Mineral Wells Index, Mineral Wells, TX

February 16, 2014

Saving Private Parham

Local Vietnam vet recalls near-fatal war experiences


Mineral Wells Index

— By TYLER MASK

tmask@mineralwellsindex.com

About two years ago, Vietnam War Veteran Wayne Parham was playing golf with his buddy George Gault at Holiday Hills Country Club.

“I said ‘George I’ve got something I want to show you,’” Parham said. “‘I haven’t showed anybody.’”

Parham walked over to his pickup truck and got the item he was talking about. Gault was floored.

“[Gault] said, ‘Well let’s go over to Woody’s and talk about it,’” Parham said. “He could tell that I needed to vent a little bit.

“So we went over there and sat down, and he’s the first person that ever said ‘Wayne, I want to thank you for your service.’

“And it took me aback. I didn’t know what to say. It was just my job. I was drafted, and I went in because they told me.

“I didn’t volunteer. I didn’t do anything to speak of, I just did my job. I looked at him and just sorta [said], ‘Well thank you.’ I didn’t know what else to say. But George Gault was the first person, and since then there has been hundreds.

“For a fact, the last few years people have started to recognize that we did do something over there. It was a hard tour and there was a lot of injuries and a lot of deaths.”

Parham saw action for weeks and months on end. Although he fought through the Tet Offensive and cheated death more times than he’ll ever know, Parham spoke of two incidents in his military career that should have taken his life but didn’t.In his first account, it was his helmet – otherwise known as a steel pot – with a loose neck strap that helped him dodge a bullet.

A few months later, the second instance occurred after surviving a mortar explosion where shrapnel was lodged directly in his gut. And Parham remembers everything.

Parham arrived in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive, which launched Jan. 30, 1968. At this time, the North Vietnamese Army hit all of the major cities in South Vietnam, including Saigon, where Parham’s unit was stationed right outside.

“The South Vietnamese were in charge of Saigon at that time,” Parham said. “But when they hit that day, they hit with so many units of NVA and NVC, which were the local Vietcong, they hit with so many thousands of troops that they overtook a lot of Saigon.

“General Westmoreland was in charge of all our troops in Vietnam. He assigned my unit, which is the Third Battalion, Seventh Infantry, 199th,

Light Infantry Brigade, and the Fifth Battalion, Twelfth Infantry to come out of the jungles and go take back Saigon.”

His unit walked out of the jungle and into the city and began taking Saigon back, house by house until they arrived at the Embassy, which they also

took back.

During this time, Parham’s unit also moved in on Saigon’s race track, which the NVA were using strategically because the bleachers were high enough to oversee some of Saigon and launch rockets.

“We fought for several weeks to take Saigon back,” Parham said.

Shortly after the launch of the Tet Offensive, the NVC began heading back to Cambodia.

Parham’s unit was ordered to chase them and gain more ground. This charge lasted through the rest of February, on into early April.

“We would find their NVA camps, have firefights with them, then we would take their cache, which is their rockets, RPGs, AK-47s [and] their ammo, and destroy their rice and camps,” Parham said. “And then [we’d] move on to the next one. Well as soon as we would get on to the next one, they would come back and refortify in the same camps that we had just destroyed. So it was a battle.”

After nearly two and a half months of fighting, Westmoreland commanded their unit to take a three-day rest.

“During the three months, we had no showers, and we didn’t even clean ourselves because it was just everyday, everyday,” Parham said. “We were lucky if we got to shave.”

When the rest period began on April 16, his unit was resupplied with ammunition, water and rations. Weapons also underwent repairs.

Parham recalls that they were lucky if they got water because oftentimes the troops had to find water in their surroundings and purify it with purification tablets, which didn’t work well.

Unfortunately, this rest period was cut short because the NVA and NVC were on the move again.

“After the first day, they saw the NVA making a base between Saigon and Cambodia – a big one – the biggest one that I have ever heard of in Vietnam,” Parham recalled. “So, after one day of rest, they told us to, ‘Get ready. We’re leaving the next day to go see if we can find the base.’ Well we found it alright, but it was not in the way that we wanted to find them.”

The troops were rallied together and loaded onto helicopters on April 17. When the helicopters arrived at their target landing zone that day Parham recalls that the landing was very odd.

“Most of the time, we would be in what we call a hot [landing zone], which this particular time was not hot,” Parham said. “In most of these situations, we’d get shot at before we even landed. This particular one on April 17 was a dry landing, and I was surprised. I suspected something.”

From their landing zone, the soldiers walked until it was time to set up camp without any NVA encounters. During this time, the troops resupplied and then waited through the night to take further action. Then, April 18 came.

“Unbeknownst to us, we were in the middle – right in the middle – of the biggest NVA camp in Vietnam,” Parham said. “What happened, they were so smart, and it was our fault too because those helicopters gave us away. That ‘whomp whomp whomp whomp’ noise, they could hear for miles.

So they let us get right in the middle of their camp, and they had tunnels all under there and spider holes, and they had thousands of NVA and NVC troops that jumped up the next morning. We’d left about 8 a.m., and they let the lead force get all the way to the end of it, which was probably about a mile long, and they hit us with everything they had. They were gonna wipe us out – and they nearly did it.”

