04 June 2009

THE BRAVEST MAN I EVER KNEW

The afternoon of 26 May was rainy. I was detailed to take out the afternoon reconnaissance patrol. We assembled at about 4:00 pm and prepared to leave our lines. Just as I ordered the point to move out, Sergeant Levi came running up.

“You need to hold up, Lieutenant. We have a little situation.” This is never a good thing to hear.

He led me back to where we had established the platoon command post. Sitting there was Lance Corporal Barry Unfried. “Unfried says he ain’t going out!”

What the hell? Unfried was one of my most dependable Marines. “What’s going on here, Unfried,” I asked?

“I’m not going, Sir. I been having dreams. I’m pinned down on Go Noi and I can’t move, ‘cause if I do, I know I’m going to die.”

In TBS, one series of classes we had was on leadership situations. The Army had a series of WWII training films that would depict some serious leadership situation. After the portrayal, the question “WHAT NOW, LIEUTENANT?” came up on the screen in huge letters. This felt like one of those moments.

Suddenly, Doc came over, felt Unfried’s forehead, and said, “He’s got a slight fever. Better leave him here, Sir.” Doc was 19 and good at his job!

“OK. Stay right here and we’ll talk when I get back.”

The Gunny came over to see what was going on. I gave him a quick run down, told him there was no need to bother the Skipper with this, and headed on out on patrol. The patrol lasted two uneventful, sodden hours.

When we got back, Sergeant Levi (who had been my Platoon Sergeant for three months), the new Platoon Sergeant, the Gunny, Doc, Corporal Brown, Unfried’s Squad Leader, and I sat down to talk with Unfried. His shoulders were hunched and his head was down. The Gunny started off.
“While you were out, I talked to Unfried, Lieutenant, and I think he is OK. I told him that all of us get the shakes once in awhile, but that everything usually turns out just fine. I think everything is OK and there is no need to go to the Skipper with this. Right, Unfried?”

Unfried nodded. “Fine,” I said. “We’ll just write this off as a head cold. Report back to your squad.”

After he left, I asked Brown, Doc, the Platoon Sergeant, and the Gunny to keep an eye on the situation. I pulled Brown over and told him to tell Lance Corporal Tonkin to take over as Fire Team Leader of Unfried’s fire team.

The rain continued all night, and we were all soaked. It stopped at dawn, just in time for my patrol that led to Phipps’s death that afternoon. It started to rain again at dusk, meaning that it would be another uncomfortable night. At about 9:00 pm, the Skipper called the Platoon Commanders over and briefed us on the night’s plans. Third platoon was to leave the lines at 0530 and move northeast about 3500 meters to a small rise. When there, we would establish a blocking position. At 0545, the rest of the Company would move about two clicks south and then west. At first light, the Company would sweep northeast, driving any bad guys toward my position. It is a tactic known as the “hammer and anvil.”

I returned to my CP and briefed the squad leaders. I then sat huddled in my poncho, with cold water running down my back, waiting to move out. As I checked lines through the night, I noticed that Unfried was awake all night.

We formed up at about 0520. As we were doing so, Corporal Brown came up. “It’s Unfried, Sir. He says he ain’t going!”

Damn! “Get him over here.” Brown was back with Unfried in less than a minute.

“Look,” I said. In 20 minutes, there isn’t going to be anyone left in this position. You have no choice—you are going with us.”

“I can’t. I’m gonna die.”

What now, Lieutenant?

“Damn it, that’s not an option. You walk with me and we’ll sort this out in daylight. Get your gear and get back over here.” He ran off and was back in another minute.

We moved off in a column, with about 5 meters between men. Unfried walked next to me. We moved slowly through the fog and dark, reaching the objective at about 0730. I sent a fire team forward to check out the objective, which was unoccupied. It was a small round grass-covered hill about 30 feet high. We moved up and the Platoon Sergeant, the squad leaders and I began to organize the position. I told Unfried to stay with the platoon CP. He sat down with his arms wrapped around his knees, head down.

I had moved about 20 meters when one of my experienced Marines grabbed me. “Be careful, Lieutenant. This damned hill is covered with dud cofram rounds!”

The cofram was an “improved conventional munition.” Loaded in bombs and artillery rounds, it was a small round high explosive device that was designed to take out troops in the open. The round explosive was seated in a small metal “V”-shaped housing that has spring-loaded wings on each side of the V. When the shell case came apart, the “bomblets” were released. The wings deployed, so as to keep the bomblet oriented toward the ground. When they hit the ground, a small explosive charge shot the rounds about 5 meters into the air where they exploded, raining shrapnel down on anything or anyone under it. It is a great anti-personnel weapon.

