The Viet Nam War was a terrible conflict and filled with “absolute terror,” as Sergeant Jim Greenwalt explains. The dangers were mostly constant and uncertainty ruled each day. But also, along the way, there are memories that Jim has of times of levity and resourcefulness that helped the soldiers keep their sanity.
For instance, after each successful operation, (which meant a high enemy body count) the village outpost would declare a big feast. A chicken would be prepared and there would be every kind of drink imaginable. The possibility of the meal being dog, crocodile or even rice pattie rats (different from garbage rats) was very likely. Jim says, “If they could catch it, it could be part of the meal.”
So, back to the feast. The Americans would supply the beer. Being a “low priority” unit, headquarters supplied them with Falstaff, low priority beer. The local Basi Dey, or moonshine, would provide his brew at the feast. “If it was clear, it was palatable,” Jim remembers. “But ours was usually yellow.” One officer said, “It looked like it was just sitting there, swimming around, ready to make your head explode.”
The Vietnamese and Chinese always toasted the Americans after these successful battles, “and you had to have a toast with them. But when there were about twenty of them back to back it became very difficult to keep your wits about you.” Jim remembers, “They kept this ‘liquor’, and that is a very loose term for it, in plastic canteens. This did nothing for the flavor, to say nothing of the fact that if you let it sit too long in a small pill cup it would probably burn its way through it.” (Well, no one says it is easy to be a combat infantryman!)
Jim said, “The children watched us all the time. We were just an oddity there.” Wherever they were, the kids would be looking through windows or door cracks or just sitting in the background watching the GI’s.
As a low priority unit, the helicopters that delivered supplies would be few and far between. So they had to live off the economy of the land most of the time. Fish and produce occasionally came by boat. The vegetables had to be thoroughly washed. “Cucumbers were available and when peeled they were good with peanut butter and just about anything,” Jim remembers.
Once Jim’s unit found an old “Chicom” anti-tank mine. It was a couple of feet in diameter and had been left over from earlier conflicts and needed to be disposed of. So our troops took it to the river, submerged it and lit it up. It was a great show, but the important thing was that there was a four-foot-long catfish that came to the surface and furnished many meals. Now that’s being resourceful and living off the land.
There are great memories of times of relaxation for Jim Greenwalt and there, of course, are memories that are filled with remembrances of danger, intensity and emotional and physical demands. One such time was at an outpost at Old Song Ong Doc. A fire base was in need of being established for this village. The locals had built this outpost with mud walls, a moat, machine gun bunkers at each corner and mortar pits.
We must explain that during the Viet Nam war it was often difficult to know who the enemy was or was not. VC sympathizers would infiltrate the American units and look and act like everyone else. Some were suspected of being the enemy and some were not.
As they settled in to this new outpost, Jim’s duty was to check the perimeter and make sure the M-60 machine guns were operational. The first night they were there, Jim discovered a problem that could have cost many people their lives if it hadn’t been rectified. For some reason he stopped and broke down one of the M-60’s at one of the bunkers. What he found was that the firing pin and been turned backwards by someone. Of course, this gun would not have fired if it had been left like that. So he corrected this and reported it to the Team Leader.
It was suspected that a VC sympathizer had tried to sabotage this machine gun and informed his unit that this bunker location would be unarmed. This was pretty much confirmed at the “Witching Hour,” as Jim refers to 2:00 am. This seemed to be the favorite hour of the Viet Cong to attack.
And at this attack the VC came directly at the bunker where this machine gun had been tampered with. It was a fierce fire fight, but this gun made the difference in repelling the enemy. Jim’s unit experienced many casualties, but it would have been much worse if he hadn’t found this attempt at sabotage.
There were days of sickening terror. Jim and Lieutenant Findlay transported a young man to his village after he had been trained by the Vietnamese government in village municipal administration. They returned the next day to see how he was doing and found his head in the middle of the street of his small village. The VC had decapitated him and made their statement.
In January 1970 Jim’s unit had been assigned to a new location, an outpost at Rach Ban. At this time there were three American advisors on Jim’s team. They had a new medic and Jim says, “We knew he was a drunk, but we didn’t know how bad he was.” The Navy took them by gunboat to a small outpost where three canals came together. Lieutenant Findlay said that he had a bad feeling about this location. Jim remarked, “I had a bad feeling about all of them.”
