Honor guards, empty caskets

Memory: A retired Army officer looks back at a 1969 explosion in Vietnam that killed four soldiers and led to an investigation.

May 28, 2000|By John E. Mann

IT WAS NEARLY midnight when the field phone beckoned me. The voice at the other end was Ed Taylor, the operations officer for the 25th Infantry Division.

"John, hate to bother you but the 3/22 [3rd Battalion/22nd Infantry] had a bad explosion on one of their tracks [armored personnel carriers] this afternoon. They lost the entire crew. The old man is going out there at first light and he needs to be brought up to speed on exactly what happened. I've got a chopper that can take you to brigade headquarters and they can get you to the company location."

"I'll be there in 20 minutes," I replied, wondering what sort of accident could have caused a mortar carrier to explode. At the command post, Ed further advised me that the 3/22 had been engaged in a minor skirmish with Viet Cong earlier that afternoon but the explosion did not result from enemy action.

The assistant operations officer at brigade had little to add to what I knew. Apparently, the young lieutenant company commander, who had been standing behind the track, was blown backward when it exploded. He was badly shaken, but he survived. The track had been firing its 81 mm mortar on an enemy location when the accident occurred.

The brigade chopper took me to the company location and dropped me off in the middle of a dark field. I was beginning to feel quite alone until I heard a voice, which came from a silhouette. I followed the shadowy figure into the company perimeter and into a nearby track.

The lieutenant couldn't have been more than 24, but his young face showed the wear of war. As I looked at him, I thought of the Korean War, where such young faces were adorned with beards and handlebar mustaches, which made them appear older. But the hardened sergeants in Vietnam did not care about the lieutenants' ages, as long as they were honest, willing to learn and cared about their men. The sergeants didn't mind sharing responsibility; most had trained 15 to 20 platoon leaders during their Army careers.

The lieutenant shook my hand and offered me a seat on one of several packs strewn around inside the armored personnel carrier. The lights gave a yellow-greenish glow that made it easier for the eyes to adjust after moving from total darkness. I told him who I was and informed him that he could expect a visit from the division commander at first light. I wanted to talk to anyone who saw the explosion or had knowledge about it.

The lieutenant's eyes were tired, and he still looked a bit woozy from the explosion some eight hours before. His voice was calm as he told me what he knew. The company had been engaged in a light skirmish earlier in the day, and it was near dusk when he decided to "circle the wagons" and set up a perimeter. Someone spotted what was believed to be VC and fired several rounds, attempting to zero in on the enemy. Soldiers on the track began to fire the mortar "for effect," while the lieutenant was standing behind and off to the side. Then the track suddenly exploded, killing the crew and almost completely destroying the armored personnel carrier. The ammunition on the track was the probable cause of the explosion.

The blast knocked down the lieutenant and several other soldiers. Tears welled in his eyes as he described what happened. I thanked him and asked if there was some place I could question others. They had already set up an armored personnel carrier for me to use, and a sergeant had a list of men to interview.

I thanked the lieutenant and told him I'd inform him of my findings after I went to the blast scene and inspected the track. We shook hands, and a sergeant escorted me to a nearby track, where I spent the rest of the night conducting the investigation. It was 0230 [2:30 a.m.] and the division commander's arrival was just a few hours away. Time was ticking and I hoped to have a report with valid conclusions when he arrived.

The platoon leader and platoon sergeant could add little. I interviewed several other soldiers who were near the track when it exploded, but they had no idea about the cause of the blast. Having been a 60 mm mortar section leader in my early enlisted days, I could only conclude that a round misfired in the tube and another round was placed on top of it.

At daybreak I examined the track that had exploded. Little was left of the mortar and the vehicle. The largest body part I saw appeared to be part of a hip. Four lives had been snuffed out in a flash.

The division commander choppered in, and I told him what I thought had occurred. The men in the company put the incident behind them as they headed out on a security mission. They had plenty to think about - watching out for snipers, booby traps and an elusive enemy who hoped to catch them with their guard down.

I told them goodbye and as I boarded the commander's helicopter, I thought of the families of the four dead soldiers. Their parents were probably not aware of their sons' deaths. Somewhere, some officer was preparing to visit them and inform them of their misfortune.

They would probably never learn the details of their sons' deaths. They would probably never know exactly how their sons died. They would merely be told that their sons died bravely in the service of their country. The families would receive a flag draped over a casket they would not be told was empty. The casket would would receive a military burial with honors.

And, as in every war, none would suffer more than the dead soldiers' mothers.

John E. Mann is a freelance writer who lives in Pikesville. He served as a paratrooper and Green Beret, and retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel after 33 years of service.

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