On a date and time lost to history, the Viet Cong found and excavated an unexploded American bomb. A demolition team rigged the weapon as a land mine and buried the device under a drain culvert along a road in Binh Dinh Province near the coastal village of Song Bon.
Feb. 11, 1968 - an Army M113 armored personnel carrier with a vehicle commander, driver, two gunners, a first lieutenant resting on the front, and several other G.I.s riding inside are hurled skyward by the enormous power of a detonation. Plummeting back to earth, the M113 lands-upside down in a bomb crater large enough to swallow its entire 13 tons.
Sept. 6, 2013 - Paul Buckholdt arrives at the Rockdale News on his 1974 BMW motorcycle.
“I call her Jack Benny,” he says with a grin. “She’s 39 years old.”
The retired photographer for Atlanta Ballet and Theater of the Stars was the M113 vehicle commander on Feb. 11, 1968. Born and raised on James Island, S.C., Buckholdt’s port-of-call after high school in 1961 was Georgia Tech.
“I failed a math test my senior year at Tech and had to drop out, then qualify to get back in,” he said.” While waiting, Buckholdt found employment at Lockheed transfiguring C-141 and C-130 cargo aircraft for Vietnam.
June 1967: Buckholdt, 24, is caught up in the biggest one-month draft call of the Vietnam War. He attends basic at Fort Benning, Ga., then takes advanced infantry training at Fort Polk, La. He arrives in Long Binh, Vietnam, on Thanksgiving Day 1967 to await assignment. His war would be over in less than 3 months.
Assigned to 1st Battalion, 50th Infantry (mechanized unit), Pfc. Buckholdt was flown to An Khe and becomes part of a mortar crew for less than two weeks.
“I remember my first combat,” he recalled. “It was Dec. 12. We were ambushed on the edge of a rice paddy field. The fire was intense from both sides, but what I remember most are the hundreds of women and children in the paddies planting rice. For them it wasn’t war; it was daily survival. They kept on planting as we kept on fighting.”
When a squad leader went on R&R, Buckholdt was ordered to take over the squad.
“I was sent to LZ Uplift as commander of an M113 armored personnel carrier, plus I manned the M2 50-caliber machine gun. It was me, the driver, two M-60 gunners, and habitually a load of grunts going into action.”
At LZ Uplift the M113 driver told Buckholdt, “Man, are you lucky to get assigned here. We’ve been here since September and we haven’t seen one day of combat.” The unit went into combat the next day.
Buckholdt recalled, “We never knew where we were going. We mounted up as ordered and just followed our leaders.” Most of the fighting took place along infamous Highway 1.
“We fought or looked for a fight on a daily basis and supported grunts in action. Always looking for a brawl; always looking.”
The communists launched their countrywide offensive known as Tet at the end of January 1968.
“We were in constant combat,” Buckholdt said. “It was all out war.”
Buckholdt began a letter to his father before going into combat on Feb. 11, 1968. He never finished the letter.
“We were in the lead M113 crossing a drain culvert that morning. The Viet Cong had buried a 500- or 750-pound bomb under the culvert. I never heard the explosion.”
The bomb detonated under the driver. He was taken out in pieces. A young first lieutenant riding on front was killed instantly; a rifleman was seriously wounded, and Paul Buckholdt was almost decapitated.
“The quarter-inch steel shield on the 50 cal. sliced through my face,” he said. Amazingly, five soldiers inside the M113 got out without a scratch.
The medic stabilizing Buckholdt had worked as an EMT in New York City for three years before being drafted.
“I was his first battlefield casualty,” Buckholdt said. “He saved my life.”
Buckholdt woke up in a field hospital near LZ Uplift. The steel plate had carved through a section of his face and separated the upper jaw. Both ocular orbit bones (bones holding the eyeballs in place) were damaged; one fractured and left to heal on its own, the other shattered down into his sinuses. He said, “My maxilla (upper jaw) was separated so badly I could move my teeth around with my tongue.”
Buckholdt was eventually flown to the Philippines on a converted C-141 ambulance of the same design he sketched while working at Lockheed before being drafted. He remembers about 15 minutes of a four-day stay at Clark AFB.
“I tried to walk to the bathroom and fell to the floor,” he recalled. The explosion had also torn the ligaments in his left knee.
Sent to Camp Zama near Tokyo, Buckholdt was under the surgeon’s knife seven times in seven months.
“A drafted plastic surgeon from California did the facial repair,” he recalled. “And a drafted ophthalmologist from South Carolina repaired my eye sockets.”
Wires were drilled through his skull to hold his jaw in place. “Those wires were attached to pajama buttons on each temple. Shoot, one of the wires is still there.”
Both doctors attempted to keep Buckholdt in Japan as a photographer, but the Army had other plans.
“I ended up at Fort Gordon, Ga., working as a draftsman and other ‘busy’ work until my enlistment was up,” he said.
When he was processed out of the Army, doctors discovered Buckholdt had double vision and flat feet. He never should have been in the military to begin with.
Recently the VA discovered the explosion had also crushed his left hip.
“I’d been in pain all my life,” he stated. “But I pressed on; I never gave up. I even completed 10 Peachtree Road Races.”
Buckholdt waited two years for a hip replacement. He said, “I didn’t realize what life was like without pain.
“Now I know,” he said with a big smile.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.