The Ghosts of the A-Shau

July 31, 2014 at 5:13 PM

The Ghosts of the A-Shau

By Kevin Weir
about Robert Grey (B Co, 1st BN, 1969)

Steel-blue eyes that sparkle when he laughs, which is most of the time, don’t betray what they have seen or where they have been. He stands an inch or two taller than most with a lanky frame that is Lincoln-esque. His face is just taking on the features of an out-of-doors man. It’s a farmers face; creases from sunshine and laughter appear from under a salt-and-pepper beard.

His many hobbies are readily apparent around the property. It’s as if we just drove in to Robert-town. Elegant copper sculptures, whimsies, whirligigs and cupolas adorn the gazebos, ponds, many bird houses and feeders that are all over the yard that serves as a palette for him and his wife of twenty-four years, Jennifer. The landscaping is, and has been an ongoing project since they moved into their old farmhouse eight years ago. The sprawling, multi-level complex that has become their patio reflects a certain restlessness as you move from the koi pond, up the steps to the breakfast area gazebo, past the Lilly pond, traveling down and across the back of the house to the sitting area just inside the Japanese- style gates. Everywhere is the evidence of Robert’s handiwork, in every well thought- out nook and cranny. Each time I go there, I see some little something that has just come out of the shop or a new planting that draws my eye to it.

This guy doesn’t stand still. If I ever need help, he’s there with a simple OK, no questions asked. When inclement weather drives them in to work on their art projects the house gets the treatment. Jennifer’s needlework and wall paintings stand as testament to the creative energy that makes this house a home, not just a house. There’s a big difference. Jennifer and Robert are two people who seem to have melded into as seamless a union as two people can, just like folks are supposed to.

Robert was born in a midwives clinic in Wasco, California in 1949, the second youngest of five children. His family moved shortly thereafter to Shafter, California, a small farming community in the San Juaquin Valley. Formative years were spent under the stern tutelage of his parents, but the dominating personality was his father, a deeply religious man. When asked to describe his childhood, his reply was short.

"One word? CHURCH."

Robert’s father made sure his family’s life revolved around their small church. The Greys could be counted in attendance every Sunday and Wednesday, and any special occasion that would come along.

"For fun we would roll up tracts (pieces of paper with messages of salvation on them) and wrap them in colored cellophane so it would grab your eye. Then he (father) would take us into Bakersfield, down to where the sinners were and we’d throw them out the car window. (laughs) It was big fun ‘cause that’s all we knew."(laughs)

"How did you know they were sinners?"

"‘Cause Dad said they were." (laughs)

Laughter comes easy and often. He recalls the experiences of a sheltered childhood with a humor that seems to shield a private angst. It becomes apparent that poise and dignity are the totem that he choose to hang his hat on.

"What were your interests as a young man?"

"Really, it was surfing, after twelve years old, I lived and breathed it. ‘Til the army, that pretty well ruined it. I saw one surfboard in Vietnam and the guy wouldn’t let me use it."

"As a young man, did you have any plans or dreams?"

He replies as he rolls his eyes to the sky.

"Plans? None, still don’t. I guess I just kind of had the ball dropped on me."

It’s an odd contrast to the upbringing with his father, visiting soup lines and missions, preaching to the indigent population. By the time he had become a young man, his identity was taking shape. A unique blend of California kid, who only wanted to live the life of a surfer, jazzed up on Beach Boys music, and the child with a heartfelt and private relationship with his Lord.

"What was your father’s best advice?"

"It’s a great big world out there, go out and have some fun."

His sense of duty to God and country knew no question. It’s no surprise, therefore that at the age of eighteen, he quit high school and joined the Army. It was 1968, the year of the great Tet Offensive.

"I didn’t know what Vietnam was!"

When asked to "Do his fair share" and join the melee’, he responded showing both his upbringing and naivet?146;.

"OK, sure."

That was to become his mantra.

"Were there any watershed events in your life?"

"I guess that would have to be Vietnam." (laughs) "It taught me that I wasn’t invincible. You think that you’re bulletproof, ‘til it happens."

