The writer, of Omaha, is a lawyer and a Vietnam combat veteran. This is the 33rd year he has written a Memorial Day essay for The World-Herald.
There is a code that every combat soldier knows and understands. We think about our buddies first because they are thinking about us. It is to perish if we must but to save our buddies first. It is a code born out of necessity because in combat all we have is each other.
For decades, I have been haunted by the thought that I violated the code. For years, demons inside me have made me believe that when my fellow soldiers needed me most, I let them down.
On May 6, 1970, during the Cambodian invasion, I was summoned to our headquarters and asked to fly radio relay in a Birddog observation aircraft. I was advised that a troop insertion had gone terribly. An entire company was to have been inserted by helicopters, but only one platoon out of the four had made it in. That platoon was alone and surrounded by the enemy. It had lost all communications with its HQ and its artillery support.
My mission was to contact this platoon, to relay its situation to its HQ and to call in artillery fire on the encircling enemy. While primarily an infantryman, I was a qualified aerial observer and experienced in calling in artillery on targets on the ground. That was the reason I was pressed into flying this mission.
Once airborne, I contacted the besieged soldiers. There were fewer than 40 scattered about with little or no cover. They were surrounded by the North Vietnamese Army. Other helicopters bringing in troops had been turned back by intense enemy ground fire. Two helicopters had been shot down. No help could come until morning.
Their platoon leader told me that they had numerous casualties and the enemy was slowly closing in. His men were barely holding on. As quickly as he gave them to me, I relayed the coordinates for enemy targets back to the artillery. As the rounds began to impact, the platoon leader carefully instructed me where to adjust the fire. He had me call in the artillery closer and closer to his own position.
Except for sporadic tracer rounds the enemy fired up at us, the pilot and I were safe. The guys on the ground had death staring them in the face. I felt helpless. Except for calling in artillery, there was nothing more I could do. Yet it was my mission to ensure that they survived through the night.
When fuel ran low, I advised the lieutenant that we had to leave. I advised him I would be back as soon as I changed planes and then had to reluctantly abandon him. Sadly, it would be the last transmission I would have with that platoon leader.
Back in the air, I tried to re- establish contact. “Rainbow 26, this is Hawkeye 26 Delta,” I repeated. I did not know the identity of this platoon leader, only his call sign. After minutes of unanswered transmissions, a trembling voice responded. In a hushed tone, a frightened radio man informed me that in my absence his platoon leader had been killed. His body was out by the perimeter, yet to be recovered.
Through the night, I called in the artillery and received reports from these pinned-down soldiers. I talked intermittently with an NCO, who with his lieutenant gone had taken charge. He told me to keep the fire coming.
Again and again, he had to leave his position to tighten their perimeter and to direct his men's fire to keep the enemy off balance, so that his unit would not be overrun. I had no idea who this soldier was. All I knew was that he was one heck of a soldier. If his unit were to survive, it would only be because of his courageous leadership.
I was airborne all night and most of the early morning, flying stints in three different aircraft. I worried about these soldiers every time I had to desert them to change planes.
Finally, around 4 a.m., they were able to establish direct contact with their HQ and with the artillery, so our radio relay was no longer needed. Before first light, I was back in Pleiku. During my debriefing, I learned the identity of that platoon leader. “Rainbow 26” had been 1st Lt. Robert Phillips of Oxford, Ga. He had been shot while repositioning his men and died instantly.
What I learned next electrocuted my soul. When I asked about the heroic NCO and the frightened radio man, I was told both had been killed. Those shock waves would reverberate inside me for decades. My orders had been to keep these soldiers alive. Now I had learned that these soldiers — all three of the ones I talked with — had been killed. These guys were fellow infantrymen. I had assured them that everything would be all right. Now, all three were gone.
I never learned the identity of the NCO or the radio man. I was never able to learn anything about them. Yet over the years, I never stopped wondering who they were. I dedicated my 1999 Memorial Day article in The World-Herald to those anonymous soldiers.
This year, as Memorial Day approached, and the demons began to reappear, I turned to the Internet to attempt to learn the identity of these soldiers. I did not expect to be successful. In the panorama of war, this isolated incident was considered to be just an insignificant, unrecorded little action.
After a dozen searches, I found the name of a soldier who was present when this action occurred. I contacted him by phone. What happened next was a Memorial Day Miracle.
After explaining who I was and why I was calling, there was a long pause. When he spoke, I was stunned by what he said. This retired Ohio executive was the NCO I had talked with that night. He was the NCO I had written about in 1999. He was the soldier I was told had been killed and who I remembered every Memorial Day. Yet now I was talking to him again after 40 years. Both he and the radioman miraculously survived.
For 45 minutes we talked, reliving moments only he, I and few others would ever remember. Indelible memories neither of us would ever forget.
With a quiver in his voice and tears in my eyes, he told me several times, “Mr. Davis, if it hadn't been for you, I would not be alive. It was because of you and that artillery that all of us survived the night.”
I told him about my 1999 article, where I had written that he had been killed. I sent him that article. I promised that this Memorial Day, I would do a follow-up that would bring him back to life.
Our Cambodian incursion had been a success, but not without cost. In 12 days of fighting, the 4th Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne Division suffered 161 casualties; 43 young Americans were killed and 118 wounded. This Memorial Day, I will solemnly honor their memory. I hope America will do the same. However, for me this holiday is special: I can celebrate the life of a man named Darrell Holbrook from Springboro, Ohio. Today, I can thank that hero for partially absolving me of my sins.
This Memorial Day, I am eternally grateful to Staff Sgt. Holbrook, winner of the Silver Star, for reassuring me after all these years that maybe, just maybe, I did not violate the code of a soldier after all.