April 8, 1967
For months Duffy Black had been asking Captain Larson for a chance to take command of Charlie Company in the field. As company executive officer, Black always had to remain behind, taking care of logistical chores and endless piles of paperwork while Larson led the men on patrols and ambushes. Having taken such a role in their training, though, Black ached to be in the thick of the action with the men he had come to love so dearly. He felt useless back on the base, and wanted to be out there. He wanted to matter. Even while he pressed for a chance to enter the fray, Black continued to confide to Company First Sergeant Crockett his fears that he would never leave Vietnam alive. Crockett always responded by saying that Black shouldn’t worry; he would return home to his new bride, and Black always seemed to agree. When the company returned from its first mission into the Rung Sat, for a short break to clean weapons and dry out feet and gear, Black once again visited Larson to ask to be allowed to go out with the unit. His timing was finally right, because Larson had come down with a bad case of stomach flu. Larson gave in to Duffy Black’s request. He could lead the company on its second mission into the Rung Sat, but Larson gave Black strict orders to stay close to one of the platoon commanders. These men, Benedick, Hunt and Hoskins, knew what they were doing out there and would keep Black safe. Black agreed to abide by Larson’s wishes and went to his tent to get prepared for his first combat command. Before the night was over, Black paid a visit to company supply sergeant Cerveny, the master scrounger. Black gave Cerveny his duffel bag, packed with all of his possessions, and strict orders to have it sent to his wife Ida if he did not make it back.
On April 8, with Black accompanying 1st Platoon, Charlie Company re-entered the Rung Sat. During the first day’s slog, although he never saw any movement, Lieutenant Benedick got the strong feeling that the Viet Cong were shadowing the movements of his 2nd Platoon. Benedick called his unit to a halt and ordered the men to hide on both sides of a small stream to await events. Within minutes, and while Benedick’s machine gunner Frank Schwan was still crossing the tiny stream, a sampan carrying three Viet Cong slipped into view. For a few seconds Schwan and the VC who stood at the rear of the sampan just stared at each other, until, breaking free from the trance, Schwan yelled “Halt!” The three VC suddenly burst into motion, diving from the sampan in an effort to get away from the killing zone. But, as Idoluis Casares realized, the VC “didn’t stand a chance.” Twenty rifles and Schwan’s machine gun opened fire and riddled the VC until the water ran red. Casares and the others searched the sampan as the bodies of the VC bobbed nearby, and collected what weapons and intelligence they could find. It was Charlie Company’s first up close kill. There had been firing before, and even a few blood trails, but this was different. There were bodies to search, bodies that the men had seen explode in fire. Somehow, though, it all seemed more mechanical than anyone had expected. They had done their job, reported their kills, gathered intelligence and weapons, and moved on. It was the army way.
During his 1st Platoon’s operations on April 8, Lieutenant Hunt believed that he was close to finding the Viet Cong, and he warned Black and the headquarters group to be on alert, but nothing happened. The next morning, the platoon had just moved out when the point man for the day, Kirby Spain, a country boy from Arkansas, reported back that he saw something that might be a Viet Cong camp. Hunt ordered two squads of the platoon to spread out and move toward the camp with caution and told Black to stick by his side. When Spain made his way across the berm, he reported the disheartening news that everyone expected. The camp was recently deserted, and the VC had gotten away. Approaching the middle of the tiny base, Spain peered into the cooking pot and noticed that it contained rice that was still boiling and thought to himself, “Christ, we spent the night 50 yards away from the VC!” Hunt then ordered the platoon to surround the small 40-foot wide camp and to conduct a thorough search of the area as he informed battalion headquarters of the situation. It seemed to be a very routine find, just a couple of ramshackle cots and a cooking fire. Nothing new, nothing special. His men all knew how to handle it. Still Hunt yelled out a reminder, “Be on the lookout for booby traps. They could be anywhere!”
After about thirty minutes of futile searching, Hunt was ready to call for the platoon to pick up and move out when there was a muffled THUMP about forty yards away – the telltale report of a booby trap. Hunt blurted out, “Holy God, what was that?” He quickly formed up his platoon to get a head count. Everyone was there. What the hell could it have been; it was so close. Could it be the VC coming back for a fight? Not knowing what he would find, Hunt grabbed five of his men and slipped out into thick of the mangrove to investigate. As they closed in on the source of the explosion, Hunt caught sight of movement in the undergrowth and heard a man moaning. That explained it. A Viet Cong had made his way back to the 1st Platoon perimeter and had been planting a booby trap when it had gone off. Realizing that the VC might have planted more than one mine, Hunt warned his men to watch for more booby traps. Hunt then looked to his right just in time to see a tripwire tighten around the leg of Danny Bailey. In surrealistic slow motion Hunt watched in amazement as the grenade went off, hitting him first with an intense blast of sulfuric heat before peppering his left leg with red hot fragments.
