The day Ladd died he and I were shadow boxing at our camp when we got a call that a helicopter had been shot down by a Russian-made 51 caliber gun. They flew in ten or twelve helicopters and took our whole company into a hot LZ (landing zone) to rescue the soldiers in the downed helicopter.
After we had landed, and while our Captain came up with a plan, I walked over and found Ladd. He was sitting near a hedge by himself. I had just gotten a package of fruits and cookies from my sister and I wanted to share them with Ladd, but he seemed distant and didn’t want to talk to me. He was blank – just staring off into the distance – I’d never seen him act like that before. This was only about fifteen minutes before he died and evidently he felt something – he knew the end was near.
But I didn’t know any of this so I got frustrated with him and said I wouldn’t share the fruit and cookies with him. I made no further attempt to speak with him again before our attack, even though there were opportunities to do so. Eventually the Captain ordered the company to prepare for an attack and I walked away.
We assembled behind a row of hedges that stood about ten or twelve feet high. There were three or four openings in the hedges that stood between us and the Viet Cong, who were positioned in two fox holes on the opposite side. Orders were given to advance through the hedges. I entered through the right side of the hedges and Ladd went through the left side. As we advanced through the hedges the enemy opened fire and a retreat was immediately ordered.
Our commander wanted to call an airstrike but we realized that one of the soldiers, a guy from California we called ‘Hollywood,’ had made it past the fox hole on the right. He’d been shot five times but was still alive. Another soldier and I decided to get Hollywood before the air strike. So we went through the hedges and got Hollywood and carried him back.
When we got back to safety our Sergeant came up to us and said that he was going to send in an accommodation of valor for us. I responded that he didn't have to do that because we were only doing our jobs. I didn’t want to think of myself as a hero because heroes always die.
I don’t think he liked that response because he never gave us the accommodation. At the time I didn’t realize how dangerous my action was – it was very normal for a sniper to leave an injured soldier in the field because he knows other soldiers will come to get him and then he can kill those soldiers too. I wish I hadn’t discouraged him from giving us the accommodation for valor – I very much regret saying that.
Our commander called in an air strike and they napalmed the fox holes. The napalm bombs landed maybe 300 or 400 yards away and just sucked the air right away. We assembled behind the row of hedges ready to attack for the second time. I was standing by the radio operator. He had an antennae that stuck high up and protruded above the hedges. The Viet Cong must have seen the antennae because all of the sudden two shots rang out and the radio operator caught two bullets in his chest. I caught him as he fell to the ground. All he said before he died was, “Oh no! Not me.” He was dead in maybe fifteen or twenty seconds, but it felt like a lifetime.
When the radio operator died in my arms I stopped feeling like such a hero. His death was too much for me to handle. Rather than being the ‘point person’ for the next charge I decided to cover the rear.
Eventually we overtook the Viet Cong and afterwards I went looking for Ladd.
“Have you seen Ladd?” I asked one of the other soldiers.
“I thought you knew. He got killed.” The soldier pointed at a helicopter that had just taken off with the bodies of the dead soldiers. “He's in that helicopter.”
When I first learned Ladd was killed, I was numb and went about things as usual. I showed no outward emotion and demonstrated no immediate remorse. Some of my fellow comrades thought I was being insensitive, but I knew that being emotional in the field would get me killed.
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