Reluctantly filling the forward observer role after the previous FO was killed in action, all Allerton farmer Wes Selby needed was a shotgun, grenades and a cigarette in the field during Vietnam. Photo by Jim Phillips
ALLERTON NATIVE AND FARMER WES SELBY RETURNS IN SPIRIT AND ON VOICE RECORDER TO HIS PLATOON IN TENNESSEE
In Knoxville, Tenn., on a cold, windy, rainy night in early May, Vietnam veteran Jim Phillips waits in the airport for a familiar face to appear in baggage pickup. It has been 50 years since he has seen that man illuminated by gunfire or a cigarette lighter.
But since his war buddy died of cancer the previous October, I stand in for my father, Wes Selby.
Phillips referred to my mother and me as the guests of honor. He said I represented all of their children, which was an overwhelming idea. Like any gift or initiation, it would have been rude to say no.
Despite his absence, my father’s voice was still present, the result of an ill-timed interview I conducted with him just before Halloween of 2010. In 2017, he traveled across the country on an RCA voice recorder aboard a Delta jet.
“We were tight as ticks,” said Phillips, a Tennessee native. Afterward, as his wife Janet drove us to Pigeon Forge in the shadow of the Smoky Mountains, Phillips unbuckled his seatbelt to speak with my mother, Sherryl.
Phillips rotated into the field after the night of Oct. 28, 1966, when everything that could have gone wrong for Charlie Company did. The North Vietnamese Army shot down an Air Force Husky lifting out the wounded, and everyone on board burned to death.
After that, my father stopped making friends in Vietnam.
Though Phillips and my father might have been close, time fragmented the memory of stalking through elephant grass, chasing and being chased by the NVA, those warriors in sandals made from the rubber of old tires. The Americans called them Ho Chi Minh airborne boots.
In Phillips’ mind, the name of his buddy Selby eventually became Shelby.
In nightmares they still fight battles together.
“What’s so funny about it, I’m over here hollering his name, and she thinks I’m talking about a woman,” Phillips said of rousing his wife during those dreams. “I was hollering, ‘get down, Shelby, Shelby!’”
“Who’s Shelby?” Janet had asked in jealous anger about this other woman.
The Phillips’ were married two days before Jim entered the United State Army in 1966, after he was drafted.
THE WAY HOME
Phillips was a radiotelephone operator and forward observer. He carried a 25-pound backpack radio known as the PRC-25.
“Life expectancy is about 10 seconds,” Phillips said of RTOs and FOs. “We had to change roles at times because we were short men from wounded to KIAs. You’re behind the man they’re either going to shoot at, or they’re going to shoot at you.”
My father walked point and carried a Savage 12-gauge shotgun. After an FO got killed in action, he served in that capacity at the same time as Phillips. One evening, the NVA shot off his PRC-25’s antenna.
“He carried a double-ought buck,” Phillips said of my father. “There were only nine big pellets in a shotgun shell. And he could fire five times—I saw him knock an NVA plum out of his sandals. Boom-boom-boom. The guy was coming at us. He’d have got us if he hadn’t….”
Wayne County Hospital of Corydon EMT-B Tony Funk can testify to my father’s skill with a shotgun. Before my father passed of cancer, Funk described competing at skeet shoots with him.
“I’ve had the privilege of shooting with some of the top shots in the world,” Funk said. “Men who worked for Benelli and Federal.”
One of those marksmen was a quality control engineer at Federal Premium Ammunition in Anoka, Minn.
“The man could shoot, but he couldn’t keep up with your dad,” Funk told me. “Your dad’s shooting is literally one in ten million—one in a million doesn’t do it justice. If he would have gone on the professional trap circuit, instead of being a country boy who did the stuff we did—makes you wonder how far he would have gone as a trap shooter.
“Follow-the-leader—whoever starts out, calls what the shot is going to be—and I’d seen people shoot left-handed, with their off side. People who turn the gun sideways, which could be disconcerting if you’re shooting an auto-loader and you have a shell come flying past your face.
