Thursday, July 9, 2015
Richard Ungerecht, Brainerd, died too soon in Viet Nam
The mother of these boys was Gloria, sister of my mother's best high school friend. The town was Brainerd. It was a company town when my mom and her friend Ruth grew up there. The company was the railroad. I wonder if that stately old water tower is still there.
In 1966 we got word of Dicky's death in Viet Nam. I was eleven years old and getting a lesson in mortality. I heard at the time of the funeral that he had communicated back to his family expressing skepticism about his chances.
The funeral itself was a rather wrenching experience for me. Richard was in uniform in the coffin. The preservation process hadn't been very good. His skin was purplish. I remember Gloria sobbing uncontrollably at the cemetery.
You can't escape profound thoughts of one kind or another. Was the Viet Nam war some sort of rite of passage? A rite of passage for the country? Was it a rite of passage in the same way as the Civil War? So much death with so little justification for it. No objective analysis could possibly justify so many men taking up arms against their human brethren.
It wasn't justified for Iraq. God must have some purpose for these things. But He also must have blessed the convulsions of protest movements across the U.S. Some college graduations had to be cancelled, such was the threat of domestic unrest. A couple years ago, one of these colleges held a belated ceremony for grads of about 1970.
The "hard hats" represented the crusty portion of the population that said "America, love it or leave it." How have all those people dealt with their conscience since we all came to realize the Viet Nam war was a mistake? Do they realize that many of the casualties were taken down by their own comrades? In Dicky's case, it seemed to be a legitimate case of friendly fire - in other words it was an accident. But one never knows, of course. "The first casualty of war is the truth."
The overt cases of mutiny came to be called "fragging." The term is derived from "fragmentation grenades" which was the hellish tool for such acts. In Viet Nam the threat of fragging caused many officers and non-commissioned officers to go armed in rear areas and to change their sleeping arrangements, as fragging often consisted of throwing a grenade into a tent where the target was sleeping.
For fear of being fragged, some leaders turned a blind eye to drug use and other indiscipline. The total number of known and suspected fragging cases by explosives in Viet Nam from 1969 to 1972 was nearly 900 with 99 deaths and many injuries. We can assume some cases were not reported. Think about all this the next Memorial Day or Veterans Day. We were a far cry from WWII's sense of purpose. We were a far cry from "The Green Beret" movie starring John Wayne - as pathetic a piece of propaganda as ever existed.
Fortunately we have a pretty detailed account of how "Dicky" met his untimely end in Viet Nam. Reminder: It doesn't sound like anything akin to "fragging," but war's ugly details sometimes seem to exist behind a vail. The account that appears with this post was provided by Michael W. Hastriter. He served as hospital corpsman in India Company, Third Battlion, First Marines in Viet Nam, from January to September of 1966.
BTW your blog host knew Dicky's grandparents very well: Art and Myrt, the most charming couple you'd ever meet. Art was a lifelong railroad man. I played many "31" card games on the porch of Art and Myrt's wonderful lake place on Pelican Lake near Brainerd. That's the lake where Breezy Point is. Art, Myrt and Gloria have passed on. Lyle has been a very resilient soul, having had several jobs and marital partners! I should be so lucky as to have that kind of adaptability. Lyle avoided Viet Nam.
The remainder of this post will have Michael Hastriter's account of Dicky's last days. I hope it's all very forthright and accurate. Be vigilant with the "fog of war." I'll trust Mr. Hastriter. His primary audience for what he wrote was Dick's family. His account is posted on the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial Fund website. That's where I got the photo for this post too.
Drift back in time:
Our unit landed about 40 miles south of Chu Lai during Operation Double Eagle I. I did not know Dick at that time, so he must have joined our unit somewhat later. During the months ahead, we covered much of the geography between where we landed and Chu Lai to the north.
On March 5-7, our company was decimated during Operation Utah. Thereafter we were not an effective combat unit, so we were being "rebuilt" with replacements. Dick was one of those replacements. During our rebuild, our unit was assigned to a small island just a mile or so northeast of Chu Lai on the coast. I remember how beautiful the coconut trees were before we were boated out to the island. It was on the island that I met Dick.
Our mission was to guard the LAM (Land to Air Missile) unit on the island. The entire island was subject to penetrations by Viet Cong forces (three sides to the open South China Sea and a narrow passage between the mainland). Our main mission was to "be friendly" with the local Vietnamese during the day and run patrols during the night to prevent enemy penetrations to the LAM.
