Prime Time cover story: Dedication reunion brings flow of memories
On 11 July 1967, 4th/47th Inf. 2nd Brigade, 9th Infantry Division, Mobile Riverine Force, engaged 165th Regiment, Viet Cong Main Force, in entrenched positions near the Rach Xom Cau River about 20 kilometers south of Saigon.
In the afternoon's fighting, seven Americans were killed and eighteen wounded. Six U.S. soldiers died. Five from C Company, one from B Company, and the captain of a Monitor, a navy gunboat. Among the dead was Sp4 Clarence E. Lossing, 3rd Platoon, B Company, Blackduck.
An excerpt from a letter to the Lossing family from 3rd platoon leader, 2nd Lieutenant Phillip R. Bateman, forty-two years later:
"You should know that on the day he (Clarence) died, he was doing exactly what we had come to expect of him. He was up front, in the enemy bunker line with myself, my radio operator, Poppelreiter, the artillery forward observer and his radio operator, and Sergeant Jim Franklin.
"It was an intense, dangerous fight. Most of our weapons jammed and, as I said before, the enemy fire around this lead element was intense and deadly. Just before our handful of friendlies up front were forced to take cover and try to clear our weapons and get below the torrent of fire, Clarence was hit. Poppelreiter and I were closest to him, maybe 15 or 20 feet away. "Popp" cried, Black Duck's been shot in the head. He's dead.
"I saw Clarence fall and knew Poppelreiter was right. Clarence had suffered an obviously fatal head wound fired from the treeline a short distance ahead of us and behind the bunker line. He died instantly.
"Clarence died as he had lived, doing his job without hesitation, and covering his fellows. May his soul forever be in peace and honored rest."
On 21 Aug. 2010, beneath a cloudless sky, men from B Company gathered in Blackduck to dedicate a memorial to Clarence. The memorial, a full-size soldier statue, was placed by the Lossing family. Clarence's comrades in arms stood at attention near his grave. Friends and family eulogized him. Sweat trickled down the Patriot Guard members standing at attention who had single-filed into the country cemetery where Clarence rests. The local American Legion color guard honored Clarence. The city of Blackduck signed a proclamation honoring him.
Dalton Tom, a member of 3rd platoon the day Clarence died, called his fellow veterans to attention, marched the formation forward and ordered, "salute." To Clarence, to the men who had come so far to honor him, to all veterans, and to the visitors, Tom, knee bowed, lamented the fallen warrior. "Crying of the Taps" rose from his heart. The elegy brought tears, tight chests and renewed memories of the day Clarence died as the dirge echoed in the treeline.
The following day, the group of B Company veterans gathered at the Loren Lossing home north of Blackduck. It was a poignant afternoon as memories and tears flowed. I had the honor to visit with them. As I interviewed the men of Clarence's platoon, a theme emerged, a theme of sheltering Clarence, protecting him from danger. And a sense of guilt -guilt that Clarence, married 17 days before he deployed to Vietnam, never had the chance to live life.
Bill Befort was a sergeant, a squad leader in 1st platoon in 1967. Today he lives in Grand Rapids, Munn. His unit was ordered past 3rd platoon's right flank by B Company commander, Capt. James E. Engeldinger. Befort recalled the frustration of waiting in reserve, listening to the firefight a short distance away.
Befort has been instrumental in clarifying that afternoon for me. In paraphrasing a reply to one of my questions, he said B Company did not end up in possession of the field 11 July 1967; 3rd platoon was forced to pull back from the Viet Cong entrenchments and company Headquarters group was shot up shortly after that. B company dug in for the night.
Early the next morning, when B company reentered the area, 3rd platoon had fought for the previous day, they discovered that during the night the VC had withdrawn, carrying away their dead and wounded. Thus the discrepancy in VC body count between survivor memories and the 9th Infantry after-action report.
Befort said, "The memorial dedication and Tom's 'Crying of the Taps' was very touching."
Dalton Tom, a PFC in 1967, now lives in Las Vegas, Nev. I asked Tom, a Native American, about his "Crying of the Taps." "It's a cry - no words - sound of taps. From the heart, for the fallen warrior."
Tom said the weekend gathering brought back the relationship with Clarence from Vietnam. Meeting his family -how close-knit - their love for Clarence. Seeing fellow vets again. He was touched by the "welcomeness."
J.R. Franklin, a staff sergeant in 1967, now lives in Rego, Kan. He spoke of operating in the Rung Sat, moving inland aboard PAB's (Plastic Assault Boats).