“But your dad’s the only guy I’ve ever seen who literally backed up to the trap house, until the roof of the trap house touched the back of his legs. He said pull. And when the trap clunked, he flipped over, landed on his back and broke the bird. Shooting laying on his back and the bird going away from him and broke it. Basically over his head.
“I don’t think I ever saw him lose a game of follow-the-leader. He didn’t pull that stunt right away, he played with us for a while,” Funk said, laughing. “He had a good sense of humor about it. He was incredible.”
On the car ride to Pigeon Forge, my mother questioned Phillips about one particular water buffalo at Christmastime.
“The one we shot?” Phillips asked of the 1966 holiday barbecue, along with various other monkeyshines. My father, Phillips and some other country boys helped butcher it. “We were known for that. We’d stay out like 80 or 90 days at a time. We were in those Central Highlands—it’s straight-up jungle.
“They hated Americans. We’d get out somewhere and we’d be bored walking through. They wore these old straw hats [non la’s]. We were awful. Mamasan would be out there plowing in that old rice, and pow! We’d fire a tracer and see how close we could get to the hat. We’d never hit her. She wouldn’t even duck—they were so used to that.”
By that point, war had already been raging in Vietnam for almost 20 years. America got to the party late.
A tribe of people Phillips and my father respected—and fought in defense of at times—were the Montagnards, also known as the Degar.
“They didn’t wear any clothes, the women didn’t,” Phillips said. “They had real neat villages. They could make the prettiest little hooches. They had some real good soldiers, but most of them wouldn’t leave their village. They’d fight you if you went into their village, but they were neutral.
“The Chief, he made us—it’s a custom in the village that you drank some of that rice wine they had. That’s the most awful stuff you’d ever want to taste.”
Early one morning, the NVA had marched through a Montagnard village and taken all of their young men. It was North Vietnam’s version of the draft.
“The NVA hadn’t been five minutes in front of us,” Phillips said. “And gotten all of the young men out of the village. We’d walked all night—I don’t know why we were out on the night march. We came in—it was foggy—I remember that just as clear as a bell. They were telling us of the people [the NVA] got.
“We were right behind them. We came into the village early that morning—it was still dark, because I remember the little fires burning.
“I saw a little boy—it just broke my heart. He got hit with napalm or something, his arms were burnt, and down under his legs. He had sat so long they had finally grown together. Scars….
“We hadn’t been five minutes. They heard us coming and ran. They were getting young recruits out of there, dragging them off.”
In my 2010 interview, my father continued the story:
“The NVA would come through and had taken all their men to carry supplies and stuff,” he said. “And we did catch up with them. We didn’t lose any of them either when we did that.”
“Who did you catch up with?” I asked.
“The NVA that had them,” my father said.
“So you engaged them in a firefight?” I asked. “And got the guys back?”
“Yeah,” he replied. “Jason, I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
I asked if he could describe it later, after Halloween.
“Wasn’t nothing to it,” he replied. “Caught up with them, kicked the [crap] out of them, and took them back.”
“The government had to pay for my education, finally,” Phillips said. “I didn’t have enough money to stay in [school] is how I ended up over there. I had to drop out to work.”
Like my father, Phillips was drafted out of a poor farm community, trained in the southern United States, and flown to Vietnam.
After the War, he earned a degree in industrial engineering, after beginning in wildlife management to become a park ranger.
“And ended up a preacher,” Phillips said. “After Vietnam, I’d had all the wildlife I wanted.”
At first, Phillips built bridges. After beginning his own business, he became a minister and left the company to his son. His daughter is an occupational therapist.
“It helps to talk,” Phillips said of struggling with memories of war and suffering.
The children in Phillips’ Sunday School do not understand the gravity of combat. Some war enthusiasts call the experience becoming battle-hardened, but perhaps a better term would be battle-deadened. Part of the soul dies while the body continues to live.
The chopper hit by an RPG on Oct. 28 provides a vivid example of this erosion.
“Then the husky was shot down and we plunged to despair with it,” Staff Sergeant Jesse Johnson is quoted as saying in S.L.A. Marshall’s ‘West to Cambodia.’ “I felt like a part of me had died.”
“All my younger kids at church want to know about it,” Phillips said. “See, they’re studying Vietnam now, and they want to know what kind of guns you had. It’s amazing to them.”
