by C. B. Yarling
After graduating from The University of Texas at Austin in 1968 with a B.A. in Math. I joined the Army because I was certain I would be drafted after graduating. So I visited a recruiter in San Antonio and told him that I wanted to be an intelligence officer, which included an appropriate OCS. So I joined the Arny on August 27, 1968.
I did my basic training at Fort Polk in Louisiana and was shipped off to combat engineering AIT (Advanced Individual Training) at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. Yep, this AIT was certainly not intelligence, which proved to me that my recruiter was a liar. I found out later that, at the time, intelligence training occurred at Fort Holabird in Baltimore, MD.
After a Christmas layover at home after AIT, I went to Fort Belvoir for Combat Engineering OCS in January 1969. Unfortunately, during the first or second week of training, I went to the hospital due to a knee injury that occurred during a training exercise during my last year at AIT. I left the hospital with an ankle-to-thigh cast which took me out of OCS and placed me in a training company. Eventually, they removed the cast and I continued with my regular duties.
In June, I received orders to Vietnam, which, as it turned out, was the same for everyone assigned to that company except for one soldier. I found out later that he was the son of some general. You know, it wasn’t necessarily your rank that gave you privileges; it also included who you knew.
So I went to Vietnam with a rank of Spec 3. Shortly after landing at Bien Hoa Air Base on July 3, 1969, I hopped on a C-130 which took me over to my first assignment: Company C, 26th Combat Engineering Battalion located at Quảng Ngãi. I had wondered about how far this was from the attack at My Lai. This historic event turned out to be about 15 miles away and only sixteen months prior to my arrival in Vietnam.
Not long after arriving at my new assignment in Quảng Ngãi, I rode in a multi-vehicle convoy to LZ-411. Our company’s mission there was to build fortifications for a company of infantry soldiers.
A week or so after my arrival, I was taking a shower located out in the open when the facility was ambushed with automatic-fired weapons. I grabbed my fatigues and ducked into the nearest bunker. So here I am in Vietnam, under enemy fire, lying in a bunker, while stark naked!
Later that July, I received orders to report to HQ Co. in Chu Lai. So I hopped on a chopper to get to Quang Ngai to get my belongings. I then took a plane north to start my next assignment. As it turned out, the Staff Sergeant manning all of the Battalion clerks told me that each of the companies rotated sending college graduates to be clerks in HQ Co. and it was Company C’s turn.
My new job was to be the new Awards Clerk, replacing someone who had recently returned home. But, somewhat like the previous clerk, I also ended up with other lesser important jobs: Morning Report Clerk, Promotion Clerk, Assistant Battalion Mail Clerk; and Assistant Battalion Jeep Driver (primarily for the Commanding or Executive Officers). And it was decided by my fellow clerks, that I was now the unofficial equipment repair technician because, with my engineering background, I figured out how to repair the broken mimeograph machine.
It was a great time in my life and I really enjoyed what I was doing. As an Awards Clerk, I wrote up the paperwork for our wounded engineers and other personnel who were going to receive a Purple Heart. Then, during my year there, I wrote up a number of other award recommendations including Army Commendation Medals, Bronze Star Medals with and without Combat “V”, Air Medals with and without Combat “V” for the helicopter pilots who flew members of our various companies, and one Silver Star for our XO.
Fast forward to May 5, 1970.
An explosion woke me up. As I looked up, I saw sparking electric wires above me, the lights went out, I smelled gunpowder, and then realized we had been hit. I looked over my body to see if I was wounded and found a small grey object sticking out of my left foreleg resulting in a bit of bleeding. Otherwise, I found no other injuries besides not hearing very well.
I freaked out and thought, “Oh, God, there will be another in a minute.” I then got up and ran outside to a nearby bunker that had not yet been completed. I threw myself down in the sand and put my arms over my head.
After some time of not hearing any other explosions nearby, I got up and walked to the door of my hooch. I looked in and yelled, “Can I help anyone?” I heard our legal clerk telling me, “I can’t see” as he walked his way towards me with blood on his face and with his hands grasping the rails of the beds on both sides of the hooch to keep his balance. It appeared to me that he wasn’t too badly hurt, so I grabbed his arm and walked him to the medical hooch while the rocket attack continued.
A few minutes after arriving there, a medic told me to sit down and wait my turn. He then grabbed the clerk, put him in a jeep, and hauled ass to the base hospital. So there I was, sitting down, just sort of twiddling my fingers, patiently awaiting my turn to travel to the hospital.
Sometime later, I found myself traveling a high speed towards the base hospital, sitting in the passenger seat, my right leg sitting on the fender, stark naked. Well, okay, for those who didn’t know, you have to understand life in Vietnam in May: it was way too hot to be sleeping in any clothes. That’s how most of us slept.
I arrived at the hospital, got out of the jeep, and sauntered through the door of the hospital. I started looking around to find someone to help me and saw a woman on my left, behind a table wearing a helmet. Not knowing one way or the other, I decided she was probably a nurse. As I walked towards her, she took a triple-take look at me. Without taking her eyes off of me, she took her left hand and grabbed a blanket from a nearby stack, and said, “Here, throw this around you, take a seat, and someone will be with you in a moment.” While waiting, the other three clerks in my hooch arrived and we sat around talking about our experiences.
Image credit: author
Later, all of us went back to our destroyed hooch, did our best to recover our belongings, and moved them to our new hooch. In the meantime, I found a frisbee beneath my bed that had a one-inch hole in it. I can only imagine what would have happened if the piece of shrapnel had hit me instead of my frisbee. I still have that frisbee and one other belonging: a tail fin to what was most likely to have been a Russian 9M22M (1.9 meters long or about six feet) that landed outside our hooch. It was given to me by our commanding officer.
The tail fin of the rocket that exploded outside our hooch.
At the end of my tour on July 2, 1970, I traveled to my home in Austin, Texas.
In August 1970, I came home and returned to The University of Texas to continue seeking my Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering. Soon I met a man who became a really good friend of mine over the years. I eventually told him much of my story contained herein. As it turned out, he seemed to always have friends in high places, or perhaps he even worked for some off-the-wall companies, or maybe he worked with the government. Although I never found out about his “friends,” we maintained our friendship for many years.
The bottom line is I received a package containing a letter dated November 18, 1984, from the Department of the Army, Office of the Adjutant General, U.S. Army Adminstration Center, mentioning my service with the HHQ, 26th Combat Engineer Battalion (AMERICAL), awarding me a “Bronze Star without valor” retroactive to 5 May 1970. Also inside was my Bronze Star Medal.
This U.S. Army Vietnam awards clerk mysteriously received a Bronze Star 14 years after earning it. I still don’t know how this happened – unless my friend really did have contacts in “high” places.
C. B. Yarling
Spec. 5, U.S. Army
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