By: john harrison
A Combat Medic’s Badge is a very special, a very rare award. There is only one way to earn it, be a combat medic in a firefight. I never earned one. I had been a rifle platoon leader. While that was another position that also had a short life expectancy, combat medics and their badges are special for more than that.
I took a brand new medic to the field one day about halfway through my tour. Like platoon leaders, medics rarely spent more than about six months in the field. If they were not badly wounded or killed during that six months, they were rotated back to another job in the rear. The platoon’s previous medic had just rotated back.
It was not that much of a firefight that day, just sort of a long-range rifle/machine-gun duel across a huge rice paddy out side of Phan Thiet on the coast of the South China Sea. The new medic earned his Combat Medic’s Badge on his first day in the field. He did his job as a medic, and I did mine as a platoon leader, but partly because he was pushing me all the way.
The VC were in a copse of trees around a stream bed across several large, dry, rice paddies from where we were. Unfortunately, we were out in the open, right in the middle of all those dry rice paddies. The rice paddy dikes we were behind were good cover from their bullets, but we were not going anywhere until we could knock out their machine-guns. So, we traded bullets while I tried to work something out.
The area on the bottom of the picture shows the dry rice paddies near Phan Thiet city shown on top of the picture. The blue is the Ca Ty River flowing into the South China Sea. If you look closely at the rice paddies you can see lots of small round white circles, most of these are bomb craters. Except for the 8 inch guns, the artillery craters are too small to see. Photo by Jerry Berry, 3/506th PIO.
I was waiting for the FAC (Forward Air Controller) to show up because I never sent a man where a bomb could go first. Until that happened we were trying to keep the enemy pinned down in their position. Find ‘em, fix ‘em, get the United States Air Force to blow them up was my tactical ideal for a good firefight.
We had one guy wounded already and I was arranging a Dust Off (Medical evacuation) for him as well. However, because of the heavy enemy fire and our wide-open position in the middle of all those rice paddies, we needed the air strike from the FAC before the Dust Off chopper could safely come in. Just the usual helicopter gun ships accompanying the Dust Off would not be enough firepower. There were too many VC and they had too many machine-guns in those trees by the creek bed for us to even move on the ground, much less get a Dust Off chopper safely in and out.
I had the radio handset to my ear trying to arrange the air strike and the Dust Off when I felt someone tugging on my arm. It was my brand new medic, his first day in the field, his first casualty and he looked worried. I took the handset down from my ear.
“He won’t let me bandage him Sir.”
“What?” I said.
“He won’t let me near him.”
“What?” I said.
“He won’t let me touch him. He says he’s going to shoot me.”
“His gun’s broken.” I said.
“That’s what he says.” replied the medic.
I looked over at the wounded soldier. He was lying on his stomach behind the same rice paddy dike I was behind. His pants were pulled down to his knees, his shirt was pulled up, his naked butt was sticking up and there was a little blood, not much, bubbling out of his ass and dribbling on the ground. I already knew that he had been shot right in the asshole, right in his anus. No exterior wound that the medic could see, really hard to bandage but, a perfect bull’s eye.
I had his M-79 grenade launcher on my lap with the round stuck in the barrel that he had been leaning over, trying to clear, when he got shot. He had fired the weapon but the 40 mm, high explosive grenade, round was defective. It got stuck in the barrel when he fired.
“He’s bleeding internally Sir. We’ve got to get pressure on the wound.”
“What’s the stick for?” I asked.
He was holding a short stick in his hand. Bullets cracked, buzzed and slashed overhead constantly.
“I was using it to apply pressure to the bandage. It’s all I could think of.”
“They’re moving Sir. Over there.” My RTO (Radio Telephone Operator) Hal Dobie said and pointed.
I blew on my whistle; pointed to Edwards, an M-60 machine-gunner, and with Ed Blanco his assistant one of the best M-60 machine-gun teams in the business. Then, all I had to do was point at his new targets and the steady, sustained fire of his M-60 machine-gun stopped that movement cold.
