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War Stories

Tunnel Rat Down - 12 May 1967

Bruce Powell

This is a continuation of the "Tunnels" story in the Filhol Plantation area.

Transcribed text can be scrolled as audio is listened to.


Summary: PFC Mark Thomson driver for Strickland; Wanted to be Rat; Shape charge; New tunnel; Booby trapped tunnel; LT Webster; Thompson's hand blown off; Centaur Medivac; WO Baum; Hospital visit

The driver for Cpt. Strickland, his name is Thomson—I think he’s a PFC—is a real small guy, mousy, has a moustache, is a lot of fun. Of course, I got to know him real well because he’s always in the APC whenever we’re sitting around planning the mission or BS-ing or eating or whatever we’re doing, and he’s just like that other fellow I told you about, Beocki. They’re real great guys. Well, Thomson has got this big desire to be a tunnel rat. He’s small, and he worked out pretty good, so Cpt. Strickland let him work with the tunnel rats that day.

We went back and landed at Sabre Alpha’s position after they had the Centaurs shoot up the area, while the 20 element (Sabre Alpha 20) was making a sweep. They found this one tunnel, one of many, and set a shape charge up and blew it open. What it was, it was a continuation of the first tunnel where the VC came out and shot at us from. Anyway, they suspected booby traps in it, but they thought that most of them would have been set off by the shape charge. As it turns out, they weren’t.

Thomson decided he wanted to go in, so he crawled in first and got in oh, about 20 or 30 feet, and apparently reached for a weapon or some object that was down there that was booby trapped, and set off the booby trap and exploded in there.

We were back at Sabre Alpha’s position and were just taking off at the time, and Lt. Webster called up and said, “Send that bubble in here, we need a Medevac real quick.” I shot an approach right away. We were real close by, and I shot an approach into the woods area and landed pretty close to the same position I’d landed before when we were in the heat of battle and everything. They said that his hand had been blown up and they needed to Medevac him. Normally, you see, we can’t take people that have any injuries other than…we can’t take anybody but walking wounded, is what I’m trying to say, because you can’t lay down in a 23. We had supposedly been able to tie people to the skids—tie the stretcher on the crossbars outside the ship, but then you have to cover their face and tie them to it and everything, and there’s a good chance of putting a man into a state of shock or further shock by doing this.

Smoke was still coming out of the tunnel from where Thomson was injured, and they had him on a stretcher when I landed in the brush there. Everybody was spread out while the Charlie came up and took a few more pot shots at people, so we didn’t want to stay on the ground too long.

They had Thomson on a stretcher when we landed, and I could see right away that we weren’t going to be able to take him out on the chopper. He was already in a state of shock. I unbuckled my seatbelt and shoulder harness and jumped out of the chopper as they were bringing the stretcher up with Thompson on it, and it was a pretty pathetic sight. He’d completely lost his right hand—it was blown off—and they had a tourniquet on his upper arm. It looked like his leg was injured, and he was definitely in a bad state of shock and much pain. The corpsman had given him a shot of morphine. It didn’t seem to be taking too much effect. They had him right beside the chopper, just a couple of feet from the chopper—it was still running. I was beside him there. I started to loosen his shirt a little bit and I was yelling for the corpsman to get over and cut his pants leg off and see how bad his leg was, and it was pretty bad.

I really felt helpless there, not knowing what to do except to loosen his clothing, and there’s not much you can do to ease the pain. I knew I couldn’t take him out. There he was on the stretcher and all he knew was that there was a chopper sitting on the ground, and I hated the thought of having to take off out of the area without him for fear it might put him in more shock.

We called for a Centaur Medevac, and it was on the way. Anyway, Appler was yelling at me to get back in the chopper and take off, so I did, and strapped in and took off out of the area and flew back towards Cu Chi base camp, hoping to run into the Medevac chopper. It seemed like it took them hours to get there, but they finally made it out. I saw them coming in and led them back to the area. They shot an approach and landed, and picked Thomson up and took him back. All in all, it happened pretty quick, and they saved his lower arm, although he doesn’t have a right hand anymore—just a stub sticking out there. They say that we got to him fast enough to where they’ll be able to put a mechanical hand, and he’ll be alright.

I tell ya, I never felt so useless in my life. I was pretty happy about the incident that happened in the morning. I mean, not happy—I mean, two people were killed, and of course, I was unhappy about that, but the fact that we possibly saved three other lives by drawing Charlie’s fire with the chopper just made me feel good—useful, like we’d done something. But then, this incident here made me feel completely useless. I couldn’t help the man, I couldn’t haul him out, and… Well, everything turned out alright. I went over to the hospital to see him last night. Warrant Officer Baum and I went over.

It’s just hard to believe that a man could have so much courage and take it as well as he has. He’s lost his hand, he’ll be going back to the states, he’s in good humor, and he’s taking it real well. He’s already talking about wanting to come back and be a tunnel rat. I can’t understand the kid. It’s just the type of people that this war is producing. It’s making men out of a lot of people. It’s going to make our country a lot stronger, really, with the people that serve over here.

[end of audio]

Dictated by: Bruce Powell, Scout and Gun Pilot, D Troop 3/4 Cav (67-68).
Date: 15 May 67
Transcriptionist’s note: This document was typed verbatim from the recorded audio. Grammar was not corrected (is/was/were, laying/lying, etc.).