PFC Kenneth Wayne Flowers, USMC|
A Marine's Story on Hill 881 South
October 16, 2006
It was a Sunday, April 30, 1967. I was sitting in elephant grass next to two North Vietnamese enemy soldiers who had been charcoaled by napalm. Around 11 AM I was gazing up Hill 881 South not knowing that in an hour or so we would be assaulting the hill.
Hill 881 South was really a mountain that was 881 meters above sea level. I was seeing the enemy NVA (North Vietnamese Army) moving like rats from one hole to another. I was around a half mile away watching them moving from hole to hole or bunker to bunker.
I was part of a company of Marines 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, K Company, better known as Kilo Company.
As we started moving up the mountain around 12 noon I said a prayer to God, "Lord, have mercy on my soul."
There was a three prong movement of Marines going up the hill. There may have been two or three other companies. Mike Company got so shot up so badly they couldn't even operate as a company that day. Some were going up the ravines, but we were going up a ridge.
I was the point man (scout) of a single file of a company behind us. I got almost three-fourths to the top of the hill. First Lieutenant John Braxton Woodall sent two other men, Eddie Aponte, from New Jersey, and Freddie Pitts, my fire team leader from Walton Beach, Florida on as scouts. They went above us 20 to 30 yards.
I heard a machine gun cut loose on them.
Evidently, they walked over a machine gun nest, a bunker hole with machine guns camouflaged with brush and bamboo and tree limbs.
Aponte came back down the hill unhurt. The Lieutenant told me to come with him and we crawled on our bellies to try to get Freddie Pitts.
On the way up I heard Pitts in a faint voice saying, "Help me, help me." When we got to him, the Lieutenant took my rifle to cover our exit down the hill while I got him out. The Lieutenant cut loose on the enemy. It looked like Pitts had six to eight bullet holes in his chest.
I was trying to drag Pitts' body down the hill while I was crawling on my knees.
There was a whole lot going on in all the confusion. I was scared and fear was everywhere. The lieutenant was shooting into a bunker. Then I saw the lieutenant bent over with blood running out of his neck.
I saw a hand grenade hit about 3 or 4 feet from me. The only thing I could do was to turn my body away from it. But it hit me and paralyzed my right arm, blew up my right leg, and jammed my neck around to the left. I thought my arm and leg were blown off, because I couldn't see my arm or leg because I couldn't turn my neck around to look.
I took my good left arm and pushed my head around so I could see my right arm and leg and it was still there, though the upper right arm was spurting blood like a fountain and was paralyzed. I saw my right leg was chopped up like someone had taken an axe to it.
I hollered for help. Somebody yelled back, "Help yourself, you son of a ---B."
I got my combat gauze bandage out and put it around my arm so that I wouldn't bleed to death. I pulled it tight. It was a large pad with two long stings to tie up.
The rest of the squad, around ten to twelve men, pulled up while bullets from enemy rifles were kicking up the dust like a rain shower on a hot summer day.
People were falling left and right. In a minute or two all the bullets stopped and all l could hear were people moaning in pain.
I got to a rifle but it didn't have a magazine in it. Since my right arm was totally paralyzed, I had to use my left arm to tear open a M-14 magazine pouch, because two M-16 magazines were inside a M-14 magazine pouch. (Magazines hold the bullets.)
I looked up around the side of a hill and saw a North Vietnamese soldier coming toward me maybe 30 yards away. He had the coned shaped hat draping over his back attached by two strings and his rifle was pointing down like he was on a rabbit hunt. He appeared to have a smile on his face. I didn't know what he was hopped up on.
I was still trying to get the magazine into the rifle so I could kill him. I threw my body down the hill, and put the rifle pointing towards the soldier between my legs, and pulled back the lever that puts a round in the chamber. I was trying to sight him in to kill him before he got to me. I was leaning back, sighting my rifle up the hill. I wasn't thinking about pain from my injuries. I was thinking, "Kill him before he kills me." I was aiming for his head.
I took the slack out of the trigger. I didn't see the second hand grenade, and it blew me down the hill. I went one way and the rifle went another. Now I had shrapnel in my right buttock, right thigh, and more shrapnel all up and down my right leg.
Two or three enemy soldiers came out of their bunkers above me and starting shooting the moaning Marines in their heads.
That's when my praying resumed, while I was lying there and they were shooting my fellow wounded Marines in the head. There was nothing I could do. I had a rifle, but now it was gone. What could I do now, after being hit by the second hand grenade? I was helpless.
Before the soldiers came up to shoot me in the head, I had a vision, while I was lying there. I wasn't on the battlefield anymore. I was caught away.
I was taken to a funeral home where I saw my family, my fiancée and a casket. This was like an act from a stage play. Everyone was facing me. They were on stage and were part of the play while I was standing back with someone behind me, while I watched the scene unfold.
I could see the tears running down the contours of my family's faces as they looked towards me as I saw this play. My fiancée, Marie, who later became my wife, was crying.