"The VC would mortar the shipping channel (Saigon River) then fall back," he said. "The navy needed the army to go beyond the mangrove-lined channels. It was OJT (on the job training) for us and the VC in 1967. We'd go 3-5 days without resupply - body couldn't take more. After five days we'd lose up to 35 percent of the troops to immersion foot. What we saw as hardship was normal living conditions for the VC in the field."
Franklin, a 3rd platoon squad leader, was in the point element near Clarence on 11 July 1967.
Franklin said, "The Lossing family has made me feel welcome - I was walking on eggshells. I feel responsible for Clarence [his death]. By the end of the afternoon, the day Clarence died, I was ranking NCO."
Franklin was touched by the warmth of the Blackduck community. "This is the America we thought," he reflected.
Frank Lopez, a Sp4 in 1967, now lives in Addison, Ill. He spoke of how tight-knit the company was.
"We trained through boot camp, AIT (Advance Infantry Training), rode the same trains, took the same ship, the USS Pope to Vietnam," he said. "We were a very close, locked union."
In Vietnam, the MRF, Navy, was very valuable to us. I asked Lopez what weekend memory he would carry home. "Brotherhood - love - security - healing - closure. Clarence was a very loved individual - happy, had the same fears of combat as all of us."
Today Lopez helps veterans. He spoke of how he had recently sent a letter of support for a PTSD claim for an engineman on the USS Benewah, a support ship attached to the MRF.
Jerry Matheis, a sergeant in 1967, now lives in Adams, Minn. He carries an undeserved guilt about Clarence's death. Matheis was in Bearcat, on his way to R&R the day Clarence Lossing was killed. Looking off toward the sky, he said, "Perhaps things would have been different if I'd been there."
Matheis sent me several pages of his journal which have proven invaluable in giving me the feel of the misery the men went through - nights and days in water and mud - no escape, lack of sleep.
An excerpt from Matheis's journal:
"17 June 1967: At 1:00 the moon went under and at1:30 the VC snuck up to within 25 meters of our positions and set a claymore mine. He blew it and hit one of our men in the 1st platoon. His name was Kretlow, he is a team leader, 1st platoon. I guess that he got it in the leg. He is all right. The claymore just missed Barry Lin by an inch. He was asleep and never woke up when it went off. He woke up later and wondered what happened. We were hearing noises out in front of us. Lossing from Minnesota threw two hand grenades out at the noises. It slowed things down a little."
"Nobody locks their doors - I have a family of new friends," Matheis responded when asked what memories he would take home from the memorial weekend.
Ernie Slavik III, a sergeant in 1967, lives in Antioch, Ill.
"Make sure it's the third, I have a fourth, my son, and a fifth, my grandson," he said proudly.
Slavik often volunteered for point, "because of my outdoor hunting experience." Slavik's exploit deserves an essay of its own. On July 11, he was walking point, several hundred yards ahead of his platoon when he spotted suspicious activity across a dry rice paddy. He moved back to his fire team and on the radio, reported the enemy activity and suggested holding the company in position until he triggered the ambush. Capt. Engeldinger ordered him to move forward, up the left side of the paddy. Slavik moved forward and received fire from a well-concealed bunker approximately thirty yards away.
His Silver Star Award reads:
"Receiving blazing fire from machine guns, rocket launchers, and small arms, Specialist Slavik immediately returned fire killing an insurgent. Seeing that two bunkers in particular were pinning his fire team down, Specialist Slavik courageously charged the enemy fortifications. He bravely ran through a torrent of fire for over 50 meters, shoved the muzzle of his rifle into the firing port of a bunker and fired furiously. Slavik eliminated two insurgents then turned upon the other bunker. He braved steady fire once again, hurling grenades as he dashed toward the automatic weapon. His valiant actions obliterated the fortification that had pinned down his fellow soldiers. Suddenly he faced an enemy soldier who was aiming his rifle point blank at Slavik. In complete disregard for his own safety, Specialist Slavik remained in the open and exchanged fire with his adversary, killing the guerilla with a final burst from his weapon."
B Company moved forward to Slavik's position. Heavy enemy fire erupted from the far side of the paddy. Slavik, taking cover behind a large tree, jerked his head back as a sniper's bullet splattered bark in his face. When he turned, he spotted a grenade come hurling in two feet behind Captain Engeldinger and his radioman. They did not see it and could not hear Slavik screaming, "live grenade." Slavik jumped from his cover to get their attention and shouted again as he dove for cover. Engeldinger was wounded in the back when the grenade exploded. Slavik said he would lay down cover-fire so Engeldinger could be assisted back for medical attention. Slavik's M-16 jammed. Out of grenades, he rose from his position and zigzagged, screaming the Vietnamese kill scream, toward the sniper.
