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War Stories

The Suicide

by Tom Fleming

See also Bruce Powell's input. The Soldier's name is not used out of respect for the family


I wrote this essay initially as response to Bill Mosenthal’s note to me and as part of the commitment that we all had to jot down our recollections of our experiences. Bill jotted down some of his remembrances and left me with the thought that all of those Centaurs on the wall should be remembered. Some of you were there in June 1967 and may have been in the tent that night. Please look this over and critically let me know if my memory is faulty or there is some other part of the story that should be told. Tom Fleming - Written 20 September 2002

The incident where an electronic specialist from the Maintenance Section committed suicide at Gau Da Ha, 6 June 1967, is one of my more memorable experiences (not a good one either).

At that time I was the Service Platoon Leader (Call Sign - Stable Boy) and I had taken a maintenance support package to the Gau Da Ha fire base to support a LRRP mission. We had set up a General Purpose Medium Tent just outside of the adjacent RF/PF compound, between the RF/PF and the old airstrip where we parked our helicopters and had a conex of ammunition and fuel bladder/drums of fuel.

This individual had joined our platoon a couple of months before as a PFC. He had been an E-6 Avionics Specialist at Vung Tau, who upon rotating or home on leave, went AWOL for several months. He went AWOL because when he arrived home his wife was having an affair. He stayed with her during this period and thought he had his marriage patched up. They mutually agreed he should turn him self in, take his courts martial, volunteer to go back to VN, get his rank back, and start their life over. He was an excellent avionics technician and a hard dedicated worker.

A couple of weeks before the suicide he started acting strange. He kept asking the Section Sgt. to go out with the night ambush patrols, LRRPs and the Aero Rifles. I didn't think he should go because he was not trained as a combat soldier. That was my policy for everyone in the Service Platoon. I presume now, after the fact, that he wanted to get himself killed, but that is only a guess.

When this mission came up I said he could go as part of the maintenance support package along with an armament technician and the crew from Stable Boy. I even took one of the motor pool mechanics to serve as door gunner.

That night it was hot, humid and a light rain was falling. The individual asked me about 1600, if he could go over to the Signal Van in the Artillery Compound and try and get a MARS call to his wife. I didn't think anything was going to happen that would involve avionics and I was vaguely aware that he had marital problems so I gave him permission to leave the area. This was the first time I had taken an avionics technician out and only did so to give him a chance to be out where things were happening, but not put him in harms way hoping that this would satisfy his craving to go out with the troops.

Some time that evening we were all lying on our cots trying to sleep. It was hot, damp and the 155 Self-Propelled Howitzers Battery was firing Harassing & Interdicting fire right over the tent and no one was sleeping. Buff was in the cot next to mine and mine was next to the door flap with my feet towards his head. All the cots were jammed in tight (4 flight crews plus maintenance support).

I lit a smoke and he sat up in his cot, lit a candle stuck on top of a 5” X 8” millimeter and asked if he could ask me a question. I remember looking at his eyes and the strange look in them like he was frightened as his face was illuminated by the candle. He also had his M-16 across his lap. I responded, "Sure go ahead ask anything". He said he wanted to know how he could go about writing his last will and testament. I responded that he could get that done at the JAG Office and even volunteered to take him there when we returned to Cu Chi in three days. He said he didn't have time for that and I responded "look son nothing is going to happen to you out here". He responded "Don't call me son I am older than you are and I have a Loaded M-16 on full automatic pointed at your stomach". He further proclaimed in a loud voice, “no one had better interfere or CPT Fleming’s dead”.

There was a lot of scrambling around the tent at that point and it looked like a couple of the crew chiefs were going to try and jump him. I told everyone to back off. I tried my best to talk to him in as calm a tone as I could. He was barely coherent rambling about how he didn't want his wife to get anything after he died and that some buddy of his should get all his estate. He had me write down his last will and testament on the back of an envelope while I tried to talk him out of any rash action. He said it was too late for that. After what seemed like a half hour he announced that it was time to go out side.

I told him I wanted to put my boots on and he replied that “if that's the way you want to go” to hurry up and get them on. Up until that point he didn't come across as angry with me, or threatening, other than if someone tried to physically interfere. At that moment it was apparent to me that he intended to take me with him. As I stood up he stumbled as he got off his cot and his rifle fell to the ground. At that point my legs were crossed and I was off balance, but I tried to stomp on the barrel of his rifle anyway. My foot missed. He brought the rifle up sharply to my buttocks and the muzzle was jammed up my anus. Some one tried to rush him over the crowded cots, but I told them to back off. My fear at that point was that he would start spraying the tent on full automatic and would shoot too many people.

We went outside with the muzzle at the nape of my neck. He said "It's time, do you have anything more to say before we go”. I said yes I wanted to pray. He replied that if I thought that would do me any good where I was going to go ahead. I turned, got down on my knees and looked in to his eyes and said "God have mercy on your soul I am praying for you not me". With that he rotated the muzzle to his mouth and pulled the trigger. The M-16 was on full automatic. I think he got between 5 and 7 rounds off. I got up and started running around the outside of the tent-screaming Medic! Medic! Somewhere out back of the tent I got tangled in the concertina wire and some one came and recovered me.

