Last week, in my continued struggle to find the instance when my father received shrapnel during Vietnam, I researched a man from my family’s past, the platoon’s lieutenant, Jim Lanning. He turned out to be a graduate of Texas A&M who retired from the Army as a Lieutenant Colonel. He also once served as a reverend for a congregation, Redwood Baptist Church in San Marcos, Texas, inclusive of Latinos and African Americans—one of their tenants is “Christ for all people.” Their other tenant is “Choose life over death.”
I dialed a phone number last Tuesday. I was not sure it was correct. But it was Jim Lanning. It was the first time I had heard the voice of a soldier who had served with my father. Lanning said my father was an honorable man. He said it was no wonder my father had problems with PTSD after what he went through—of the soldiers Lanning commanded performing the same duties as my father, over one year, Lanning estimated maybe two men would have survived.
This is what I wrote in my first Garden Road after my father died last year:
“The funeral was Oct. 29, exactly 50 years past the morning after my father’s worst experience in Vietnam, a battle recounted in a small newspaper clipping back home—around 60 American soldiers versus 180 NVA. It means the war is over. A poetic ending.”
It turns out my word alone was not enough to describe that battle. Jim Lanning’s younger brother, Michael Lee Lanning, also fought in Vietnam. Michael is a well-known author, having provided his expertise on NPR, The History Channel and CBS. The younger Lanning has published at least 22 nonfiction books, including one testifying to his 10-year battle with cancer. When I asked Jim Lanning whether he and his family had experienced the side effects of Agent Orange, the answer was an emphatic yes.
When I asked Jim Lanning if he knew my father’s best friend in Vietnam, Glen Young from Brodhead, Wis., who was killed sometime in the night of Oct. 28 and Oct. 29, Lanning said he told the story of that battle in one of his brother’s books.
Exactly 50 years before my father’s funeral, on Hill 292 in the central highlands of Vietnam, at 10:37 p.m. on Oct. 28, 1966, a Husky medevac chopper was shot down. I know the exact time, now, because I found it in S.LA. Marshall’s book ‘West to Cambodia’—the battle has been described by at least three authors. I am one of those writers, speaking for my father in my poem that appeared in ‘War, Literature & the Arts,’ the official literary magazine of the Air Force. Marshall is the second. The third is testimony of Jim Lanning in his brother’s book ‘Texas Aggies in Vietnam.’
“The battle continued with our calling in more than thirteen hundred artillery rounds to break the enemy attack,” Jim Lanning described the intensity of that night in his brother’s book. “Despite the ongoing fight, DUSTOFFs arrived to remove our wounded while still under fire. This included an Air Force medical evacuation helicopter that arrived to extract wounded with a cable/basket lift through the sixty-foot canopy. This ordeal of evacuating the most seriously [wounded] was complicated as we were now operating in the dark….
“In that instant we heard an RPG fired and saw it strike the vulnerable bird…. Still fighting the enemy, we listened to the screams of the men burning to their deaths.”
Seventeen years before I read Lanning’s passage, based on my father’s account, I described it this way in “Commandment,” the poem that appeared in the Air Force’s literary magazine: “… the chopper was shot down. / Men, in spinning metal lit like a Christmas tree, / screamed until the night calmed them. I could do nothing but listen and watch. / Then the NVA poured it on the rest of my men / illumined in this strange light. / By dawn the Air Force dropped napalm on the bastards. / With my own hands I wrapped bodies and burnt remains / in ponchos for lack of body bags.”
“The heaviest outgoing fire was in the 2nd platoon area where firing continued for approximately twenty minutes,” Marshall wrote in ‘West to Cambodia.’ “Because of the ferocity of the enemy attack, the deafening roar of both friendly and enemy weapons, and the difficulty of movement because of the heavy incoming fire, it took that long to slow down the rate of fire….
“The enemy had used fire and movement effectively. Also, [the enemy] had use of stealth in some cases to crawl to positions very close to the friendly perimeter. In these instances, men armed with shotguns proved to be extremely effective.”
One of those soldiers as described by Marshall was my father. He carried a Savage 12-gauge. As I wrote in Garden Road after my father’s death:
“He was a talented warrior, good with his weapon and a map—a first lieutenant from Texas tried to talk him into staying for a second tour in Vietnam.”
Marshall described a third view of the chopper fire, which my father relived every day of his life for the next 50 years.
“At approximately [10:37 p.m.], just as the three wounded had been loaded aboard the aircraft, a rocket was fired from southeast of the perimeter causing the helicopter to crash inside the perimeter,” Marshall wrote. “The ship was burning as it came down. The three wounded men were killed either by the rocket or the crash itself. The pilot and copilot were both injured, however, the men of Company C were able to chop into the aircraft and get them out before the fuel caught fire. The mechanic was pinned inside the wreckage. Although numerous attempts were made to get him out by cutting into the ship, finally the fuel ignited and the ship was engulfed in flames before he could be saved. This incident raised the Army KIA total to five.
“From the time the medevac helicopter crashed until [6:30 a.m., Oct. 29, 1966] the following morning when sweeps were sent out, there were movements of individuals detected around the perimeter…. The individuals moving about were engaged to prevent them from policing the battlefield and artillery fire was brought in continuously for the same purpose.”
According to Marshall’s book, the battle began at 6:45 p.m. It ended at 6:30 a.m. the next morning—almost 12 hours straight of combat. It is no wonder my father ran out of shotgun shells. He said he then crawled across enemy lines to grab an AK-47 from an NVA dead to keep fighting.
On Jim Lanning’s church’s website, they summarize their second tenant of survival with a quote from the Gospel of John: “I have come to tell you these things so that you can have peace. In this world you will have trouble, but do not fear, I have overcome the world.”