Saturday, November 14, 2009

Moment of Truth

At the Marines Corps reunion I attended last August in Philadelphia I was reminiscing with one of my great friends, Mike Newton. Wounded by an exploding mortar round the evening of July 7th 1968, Mike was med-evaced off Hill 689 by helicopter in the dead of night. Miraculously, today he is in fine shape with no lasting effects from his ordeal. One of the first things he said to me during our reunion was, "Remember that time you almost drowned in the Rao Quan River near Hill 558?" In a flash the chilling memory rushed back at me like it had happened yesterday. To this day I shake my head because having survived contact with enemy soldiers, mortars, grenades and bullets, the closest I came to dying was while taking a bath.

In June of 1968 I was a twenty-one year old Marine infantryman with only two months left before getting my flight date back to "the world". My unit, Charlie Company of the First Battalion First Marine Regiment, was occupying hill 558, about two miles from the Khe Sanh Valley in the northern part of South Vietnam. We had been there a month running daily patrols of platoon and company size. At night we ran squad sized patrols around the company perimeter. We had had no enemy contact for a month so we were allowed to relax a little during the days if our platoon was not on patrol. One day after descending a forty foot ravine bordering our position, we discovered a swiftly running river that widened into an idyllic pool of calm, clear water. As we scrubbed weeks worth of dirt off in the river's coolness, time stood still. I looked around and imagined myself only a year before on a family trip swimming with my brother in the Dosewalips River near Hood Canal, in the state of Washington. I laughed as some of the guys, Newton being one of them, scrambled bare-ass up the rocks, then leaped from a twenty foot high cliff, landing with cannonball explosions in the river. Although nagged relentlessly I didn't attempt any of the daredevil antics, saying "I'll stay down here and clean up the mess." I was a better than average swimmer and had developed a healthy respect for the water while learning to swim as a kid.

As I tread water in the peaceful stream I became curious about the loud roar that was coming from around a bend in the river a short distance away. I let the gentle current take me and I drifted to a large rock guarding the narrows. I slid my hands along the rock's surface and with my feet, felt carefully underneath the water for a foothold. Sliding to the edge of the rock, I stopped. The roar of the river was deafening. I braced myself and stretched around the corner of the rock. I knew immediately I had made a serious mistake. All I could see was foaming white water. I remember the mist covering my face like millions of tiny tears. I tried to pull myself back around the corner. I could not move. The river had me in it's grasp. Forcing myself to stay calm I gradually increased the pressure of my grip on the rock and pulled again. I still could not move. To this day I'm not sure why I didn't yell for help. Fifty feet away there were at least twenty strong and quick combat-ready Marines who could have banded together in seconds to get me out of my predicament. Maybe that was it. I was young, confident and fit and this was a situation I felt I could get myself out of. Or maybe I just didn't want to cry out like a wimp. Suddenly my feet slipped off the rock, my right hand followed immediately and I was jerked powerfully around the corner without a whimper. I found myself gripped in a brutal maelstrom of swirling, churning water.

Rocks flashed into my path and the rapids smashed me maliciously into them. I tried to grab on but was going too fast. I forced myself into a sitting position and was immediately slammed into a solid wall of boiling water. Just before being yanked under I took a gulp of air. In less that a second I was shoved into an underwater cavern. I was forced into a crouching position with gallons of water cascading down on me. I pushed myself to my feet. I could see the sunlight. It was a blur. I knew I had to get out of that hole! I reached up with both hands and grabbed onto a rock. Fueled by coursing adrenaline I pulled upward with all my strength. I did not move an inch. Images and thoughts ignited through my mind: "Nobody saw me go!" "I'll never see my mother and brother again!" "There's nothing I can do!" I almost gave up. The water was crashing down on me and I realized there was no way I would ever be able to pull myself out. All I had to do was breathe in and my troubles would be over. But a voice screamed into my brain. "No! Don't give up! Fight back!" I relaxed my body and let the torrent take me back down. I tucked myself into a ball trying to protect my head. The sunlight disappeared and I was driven into the darkness of my worst nightmares. My arms and legs ricocheted off the rocky tunnel. As I somersaulted out of control I was almost ready to black out. Light! It was coming at me fast! I shot out of the underground stream and into a raging pool gasping for breath and disoriented. My mind was devoid of everything but one thought, "Don't let the river take you down again! You won't survive this time!" The current pounded me against a jagged wall. I rebounded off it unable to maintain a grip. The river narrowed again and I realized that this was my last chance. Stroking desperately to guide myself, I used the river's power to catapult me out of the river and onto an outcropping of rocks. I held on. I vowed nothing was going to pull me down again.

I lay there teetering on the edge of consciousness then let the exhaustion take over. When I came to my right cheek was resting against the outcropping's rugged stone surface, my ragged breathing rendered silent by the thunderous sound of the rapids. My eyes began to focus. The first thing I could see was the smashed crystal of my watch. One hand was missing and the other was sticking up from the face, broken in half. Water dripped off my nose, running through my mustache. I licked my lips, savoring the coolness. I realized I was still alive. Elation and relief poured through me. I rolled over slowly and sat up, my body aching. I had abrasions on both knees and both elbows. Blood trickled in little rivers down my arms and legs. The toes on my left foot throbbed dully. The joy of surviving began to wear off. As I wobbled to my feet I started to shiver uncontrollably. I looked around and could see I was at the bottom of a small fissure cut out of the rock. I took a deep breath and began climbing. Reaching the top, I pulled myself out and began limping unsteadily over the rocks, back up the river. I slipped and fell a few times but was numb to any more pain. I just kept moving through the white noise of the river.

Finally I climbed over an enormous rock and into view of the other Marines. They had realized I was missing and were heading down the river to find me. They cupped their hands to their mouths and called to me but I couldn't hear them over the thunder of the roaring river. I gestured with both hands for them to stay where they were as I continued toward them. Exhausted, I collapsed next to my gear. I tried to stop the bleeding on my arms and legs but doc, our Navy corpsman, took over. My buddies gathered around me.

"What happened?" Newton exclaimed.
"I got sucked down the river," was my lame answer, feeling pretty stupid.
"Can you walk?" Newton asked.
"Sure," I said, "piece of cake."
Newton chuckled. "Come on let's get him dressed and up the hill, we're heading back."

That night I was unable to sleep in our underground bunker as the walls began closing in on me like the walls of the subterranean tunnel. In the morning my arms and legs were black and blue and further examination by our corpsman revealed I had broken the big and little toes on my left foot. The bruises would heal and there is no treatment for broken toes except time, so after a few days of rest I was getting around OK. A week later we did make contact with the enemy and I had few close calls, but none as close as the incident at the river. Since that day I've always had the feeling that if I could survive an encounter like that I could survive anything.