Author's Name: Michael Spray

Title: "Nothing Planned"

There are lots of things about my time in Vietnam that I would rather forget. I’ve been able to push them way back in the deep recesses of my mind so that I don’t often think about them. But they are never forgotten. Why do I feel that I need to write about them now? Well, when you get older and have been diagnosed with colon cancer, you become more aware of your mortality. And I guess I’ve become more melancholy on this Memorial Day, 2017 as I start writing this story. 

My story may not seem that dramatic or even interesting but it’s my story. I think I must start sometime before I was drafted in the U.S. Army in November 1967 rather than just diving into day one in Vietnam. I was born January 12, 1948 in St. Louis, Missouri. No, I’m not going to bore you with my entire life but I will hit the highlights so you can get to know Mike S. the person and why I can say I never really planned anything in my life. It has all just happened. Never a big believer in destiny or God’s will, it has become harder and harder to ignore it as I get older.

My sister was 10 years older than me. She’s gone now, died of a stroke. My brother is 8 years older and the reason I mention this is it’s unlikely that I was planned. My father was very sick. He had a heart condition from rheumatic heart fever he got when he was a kid. He died when I was four. He was in his thirties. My mother who my father had never let work, now had to find a job and raise three kids. So you see, from the start, nothing planned.

By the way, my mother did a great job. All three kids turned out fine. In my case it’s been some journey. I ran the streets when I was a kid. Not the same as today. I never got into any real trouble, but because my Mom had to work, I had a lot of unsupervised time on my hands. I was a good student in elementary school, but by the time I got to high school, I had discovered alcohol and often cut classes to party with my friends. I had to attend summer school nearly every year to keep up. I managed to graduate by the skin of my teeth. With a high school diploma in hand I now needed a job. I heard that McDonnell Aircraft was hiring just about anyone. Vietnam was ramping up and the military wanted as many Phantom jets as McDonnell could produce. They hired me and I started out in the Tube and Cable department. Again, nothing I planned.

Some of my friends, my cousin and my future brother in law were all drafted. When I turned 19 the Induction Center called me down to take a physical. I passed and now knew it was just a matter of time. Sometimes I would just stare at the mail box attached to the brick wall outside our three room flat when I got home from work. Then I would finally open it and take the mail inside. This seemed to go on and on day after day until one day there it was. “Greetings” it starts out. I was drafted into the U.S. Army. It seemed like a whirl wind. Eight weeks basic training at Fort Leonard Wood. I thought that perhaps I would be assigned to something other than the infantry. Well, infantry it was. Then nine weeks advance infantry training at Fort Polk, Louisiana. Well, I thought to myself, maybe I would get orders for Korea or Germany. Not to be. Two weeks leave and my orders were for Vietnam. Nothing I planned.

Now if there was anything in my life that I did plan, it was my relationship with my girlfriend and future wife, Marian. The whole year in Vietnam I thought about us getting married as soon as I got home. Of course that was if I got home. (We just celebrated our 48th anniversary this year)

I was to report to Travis Air Force Base in California. It is close to San Francisco. Me and a guy that I went through training with made ourselves scarce after breakfast each morning and hitched a ride into town. We visited all the sites including the Height Ashbury area where all the hippies and pot heads were and a lot of the bars and night spots. Sometimes we didn’t make it back for bed check. We actually missed our flight out with most of the guys we trained with. We finally got caught. They gave us an Article 15 and fined us $15. We were already Privates so they couldn’t bust us any lower. It was sure worth the $15 for the experiences I had. We wound up going to a replacement company for the Ninth Infantry Division. They gave us one week to accustom ourselves to the surroundings and the God awful heat. They assigned me to the 3rd Battalion, 47th Infantry Regiment, C Company, 4th platoon. Their assignment at the time was with the Mobile Riverine Force. Nothing I planned. 

