||One Sunday during Adult Bible Class our Pastor's
brother-in-law remarked he felt that his faith was the result of a slow
learning process rather than a sudden "Road to Damascus" type conversion.
His statement reminded me of a time I was on a road and was stopped unexpectedly
halfway between two villages. While this was not a "conversion" on my part,
it was an experience that I have always believed included some "Divine
Intervention", on a road, "The Road to Thoi Hoa". This particular event
in my life has been written many times over and over in my head and I will
now finally try to put it all together on paper.
I was stationed in Vietnam in the years 1966-1967, and lived most of
the time away from the large base camps. We were on a special radio team,
9 enlisted men and a Staff Sergeant who was in charge of us. I preferred
to live out in "the boonies", on a two man crew living with a few American
MACV advisors. The rest of the people around us were Vietnamese soldiers
and their families. One particular place was called Thoi Hoa, pronounced
Toy Wah, not to be confused with the large seaport city of Tuy Wah (pronounced
"Two e Wah").
Thoi Hoa was a small contingent of Vietnamese soldiers located on Hiway
13, that had earned the nickname "Thunder Road". The outpost was a triangular
shaped affair, surrounded with a dirt berm and a mine field for protection.
The American advisory staff was very small and many times there were only
four or five Americans there, counting us. The members of my team had all
enlisted in a unit which had been described as "Non-Combatant". So much
for that. No, we didn't go out looking for trouble, but it did manage to
find us, a number of times. In fact one of our team members sustained wounds
which required about a year of hospitalization.
The accommodations at Thoi Hoa were very crude. We lived in a two room
bunker made of sandbags. The "living room" doubled as a kitchen, bedroom,
dayroom, and "basement" in the event of an enemy attack. The sanitation
facilities consisted of nothing more than an orange crate type box with
a waist-high privacy screen made of burlap bags. The shower facility was
an old oil drum painted black, raised in the air to gain any solar heat
available and had a shower head attached to it. This was the Vietnamese
officers' shower, and we were their guests, so we were careful not to use
the last drop of water, especially since the Vietnamese commander was usually
the last to shower. We used the minimal water possible, a canteen cup full,
maybe two. Drip enough water on you to be able to lather up with soap,
then rinse off with just enough, but not too much water. Toweling off was
the hard part, to get dry that is. It was so hot and humid that you would
be sweating and as you toweled off, and you never got really dry, just
Our hot meals were cooked on a small camp stove, and sometimes we barbecued
meat on a charcoal grill made from an old oil drum cut in half. Many times
we feasted on "C" rations and also ate a lot of rice from the local market.
If we were fortunate to get something like fresh eggs, we ate eggs, five
at a time till they were gone. The same went for potatoes, Lots and lots
of french fries. Who knew about cholesterol? An ice man delivered ice every
few days, just like "in the old days" back home. These conditions led us
to venture out on a questionably unsecure/secure road to Ben Cat, the next
camp up the road.
The first time I traveled the road was during the Christmas truce of
1966. Four of us had gathered at Ben Cat, a larger Vietnamese training
camp and village. We decided to run the road to see our buddies at Thoi
Hoa. Thoi Hoa and Ben Cat were located along one side of the "Iron Triangle",
a Viet Cong stronghold, just above Saigon. Since there was a truce on,
this should have been a "no sweat" trip, The enemy was not supposed to
shoot at us, and we hoped we didnít run over any land mines which
might have been previously planted.
We left, flying down the road with our flack jackets and helmets on.
Our rifles and machine gun were loaded and pointed at the sides of the
road. I was scared, I'll admit, but in our group the peer pressure was
such that you didnít let on. We were a fairly tight group, having
traveled together on the ship, and by plane and helicopter, stopping at
numerous camps for a few days until we got working at our ultimate mission
locations. The peer pressure affected us in a number of ways. When we drank,
we drank to have fun, not to get drunk. Getting drunk would have been a
sign of weakness, unable to "hold your liquor", ... not cool. Drink till
you get sick ... cool! A number of times we came under attack, experiencing
sniper fire, mortar fire, etc., but remember, donít flinch, donít
show any signs of fear, a weakness, ... not cool!
