South Vietnam,1969. Lt. Joe Rogers had been forewarned not to make close friends. He ignored the admonition. “Everybody wants to know that somebody has got their back.” Lt. Chuck Chambers (not a real name, of course) of Arkansas was platoon leader. “He was my best friend, a super guy. We had family back home and daughters we’d never seen – only in pictures.” Chuck served his time in the field and was rotated to a non-combat job until sent back to the States. Soon, he would be home in the arms of his wife and cuddling his precious little girl.
In short order, Roger’s company had four company commanders. Then Captain Bailey (again, not a real name) took command. He had been commissioned in transportation, knew practically nothing about field operations, and wasn’t liked by the men. They called him Beetle Bailey. “He’d get people killed needlessly,” says Rogers. “He was a poor officer, he’d give orders to platoon leaders who knew it was a death assignment, but they did it anyway.” Rogers and his fellow officers took action. They asked the Battalion Commander to relieve Bailey.
A chopper flew in and Beetle Bailey was relieved on the spot, and flown back to the rear. Lt. Chuck Chambers, who was scheduled to go home in 30 days, was sent to replace Bailey. “One day we were in combat,” says Rogers, his voice cracking slightly. “And no matter where we sat down, we were fired on by the enemy. It was right before nightfall, and we had to find a place to stay for the night. We were trying to dig in. Mortar fire was coming in and counter fire was going out. Darkness came, and many of us didn’t have a hole to get in. First Cav had a policy that nobody slept in a hammock at night because of incoming rounds. Chuck hadn’t had a chance to dig in, so he hung a hammock. Mortar fire kept coming in that night. A scout was sent out with a dog to locate the enemy bunker. The ambush team was a hundred yards away, fighting in close combat and trying to keep from being overrun. There was a lull in the fighting for 25 to 30 minutes and Chuck climbed in his hammock to go to sleep. A mortar round hit a tree and killed Chuck,” says Rogers.
“He remained on the ground during the night. The enemy was trying to break through. When daylight came, a chopper came in and picked up casualties. I had to pick up Chuck’s body parts and put them in a bag. Me and two other guys took him to a helicopter and put him on. Later on, I had to write his wife in Arkansas. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do.” Rogers pauses to gain control of his emotions. Finally, he said “that’s why you don’t make friends. It had a little effect on me then. I had little time to concentrate on it. There were lots of guys I knew that were killed, but he was the one that hurt me the most.” Rogers pauses. “His death was attributed to having to come back to the field. He wouldn’t have come back if we hadn’t taken action to relieve Captain Bailey.”
Later, Rogers considered visiting Chuck’s wife and daughter in Arkansas, but didn’t. “I just tried to put it out of my mind.” Death was a constant companion. A third of his OCS class at Ft. Sill were killed. The enemy launched waves of human assaults against the firebase. “We’d kill ’em by the dozens in the wire. Next day, a dozer would be helicoptered in, dig a big hole and push the bodies in.”
Death stalked Rogers. “I had a guy killed by a sniper closer than you and me,” he gestures. “I was touching them when they were shot in the head. That’s how lucky I was. They were killed and I wasn’t. We never wore rank insignia – no name. Dog tags were the only identity we had. One of my friends was hit in the chest by a 40 mm RPG. There was hardly anything left to pick up.” He saw plenty of dead NVA North Vietnamese. “We killed so many of them. They were smart fighters. They were brainwashed, propagandized, and totally committed to their cause,” says Rogers.
“One of the most fierce enemies you’d ever fight – fight to the death.” They constructed bridges that were under water during the day and couldn’t be detected from the air. They would raise them at night and cross. Bicycles were loaded with several hundred pounds of rice and pushed 200 miles down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They used elephants to transport munitions and supplies. A huge underground ball bearing and bicycle repair shop was discovered in the jungles. A flight of B52s was called in and dropped bombs.
“Their call sign was “ARC light” because when they went off, it looked like the northern lights,” says Rogers. “They left total destruction; nothing standing; no trees. We reported over 100 dead. Body parts were scattered everywhere. Most of the casualties were concussions. We’d find enemy soldiers walking around totally delirious, bleeding from the ears. An enemy Corps Commander was bleeding from his ears, eyes and nose. We found radio operators that still had ear phones on, six to eight in a clump, all dead.”
After an underground bunker was discovered in the jungle, Rogers decided to watch the troops destroy it. They were going to pump in Persistent CS gas, a strong irritant that affects the eyes and lungs for six months. “You sure you want to go?” asked his Company Commander. “Yes sir,” replied Rogers. “I had two radio operators with me. They were my shadow. The wind was blowing just right when they gassed the bunker, then it shifted. We took off running as fast as we could through the jungles, totally oblivious to anything out there – NVA, tigers, snakes – running for our lives, that cloud of gas behind us.”
A fire fight erupted between the Americans and the NVA inside the bunker. “I’m going to send in flame throwers,” said the Battalion Commander. The helicopter delivered them, but dropped them in the wrong place. “It didn’t make any difference, no one in 1st Cavalry knew how to use them,” says Rogers. “The Air Force dropped bombs on the bunker.” Rogers received a Purple Heart after being hit with shrapnel behind his knee; two Bronze Stars, two air medals and a host of others.
But his most treasured award is a Soldier’s Medal awarded “for distinguishing himself by heroism not involving actual combat with the enemy.” Right after Chuck Chambers’ mangled body was flown out, the new Company Commander was choppered in. “I was supposed to fly out on that helicopter. It never landed,” says Rogers. “The rotary blades struck a tree trunk about 15 feet up and it crashed and caught fire. Me and the new Company Commander pulled the crew out and saved them.”
August, 1969. Rogers had done his duty and was headed home. He stopped by S-1 (Administration) before leaving for Ton Son Nhut Airbase. “Here are your awards and decorations,” a clerk said and tossed a box at Rogers. “That’s your ceremony.” Rogers walked up the steps of that airliner, called “Freedom Bird,” his medals so unceremoniously presented inside a box. He didn’t care. He was going home to see his wife and hold his baby daughter that he’d never seen.
The plane lifted off and headed to San Francisco. By Christmas, more than 40,000 Americans would be dead, killed in action. His weight had dropped from 180 to 132 pounds; he had suffered dysentery for 5 days in the jungle and once went 37 days without a bath, but he knew he had been lucky. Why had death chosen others instead of him? His greatest fear had been capture by the enemy. Once he was grabbed, but escaped.
When he deplaned at San Francisco he was disrespected. “No respect, no gratitude.” Rogers remained in the Army and made numerous trips to the Pentagon in Washington, but avoided the wall where 58,307 names of the dead are chiseled in black granite. “I stayed away from the wall all those years, then I finally went. Chuck’s name was the first one I looked for; I traced his name on paper.” His voice trembles. “One trip was enough.”
Rogers retired in 1993 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He is Adjunct Professor of Economics at Calhoun College. He and his wife, Margaret recently moved from Elkmont Village to the Vineyard in Athens.
By: Jerry Barksdale