Lieutenant Findlay asked the crew on the Navy gunboat if they would leave their 50 caliber machine gun and all the ammunition they had. They agreed and the machine gun was set up in a particular bunker and pointed out to an open area, probably 200 yards from a tree line.
The bunker where Jim and the medic were to stay had one wall made out of ammo cans. You would think these would be empty ammo cans filled with sand. But, no… they were full of live ammunition. Jim would wisely rebuild this bunker later. The Company Commander and Lieutenant Findlay were in another bunker approximately 50′ away.
This night, at “The Hour,” 2:00 am, there was an explosion from an incoming round that landed just a few feet from Sergeant Greenwalt’s bunker and knocked him out of his bunk. Then continuous fire and explosions and confusion began enveloping the camp. Jim said, “I did what I always did. I put my pants on and I put my boots on. I always wanted my pants and boots on when we were attacked.” The Lieutenant was on the radio and yelling instructions at the top of his lungs.
Then there was a tremendous explosion a few feet away and Jim felt his left calf get struck. He immediately felt it and it was wet and chunky. He thought, “I’m going to lose my leg.” But as he raised his hand to view the blood, it was actually mud. He had gotten hit with a large blob of mud.
Jim could hear the 50 caliber firing and as he turned in that direction he observed the tracers going up into the night sky. So he ran to this emplacement and found a small Vietnamese guy attempting to man this large machine gun. Jim said, “I don’t know if he was a Vietnamese sympathizer or not, but I took it from him.”
Later it was discovered that the VC had blown out the other two machine gun bunkers, and the men that manned them, in their initial attack. Apparently the VC’s intel had told them that these were the only gun emplacements in the outpost. The 50 caliber was not supposed to be there. But Lieutenant Findlay had procured it from the Navy and this powerful gun would save the day, again, for this unit.
“I shot anything that moved or made a noise and any muzzle flash. In my mind I was thinking that if I fired too much I would run out of ammunition or melt the barrel down. We didn’t have an extra barrel.” Jim kept firing but has no idea of how much time elapsed as he continuously hammered the VC attackers. “But, suddenly the incoming stopped,” Jim said. “We didn’t receive any air support during the fight and no artillery support until it was light.” This fierce fire fight claimed about twenty percent of Jim’s unit. The carnage was dreadful.
Then, as the artillery support began, they all thought the fighting was starting again because the artillery coordinates were off and the big guns were pounding the outpost instead of the enemy. “They almost killed us. They were too close! We were out walking around and assessing damage when this happened. Then about 50 yards away a rice farmer’s house was hit and the farmer was killed,” Jim said.
Remember the drunk medic? Jim says, “I don’t know when he drank. I never saw it, but I’m not sure he woke up through this entire event! When I came back to the bunker he was still asleep.”
But what was worse, when he returned to the bunker Jim realized that the women and children of the village had taken shelter in his bunker. That was understandable, but they had taken all of his money when they left. “Insult after injury,” Jim said.
Because of an oversight it would be 38 years before Sergeant Jim Greenwalt was awarded the Bronze Star for bravery in this encounter at Rach Ban. His citation reads, “Sergeant Greenwalt, with complete disregard for his own personal safety, repeatedly exposed himself to intense enemy small arms and accurate indirect weapons fire while manning the 50 caliber machine gun.”
Finally, after years of red tape and bureaucracy, and help from Ralph Hall, U.S. Congressman from Texas, Jim’s ceremony to receive the Bronze Star medal was set at Ft. Hood in 2008. Jim says, “It was very impressive. General Rick Lynch was the presiding General. His Adjutant coordinated it all, and there were three more Generals there, Colonels and Command Sergeant Majors.” Jim asked the General’s Adjutant for one favor, “Could you get me a dud 50 caliber round for a memento of the gun that saved us.” Jim was very pleased to get that request granted.
Sergeant Greenwalt’s tour in the Viet Nam war was certainly an eventful and dangerous one. He suffered no physical injury, but has been affected by the agent orange used in those days. But he knows God kept him safe there and he continues to enjoy his life today with his wonderful family.
Thank you, Jim Greenwalt, for your sacrificial service to our great country.