We did make it to Thoi Hoa that day without incident and had a good
time with our friends. They gave us a tour of the compound and an area
near there which had come under heavy attack a few nights before. A forward
outpost had been flattened and numerous Vietnamese and Viet Cong killed.
They told us of the events of that night and how they had guarded the front
gate, the only entrance to this compound. We had listened to the events
that night, monitoring our radio for any word on what was happening. I
even took some time exposures of the fireworks in the sky, flares, and
gunships covering the area with thousands of rounds of bullets.
As evening approached, we were loading our gear in the jeep for our
return to Ben Cat. A Vietnamese officer noticed this and urged us not to
travel the road anymore that day. "Stay the night - it will be safer traveling
tomorrow morning!" Did he know something we didnít know? Well, we
macho guys, fearing nothing, decided to go anyway, regardless of the warnings.
We made it okay, but I was scared, ... again.
Weeks later I was rotated to duty at Thoi Hoa. As time dragged on, we
were tired, dirty, and with not the greatest menu of food to look forward
to, started to venture out onto the road in the evening, and then beat
it back the next morning unbeknownst to our team sergeant. Ben Cat offered
hot and cold running water, hot showers, real toilets, meals served by
Vietnamese women on real plates, beds with real springs and mattresses,
movies in the evening, and even TV!
One particular morning my partner Mike Donahue and I got an early start
on the road leaving from Ben Cat. There was a bit of fog laying in the
low places, and we traveled at the highest speed possible. Going as fast
as we dared, in the belief that we were a harder moving target for any
enemy who might have us in his sights. Also if by chance you ran over a
land mine, presumably with your back wheel, you would clear the blast area
a little quicker and possibly escape injury. Guess we didn't take into
account what happened if you hit one with a front wheel!
Anyway, I was driving on this narrow gravel path, not much more of a
road than would be classified as a "minimum maintenance" country gravel
road back in the states. Just as we "flew" over one rise and then another,
I suddenly had to jam on the brakes. In the little bit of fog just ahead
we saw a huge tank, an M-60 type, I believe. It was as wide as the road.
Behind it was a column of Army vehicles, tanks, armored personnel carriers,
trucks, jeeps, you name it. And just in front of this huge tank were two
foot soldiers. They were wearing headsets and slowly sweeping the road
with metal detectors searching for any recently planted mines. The entire
convoy was traveling at the walking pace of these two men. Mike and I looked
at each other in astonishment and with a big grin and a wave of our hand
pointing behind us, said, "Well, Itís All Clear Behind Us! " We
had just "tested" the road for them. The men in the lead vehicles of the
convoy looked at us too, with a look of "where in the world did these stupid
G.I.ís come from?" We laughed and proceeded on our way. We had to
be on the air on our radio net very shortly.
One morning, after repeating these "hot shower" runs, on a more frequent
basis ("familiarity breeds contempt"), we were "flying low" though this
enemy territory when the jeep's engine started acting up. The engine started
to surge and sputter. I pumped the gas pedal, and the surging smoothed
out. Then it surged again, I pumped again, and so it went. The engine seemed
to run smoothly as long as I pumped the gas pedal, but if I held the pedal
steady, it started to sputter and surge. Fuel line? Fuel pump? Carburetor?
I couldn't tell, but just kept pumping the gas. We had just passed alongside
a VC village. Village is too strong a description. It was a group of bamboo
roofed shacks on one side of the road, which had not come under the "Pacification
Program" other villages had. It was the classic VC Village. Donít
stop, just get through the area as fast as you can. They had been known
to take pot shots at travelers, so "keep it moving buddy". Well, the jeep
started to sputter again. Sputter, sputter, cough, cough, it surged, it
slowed. I pumped the gas, I held the gas pedal steady, it didnít
seem to matter now, as we slowed to a stop. And silence.
Stranded in VC country! Terrific! I tried the starter. Nothing, no grind,
no noise, ... not even a click! The jeep we had was equipped with special
radio gear, and on the dash was a voltmeter, rather than an ampmeter. The
gauge showed the amount of charge or voltage available in the battery.
I turned the ignition switch to "on" and the needle didnít even
move! Flat Dead!
