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Old G.I.s and Sleeping Dragons

By Doug Francescon

Author Biography



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Copyright Doug Francescon 2004


In Honor of:

Waylen Powell

Joe McCurry

Arnold Palmer

And all the guys who left a piece of themselves in Vietnam


Chapter 11
Finding My Way


I was always able to focus on any given item, task, or situation. The war carried this ability to a surprisingly high level. The classic example was the night on Nong Son when I was cut off, and there was nothing around me but the N.V.A.. I didn’t panic or make any foolish mistakes. I didn’t give away my position by reacting too soon, trying to move when they were close enough to spot me. Instead, I focused on my only defense, waiting for one of them to come to me.


As the battle started the first explosion threw me away from the trench line at the edge of the landing zone and into the brush and wire at the side of the road. I was hit in the right arm with shrapnel, and my legs, hands and face were cut as I fell into the wire. My rifle was broken when I hit the hard surface of the road.


There is a period of time after the explosion that is a complete blank. I remember nothing about it. During that period I somehow made my way northeast of the landing zone and southeast of the Marine 4.2” mortal position. That put me directly in the path of the attacking North Vietnamese. I have no idea how I got there. Even in the dark I had my bearings. Southeast was down hill, the direction from where the Vietnamese were coming. Northwest was up hill from where the Marines were firing. I was pinned in a crossfire between the two.


I only moved when the Vietnamese were pinned down. When they advanced, I stopped. They were all around me. Even though I couldn’t understand what they were saying, I knew what they were doing because of the movement. It became obvious that I wasn’t going to make it. The Marine positions were too far away and the Vietnamese were moving too fast and too often.


I remember turning to face the Vietnamese, and settling into a position in the brush. My hand stuck to the handle of my knife as if it was covered with syrup or wet paint.


As firing from the Marine positions died down the entire east side of the hill erupted. Explosions all around me shook the ground. I knew that this was our artillery from the Marine base at An Hoe. The only way they would fire on our position was if we were overrun. At that moment I was sure that I’d never live through the night.


I could fight the Vietnamese, even with just a knife. But there was no defense against the firepower of the Marine Corps artillery batteries. I pressed myself as tightly to the ground as I could and waited to die.


The artillery bombardment stopped as quickly as it started. When it did I turned east, toward the road. Suddenly, there were sounds of men running up the road, not NVA, but Marines. I jumped to my feet, and headed toward them.


They met me at the bend that led to the landing zone. I told them I needed a rifle, and somebody handed me one. As we came to the top of the hill I turned off toward the landing zone and my old position there.


The southwest side of the landing zone was very steep. As I looked in that direction I saw the silhouette of a man, and knew instantly it was not a Marine or one of my guys. I remember seeing him lerch backwards as I fired, and he dropped off the back side of the hill.


I turned left and headed east toward our searchlight position. When I got there I found the light that Arnold Palmer and Joe McCurry manned had been completely destroyed. I went to the northeast side of the landing zone and saw that their bunker was collapsed. Joe and Arnold were inside. They were both dead. I don’t know if they were fighting from the bunker or just taken by surprise when the fighting started.


We spent the next few hours caring for the dead and wounded and picking off Vietnamese who were still on the hill. There were pockets of them in the trenches and in the adjoining jungle. Many of them were sappers (Viet Cong that threw satchel charges into bunkers and other fortified positions). Any that we saw we shot immediately. None of us were going to try to capture a sapper. They could still be carrying explosives, and we weren’t in a position or the mood to deal with prisoners.


Many of our wounded were in very bad shape. One of the guys that I helped carry to the landing zone, Bob Bowermaster, was shot through the chest. This type of wound is called a sucking chest wound, and could have caused him to drown in his own blood if he hadn’t received care while the fighting was still going on. Below is his account of what happened as he told it to me.


Bob and his fire team (four-man infantry unit) volunteered to man the LP (listening post) on the southeast side of the hill. He had enough experience to know that this was a much better fighting position than the bunkers inside the perimeter.


He and his guys picked up activity in the brush around them long before the fighting started. They could hear movement; and at one point could see small lights, like fireflies. It was probably the Vietnamese smoking drugs before the attack. Sappers did this to dull their senses because no sober man in his right mind would charge fortified positions the way that they did.


He reported the movement twice before the battle started, and was ignored both times. Powell and I normally monitored the infantry radio frequency, but our radio and searchlight were out of action that night. It was the only time in the three months that we were on the hill that we didn’t have both lights working. The guys who heard the call explained the noise by saying it was rats moving in and out of the garbage dump.


