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War Stories

The Sergeant Who Fell into a Well - Mar 67

By SSG (Ret.) Bill Altenhofen and CW3 (ret.) Rich Williams (Edited by Bain Cowell)

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Bill Altenhofen’s story
The infantryman in Vietnam often encountered hidden hazards that could be lethal. In March 1967 the AeroRifles had been sweeping through an area when a Centaur Scout crew spotted activity along a canal. My squad was transported there by helicopter and told to sweep down the canal. On each bank the canal had a belt of grass about 10 feet wide by 10 feet high. I took two men with me (SGT Barney Wood and SP4 Williams) to wade down the canal and I put two men beyond the grass on each side, with orders to follow my voice so they would not get ahead of the three of us. All we found was a canoe with a bundle of clothes wrapped in a poncho. At the end of the canal we had to find a place for helicopter pickup, but we were staring at a swamp and the shortest way out was straight ahead. So I told the guys, “Follow me!” and waded into the swamp.

I took two steps and suddenly was in water up to my chest. One more step and I sank over my head. My helmet fell off, hit my shoulder, and disappeared. I kicked with my legs to get back up, but made no progress; paddling with my left arm didn’t help either. Reluctantly I dropped my rifle, paddled harder, and made more progress. Running out of air and looking up through the water, I saw a shadow that looked like an arm extended to help me—probably one of my troops. I lunged with all my energy and broke the surface, but the shadow disappeared. My hand found some mud and I pulled my head out of the water and dragged myself out of the well.

Walking back about 20 meters to where SP4 Williams was standing, I told him I had to try to recover my rifle. I took off my radio and web gear, went back to the well, and jumped in. Then I realized that without all the weight of the equipment I could not get to the bottom of the well, and even if I did I would run out of air, so I gave up the effort. When I tried out the radio, someone said I sounded like a drowning duck.

Back at base camp, I was assured the rifle could be written off as a combat loss; however, later I was told that because there was no enemy fire in the area when I lost the rifle, I would have to submit a report of survey to account for the loss. COL Shea, who became squadron commander about the end of March, interviewed me before signing off on the report. That was the best camouflaged well that I saw during my whole tour in Vietnam!

Rich Williams’s story
Platoon leader SSG Bill Altenhofen, SGT Barney Wood, and I (a SP4 at the time) went on a reconnaissance mission to the left flank which appeared to provide cover to the enemy as an escape route.  After discovering some discarded, bloody clothing at the entrance of a canal-like area, we split up with Altenhofen wading down the middle of the canal, in shoulder-high water with snakes swimming around.  Barney took the left side and I took the right side.  We talked to each other while walking down the canal in search of the apparently wounded enemy soldier.  After a few minutes Altenhofen no longer responded.  We yelled has name, but heard only sloshing of water.  Fearing the worst, we carefully began moving deeper into the canal toward his last known position. After what seemed like forever we heard his voice.  He had unwittingly walked right over the edge of a camouflaged well that went straight down probably about 30 feet.  He had to drop his weapon to avoid drowning and survive.  With Barney and Williams on perimeter guard nearby, Altenhofen tried repeatedly to recover the lost items--but was unable to get down that far.  We called for a helicopter extraction as usual and left without his rifle.