My Year in Vietnam by Patrick M. Bieneman 11B

Posted on December 20, 2017

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I was assigned to Charlie Troop 1st Squadron 9th Cavalry Regiment 1st Cavalry Division (Air Mobile) in April 1968. I have often wondered why I don’t remember more of my time in Vietnam. I only remember maybe 10-15 days. Some have said it is God’s way of protecting me from bad memories. I’ll take that as the best answer and live by it. I have talked to many of the men I served with and they will say don’t you remember this or that? All I can say is no. They will show me pictures but that still doesn’t help.

I served with the Greatest Men America had. My Platoon Leader was 1LT Peter G. Guthrie. He was a man that we all looked up to. He was a big strong man. He also used his brain when it came to missions and did everything he could to make sure that we would be successful and safe. It didn’t always work out as planned because we were fighting against an enemy who wanted to kill us. Let me be perfectly clear. Under 1LT Guthrie we never had one of our Troopers Killed In Action. We had several wounded casualties and some of them were serious but we all came home. I do not know of a Trooper who would not follow LT Guthrie today. He is one of my Heroes.

SP/4 Robert Fellin was one of our M-79 Grenadier. An M-79 was as sawed off grenade launcher. He was a hardened veteran by the time I got there. He and I became friends quickly. You will read about a mission he and I went on later. He wasn’t an eager beaver to get shot but you knew when the fire fight started he would be there doing his job and making sure he had your back. Bob is also one of my Heroes.

SP/4 Jerry Duckworth was the Platoon Radio Telephone Operator or RTO for short. This meant he carried a PRC-25 radio on his back. He would be in contact with the helicopters above and with the Squad Leaders on the ground. I became an RTO and Jerry made sure I knew how to do my job correctly. He, SP/4 Fellin and I were all Door Gunners when we were not out on a mission with the Blues (infantry platoon). Jerry was always calm under fire. Jerry is one of my Heroes.

Along with my arrival into C Troop 1/9th Cavalry came the beginning of the Instant NCO’s. These were men who the Army, through testing, decided would make good Squad Leaders. In our case they were right. We teased these guys when they first got to C Troop. The ones that went through schooling in the summer we called “Shake and Bake” and those who went through school in the winter time “Whip and Chill”. These Troopers all performed above what was expected of them. We all had respect for these men. We did not have any who wanted to be Heroes at our expense,

Utter respect was given to Sergeant Phil Merritt, Sergeant Claude Singletary, Sergeant Edd Cyphers and Hannibal Blankenship. We had two sergeants with experience. Sergeant Crae Carpenter came from Delta Troop 1/9th Cav and SSG Artie Sanders who came to us with several years of leadership experience. Our Platoon Sergeant was SFC Ramon Guzman. Blue Mike as he was called had a lot of experience. A Platoon Sergeant does not have a lot to do when the Troops go to the field. The Platoon Leader runs the show out there.

We had two medics that I can remember. SP/4 Bennie Baker and SP/4 Percy Hipple. I remember going to the field more with Hipple. He was cool under fire. He and I got wounded the same day. You will read more about that later. Hippie as I called him was from Pennsylvania.

Missions up North

We started out at Camp Evans up in the High I Corps. From this base, we wandered out into the Ashau Valley. The Troop was already in the Ashau when I was first assigned to the unit. I remember the Ashau for a few reasons. It was my first field duty in a combat zone. The Platoon leader gave me and another new guy the option of carrying the PRC-25 Radio or the M-60 Machine Gun. I saw that PRC would fit real good on my back so I said that is what I’ll take. I carried that PRC-25 for 10+ months.

We walked up and down this mountain for three days because someone said they had found some communication wire leading up there. Finally on the third we found it and followed it to a cave complex. The complex was empty. That mountain was loaded with leeches. I had heard a lot of sti=ories about leeches crawling up inside soldiers penises and I decided that wasn’t going to happen to me. The Army issued us the insect repellant that killed a leech in a heart beat. I decided that I would spray that stuff all around the crouch of my trousers. Jerry lee Lewis titled the song right.

We also went up another mountain. Here we found a NVA Supply Depot. At one point we ran into brand new Russian SKS rifles still wrapped in muslin. Everyone said, “You better grab one Bieneman” I said no. If we found one in my first two weeks in country we would surely find another one. We never did.