Phillips also coordinates a PTSD recovery group known as LZ Hope.
“These people with PTSD, there are triggers that set them off,” Phillips said. “Everything begins with a thought. You never rob a bank unless you think about it. Your mind is a train station of thoughts. The PTSD people, we take the bad train. You’re back in the jungle.
“You don’t have to be in war or Vietnam to have PTSD. It’s just there, and it rages out of control.”
Like my father, Vietnam alumni Bill Stoner carried a shotgun.
Almost 50 years ago to the day, on March 21, 1967, Phillips was in the same foxhole with Stoner when an RPG hit.
“They shot a chopper down on top of us,” Phillips said.
That was the end of Stoner’s first tour. He still has a bullet lodged in his torso.
Fifty years after almost dying together in a bunker, Phillips and Stoner get in a disagreement about faith, good works and religion in a Pigeon Forge Holiday Inn. I was in the hallway attempting to rewind my 2010 interview to the right spot. Therefore, after I return to the conference room, it is my father’s voice that interrupts the debate.
Phillips and Stoner each provide me one gift to take back to Iowa. Phillips offered a dollar bill meant to represent the nature of salvation. Grace is free. The weather was colder and rainier than expected, and Stoner gave me his jacket. When morning brought more unusually frigid weather for the South, I appreciated Stoner’s gift.
Stoner was born in Selma, Ala., in the poorest county in the state.
During the reunion, Stoner admitted to not being a big believer in PTSD. While this might seem akin to walking into an AA meeting and saying you do not believe in alcoholism, it must be placed in context—what Stoner saw throughout his career in intelligence was far worse than March 21 in the Central Highlands. For Stoner, the key to overcoming a traumatic situation is empathy and taking action.
After spending a year in and out of hospitals recovering from the wounds of March 21, after receiving a Purple Heart, Phillips went back for a second tour with the ARVN, the South Vietnamese Army.
“I speak French, and that put me automatically in a Vietnamese unit,” Stoner said. “I was a senior advisor. By then I’d made Captain. I was stationed down in a place called the Rung Sat Special Zone—this vast area with bomb craters—it’s denuded, there’s nothing there. You’re talking about Agent Orange—they flew a million Agent Orange missions over that area and B-52 strikes until there wasn’t any tomorrow.
My Vietnamese battalion was terrific. Come 1972—when everything else was falling apart, the country is being ruined—my division, the 18th ARVN, was the last holdout of the Vietnamese Army.
“The Division was killed—wiped out, but they fought to the last person.”
After returning to the United States and marrying the woman he met while recovering in a hospital in Hawaii, Stoner transferred to military intelligence.
“Karen and I had our ‘honeymoon’ in Monterery, Calif.,” Stoner said, “where we both undertook the long DLI Czech Language course, preparatory for a tour in Germany.”
Stoner considers his time in the mountains of the Deutschland learning to speak German as an extended honeymoon.
He later became fluent in Arabic with the State Department in North Africa.
“I ended up at the Pentagon working for some really great guys,” Stoner said. “A couple of Generals took a liking to me for whatever reason, Christ knows. Ended up seconded to the White House for a year.”
As a defense attaché in Yemen, Stoner witnessed a great deal of suffering as a matter of everyday life.
After leaving the Army, his career as a defense contractor led him several times through Iraq. He then spent two years in West Central Africa as the Regional Security Officer for UNICEF—more suffering and poverty.
“The bad stuff I really saw was out in the bush,” Stoner said. “You don’t know bodies, misery, poverty and hunger until you go to a camp in Africa that’s got a 100,000 people starving to death.”
Stoner’s path also took him to the site of former Yugoslavia’s ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims, where he stayed at a very different Holiday Inn than Pigeon Forge’s, built for the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics before the onset of civil war.
“My room was well-ventilated with small arms hits,” Stoner said. “I did not personally see mass graves, unless you consider the thousands of souls under the sod at the old Olympic Stadium area. I walked past it daily for a couple of months on the way to work downtown.”
