353 more days to go. I took two canteens, but they were dry within three hours. The ammo bearer gave me a drink from one of his canteens. ‘Ration your water,’ he said. ‘It gets hot real fast. Carry at least three canteens.’

"Bravo Company came under fire near a VC base camp. No casualties.

"Artillery had splintered the trees, but an old stump looked suspicious. I investigated and found 100 plastic bags and a VC uniform. The sergeant told me the VC used them for gas masks. He said, ‘The VC sew carbon between two pieces of cloth into the bag so they can breathe.’

"We move on to another RON (rest overnight) site and dig foxholes. Some guys stop digging. They’ve hit laterite (reddish brown soil in rain forests formed by the decomposition of rock). The Vietnamese use laterite for tombstones; it’s impossible to dig a foxhole through that stuff."

April 1 at 0500 — "We went on full alert. An element of the 26th called the Blue Spaders was under attack. We took a chopper ride about 25 miles northeast of Tay Ninh. The news media was there with cameras, NBC, I believe. The Blue Spaders had been in one hell of a firefight. VC bodies were everywhere."

April 2 — "We move in the same direction the VC attack had come from. Alpha Company found graves of VC killed the day before. Artillery was dropping 100 meters in front of us to spook any VC. That night we set up staggered positions for a good field of fire, put out claymore mines, wires and stakes, and dug more foxholes.

"A chopper bringing in beer, Cokes, and mail was shot down. A second chopper picked up the cargo and brought it in. I traded my beer for a Coke so my buddy Wagner could have two beers."

April 4 — "Received mortar fire. The Battalion Command post took a hit, wounding Col. Grimsley and four others."

April 6 — "Making a sweep 2,500 meters from base camp. Came under heavy machine gun fire. The point man, Pfc. Johnny Lewis, was cut to pieces. Air support called in. F-4 Phantom jets dropped napalm, cluster bombs and fired 20mm cannons. Mike Platoon tries to recover Johnny Lewis’s body, but comes under fire again. Mike Platoon jumped into the VC trenches and slugged it out. After the VC broke contact, we retrieved Lewis’s body.

"We had a long way back to base camp. A chopper spotted a potential VC ambush behind us in the jungle. We walked about 200 yards before the VC opened up on us. Crout saw where the VC fire was coming from and charged their position — they scattered, but Crout was killed. A VC tried to run across an open field, but our machine gunner cut him down. Sgt. Ortiz-Lopez moved toward a wounded VC, but the enemy soldier fired at him. The sergeant finished him off. We killed five VC but lost three of our own."

The river

"My foxhole was on the bank of a small stream. I decided to take a dip and get clean. I thought I saw a huge snake on the opposite bank, but it turned out to be a large dragon. We later sat around and talked about the bamboo vipers we call two-step Charlie, because that’s all you get before you die.

"We receive new guys and take them out on the next patrol. I filled my canteen in a small tributary, dropped in the iodine tablet, and saw 1-inch red leeches crawling everywhere. We found a VC base camp. One of the newbies almost stepped on a butterfly bomb. He turned white as a ghost."

Quan Loi

May 18 — "Arrived in Quan Loi by truck, road very dusty. We got off on a slight hill crowded with Long Johns (175mm guns) and 8-inch self-propels. The area is surrounded by concertina wire."

May 19 — "Moved north of Quan Loi across a river, through rubber trees and thick jungle. We pull off leeches. Someone shouts, ‘Medic, medic!’ Pfc. Ferrell had been snakebit. Matthews killed the snake, bagged it for identification, and we placed Ferrell on a Medevac. We believe the snake was a bamboo viper."

Battalion point man

"I was walking point on the way back to Di An. It was dark, and I tripped on a rice paddy dike. My M-16 barrel went into the dirt, but I couldn’t tell if the barrel was blocked or not. I asked Sgt. Fullerton what to do. He responded, ‘If you see anything, just shout bang, bang.’ I didn’t find that too humorous.

"The next evening, under a half-moon night, we approached another VC village. An AK-47 opened up; green tracers whizzed over our heads. It was definitely a hot village. Our machine gunner opened up; three VC make a run for it; our machine gunner cut them down."

June — "We disembark the chopper and move toward a berm. Nearby, another chopper cuts its engine. A soldier had gotten off and run up the berm, but the chopper was too close. The rotor blades got him and took him out instantly."