"How long were you in the service until you were ---------"

"Blown up?" (laughs)

"Yes."

"Eight months and four days."

"How long were you ‘in country’ before you saw any hostilities?"

"The first week. The first couple of days in country were for orientation and acclimation. It took three days for me to catch up to my unit."

"Which one was that?"

"The 101st Airborne."

"Airborne?"

"I was not Airborne. I thought they made a mistake to tell you the truth. Airborne? I thought, what the hell are they talkin’ about?" (laughs) "I did, I didn’t have the training. I didn’t know that they didn’t ‘jump in’ over there. I didn’t know anything about Vietnam. It’s weird, you go over there in a big jet and go to a place like a big town, then you get on a C-130 prop and go to like a base, then you get on a Huey (helicopter) and they take you out to a fire base. Every time you stop, it keeps getting smaller and smaller with less and less guys ‘til you look around and you can see the other side, (of the fire base) it’s about thirty yards Then I found out my gun didn’t work."

"Your gun didn’t work?"

"No, they said they would fix it when I got where I was going. So I said, OK, no problem." (laughs) "Then you look around and it hits you, Man, we’re really in the sticks. Then I look down at my gun, well, that don’t work." (laughs) "Hope theirs does." (laughs)

"Did they ever get it fixed?"

"Yeah."

Human beings have survived the millennia not because we are gifted with blazing speed or power, but because we are cunning and ruthless. As much as we wouldn’t want to admit it, the primitive, wolf-pack instincts in everyone are never far beneath the surface of our well-polished veneer. In the jungle, in a war, the predominant social structure is the platoon, thirty or less displaced, very afraid young men with weapons and their own brutal code of survival. Society in its basest form.

"At first I almost got killed by my own guys ‘cause they thought I was a narc. And I didn’t even know it. Some other guy had to tell me." (laughs) "I thought they were acting funny. The other guys that were coming in were real short timers. You talk about gnarly looking, it was just like in (the movie) Platoon, the scene with the fresh troops coming in and the other guys passing them the other way. He said (the other guy) ‘Look, I don’t have a problem with you, but these other guys think you’re, well they call it a CID; (pronounced SID, military police) and their plotting to do away with you. Nothin’ stands between them and that friggin’ bird.’ (laughs) I said, ‘shit I ain’t nobody, I’m just passin’ through’."

"How did that rumor get started?"

"From the guys, there were about five of them. They said I looked like a lieutenant, and any lieutenant that young must be a CID. I don’t know how they put that together, they were stoned I guess. So this guy, he sets up a meeting. He said that they were going to have a little party and said, ‘If you walk in with me, I think everything is going to be cool.’. I guess that was it, he wanted to see what I was going to do. That was going to be it, either I was going to make my move or they were going to kill me, or we were going to have fun. We all had fun. (laughs) They were just doing what they were doing, out on patrol"

"Was that fairly common? Taking someone out like that?"

"Yeah."

"When did you see your first action?"

" Well, when I finally caught up with my unit, they were getting ready to go out on an ambush. I got there about four in the afternoon, got to meet the people. It was like, hi guys, I’m the new guy, do I look like one? I’m not a CID. (laughs) Then they give you your pack, and it weighs about one-hundred pounds. This thing is so heavy, you can’t pick it up. I mean you have to sit down on the ground, strap it on, and then roll around on the ground to get up to your knees and then your feet.

Then they said it’s going to be dark, so they gave me a piece of fluorescent tape to put on the back of my helmet. Everyone got one. We move out, single file and it’s so dark, I can’t see my hand in front of my face, but I could see that tape and it’s boppin’ around ‘cause those guys are moving. I was like Gomer Pyle just trying to keep up with them. I kept my eyes peeled on that tape and I was tripping and stumbling but I wouldn’t take my eyes from the guy ahead of me. I was afraid to, because you couldn’t see the tape from five feet away. So, we’re walking along, it’s pitch black, and all of a sudden WHOOM! There was a big explosion. You could see the silhouette of the guys in front of you going all over, helmets flying. We were walking parallel to Highway 1. I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s where it was. We must have sounded like a heard of cattle or something, so they threw a grenade and ran. Nobody got hit with the shrapnel, but what happened was there was another platoon and they heard that and they started lobbing grenades over there at us with grenade launchers, and I mean these suckers were going off all around us."

