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By Pat Lisi/Southern Utah Vets Aid

Lots of things still send my mind back to South Viet Nam.  Sounds, smells, tropical surroundings, to name a few.  Today, as I walked past a construction site in St. George, Utah where a man sat inside a tracked back hoe, I am reminded of the M-48A1 tank as its steel treads churn and clatter in their rusty links, lumbering down a dirty road in the direction of Phu Lac 6 in South Viet Nam.    My squad of Marines walks behind the tank, ever vigilant of the thick, green hedge rows on the right flank that secretly hide a small hamlet, and the putrid ditch that parallels our left flank and its dark, muddy water that barely trickles in the same direction as our column.

There are 2 Marines from an engineers squad out in front of the M-48, one on each edge of the road, working mine detectors back and forth.  Deliberately, they scan the hard-pan surface of the road for anything buried that might explode.  The long, swooping motion of their hand-held devices overlap the center of the crude highway so nothing is missed accidentally.  But, perfection is not war.  No machinery is flawless.  Not every square inch of earth can ever be covered; not without slowing the pace of the patrol to an intolerable speed.

The 100-pound box mine fires off in an instant of stark terror as the lead tank rolls its left track over it.  by now, most of us have experienced the detonation of a buried box mine so it should come as no surprise this time.  But the reality is, explosions of this nature are always sudden, loud and violent.  A huge hole is dug in an instant, and debris and smoke quickly fill the air.  After the initial shock and awe, men scatter to take up defensive positions and then assess the situation.  Is anyone hit?  Anyone dead?  Are we being fired upon by the enemy?  Did the blast tear the treads off the tank?  Is everyone in the tank alright?  What the hell happened and what are we needing to do about it?  These are all questions the guys in charge need to ask, immediately.

I’m one of those guys today and I make a hurried ‘sit-rep’ (situation report) to my platoon commander and captain, both of whom are a quarter mile back from our point position in the middle of the company sized column of Marines.  No one is dead this time, but one of the engineers on point on the right hand side of the road is badly wounded and we need a helicopter to come in and take him to Da Nang.  The tank crew is out on the road assessing the damaged M48 and is telling me it will be an hour before they can advance any further down the road.  The crew is safe, but one of the members has a ringing in his ears that just won’t quit.  The captain calls my lieutenant on the PRC-25 radio (we called this radio a “PRIC”) and orders him to put a squad out in the ‘boonies’ on either side of the stalled tank for security.  A few unlucky Marines get to ford the smelly ditch on the left.

An hour later, just as the tank crew chief promised, we are once again sweeping the road to Phu Lac 6.  Our wounded Marine is already choppered out, the flanking teams are ordered to stay out to the sides for the rest of the mission, and life is once again a bowl of rancid cherries as we all trudge up the road in anticipation of getting to Phu Lac 6 and having a cold beer.  The unmistakable sound of the big steel tank treads fills the morning air with a clinking and clattering.

I look at the man seated inside the air-conditioned cab of the back-hoe as it churns hither-and-yon at the construction site here in Saint George, Utah and I wonder if he is a veteran who perhaps learned his trade courtesy of the US military.  Satisified once again that I’m not really back in Nam listenting to the sounds of an M48A1 tank, I go about my business in anticipation of the next ‘trigger’.

 

 

 

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