Friday, October 15, 2021

Valor in Vietnam

As a wounded nineteen-year-old sergeant Rick Barnes, listened to Fox Company Commander’s conversation with two fast-moving fighter jets above a jungle canopy in Vietnam, he couldn’t believe how desperate the battle had become and that over 100 US Marines had already been killed or wounded.

“Union 2, this is sky rider over.”

“We copy, Sky Rider, how does it look from above?”

“Not good, Union 2, there are several hundred enemies advancing to assault your position.”

“How long do we have?”

“Union 2, you are about to be overrun.”

“When they get on top of us, drop your heat.”

“Did you say on top? Union 2?”

“Affirmative, Sky Rider, I say again to confirm, drop your heat on top of our position. I say again—when we are overrun, drop on top.”

The year was 1967, the month was June, and when Fox Company’s last day began in the rice paddies and the jungle tree lines of a hot and steaming South Vietnam, acting Sergeant Rick Barnes had no idea that his actions in the upcoming day would earn him one of the highest medals for bravery and valor that the United States Armed Forces could offer.

When the distinctive “Ack, Ack” sound of a Russian-made AK-47 opens up, there is no mistaking the unique signature of a devastating automatic weapon. The North Vietnamese Regular Army carried the AK-47, and when Rick Barnes and men of the second platoon of Fox Company heard the unmistakable automatic clatter and saw an American Marine helmet roll down between some boulders, a familiar heartsick emotion rose as another battle in Vietnam began.

After a squad of Marines ran toward the outcropping of boulders, they found a fallen private Werner without his helmet but with three bullet holes across his chest. The wounds were in the lung area and with Werner’s every attempt to breathe, he gasped as the bullet holes sucked air.

“Who’s got cigarettes!” Rick Barnes called out over the clatter of more AK-47s in the distance.

Instantly, several C-ration cigarette packs flew toward the boulders and the wounded marine, but the engaging detail of the second platoon had opened up with their own weapons that were the newly issued M-16 assault rifles.

With the heavy scent of gun smoke in the air, Barnes tore the cellophane off the cigarette packs and plugged the holes in Werner’s chest. As the fallen marine was once again able to breathe, and as a navy corpsman arrived amid scattering rounds of AK-47 incoming, Lance Corporal McAnaly shouted from the top of the boulders.

“Barnes, we got some just on the other side of these rocks!”

When Barnes, reached the top of the biggest boulder, he could see McAnaly standing in some overhanging brush.

“Barnes,” McAnaly warned and pointed, “There’s one right around the corner of the rock you’re leaning against.”

Before either marine could react, a Chicom grenade with a bamboo handle came flying around the boulder and landed in front of McAnaly. After the deafening blast, Rick felt a tear across his forearm and heard McAnaly call out, “Barnes I’m hit!”

With his ears still ringing from the Chicom concussion, Rick pulled an American grenade from his web gear and tossed it over the boulder. After the second explosion and a glance around the boulder revealed a fallen North Vietnamese soldier unmistakably dead, the two wounded Marines at the top of the boulders called for machinegun to attack three other Vietnamese that were making their way down the boulders and headed toward an open rice paddy. There was a tear across Rick’s forearm from the Vietnamese grenade, McAnaly was impaled with a piece of shrapnel, but both Marines were still in the fight.

As the retreating Vietnamese gained the rice paddy and were obviously headed for the cover of a jungle tree line, Lieutenant Kelsey in the command group ordered a full line assault across the open rice field to attack the tree line. No one had any idea this was just as the Vietnamese commanders intended.

After an entire line of second platoon Marines assembled and began advancing through the open rice paddy to the distant tree line, Rick Barnes was between Lieutenant Kelsey, Corporal Westphal, and Lance Corporal Gobrecht, when a hidden and bunkered North Vietnamese heavy machinegun opened up.

In only seconds, the American casualties were horrific. With all the Marines in the advancing line, now pinned down in the muddy water of the shallow rice field and desperately searching for cover behind twelve-inch earthen dikes, Lt Kelsey screamed over the incoming fire, “Westphal, you have got to take out that machinegun!”

After the order, Westphal and two of his men jumped up from the dike to begin an assault but all three were immediately cut down by the withering gunfire. Two of the Marines were clearly beyond help but Westphal was moving.

