Survival on Birmingham
by Dan Clint
I believe it was only my bit longer experience in Vietnam that enabled my survival on Birmingham. I didn’t consciously hear the freight train of the bombs coming in, but I found myself bouncing from a prone position where I had already hit the dirt prior to the bombs. I don’t quite know how I accomplished that, but I know that I describe it as having turned my consciousness over to the war zone and was “one with the war”.
At that time, now, nearly 40 years ago, I don’t think Bill Hall could have been more than 20 feet away. I was just returning to the field from the hospital, two kinds of malaria and hepatitis. I had been a sick puppy but young enough to withstand it.
I was doing sandbag duty on Birmingham on the 4 deuce mortar pit while awaiting the next resupply to plant me back with the Tigers. I believe Bill said he was on the 4 deuce. I remember a tall Texan named Davis and one of the Tiger Force members named Richards, and Lt. Norris with his meerschaum pipe. Somewhere in my memory there is a Sergeant Sands and a Balbueno, and a sergeant Reed, a black, but I can’t remember where where Sands was, was he with A company?
As I remember it being told, after the body parts and bomb parts were kind of sorted out, there were 4 five hundred pound bombs that struck the mountain. Two deflected off of a granite face and the other two struck the dirt.
After the fact Erick Miller has expressed an authority on bombs, and indicated my proximity to this was in his imagination, impossible, but my memory is pretty strongly etched with this particular experience, at least as to the size and number of the bombs. Like I say, two of the bombs deflected off of a granite face sending shrapnel hurling down on guys in the saddle of the two hilltops. I believe Merrill was wounded at that time, a leg wound or something.
So, with those two bombs, men that were nearly a quarter of a mile away were getting limbs blown off which was a contrast to me, who was maybe 70 feet away and saved by the deflection.
The other two bombs, the ones that had struck and implanted in the earth before they blew, those were the ones that raised the dirt and rock and were responsible for the blinding fury of wild dust. Immediately after the explosion and while I was half bouncing I was low crawling toward the nearest shelter which happened to be the 1/2 sandbag wall I was helping construct. I was in the posture of complete asshole pucker confusion, BIG TIME.
From the cloud of dirt there began a hellish rain of rocks and boulders in very large quantities of all kinds and shapes, mixed with dirt, and there was a dearth of very large boulders that made brutal thuds when they were landing, much like ancient cannonballs of former wars. I actually crawled and took the bit of extra shelter under my M-16 that was propped against the wall, and as curious fate dictates these things, my M-16 actually succeeded in deflecting a large boulder, kept it from striking my head. I was religious at the time and I was praying “Please God, don’t let one of these things land on me.”
My M-16 survived the impact, but had a large white scar after that.
In the aftermath, those who have been in explosions like this, (this was my second, after the time I was blown down the mountain from the mine that killed Oakden and wounded me) there is a large dust cloud, and it takes a while for it to clear. It is a real dirt fog and it adds to the disorientation.
It was in the evening when Oakden was killed and the sun was beginning to set, and I remember looking at the redness of the sun through that dust fog, and I could see silhouettes of people working frantically, how albumin bottles appeared and were lifted aloft while they were trying to stop the bleeding on Diaz’s now, missing leg.
Then with greater clarity after the dust settles there is a layer of dirt and dust on everything and one hell of a lot of confusion, with people screaming for medics and others yelling in pain for assistance, those who could manage it, who had been hit. In the case of Birmingham some of the wounds were incredibly severe, and their voices had an echo, like they were coming from a pit, and most of them bleeding or in the process of dying. I heard their voices as kind of faint, perhaps it was a bit of deafness, so there was an eerie, kind of, post explosion silence that is not unlike the silence one experiences when your chute opens after jumping from a C-130. That long noisy drone of the troop carrier plane, prior to being released into the open air as a paratrooper. Perhaps it is just the flagrant contrast to big noise, maybe like leaving a rock concert with some heavy amps.
Somebody, a bit of a ways down the hill, found a piece of smoldering shrapnel. Initially after explosion we had been thrown into an initial and quickly organizing defensive posture sorting out order from chaos since our first thought was that this had to be some kind of very profound targeting of us by the N.V.A. and now an attack was probably imminent, but also the awareness that this was unknown, unusual and profound and represented a new kind of deadly rocket force with which we had previously been unfamiliar.
Of course, as Bill Hall describes it, at this point, he was mercifully unconscious, with a major head injury during this phase.
One of the guys, a black American soldier, found and held up a large hot piece of shrapnel, and read it out loud. It had the U.S. Nomenclature, and the identification of “U.S. Marines”. So it the investigation indicated quickly that this was a hum bug, An accident. A “friendly fire” incident, of which, by this time, and with my experience of 10 months in Vietnam, I had noticed that there were way too many of these incidents. (Like I have previously said, there were three separate occasions where my Tiger Force squad had been targeted by gunships, two of the times we weren’t just being machine gunned but they also engaged their rockets.)
It was a Marine on his return from a bombing run up north, and since we were in the Ashua Valley, he happened to be jettisoning his extra load, prior to returning to base. The odds. What were the odds?
On Birmingham, after the bombs hit, the two bunkers, the one for HHC Mortar CP and the other the larger bunker the Artillery CP were both completely gone. They had had maps on the walls, radio and telephone equipment in them, numerous people. These weren’t small bunkers, and when the bombs struck the ground in between the two bunkers, which were about 40 feet apart, the walls of both bunkers were shoved together and all of the men in both of the bunkers were now completely “buried alive”.
Bunker busters? You bet.
