War Story: Haunting Promises

05 August 2007

Robert C. Reed & Vicki L. Andrews

U.S. Army, 5th Special Forces Group, Detachment B-43, Chi Lang Seven Moutains of the Delta, Vietnam – 25th February 1971. The mission of this 5th Special Forces Detachment was to train Cambodian battalions for redeployment in their home country.

Sergeants William Beall and John Duboise had the routine evening patrol. They took the 3rd Cambodian Battalion out to set up the night ambush as part of a combat training exercise. Beall and Duboise, along with their interpreter Puk, found a likely area facing a rice paddy dike, tree lines on both sides, and overlooking a cow path.

They set up a typical field of fire for a line ambush – the main body spread along the dike and the rear guard on the opposite side of the rice paddy. There was only one glitch in the routine – the rear guard lost radio contact with the main body not long after they set up the ambush. This being the case, they were forced to walk back and forth across the rice paddy to use the main group’s radio. It was just another ordinary night in the life of training the Cambodians in Vietnam.

The continual traffic back and forth across the paddy during the night became routine…so routine that when Sergeant Beall saw a group of soldiers coming up behind him he though it was the usual cast of characters, that is, until he saw Puk’s eyes widen in fear.

“Hey, what’s wrong? What’s going on?” he whispered to Puk. Puk replied incoherently and Beall turned to look for himself.

In one glance he saw that the “usual cast of characters” was actually a small column of Viet Cong clad in black pyjamas, humping brown knapsacks and carrying AK-47s. He knew immediately that the crap was about to hit the proverbial fan.

The VC also realised that they had gotten caught “half stepping”. Thinking they had walked into the kill zone of an ambush, they began to respond. The second line squatted down, forcing Beall to instinctively grab for his weapon. At the same time, Duboise, who had been drinking from his canteen, turned around to see what all the commotion was about. That was when the VC opened fire on full automatic and sprayed lead across Beall, Puk and Duboise.

Beall’s body was shaking and jerking from the impact of the rounds hitting him. Duboise was down and critically wounded, while Puk lay dying to one side. The Cambodian soldiers laying in ambush facing the wrong direction were thrown into utter chaos with their leaders down and on one around to tell them what to do. In spite of the seriousness of his wounds, Sergeant Beall struggled to the roadio and made a call for help.

The distress call was received by the duty NCO at the commo bunker. The camp was alerted and jerked into action, only to discover that there was no response to their appeal for air support. With nothing immediately available, the frustration wait began.

The wait was more than frustrating for Beall and Duboise lying wounded out in the rice paddy. Fortunately for them the VC had made good their escape during the confusion of the contact. As the two men lay there trying to keep each other going, they talked about the seriousness of their wounds and determined that …..“this was it – the end”. Duboise wished for a final chance to say things to his mum that he had put off in the past, and Beall wished desperately for a radio reply from Chi Lang.

Finally, two Marine Huey gunships answered the urgent request for help. Fully loaded with their usual complement of weaponry, the two aircraft touched down at the SF base. In order to perform the rescue the rocket pods and mini-guns had to be removed to reduce the weight of the payload and to make room for the wounded soldiers.

The crew chief, not really comfortable with this disarmament, was relieved when the M60s were left on board. Captain Purdy and myself, Sergeant Robert Reed, were standing by. Captain Purdy had volunteered to go in on the extraction of Beall and Duboise to use his expertise to assess command and control problems on the ground. I, as a 91B4S, Medical Specialist, was going along to evaluate and treat the medical conditions of the wounded. Before we left the camp commander gave us a specific order, “Do NOT stay on the ground”.

Back at the ambush site, the two wounded NCOs heard the crackle of the radio and realized that help was on the way. Their immediate thought was, “Well, at least our bodies will be extracted and sent back to the States”. Fortunately, they were able to retrieve and secure their hand-held strobe lights and manoeuvred them into position on their chests pointing skyward.

