I consider myself a lucky man. I have a beautiful wife of 26 years, six healthy children and six grandchildren. I spent almost 50 years in the advertising industry, most recently with the iconic SkyMall Catalog until its demise in January 2014. I live in beautiful Arizona and get to golf with friends from my high school almost every week, most of my friends over 70 now (I’m the youngest in the group but gaining on them). A half-century ago, this scenario could have all been dramatically changed.
Have you ever wondered what your life would look like if you hadn’t got married, didn’t take that job out of state or worse yet, were killed? What if someone put a gun to your head, pulled the trigger and fired but the bullet in the gun turned out to be a dud? Would you go on your way and never think of the incident again? I’ve been shot at and hit, awarded three Purple Hearts from combat in Vietnam.
Uncomfortable for me because I don’t have much physical scarring to show regarding the injuries I received in combat. Small scarring on my face, loss of hearing in one ear, concussions and contusions that long ago healed. When I see a veteran with no legs or arms or burned to almost being unrecognizable who receives one Purple Heart, and me walking around with three looking almost normal, the guilt is terrible. And this guilt is multiplied as I know God spared me one day in the middle of a rice paddy just outside Da Nang, Vietnam. There is no question in my mind and the minds of everyone in my squad from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines: that day I was going to die.
For my 10-man squad it started out like any other day in Vietnam. Early morning and it was already 85 degrees with a humidity you could taste. We left Battalion Area at sunset for another all-night patrol, setting up three separate ambushes. As we were coming back into the Battalion Area the next morning, walking on a rice paddy dike, I reached for a white flair to shoot in the air, alerting the battalion perimeter that we were “friendlies." Suddenly, I stumbled down to my knees. At the time, I really didn’t think much of it. Clumsy was something I got used to after my first step as a baby, but the realization that I had just stepped in some sort of manmade hole didn’t hit me until Sgt. Richard Toschi, who was following behind me, yelled for the squad to “get down.” I had just stepped into what I was going to realize in a few minutes was the perfect booby trap. This is the kind of scenario that nightmares are made of. There was no noise, no smoke, just total silence as we waited for a delayed explosion or a Viet Cong ambush. As the sun began to rise, the squad was in the middle of a rice paddy, totally exposed, on a dike only two feet wide. I waited what seemed to be an eternity, then Toschi crawled up to where I sat, straddling the hole in the ground that had appeared from nowhere. The hole was square, approximately 12x12 inches. There were remnants of clear plastic sticking out from the top and on all sides. The Viet Cong (VC) used the plastic as a “roof,” spreading a thin layer of dirt on the top to disguise the hole. It was about 6 inches deep and there looked to be fresh dirt on the bottom as well as a thin wire, coiled up and almost buried. We all were in a precarious position. Was this a delayed device? What kind of device was it? Were there any VC in the neighborhood? Should we all get up and move out? There was a brief discussion, and it was decided that we would do the right thing and blow up whatever was hidden underground so it wouldn’t be used against us again in the near future. A quick verbal vote commenced and I was appointed designated discoverer; I assume because of my proximity to the hole. At this point I had literally dodged the bullet, but my curiosity got the better of me. I should have just thrown a grenade in the hole and be done with it. I got on all fours and carefully began to move the fresh dirt on the bottom of the hole, looking for a trip wire. I found it in two pieces, indicating I had stepped right through it. Picking up one end, I followed it to the side of the hole where it ended in the nose of some sort of projectile. I expected to see one of our grenades, the usual ordnance used by the VC. Instead I saw the tip of something yellow. I continued very carefully pushing the dirt aside and the projectile grew larger and larger. It then came to me that this was no grenade or can of rusty nails. This was an 155 mm artillery shell from one of our own Howitzers, capable of wiping out the entire squad. The shell was about a foot and a half long and had a kill zone of 50 meters and a casualty radius of 100 meters, but worse than that, it was what was called a Willy Peter round. It contained white phosphorus. Exposed to the air it produces 1,000-degree heat and particles that burn through human flesh. It even burns under water, and one drop will keep burning right down to the bone. I took one of the grenades I carried, pulled the pin, dropped in the hole and ran as fast as I could for a few seconds and then dove behind a mound of dirt. The grenade exploded and out popped the shell flying head over heels for about 25 feet, splashing into the shallow water in the rice paddy that surrounded us. The shell was a dud. We took note of the map coordinates to pass on to the company commander when we got back to Battalion Area, and we all stood up and slowly walked away.
Toschi ran up to me and patted me on my back. I turned to him and we slapped hands like I had just made a three-pointer on a basketball court. Back in the relative safety of Battalion Area, we drank beer until we passed out, telling the story of the Willy Peter incident over and over again.
It’s been over 50 years since that potentially fatal step was taken in the jungles of Vietnam. I relive it every night when I lay down and try to go to sleep. I thank God for sparing me. I think of the 58,195 men and women who died in Vietnam. Unfortunately, that group of heroes include Sgt. Richard Toschi, killed on July 30, 1967 (The Wall, Panel 24E-Line 52). Rest in peace.