Categories
Veterans Day

How Sin Buster got a Silver Star

[Note: We’re marking Veterans Day with an article that Stewart wrote more than 49 years ago as a war correspondent for United Press International.]

By STEWART KELLERMAN

FIREBASE RIFLE, Vietnam, June 2, 1971 (UPI) —  Jimmy Young, aka Sin Buster, was fast asleep in his foxhole, curled up on a camouflage poncho, when the first mortar round shook the orange earth around him.

The 36-year-old army captain rubbed his hazel eyes, buttoned his jungle fatigues, and stood up in dusty combat boots. In the light of the exploding mortars it would just be possible to make out the cross on his left lapel and the Bible bulging inside his right breast pocket.

“When you’re in a situation like that you don’t have a chance to pull out seven textbooks on morality to decide what to do,” said Chaplain Young, who prefers to be called Chap or Sin Buster.

The chaplain, who described the battle later to a reporter, did just about everything but pull a trigger to turn back a Communist attack against the US Army Engineers building Firebase Rifle on a mountaintop 15 miles southeast of Hue.

Young, a Methodist, won a Silver Star for his efforts, but he’s not so sure how churchmen back home will take to a man of God leading troops in battle.

“I feel I acted right,” he said, crossing his legs and puffing on a filter-tip cigarette. “My conscience is clear. If what I did was morally wrong then God will be my judge.”

Sin Buster used his hands, his eyes, and his face to accentuate his words. His closely cropped black hair was graying, but he still had a boyish grin.

“Why did I do it?” he asked. “I don’t know for sure. Maybe I can explain it by telling a story about when my daughter was two or three years old. I saw this rattlesnake near her and there wasn’t enough time to yell out. I did the only thing I could. I ran my lawnmower over it.”

Chap stumbled out of his foxhole just before midnight into a night lit up by explosions and tracer rounds. A soldier limped toward him, blood rushing from his face, back and arms.

“Over there,” the GI said, pointing to American bunkers 50 yards away. “They need help there. You better hurry.”

The chaplain put the wounded man on the ground beneath the protection of the steel bed of a five-ton truck and rushed off to help the others.

Communist gunners were firing mortars into the base and sappers were advancing up the mountainside, tossing grenades and satchel charges. Chap dived after the explosives and threw each of them back down the mountain. Some blew up only seconds after leaving his hands.

He hurried back and forth carrying wounded GIs to safety under the bed of the truck. He was about ready to drop from exhaustion himself, but before he had a chance to rest a soldier screamed out, “They’re in the bunkers, they’re in the bunkers.”

The chaplain ran back toward the bunkers. He picked up three GIs on the way and asked them to go with him from bunker to bunker to clear out the Communists. He told one soldier to crouch at the front of a bunker with an M-16 while he and another GI covered the back.

“Okay, let them have it,” Chap shouted, and the GI up front stuck his rifle inside and blasted away. A Communist hiding inside was blown apart. “You might say he had his whole day ruined,” Sin Buster said.

“Over there, over there, get him,” Chap shouted when a Communist carrying a grenade launcher stepped into the open. One of the soldiers cut the sapper down with a burst of automatic rifle fire.

The chaplain spotted two more Communists crawling on the ground near one of the bunkers. “Get them, get them,” he yelled out. And one of his men opened up with a machinegun.

Sin Buster helped the wounded US soldiers aboard medical helicopters when the fighting came to an end. One American was killed and 11 were wounded in the attack. The three GIs he led accounted for four of the seven Communists killed by the base’s defenders.

“I believe in the sacredness of human life,” Chap said. “I value human life highly. I guess that some of those people we killed might believe in God and go to church. But I’ve got to stick by my parishioners. I can’t help caring more about them than about the Communists. If somebody’s got to get it, I don’t want it to be one of my boys.”

Chap, who has been in the Army for three years, will be leaving Vietnam next month after one year in the war zone. His next assignment will be Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.

“Don’t get the idea I’m some sort of Patton of the chaplain corps,” he said. “I believe war is totally immoral. I don’t see anything right about it. But a soldier’s job is to fight and my job is to have him do what he’s trained to do.”

Sin Buster tapped the Bible inside his right breast pocket, uncrossed his legs, and then crossed them again.

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Categories
Veterans Day

For veterans, an old war story

[Note: We’re marking Veterans Day with an abbreviated version of an article that Stewart wrote more than 48 years ago when he was a war correspondent for United Press International in Vietnam.]

A hilltop rescue in Vietnam

By STEWART KELLERMAN

QUANG TRI, South Vietnam, Aug. 22, 1971 (UPl) — Joe Lester won the lifelong gratitude of three GIs the other day. He saved their lives.

Stewart Kellerman in Vietnam

The episode began Friday morning when .51-caliber antiaircraft rounds thumped into the engine of a tiny observation helicopter whirring at treetop level below the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam.

“I just didn’t want to believe it,” said the pilot, Warrant Officer Bill Halevy, 21, of Tuckerton, N.J. “I didn’t want to believe we were hit. I didn’t want to have to go down there, right in the middle of all those Communists.”

But down went the OH6 helicopter, hitting the rocky ground and crumbling into a ball of plastic, metal and wire. Halevy and his crew members—Specialist Fourth Class William Hillegas, 26, of Allentown, Pa., and Spec. 4 Joel Gibson, 19, of Cypress, Calif.—lived through three of the most hair-raising hours of their lives.

It all might have ended in tragedy for them if not for the quick action of their platoon leader, Capt. Joseph M. Lester, 26, of Aurora, Colo.

All the American troops involved, however, considered this just another day’s work for U.S. helicopter crews scouting the ridges and valleys below the DMZ in support of South Vietnamese troops fighting Communists in the area.

Halevy and his men were flying over a ridgeline about four miles north of Artillery Base Fuller, searching for a North Vietnamese battalion believed in the area. Their helicopter went down near a stream at the bottom of the ridge.

“As soon as we were hit I decided I wouldn’t be captured,” Halevy said. “I’d have shot myself instead. I’d save the last bullet for myself. I don’t want to be a prisoner of war. Your family worries and nobody knows what’s going on.”

After they pulled themselves from the wreckage of the helicopter, the downed crewmen could hear Communist soldiers messaging each other by whistling. As the whistling got louder the three Americans began moving up the ridge in hopes of signaling rescue helicopters.

“I never crashed before and I expected the worst,” Hillegas said. “Crashing was the hardest part for me. After that, when I realized I was still alive, I just wanted to get up that hill and away from the Communists as soon as I could.”

It took them about one hour to climb through the thick underbrush on the ridgeline and reach the top. All the time they kept low, trying to avoid the troops searching for them. The incessant whistling got louder and louder, never letting them forget the danger that was there.

At the top, they found a clearing. For two hours they waited and waved their fatigue jackets to get the attention of U.S. helicopters trying to find them.

Lester was in another OH6, one of a half dozen helicopters looking for the downed crew. As soon as he spotted them, he flew to nearby Camp Carroll, dropped off his other two crew members and returned empty to pick up the three downed men.

Lester received a Silver Star for going down and getting the three airmen. The three downed men were recommended for Bronze Stars.

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