When we reached the site of the fire-fight the pilots were able to locate the flashing strobe lights to pinpoint the location of the wounded Americans. One of them turned to us and hollered, “Make the pick-up quick. Any sign of problems and we’re out of here!”

We could see the flashing beacons blinking brightly in the clear, dark night, but they were accompanied by trails of red tracer rounds intermittently piercing the gloom. The distress call had indicated “urgency” but there had been no mention of a “hot” LZ.

The two converted gunships landed approximately 150 metres from the spot where Duboise and Beall lay wounded. I leaped out and sprinted across the paddy heading for Duboise while Purdy made his way over to Beall. My adrenalin was pumping madly through my veins as I dashed through the darkness. I was carrying a 40-pound medical pack, a CAR-15, and a fully loaded BAR belt and harness system. I dropped to my knees at the side of Sergeant Duboise and quickly assessed his medical situation. The prognosis was not good. Shot through and through the abdomen with multiple rounds, it was difficult to establish the entry and exit wounds. The only thing I was sure of was that there were a lot of them. I had another problem to worry about. Duboise was significantly heavier than I was. With the difference in weight and the extent of the wounds in his abdomen, the only way I could carryhim back to the waiting helicopter was with a fireman’s carry.

Halfway to the chopper, my burden became almost impossible to handle. The pain was agonizing, but I knew that Duboise was suffering even more. I began to fear that the skittish Marine pilots would take off without us, which spurred me to move even faster. The sporadic gunfire continued to send rounds our way. I could occasionally hear them snapping past my head. They were so close I could taste and smell the gunpowder down the back of my throat.

Twenty metres from the helicopter my body began to give way. My legs failed me, and I fell to my knees with Duboise and the medical pack wrapped up in my arms. As I lay there gasping, two Cambodian soldiers – actually boys of 11 and 12 – appeared and assisted my in putting Duboise into the waiting Huey. Before the door was closed, the ship was airborne, following the chopper carrying Beall. Because of the chaos of the medevac and the frenzy on the ground, and loss of leadership, Captain Purdy elected to remain as ground commander and attempt to gain some control over the whole confused situation.

Back in the air, the pilot gave permission for me to turn on a flashlight so that I could further assess the medical situation of Sergeant Duboise. A decision had to be made as to where to take the wounded soldiers. Should they be taken back to B-43 base camp or directly to the 3rd Evac Hospital. Duboise was so seriously wounded that I didn’t think he would make it to the Evac Hospital without much needed fluids. They must have been lying out there for a while because they had both lost a lot of blood. I told him over the intercom that we were to go immediately to B-43.

The B-43 team was ready and waiting when we reached their location. They quickly unloaded the two wounded men onto stretchers and rushed them into the dispensary. Under the guidance our Master Sergeant, everyone pitched in and assisted with the effort to stop the bleeding and patch the wounds.

I yelled, “Start the Ivs!” We had to get these in place as soon as we got the bleeding stopped. I established an IV “Push” on Duboise quickly, but the dispensary Sergeant was having problems with getting into a vein on Beall. He yelled, “I can’t do this. Let’s get him on a Dustoff to the hospital!”

Knowing his veins had probably collapsed while on the table, I screamed loudly, “Do a cut-down! You need to do a cut-down.”

Staff Sergeant Peter Follini bellowed for a cut-down kit, but the master sergeant said that he had dismantled them earlier because he had considered them unnecessary. Follini quickly asked a Cambodian medic to go and find a scalpel. Pushing his way to the edge of the table, Folini proceeded to do the cut-down on Beall. After the procedure was complete, a catheter was threaded into the vein and fluids were “pushed”. Thank God for Follini!

The Dustoff helicopters finally arrived to transport the wounded. We rolled them out to the waiting aircraft and began to load them on board. The pilot of the Medevac shouted over the noise of the engine, “We don’t have a medic on board. Sergeant Reed, you’ve got to come along”.