When fighting broke out Bob spotted a big man, probably not Vietnamese, shouting orders to the NVA who were attacking the fortified positions. He and the fire-team concentrated their fire on him, and it took several rounds to bring him down.


They then shifted fire onto targets of opportunity as they appeared. After a while fire from isolated groups, like Bob’s, and single Marines, along with artillery and air support turned the advantage in the Marines favor. As the Vietnamese withdrew they passed directly in front of Bob and his fire-team. He and his guys opened fire; and for a short time it was like target practice.


As soon as the Vietnamese located the source of the fire, they attacked the four-man unit. The Marine next to Bob was immediately hit in the wrist, and Bob called for a medic. As he did he was shot in the chest.


The bullet passed deeply into his lung. As he inhaled blood was drawn in. The only way to stop this deadly flow was to plug the hole, which he did with his finger.


Suddenly he felt himself being dragged down the hill by his heals, and it made no sense. His guys wouldn’t handle him this way. Then two shot rang out, and his heal dropped to the ground.

As he looked up he saw the familiar face of another Marine, Thom Searfoss, standing beside him. In the darkness Thom couldn’t see the wound or tell much about Bob’s condition.


He bent down to take a closer look, and asked Bob how he was. Bob grabbed him by the collar, pointed to his chest, and gasped a single word, “help.” That’s all he could manage to say. Even with his finger plugging the hole, his lung was filling with blood.


Somehow Thom knew what to do. He blew hard into Bob’s mouth, forcing some of the blood out of the hole in his chest. Another Marine, Gerald Bird, helped Thom slide a poncho under Bob, and they carried him along as they fought their way to the top of the hill.


Throughout the climb they took small arms and rocket fire. One of the rockets hit close enough to knock all of them to the ground. Bob felt like the rocket hit directly under him because the concussion lifted him into the air. He asked Seafoss to see if he still had a butt, and Thom reassured him that his ass was still attached.


Bob was one of the first to be evacuated. Thom Seafoss, Gerald Bird, and rest of the guys who attended to Bob undoubtedly saved his life. Thom administered mouth-to-mouth at least three times as they fought their way up the hill.


That’s Bob’s story. Incidents like this happened all night long. The Marines that I fought alongside that night were among the toughest young men that ever lived. My heart goes out to every one of them.


Both sides, American and Vietnamese, took heavy losses that night. We slaughtered one another. The sticky material on my knife was blood. I was covered with it. There was so much on my shirt and pants that they were stiff. The blood wasn’t mine. I hope I never remember where it came from.


I found my best buddy, Waylen at sunrise. He was lying on his back at the edge of the landing zone where the Marines had laid him. His dog tags (metal identification tags that all soldiers wear) were missing.


A Marine assigned to identify casualties asked, “do you know who he is?”


I heard him, but just stood there. My best friend, drinking buddy, surfing pal, the man who made me look so deeply and honestly at myself was gone. Joe McCury was gone. Arnold Palmer was gone. All of the Marines that were with me on Nong Son that night were either killed or wounded.


I felt empty inside. The dragon was with me because I wanted him there. I remembered the Vietnamese soldier that I shot on the landing zone, and found comfort in the fact that I killed him. Waylen was gone, and now the dragon was by best buddy. I was a killer because that was what I wanted to be. It made things right. It made them fit.


After that night there were periods when I couldn’t sleep. The dragon wouldn’t let me. I’d think about how to position our M-60 machine gun so that we’d have the best possible field of fire. That would insure more kills. I’d check my ammunition clips over and over again, making sure that they were loaded correctly. I checked maps time and time again to pin down key locations and likely target positions. I ran artillery fire missions in my head over and over again. I became a little unbalanced.


All of this happened to me when I was twenty-one years old. It changed my life forever, and showed me a part of myself that I couldn’t believe existed, MY DRAGON. When the fighting started none of my actions were planned. Everything was instinct. I truly became an animal.


Once the change occurred I was never the same person again. The dragon became too much a part of me. The only rule was there were no rules. I remember rationalizing it with the fact that I didn’t create the war. In fact, I never wanted to be a part of it. Those who didn’t have to see the blood or feel war first hand threw me into it. The laid back kid from Illinois couldn’t deal with war, but the dragon could.


So, the dragon allowed me to survive. But, that’s all it was, just survival. Dragons don’t love, they don’t care, they don’t even feel.