"You were pinned down by your own men?"

"Yeah, but we didn’t know it at the time. Luckily, nobody got hurt. They finally heard us yelling, guys were laying on the ground and shooting in the air. You could see the tracers like a solid light. I guess that’s the name of the game, make as much noise as you can. It got to be a common thing, I guess, people getting shot by friendly fire."

"Did you ever find yourself in a situation where you had to react before you could identify?"

"Oh, yeah."

"If you heard something, what would you have to do?"

"Well, it depended on what you were doing. It never happened to me, but I would have done it while I was walking point. I mean I’d hate to kill somebody that I wasn’t supposed to, but I wouldn’t feel totally bad about it either. The whole idea is to keep alive too."

A GI’s workday in Vietnam was a mix of monotony and anxiety. Getting up with the sun, the foot soldier would eat his field rations, retrieve his Claymoor mine and trip flare that he had set out the night before to shield against ambush, and get about the day to day routine of cat and mouse that so typified the action in this war. Hit and run with the enemy, find a cache of weapons and destroy them, root out underground bunkers, and some days, nothing, just plod along with your ears and eyes wide open, both praying for and against something happening.

"How long was a tour?"

"Twelve months. I wasn’t even half way. I feel lucky, I mean really. There were three ways out, spend your tour, get wounded, or leave in a body bag."

"So, did you stay with the same outfit the whole time?"

"Yeah, the only thing I did was change platoons. I started out in the third and I switched right before we went into the jungle. When I say jungle, I’m talking about the A- Shau Valley, which is no VC, it’s NVA regulars. The VC were in the towns and villages, they took care of the guerrilla stuff, but if you found something in the jungle, it was the real army, they weren’t playing. A lot of the VC set up booby traps. They didn’t have to have any training to be a VC. I guess just growing up in Vietnam was training enough. So anyway, I went from the third to the first platoon, because they lost a man. It was just my luck. The third platoon just about got wiped out. Walked right into an ambush."

"Was it bad?"

"Yeah, real bad."

"How many would you say got wounded or killed?"

"I’d say it was around ninety percent. I could hear it going on, that was the bad part. They were out there, just beyond our help. You could hear the shooting and then they came over the radio. They were talking about how bad it was and you could hardly hear him ‘cause every time he would squeeze the squelch, you could hear the guns, they were right there where he was at. You could tell it was a plea for help, then the radio went dead. That’s when I walked away."

"Was that your first experience with someone that you knew, dying?"

"I haven’t really thought about it, I mean really THOUGHT about it. I just had to let it go right there. I dropped it like a hot potato. I guess that’s what you have to do."

"Do you think it’s a survival technique?"

"Yeah. I couldn’t handle it. I could hear them and I couldn’t get to them. There was no way to reach them, just no way. We were all sitting around the radio and it wasn’t like listening for a football score, it was reality. Once that radio went dead---------you can’t make time in the jungle. Two guys made it back that night and I don’t know how.

We went out there the next day. I didn’t go to where the bodies were, I was walking point and they didn’t ask me. I’m glad. The main thing was to get the bodies back."

"How did you come to be point man?"

"Well, the sergeant came up to me and asked ‘cause the old point man got killed. I was only nineteen, I wasn’t going to say no, after all that training, your pumped, I mean I was needed. That’s what it’s all about. So I said OK. Everything’s fine. (laughs) Like an idiot."

"Did walking point ever get you in trouble?"

"No, I was a lucky son-of-a-bitch."

"How long did you walk point?"

"Two months. Right up until the day I got wounded.

Some thirty-thousand Americans had been killed in Vietnam by the time Nixon took office-and nearly ten-thousand were to perish there during his first year as president. The communists greeted him with a series of attacks that stretched through the spring of 1969, causing heavy U.S. casualties. In May, continuing their massive search-and-destroy drives into the hinterlands, American forces fought one of the fiercest battles of the war to capture Ap Bia mountain, located in the A-Shau Valley a mile from the Laotian Border. (1)

"What happened?"