Parham had been appointed to rear-guard that day, which was very unusual for him because he was normally at point. He recalls that there were not only troops directly behind him, but all around the American forces. Parham heard a shot, which he believed to be their signal, and then the NVA and NVC hit them all at once.

“They hit us so hard, our only hope was to use our experience and to call in artillery. We had such good commanders. Some of them were World War II vets, Korean War vets and Special Forces from prior tours to Vietnam – and this had happened to them, time and time again.”

Covering the rear, Parham was able to suppress fire and cover his area. After he took care of the area behind him, those that were left began working towards the center as they had been taught so they could await orders from commanding officers to set up parameters. To make things worse, the NVA and NVC began starting fires to smoke out the troops.

To fight back, the American soldiers put on gas masks and unleashed gas, which helped a bit Parham said, and they went through a plethora of ammo.

Parham eventually got near a B52 hole that was set up by the commanding officer and his radio specialist. The commanding officer was calling all forms of air support into the area. During this time, the commander also gave orders to Parham and those around him to aid one of the machine gunners because he was in trouble.

“Some of us went out towards his area and we saw him out there. He seemed to be repressing fire really well. Then, all of a sudden, I saw him go down. I thought, ‘This is not good, because they are going to get the M60 and turn it on us.’ So, I went on towards him in hopes to see if he was just injured and help him out.”

On his way to the M60, Parham ran and dove because shots were coming from every direction. When Parham dove, his helmet slipped back at an angle because of his loose neck-strap and a bullet grazed his forehead, ultimately entering his helmet and blowing out the side of it. The helmet was instantly knocked from his head, and Parham went unconscious for a moment.

When he finally came to his senses, he picked up his M16 and continued to hold off troops until he ran out of ammo. Then, he took hold of the M60 and fired it until the barrel was too hot to continue firing.

“My buddies behind me were trying to help as soon as they found out I was in trouble, but they could not get to me because there was just too many of them,” Parham said. “They had me pinned. At that particular point, I thought it was over.”

But his journey did not end there. After a period of time, his squad leader, Jack Brenneman, came to his rescue, covered him with fire, and told Parham to head back towards the center. Parham tried to hold off because he did not want to leave Brenneman alone, but Brenneman ended up commanding Parham to follow orders.

“He was like a dad,” Parham said. “He took care of his squad just like a dad would take care of his kids.”

Eventually, both Brenneman, Parham and some of his squad mates made it back to the B52 hole, which was full of dead and injured troops.

Although Parham was dizzy and suffering from a concussion, he was immediately called by the commanding officer Capt. Antonio Smalldone to take up the radio in place of the radio specialist who had just been shot down.

“[Captain Smalldone] said, ‘You’re gonna be my new [Radio Telephone Operator],’” Parham said. “[I said], ‘I have no training.’ He said, ‘Well you’ll learn on the run.’ And he gave me a little crash course on how to operate it. I was probably the most healthy out of everybody in that hole with him... He said, ‘You and I are going to straighten this mess out.’ Even with one arm and all the injuries he had and my concussion... we got up on this little hill and he called in more artillery. He even called in fire on our position  – we were going to injure and kill some of our own troops – but if we didn’t get firepower right away, they were going to wipe us out anyway.”

Smalldone studied the map as best as he could to figure out where most of the U.S. troops were in relation to the NVA and NVC, then called in the fire.

When evening came, the Vietnamese troops began to draw back only to prepare for sneak attacks during the night. Nevertheless, the U.S. soldiers were able to set up new parameters and prepare for the sneak attacks.

“All night long, this went on,” Parham said. “And we would [let] one sleep and [have] one awake, and every hour at the top of the hour, we’d have Mad Hour – we’ll call it Mad Minute – but it only lasted about 10 seconds. We’d shoot all we had out there because we knew they were just right there.”

The troops were able to hold off the Vietnamese. By the break of the next day the Vietnamese finally gave out and retreated from the area.

The American troops, beat as they were, resumed action and swept the area to get a kill count.

The day after this seemingly endless fight, the troops were provided with a hot meal, and Col. Ken Hall was present to thank the troops for all their hard work.

While Parham was in the food line, Hall noticed the damaged helmet on Parham’s head.

“[Colonel Hall] said, ‘Son, come here,’” Parham said. “I said, ‘Okay.’ So I dropped my plate right there. I said, ‘Yes sir.’

“He said, ‘What happened to your steel pot?’ And I told him briefly what happened, and he just shook his head and said, ‘I want you to bring that home as a souvenir.’

“So he wrote me a note – I still have it. ‘I want you to bring that back to the rear when you get a chance, get you a new steel pot, and then put that in your duffel bag, and this note will allow you to bring it back to the states.”

To Parham’s knowledge, there is only one other soldier who was given a note to take his damaged helmet home.

“There may be a few others, but the only other one I know of is out there in Fort Benning, in the 199th Light Infantry Museum.”

Unfortunately, Hall passed away two months after writing Parham’s note when his helicopter was shot down.

“He was the type of commander that would come down to the field and walk with us,” Parham said. “He was a wonderful commander.”