The ship took off a few seconds later for the 3rd Evac Hospital just north of Can To. I rode in the back, monitoring vitals, IV flow and morphine dosage as the two wounded men continued to fight for their lives.

When we set down at the 3rd Evac, Beall was rushed immediately into surgery after I gave a quick briefing on his medical aid and condition. The severity of the wounds to Duboise required that he be taken to the 45th Evac Hospital where they had a specialist in abdominal surgery.

Duboise’s vitals started to slip during the hour and a half flight to the 45th. Going forward to the cockpit, I shouted to the pilot over the roar of the straining engines, “Can you kick this thing in the ass? We’re losing him!” The roar grew louder as I knelt down and began talking to Duboise. Leaning close to his ear and rubbing his head, I repeatedly promised, “You’ll be okay. I won’t let anythingn happen to you. You’re going to make it…”

I attempted to follow Duboise through the doors of the operating room, but was pulled back at the last minute by several people. They thought I might have been wounded myself, but I assured them that I wasn’t. I was just a sorry sight – weary, dirty and covered with dried blood and body fluids. Whatever the reason, I was too exhausted to argue. Seconds later I collapsed into a deep sleep in the nearby hangar and never saw Duboise again.

Twenty-five years later those promises I had made to Duboise still haunted me. They quietly existed in the back of my mind, occasionally coming forward into my conscious thoughts. “What happened to Duboise? Was what I did out there the right thing? Did I make the right decision in that moment of crisis?” I never knew how to go about getting in contact with Duboise, if he survived his wounds. We hadn’t been close buddies in Nam, just a couple of guys stationed together. One thing about time, though…time brings progress.

On 8th August 1996 my companion and cohabitant, Vicki Andrews, was viewing e-mail on her home computer when I asked her if there was any way to find people over the internet.

“Of course,” she said…and that started my search. She contacted people using e-mail, news groups and the World Wide Web. She posted a message on a military bulletin board and then tried searching a database of U.S. telephone directories. That did it! She was able to locate nine people named John Duboise. I had some clues in my hand – addresses and telephone numbers. It was a start.

The second call I made was to the only John D. Duboise (I knew the middle initial was “D” from the military orders I had) on the list. I think my first statement was, “Are you the John Duboise who served in Special Forces and wounded at Chi Lang, B-43?” There was a long, silent pause. Then he said, “Yes.” “Well, I’m Robert Reed and I carried you out that night!”

The silence was longer this time. There was a crack in both our voices as we tried to express our feelings at the same time. As the words tumbled out of my mouth, my emotions cut loose, welling up in my eyes. My heart was in my throat.

He was surprised and very emotionally touched by my call. He told me that he had also been haunted by my words and his memories of that night for over 25 years. In fact, he had just thought about this incident a week before my call. He had as much desire to learn about the person who rubbed his head and gave him comfort and assurance as I did to learn about his well-being.

We know that we have to meet in person sometime soon. Through Duboise I learned of Beall and told him that I would try to look for him up on the internet as well. We found the listing for Beall and I was able to locate him the next night on my third call. The search process escalated and I was able to contact several more of the soldiers serving in SF Detachment B-43. Although in the early planning stages, we wanted to get together for a reunion.

Author’s note:
The preceding story was a collection of my memories and conversations with Sergeants Duboise, Beall and Follini. A big “thank you” goes to Sergeant Gary Wilkes for maintaining a journal about his experiences and providing me with the exact date of this incident. If you have personal knowledge of this incident and have not been contacted by me, please do so.

This event is only one of many, many stories of the 5th Special Forces Group, Detachment B-43, Chi Lang.

On 11th September 1996, Bob Reed had his reunion with Bill Beall, John Duboise and Gary Wilkes. They met at the Little Saigon Restaurant in Tampa, Florida. Naturally, the restaurant was Vietnamese owned and operated.

This article was originally published in Behind The Lines magazine. VietnamGear.com has reproduced this article with the kind permission of Gary Linderer.

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