Happiness was never possible when I was with the dragon. Something inside told me I had to separate myself from him. Call it a voice from my sole, my conscience, or God’s influence on me. By whatever name it was unbelievably strong, and drove me to gain control of my life. But, wanting to become a decent human being wasn’t enough. It took a war to make me an animal. It took a lot more than just desire to make me human again.


It was years before I found a way to begin. At first I just got drunk and caused trouble. I tried my best to stay away from friends and family when I was drinking. It was my way of hiding a side of myself that I didn’t want them to see. Often it didn’t work. Even when I was sober I hurt those close to me. When I was drunk, I was a complete ass hole.


After a while I realized that in order to control myself I had to control the situation. If I hung out in dives I’d get into trouble. If I had a couple of beers at a neighborhood tavern with friends, I’d usually be OK.


There were many times when I wouldn’t allow myself to be myself. Often, I simply didn’t think I could control a given situation, and would pull away from people, keeping them at arm’s length. As I got older I found more and more ways to stay in control. I got out of union business, politics, and coaching, all of which produced volatile situations.  I said, “kiss my ass” as a way to end an argument rather than escalate a confrontation.


As time went on I was able to go for months without having problems, but the problems didn’t go away. Suddenly the past would come crashing down on me.


Call these times panic attacks, flash backs, delayed stress, or whatever, they were very tough to deal with. Even though I knew at the time they occurred I was in no danger, I was trapped by their effect. During one of these events I walked out of the house in the middle of the night in a pair of sweat pants in a rainstorm because it was the most effective way to break the effects of the event. The cold and wet helped bring me back to reality.


The key to coping was learning to relax. It sounds so simple, but was incredibly difficult. It couldn’t be done by taking deep breaths, using today’s fashionable drugs, or any other method that simply treated the symptom. The most effective way for me to cope was finding out what triggers the event, and dealing with it.


The tough part was, and still is, that there are many triggers, any one of which can cause an event. It was very important to keep day-to-day things in order. All of the little things must be under control. The checkbook had to balance. The vehicles needed to run right. It was important to take an hour for my daily work out. It was essential to get away from the office for some fishing, or a cruise with Pati, or an afternoon with my family.  If I didn’t things would back up to a point where they became overwhelming, and the demons would return.


I’m not talking about little red guys with horns and pointed tails that poked me in the ass with pitchforks. These demons were a part of me just like the dragon, born of the fear that I first saw the night we were overrun. They came with the realization that the life that I held so dearly could quickly and violently end.


But, I’ve learned to deal with the demons much more effectively than the dragon. One answer came in a phrase that I heard many years ago, “A coward dies a thousand deaths, a brave man only one”. It worked even though I’ve never totally agreed with the terms coward or brave man, and I considered myself neither. However, the idea fits. Why should I face death over and over when it will only happen once.


The demons still come, even when things are under control, and I’m ready for them. Our oldest son, Greg, asked me to go with him to see “We Were Solders”, a very graphic film about the war. I agreed to go even though it was about a unit that had been partially overrun. I was very surprised to find that the graphic footage really didn’t bother me. But the sound of the helicopters hit me like a ton of bricks. There is nothing in the world that sounds like helicopters. Hearing their blades brought back the site of each guy that I helped load into a Medivac.


By necessity I’ve become very deliberate in my daily routine. I take life one day at a time because that’s the only way that I can deal with it. Often, one day is too much; so, I stay strictly in the moment.


The dragon feeds on fear, desperation, and hatred. I felt all of these in that shit hole where I was sent so many years ago. These feelings were not directed at those who I fought because they were sent by others the same as I was. They were directed at the miserable bastards who sent me to do their killing for them because all of the death and destruction was for nothing.


When I got back home I wanted to visit the families of the guys in my unit who were killed, but I knew that I couldn’t look them in the eye, and explain what happened without the despair showing. I knew they would question why they had suffered such a tremendous loss, and I would have no answer for them. We weren’t defending America because America hadn’t been attacked. We weren’t protecting our families or ourselves because we were in no danger.


We got into the war because this country’s leaders made a mistake, and that proves that they were human. We stayed in the war because our leaders didn’t have the courage to admit the mistake, and that’s what caused thousands to suffer and die needlessly.


