The farm is called English Gap, named after the Vietnam veteran whose heart and soul is dedicated to giving homeless and troubled veterans an opportunity to acclimate their own hearts and souls before returning to society. The challenge is formidable, the results remarkable, the money persistently in short supply but unable to discourage the determination and dedication of founder, Wayne English.
His 33-acre farm, English Gap, offers a secure haven for vetted veterans yet also welcomes the general public with a riding stable, hiking trails, a terrific atmosphere for a kid’s birthday party, fishing, and a big novelty these days: peace and quiet. Horses abound so watch your step. Most likely you’ll be greeted by Rambler or Abby, two large but mellow dogs more accustomed to naps than visitors. The cats, Oliver or Garfield or Franklin, together or separately, will meander up to the country porch, yawn, take a vague gander at the guests then meander away. Once the screen door squeaks open two black Dachshunds, Jefferson and Annie, sally forth yapping their own welcome. Annie is a jewel, but according to Wayne, Jefferson is afflicted with ADD: Aggravating Damn Dog.
Each section of fence, each log in the log cabins, every roof shingle, nail, screw, bolt, window and door, was installed by a veteran. English Gap is a work in progress: the farm, the veterans, the caring wives, even the pets play an important part, except for Jefferson, the dog afflicted with ADD. To understand PTSD and the pain and suffering, it’s always best if the teacher was once the student. Wayne English is that tutor and this is his story, with selected quotes from his book “Vietnam Sky Soldiers,” so designated by the initials: VSS.
A sportsman and hunter, Wayne recalled an incident when he was 16 years old. “I was deer hunting near High Falls. It was real foggy and my vehicle got stuck on a back road. A house was nearby so I figured they would let me use their phone. Well, sir, their mailbox had the lettering, Wayne English. I knocked on the door and introduced myself. The man of the house looked startled and asked me to prove my name was also Wayne English. When I showed him my driver’s license, he looked up and asked me if I had a girlfriend named Ruthie Knight. Well, I was just as startled. I wanted to know how he knew my girlfriends name, so he insisted, ‘Get in here right now and talk to my wife. Your girlfriend has been writing you love letters but they are sent to me!’ It’s funny how people remember those things, especially when less than two years later you’re in the Army fighting for your life in Vietnam.”
July 1, 1965: Wayne celebrated his 18th birthday on the USNS Edwin D. Patrick bound for Okinawa with the 173rd Airborne. He recalled their arrival, “About 80 of us shared one barracks. Then three guys joined us, all burnt and shot up. We were told these guys could have anything they wanted. When we asked the soldiers where they came from, they said, ‘There’s a war in Vietnam.’ Every morning names were called; every morning guys left for that war.”
August 1, 1965: “I ended up at Bien Hoa near Saigon with 2nd Battalion, 173rd Airborne. The 173rd was the first major American ground combat force in Vietnam. I was assigned to a mortar team. I told them I didn’t have any experience with mortars so they strapped a radio on my back and assigned me to a FO (forward observer). We were the first major American forces in the Iron Triangle and first into the Mekong Delta. Our casualty rate was bad, real bad, almost 100%.”
VSS: ‘The sounds, smells, and things we saw are as clear today as then.’
Replacements like Wayne were called ‘Cherries’ by combat experienced soldiers. “Problem was,” Wayne stated. “The title stuck with me. I was called Cherry for my whole tour. I was the RTO (radio operator) for Sgt. Roberts, the FO for B Company, assigned to Sgt. Reneo’s platoon.”
Wayne’s first combat mission assaulted a VC stronghold about 35 miles Southeast of Saigon, the notorious and dangerous Iron Triangle. “Sgt. Roberts and I shared a tent the night before our mission,” Wayne said. “I remember him pulling out a perfumed red scarf from his pack. It was from his girlfriend and I can still smell that scent.”
Sgt. Roberts did the radio talking; Wayne carried the radio, plus a whole lot more: extra battery, long and short antenna, rifle, ammo, grenades, first aid pouch, bayonet, 5 lbs. of C-4 plastic explosive, poncho, 4 quarts of water, matches, cigarettes, hammock, a plastic bag to keep doodads dry, C-rations, and some hard candy. Wayne’s call sign: granite script bravo. The mortar pit or FDC (fire direction control), call sign: granite script 22.
September 15, 1965: “We were moving down this dirt road and saw a sign nailed to a tree with the words in English and Vietnamese: All who read this sign die. Well, we soon came upon a VC training camp. They were gone but everything indicated they had just left. We moved out and started receiving small arms fire. Sgt. Reneo called in gunships to silence the threat.
