Bruce Schamber volunteered for the draft in 1966 during the Viet Nam War. He was proud to serve his country as he followed in his dad, his brother, his uncles and cousins’ footsteps. They all deeply impressed Bruce because of “the way they lived their lives, how they cared for each other and their families and most important, the role that God had in their lives.”
As he waved goodbye to his mom, his dad drove him to the induction center in Dallas, Texas on a cold December 9, 1966. As his dad drove away, Bruce felt a lonely and empty feeling as an 18-year-old youth. But this, soon-to-be combat medic would grow up very rapidly over the next couple of years, dodging incoming fire to help his wounded buddies, pulling shrapnel from his own flesh with no time to think of himself and agonizing over young friends who would die in his arms on the battlefield.
He was sworn into the Army with a group of other guys, then it was on the bus and off to Basic Training at Fort Polk, Louisiana. After Basic, Bruce was informed that he was to become a Combat Medic and was heading to 10 weeks of training at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas and eventually assigned to the 1/46 Infantry 198th Light Infantry Brigade, A Company 2nd Platoon at Fort Hood, Texas. Here he would get on-the-job training in the hospital emergency room before his unit was deployed to Viet Nam.
On October 10, 1967, aboard the USS Upshur, Bruce’s unit sailed past Alcatraz and under the Golden Gate Bridge toward the open sea and the war zone. As they crossed under the bridge, they threw money into the bay and Bruce remembers saying, “Goodbye real world…Viet Nam, here we come!”
It was a very crowded ship with many sea sick soldiers. After 10 days, they ran low on fresh water and could not take showers. This was not the best of situations, especially for sleeping. They were stacked in bunks, 4 or 5 high, head to foot. Bruce remembers, “The guy next to my head had the worst smelling feet and every night, after he went to sleep, I would sprinkle after shave lotion on his feet to help me sleep.”
Bruce’s mother, in Dallas, was understandably very concerned for him through his tour of duty. His parents always feared “The Visit,” when Army brass would show up at a residence and break the news to an unsuspecting family that their son would not be coming home. His mom would be glued to the television each night for the reports from the war, and swear that she had seen Bruce as the camera panned the troops.
His mother was an apartment house manager at the time and one day she opened the door of the office at the complex. There were 2 Army officers immediately in front of her. It was such a shock, she turned white with fear and almost fainted. The officers were immediately concerned for her, but did not know why she had such a strange reaction.
As the situation stabilized and mom regained her composure and explained that her son was in Viet Nam, the officers explained that they were looking for a soldier who had gone AWOL (Absent Without Leave). They quickly apologized to her and comforted her. It was surely a shock to Bruce’s mom, but a great story to tell the grandkids!
Bruce knows that God’s hand of protection was on him during his months in the killing fields of Viet Nam. There were times of bravery, as the day when the platoon was ambushed and hopelessly pinned down. Then big Bill Schneider rose to his feet and immediately laid down a field of fire with his M-60 machine gun for several minutes while his platoon escaped to safety.
An Army infantry unit in Viet Nam would live in constant uncertainty, danger, adverse survival conditions and most of the time, less than desirable food. Bruce lost 50 pounds by the end of his tour. Most of their C-rations were left over from World War II. As a medic, Bruce would carry 30 pounds more than the other soldiers in medical supplies.
They were required to be dropped by helicopter into Hot LZ’s (landing zones under enemy fire), quickly engaging the enemy. At times they would stay in the field for 30-40 days, wearing the same clothes and without bathing. Once, Bruce’s unit was without drinking water for 40 hours. They would move through the jungles on “search and destroy” missions, seeking the VC. At night, the patrol would settle in to their night lodging and there would be 2 men per foxhole around the perimeter, each trading guard duty every hour. Looking into the darkness with tired eyes, “A tree or a bush would take the form of a VC. It’s something how your eyes will play tricks on you,” Bruce remembers.
In January 1968, the Tet Offensive erupted and Bruce and the other medics would face extreme challenges during an hour-long fire fight. As the enemy opened fire, it became a running battle of life and death. The medics began treating the wounded civilians as well as military personnel.
Bruce ran to the civilians who had been caught in the crossfire. The first was an older man with a gunshot wound and compound fracture. He bandaged him, then ran to a young girl, a quarter mile across the rice paddies. She had been shot on the right side of her chest. He cared for her, then frantically ran to another woman and found that she had been shot in the head. She was still alive, but Bruce knew she would not live very long. He became sick after seeing her condition. “I had all three taken by helicopter to the hospital. War is not nice—this was a bad day.”
Bruce says, “Sometimes in combat situations you get an uncanny feeling of what is about to happen.” As they began their search and destroy patrol in the early morning of January 13, 1968, they walked down a trail, looking for “Charlie.” Bruce said, “I had a feeling we would be ambushed and someone would be hurt badly…I didn’t realize how things would change for all of us in just a few short minutes.”
It all happened so quickly. As they came around a turn that opened to a rice paddy on the left and heavy trees and brush on the right, Charlie opened up with heavy automatic rifle fire from the left front. They were in heavy crossfire and pinned down as they dove into a shallow drainage ditch. Bruce’s patrol returned fire, engaging for several minutes. Then the AK-47 fire seemed to focus on the area where Bruce and 3 others were gathered, as they were raked by hot lead from left to right. Bruce’s rifle was shattered by a bullet and 2 of the others were wounded in the arm and hand.
Bruce sadly remembers, “What happened next has been with me the last 40 years. Jim’s helmet flew off and hit my helmet squarely in the center. I immediately called out to Jim, several times, but there was no answer.” Bruce moved to him and saw a bad head wound. He bandaged him and under cover fire, got Jim to a helicopter and evacuated to the hospital. He only lived several hours and died peacefully, the MASH Hospital told them later.
This young man was a special friend to Bruce. Jim Sacco (picture – man in the middle) was the “older,” 20-year-old seasoned soldier that had stood up for Bruce when he arrived as the youngest man in the platoon, and had taken a lot of kidding from the other guys. He had taken time to talk to Bruce and let the others know how he felt.
After this, Doc Schamber gained the respect from his platoon that Jim thought he deserved. Bruce says, “But I also grew old beyond my years…a part of my youth was gone. A good and brave man died that day…but hopefully, the good in him will live on in each of our lives and in those with whom we meet.”
Bruce was recommended for the Silver Star Medal for bravery. But his commanding officer believed that he was just doing his job and it was downgraded to a Commendation Medal. Bruce agreed and says, “Yes, I was just doing my job…I’m not a brave man, I was just trying to survive.” (But, we surely know that the men that served in war had to have reached a level of bravery that most will never know.) Bruce’s dad reminisced about his World War II experience and said they always did their jobs, “looking out for each other…the men that deserved the medals for bravery were never recognized except by the men they served with, and that was enough.” Bruce agrees.
Doc Schamber, you have gained all our respect as we have been blessed by your willingness to share your story with us. Our readers’ lives will be enriched as they read. We salute you and thank you for your service to our great nation.