|Letter to Laura Palmer [January 1, 1988]
January 1, 1988
In the early morning hours of May 9, 1968, Fire Support Base Maury, a small artillery outpost northwest of Trang Bang in Tay Ninh Province, began receiving incoming mortar rounds. Two medical corpsmen and I sleeping in a low bunker were awakened by the initial explosions and flashes of rounds impacting nearby.
At the time this did not seem unusual because our position had been mortared heavily every night for the preceding week. But this attack continued until more than two hundred 61mm rounds had fallen.
Then in the blackness and warm rain came NVA sappers and riflemen. The concertina perimeter wire had been blown open with Bangalore torpedoes during the mortar prep and enemy soldiers poured inside our firebase.
We were overrun.
The artillerymen on our tiny base lived and died during the next four hours in lethal chaos. Dozens of our soldiers were injured and killed by shrapnel and AK-47 automatic rifle fire. Some of the men were charred in the exploded and burning cockpits of their self-propelled 155mm artillery pieces. Several NVA soldiers were shot at close range within our perimeter.
The battalion commander, Billy Leathers, sustained exsanguinating injuries to both legs. The most severely injured, including the badly burned troops and Lt Colonel Leathers, were sheltered in the fire directional center (FDC) bunker, the largest protected enclosure on our small base.
On a litter in the FDC, Colonel Leathers received several units of plasma expander for blood loss and morphine for pain. Because of his detailed knowledge of our location, he was able to coordinate ensuing air support - while severely injured - by radio while lying flat on his back, with F-5s and Puff the Magic Dragon crews overhead. After arriving on station, those aircraft poured out automatic weapons fire and placed napalm directly on our perimeter in an attempt to suppress NVA rocket-propelled grenade squads.
The attack lifted just before daybreak when NVA soldiers withdrew with their dead and injured. We sustained eighty WIA and five KIA, or more than one-third of our battalion of almost two hundred forty men. Eight of the soldiers with severe burns died later at Brooke Army Hospital in San Antonio, Texas, after having been airlifted there from the Vietnam theater. US Army dead from FSB Maury totaled thirteen. Death certificates now lying in reposition in government archives list the cause of death for each soldier as "homicide."
A Chinook helicopter and multiple dustoff sorties carrying body bags arrived soon after first light to airlift dozens of broken living bodies and corpses. The next fleet of helicopters brought the 25th Infantry Division brass from headquarters at Cu Chi, all of them dressed in rice-starched combat fatigues and spit-shined jungle boots. They passed out decorations. There were many. But not as many as there were dead and mutilated bodies, still alive.
One entire battery of six 155mm howitzers had been totally destroyed. All of those guns exploded and burned after having been detonated with NVA satchel charges. There wasn't an intact window or inflated tire on any of our vehicles. The tiny fire support base was a scene of utter devastation and carnage.
The mess sergeant managed to organize the standard US Army breakfast of chipped beef on toast. The medic from Charlie Battery came to the kitchen truck to request a scouring pad to scrub an ear from the hot breech of a 105mm cannon where it had congealed. An NVA rocket round had separated the ear from the head, and the head, from the C battery first lieutenant who commanded the unit.
That night as I treated the more than a dozen of the most seriously injured men in the FDC, I was visited by a number of experiences previously unknown to me. Primordial terror. Mental dissociation. Dry heaves. Near death. One RPG-7 round or NVA grenade in the fire direction center bunker would have taken us. We all knew it.
Other bunkers were blown that night but not ours.
For hours my body seemed levitated under the sandbagged perforated steel plate ceiling of the bunker. It seemed that I was looking down at my patients. I was only in my late 20s, medical, and therefore a non-combatant.
But for the first time in my life it was clear to me that I was about to die. Instantly. Perhaps painlessly and quickly, except for a few terrifying, terminal seconds.
Shrapnel does not discriminate between those trained in combat arms and those not. I recited the Lord's Prayer amidst satchel charge explosions and the agonal keening of mortally wounded boys, those who remained conscious.
I was near God.
I was not prepared to die but I knew I would.
I was lucky. I didn't.
I wasn't even injured. Not that I wanted to be. But ever since, a philosophical conundrum of death and injury from war has haunted me: Not "Why Me?" but "Why not Me?" Why were my buddies blown away and I wasn't?
Those hours and the remainder of my tour of 107mm rocket attacks from Cambodia, convoy ambushes, War Zone C, French Fort, firefights, and ground attacks in Tay Ninh Province changed me in fundamental ways. Some I recognize. Many, probably, I do not.
Vietnam still visits me regularly at night. In every combat dream - each one new - I awaken before I am terminally greased.
I'm different. How, you ask?
Unless you have been in the midst of lost limbs, shattered heads, teenaged kids immobilized with pain, maimed men screaming for their mothers, instantaneous death, the sickeningly sweet, acrid odor of seared flesh, cordite, and fresh rain, together with the threat of all of it, you cannot know how I'm different.
The person who knows has been there too.
My life since has been a Gift. My lovely wife Martha. Three wonderful children. Parents, brothers and sister, relatives, and friends to love. Something to hope for. Something to live for.
Sweet life which I never would have experienced were it not for my uncommonly good fortune. If I were to die today I would not feel cheated by life. After all, my nonexistence easily could have begun at any moment in Vietnam. I have lived these twenty years since the American-Vietnam War on borrowed time.
Borrowed from what? Or, rather, from whom?
I can't remember all their names.
Something of me died in Vietnam. And at the same time something was born.
Since 1968, Martha and I have celebrated fire support base Maury annually, every May 8-9. And Life. And for good measure we also celebrate the 1968 Tet Offensive and the Chinese Lunar New Tear.
Why am I writing this intimate account to you? That's simple. Because you will understand. And because a lot of personal raindrops fell as I read "Shrapnel in the Heart." So much of the continuing American-Vietnam tragedy is made real in your book. I recognize human lives, psychically wounded patients, and enormous pain in the accounts you have researched and told.
You have vividly portrayed some of the contemporary human wreckage from the war. You have qualified enduring love and eternal human bonding. You have quantified grief and suffering. Your chosen title is so appropriate and so apt. Yet the most heart-rending, the most poignant human stories could even be subtitled "Shrapnel from the Heart."
You also have helped nurture the healing process for many living victims of the American-Vietnam War and their families in the process of researching and writing your beautiful book.
People unscarred by combat - but scarred by the war -write eloquently, too. They left their messages at The Wall. But you are the one who blended their stories of broken lives, of unfulfilled dreams, of children loving fathers they never knew, and of fractured homes and broken families still bleeding and grieving.
You have captured the essence of the enduring American-Vietnam tragedy.
One day I hope we will meet again. There is a lot of the war in me that I would like to share with you.
You already have shared much of yours with me.
Larry Schwab, P.O. Box A-596 Avondale , Harare Zimbabwe