We also went up on top of (I believe it was called) Monkey Mountain. The Air Force had dropped a 10,000 pound bomb on top. It was called a Daisy Cutter. This type of bomb exploded above the ground. We were sent in with Delta Troop to investigate. It had been reported that the NVA had been seen transporting POWs across this hilltop. All we found was a training area and a lot of leeches. The Monsoons hit just after we were dropped off. We had C-Rats for three days. On the fifth day we went around digging up the cans we didn’t like and buried.

On the sixth day, 1LT James Ungaro flew his little loach bird at tree top level from the bottom to the top of that hill. In it all he had was C-Rations, batteries for our radios and some water. LT Ungaro could not see where he was flying very well so he used the tree tops and our radio communications as guides. When he got above us the skies opened and as he left they once again closed. I believe it was the 10th day that we started walking down the hill as visibility was still quite bad. One the way down SP/4 Maddox came walking back towards me making a PFFT sounds as he walked. As he got closer, I saw a leech trying to get into his mouth. Each time it raised head Maddox would blow it backwards. I got rid of it with just a drop of insect repellant.

We were called out on a mission because while scouting out an area, one of our helicopters came under fire. We were inserted into the area and started to move into the village from where the small arms fire had come. Before we could get into the village, we heard small arms fire from another location. Once again one of our choppers was being fire at. We were redirected to this area. Upon our arrival there, the Scout Pilot told us that some Viet Cong (VC) jumped down a hole after taking some shots at them. We moved over to the area of the hole and had our interpreter try to get them men the give up. They refused. We threw a few grenades on top of the hole cover. They didn’t bother us anymore. Then one of the pilots said they saw a VC jump into the small river (large creek) and directed us to that location. One of our NCO’s (SGT Cyphers I think) jumped into the waters and started walking along the bank while feeling underneath the bank. Finally he said I have him. He pulled hard to dislocate the VC from under the bank and tossed “Her” up on shore. Yes, it was a young woman with an AK-47 rifle still slung over her shoulder who had jumped into the river. She had pulled herself under the bank and drown herself. When we rolled her over she had her eyes wide open. When I looked into her eyes it was if she was saying to me, “Why me”. Those eyes still haunt me to today.

Once again we were called out on a mission. Six Long Range Recon Patrol (LRRPs) members had been scouting enemy movement when they had to call for air support. An attack helicopter unit was dispatched to help them. They had received enemy small arms fire from an unknown size force. One of their own was dead. One rocket from the gunships went erratic and hit in the trees above the men spraying them with shrapnel. All of the men were seriously wounded and could not help themselves.

I was sitting on the right side of the helicopter behind the M60 Machine gun. I was tapped on the shoulder and asked if I wanted to repel down. I asked “is anyone else was down already.” I was told,”Yes, Fellin is on the ground”. That was SP/4 Robert Fellin. Bob was our M79 Grenadier. I said is anyone else going and I just got a blank look. I said yes I’d go. I moved over to the left side of the chopper and asked if anyone had the proper equipment (D Ring, Swiss Seat and Gloves) to repel. I was told no. I was combat loaded. I carried the PRC 25 radio, 50 rounds of M60 ammo, 4 fragmentation grenades, 8 smoke grenades, M-16 rifle and 22 magazines of M-16 ammo. I took and stepped out onto the skid. I wrapped the rope around my hands and stepped off. I held on until the pain in my hands made me let go. Luckily for me, the trees were very thick and I bounced and slithered down to the ground. Both of my hands were skinless. Sp4 Fellin who had a pair of thin flight gloves on but wasn’t faring any better. We assessed the situation and called for a Medevac with a jungle penetrator. That is a three prong metal seat attached to a cable which would be lowered and raised by a hoist to and from the helicopter.

We loaded each man, one at a time, onto the seat and sent him up. To do this, we would slide our arms either around the legs or under the armpits and by using the crook in our elbows we’d lift the man up and move him to the Jungle Perpetrator and then hook him up. Once all five wounded were on the helicopter, it took off and returned to the Evacuation Hospital.l

While we were preparing the last man Sp/4 Thomas Sprinkle   and all of the equipment and weapons for extraction we paid close attention to the movement around us. We decided not to engage anything unless they came directly at us. We did not know how many there may be. When the helicopter returned we sent SP/4 Thomas T. Sprinkle (the Killed In Action (KIA)) up to the helicopter. Next we loaded all of their equipment and sent it up. After we sent the last of the equipment up, Bob Fellin told me to go up next. I did. All I could think of as I was going up on that slow turning piece of equipment was that VC were down there somewhere in that jungle taking aim at me and there wasn’t anything I could do. It seemed that Charlie was too close by for Bob to go up on the slow penetrator. A rope was dropped down to Bob and he tied it around himself and then the helicopter took off pulling Bob out of harms ways with him dangling below the helicopter. It was only after the helicopter had cleared the area way that I finally felt the fear that should have been there the whole time.