If you are not familiar with the Mobile Riverine Force, each unit consisted of a couple of heavily armored patrol boats with a turret mounted 50 caliber machine gun up front, a 40 MM grenade launcher and some smaller caliber machine guns on the sides. These were all manned by Navy personnel. Then behind them were the troop boats. These were old World War II landing craft. The ones that had a ramp up front that could be dropped so the troops could disembark onto the beaches. They armor plated these, put twin 30 caliber machine guns on each side and each boat carried a platoon of Army Infantrymen. These boats were all tied to four large barges that were moored to a large troop ship named the U.S.S. Benewah. This ship was anchored at the mouth of the Mekong River in the South China Sea. On board we bunked in the very depths of the hull of this old tub. I remember my first night. They ferried me out to meet up with my company that was already there. I got my gear below and now had to pick out a bed or rack as the Navy calls them. There were several empty ones all the way in the front of the hull near these two giant pipes. I picked one out and climbed into the thing to get some rest. All of a sudden there was this loud, deafening metal clanking noise that scared the shit out of me. I found out why no one else was up there. The anchor chains went up and down those tubes when they weighed anchor and they did that every hour or so to slightly move the ship so the Viet Cong could not get us zeroed in with their mortars and artillery.

When it was time to go on a mission, we would get up in the middle of the night, go down to the barges, get our weapons, ammo, grenades, canteens, C Rations and everything else we needed and board the troop carriers. We would motor up the Mekong River for hours reaching our destination as the sun rose. This destination would be some place that Army Intelligence decided had concentrations of enemy troops. I certainly didn’t plan this.

The patrol boats would prep a suspected area with 50 caliber machine gun fire and if we started taking fire from Charlie, they would turn the troop boats into shore and drop the ramp. This left us pretty exposed so the best thing to do was get your ass off the boat and head for cover ashore. Sometimes the ramp didn’t make it all the way to solid ground if the tide was out and you were lefty jumping into the stickiest, blackest, smelliest mud I had ever seen. It could hold you in place like tar. This was not a good place to be when the incoming bullets are ricocheting around you. I remember the first time this happened to me. The rest of my platoon had made it to solid ground but I didn’t seem to be making any headway at all. I thought this was it. Luckily one of my platoon mates felt sorry for me and came back and help drag me to safety. I wish I could remember his name. He was a big black guy that carried a 40 MM grenade launcher. I asked him why he came back for me. He said I looked so damned pitiful. Not planned but glad he did.

My first combat encounter did not go well. My Platoon Sargent sort of took me under his wing. He knew I was more than just a little scared. I was the new guy so I had to carry the radio. Called the PRC-25. The damned thing weighed 23 and ½ pounds. I wish we had cell phones back then. He told me what was expected of me and to listen to him and do everything I was told to do and everything would be fine. Certainly made me feel a lot better at the time. Later that day he was killed. I learned he had a wife and kid back home. I’m sure this wasn’t his plan.

We had stumbled into a large Vietcong supply complex consisting of several well-fortified connected bunkers. Normally, Charlie would hit us and run, but this time they decided to stay and fight. Our Company Commander called in artillery and they chewed up the place pretty good. But not good enough. We were still taking fire. We found this out when my Sargent looked down one of the bunker openings caused by the artillery. A Vietcong soldier was stuck right there just below the surface. How could he still be alive but alive he was and fired one shot that got my Sargent in the head, dead instantly. We were ordered to pull back to the river and we all slid into the water using the bank of the river for cover. Next the Air Force was called in and an F4 Phantom dropped several 500 hundred pound bombs. We were about 150 yards away from the impact area but the concussion was incredibly intense. Then the guy next to me asked if Sarge was still out there. I’ll never forget. I don’t always remember names but this one stuck. His name was Runyon. He shouted out,” I’ve got him.” And he lifted our dead Sargent up from below the water where he kept a firm hold of him. In all the excitement, Runyon still managed to get the corpse out of there so he could be sent home.

Another casualty of the total 58,220 that would lose their lives in this conflict. When most politicians, historians, etc. talk about the total that died they usually say over 58,000. Notice I wrote 58,220. Please, let’s not forget the 220. It’s not that hard to say 58,220. I feel like we are forgetting them if we don’t. By the way, I didn't understand this war when I was 19 and after a year of duty there I understood it less. We did not win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people like I was being told. It can't be done with death and destruction.