The problem was that many times the round hit at an angle, or in grass, or simply did not go off when it hit the ground. What you then had was a field littered with very sensitive small munitions.

As I turned to pass the word to take care, there was an explosion to my left. There were immediate cries of “Corpsman, Corpsman,” and I could hear someone screaming.

I moved toward the explosion. Passing through the CP, I saw Ace Cziejhocki, who was acting as my radio operator that morning, already calling for a medevac. His face and left arm were peppered with small shrapnel wounds and the arm was obviously broken. I yelled for a Corpsman, but Ace looked at me and said “I’m OK, Sir. Let Doc take care of the guys who are really hurt.” He then continued to call for the medevac. I told him I would send a corpsman as soon as I could and grabbed the machinegun squad leader and told him to patch Ace up and keep an eye on him. They both responded “Aye, aye, Sir.”

Where, dear Lord, do we find men such as these? They are indeed Your most magnificent creation.

The screaming continued on my left, and I moved toward it. Doc was working on the casualty. It was a FNG (a new guy) named Posey who had joined us only a day or so before. He had been shuffling through the grass and apparently kicked a dud which exploded, blowing off part of his foot. Doc had put on a tourniquet, bound up the stump with a battle dressing, and given him a shot of morphine. Lance Corporal Bob Henson, the Platoon Guide,had four Marines ready to carry him to the medevac in a poncho.

The Platoon Sergeant was down with a wound near his carotid artery. Someone had put a battle dressing on the wound. He tried to get up, but I told him to stay put. I told a Marine to find Levi and tell him he was the Platoon Sergeant again.

I yelled back for a status on the medevac and was told it was 15 minutes or less out. Someone came over and told me that the machinegun squad leader had told him to take over as my radio operator.

Suddenly, Corporal Brown yelled out, “Doc, we need you here. Unfried’s down.”

I dashed over. Unfried was on his back. Doc checked him, rolled him over, and found a small wound at the nape of his neck. His flak jacket had several pieces of shrapnel stuck in it. Apparently, a piece of shrapnel had passed above his flak jacket collar and beneath the bottom edge of his helmet.

When Doc checked his pupils, one was dilated completely open and the other was closed to a pin point. “Not good, Goddammit,” Doc muttered.

The radio operator handed me the hand set and said “The medevac bird wants a zone brief.”

I told the pilot where we were and asked him to land in the paddy to our southwest. Bob Henson now had Unfried and Posey on ponchos to be carried onto the bird and other Marines ready to help Ace and the Platoon Sergeant to the bird. Doc was still working on the wounded.

As soon as the bird landed, we loaded the four casualties and it started to lift out of the zone. Then it settled back onto the ground. I was furious. I grabbed the crew chief who was standing at the foot of the ramp.

“What the hell are you doing? At least one of those Marines is an emergency medevac with a serious head wound!”

“Sorry, Sir. There’s another casualty coming.”

About thirty seconds later, two Vietnamese came through a tree line about 150 meters to our front. They were carrying someone in a parachute silk stretcher. Two Marines from Charlie Two were ambling along, slowly herding the gooks toward the chopper.

I lost it. I started to run toward them, and realized that other Charlie Three Marines were with me. I knocked the lead gook to the ground and the other one stumbled. One of my Marines cold cocked one of the Charlie Two Marines, screaming about "what dumb [universal adjective] held up an emergency medevac for a [universal adjective] gook?"

The other Marine started to raise his rifle. I heard Levi say “Ah, ah, now.” He pointed up the hill where one of my machine gunners had sighted in on the little party. Emotions were running high. Everyone took a breath and reconsidered their options.

Two of my Marines picked up the parachute silk and raced toward the medevac bird, bouncing the gook along the ground. The crew chief had already raised the ramp to level, prepared to take off. My Marines swung the “stretcher” like a sack of potatoes to toss it on the bird, but the body hit the edge of the ramp. On the second swing, the body flew into the chopper and it took off, headed for Danang.

When the Company was rejoined, I had a little conversation with Dick Wood, reminding him to tell his Marines that an emergency medevac meant that a Marine was in serious condition and there ought be no delays.

Lance Corporal Barry Lon Unfried, USMC, died on 2 June 1969, having never regained consciousness. He was 19 and is the bravest man I have ever known. His name is on Panel 23W, Line 49.

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