As a corpsman, I used to conduct the MedCap program during the daytime and sometimes I would go on night patrols. During the medical civil action program we provided medical care to the needy populace of the island villagers who would come to us. We didn't have a doctor per se, but did the best we could to treat their maladies (yaws, boils, dysentery, malaria, you name it).
As "non-combatants" we always had armed Marines to protect our activities, and Dick and his squad of men would sometimes accompany us for our protection. He would usually position his men, then he would help me hold and doctor the kids when needed. We would walk each day from the high ground at the east end of the island (where the LAM unit was) into the village at the lowland western side of the island. The island was small as I recall. Probably not more than a mile or so wide in any direction. The sand was as white as it gets and coconut trees were everywhere. There was a village on the west side of the island also. The civilians would migrate from the village to receive medical treatment. We could never figure out where so many came from!
We had large tents on the high ground, a fixed mess hall and constant sea breeze, so it was a good place to be (other than the fleas that ate us alive). The east end of the high ground was a high rocky cliff-like area that overlooked the South China Sea. I have pictures (slides) of Dick along those cliffs as we sat on the rocks and talked many times about home and what we would do when the war was over for us. He was a gentle guy with a sweet disposition and always had a smile. I knew of no vices that he had - just an all American kid with a great smile.
Since I had been in country for over three months, they sent me to Taiwan for several days R & R. Shortly after I returned, I received a "Dear John" letter from my first wife, which was quite unexpected and upsetting.
Dick was a great friend when I needed one. It was within a few days, that I got up after a rainy night, went to the chow hall and ate breakfast, and was walking back to my tent to put away my mess gear. Gunney Greer called me over and I could see a body wrapped in a poncho on a "mule" (much like a flat bed on an ATV). He said, "Doc, would you tag CPL Ungerecht?" It blew me away and I told the Gunny I couldn't do it. That was too much to ask and the Gunny knew it. I just retreated to the rocky cliffs and cried.
I only know what some of the men told me about how he died. His squad was on patrol in the bottom area and it was a dark and rainy night. They had got to their outpost and he positioned his men in such a fashion as to protect them all as much as possible. Being the good leader he was, he checked his men's positions later that night and in the rainy, muddy and dark conditions, he tragically misjudged where he was. He had wandered outside of his own protection and was accidentally mistaken for an enemy.
It is so frightening that you can not imagine wondering what is out in the dark. Every thing that moves and makes a noise becomes the potential enemy. It could be a cow wondering around in the rice paddy, some innocent civilian wandering from one place to another in the darkness, or somebody's son from the north doing what you are doing: trying to survive.
Men's nerves are ready to explode and it doesn't take much to trigger the firing of a weapon and understandably everyone follows suit. Once I was left outside our line (of the entire company perimeter). I stayed put for the entire night and didn't move a muscle until it was light enough to be seen by our own men! It was a lucky night for me!
The conditions that are present on a night patrol do not make it conducive for any man to do the right thing, the thing he had been trained to do. "Halt! Who goes there?" It just doesn't happen and didn't happen that night. I am glad I am not any of the men that were in that squad that night on 19 May 1966. His death was untimely, unfair and unwarranted, but I can tell you that he was the best and should be considered a hero for the type of soldier he was. He would have died a hero under any circumstance to which he might have been subjected. I knew him well enough to know that.
Don't ever let anyone tell you that it was all a waste. Innocent Vietnamese people that wanted peace and democracy were robbed, beaten and killed, and their women raped by the VC. We tried to liberate them from such oppression and were successful for a while in some places. The tragedy is that no one in this country understood this for many years, and most still don't. It was an evil war and the politicians that caused it and perpetuated it will forever be marked. I firmly believe that if it wasn't for Richard Milhouse Nixon, that we would still be there! They just wouldn't let us do it right.
I cannot comprehend the loss you all suffered so long ago, but hope that you will know that he was the greatest! Many of our best sons were lost. I hope that I have not opened old wounds, but instead have added some measure of understanding and comfort.
I returned home, went back to the Navy, eventually got out of the Navy, went to college, was commissioned an officer, and retired in 1992
Richard Ungerecht, a.k.a. "Charlie Tuna," RIP
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org