"I’d been doing it for two months. We knew we were in deep shit. We’d been trying to take Hamburger Hill, although we didn’t know it was Hamburger Hill at the time, The name came after. But, when we first got there, the first place we’d made any contact with any sustained firepower, any real contact, not the little skirmishes we’d been having, I took us up to this ridge where we stayed for three days. We were pinned down. Every time we tried to move, they’d kill the point man and two or three men behind him. We were in deep shit ‘cause we didn’t know where they were."

"How many people are we talking about being pinned down, just the platoon?"

"No, it was the whole company. We were moving in company strength, which is four platoons. We were strung out on this long ridge and we couldn’t go forward, I mean that’s what we were there for, to make contact. We weren’t going to try to escape. Making contact, that’s the name of the game. If it cost somebody their life, well, that’s just part of the territory, there’s no value on a human life. You’re expendable.

Three days had gone by and it was my turn. You see, the day before, there was this guy that got killed. I was standing on the perimeter, where we had last held our ground, and it was time to move out. I don’t know what he was thinking, the guy just walked past me like none of the preceding stuff had happened.. He just walked by me like OK, I’m walking point today, like it was any other day. I don’t think we were used to having somebody there and they wouldn’t move. I hadn’t walked ten steps and he walked ten steps the other way and I just heard it. Machine guns, explosions, I just hit the ground. They zeroed him right off the bat. Man!"

"So you had a day to think about taking the point?"

"Yeah, I started realizing ‘tomorrow’s my turn’. It was dark and we’re sitting there and the sergeant asked me what I thought of walking point the next day. I said, ‘not too much, I’m not too crazy about it to tell you the truth’.

I wasn’t on the trail when we moved out , strangely enough. We moved out and I was walking point on the right flank. We just kept moving and moving ‘til we got to a place like a saddle, then it moved up the mountain. Then we spread out. We stayed like that the whole day. Moving real slow. We came on a well-used trail, you could tell that there had been a lot of people on it. The farther and farther we went, the more things we began to come across, ammunition and the like. It wasn’t our stuff, so we started getting paranoid and started doing what they call recon by fire. It’s where you just start shooting ahead of you, to draw their fire, get them to give up their position. We did that about four or five times. All of a sudden I see this cloud and I thought, ‘what the hell? The sun was out’. It was gas, our own gas that the helicopters had shot up the hill and had drifted down on us. It came right down on us so we put on our gas masks. It was worse than tear gas, but it wouldn’t kill you. I thought shit, it was already a hundred degrees out You’re trying to walk along, looking out this bubble-eyed thing, stepping along over logs, so I said ‘piss on it’ and jerked it off. Most of the cloud was moving off by then anyway. Your face was still burning, but you could at least see what was going on. It was about thirty minutes later, we had just done a recon by fire. Someone said ‘I think I see someone’. We yelled back ‘Well, shoot him’!’ I know it sounds weird, but that’s the way it was. So he says, ‘I think I got him!’. Then all hell broke loose. It was an ambush; he did see somebody. I heard explosions. I don’t think we were all the way in, I don’t think. We got out of there with seven wounded, I was one of them, and one killed. That’s not too bad for twelve guys. (laughs)".

"So, there you are,-----"

"Carrying sixty MM machine gun ammo for the guy next to me. He couldn’t carry it all. Well, I carried it anyway, everybody carried some, ‘cause that’s your main weapon. We were shooting so many rounds through this thing, farther down the hill, that when we finished shooting, the barrel drooped to the ground. Anyway, I got hit and they all split. Nobody could see anything for all the explosions."

"Tell me what happened when you got hit."

"I didn’t even hear anything. They say that you hear the one that gets you, but I didn’t even hear that sucker go off."

"What was it?"