That’s the root of my contempt for authority. It’s why I spend so much time finding ways to hold back what I feel deep inside. I fight to keep these feelings hidden, and work at avoiding situations that will bring them out. I wish with all of my heart that I was a better man, one who could forgive and forget. But, in over thirty years I haven’t grown enough to find the peace that would come from letting it go, and putting it behind me.


The thing that I seek most of all is peace. I want to sit on the back of my boat and watch the sun set. I want to hear my grandchildren laugh. I want to see my kids happy and secure. I want to walk along the bay in the moon light with my wife, and think of nothing but the lights on the water and the stars overhead.


If the people around me were asked to describe me, they would paint a far different picture than the man I’ve described in this book. What they see is the part of me that I allow to be exposed. It’s the image that allows me to function in a world where I don’t fit. I guess that this approach makes me a phony, even a hypocrite. But, it’s been necessary in order to function in a world that would not accept the real me.


When I moved from Illinois after the war, I realized that my life had to change. The drinking, fighting, and “go to hell” attitude that had hurt the ones closest to me had to be tucked away. I couldn’t leave it behind any more than any other part of me. So, I had to hide it.


This has caused considerable internal conflict, the kind that, over the years, has taken its toll. There are times when even a routine day leaves me exhausted. There have been countless times that I’ve walked away from situations when walking away was not what I wanted to do. But, the real me, the one I chose to hide would have over reacted, and caused much greater problems, the kind of problems that it took the police to straighten out in Illinois.


If I could only find the middle ground, somewhere between the dragon and the guy that has to walk away. I’m closer to it than I’ve ever been before. I hope with all of my heart that it’s a sign that I’m finally letting go of the past. I want so badly to let my guard down, and allow myself to be myself.


As I look back on the past it alarms me to realize that the times that I was the most natural and effective were the times that the worst in me was showing. I served a term as a union officer in a pipe fitters local, and took to the job like a duck to water. I remember an incident in a hall way with another officer as we stood nose to nose screaming at one another, each ready to kick the others ass. I was completely at home with the situation.


During the same period I was the union representative on a construction site manned with several hundred craftsman. The company that we worked for had been in the business for a long time, and was as hard nosed as any of the building trades unions that it constantly fought. I adjusted to the environment immediately, and became a complete asshole.


That is not a part of my life that I’m proud of. It’s not the kind of person that I want to be. But, like the demons and dragon, it’s part of me. So, we’re back to the choices thing, the part where each of us must decides which part of their make up will rule.


It’s easy to be an asshole. All you have to do is drop the rains, and let the dragon run free. I have enough animosity inside to shit on everyone that I know a hundred times over. But then, I would see again the look in my mother’s eyes when I told her that “I don’t know what love is anymore”. And, I never want to hurt anyone that way again. She had done nothing all of my life but love me. And, with one thoughtless remark I broke her heart.


Here’s where the conflict gets tough. When I walk away the dragon scratches and claws trying to get out. If I don’t let him out he continues to scratch and claw at me. If I turn him loose he’ll always over react. So, the middle ground is essential.


I’ve found a piece of that middle ground by telling the world to kiss my ass. But, I have to be careful. When I say it I can’t be vindictive or malicious. As I say it I have to let go. When I do the dragon goes to sleep. It sounds so simple, but is one of the toughest things I’ve ever tried to master.


These things help:


            I try to “CRY A LITTLE AND LAUGH A LOT”. I deal with the demons and dragon when I must, get it over with, and find every possible joy that I can after the episode is over.


            I try to ”TAKE ONE THING AT A TIME AND DO IT RIGHT. I won’t allow myself to be overloaded. I won’t make myself responsible for things that are beyond my control. And I put family and myself first.


            I try to “NEVER TAKE THOSE CLOSE TO ME FOR GRANTED”. My  family, particularly my wife Pati, is the glue that holds my life together. Without it life would have no meaning or purpose.


            I try to “TAKE PLEASURE IN THE LITTLE THINGS”. I make the most of the little accomplishments that come along each and every day. Life’s struggles will be with me always. I don’t dwell on their difficulties.


            I try to “PUT MY TRUST IN GOD”. I could never understand how God and war could exist, both in the same world until I realized that war was man’s doing. God cleans up the mess. In the face of it all I must have faith. That’s my true test of courage. I pray that I’m up to it.


If you’ve never seen war, I hope that reading this has made you understand it a little better. If you have seen it first hand, I hope that reading this has helped you in the same way that writing it has helped me. For all of the vets who have done their time in hell, may you find your own peace.



Your buddy, Doug


Continued next week


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