A Tragic Twelve Hour Tour
by Dick Arnold
August 4th 1967
A Tragic Twelve Hour Tour
August 4 th, 1967, another beastly hot, irresolute, and enervating day. The 2nd Platoon of A, 1st/35th was operating about 15 klicks southeast of Duc Pho; in the narrow strip of land that ran between Highway One and the South China Sea.
Dusk found us on a small hill top surrounded by rocky ground in sight of the ocean. The resupply chopper was very late, arriving just before dark, and carried only badly needed water and a couple of FNGs. One was Tony Taschler who became a popular Cacti reunion-goer before suddenly passing away several years ago. The other was Philip Gordon Onkalo, 19, from Baltic, MI. Oddly enough, both soldiers had been in AIT together. With the cooling ocean breezes, a clear moonlit night and within earshot of gentle waves; it did not portend to be an unpleasant evening. Precisely we were at grid BS 934-355 on Map Sheet 6838 III. However if we had known the history of the AO, we would have been less sanguine. For May19th-22nd, A and B 1/35th had been in a whopper of engagement at Dien Troung 4 just three klicks to the northwest. That fight was against a VC Main Force unit and the villagers in the area were known to be largely VC sympathizers.
Their typical sullen, hateful stares did nothing to disprove that. Even these many years later, I continue to be amazed at our lack of institutional knowledge which can be likely blamed on the one-year tours most of us had.
Shortly after dark a strange phenomena started. From a nearby ville came a steady refrain of loud music, mostly cymbals, drums, and perhaps a lute. A VC Jamboree/Hullabaloo if you will. No doubt designed to be mildly intimidating, it was that. At approximately 0100 hours the music stopped and the only sounds was the ocean.
Around 0300, a grenade was harmlessly thrown into the northern edge of the perimeter, Fortuitously, the encroaching VC had set-off a trip flare and thus had to make his throw at a greater distance then planned.
The rest of the night was uneventful and dawn brought a new-day promise of unrelenting heat. As men do in war, we busied ourselves with our routines of toilet, chow, replenishing water and looking to our weapons.
The lead squad then started down the trail on the hill's south end that we had traversed the night before. Charles Bradley was on point and possessed those hard-to-explain instincts of a good pointman. The squad was not spread-out per SOP; intending to do that at the bottom.
Likely using the 0300 grenade incident as cover, the VC had rigged a booby trap about half way down the hill. It consisted of a U.S. grenade with trip wire attached to the straightened pin; with the wire then ran taut across the trail and secured.
Charles apparently sensed/felt his boot brush against the wire though he also later stated he might have actually heard the pin go zinging past his face. At any rate he shouted a warning and dove behind a large boulder. As did everyone else in the near vicinity except for Philip. Third in-line he froze and the resulting explosion splattered him. He was instantly gone from frag wounds to the head and chest.
They carried him down to bottom and placed a poncho over him for decency's sake. One squad stayed behind as security for the chopper called-in to pick-up Philip. The rest of us moved-out. Tony Taschler confronted a farmer, rudely shaking him and, before anyone could stop him, putting his fist into the man's face.
Through the years I have oft times thought about this incident. Tony was wrong and we did not generally condone such actions; but something about the farmer also has bothered me. We were still near the beach and a fair distance from the paddies, thus the guy was like in no man's land. Is it possible he was seeking a macabre confirmation of what his, or his friends, handiwork had accomplished? Possibly.
Shortly afterwards the chopper whisked away Philip's remains. His death certificate places the time of death at 0830. That seems about right; meaning he had been in the field only about twelve hours. His official Tour Started Date is listed as July 20 with orientation, etc delaying his coming to the field. So his parents had likely received a letter or two; scant solace for the uniformed officer that would soon be knocking on their door.