Sgt. John Folk
1st Marine Radio Battalion
My unit was 1st Marine Radio Battalion. We were the electronic intelligence arm of MAF III. I was in country from July 1969 to August 1970. I served at many different sites, as we had platoons all over the place; all in I Corps; we operated anywhere between Danang and Dong Ha We were COMINT/SIGNIT units supporting 3rd Marine Division as well as 1st Marine Division; my role was Radio Intercept (Morse and voice), RDF (Radio Direction Finding) and cryptology.
Towards the end of my 13-month tour, things got interesting with a story that still haunts me to this day. The way I was initially treated at home, and some reminders pop up this memory that is embedded in my life; reluctantly, there are triggers that make me relive this story time and time again. I can’t shake it, and it has scarred me for life.
In a war, you meet all kinds of people, in all kinds of situations. But some of the meetings you have, you’re never really prepared to handle the emotion of the situation. It is in these heart touching moments that sometimes we cry, and hopefully, sometimes we’re able to answer – why. But, this one can’t be reconciled. I’ve spent 50 years trying, and I give up. The event I’m writing about here indeed hurt. In the end, I cried; and I still ask WHY, even to this day…. why this did happen….
It was a hot, humid day just after the monsoon season in Vietnam. My squad was returning from an intelligence patrol near Quang Tri-City. We were still in the bush, but it was a peaceful, uneventful mission. The area was very quiet, and all was tranquil. We were sitting and waiting to hear the familiar sound of the helicopters rotors as they would approach to take us home.
We were tired, sweaty and thirsty, but were enjoying the peace and quiet. Suddenly, there was a quiet explosion, a painful scream and the wretched smell of burning flesh just yards away from me. I threw the safety off my rifle and spun towards the noise ready to shoot and ready to kill. I held the rifle in my shoulder aiming at the screaming figure as it slowly came towards me.
I lowered my rifle when I saw the dirty, blood-stained, pale brown skin of a child, covered only by a pair of shredded blue shorts, and heard his whimpering as he collapsed. His long jet-black hair was uncut, filthy, and his teeth were blackened with rot. His hands and his only remaining foot showed signed of hard labor and work, as he was plagued with calluses and blisters. His other foot, the cause of his pain, was completely severed at the ankle. The ground around the stump of his leg had already become blood-soaked, I went running to his side, I used a bandoleer as a tourniquet and twisted it tightly just inches above the stump. I covered the wound and hoped it would stop spilling his blood.
In the distance, I finally heard the thump, thump, thump of the choppers as they approached. Seconds later, it landed, and we were away. It only took minutes to fly to a hospital for the small child who was no older than seven years old.
Corpsmen rushed to the chopper and took him away, and in a matter of minutes, the doctors were in surgery with him. In the next few hours, I had filled out the reports, debriefed the patrol, relaxed, ate and took a bath in a polluted river. A few days later, I returned to the hospital to see how the child was doing. The doctors had finished with him, and he was talking, but obviously in Vietnamese.
I found a translator, a Dancer, we used in field ops, to visit with the child and I. We talked for quite a while, and I learned that he was an orphan, having never really known his parents. He did know that his dad was taken away, and his mom was dead. He knew only his first name, Nguyen. He couldn’t remember his age, or whether he had any brothers or sisters, or anyone in his life. His life had always been the same, stealing food off dead soldiers, whether they be American, South, or North Vietnamese, it didn’t matter – if they had food, he’d take it.
In his short life, he’s had Malaria, snake bites, and mountains of other challenges, and he faced them alone. Never getting help from anyone. He remembered stepping on the cartridge trap where he lost his foot. He didn’t really know that the war around was about and knew it had nothing to do with him, but it was the only life he knew, and it had little consequence for him – just another saga in how he had to adjust and live. But, while he was here, in the hospital, he was smiling, and he was happy. For the time being, he knew he could be happy because he was being cared for, and knew he’d be fed while he was here.
I told him that if he’s lucky, we’ll get him into an orphanage where he may have a better chance, but that was too far in the future he said, and so, who knows…. Anyway, I left him, and, even though he was in such pain, he was smiling – what a welcome vision that was.
Later that night, we got the usual rockets and mortars which seemed to plague us from time to time. The bombs exploded everywhere, spreading their torn twisted bits of metal at everything and everyone. At half-past two in the morning, it stopped, and it was over. The damage was everywhere. I saw the burned and broken bodies of several people – Marines mostly. But then when I went by the hospital tent where Nguyen was, I saw it too had been hit. I went in, and I carried Nguyen ‘s lifeless body to the street, and I cried.
A few days later, and my tour ended. I flew home. But Nguyen’s story didn’t end there, at least for me. It’s not even his fate and death that plagues me; it’s what happened when I got home that still haunts me, and hurts.
There is yet another story, part two if you will, I feel I must share…. if only to sensitize you to where my mind was at the time. By now, you should have learned that during the 60’s, the Vietnam war was extremely unpopular. This wasn’t just a political thing; it was also a “60’s” thing – where “peace, freedom, and free love” were all part of the culture and lifestyle. Dodging the draft, refusing to go off to war, running off to Canada (to avoid the draft) were pretty common things going on in society. To “enlist” into the service (which is what I did) was not a cool thing to do – according to ‘society’, but I did.
To further appreciate this story, you also need to know that as a child (basically from age 7 to 16), I was actually very much into the church, and going to Sunday school. My brothers and I did this every Sunday. Our parents seldom went, but they did pack us off to church. We went to a Baptist church in Birmingham, Michigan, and walked across the park to get there. The minister was Reverend Whitfield, and he guided us through the church for all those years. He baptized us (Baptists dunk the whole body!) and I (because of Reverend Whitfield) held the church in pretty high “awe”. I enjoyed it and participated in quite a few things (I even sang a solo at church one evening!). I felt pretty close to the minister and the church, and I even hung out with his daughter.
So, it didn’t seem unusual, at least to me, that when I came back from Vietnam, to put on my dress blue uniform (all Marines are proud of this uniform!), all my ribbons and awards, and go to church. At the time, I was home only 3 days, and the incident I mentioned above, with Nguyen was less than 2 weeks in the past. I even had it in the back of my mind to corner the reverend and tell him the story to seek his solace. I will tell you that that going that day was the worst mistake I made in my life. Reverend Whitfield, saw me in the audience, with the Marine Corps dress blue’s, and with obvious reference to my recent Vietnam service, launched and shifted his sermon into one of slamming people who served in the immoral and unjust war, stared me in the face, and actually called me a baby killer in front of his congregation.
I kept my mouth shut. My wife, was with me with a shocked look, and showing concern that I’d blow a gasket. At the end of the sermon, I quickly left; and I left the church in such utter disgust, and shame. I never returned to that church again. I never talked with him again, and in fact, have been rather leery of any church since then. I used to treat the church with importance and key to life, but I haven’t taken church serious since this man I held in such high regard, Reverend Whitfield, destroyed, in such simple words, what faith I had.
I know, now in hindsight, he was unfair in his judgment, but the embarrassment he put on through tainted my view of not only him, but the church overall. Sorry, but that event in the church is one where I lost my pride and my soul. I sacrificed the church I once appreciated; and it’s a long road back, I still haven’t found it – and even if I do, at best, it’ll only be at a distance – I cannot commit to more; not again. To this day, I can’t go into a church without that dreadful comment haunting me. It caused a wound so deep; it still bleeds on my mind today.