One of the people who was in the tent told me “that if he shot you we had him in our sights and he was a goner”. As they said that I thought a lot of good that would have done me. I got my pilot WO Sholtz and we rolled the body on to a litter, carried him to Stable Boy while the rest of the crew got the helicopter ready for flight. I flew the body back to the Division Pad (I usually let Sholtz fly but that night I needed to be occupied so I flew all the way to keep my mind engaged).

Soon after we returned to the Coral the CID came to my tent in the troop area, and took me to I identify the body at Graves Registration. That sight is burned into my memory. I never wanted to go near that place again. It all hit me as I viewed his naked body on the stainless steel cleanup/prep table. They interviewed me back in the troop area to make sure that it was a suicide and that there was no culpability on my part. The CID agent tore up the will I had written on the back of the envelope and remarked that it was invalid.

I went back to my tent, but could not sleep. As I remember my father had given me a subscription for the Sunday Edition of NY Times. I had several weeks of unread issues stacked up still in their plastic wrappers. I tried to read but was just turning pages as fast as I could not really reading a thing. I had to go to the latrine at some point early in the morning. On the way along the dark, wet boardwalk, one of our guards, not knowing what had transpired, thought he would have little fun with an officer. As he stood in the darkness under the eves of a building out of the rain he chambered a round in his M-16. I almost died of fright. He quickly apologized when he saw my reaction and I told him what had happened.

This is probably more than you wanted to know about the demise of this soldier, but like all the other names on the Wall of the Vietnam Memorial, his story needs to be told. It is not a pretty story. The truth is often painful.

As a postscript, the Division AG Office wanted me to write him up for an end-of-tour posthumous Bronze Star. I did not do it, but he probably received the medal anyway. I have been to the wall many times out of respect for our fallen comrades-in-arms. Each time I visit I view each of the names of soldiers of D Troop Air, and their fellow trooper’s of the 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry, 25th Infantry Division with whom I served and who paid the supreme price for their country and fellow soldiers I am filled with sadness and pride. I visit this soldiers' inscription with remorse and pity.

Thomas E. Fleming, Colonel, USA (Retired) - Written: 20 Sep 2002

Bruce Powell input:

Tom, I located your essay on the suicide and reviewed it per your request.
It seemed very clear and detailed.  Here are my thoughts as best I can remember:
I didn't remember the date and I didn't remember the 155's firing. I didn't even remember them having 155's at Go Da Ha. Just the twin 40's that Rick Arthur and I played with one time. I remember how we had to pump Mogas out of the 55 gal drums for our OH-23's. Also the endless days of standby on the dirt runway in our C model gunships, playing Army Pinochle. And the day they caught the small child selling Cokes, with a grenade, in the bottom of his (her?) basket. ARVN's took him into the village, within sight of us, gathered the villagers and shot him dead. That never set well with me.

So I remember Go Da Ha well. ..but that night someone came out of the tent and grabbed me saying so and so is nuts and threatening to shoot CPT Fleming! Seems to me that the tent was oriented where one opening was towards the runway (where I was) or Northerly. I don't remember anyone else coming out. Peeking in the tent I could see you on your bunk and someone with a weapon on the next bunk You were on the left side of the tent near the other end. Looked like several people were in there bunks sleeping, or pretending to sleep.

I found CPT Fisher and told him what was going on and that I intended to take the kid down if I had the chance (I was very overconfident in those days. Since I taught a self defense course in college, I figured I could just about take anybody.)

About that time someone alerted us that you and the kid were leaving the South end of the tent. Fisher had his M-16 and said if he had a good shot he would take the guy down. I said don't be too hasty because I'm going thru the tent and try to jump him.

I quickly got into the tent and to the back flap and was trying to see if the kids finger was on the trigger (it appeared to be) and to assess which way the muzzle would be moved if I jumped him. His back was towards me, but he was just a few feet further from the tent flap than I had hoped. It didn't look good. There was no way to keep him from firing if I jumped him. So I could have caused him to shoot you or several other people depending on how my take down of him went (this was a move I had taught many people how to do but had never had to use it in the real world).

I also wasn't sure how nervous Fisher was. I flew with him on several missions before I went to guns and assessed him as a real cool headed professional. I finished my procrastination and decided I couldn't live with myself if I stood there and watched him shoot you. So I pulled the flap back slightly and crouched for the jump. About that time I heard the weapon go off in full automatic, the kids head landed a few feet in front of me, and I remember you jumping up and yelling "Medic". I mumbled "forget about it". After recovering from the initial shock of watching a suicide, I was relieved that no one else was apparently hurt. Then it hit me how close I came to being shot. Several rounds went by me on my left side. Later one of the guys said there were bullet holes in the tent where I was standing. I don't remember anything else about that night. The experience left me with a lifelong disrespect and animosity towards anyone who would commit suicide. I should be more compassionate I suppose, but I'm just not.