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by: Hank Ortega, PA/C
(© Copyright, 1998)
The day we took this hill (April 19-21, 1968) it was thoroughly and thickly forested. Triple canopy towered overhead, and the rains misted and swept the forest. Many of our guys took rounds that day, as well as the men from the 502 and our own “B” company. That night I stacked the dead near my position wrapped in ponchos. They were piled between two small trees and piled up about 10 across the bottom and 4 or 5 high.
As I sat there in my hooch, by myself, drinking my last cup of hot chocolate, I could hear the blood dripping from each poncho, down onto the next one below, and so forth. It pooled at the bottom and joined with the rain to make a small stream of blood past my hooch. I watched it’s progress there in the gathering night, and mourned my friends as they lay near me. I had not had enough time yet to learn the name of many of these men. I felt however a kinship with all of them.
The next day (April 23, 1968) we made ready to carry the wounded and dead out to the landing zone that had been cut in the woods, below the crest some 500 meters down slope. A squad had gone ahead at first light to prep the LZ, and a platoon gathered inside the perimeter to carry the wounded on litters and by assisting the walking wounded. I went down ahead of the group carrying the men down slope, at the direction of the Senior Aid Man Doc Gary Laduha. I followed a trail that was well beaten and made my way past a huge tree that had fallen up slope, lying next to the trail. At the foot of the tree, was a huge root ball, the earth mounded up and the roots sticking up into the air. I stood at the crest of the mound holding onto the roots, and looked back along the length of the tree up trail back to where I had just come from. I could just barely hear the platoon coming down the trail a couple of hundred meters behind me. The trunk of the fallen tree was like a wall, some 6 feet high at the upper end, where it disappeared into the forest, and over 10 feet thick at the base.
I turned and dropped off the mound and started again to head down the trail toward the landing zone. It grew still around me. Even the bugs were quiet.
Suddenly I was scared out of my wits when I disturbed a brightly colored jungle chicken, that ran off squawking and flapping. I sat on the round and caught my breath. I began to think that I was being a bit foolish to walk by myself down this trail where the day before we had fought so violently. I turned to go back up the trail to meet the team at the fallen giant tree that I had passed about a hundred yards back.
In just a few minutes I heard a loud explosion and a storm of AK and m- 16 fire. Grenades began exploding and the rifle fire began to rise and fall. I ran up the trail as fast as I could and threw myself to the ground in the shelter of the root section of the fallen tree. The fire storm was just trailing off, and I raised my head, pointing my rifle over the berm of dirt, into the kill zone along the side of the tree. I saw a final few muzzle flashes come from across the clearing and poured a magazine load into the brush. I heard some cries of pain, and could hear the breaking of brush as the last of the enemy broke contact. Some friendly fire came from the other end of the tree, where uninjured Americans were engaging the enemy and driving them off. I turned my attention to the column of men that had been ambushed, expecting the worst and finding it.
My eyes fell first upon SFC Don Dian, an older man who had come out to the field just the day before, to provide some leadership for the badly hit unit. He had new tiger stripes, and patches sewn all over his hat. He had been leading the column down the trail, instead of using a point and slack man to check security.
He lay on his back. His eyes were bugged out with his hands clawed at his throat. His throat was torn away in a ragged mess. He lay frozen in position where he had fallen, his eyes cast upward, and looking straight at me as I peeked over the top of the mound that half covered the root section of the massive tree.
Beyond SFC Dian lay other men, scattered along the length of the tree. My impression was that these men looked like targets in a shooting gallery, lying against the side of the tree, the clearing off to my left, the tree line from where the enemy had fired about 50 feet away.
I began to crawl over the to enter the kill zone, shouting to the men at the other end of the tree to cover me and not to shoot at me. Somebody hollered back to go ahead, and I began checking the wounded and dead.
I found many dead that had before only been wounded. I found men who were only helping the wounded down the hill, now dead or wounded. I discovered one man, who had been wounded the day before, laying under the body of the man who had been carrying him, against the bottom edge of the tree trunk.
He was scared, and had been hit again. I patched him up and moved on down the line. There I found Gary Laduha, my senior aid man, dead. There was a huge hole in his head at the right rear. The front of him seemed completely unharmed. He lay there with his eyes closed looking for all the world like he was sleeping and would wake at any second.
I looked up at the tree trunk above where he lay, and saw a huge gouge taken out of the tree. The tail of a b-40 rocket lay next to his body. The wounded man that I had just patched up said to me that he had seen the rocket hit the tree next to Doc Laduha’s head and had seen him drop. I shook my head and squatted next to Gary’s body. My vision blurred for a moment. I had to shake this feeling off, because others were still in need of care. In what seemed like just a few minutes I had worked my way up to the far end of the tree, to where the forest again closed down into thick cover. There were 3 or 4 soldiers, helping a fallen soldier. His pants torn away, his body covered in blood. Several of the men held him, one knelt at his head, holding the man on his lap.
The others where facing outward, providing security.
The men cried out to me to help him. The stricken trooper called my name and kept saying “My balls, My balls!” His groin was a mess, his testicles shot away, one lay on his leg, still connected to his body by the chord.
I gathered the tissues together and covered them with a dressing. After tying the dressing down, I gave him a shot of morphine, filled out a tag, and told the guys to get him and the other man down the trail to the LZ, since the Evac was still going to take place. I figured the enemy was gone and the others concurred. They made their way down slope again, now moving more carefully, rifles waving around as they moved toward the LZ. They met the LZ team at the base of the tree, and the LZ medic took over for me as I continued to check the dead and wounded there in the kill zone. More people moved into the area, and I let the other medics take over, while I went back to the CP to gather my thoughts.
That afternoon I was told by the other medics that I had just become the Senior Aid Man. I had been in the field just about a month.