The Death of Sergeant Cohen
by: Hank Ortega, PA/C
(© Copyright, 1998)
We had been operating in the area of Veghel just prior to finally actually going up the hill to take it. Several days before, Cohen and one other sergeant had written me up for the Silver Star, and had given me a pretty bad good natured teasing about it. I was feeling somewhat self conscious about the whole thing, but these guys had put me pretty much at ease and were reassuring me that the near future would go well as long as I kept my eyes open and paid attention to what the soldiers around me were doing. They had seen by now that when I went on patrol with squad elements, that I liked to get involved with the actual work we were doing, from running the radio, to taking part in the firefights. Unless someone got hit, (in a well run ambush, none of ours should get hit) I could add my fire into the fight just like the rest of the guys.
April 21, 1968 we had moved up to a group of bomb craters,where we knew there were some enemy soldiers. About a platoon or so had been spotted by helicopters the day before. The two radio men and I as well as the platoon sergeant, Sgt. Hearne, were set up as the CP in the bottom of one of the craters. The area was on the side of a hill, with Armijo, and his slack man down on our left, facing into a flat area with a few trees. The LT was off to our right with some guys that had a law rocket that was supposed to signal our attack on the enemy. We had seen them from a distance and had stalked to their position.
We also had Makuta on M-60 and Sergeant Cohen and Makuta’s AG just over the lip of the crater behind a small berm, about 25 feet from us. As the LT called us and the Artillery started to shoot for effect from behind us, I lifted my head over the edge of the crater on the enemy side of the attack and opened fire when the signal was given.
The rocket hit next to a tall tree that was part of a small cluster of trees at the edge of a large green open valley. Return fire came from several areas around it, and I fired a couple of rounds down into the area that Cohen was marking with tracers for the machine gunner.
Off to the left over the brow of the hill I could hear Armijo and his buddies shouting to each other about targets and hits, kind of keeping a verbal score of enemy soldiers that they had dusted. The fire gong in and out was pretty brisk, and I thought we had stirred up a hornets nest when I heard the radio saying that the resistance was a little stiffer than expected.
Suddenly out of the corner of my eye I say something fly up, and turning my head I saw Cohen’s boonie hat still in the air. It flew a few feet and landed next to Makuta. Cohen’s head was down, and his rifle kept firing slowly into the ground as I watched more enemy rounds hit the ground around the machine gunner and Cohen. I looked up in the air and could see tracers raining down from a high angle rather than from the positions directly below us. I realized that some one was firing from a hill nearby, and using high angle fire rather than true aiming. The hit on Cohen had been just a lucky hit. Lucky for the gook, unlucky for Cohen.
Makuta began to call me, saying “Medic, Medic” in a real tight voice like he was talking between gritted teeth. He kept firing down into the enemy position and never let off. I crawled out as quickly as I could, and tried to pull the rifle from Cohen’s grip. His hand was like a vise and his finger kept pulling the trigger. The rounds from the hill kept coming in on us, but were missing by a few feet. Some one began to yell that Cohen had been hit.
Finally I got the magazine out of the rifle and Cohen shot it dry on the next pull.
Someone had come to help me, and got the rifle out of his hand. I looked at Cohen’s head, and saw that he had been hit a glancing blow on the right rear of his head. There was no exit wound, so I figured either he’d just gotten the edge of his skull lifted off, which wouldn’t be too bad, or the bullet had entered his head, and bounced around in there, which would be deadly. There was also the possibility that it had gone down into his neck or other areas, again with mortal results.
I decided that I had to get to a safer area, and out of the view of whoever was hosing us down before he got some help and more enemy started doing the same thing.
I grabbed Cohen’s shirt collar, and began pulling him carefully on his front toward the bomb crater to my back.
I had made a few feet in progress, when I saw another soldier come running up from his position. He dodged a few rounds as they landed, and then dove for where I was pulling Cohen. I don’t remember who this soldier was, possibly Willie Green. I know he was just trying to help me get out of the beaten zone of the indirect fire, so I could get to work on Cohen.
He grabbed Cohen by the chest and hugged him close, then began rolling together with Cohen’s limp form toward the crater. I cried out and reached for them both, saying “No, no, no, no!”
I had been trying to move Cohen carefully but when this soldier grabbed Cohen and began rolling I saw that really it was pretty futile to do so, since great gobbets of brain began falling out of his head. I realized that if his brain was intact, it would have stayed in his skull even with a hole in it. The bullet had pretty much chewed up his brain and I knew that my friend and leader was finished.
I rose and walked disconsolately toward the crater, unmindful of the continued fire around me, and slid to the bottom of the crater where Cohen and the other soldier had come to rest. Fluery, Wiley, Green and Sergeant Hearne were all sitting there looking at me.
Hearne said “Do something, Doc.”
I knelt next to Cohen and touched his head and said a prayer for his soul. Then I started an IV line, inserted an airway, and put a dressing on his head. He breathed a few more times then stopped.
I looked at the others and said “So what do you want me to do, put his brains back in?”
I pointed up at the side of the bomb crater, where my friends brains left an intermittent trail and at Green’s shirt, where about a cup of brains were smeared. I sat next to Cohen’s still form and stared at the ground, holding his hand. I felt the last few pulses as they feebly beat their last.
We lost too many good men there for no good reason. I have carried the memory of this man’s death and the small part of his life that I shared for over 30 years. I honor him for the good leader that he was.