"An RPG, rocket-propelled-grenade. The only thing that woke me up was that it blew me on top of somebody else, he was wounded too, the guy underneath me. If I remember correctly, he was a what they call a foreign observer; he wasn’t part of our platoon, and he was kicking me in the face to get me off of him. That’s what woke me up. I opened my eyes and there were his boots, right there. He got out from under me and took off. I looked around for my weapon, couldn’t see it, and I noticed my arm. It felt like there was a thousand volts going through it, that was the only sensation I remember. I was looking around me and all I could see were boots going by. I was hollering that I was hit; I don’t know if I was making any noise, but I was trying. There was a lot of noise and shooting going on. I don’t know if they could hear me. That didn’t last long; they were gone. I started panicking, I couldn’t figure out why my body didn’t work. I tried to move and I couldn’t. Then I started reaching with my one good hand and pulled myself along. It seemed as if the more I pulled, the more my body woke up. I got up and started crawling, all that I could think of was that I have got to get out of here.

When the others had fallen back out of the kill zone, they had re-grouped and started counting people and looking for me. They started calling for me and I could barely hear them. It was about that same time that I started getting up. When I got up on my feet, blood started pouring freely from my sleeve, on to my boots. When I looked down and saw that, I ran."

"Was it panic?"

"Oh yeah. I don’t know how far I ran, but my head started spinning, I was in shock. I got to them and I heard someone say, ‘My God, look at his back!’. Then I passed out."

I found out later that the least wounded go first. I remember that there was me and another guy laying there. He had been peppered with shrapnel and looked pretty bad, with bandages all over him, but he could walk. I can imagine he was hurting pretty bad too, but he could walk, I couldn’t. So I lay there the longest. When the chopper did come, it was a small one and they had to fit me behind the seat on the floor, with my head hanging out one side and my feet hanging out the other."

Between May tenth and June seventh, 1969, the ninth marine regiment and elements of the 101st Airborne Division (Air mobile) carried out Operation Apache Snow. The battle captured the attention of the American Press when a protracted struggle developed on Ap Bia mountain in the A-Shau Valley. The North Vietnamese had elaborate bunker complexes on the mountain. Abrams called in B-52 strikes and heavy artillery bombardment to pulverize the mountain before the American assault, but just before the troops attacked on May 18, a torrential rain fell. The bombardment denuded the top of the mountain, and the mud made the attack difficult. American troops went up the mountain twelve separate times. Before taking the summit on May 20, fifty-six Americans died and hundreds more were wounded. They found 630 dead North Vietnamese troops in the bunkers. The marines dubbed the killing field of Ap Bia "Hamburger Hill". The press loved the description and splashed it all over American newspapers and televisions at the end of May. Eventually 241 Americans died in Operation Apache Snow. (2)

"The peak, gruesomely named Hamburger Hill because the clash ground up so many GIs, was reoccupied by the North Vietnamese a month later, and the human cost of the futile engagement further roused criticism of the war at home." (1)

History walked through Robert Grey that day and left his body in tatters. Years of therapy are both ongoing and futile. Treatments haven’t detracted from the pain. The battle for Ap Bia Mountain still rages when the North wind turns cold and his wounds howl in the morning, though I’ve never heard him complain. He bears his scars with stoic dignity.

Robert received the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for valor. All this without ceremony, from an anonymous courier in a plain, brown wrapper.

Flesh and bones can knit, time can take the sting from ours eyes and hearts. Voices and faces fade from the page, but the soul survives. The spirit remembers. Though it’s been over twenty-five years, he recalls the events of those four months with amazing clarity. The ghosts of the A-Shau are never far behind him.

The science to heal the body far outstrips our ability to heal the soul, there are no metaphysical prosthetics. It falls on ourselves to put back the pieces. They say, that which does not kill you will make you stronger. Strength where it counts is something Robert has in abundance. He shares it readily with those around him.

(1) Karnow, Stalnley, Vietnam: A History; page 601; New York:,The Viking Press, 1983

(2) Olsen, James S. and Roberts, Randy, Where The Domino Fell America and Vietnam, 1945 to 1990, page 221; New York, St. Martin's Press, 1991

Tags: