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Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Ambush: by Loyd Cates

Loyd Cates
Forty-five years ago today in Vietnam, our platoon was ambushed late in the afternoon. We took many casualties in the first two or three minutes. To this day, I can't remember how many of us were there on that day, but I would estimate there were at least thirty.

Our Lieutenant was badly wounded right off the bat. I can't even remember his name now, but he was new and right out of officer's school. Our medic was badly wounded and unable to treat the wounded. 

I was the platoon sergeant and second in command. I had been in country about eleven weeks. I was hit in the back, neck, chest, head and leg with shrapnel from mortar rounds and my ears were ringing so bad I could hardly hear. They still ring to this day. 

I had on a steel pot (helmet) for one of the few times in my tour and it probably saved my life. I had a piece of shrapnel stuck in my helmet liner about the size of a prune. That means it missed my head by centimeters and it would definitely have been fatal. How it made it's way under my helmet is still a mystery to me, but lots of weird things happen in firefights.

I was the only guy left who could operate a radio and direct artillery, medivacs and air support, who was still conscious enough to do so. 

At one time or another during the late evening and night, we had artillery, a helicopter gunship, a Spooky gunship (airplane) medivac helicopters, and a couple of officers from headquarters back at the firebase on the radio. I didn't know either of them.

Medical Evacuation Chopper
I can't remember the order of how we responded to the enemy fire, other than our own weapons, but I know we called for artillery first. We "walked" it in pretty close to our position. 

I think the medivac choppers were next and then we brought in the gunships. 

The medivacs took out all of the wounded and to the best of my recollection, it was already dark. I stayed, because no one else could operate the radio. I wasn't that bad off anyway. 

A couple of the guys that were left bandaged me up and poured some red-looking crap all over me. They had found it in the medic's bag which we confiscated before he was put on the medivac chopper. I don't know what it was, but it sure stunk.

It seemed like one gunship or another was on location most of the night. One of the officers back at the firebase was extremely helpful and one was kind of a smart alack, for lack of a better word. I had no choice but to tolerate him, until he made me really mad. At that point, I told him to go f*** himself (sorry Mom) and I guess he did, because I didn't hear any more from him.

The next morning, our company commander sent my close buddy, Sergeant Donnie Byrd, from Bryceland, LA out on a helicopter to take my place and the helicopter took me back to the firebase where there was a crude medical facility.

Years later, Donnie told me there were eight of us left, counting myself. I didn't remember how many of us there were, but I knew there weren't many. I didn't know how many we had put on the medivac choppers, or whether they were dead or alive. At some point I found out quite a few were badly wounded and ended up in Japan for medical attention and then on back to the world (USA). Through some miracle, and by God's grace, there was no one killed.

When I got off the chopper at the firebase the next morning, after Byrd relieved me, Captain Moon met me on the way to the medics. I didn't have a shirt on and he told me later that my guys had put so many bandages on me and had poured so much of that red stuff on me, he thought I was on my last leg. I probably only needed about three bandages and I think they had put about twenty on me.

A few minutes later, I was lying on a table face down, where the medical guys were picking and cutting shrapnel out of my back. The battalion Executive Officer came into the room and as soon as I saw him, I remembered telling the other officer to go f*** himself (still sorry Mom). I figured the XO had a pair of handcuffs, because I had no doubt he had listened to us on the radio all night. 

Instead, he debriefed me a little and told me I did a helluva job, which boosted my spirits, because I really had no idea what kind of job I had done. I just knew we had a lot of badly wounded guys. 

He never mentioned the officer and until this day, I don't know who he was. A couple of other officers listening to the radio that night told me they had a good laugh over it. I think I spent about a week in the hospital afterwards and then I was fine, except for the ringing in my ears, which I understand is not treatable.

After all of these years, I am still grateful for the miracle of no one getting killed that day. 

We had a reunion for our outfit in Fairbanks, Alaska in 2011. Captain Moon told me and others that one of the helicopters that came to our aid that night ran out of fuel and crashed with no survivors. I never knew that. I didn't know any of them, but those guys are indicative of the caliber of the men flying those choppers during the war. 

It seems trite to say so, but thank you from the bottom of my heart guys.

Loyd Cates

SSG Cates
199th Light Infantry Brigade

Other Articles by Loyd Cates:

“I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do, and by the grace of God, I will.” ~Everett Hale

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  1. Good article Loyd Cates. Combat does strange things to you of which most of us don't remember til many years later. Everything seems to slow down & your system & training just go on auto without any hesitation. Glad everyone made it out. Sorry to about the lost chopper crew. Best people ever, especially combat Medics. They're coming in regardless. Know all to well about the ringing in the ears. Same here also 45 yrs later. Mainly no matter what the ambush was ALL your people & yourself stood as one & did whatever it took to save each other. Rear echelon Officers seemed to be cut out of the same stuff. Some of ours were the same way & acted the same also. They all sound much tougher from back at safety of base camps. For being in country 11 weeks you excelled at the task at hand. Hard to do with little time in country & no short timers there to help. You definitely matured beyond your time there in a short time. Down the road I can say it helped any other firefight you encountered. Experience speaks volumes in combat. Glad you all got home. Thanks again for all you & your comrads did. 101st AIRBORNE, Ashau Valley, 68-69.

  2. Loyd welcome back. I was a Navy Corpsman stationed with the Marines 1964-70. I imagine what they poured on you was Povidone Iodine or better known as Betadine. It was in every Corpsman's Unit 1 (field medical kit) and I am sure every Army medic's field medical kit. It is very good to put on wounds in a jungle environment, messy but does a great job to fight infection.

    What Corpsman have told me that are in the middle East, is that for many penetrating wounds, they use basically a womens Tampon. Slide it into the wound and it takes very good care of bleeding. During Vietnam it was tourniquets, pressure dressings, hands, parts of uniforms. I can see where a person could use Tampons very well with bullet wounds. Of course with liberal amounts of Betadine.
    --Frank Fox


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