We tried the two-way radio too, to no avail of course, no power - no
radio. It really didn't matter much though. We only communicated on a special
radio net among ourselves and it was too early for any members of our ten
man team to be monitoring the radios anyway. We may have raised some help
if we could have found the right frequency to place a distress call, then
of course we would have had to convince them who we were, where we were,
why we were there, that we were friendly, and were not setting someone
up for an ambush. The point was moot. The jeep, and the radio, were dead.
"Keep your cool" I thought inside, "Think man, think!" I was the ranking
member of our two man team, I was in charge, I was responsible for us ...
the highly sensitive, highly classified material and equipment we were
carrying with us. We werenít even supposed to be out here, unprotected,
and with our whereabouts unknown to our superiors.
We waited a minute, still no go with the battery. I then asked Mike
if he wanted to try to walk to the next post, Thoi Hoa, through enemy country,
alone. Not a good idea to say the least. It probably would have been suicide.
We werenít trained for something like that. Sure, we went through
basic training, but we were no combat veterans, and they were using real
bullets here! "No, not really" was his reply, "yeah, me either". "Do you
want to stay with the jeep, alone, unprotected while I walk to the next
post, or back to where we came from"? "No? I understand." Going off on
foot together, or just sitting there together would have not been any better.
We were in a real fix. The advisory post from which we just left had no
way of knowing that we did not make our destination and our counterparts
at Ben Cat would only realize something was amiss when they tried to contact
us when our radio net opened up, in maybe a half to three quarters of an
hour. A lot could happen in that time.
Like, fear ... sweat ... panic ... death! What am I going to do? How
much danger are we really in? Has anyone spotted us from the village, from
the bushes or tree line? Do they realize we're in trouble, an easy target,
a quick kill or capture to be led away as POWís?. My mind and my
heart were going faster and faster. "Think, what are our options, what
is going on here, are we going to die? Die? Now? "Hey!", wait a minute!
Iím not ready to die yet! Itís not fair, I havenít
lived a whole lifetime yet!"
They say when a person is about to die, their life passes before their
eyes. I understand. Probably the panic which was starting to set in caused
a self examination of my own life. I needed an answer. "Is this it? Am
I going to die here on the roadside? Is this why I was born, to die here
in Vietnam? Was I about to be shipped home in a body bag? For what purpose
was my life?" Many early childhood experiences came to mind, like the cold
Nebraska winters I had endured, walking to school, or the store, taking
a chance with frostbite, (we had no car till I was 16). I remembered the
hardships of delivering my paper route in the winter on my bicycle more
than a mile from home. School days, and the struggles I had in studying,
and other visions came quickly to mind. "Hey, wait a minute, I still havenít
experienced love, marriage, kids, grandkids" ... " Is this it?"
In the 60's there was a hit song entitled "Is That All There Is?" It
was a song with questions about life, with a haunting refrain, "Is That
All There Is?". That summed up my feelings at the time perfectly. "Is That
All There Is?" Was this IT? Was that all there was to my life? Was this
my time to die? At the tender age of 21?
I started to shake, not visibly I hoped, but my legs were getting very
weak. They felt like they were turning to rubber. I tried not to show it
to Mike, who also shared our predicament. Panic, Panic, "Don't panic, oh,
what to do?". This wasnít a bad dream, it was real, and it was happening
I don't remember all the events that happened, but I do know this was
a great time to pray! I don't remember exactly what my prayer was, it wouldnít
have been very long though. I'm sure it didn't start with a proper salutation
as I had been taught in eight years of parochial school. It may not have
ended "In Jesus Name", It might not have ended with "Amen." It might not
have been worded as a request if "He willed it." It might have been as
short as one word. "Help!"
HELP! ... Is that a prayer? ... I think so, if the Person it was directed
to understood it as such, and He would have. It was not directed to the
local god, Buddha, it was not directed to St. Christopher the patron saint
of travel, it was directed to my God, my Father in Heaven.
"HELP!" ... Addressee ... understood!, if You will it ... understood!
and Amen ... understood!
Trying to keep my wits about me the only logical solution I could think
of at that time was "Let's try to push it to get it started". Now that
didnít really make much sense if you think about it. The jeep had
been rolling at a much faster pace than we could ever push it, and it had
stopped. What I knew of auto electrical systems led me to believe pushing
really wasnít an option if the battery had absolutely no power,
no spark, and maybe even a short in the wiring or something.