“I asked Sgt. Roberts if the gunships were killing a bunch of VC, but he claimed the gunships were firing behind the VC because the enemy was right in front of us. He was right. We moved out in thick scrub near a small trail then they opened up on us with small arms, grenades, and a machine gun. Sgt. Roberts got hit and I fell forward. Fire was coming in every direction. Dirt kicked up in front of me; twigs and leaves covered me from the foliage shredded by the machine gun. Guys were hit, dead, or dying.”
VSS: ‘The radio started squawking: “Granite script bravo, this is granite script 22. What’s your sit rep? Over!” Wayne yelled back, “What the hell is a sit rep? Over!” “Bravo, what is your situation?” “Oh,” Wayne replied. “A sit rep! Well, 22, Sgt. Roberts is shot and we’re being shot to Hell! We need a hickory smoke for the wounded. We need more support or we will be overrun!”
A soldier named Fogle crawled down the trail toward Wayne. “He had a chest wound,” Wayne said. “Fogle and Sgt. Roberts bandaged each other while the rest of us fought on. Then the firing stopped. After a short time we gathered our dead and wounded and called in medevac. I was then assigned as Sgt. Reneo’s RTO because his RTO went down in the first exchange of gunfire.”
The Americans formed up and moved out to recon by fire. The steady firing lasted about 20 minutes. Wayne’s radio antenna entangled on a vine. He tried to break free of the entanglement but nothing worked. Someone finally yelled at Wayne, “Stop! Stop!” A rusty wire with two American grenades attached had wrapped around the short antenna. The VC, unfamiliar with the grenades, had failed to straighten the pins on the grenades so they would pull loose. Wayne and several soldiers owe their lives to the VC blunder.
The enemy opened up again. Sgt. Reneo went down, another trooper and a medic went down. The soldier behind Wayne went down. Then the firing stopped; a light rain fell. Wayne recalled, “The rain was cool and felt good. That’s when I noticed all the dried blood on my hands.”
VSS: ‘That night I slept in the same tent. Sgt. Roberts’ pack was there with that red scarf still smelling faintly sweet. So out of place.’
Fogal, the trooper with the chest wound, recovered and was returned to action. He turned 18 on December 20 and was killed on December 22. Another young soldier, Paul Taylor, lost his life on December 28.
Consider Wayne English’s first combat mission. Then consider he was in Vietnam for over a year, nothing but war day in and day out, death his constant companion. His thoughts, “In combat you get hardened. No love or empathy or kindness about you when you kill people. Then you come home but it’s hard to love someone because you’ve already lost so many you loved.”
A brief summary of Wayne’s remaining combat: Marauder 1, America’s first combat unit into the Mekong Delta and infamous ‘Plain of Reeds’. Dropped into knee-deep mud in a hot LZ. Seeing a wing blown off a spotter plane and watching it spiral down with two men plainly visible inside until they crash and burn. A company Captain gut-shot; a young machine gunner dismembered by a rocket-propelled grenade. Told to ‘fix bayonets’ for a frontal assault; told to help pick up body parts, one soldier is hit in the right eye, another in his head. Unexpected enemy fire rips C-rations from your hand or as Wayne explains it, “I lost a great cup of hot chocolate.”
VSS: ‘Rick Fred was limping around with a bandage over his eye, but the worst was Truman Thomas. He’d taken six hits to the head that nearly tore off his upper lip, his front teeth were knocked out, a wound in the neck, shoulder, and thigh.’
Flying out on a huge CH47 Chinook helicopter under heavy fire, a bullet rips the chopper’s skin and sends metal into the face of the man next to Wayne. Another round pierces the floor, hits a trooper in the groin and he dies. A round comes up through the floor between a door gunner’s feet, he is unhurt. The chopper shakes; the engines strain; bullet holes lace the sides. Miraculously, the Chinook shakes off death and shoots into the air with a powerful surge. Wayne recalled, “We counted over one hundred bullet holes in that chopper back at base camp.”
Jets screaming in over your head to strafe the enemy; a piece of metal sticking out of a man’s chest; horrendously wounded soldiers showing signs of life, barely. American Claymore mines turned around by the VC to hit American soldiers.
Wayne English was still in the field, still fighting, still dodging bullets, 14 days passed his DEROS (Date Eligible for Return from Overseas), yet, he finally boarded that airplane, that marvelous Freedom Bird back to the real world, the United States of American. He never received a scratch while serving in Vietnam.
VSS: ‘Would I do it again? YES! Airborne all the way…and then some.’
NEXT WEEK: A tough transition, the daily struggle, and the veterans of English Gap. Info available at: englishgapga.com
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.