“Each one of you has a journey,” Jim Lanning, a retired Baptist minister from San Marcos, Texas, said to Stoner and the rest of the survivors. “That journey has brought you to a lot of places. When we got back, the pain wasn’t over, either.”
Left to right, Jim Phillips, Jim Lanning and wife Judy. Phillips served alongside Wes Selby, while Lanning was their commanding officer.
At the table in a reserved room of the Holiday Inn, retired Lieutenant Colonel Lanning speaks slowly as if infinitely weary, and 50 years later he looks remotely like Tommy Lee Jones’ character from ‘No Country for Old Men.’
In one part of the room the terrain of Vietnam is spread on the floor and pieced together from yellowed maps.
Near the kitchenette, Lanning has filed his notes from the War, along with several nonfiction books written by his little brother and fellow veteran Michael Lee Lanning.
From the wreckage of the rescue chopper from Oct. 28, 1966, Jim Lanning pulled a notebook and used it from that day forward. Its binding is still scorched from the fire that killed at least five men on Hill 292. For my sake, Lanning has marked each instance of my father’s name with paperclips.
Lanning does not know to whom the notebook belonged. It was in the smoldering remains the next morning, and the Spirit moved him to keep it as a journal.
“That night, this thing got covered up with dirt,” Lanning said. “I was the guy with the shovel that made five different piles. Bones, and what was left over. I had each pile identified, but when we got back to the rear they mixed them, so they went back home unidentified.”
For myself, part of meeting this man, along with Phillips, Stoner and the others was to solve a few of the mysteries of my father’s service.
However, in some cases, it only added more questions.
“He went to school once, I don’t know what it was for.” Lanning read from the burnt notebook: “‘Sent Selby in for school.’”
My father was missing a week in November for training not even his platoon leader could explain, or had explained to him.
“Very seldom did anyone go in for school,” Lanning said. “It’s really a mystery. Maybe it was for sniper—I don’t know what it could’ve been.”
“He talked about being on hunter-killer teams,” I said.
“Well, maybe that might’ve been for kind of a secret… we didn’t really do much cryptic, secretive stuff.”
“Dad said it was Sergeant Pena, him and another guy that would go on the hunter-killer teams,” I said.
“I’m not surprised,” Lanning said. “Pena was a Puerto Rican.”
I asked Lanning why my father was in from the field for good in February of 1967. He had been given a choice between officially making sergeant by staying out, or coming back into base camp.
It might have been the choice between life and death—my father was not set to leave until April 8, and the battle of March 21 cost the United States over 50 casualties, including the hearing in one of Phillips’ ears and one of Stoner’s fingers.
“[Cpt. Ron] Rykowski was the commander,” Lanning said. “He may have been tasked to send somebody back to help with security, and he said, ‘who’s been out longer, and who’s been through more [crap] than anybody else?’ and that being [Selby]…. That’d be a conjecture on my part. But it was certainly for honorable reasons.”
“He seriously considered signing for another year,” I told Lanning.
“I wish he had,” Lanning said. “He could’ve saved us.”
“I followed him every step he took,” Phillips said of Lanning. “I was his RTO. He’s just a great guy. I’m going to tell you what he did. We got hit on March 21, we lost 22 men. We had about 30 wounded. We lost two helicopters. Four of them got killed on the chopper.
“Lanning was not our commanding officer. He was listening to us on the radio. He gets in the chopper, and they drop him and another guy off in the jungle. He walks to where we’re at. From that day, he became our commanding officer. That’s the kind of guy he is. Most people wouldn’t have come near us. But he knew a lot of the men.”
Just before Halloween of 2010, my father put a stop to my interview. It would be the last words my father spoke to the men of Charlie Company gathered in Pigeon Forge in 2017:
“I really don’t want to talk about it,” my father said. “I just get that crap out of my mind, and I don’t want to dig it all back up. I’m glad I had the experience, I wouldn’t take anything for it, but I sure the hell wouldn’t want anybody else to have to go through it. But as long as we got dumbass politicians….”
“We took one big hill I know five times, and then walked off and left it,” Phillips said. “It wasn’t a war that was lost, but a war that they quit. We never lost nothing.”
-- To be continued in the May 30, 2017 edition of the Corydon Times-Republican --