by 1LT Michael J Contos, 3rd Plt 2/12th Inf. 1970 (www.contoveros.wordpress.com/)
Lieutenant Vic Ellinger was shot and killed in Vietnam while I forced marched my platoon to come to his help, realizing after two of my men were medavac'd out because of heat exhaustion that I was too late. I'll never forget it decades later. I remember the only guidance I got then was from Lieutenant Colonel Salucci, who criticized me for allowing my men to walk too close together while in a formation, that a single enemy grenade could wipe out more than one soldier when bunched together.
Why did Vic have to die? I cried out in my silence. Why were we even there? What was our true purpose?
My good friend Charlie Ellis, lieutenant in charge of Second Platoon, was relieved of his duty shortly after two of his troops died in the field. The soldiers, one an experienced man, set up a Claymore Mine, stretching trip wire across the jungle floor, disguising it among the low bushes and leaves. They forgot where they set the wire, walked right into the wire, tripping the devise that triggered the explosion of C-4, killing them almost immediately.
I was relieved of my command after I called mortar fire onto enemy positions, "stepping" back each volley to get it closer and closer to the river across from my position, only to realize after the last request over the radio, the mortar fire had accidentally fell on to us, wounding half of the squad I was accompanying in the field. There was an investigation into the munitions, the rounds, the mortar weapons themselves, as well as the human agents who plotted the firing and of course the one who ordered the shots.
Lieutenants were a dime a dozen in Vietnam, especially to a man like Salucci, a Lieutenant Colonel who had been passed over twice for advancement to what we called a "Full Bird, a full colonel, and that he would be asked to leave the Army if passed over a third time. He wanted "body counts" and none of junior officers in my company provided him with enough. Two 0f us were relieved, and the third one killed.
4) Tell me about your experience in the war, the battles and such . . .
This is something few if any combat veterans like to talk about because of the stress that recalling these events stirs up.
My first day in the combat zone, I saw a member of my new platoon refuse to fight anymore and then "decking" our company commander with a roundhouse blow to the chin when the captain ordered him to "man up" and go into the field.
The first person killed in my company was an officer, a lieutenant, one of only three in the company. There was a story, an "urban legend," that the life expectancy of a second lieutenant dropped off by a helicopter into a "hot LZ," that is, a landing zone under fire by the enemy, was "16 minutes."
I didn't know this when my oldest brother had convinced me to go to OCS and earn a commission as a lieutenant; I got sent to Vietnam less than a year after graduating from Officer's Candidate School (Thank you, brother George!)
Friendly fire took its toll on two soldiers from the second platoon. They put out a trip wire to a claymore mine and forgot where it was, getting killed as they walked into it.
My medic wrapped his foot with bandages, laced up his boot, and shot himself with a .45 to get out of the field.
Five guys in my platoon were wounded when a mortar shell from our side fell on them.
A lieutenant who had chased Vietnamese kids away from playing with a shell along the perimeter of a base camp lost an arm when it exploded, this only two days left before he was to leave Vietnam.
We used no fixed bayonets. There was no hand-to-hand combat. The only time we saw the enemy was when we glimpsed him in triple-canopy jungle or walked up to his encampment, and he fled with us firing in his direction. We would not know if we hit anyone until we came across a body
I still loathe the battalion commander who wanted a higher "body count" for his promotion from lieutenant colonel to a higher rank as a "full bird" colonel. Lt. Col. Salucci was the only officer I knew whose own men fragged him, but survived when the hand grenade couldn't penetrate the sandbags covering his bunker.
