Shell Shock and Pitchers

A mortar. Simple looking isn’t it?

One of the more terrifying moments in Viet Nam was the mortar attack. They came without warning, usually at night, and rained shrapnel down on unsuspecting people and property with a deceptively innocent looking device. A mortar is essentially of long tube with a nail at the bottom. You drop a shell down it and the nail triggers the shell and sends it into the enemy to explode. They are more sophisticated than that, but that’s basically the way it works.

There were two ways the Viet Cong mortared our base. One was to simply start dropping shells on a target, which did a lot of damage to the target, but after the first couple of rounds didn’t do much damage to people, who could duck. The other way was to “walk” the shells to the target. This entailed dropping a round on a spot, then moving the next shell up 50 or so feet and dropping it, then another 50 feet or so until they hit the target. Then they’d pound on the target for a while before “walking” the shells back out. This could be done by either walking the shells on out the other side of the camp from where they started or they could simply “walk” the shells back the way they came. “Walking” tended to inflict more random damage, which made it more frightening, and could catch more people unaware.

We got hit one afternoon. For some reason they decided on an afternoon attack rather than the standard night attack. The first round hit well away from us and by the third round we were all safely in our bunkers. The fifth round (I think it was fifth) hit about 20 feet or so away from our bunker. This was a big pile of sandbags with metal sheets interspersed among them that provided pretty good protection, provided you could get to it.

Kinda like this, but without the windows

All of us were safe, but then we heard the sound you never wanted to hear in a mortar attack, screaming. The next shell was well on beyond us, so four of us went dashing out to see what had gone wrong. About 20 or so feet away three guys were laying on the ground screaming. We got to them as quick as we could. Two of them were bloody with obvious wounds. One had, I remember, a big jagged piece of metal shrapnel sticking out of his back. The third guy was down beside them whimpering but we couldn’t find anything wrong with him.

“Shell shock,” McDermott said to me. Mac was my best buddy in the unit.

Let me be blunt; today we call it PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and I hate that. It sounds antiseptic, clean, clinical. Hell, it sounds like you’re having trouble finding a stamp. Shell shock may be less clinically correct, but it’s brutal, ugly, awful, and is just as terrible as it sounds. It’s the phrase I prefer, the phrase I still use, the phrase we all used in sunny Southeast Asia.

The base hospital was a couple of blocks away so we sent one guy to get help and the other three of us tried to aid the two wounded guys. Frankly, we blew off the shell shock guy. I remember Mac pulling out the big piece of shrapnel and applying a big bandage to the place. We all carried a bandage pack on our belts and we got yelled at by the medics for doing that (pulling out the shrapnel, not wearing a bandage pack), But in our defense, we were trying to help. We just didn’t know what we were doing.

A couple of medics showed up with a pair of stretchers. They loaded up the two wounded guys (after checking them out to see they could be moved and yelling at us for doing stupid things) and they and the two other guys from my unit lugged the wounded to the hospital (they made it safely I found out later). By this point the mortar was being “walked” back our way, so Mac and I grabbed the shell shock guy and ran as fast as we could drag him back to the bunker. Inside he, the two of us, and a handful of other guys in the unit waited out the attack. He whimpered the whole time and the rest of us sat more or less silent, not quite knowing how to calm him down.

After the rounds moved on back toward the tree line, Mac and I grabbed the guy again and pulled him to the hospital, one of us on the right with his arm around our shoulder and the other on the left doing the same thing at the same time. We had to cross a paved street and I remember looking down at his boots thinking the toes were going to be shredded by the dragging and the asphalt (strange what you think about in times like that). There were several casualties at the emergency entrance to the hospital when we got there, so we brought the guy around to the front entrance and went in.

There was a medic standing there and we sat the guy, still whimpering, down on a chair.

“Shell shock.”

The medic looked him over and nodded. He prodded a little, did one of those tests where they wave a hand in front of the eyes and see if there is a reaction. There wasn’t.

“He’s in shock. His eyes look like he’s just seen a Gibson (Bob) fastball thrown by him,” the medic told us.

“The Indians could use him.” It was the first coherent words the guy said.

We all stared.

“You an Indians fan?” the medic asked.

A weak nod. “Yeah.”

It was the break the medic needed. He helped the guy to his feet. “Never been a Cleveland fan. Like the Mets. You from Cleveland?”

“Erie, Pennsylvania,” he guy replied.

The medic started walking him slowly toward the back part of the hospital. Mac and I were more or less dismissed.

When we got back to the unit we told them what had happened. Most guys just nodded. One wag had to announce “Can’t stand the Indians.”



12 Responses to “Shell Shock and Pitchers”

  1. rjkitch13 Says:

    Great job and, as always, you bring it back to baseball. Glad you made it home alive.

  2. Jackie, The Baseball Bloggess Says:

    You can sure hit me right in the gut some days, v. And, I’m glad you did. Your post made me cry because it is so far removed from my reality.

    I had sometimes wondered if the “trauma” of PTSD had been lost in its acronym — and you’re absolutely right, it has.

    Thanks for this.

  3. Allan G. Smorra Says:

    Some things are best left unspoken, but there is a whole lotta stuff that needs to be said—like this story. Thanks for sharing this piece of your life with us and congrats for making it home.

  4. thebaseballidiot Says:

    Great story. I guess being an Indians fan in the 60’s was worse than any shelling he received.

  5. glen715 Says:

    This is an excellent story, V. I suggest that you collect your true stories (such as your Vietnam stories,your stories about growing up in a small town in Texas, the story you wrote a few years ago about the field in the middle of town, which dealt with baseball and segregation in your town, (I forgot what you named the story; it might have been “The Field in The Middle of Town), and others. I’ve said this to you before, but I sure wish you’d write more stories about your life, such as this one. The stories that are autobiographical are always my favorites of yours.

    And I will always admire veterans, such as yourself. Thanks for serving our country. Veterans come back and get treated like crap. (Just look at the V.A. Hospitals.) Politicians are big on waving the flag (Oh, they LOVE to be seen doing that), but when push comes to shove, they talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. MUCH more of the American budget should go to improving Veterans Administration hospitals and to other veteran-related matters.

  6. glen715 Says:

    What I meant was that you should collect them and get them PUBLISHED!

  7. Precious Sanders Says:

    Wow. Incredible story, v, and very well told. Thank you for sharing and thank you for serving.

  8. wkkortas Says:

    Your Viet Nam stories are, and as Glen notes, should be published. They are a powerful mix of the wry and the gut-punch.

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