"I scared him away," Slavik said, "All I found were some empty shell casings."
He said he'd learned the Vietnamese kill scream in AIT. It was based on the World War II Japanese Banzai scream, designed to terrify the enemy.
Slavik was wounded that day and didn't hear that Clarence had been killed until later in the evening.
"Frank [Lopez] and I often volunteered for point over Clarence," he said wistfully.
When asked what he would take home from the memorial weekend, Slavik said, "His (Clarence's) family was as he so often talked about. His gravestone, touching it gave me a feeling of our closeness. And peace, that he was at rest where he so loved, home in Blackduck."
On 16 July 2010, Ernie Slavik III was awarded a second Silver Star for actions he performed three weeks earlier, on 19-20 June 1967, in Vietnam.
Mike Masello, a sergeant in 1967, now lives in St. Charles, Ill. He was in Dong Tam the day Clarence died. He said the memorial weekend gathering revitalized his friendship with Clarence and the Lossing family. He treasures the camaraderie of Clarence's brothers and family - blessed - brings closure.
Paul Nitzel, a Sp4 in 1967, now lives in Burlington, Iowa. About the memorial weekend, Nitzel said, "This is what America should be about. People here in Blackduck have been open, warm, caring, and generous. They have shared their lives, emotions, and experiences with us. Having spent a couple of days together we are no longer strangers. We (platoon) have a special bond we don't let many others share. The people of Blackduck and the Lossing family are now part of this bond."
Bill Wolters, a SpL4 in 1967, now lives in Eagan, Minn. "It's easy to make friends you'll have forever - Clarence's family - brotherhood."
David Persson, a SpL4 in 1967, now lives in Kennesaw, Ga. On 11 July 1967, he was a squad leader in 1st platoon. He first met Clarence at Fort Riley, Kan., in basic training.
"Clarence was easy to befriend due to his calm demeanor and gentle attitude. He often talked about his family and life at home in Blackduck. Meeting the Lossing family members 43 years later and taking part in the dedication for Clarence is an honor for me."
Ron Hoy, a SpL4 in 1967, now lives in Reseda, Calif. He was touched by the wonderful Lossing family - their warmth. He said about the weekend, "Clarence is smiling down."
As the sun set, after the last veterans of B Company set out for home, I visited with Loren Lossing. In 1967, Loren was in the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport en route to Vietnam when he heard his brother had been killed in action. His orders were revised and he served out his enlistment at Fort Hood, Texas. Loren said he 1049'd (army jargon for volunteering) for Vietnam but was refused.
Loren gives special credit to Ernie Slavik III, David Persson, and J.R. Franklin for bringing the weekend together. He was humbled, meeting the men Clarence served with - putting faces to the little stories they'd shared with him long distance over the years. And he said the weekend for him was about healing. During the dedication ceremony, as he stood near his brother's statue, he looked out over the crowd.
"I saw vets standing back, on the periphery of the crowd at the cemetery - holding back - healing for them," he said.
A few weeks after the memorial dedication, my wife and I had dinner with Phillip Bateman, the lieutenant in charge of 3rd platoon the day Clarence was killed, and his wife, in Taos, N.M. Phil reiterated what others had said about Clarence - the dedication to his friends, dependable soldier. Phil said that the day Clarence died, while he and others were taking cover trying to clear their jammed M-16s, Clarence had moved forward to one of the enemy bunkers and stood up, firing over the top of it into the treeline beyond, when he was shot.
The following evening, my wife and I visited Angel Fire Vietnam Veteran's Memorial. It had closed for the day, but as I wandered the grounds, reading tributes to the young Marine lieutenant written by a grieving family, I reflected on the cost of war. I remembered the men from B Company I had recently met, the scars they carry four decades later and the Lossing family for their loss. As Patti and I traveled across this great country, I recalled the panhandlers that approached me wearing shredded fatigue jackets and Vietnam Veteran baseball caps. Sadly, others, younger, wearing faded desert camo have joined their ranks. And I wondered, do politicians, before they send young people to war, consider these ramifications?
Wendell Affield attended high school with Loren and Clarence Lossing. He served in the navy from 1965-1969. In 1966, he did a WestPac tour on the USS Rogers DD 876. On Feb. 1, 1968, he returned to Vietnam as a member of the Mobile Riverine Force, coxwain of Armor Troop Carrier 112-11. He was wounded and medivaced home. "Collateral Damage," published in Vietnam, October 2008. Today, he is retired and lives with his wife, Patti, on a farm in northern Minnesota. Ten years ago he began attending the local university, studying writing. He enjoys writing nonfiction and poetry. He currently has an unpublished memoir, "Muddy Jungle Rivers." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.