- Historic Sites
How a patch of ground forged a man’s future, stole a part of his soul, and gave it back to him 30 years later
June/July 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 3
Although I never met him, I have been connected to Oliver Noonan since the day he died in a helicopter crash on a green mountainside in Vietnam. I was not far away, just 1,600 feet or so, in fact, when I heard the ripping crack of the rocket-propelled grenade as it slammed into the helicopter—and the subsequent duller explosion as the chopper fell to earth.
Nine men were aboard, and all were killed. One of them was Noonan, a 29-year-old Associated Press photographer. I did not know his name at the time. I only knew from my radio that a photojournalist had gone down nearby. His presence in the maw of hot combat puzzled and intrigued me. That a civilian would risk his life to do his job well would in time inspire me to become a journalist. But for the moment, I was in my own “world of shit,” as we liked to say then. Vietnam’s Central Highlands. The Que Son Valley. August 19, 1969.
Earlier that morning my company—Charlie Company, 2/1,196th Light Infantry Brigade, Americal Division—had hiked into the valley to reinforce Delta Company, which the day before had encountered a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) force and come under siege. Delta Company had taken heavy casualties, 9 killed and more than 30 wounded. As Charlie Company descended slowly from Landing Zone West, the fire base atop Le Kiem Mountain some 25 miles southwest of Da Nang, I thought: “I am going into the Valley of Death.” A cliché, but how I felt.
We met no resistance as we climbed down, sweating, hacking at times through thick jungle. We entered a ravine, pushed up a slope, and suddenly there they were, the men of Delta Company. A shelled-out ruin of a French plantation building occupied the center of a flat clearing on the crest of a hill. The building had no roof, just four walls with openings where there had been windows and several doors. Outside the north wall the bodies of nine GIs lay side by side, some only partially covered with ponchos; inside, the wounded lay or sat scattered about, in various states of distress. The odor of death, of exposed organs, hung in the 110-degree heat.
The men of Delta Company were relieved to see us, and we dispersed to dig new foxholes, reinforce their positions, and strengthen the perimeter. I was a forward observer, calling in artillery or air support to protect my company. Although I was only a private first class, specialized training as a Pathfinder and four years of college had qualified me for a job normally held by officers, and I was happy about getting it. The afternoon was quiet. Tony, my RTO (radiotelephone operator), and I settled ourselves at the “command post” inside the building. I began to think that maybe the enemy had gone.
The helicopter with Noonan on board approached. Then the explosion and crash. A patrol, formed to try to recover any survivors, got perhaps 60 feet beyond our perimeter into the jungle before it was pinned down by ferocious .51-caliber machine-gun fire. The truth dawned on me. The NVA had parted, allowed Charlie Company through, then closed behind us. Now we, too, were trapped.
The battle flared off and on all day. The enemy probed with ground troops all afternoon and periodically mortared us. We responded with artillery and called air strikes; the thunderous explosions close to our lines kept the enemy at bay. The power and precision of the strikes I summoned was exhilarating. Nightfall brought several major ground assaults, each repulsed after close fighting at the foxholes on the perimeter. The radios crackled with the excited voices of men telling us in the command post how near the enemy was.
On the hard dirt floor at the center of the building, I lay on my back, my right arm extended upward, pointing a strobe light toward the sky, my left hand clutching a radiophone to my ear. Overhead an Air Force AC-139 Spectre gunship, known affectionately by ground troops as Spooky, circled lazily, spewing withering gunfire around our perimeter. As I spoke by radio with Spooky’s crew, the wall of fire, illuminated by tracer rounds, undulated inward or outward, nearer or farther away, based on reports coming from our foxholes. Marking the center, for Spooky, was the sharp beam of my light.
I checked my watch; it was about five minutes until midnight when out of the corner of my eye I saw in the shadows an NVA soldier, the familiar outline of his pith helmet clearly visible. He had slipped through the perimeter and stood just inside the doorway, a launcher on his shoulder, taking aim at the light I held. I knew I could not react fast enough.
An enormous noise engulfed me. My body rose and flew through the air. My body spun slowly, gracefully it seemed, through a brilliant white light. I heard a noise like a giant spring unwinding. “So this is death,” I thought.
When I came to, the battle was in full fury, with enemy tracers zinging just over my head. The obliterating of my light had been the signal for a full-scale assault. I would learn later that the rocket grenade fired by the invader had wounded nine men. It had hit the ground several feet in front of me and sprayed shrapnel through the command post. A comrade had shot and killed the soldier who launched it.