By TYLER MASK
The day Wayne Parham's helmet was blown from his head, he was promoted to Radio Telephone Operator, a position that stuck with him long after.
“I was now the RTO for that Captain, who was severely injured,” Parham said. “The next day, we were able to get him out, and I was the RTO for the new commander, which didn't end up very well.”
The new commander was a first lieutenant straight from the Reserve Officers' Training Corps program and Officer Candidate School.
“I had hoped that he would listen to some of the hardcore veterans' opinions and what I might say to him,” Parham said. “It didn't work out. He went straight by the book, and anytime something happened, he would even get his book out and read what he was supposed to do.”
In May, the second Tet Offensive began, and Parham's unit was stationed between Saigon and Cambodia.
“We got hit so hard that [the commander] didn't know how to react,” Parham said. “He froze. He panicked, and I even had to go so far as to pull him down. He would keep popping up.”
During this particular battle, Parham recalls the event that put the commander over the edge.
“We had reporters in the field that would take our pictures and do their filming,” Parham said. “He stayed at our command post, which now – since I was the radio man – I got to stay with the elite group of commanders. During this particular firefight when they hit us, the reporter did not understand what could happen – he hadn't been in a firefight before. He didn't know to stay down. I kept trying to get him to come down, and he wouldn't wear his steel pot. He took it off and put his little jungle hat on. I was trying to direct fire with the orders of the commander. The reporter took one – blew the top of his head off. I had just pulled him and told him to stay down, and he wouldn't. Then the commander went crazy, you might say.“
At this point, Parham recalls that the commander was no longer capable of controlling anything, so he reacted quickly and did everything he could to get the commander's head down.
“He couldn't control anything, so I pulled him down, and I actually did something that I got an Article 15 for – I regret,” Parham said. “But I had to actually hit him and knock him down. That's against the rules. You don't ever hit an officer. But in that situation, it had to be done.”
Later on, Parham was commanded to go before the battalion commander and admit what he did. The commander told Parham that he did the right thing, but he still had to give him an Article 15.
“[It] wasn't too awful bad,” Parham said. “[It was] two-months restriction, which I wasn't going anywhere anyway, two months [without] pay, and then loss of one rank – from E4 to E3 – which didn't bother me that much because I knew I'd be right back up in a week or two because of all the losses that we would have.”
Fortunately for Parham, his commanding officer was relieved of his command and was replaced by an officer with more experience; however, Parham only got the chance to serve two weeks with this officer before acquiring “jungle rot” on his foot from unsanitary conditions. He was consequently sent back to receive medical aid.
“While I was gone for a few days, the commander decided to get another RTO, which was fine with me because I had done my two months of duty and it was time for somebody else to do theirs,” Parham said. “I remember having the surgery on my feet and they cut the nails off and cleaned it up. Funny story, I stood up and said, 'Sir,' to the surgeon, 'What do I do now?' – meaning do I go back to recover. He laughed and said, 'do you have a machete?'”
The surgeon went on to instruct Parham to take his machete, chop off the front of his boots and go to the chopper pad where the surgeon had already directed a chopper to pick him up and take him back to his unit.
“So that's what I did,” Parham said. “Did what we were told. [The chopper] brought me out to the field, and as luck would have it, we were in an area in a firebase – we stayed there for about a week. So I didn't have to do any walking. They gave me time for my feet to repair, but I still kept those same boots where it wouldn't rub my toenails.”
After that week of rest, Parham was refreshed and his unit began sweeping towards Cambodia during the months of June, July, August and September. Late September, Parham cheated death a second time by surviving mortar shrapnel straight to his gut.
“I got hit on my 21st birthday, September 26. We were in a firefight – I happened to be at point – and they fired mortars in on me,” Parham said. “A mortar went down right in front of me, but we were in a swampy area where the mortar will not detonate until it hits something solid. So it went down through the water – I was probably chest-high [in] water and knee-high [in] mud – through the mud, and it finally hit something solid enough to explode. And when the mortar exploded, it came up and caught me all the way in the abdominal and chest area and knocked me unconscious.”
To make things worse, the shrapnel lodged inside his body, not exiting from the back, with two pieces penetrating his large intestine. One piece remains inside Parham to this day, right next to his spine.
“They can't remove that,” Parham said. “Every year I have to do [an] MRI, a sonogram or an x-ray to make sure that that one piece next to my spine is encapsulated with fat and muscle. And it hasn't moved.”
For a brief moment after the explosion, Parham continued falling in and out of consciousness. Once Parham gained his senses, he was able to muster enough strength to drag one of his buddies who had lost his legs to a rice paddy for safety, under fire all the while. After their arrival to safety, a few of his comrades called for help.
“They called a medivac,” Parham said. “But they didn't want to come in there, so our commander, Colonel Herbert Ray, saw that we were in trouble and he commanded the helicopter pilot to come down and land.”
The soldier Parham aided was terribly injured. Parham recalls having to take his shirt off and cover the soldier's face to soak up some of the bleeding because he was so marred. But Parham was also in dire straights.
“The surgeon said that if I had been another five minutes late, I wouldn't have made it because the waste from the large intestines was leaking into my system,” Parham said.
Parham underwent several hours of surgery. After the pieces of shrapnel were removed, the surgeon had to reconstruct his large intestine as best as possible. To this day, Parham deals with the repercussions of this wound.
“I can't tell you the number of surgeries I have had since then,” Parham said.
The soldier Parham saved recovered, but he was sent home because of the severity his wounds; however, Parham's injury was not enough to send him home.
“Of all the bad luck, my injury was said to be an injury that I could probably recover from and go back to duty,” Parham said. “So they sent me to Cam Rahn Bay. I spent two months in Cam Rahn Bay recovering, doing exercises, doing therapy [and] being cleaned up everyday. After two months, our unit was so short – we just couldn't get enough replacements – they decided that we [should] go back to our duty. Right after Thanksgiving, I was sent back to my unit to finish out my year's tour.”
Parham's tour ended in February, 1969.
“I was a mess, mentally and physically,” Parham said. “I had lost from 160 pounds... down to 130 pounds. I looked like a scarecrow. The worst of all the news, when I left my unit, my buddies were all happy. A few of them had a week left. A few of them had a month left. My best buddy, Sonny, had five days left, and I had three days left. So I went back and started processing out, and then on the last day that I was there, one of the officers came to me and asked me if I'd go identify one of my buddies. It was Sonny.”
Parham was asked to escort Sonny's body back, but from a mixture of the loss and the week it would take to get Sonny ready, Parham declined.
“I couldn't stay another day,” Parham said. “It was just too much. It had been 365 days of just one mess after another.
“I am here to say that it's been difficult to deal with those that I left behind – hundreds of them,” Parham said. “But I am here because I feel these guys would want me to tell a little bit of the story. And my buddies in group therapy have asked [me to tell the story]. They have a little bit harder time with it than I do, but I am willing to take the chance to start telling this a bit. And then I feel like my buddies that are no longer with us would want us to tell a little bit about what they did and that they didn't die in vain. That we were there to fight communism and to instill a life for all those that follow.
“We never lost a battle. We did not lose that war.”