I prayed, "Lord, is that me in that casket?"
My Vow to God
My mother's face came to me and I thought about her. All she had ever done for me was good, but I hadn't always been good to her. The things I had done to her, mistreating her, came back to me. I said, "Lord, all she ever did for me was good. Lord, here I am a little over 18 years old and have to die like this." Then I said," Lord, if you will let me live, I'll live every day for you."
I heard like an inward voice inside of me say, "Son, I'm going to let you live." The voice told me to play dead.
That's when the enemy soldier walked up to me, stuck his foot against my ribs but didn't kick me. The mussel of his rifle was about six inches from my head. My head was lying sideways to the right while I was lying on my stomach with my right arm outstretched. Blood was all over my body and it caked my hair. My helmet was mostly pulled down over my eyes.
I had my eyes closed and held my breath. I squinted as I looked out the corner of my eye and saw the soldier's tennis shoes and the muzzle of his rifle pointing down at my head. I continued to hold my breath for what seemed like eternity. Then he shot down at my head.
The bullet went right in front of my nose, numbing it. It felt like it was blown off. I thought I was dead. It sent little gravels into my face and eyes. Then he left me, and went down the hill shooting others in the head as he went. I would hear a sound like "be'ong" or the snap of a twig. Then the moaning would stop.
The enemy must have seen me move, because another soldier ran by me and shot at my head while he was running. The bullet went by my head.
Then an enemy soldier starting shooting a machine gun out of a bunker, which was next to me. The empty hot cartridges were hitting me in the face. I had eight hand grenades in my right pocket and they hadn't gone off during all the times I had been hit. I was thinking, "Maybe I could get one of those grenades out of my right hand pocket with my left hand. I was lying on my belly, and I started to move my left hand under me to get to the hand grenades. I thought, "I can take him with me."
The voice of the Lord spoke to me again and said not to do it. I decided to leave well enough alone.
After a few minutes the man in the bunker stopped shooting. I began to raise my head up and look around, like a prairie dog looking out of his hole. I saw bunkers all over the place. I found out later we were right in the nest of a U-shaped network of bunkers.
I looked around me and all the men in my squad were either above me or below me and were all dead. I saw the corpsman and lieutenant. My fire team leader, that I had been trying to carry out, was dead. Below me the squad leader and the rest of the squad was shot and killed.
A story was written up that I saw on the Internet in 2005 that said that my whole squad was killed that day. But they haven't read my story. That is why I decided to write it.
I was lying there for probably two hours since we had first assaulted the hill, but I am not sure of the time because I didn't have a watch. My mind was trying to figure out, "How am I going to get back to the lines of my unit?"
I was lying there pondering all of this. I couldn't walk; the North Vietnamese were all around me and it was in the middle of the afternoon. I was weak from loss of blood and was in light shock from being shot up.
Then I heard the whistle of a mortar round, probably from U.S. Marines, coming in for a spotter round. It landed around ten to twelve feet from me, with shrapnel now spraying me in my left foot and more in my right leg.
I said, "Lord, you let me live, and now you are going to let me die." My faith went out the window. But I really didn't know what faith was back then.
Then I started remembering what had happened a few days previous to this battle.
Rescuing Marines from the Mountain, a Look Back
A few days before this battle we had been in the mountains at nighttime to relieve a platoon of Marines that had been shot up and had been out there alone two or three days. No one had gotten to them before we arrived.
All that day we had dragged dead Marines out of the mountains. That evening we went further into the mountains to rescue a platoon that had been there wounded without any supplies. There were so many wounded and dead, and only a few were uninjured. But the uninjured Marines couldn't get the rest of the wounded and dead out. The unwounded just stayed with the wounded.
We got to them about dark and when I got to one boy who had been hit with shrapnel in his body, he told me he had been praying for two or three days that we would come and rescue them. He said, "My prayers have been answered."
We made make-shift stretchers out of two bamboo poles and vinyl ponchos and carried them out through the mountains. It began to rain. I was carrying the young man who had been praying for rescue. Going down the side of the mountain it was slick and we would be sliding as we were going through tall elephant grass. The men would groan in pain, telling us to take it easy, while we were almost falling down every other step.
Sometime around midnight, the North Vietnamese were trying to spot us with mortars by sending mortars in on us. The mortars were hitting within 50 to 100 yards so my company of Marines started running for cover, laying down their wounded and dead on the ground.
When the mortars were coming in I heard the wounded Marine say, "Lord, you let me live and now you are going to let me die."
All fear left me, as I told him, "Buddy, don't be afraid, I will stay here with you and protect you. You are going to be alright." He calmed down.
Now on Hill 881 South, I recalled what that young man had said, "Lord you let me live and now you are going to let me die." I felt the same way he had. I said the same thing he had said. You could feel fear all around.
Sometime a little later I heard two people talking in English down the hill below me. I raised my head up again and they looked at me in shock because I was still alive. I took my good hand and motioned for them to be quiet, and circled my finger to let them know the enemy was all around. They stood there 40 or 50 feet below me and I motioned for them to come and get me.