“We have to stop the bleeding Sir.”
“Alpha 2-6, this is Jack Sprat. What do you have, over?” the radio handset squawked loudly from my lap.
I was “Alpha 2-6” or the Second Platoon leader of Alpha Company. “Jack Sprat” was the radio call sign of our FAC.
“This is 2-6. We have gooks in the open. I think about a big squad or a platoon. I am popping smoke.” I pulled the pin and tossed a smoke canister in front of me on the other side of the dike.
“Jack Sprat. I identify purple smoke 2-6.”
“2-6, roger, purple smoke Jack Sprat. Do you see the tree line, 270° about 300-350 meters from my smoke, over?”
“Roger, I have Phantoms inbound, ETA 5-6 minutes. I’ll let you know what they have on board when I find out, over.” (ETA, Estimated Time of Arrival)
“Keep an eye on their back door please. I don’t want them to leave this party, over.”
“Roger, 2-6. Jack Sprat out.”
“Sir, he’s bleeding.”
“He’s bleeding. We need to stop the bleeding. We have to get pressure on the wound.”
He was still holding the stick and he had a bloody, OD, green, bandage in his other hand. Staying below the top of the dike, I crawled over to the troop lying on his stomach.
“Shot in the ass.” I said to him.
He smiled and nodded. His pupils were dilated from the morphine, but he was awake, alert.
“Well, let’s see what’s happening.”
And I leaned over and pulled his cheeks apart to look at his asshole. The medic was right. I couldn’t see anything except a small stream of blood bubbling out of his anus. But, the whole area was turning purple. Even I knew that meant he was bleeding internally.
“Sir, Jack Sprat.” And the radio handset was shoved in my face.
“This is 2-6, over.” I said.
“This is Jack Sprat. You want it all in those trees, right? Over?”
“2-6, Trees are good and then maybe strafe the whole creek bed with 20 mike mike, over?”
“Roger that, a flight of Phantoms is almost on station, we will start with napalm, then they each have a couple of 500 lbs. slicks and then finish with the 20 mike mike. I’ll mark them with smoke first, over.”
“Roger, good to go. 2-6 out.”
The translation is that the two F-4 Phantoms, still coming up fast on afterburners, were going to drop two napalm bombs each, follow that with two 500 pound slick, or unguided, bombs each and then strafe the resulting mess with their Vulcan 20 mm cannons. The FAC was going to mark the enemy position with smoke rockets from his spotter plane as soon as the Phantom jets arrived. He would let the jet jockeys have a look at their target and then send them in. It was going to be beautiful, at least from our perspective.
“He’s not going to jam that stick up my ass again Sir.”
“We’ve got to stop the bleeding.” I said.
“They’re moving again L-T!”
“God damn it!”
I blew my whistle again, this time to get every bodies’ attention. Just like in the Superbowl, no matter how noisy it gets, you can always hear a whistle. Unlike a radio, a whistle always worked, and never needed new batteries. I liked whistles. The Army gave me a dark green one which I had attached to my shirt.
“Fire!” I yelled and the whole platoon opened up.
“Dobie, give me that roll of electrician’s tape.” I said to my RTO Hal Dobie.
“Here, stick your butt up in the air.” I said to the trooper.
I blew my whistle again just before the Phantoms roared in, one after the other, a little above tree top level.
“Cease fire!” I yelled. “Get down. Everybody get down! Air strike coming in.”
Then, I grabbed the roll of tape from Dobie.
“Here push his cheeks together really hard. Like this. . .”
“Get the fuck away from me!” the troop yelled at the medic as he moved over to push.
“Shut up! We need to do this. No stick this time, but this will probably hurt. Get ready.”
“Jesus. I am glad I’m not in those trees.” Said Hal Dobie my RTO as the two strikes of napalm bombs flared off in the copse of trees.