I was told the reason the two bombs didn’t detonate on the surface- and had they detonated then I wouldn’t be here to give this account, but the reason was that they were daisy cutters and had delayed fuses to hit the triple canopy of the jungle and then fall a bit before they blew, which would create a more profound killing radius in a jungle. Firebase Birmingham, at that time was still in the initial stages and there was, like with all of the firebases, a necessity for no trees.
As I have related before, Richards came up to me and asked if I saw that jeep flying over head. I said no. He pointed in the direction. After a while after things cleared up, Richards, I and a couple of others went on a patrol to see if we could find where he thought the jeep may have gone. We found it at the bottom of the mountain. The drivers flak jacket was captured in the bent seat frame, that had curled around and formed a c-clamp like shape. The driver of the jeep was one of the people missing and never found.
My immediate acknowledgment, after the dust had settled, and when the guys were screaming for shovels and yelling about the buried men, was as I grabbed the shovel and began running up the hill toward them I was passing body parts, some of them so small as to look like filet mignons.
I had already been through some pretty difficult times with the Tiger Force, and had lost a lot of friends in a short period of time during Operation Wheeler and for some reason, not quite fathomable to me, I- well, suffice it to say, I was gung- ho enough to not really want R&R nor pursue, but clearly after that, something had happened. It was just too big and strange and stupid and everything stopped making sense. A curious form of hopelessness pervaded.
They say the last thing that dies is hope. Well, my sense of hope took a premature leave.
I don’t know what people were seeing when they looked at me after that, perhaps it aged me, or perhaps it was the hospitalization, the lost weight from the illnesses that seemed to arise from my lowered resistance from my first wounding, but after that I seemed to be, well, different.
I read a while back where Fritz was postulating about PTSD being a form of fear. That hasn’t quite been the case for me. For me it is more a complete lack of survival fear on some level. I feel I have long been writing the procrastinators suicide note and demonstrating a toughness by hanging on.
I have my suicide planned and I have warned my wife that that is an edge I walk. She is a wonderful lady and without her, I admit, my life would have been vastly shortened. In essence her love, her kindness, her treatment of me, gives me reason to live. She is the primary one.
I have this indifference. I characterize it as a “grand” indifference. It isn’t just an ordinary indifference. I acknowledge my own strangeness. I was in a motorcycle accident two years ago. A fairly bad one. When the EMT’s got there I was up and about, in spite of broken ribs, collar bone, hip. I was using my good arm to rotate my broken arm and saying, “I think I’ve dislocated my shoulder” I hung my arm on the bar in the vehicle.
They took my blood pressure. It wasn’t that high. Checked my vitals. Wanted to cart me to the hospital, but I had already retrieved my cell phone and called my wife. She is the one that drove me to the Espanola Valley Hospital.
My clothes were barely hanging on and I was pretty bloody.
I can tell you that morphine in that situation was very pleasant at the time, when I got to the Espanola Valley hospital I was pretty shaky and in pain. For morphine, at this stage, yes, I would recommend it. It gets rid of the shakes and is very calming. My wife had some expression, “the angel of mercy” I think it was. At the time it certainly was that. A few day or so later however, I intensely dislike the disorienting nauseous quality of the morphine pain killer tablets dealt with the pain in private.
I remember interesting things about the motorcycle accident as well, such as; as I was sliding along the road, how I felt my skin being ground down, and how I acknowledged that too much of that kind of grinding had a threatening quality and a concern for the abrasive depth, so I consciously pushed off and rolled. I also remembered seeing the perspective of the sun as it reflected off of the surface of the black top road and found it dreamlike interesting to see the road from such a nearby and unusual perspective, up close and personal.
It is, like with the Firebase Birmingham bombs, that acknowledgment that the horror as with one’s imagination that it may happen, seems very intense, or then afterwards, acknowledging the depth of what happened, it is somehow worse upon reflection than the necessity one confronts when actually going through it. There are things, these kinds of things that most humans agree, there would be the inclination to avoid, but when forced, you knuckle under and pass through it.
As far as PTSD. I don’t know that I have it. Have never claimed to have it. I have had several psychiatrists tell me that I have it. Two out of three of them were very compassionate. They apparently deal with people’s minds and they recognize some aspect of mine that is different.
I have had friends that have observed changes in me as well. Those who knew me before Vietnam, and then knew me after. The friendships endured, but one friend, confided, that I had changed, he mentioned that I seemed nervous, shaky, like I was always alert. For me, it was perhaps for the novelty of a 500 pound bomb that could come falling out of the sky on a nice clear sunny day.
For me though, it wasn’t just the bombs. It was a pile on. It was trying to save lives and not being able to. It was the inability and the lack of time to process stuff, that having to pick up pieces and enter the next fray, jump on the next chopper drop in here, there, every LZ promising to be a hot one, and the guys… ah.
But as I describe this, I know this is my own personal Vietnam. Others had their levels of toughness, their saturation points, their strengths. We all had our own perceptions and limits.
So, Bill. On Firebase Birmingham, the numbers that we had put together with our rough accounting was 12 killed two missing in action (disappeared) and 35 wounded.
The amazing happy ending though, was that all of the guys in both of the bunkers were reborn from their premature graves. They all survived, thanks to the frantic digging efforts of the guys who could handle it.
When I talk about it – ah, you guys have to know, it is a bit difficult.
There is an interesting thing though. A bit of personal power. Since I am so indifferent, I have found that I can use that indifference to my advantage. I can walk when I am in pain. I can exercise for long periods and demonstrate an unusual stamina. That is just an interesting plus. Give up sugar? No problem. I can even give up food.
But, with every down side, I acknowledge there are plusses. As Kahlil Gibran says, “the deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain”.
In the meantime, somehow, you guys get me to talk about this stuff and somehow, it feels that you can probably relate to a bit of what I am saying, so thanks.