Without a spoken word, Barnes and Gobrecht climbed over the dike together and pulled the wounded Westphal back to what was left of the protecting cover. As the Vietnamese machinegun continued the assault, the earthen dike was disintegrating into nothing but mud, rice shoots, and blood-tainted water.

With corporal Westphal’s head resting in Rick Barne’s arms, and the relentless Vietnamese machinegun finding new American casualties with every minute, Westphal took his last breath as Barnes, Gobrecht and Corporal Gary O’Brien looked at each other and knew they were not just going to lay there and die.

There was a strange feeling that closed around the Marines as Westphal died, and without a spoken word, Barnes, Gobrecht, and O’Brian got up out of the bloody water and led an assault on the original tree line where the muzzle flashes of enemy AK-47s were constantly firing into the open rice field.

Unbeknownst to the three Marines leading the charge, and with ironic timing, Captain James Graham’s command group had also begun a counterattack at the same moment and forced the heavy machine gun into a periodic silence as Barnes, Gobrecht, and O’Brien continued toward the cover of the rising tree line.

As the three Marines were continuously firing as they splashed through the open rice paddies they were beyond surprised when the entrenched Vietnamese jumped up at the jungle canopy and ran. Clearly, the retreating Vietnamese believed that the attacking Americans were dangerously crazy.

After unbelievably reaching the jungle cover and surviving, all three Marines began cursing at once. The newly issued M-16s rifles were constantly jamming and failing to fire, everyone was almost out of ammunition, and as the battle moved into the jungle and reached into the third hour, Barnes, Gobrecht, and O’Brian were pulling un-jammed rifles, grenades and ammo from fallen Marines and dead Vietnamese. The Marines were fighting for their lives and were using anything that would work.

After another heated and battle-weary hour, with all three of Fox Company’s platoons separated and under attack from the heavily armed and well-trained North Vietnamese, Barnes and Gobrecht reunited with Captain Graham and what was left of the command group who were huddled next to the ruins of an old French plantation and an even older Buddhist pagoda. Lieutenant Kelsey was dead as were all of the other officers except for Captain Graham the Company Commander.

Captain Graham had gathered Doc Donovan the medic and the severely wounded behind the cover of the ruined plantation. Barnes and Gobrecht were defending the position and taking heavy fire as the North Vietnamese advanced. During the firefight, Barnes the weapons specialist was also disabling an M-60 machinegun that had no more ammunition; he had no intention of allowing an American weapon to fall into enemy hands and kill more Marines.

With a Vietnamese soldier demanding attention and advancing in plain sight, Rick Barnes took aim but never fired because an enemy motor exploded near the Marine’s holdout and suddenly Barnes’s rifle was shattered with shrapnel. Both of his wrists were instantly broken, and blood began to pump from his left wrist as an artery was severed.

After the concussion wave of the explosion, and realizing he could not move either hand, he had multiple wounds, and with every arterial pump of blood he was dying, Rick crawled over to the navy corpsman, “Doc! You’ve got to stop this bleeding or I’ll be out of blood soon and dead.”

Doc Donovan immediately wrapped two ace bandages around Rick’s left forearm to form a tight tourniquet. “You’ll be alright, Barnes, now I’ve got to get back to the others. Dickerson is shot through the spine and some of the others are worse.”

As the Vietnamese assault continued, the command group dwindled. The radioman was dead, Lieutenant Kelsey was only a memory, and Captain Graham was now shot through the left shoulder. With Vietnamese obviously closing in, Captain Graham stood with the radio slung over his right shoulder speaking into the handset. The Captain’s rifle was hanging from his wounded left shoulder and his pistol was holstered to his leg.

With Barnes and the now wounded Gobrecht only a few feet away, all of the Marines could overhear Captain Graham’s conversation with the air support as the jet pilots roared overhead.

“How does it look from above?”

“Not good, Union 2, there are several hundred enemies advancing to assault your position.”

“How long do we have?”

“Union 2, you are about to be overrun.”

“When they get on top of us, drop your heat.”

“Did you say on top, Union 2?”

“Affirmative, sky rider, I say again to confirm, drop your heat on top of our position. I say again—when we are overrun, drop on top.”

With every man still alive and close enough to hear Captain Graham’s last transmission, Corporal Dickerson, who was sitting upright despite the fact that he would never feel his legs, began tugging at Captain Graham’s bloodied fatigues.