For almost two weeks I had both of my hands completely bandages. To take a shower, I would have to put plastic bags over the bandages and secure them with rubber bands. To use the latrine I had to use almost a roll of TP every time. For some reason, no one wanted to give me a helping hand. Finally, the Troop sent me to China Beach for a three day in-country R&R. I took the bandages off when I got there and the salt air did it’s job.

40 years later when Bob and I met again for the first time, Bob told me how bad I had sprained my ankle when I hit the ground. Bob had a photo in his photo album that showed Bob was the one with the badly sprained ankle. It is funny how time alters ones recollections.

On September 20, 1968, I was awarded the Army Commendation Medal with the “V” device for Valor. The citation reads:  SP/4 Bieneman distinguished himself by heroism in action on 20 September 1968, while serving as a Radio-Telephone Operator with Troop C, 1st Squadron 9th Cavalry during a rescue mission near Quang Tri, Republic of Vietnam. When a helicopter  was downed by enemy fire, Specialist Bieneman leaped from a hovering helicopter and moved exploding ordnance and hostile fire in search of the crewmembers. Through his heroic actions the crew was found and safely evacuated.

The Move Down South

In October of ‘68 we moved down to Phouc Vihn. It was north of Saigon. This base had been used by the French when they were in Vietnam. Our sleeping areas were good. We had concrete flooring with wooden slat walls and metal roofs. Our missions became more recon than the Blocking missions and Search and Destroy we were use to. We also flew air support when the Air Force was in the area dropping bombs in case a jet got shot down we could get the pilot out.

On December 29, 1968 another helicopter was shot down. Once again the Blues were scrambled to secure the site and extract the crew. As we drew closer to the site, we were told that the helicopter caught fire and that there weren’t any survivors.

When we got there the chopper was still in flames and there were bodies encircled by the flames. We had to put out the fire before we could get to the bodies. First we called up to all choppers in the area to send down their fire extinguisher. We used them up and then we poured our canteens onto the flames. Finally we peed on the flames so we could get to the bodies.The bodies were burnt beyond recognition. Those damnable Black Body bags were sent down to us. It was only when we reached the second body that we found out who had been in the chopper. As we got to the 2nd body one of the Troopers saw a Dog Tag in the middle of his chest. It said Kingman, Barry. Now we knew they were our fellow Charlie Troopers, 1LT Barry Kingman, SP/4 Ronald Roberts and SSG Victor Austin The night before we had eaten steak and drank a beer with them. We did what we had to do to put these Brave Troopers into those bags. We made sure they were sent home for proper burial with Full Military Honors bestowed on Our Fallen Brothers.

February 19, 1969

We had a MACV photographer with us for four days and nothing happened. The day he was due to leave, we (the Blues) were called out on a mission. As we approached the area, we were told that an undetermined enemy force had been spotted moving around heading towards a firebase up ahead.

We circled for a few moments as the artillery was still pounding the area. Once on the ground, we married up with Alpha Company 2/7th Cav. The helicopters were still firing their mini-guns as we approached the area. We were told that a few NVA were still moving around. As we moved forward, Sgt Blankenship saw an NVA soldier trying to crawl over a log. He fired at him and hit a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) that was strapped to his back. I was hit in the leg with a small piece of shrapnel. Doc (a fond name for our medic) Hipple came up to bandage my leg. The Platoon Leader, 1LT Charles M. Downs from 2/57th Cav came up to see how bad it was.

While this was going on, an NVA soldier was about 25 meters out in front of us shaking a small tree. Word came down from the Colonel above us to get him to Chu Hoi (surrender). I asked the Colonel to keep an eye out for any enemy movement. He said there wasn’t any. About five minutes later the enemy soldier who had been shaking the tree yelled out (I take liberty with my spelling) “Do Mammy Chu Hoi” (which means you can do something with my mother but I’m not giving up) and with that all hell broke loose. It seems that while we were trying to get him to give up, his friends were setting up a Horse Shoe Ambush around us. That means they had trapped us on three sides.