Just as we were about to try to push it, and believe me my legs were
still shaking, and feeling very weak, (more panic I guess) some small children
from the "VC Village" came running out to see what was going on. None of
them appeared to speak any English, but we convinced them to help push
the vehicle. The more the better!
We managed to get it rolling somewhat, and with one hand pushing on
the windshield frame, and the other hand on the steering wheel, Mike, the
kids and I pushed it as fast as we could, I jumped in and "popped the clutch".
Sputter, sputter, it fired!! Gently giving it a just a bit of gas I managed
to keep it running! It was running! Mike jumped in then and I slipped it
in gear. We were rolling! Some of the kids thought this was great sport
and jumped on the fenders. They wanted a ride! "No, no, you canít
go! Get off! Thanks, but get out of the way we've got to get going!" Of
course our knowledge of the local language wasnít that great, but
they got off and we were on our way!
We rolled along the road rather smoothly, until almost a quarter mile
or so from our destination. Then, sputter, sputter, surge, surge, it was
doing it again! It stopped, again. This time Mike volunteered to walk in
and get a Vietnamese with a jeep to give us a push. I stayed behind, feeling
rather secure as we were almost within yelling distance and the safety
of our camp.
Mike returned with a jeep driven by a Corporal from the Vietnamese motor
pool. We pushed the jeep down the road ... fast, but it wouldnít
start. We tried again, and again, pushing it with the other jeep. It wouldn't
start! No way, no how! Finally we gave up and pushed it into the compound
and used the U.S. advisorsí radio to call in our predicament. "The
jeep is dead! ... and we are out of service", severely putting a cramp
on the mission of our whole team. We needed at least three sites in operation
to develop any useful intelligence.
We were safe, we were saved! I don't know what thoughts Mike ever had
or what he recollects, or if it affected him in any way. He was an easy
going type guy, maybe it never fazed him, or maybe he never realized the
gravity of our situation and the possible outcomes that could have happened.
Later a mechanic was flown out by helicopter from Cu Chi, our base camp,
with parts to fix our jeep. I don't really remember what all was wrong,
but it was a lot! It seemed to be a fuel problem by the way it responded
to my pumping the gas, but when it quit it was all electrical! As I recall
it turned out to be a combination of both.
A few weeks passed after that incident on the road. It was near dusk
and the gate to our compound had already been pulled shut. The war was
over for the day. A jeep with two Americans passed by our compound headed
for Ben Cat or perhaps the big artillery base at Lai Khe. Not long after
they passed there was a commotion among the Vietnamese soldiers. They were
standing on top of the berm looking down the road. We joined them and using
binoculars we could see the jeep had stopped in the middle of the road.
Stopped at just about the spot where our jeep had quit running for the
second time on that previous occasion. In the zone of safety, we thought,
just beyond the village of Thoi Hoa which was across the road from our
A squad of Vietnamese soldiers went out to investigate, They approached
the jeep and found the two Americans, dead. They had been shot with their
own weapons. The Viet Cong had jumped out in front of them, stopped them
and shot them. Then when the local village people came out for a "look-see"
the VC just melted into the crowd and got away. A medi-vac helicopter was
called in to remove the two soldiers.
That was it! No more "road runs" for me! If they wanted me to go anywhere
from now on they could come and get me, just like in the original plan.
"Bring a big helicopter, a Chinook, if you want me out of here!"
Years later at my wedding, our Pastor used Psalm 23 for the scripture
reading. Part of it reads like this. "Yea, though I walk through the shadow
of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me ... surely goodness
and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life." Appropriate indeed!
I thought we were alone that day, but no, Iím convinced now that
we were never actually alone!. If I were an artist and could draw, I would
draw a picture of a jeep and a dashed or invisible hand, gently clutching
the back of the jeep, coming from above, perhaps through the children that
gave us that extra boost to get us going again! Luck? Chance? Divine Intervention?
I can't prove it, but I do know in my heart there was someone greater than
me that helped us that day and answered my question, "Is That All There
"NO!", "There will be more ...", And there was, ... much more!
(This story is included in my book of letters that I wrote to my folks
For more info about "BELLER'S FELLARS" -The Book,
"A Year in Letters-Vietnam '66-67"