|I Keep It In My Heart
And Wait For You
Part I: The War In Viet Nam, 1967
Timothy A. Duffie
USMC, Viet Nam, 1966-67
On May 12, 1967, at 0410 hours, Papa 2 came under attack by a reinforced company of the 442nd. NVA Corps of Engineers.
The assault started with a suicide squad. Each member had a target: the Platoon Sgt., Squad Leaders, and Radioman. They had some good inside information, and they knew exactly where each of us slept. For whatever reasons, probably bad timing, they failed in every respect.
My life was spared only because one of our corpsmen, my replacement on radio watch, overslept by 20 minutes. I should have been in my bed, but I was still in the bunker when the first explosion made toothpicks out of my cot. (The night before the attack I had told all those who assisted on radio watch that, if any overslept again, they would "dig a latrine". A threat obviously not carried out.) By the time the other charges went off in the other squad bays, the squad leaders were already out of their beds and heading for the bunkers.
There was a platoon of hard-core guerrillas in the rice paddies. Their objective, after the suicide squad had killed all the leaders, was to tear down the barbed wire perimeter. Hard-core guerrillas were generally imported Viet Cong. They were usually better trained and equipped than the local variety. This platoon was doomed to failure because the suicide squad failed.
Along the railroad tracks west of the compound waited a company of NVA. They were to administer the final blow. They failed because Sgt. Prince knew they were there. I learned years later that the villagers had passed the word of that company to some of the PFs who, in turn, came running into the compound after the attack started.
When satchel charges began rocking the compound, Marines came pouring out of the squad bays. In rapid succession there were about 14 explosions. PF Ha Si Nam stood straddling a satchel charge. He grabbed LCpl. Ray Borowski and tossed him into the safety of a bunker, then he fell on the dynamite. Ray, his life spared when Nam tossed him into the bunker, looked over his shoulder in time to see a blinding flash as Ha Si Nam disintegrated.
Though Ray was disoriented by severe head and upper body injuries, he noticed a fellow Marine propped against the far wall of the bunker clutching the stub of his leg, severed at mid-thigh. He said nothing. He simply stared blankly at Ray as his life spilled onto the dirt floor of the bunker. Ray watched helplessly as he died.
Ray regained enough of his senses to look out toward the rice paddies. He saw dozens of Viet Cong wading toward the compound. Before he could fire a shot, he passed out. He was eventually taken by med-evac to a field hospital. Ray would not hear a word from any of us for the next 18 years. He assumed we were all dead.
Separated from his weapon by a satchel charge near his cot, Sgt. Prince ran to the communications bunker. Pleased to see that I was still alive, he borrowed my rifle and headed into the compound. He returned in a few moments with instructions for me, then left again. I called in artillery on the company along the railroad tracks. Rounds spaced at roughly 10 yard intervals decimated most of that threat.
For all intents and purposes, all that was left was the platoon in the rice paddies.
While the battle was far from over, the details are unimportant. Just before daybreak the Viet Cong broke off the attack and began dragging off their dead. The villagers were to tell us later that the VC spent hours dragging their dead into the surrounding countryside from behind the elevated protection of the railroad tracks.
The people of Lai Phuoc and Phuoc My, the closest of the hamlets, had been startled out of their sleep at the first all too familiar sounds of gunfire. They had sat in their huts throughout the battle listening to the sounds small arms fire, artillery, med-evac choppers, and gunships. Those villagers on the perimeter of the rice paddies were able to see a little, aided in their watch by the illumination that began floating down within moments of the first explosion. They saw solid lines of tracers ripping into Papa 2 from the rice paddies.
As the sun came up they saw that the Marines were still in control of the island.
We were busy after sunrise. We had to care for the wounded, rebuild our defenses, and indulge in the adrenaline induced chatter of survivors. We watched as Ha Si Nam's family came and carried away his remains in a poncho. We gave our dear friend an ineffectual, but heartfelt, 21 gun salute as bits and pieces of him were taken off for burial.
The tears we shed for this dear friend were as real as they were for any of the American friends we lost during the war.
As we were preoccupied with our activities, a long procession came down Highway 1 from Lai Phuoc. The villagers of Lai Phuoc knew we were too busy to prepare breakfast, so they were bringing breakfast to, as the village chief said to Sgt. Prince, "...our Marines".
To this day, 30+ years later, that thought still brings tears to the eyes of each Marine who was there that day.
Then Co Hue began to lose more friends.
Sgt. Phil Prince received his third Purple Heart that morning. A satchel charge had lifted him and deposited him on the outside of the barbed wire. He crawled back whispering, "Don't shoot guys...it's me!"
"Riiiiiight, turkey!! What's the password...?"
He was sent stateside with his third Purple Heart, a Silver Star and a Battlefield Commission. He was to return to Vietnam for two more tours between 1967-1972. He retired a Major in 1979.
Ray Borowski spent 1 1/2 years in the hospital. I found him 18 years later haunted by his certainty that none of us could have survived the attack. He believed that he had let us down, and, as a result, we were all dead. When I located Ray in 1985 and called him at work, Ray finally learned that we had all survived.
I learned that, after our phone call, Ray went to the men's room and cried for over 4 hours!
Note: Ray had left high school to join the Corps. As he lay in the hospital recovering from his wounds, his class began their senior year. Some of his classmates had heard about his experience in Vietnam, and they wanted to honor him. Years later Ray saw a copy of their High School Yearbook. Ray's picture is inside the front cover; below the picture is inscribed, "In Memorial, Ray Borowski, Killed in Vietnam"..
I should have paid more attention to a wound in my ankle. Within weeks my foot had swelled to the point I could not tie my boot. I went to the hospital in Dong Ha and had a piece of shrapnel removed. I could not wear a boot, so I was of no value to a field unit. I was re-assigned to CAP Headquarters in Phu Bai. After two weeks in the hospital in Phu Bai, I returned to Papa 2 briefly to pick up my gear.
While I was there, I went into the hamlet to say good-bye. Co Hue, hearing that I was leaving, handed me a picture of herself and asked that I remember her. She had never permitted us to take pictures, so I was honored. It is the only picture I have of her from 1967.
I worked supply out of Phu Bai my last two months in Vietnam. I continued to hear reports that Papa 2 came under heavy attack each month. An unconfirmed rumor went through headquarters that someone had called artillery during an assault one night, and a round had landed in the heart of Lai Phuoc. I came home in November, 1967, still worried about that reported stray round.Continue to Part I, Section 4