[Note: For Memorial Day, we’d like to share an article that Stewart wrote for United Press International in 1971 about the last day in the life of an American soldier in Vietnam.]
‘What Does It All Prove?’ Asks GI After Buddy’s Death
By STEWART KELLERMAN
Camp Eagle, Vietnam (UPI)—At 5:30 a.m. on the morning of May 16, 1971, the lights were switched on in the wooden barracks and the dozen young men inside yawned, stretched and got ready for another day of war.
Four hours later, on a rugged ridge overlooking Vietnam’s emerald green A Shau Valley, Cpl. David R. Winkle, 20, of Bountiful, Utah, would be shot to death.
The Army listed him as one of 38 Americans killed in action during the week of May 16-28, raising combat deaths in the Indochina war from 45,145 to 45,183.
This is the story of how Winky died, as told by his Army buddies. It could be about any one of the GIs killed so far in Vietnam and the rest who’d die before the war was over.
It was cool out as Winky buttoned his camouflage fatigues and tied the laces of his worn combat boots, but the hot, heavy sun would soon be up, pasting the fatigues to his skin.
“He was scared that morning,” Cpl. Jeffrey Foley, 19, of Anchorage, Ky., said. “We were all scared. We’d been having it pretty easy for a few weeks and we figured it was time for one of us to get it.”
Winky and his buddies were Pathfinders, the guides who lead soldiers into tough combat areas. They go in first, help the rest of the GIs get into position and then return to their home base.
“He didn’t talk too much about the war,” Cpl. David Webb, 21, of Peoria, Ill., said. “He thought it was wrong. But he didn’t like the idea of guys burning draft cards as long as we’re fighting.”
The Pathfinders had been briefed the night before on their mission. They were to lead a South Vietnamese battalion to a jungle ridge overlooking the A Shau Valley. The landing was part of an allied drive against Communist troops massed in and around the valley.
“He enlisted in the Army and he volunteered to be a Pathfinder,” Foley said. “He knew it was a dangerous job. He figured he’d fight as long as someone had to do it.”
Winky was busy packing his rucksack and didn’t have time for morning chow. He and the other Pathfinders jumped aboard three-quarter-ton trucks and bounced along the bumpy dirt road leading out of Camp Eagle.
“He was a pretty quiet guy,” Sgt. Daniel Coynes, 21, of Picayune, Miss., said. “He wasn’t the war hero type. He did his job and he didn’t give anybody trouble. He was real squared away.”
Winky chain-smoked filter-tip cigarettes on the truck and fingered his lucky pendant—two bullets hanging from a silver chain around his neck.
“He was an intellectual type,” Webb said. “He went to college for a while and he figured on going back when he got out.”
Winky and the others were covered with dust as the trucks wound up a dirt trail to artillery base Birmingham, where the Pathfinders would link up with South Vietnamese troops.
When the truck stopped, Winky jumped off and dropped his rucksack to the ground. He stood off by himself smoking while the other GIs kidded one other as they waited for helicopters to take them into battle.
“He never talked much,” Coynes said. “He only opened his mouth when he had something important to say.”
After a half-hour of waiting, the Pathfinders and South Vietnamese soldiers jumped aboard UH1 Huey helicopters, sat down on the steel floors and lifted off. Winky and Foley were on the third chopper to take off. Wind whooshed through the open doorways during the flight.
“He must have had that same funny feeling we all have when we ride a helicopter into a battle area,” Foley said. “You think about stupid things. Like what would the fall be like if the chopper were hit and it was certain you’d die in the crash. Would you cry? Would you scream? Would you pray?”
It was 8:30 a.m. when the helicopter reached a tiny dirt landing pad blasted out of the side of the ridge by American jets a few hours before.
“We took small arms fire as soon as we landed,” Foley said. “An RPG [rocket propelled grenade] hit the LZ [landing zone] just as the bird pulled away. The fire was so bad the other helicopters turned back and landed farther up the hill. We were all alone, three Americans and 10 South Vietnamese.”
Winky was shot in the ankle as he ran across the dirt LZ for cover in the surrounding jungle. He fell, clutched his M16 rifle with his right hand, and dragged himself across the dirt into the thick brush.
Foley ran to the other side of the LZ, dropped down behind a thick tree, and began blasting into the woods with his rifle.
An American lieutenant alongside Winky was shot in the head and blinded. Minutes later the lieutenant was hit in both legs and the stomach. He bled to death and Winky couldn’t do anything to help him.
“It must have been hell lying there beside the lieutenant, knowing the same thing could happen to you any second,” Foley said. “We left Eagle, figuring we’d be back by lunch. But we were soon wondering whether we’d be back at all.”
Winky fired away into the jungle despite the blood gushing from his ankle. He kept firing. He snapped clip after clip into the M16, firing as the empty shells bounced against each other on the dirt beside him.
“At times like that you think about your family and pray and hope to God you’ll see them again,” Webb said. “You wonder what’s the sense of it all. You ask yourself why you had to come here and what good it’ll do if you get killed.”
Winky’s right shoulder must have ached by then from the kicks of the rifle butt. His trigger finger must have been stiff. He was dirty and tired and alone.
“He probably started praying then,” Foley said. “He was a Catholic. He hardly ever went to Mass here. None of us went to church much. But he was definitely a Catholic. He believed in Jesus Christ.”
At 9:30 a.m. Foley ran across the landing zone to find out why Winky had stopped shooting. He found him sprawled dead beside a stump, his blood soaking into the earth. He apparently died instantly when hit in the head by a rifle round.
“Winky never wanted to kill anybody,” Webb said. “He was on that LZ because the Army sent him there.”
Foley ran back across the LZ to his radio to tell of Winky’s death and call in air strikes. From his side, he could see a South Vietnamese soldier crawl up and steal Winky’s rucksack.
“You wonder who’s going to be the next one,” Coynes said. “We’ve lost a lot of people up here and what does it all prove?”
Foley got a Silver Star for his actions; Winky got a Bronze Star posthumously.
“I’m not convinced the war is worthwhile, and l’m not convinced it isn’t,” Foley said. “It’ll be a long time before we can tell whether all these deaths accomplished anything.”