They were firing at us fast and furious. They used their RPG’s as anti-personnel weapons by firing them into the tree thereby showering us with shrapnel and splinters from the trees. One RPG round landed just out in front of me and Doc Hipple and blew us backwards into a tree. I had a piece of shrapnel go through my left ear and into the back of my neck.

Doc Hipple had been shot in the head. Luckily for him it was more of a glancing blow than a direct hit. It cracked his skull but did not enter. Doc was losing a lot of blood and was going into shock. Blue Mike had tried to play John Wayne and sneak up on our tree shaker and was shot many times up and down the left side of his body. LT Downs from 2/7th Cav was killed instantly.

Orders were given to pull back to the Pick up Zone (PZ). Sergeants Singletary and McCann grabbed Blue Mike and carried him back to the PZ. LT Guthrie grabbed the LT from 2/7th Cav and slung him over his shoulder and ran back to the PZ. That left Doc Hipple and me. I had been cussing out the Colonel in that small chopper above us because when all hell broke loose I could hardly hear him. I looked up and he was probably 1000 ft or higher. I pulled the handset away from my ear and seen that it was covered in blood. I switched it to the other ear. Just about then, Cavalier Red who was the leader of our Cobra Platoon came on and told me to shut up and listen to him. He said he would get us out of there. I was to start moving towards the PZ and pop a smoke grenade every so often and he would have the Red Platoon light up the area behind us and off to both sides with rockets and mini gun fire. Doc and I were the last two to leave the area. Red and his team did a great job and kept us protected.

1LT Guthrie was treated for injuries and returned to duty. Blue Mike, SFC Ramon Guzman, was sent to Camp Zama, Japan because he was in such bad shape. Doc and I went to the Evac hospital at Long Bien. While there, I went to see an ear doctor about the shrapnel wound to my left ear. He looked inside the ear canal and said I had two pieces of shrapnel inside. He took the first one out without any trouble. When he tried to used the vacuum apparatus to remove the last piece, I came up out of the chair. After he looked back inside he saw that what he thought was a piece of shrapnel was really just a piece of skin that the first piece had cut and pushed back and he was trying to rip it out. After a week or so we were sent to Vung Tau rehab hospital. I left after a week and went back to Charlie Troop. Doc was sent to Cam Rahn Bay to another rehab hospital where he almost got killed by a sapper attack. A sapper is a man who carries satchel charges and blows things up. He threw one into the building where Doc was sleeping.

The Platoon leader from 2/7th Cav had a daughter born the day before he died. He was told he didn’t have to go out that day but he said if his men were going out he was going with them. His men abandoned him on the field. LT Guthrie made sure he got home.

I saw Blue Mike (SFC Guzman) 8 years later. He was a First Sergeant then and getting ready to retire in six months. I caught up with Doc 38 years later and with LT Guthrie a few years after that.

In 1979, I had shrapnel removed from both of my eyes. I have one small piece of shrapnel floating in my left hand somewhere. Every once in a while it shows up.

I have a photograph that the MACV photographer (SP/4 Steine) took that day. It is a reminder of the battle but it is also a reminder that we all made it home.

The day I was leaving Phouc Vihn was exciting. I was on the C130 waiting for take off when I noticed the Pilot, Co-pilot and Crew chiefs unassing the plane. I pushed down on the two guys on either side of me and jumped up and ran off the plane. Charlie was saying good-bye to me. He was firing rockets at us. Luckily none of them hit the run way so we were able to leave.

While In Vietnam I was awarded the following:

Combat Infantryman Badge
Soldiers Medal
Purple Heart
Army Commendation Medal with a “V” Device
Air Medal
Vietnam Campaign Medal
Vietnam Service Medal
I had been awarded the Bronze Star Medal with the “V” Device. When I was going up for SFC E-7 I realized that I was awarded the Bronze Star Medal and the Soldiers Medal for the same thing. I requested that the Bronze Star Medal be taken away since the Soldiers medal was awarded first. The Army Agreed.

Being a member of Charlie Troop 1st of the 9th Cavalry then and now (other than being married and having a son) is the one thing that I am most proud of. My Cav family brings me great joy.

Good memories of Vietnam:

The men I served with
Cook Outs
R&R

Worst Memory of Vietnam:

December 29, 1968

Best memory of Vietnam:

Leaving and going home

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