Courage of the quiet hero

Infantry: A phone call from a wartime buddy rekindles a veteran's Vietnam memories.

November 16, 2003|By Todd Holden | Todd Holden,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The nation marked a holiday last week with a day off for many workers, sales at many stores and ceremonies for those who have served in the armed forces. But for Sam Sheetz, Veterans Day had a quiet, personal meaning - a remembrance from when he was a young man.

When Sam Sheetz was wounded pulling fellow infantrymen out of hostile fire in Vietnam, he didn't think of the home runs he'd hit playing baseball as a youngster or the touchdowns he scored playing halfback for Bel Air High School in the early 1960s.

But 35 years later, he draws from his early experience. "Some guys never get over it, the Vietnam thing. They never scored a touchdown, never hit a home run. All they did was survive a war, like me and lots of others. And there are lots more who didn't score the touchdown and didn't live to get the Silver Star, the Bronze Star or the Purple Heart."

Sheetz did, but you'd never know it from a casual conversation with him.

"When I speak of the war, there are many aspects of unsung and overblown. That's what I'm referring to - the ones who want to brag about heroics, the ones who never felt the `rush.' I'm not interested in those stories," he said, as he polished a cherry drop-leaf table in his shop.

Sitting is hard for Sheetz because of his combat wounds, but still he speaks blandly of the world of peril that he has been through.

Sheetz came home and put his medals upstairs in his son's bedroom. No one ever sees them in the shadowbox his wife of 35 years, Carolann, a secretary at Havre de Grace High School, made for them.

Ten years ago, Sheetz left his job with Whiteford Construction Co. and pursued a dream, starting Grassy Creek Antiques. Today it is a burgeoning business in Churchville occupying four buildings and five large trailers.

Mondays he repairs and restores antiques that he searches for up and down the East Coast. Tuesdays he loads his truck and trailer with items that weren't good enough for his shop.

Wednesdays he leaves his home in Aldino and by 5 a.m. is in Crumpton on the Eastern Shore. On the way home he might drop a fishing line in Chester Creek, a rare break for a guy who rarely sits down.

Thursdays he is working again in his quaint shop behind his home. Fridays he has to pull shop duty and is confined from 11 in the morning until closing time at 5.

Then it's time for a beer and a few friends over for food that he enjoys cooking on the grill.

The weekends are packed with antique auctions, sometimes two or three a Saturday, and the occasional Sunday public auction at a rented hall.

On Sundays he works more in the shop along Churchville road, rearranging the displays and answering questions from folks who expect to see him there. On a recent day he was asked to find a spool bed: old, in good shape - and cheap.

"Yep," he said, "find it clean, not broke, and cheap. Right!"

He loads and unloads delicate antiques, bringing them to a sheen with rubbing and stroking, and it all begins again on Monday.

In the years since the war, he rarely speaks of it and never listens to others speak of it. He shrugs at those who hang around the local shops and boast of heroics while second-generation ears hang on every word.

Dale Swanson of Minnesota, a member of Sheetz's unit who readily acknowledges that he owes his life to Sheetz, contacted Carolann Sheetz and said another comrade, Randy Kimes, was writing a book about Sheetz's courage under fire.

The book deals with the events of May 7-11, 1968, in South Vietnam after a U.S. long-range reconnaissance patrol got into trouble on a ridge in territory held by North Vietnamese troops, according to Kimes, and Sheetz's company was sent in to help the patrol get out.

The reconnaissance patrol's job was to find the enemy but not make contact. When the patrol fell into an ambush, it called in Sheetz's search-and-rescue force.

The reconnaissance team had run into a hornets' nest - an ambush by a large group of North Vietnamese regulars. When Sheetz's group arrived, most members of the reconnaissance patrol were dead or wounded.

The fighting was intense: Six of the 40 men in the patrol survived the ambush. The officer in charge of Sheetz's platoon froze, and Sheetz took over, calling in artillery fire and saving Kimes' platoon as well.

Sheetz was a squad leader with the second platoon of Company B, 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry, 196th Infantry Brigade when his squad came under fire, and he quickly ordered return artillery fire.

He then had the wounded moved to the rear of the platoon, while he went forward to locate Kimes' team. Once that was accomplished, Sheetz had three of his men evacuate the wounded while he checked for more survivors. Then he called in artillery fire for the remainder of the night.

"The morning after was foggy, not good, but our guys held and we got back down the mountain after a company relieved us ... and they went right into the same mess we were in. I think the North Vietnamese regulars were using the [reconnaissance patrol] as bait to get our platoon.

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