“What do I do, Captain Graham?” Dickerson’s voice was desperate. “I don’t know what to do! I can’t move my legs, I feel this God-awful pressure, and I want to know what I should do!”

After Captain Graham glanced at Doc Donovan, he spoke over the roar the jets as they turned for the attack. “Doc, you had better get all the men that can move out of here, I’m staying with my wounded.”

As Donovan nodded, he gathered Barnes, Gobrecht and began to move past the pagoda. The surviving Marines would never forget Captain Graham’s final actions and words as he remained with his wounded and spoke to Corporal Dickerson. With Dickerson in shock, he continued to tug at his Captain’s fatigues.

“Captain Graham,” the paralyzed Dickerson pleaded, “What should I do? What should I do?”

With lines of camouflaged enemy helmets approaching, and the Marine jets beginning to make their run, Captain Graham un-slung his rifle from his wounded shoulder and handed it to Dickerson and simply asked, “Do the best you can, Marine, they’re coming.”

The last Doc Donovan, Barnes, and Gobrecht saw of Captain Graham, and his wounded that could not rise, was the Captain standing and firing fearlessly with his pistol into the enemy as Dickerson was sitting upright and trying to un-jam the Captain’s M-16.

After the jets dropped their bombs, nobody moved for hours in the mud, blood, shattered jungle, and the dead and dying American Marines and North Vietnamese.

When Rick Barnes came to, he realized that Gobrecht was still alive and still beside him. Darkness had fallen over the battlefield and the only sound was the Vietnamese language, the moaning of the wounded, and the single pistol shots as Vietnamese officers walked through the fallen Marines to ensure every American was dead.

As the longest night in Barnes and Gobrecht’s lives continued, both men remained frozen as Doc Donovan suddenly crawled in between them. Only seconds after the miraculously unharmed Navy Corpsman Donovan moved in between Barnes and Gobrecht, a Vietnamese voice shouted and an officer approached in the moonlight and immediately shot Doc Donovan in the back of the head.

The officer then kicked Barnes in the side to check for movement, but the fallen Marine must have appeared lifeless, as the blood from his multiple wounds was so severe. Gobrecht also appeared to be beyond the price of a bullet as brutal facial and leg wounds allowed him to pass for dead. After another hour, Gobrecht and Barnes slowly began crawling away from each other, believing that two living marines together might be more easily noticed.

Sometime after the Vietnamese voices were carried away by the rising moon, Barnes noticed a figure at the edge of a tree line. The darkened shape in the moon shadows was a Marine Sergeant who was searching for living marines. After a few minutes of encouragement, Barnes began moving toward the gesturing Marine. At the edge of the jungle, more Marines arrived and carried Barnes to a landing zone clearing to wait for a medical evacuation helicopter.

When the helicopter landed, the many wounded Marines were so tightly packed together the landing skid of the flying ambulance was only a yardstick from Barnes’s head. When the helicopter was beyond full, the medic inside shouted,” We’ve got room for one more!”

With Barnes in the mud next to the door, he was picked up and thrown inside amid the groans and complaints of the wounded beneath him.

When Barnes awoke in the base hospital at Chu Lai, both of his arms were in casts and he had sutures on all his shrapnel wounds. Barnes was also in the company of a wounded officer in the bed next to him who was awake and staring. 

“Who were you with?” Barnes asked the officer.

“I was the medevac chopper pilot that went in to retrieve the wounded at Union 2.”

“What happened?”

“We flew in okay for the first pick up, but on the second run, when I was taking off, we were ambushed by a rocket-propelled-grenade. We went down hard. Out of all the wounded, and my gunner and co-pilot, I was the only survivor.”

Rick Barnes was in the first group evacuated from Union 2 and flown out by the pilot lying next to him. Lance Corporal Gobrecht was evacuated in a later med-flight.

Captain James Graham was awarded the Medal of Honor after his death for his actions on the battlefield.

Rick Barnes, for leading the assault on the tree line, for disabling weapons that could be used by the enemy, and for risking his life to help the wounded was awarded the Silver Star in the Great Lakes Naval Hospital several weeks later.

Rick Barnes was born in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri. After his service in the Marine Corps, he became a police detective in a Chicago suburb. Rick Barnes was a Marco resident for over 10 years.

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