They didn't move towards me, so I took my left elbow, and dug into the ground and started dragging my body a few feet. A Sergeant and a PFC ran up to me, grabbed me by my cartilage belt and my left arm and carried me down the hill and put me down.
The Sergeant told the PFC to stay with me. I was lying on my back and the PFC was bandaging me while the rest of the company was assaulting the hill again. The PFC told me, "You are going to be alright, you are going back to the real world."
I had been hit in my right hand with a piece of shrapnel so he was bandaging it up. He had my hand up in the air while he was kneeling down beside me on one knee.
In an instant a sniper shot the PFC, and the bullet went completely through his back and through his chest and it glanced off my hand that he was bandaging. It killed him instantly. In his last breath he let a death scream that you could not image. His right arm fell over my body, and I was so weak I had a hard time getting out from under his arm.
I was so terrified that I jumped up on my left leg, and hopped on one leg, falling down, got up and hopped again. Some Marines below me in a bomb crater saw me hopping and falling, so they came and got me and pitched me into the bomb crater. They began to cut off my boots and clothes and I was completely naked. They covered me with ponchos and gave me a shot of morphine.
There was blood in my boots and a package of cigarettes in my right pocket that was covered with dried blood. I shared my cigarettes with my rescuers. I stayed there for an hour or so.
Finally, Marines laid a base of fire towards the top of the hill at the enemy, so all the Marines that could get out could all withdraw to another hill. It was twilight, night was coming and we had to get out. We had to disengage from the enemy.
They carried me out to the side of another hill where a helicopter, with infra red night vision, could come in and fly me out. They threw other dead bodies on the helicopter with me. Now it was night.
The helicopter flew me back to Khe Shan base camp where there was a field hospital. They put me on IV fluids and cleaned out all the wounds. I flew from Khe Sahn to Danang in South Vietnam by a C-130 airplane.
There were two hospital ships off the coast of South Vietnam, the Sanctuary and the Repose. From Danang I flew by helicopter to the hospital ship, the Repose.
My Hospital was a Floating Ship
I remember landing on the Repose. After the medical personnel gave me a shot of morphine, I don't remember anything until the next morning. Surgeons operated on me on the hospital ship to get the shrapnel out and left the wounds open so they could drain for a week. They also operated on my right arm and spliced muscles and nerves back together. I had a radial and ulnar nerve damage. Thank God for the good navy doctors.
Doctors put me back into surgery a week later where they sewed me up with wire stitches. There was no way I could lay without pain from the wire stitches. They gave me a shot of Demerol every two hours, or more frequently, if I needed it.
By then I figured out I was safe and was going to live. More or less, I told the Lord, maybe not in words, but in my attitude and deeds, "I thank you, Lord, for what you did. But you go your way and I'll go mine."
I did not know that Scripture says a fool makes a vow to God and doesn't keep it. I found out about this later.
After a couple days I wanted a cigarette pretty badly and I had a nicotine fit. The nurses told me I couldn't smoke on the ward but would have to be put out in the hall way on a metal gurney table. So they parked me out in the hallway next to the patient's lounge to burn one. I was lying on my belly with my head facing towards the patient's lounge when I saw several patients playing cards at a table.
Reunion with an Old Friend from Back Home
I saw the back of a red headed fellow, and I asked the corpsman, "Would you go ask that red headed fellow if his name is Lewis Murray?"
In the sixth grade I had a classmate named Lewis Murray. Lo and behold, it was Lewis! He had been in the Marines and had been shot in the stomach and had been floating on the ship for a couple months. They were getting ready to send him back to combat. He gave me some Camel cigarettes and I was a Winston man, but I smoked them anyway. When I didn't have any cigarettes, I stared smoking OP's -other people's.
When Lewis left, he told me that he would be seeing me again. When he got back into combat he went off mentally and I met him again at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital several months later.
Transferred Back to Danang to Be Processed Back to the US
I went back to Danang and stayed in a medical clinic so I could be processed to catch a C-130 back to the US. I was scared that we would be rocketed or mortared again.
I flew on a C-130 Air Force Medical plane to Clarks' Air Force Base in the Philippines. This base in later years was covered by a volcano and was deserted by the military. I stayed there a couple days, and then landed somewhere in Japan, then onto Anchorage, Alaska for fuel, and then onto Bethesda, Maryland. I stayed over night in Bethesda and I called Marie, my fiancée.
The next day I flew into the Portsmouth Naval Hospital in Virginia where I was a patient for over 6 months.
Email: marieflow (at)aol.com
To see photos of the first Viet Nam War reunion that Kenneth attended in 2008, go to Viet Nam Vet Reunion 2008, Marine Corp 3rd Battalion 9th Marines
Part 2: "Man Running from the Presence of the Lord."
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© 2006 by Kenneth Wayne Flowers.