Danny Bailey was a country boy from east Tennessee who had never before been far from his rural home. Gangly and “not much on book learning” Danny had often been a step behind his peers during training, something that had made him the butt of many jokes and pranks. Soon it had become clear to the men of Charlie Company, though, that Danny was the most genuinely good guy in the whole unit. He was always cheerful, wearing a perpetual bemused grin, and, though he often took his time, was the hardest worker of the bunch. And once he finished his task, he would go straight into helping others finish theirs. Once he had shaken off the cobwebs and realized that his injured leg could take his weight, Hunt hobbled over to check on the wounded. He first came across Kirby Spain, who had taken fragments in his arm and back, perilously close to his spine. Spain assured Hunt that he was ok and could walk. Hunt then made his way over to Bailey. The blast had laid Danny’s left leg open to the bone from the thigh nearly to the ankle, a wound so ghastly that Hunt couldn’t help staring for a few moments. When he looked closer, Hunt noticed that Bailey’s steel helmet, which was dangling from his pistol belt, was riddled with shrapnel holes; it had taken much of the blow. Had Danny not decided to strap his helmet to his belt that day, in strictly un-regulation fashion, the grenade would have blown his groin to bits and likely killed him. Hunt leaned close to ask the boy how he was, and Danny, seemingly oblivious to the pain, responded in a normal voice, “I’m sure sorry sir. I heard what you said about booby traps, but right then I felt something tug. I looked down and it went off. You know, it damn near blowed my ass off.”
As the dust and smoke from the blast settled, Hunt and Clarence Shires, who had not been wounded by the booby trap, continued toward the source of the moaning. As they parted the foliage, Hunt was initially stopped short at what he saw. “Jesus Christ, it’s Duffy Black!” Somehow during the confusion created by the platoon’s search of the enemy base camp, Black had wandered off into the mangrove alone. There he lay, with fragment wounds in his extremities and a gaping hole at the base of his neck. Given the nature of the wound pattern, Hunt thought to himself, “Oh no. Duffy found a booby trap and tried to disarm it himself, and the damn thing went off in his hands.” Field veterans could disarm these rudimentary booby traps with ease, but this was Black’s first time out with the unit. Shires knelt by Black’s side. He was still breathing, and making horrible gurgling sounds. Shires told Black to hang in there, help was coming. For a few moments Black seized up, and Shires gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until Doc Maibach arrived on the scene.
Maibach did what he could to make Black comfortable, and applied dressings to the worst of his many wounds, but his training had taught him that Black had little hope. The shrapnel that had torn the hole in his neck had travelled upward into his brain. After checking the wounds of Hunt and Spain, Maibach then went to work on Danny Bailey. He just had to save that leg. As he was using the last of his supply of field dressings to staunch the heavy bleeding, Maibach looked up in response to someone calling his name. John Young had been farther away with his squad on the bank of a small stream when he had heard the explosions. Fearing that the other two squads of 1st Platoon had been badly hurt, Young ordered his men to stay in place and rushed to the scene. After greeting Maibach, Young asked Bailey what had happened. He replied, “Black had done set off a booby trap, and when I went to help him, I set one off too.” Young then asked Maibach where Black was. The medic responded, “He’s over there, but don’t go look.” Young knew Maibach meant that Black was dying, but he had to go and look. Black was one of his friends. He had just talked to him earlier that morning. He couldn’t not go look. The sight would stay with Young for the rest of his life. Black was lying there gasping for life. In agony. Young had to look away.
Wounded, but still in command of the situation, Hunt ordered that a Landing Zone (LZ) be cut into the swamp and called for an emergency dustoff. Men flew into a frenzy of chopping with their machetes to cut a hole in the undergrowth big enough for a helicopter to land. With the going difficult, an engineer wrapped detcord, a flexible cord filled with explosive, around the base of several small trees, the explosion creating an LZ just big enough for the purpose. The chopper thundered in, spewing water and mud in every direction, and the men placed Black and Bailey on board, while Hunt and Spain were able to climb in under their own power. The helicopter rose out of sight, and just like that, the wounded were gone.
[After several surgeries, the army surgeons declared there was nothing more they could do to save Lt. Duffy’s life.]
You have been in my thoughts and prayers so very much during these past few weeks. Duffy’s death has brought you more sorrow and grief than you have ever known in your life. No one else grieves his death more than you; no one’s heart breaks like yours. Yet you are not alone in your sufferings.
Duffy was popular with his men. He himself had been among their enlisted ranks and knew their needs, their problems. He understood them. He worked hard for their welfare, nothing was too good for Charlie Company. . . . So you understand why you weren’t alone in sorrowing your husband’s death. In a sense, he was married to Charlie Company; his death was their death. . . .
Now you are alone. A young woman approaching her twenties; you have loved a man for 3 months and now you are a widow. Duffy is dead; these facts you cannot reverse. But you have not loved and lost. True love never loses. When we give ourselves to another the way you did to your husband, it cannot be evaluated as a defeat. In the brief life you had together you gave Duffy more love than he had ever known. You brought him more joy and happiness than he imagined possible from one woman. . . . Yes, you, more than anyone else, must know that in a little span of history you gave your husband a life-time.
You are young, Ida, you have a life before you. God has blessed you with beauty, personality and charm. Time will heal the heartache. . . . In God’s own time and way He will again bring to life within you the gifts you need to live and love.
In Christian Love,