One of the napalm bombs skipped and flared further down the creek bed. But three napalm bombs had really torched that little copse of trees. The Phantom jets circled for another pass.
As the medic pushed the troop’s butt cheeks together I pulled a long strip of black plastic electrician’s tape from the roll and taped his cheeks closed. We continued to do that, pulling each strip of tape as tight as we could from hip to hip, completely covering the crack of his ass with overlapping strips of black plastic tape, putting pressure on the wound to stop the bleeding inside or, at least to slow the bleeding down. The one inch wide, black plastic tape was sticking good to his skin, but, to keep it tight we made five or six passes with the tape all the way around his body as the medic held the troop’s genitals out of the way. The kid groaned a few times, but he held steady for us as we taped him up.
I heard some metal pounding on metal after the second pass, the second set of two 500 lbs. bombs going off. I looked over a couple of feet away from where I had been sitting to see my new platoon sergeant, Manfred Fellman, pounding away with his entrenching tool. He had the handle of one entrenching tool jammed down the barrel of the M-79 and he was pounding on it with another entrenching tool trying to drive the stuck shell out of the barrel.
I was actually glad to leave Sergeant Fellman with the wounded troop, the medic, and that dud 40 mm M-79 round, while I took the rest of platoon forward to clear the copse of trees after the Phantoms left. When we finished that I called in the Dust Off and then we moved on down the creek bed since we found nothing useful in what little was left of the copse of trees, no bodies, no body parts, no blood trails, no weapons, nothing except three Ho Chi Minh sandals and a brand new, folded up, plastic, VC poncho. At least one of the sandals had some blood on it though.
Just another day at the Infantry office for me and my new medic is the way I remember it. He did his job, and I did mine. In combat you do what you need to do. Those 40 mm grenade shells have a casualty-producing radius of 15 meters, so we were all right in the middle of that radius if the dud had gone off while Sergeant Fellman was pounding on it. However, we needed that M-79, so Sergeant Fellman had pounded the dud shell out. Then, he fired the M-79 to make sure it worked.
We needed to stop the bleeding, so we taped the trooper’s butt shut. I knew my RTO Hal Dobie had the electrician’s tape; the medic did not know that. You work together; you find a way to do what needs to be done; then you do it; rank does not matter; only results matter. That night, after we had set up an ambush position on a nearby trail the medic came over.
“He’s going to be all right, L-T. Doc Lovy says he was lucky.” Dr. Andrew Lovy was our battalion surgeon.
“Good.” I said and stuffed some C-Ration white bread smeared with some jam in my mouth. You can’t eat hot food, even C-Rations, on an ambush. You can’t eat canned white, C-Ration bread without something on it.
“How are his balls?” I asked.
“Doc says he thinks they will be fine. The bullet went in his ass, hit his pelvis, turned and went down his right leg next to the bone. Other than his first, and probably second, dump being a bear, there shouldn’t be a problem.”
“He might have stabbed you. I don’t think he would have shot you. You never know though, he did still have his .45. I forgot about his .45. Sorry.” I said.
Most M-79 gunners carried a .45 caliber automatic pistol, the venerable John Browning designed Colt, Model 1911, for when it was too close to fire their M-79. It had been sitting right next to him with his K-Bar fighting knife and the rest of his gear. The pistol was probably loaded, cocked and locked since it is not much use to an infantryman any other way.
Now the platoon would trust him, maybe even when he had crazy ideas about the use of sticks, because he saved lives. He was a combat medic. I gave him the rest of my can of jam. I already knew he liked it. I hated that jam, but a little of it did make the white bread edible. He ate it with his index finger, right out of the can.
“Doc Lovy said the electrician’s tape was a great idea. Doc said the pressure of the tape and the blood expander I gave him probably kept him alive. Kind of hard on his pubic hair though when they pulled all that tape off.” He said.
And, we both crossed our legs.