Ravine

"We’re east of Di An. It’s hot, not a cloud in sight. We stop in a grove of rubber trees, spread out, and proceed toward a small village. The word came down, ‘VC trapped in a ravine 50 yards forward.’ Artillery was called in. The third round made the unmistakable sound of death; the whistling noise stopped, which meant it was going to be awful close.

‘‘It hit 15 yards in front of our previous position. A piece of shrapnel hit Horlback in the neck and cut his jugular vein. I yelled, ‘Medic, medic!’ but knew he was beyond help.

"Brown felt a pain behind his neck. I looked and found a BB size wound. A piece of shrapnel had lodged beneath the skin. ‘That’s nothing but a band-aid wound,’ I told Brown. Doc Bennett removed it after the more serious were cared for.

"We lost two men, Horlback and Sgt. Culvey. Culvey was a career spit-and-polish soldier with 10 years of service to his country. The loss of these two guys left us with an empty feeling."

The LZ

August — "At 0730 we’re on the flight line to board one of the 35 Hueys waiting for us. We had replacements with us, greenhorns, on their first combat mission. Thankfully the LZ wasn’t ‘hot,’ because when I jumped from the chopper my feet got stuck in mud. I couldn’t move an inch. I saw another chopper pilot grinning at my predicament.

"About 2030 hours, our mortars began firing and gunships were flying overhead. Suddenly, the gunships opened up with their mini-guns; on us! The mortar crew fired flares so the gunships would recognize that we’re friendly forces. The gunships pulled off. ‘Medic, medic!’ The gunships had killed four of our own, including Juan Lopez, one of the new replacements."

The well

Sept. 8 — "We were on ambush night patrol near Di An. A new platoon leader, Lt. Bishop, led the patrol. We made our way through the jungle and stopped a mile from Di An in tall elephant grass. We had to stop; Lt. Bishop had fallen into an abandoned well, about 40 feet deep. We got a rope and lowered Pfc. Barfield into the well to help Lt. Bishop. Halfway down the rope broke, and Barfield fell on the lieutenant, breaking his arm. We hauled Lt. Bishop out and called in a Medevac."

Bus bomb

"At 0800 hours, we moved out from Phoce Vinh and swept for mines on the local highway. An M-60 tank was on the road approaching a civilian bus. The tank moved off the road to let the bus pass. Suddenly there was a deafening explosion. The bus had hit a mine meant for the tank.

"A medic and battalion surgeon Capt. Laing ran the distance to the bus to provide aid to the maimed and mangled commuters. A rifle team set up security around the bus. Wreckage and dismembered bodies had to be moved aside to reach survivors.

"One medic saw an arm sticking out and tried to pull the victim out of the bus. No one was on the other end of the arm. Capt. Laing stated, ‘This is the worst incident I have ever seen and I’ve seen a lot.’ Only 10 of the 50 people survived. Most of the fatalities were women and small children."

MP duty

Dec. 12 — "I receive orders for Qui Nhon to assist an MP outfit. I pulled nightly guard duty at a nearby ammo dump, the second largest in Vietnam. There are 21 guard towers; no cigarettes, matches, or lighters allowed. The ammo dump is located near a mountain range. The ROKs (Republic of Korea) troops patrol the area. One night they brought in a Quad 50, a 2½ ton truck with electrically fired .50 caliber machine guns. They fired about every two hours into the mountains; an awesome sight."

Jan. 31— The Tet Offensive

"I was shaken awake for duty on tower five. The sky was lit up because of flames coming from near tower 21. Rockets had hit the dump. Cobra gunships were raking the area, flying directly overhead. Thirty minutes later ‘Puff’ showed up (a C-47 cargo plane used as a gun platform with several mini-guns). When it opened up it looked like a large red laser snake was coming out of the sky. We fired our machine gun most of the night. We were on high alert."

Feb. 1 — "I’m on guard duty at tower 21, the same area hit by the VC the night before. Engineers were bulldozing the damage, including a lot of M-60 rounds. I sneaked down to the place and recovered 4,000 rounds for our M-60. We now had 7,000 rounds for the machine gun. At 2200 hours rockets hit us again. We raked the area. By morning we had shot 4,000 rounds at the enemy."

Freedom Bird

March 9, 1969 — "My last day ‘in-country.’ I feel a sense of relief, as if I now have a future. As the Freedom Bird lifts off from Cam Rahn Bay to take us back to ‘the world,’ I have mixed feelings, mixed emotions, but a sense of overwhelming relief is what I feel most. I’m going home."

Welcome home, Jimmy.

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Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at aveteransstory@gmail.com or aveteransstory.us.

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