Three lieutenants served in this company, but only two came back, Charles Ellis, Arkadelphia, Ark., and myself, Michael J Contos, formerly of Philadelphia, PA. Neither one of us like to talk about the war. I think of Vic often, particularly, that bushy blonde moustache and the way he had of barking at his men in a friendly yet forceful manner with a slight bit of Southern swagger. The day that he was shot, I had forced marched First Platoon over a quite a distance to come to his aid, but never made it in time. Lt. Col. Salucci later criticized my actions for failing to keep the proper distance between the men as we marched in the sweltering heat, never mind I moved so fast that two of my troops were medevac'd out because of the heat exhaustion created in our failed attempt to help. I had not known it, but Vic had died before we got to him. Today, I touch his Name on the Wall in honor of the sacrifice he made. God Bless you Vic and God bless your family. Michael J Contos. Note: Your two buddies, Lieutenants Contos and Ellis tried to help change the world after Vietnam. We both ended up in law school and have been trying to make a difference practicing law for several decades now. I have never met a Vietnam veteran that I have not found some kindred spirit some 35 years afterwards. Peace.
I knew something was wrong when I saw the radio operator's face. He handed me the mike attached to the bulky radio strapped on his back. The private, new in-country, made no eye contact, and was hesitant in his actions.
I identified myself by a "call sign" and heard someone say in a code that the leader of the Third Platoon had just been wounded, and that I was ordered to move my First Platoon to give him assistance.
First Lieutenant Victor Lee Ellinger had been shot by the Viet Cong. He was the best of the three platoon leaders in our Company C of some battalion of the 25th Division. (I can't remember the name of the battalion, which operated near Cu Chi. I block it. I hate the commander, even today. He's the only person I know whose own men tried to "frag" him with a hand grenade, but he escaped injury.)
Vic was a college-educated, good-looking "good old boy" with a thick head of blond hair and a Southern draw that got you to like him on first meeting. Had a large, bushy golden moustache, and a "swagger" about him that spelled out a "natural-born leader." Just like his namesake from his home-state, Virginia, Robert E. Lee. Vic hailed from Staunton, Va.
He was always on the ball and commanded respect form all his men, and wasn't afraid to "raise hell" like a drill sergeant when a slacker needed a little extra encouragement to do his duty, even if it only meant to "police" the area so the enemy could not find evidence of our movements, or worse yet, set a booby trap to a discarded C-ration can or an empty cardboard box that once held four loose cigarettes.
So, when I heard Vic was "down," I pushed myself harder than I ever did - force-marching my platoon to close the distance to get to him. Not sure how far we marched in the hot jungle creating our own path, with me walking point part of the way in my haste to help. We got to his position. And, we were too late. Vic had died. Two of my men were medevac'd out due to heat exhaustion they suffered during the march.
Never did find out the details of his death. We remained in the "bush" several days until returning to the "rear", where we attended a brief ceremony for Vic. My company commander said very little to the remaining two junior officers, even though we - I - had lost one of the closest friend we'd ever have in Vietnam. I never had the time to process Vic's death. I wanted to stop the war then and there. Wanted an answer to the question "why" he had to die? What were the circumstances? Why was the platoon leader shot and no one else? Was a sniper with the Viet Cong that good to take out the guy in charge with such skill?
I wanted to mourn him. To grief him. To set my Self right by him. But I never did. Was ordered back to the "field" the next day.
Failing to grief him still haunts me. I have a sense of failure. And when I sink into deep depression, I wish it was me that got killed back then, rather than have to deal with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).
You see, at times, I see Vic as the "lucky one," Me and the other platoon leader were relieved of our commands after "friendly fire" episodes. Two Second Platoon "grunts" who had set out a claymore mine for an ambush, forgot where they put the trip wire, and . . . walked into the wire, dying almost immediately. Their platoon leader was relieved. I got relieved when I had ordered mortar fire "stepped down" to get rounds to fall closer to the enemy, and the rounds fell on my own men injuring half a squad. I carry that guilt with me today. Good days and bad days. Meditation and bringing dark war wounds out to the light helps to ease the pain.
I found this article posted on a blog site by a former officer in Charlie Co. He is recalling some memories of his time in Vietnam at the latter stages of the war and the pain and suffering he has dealt with since. In some ways, he raises the same questions we probably asked ourselves at one time or another about our own experiences - Sarge