“There’s one thing worse than death. That’s when you anticipate dying every step you make.”
That’s how Willie McTear summed up the year he endured Vietnam’s Mekong Delta in 1967 with Charlie Company, 4th Battalion, 47th Infantry of the Army’s 9th Infantry Division.
With 26 killed in action and 105 wounded, the company of draftees suffered more than 80 percent casualties.
McTear, of Las Vegas, is one of Charlie Company’s survivors featured in a two-hour documentary that premieres Wednesday on the National Geographic Channel. Titled, “Brothers in War,” it is narrated by Charlie Sheen and based on the book, “The Boys of ’67: Charlie Company’s War in Vietnam.”
McTear and Henderson Vietnam War veteran Ralph Christopher, a Navy river patrol boat crewman and author of three military history books including, “Duty, Honor, Sacrifice — Brown Water Sailors and Army River Raiders,” attended a preview of the documentary in Washington, D.C., on Friday night.
Veterans from the 9th Infantry Division who served in the Mekong Delta were present. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and his brother, Tom Hagel, were 9th Infantry Division soldiers.
Christopher credits McTear’s unit and others from the 9th Infantry Division with helping the Navy keep the shipping channels open by greatly reducing Vietcong forces.
“By the end of ’68 they were cut to shreds. These guys put them out of business,” Christopher, 64, said during an interview March 12 at McTear’s home in northwest Las Vegas.
“The Navy was there. We stayed there until ’72 but again, I give most of the credit to the 9th but they paid for it. It was hard and they lost a lot of people,” he said.
National Geographic’s documentary is billed as the “gripping, personal story of one of the last combat infantry companies to be drafted, trained and sent to fight together in Vietnam.”
Said McTear: “Obviously we didn’t want to be there if they have to draft us.”
McTear and Christopher flew to the Washington, D.C., area earlier this week to pay their respects Thursday to McTear’s platoon leader, Jack Benedick, whose family waited a year after his death on March 13, 2013, so he could be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
In his prepared remarks, McTear praised Benedick for “shaping and molding us into a fighting force called, ‘infantrymen,’” and for breaking down racial barriers that sometimes caused rifts among the soldiers.
CROSS SECTION OF AMERICA
The Charlie Company draftees represented a cross section of America.
“We were the most diverse group of men assembled in one place, from the California surfer dudes, to the Chicago-New York wannabe gangsters,” McTear, 70, said. “Then to add insult to injury there were the black and white sons of the South, both bringing unresolved racial issues to an integrated setting.”
“There was some tension but that was soon resolved,” he said.
Benedick changed his platoon from a diverse group with confrontational egos into a team of soldiers with all-for-one attitudes.
During training at Fort Riley, Kan., McTear said Benedick made that goal clear, telling his men, “There are no black or white soldiers, just soldiers.’”
McTear came to Las Vegas in 1962 from Newellton, La. He bounced between Nevada and Louisiana, working in Las Vegas to save money for attending a semester at a time at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La.
He was drafted on May 16, 1966, with another young man from Las Vegas, Ronald P. Schworer, a Rancho High School graduate.
“He was a geek,” McTear said.
Although they were strangers, having only met on the bus to boot camp, they became close friends after McTear, a big athletic guy, took him under his wing and they rose in rank from privates to specialists fourth class.
“He kind of latched on to me,” McTear said. “He was from Vegas and I was from Vegas. People wanted to bully him. He was kind of puny and small and he kind of looked at me like a big brother.”
After leaving San Francisco on a World War II troop carrier ship, they arrived off Vietnam’s coast in late January for a beach landing on Feb. 1, 1967. They built a base camp of tents and sandbag shelters, and began patrols in the “rice bowl,” as Christopher called the Mekong River Delta. It was the home of more than 20 hard-core Vietcong battalions, who covered inland enemy supply routes.
“We felt sorry for these guys,” Christopher said about his Army comrades. “We’d drop them off and they were in mud flats up to their waist and then by night the water was up to their chest. It was the worst conditions you could ever imagine.”
McTear remembers the smell. “It was the most horrific living conditions, the most pungent odor.”
Rice paddies were fertilized with human feces, he said. “It was just mud with slosh. You’d step with mud up to your knee. We stayed wet 15, 20, 30 days. … They suggest we change socks (but) nobody’s going to pull a shoe off, out of fear of getting ambushed.”
They were even hit with friendly fire one day while crossing a river when a gunner aboard a low-flying U.:S. helicopter mistook them for Vietcong.
No one was hit by the spray of bullets but in the confusion, Schworer, who didn’t swim well, lost his grip on the rope he was holding that was attached to a rubber raft. He drowned and his body was never found despite repeated dives by Benedict.
“When I looked back and couldn’t see him. That was really, really, really hard,” McTear said.
Charlie Company suffered heavy casualties when it was outnumbered on battles in May and June 1967.
“I remember distinctly June 19th. That was when the helicopter went down,” McTear said, recalling how the 2nd platoon had loaded their wounded on a helicopter, then watched as it took off and was quickly shot down, killing all on board.
He remembers the words of one soldier who was there, “‘This is our last day in Vietnam. This is our last day on Earth.’ We had just figured we wouldn’t gonna come back alive pretty much. That was the feeling.
“You just get fired on, and that ambush … I knew I was hit. I had to be hit because of all the firepower. And then I’m just laying there And I think I’m having an out-of-body experience because there is no way I could not be hit. And I’m laying there like, ‘I’m dead.’ But I’m just looking up and then I hear somebody say, ‘VC. Let’s body count.’ And then I kind of came out of it.”
RECOVERING THE BODIES
Not far away, Alpha Company had taken the brunt of an attack by hundreds of Vietcong. The Nha Be 5th Main Force VC Battalion that launched the attack numbered about 1,000 soldiers in An Long Province. Alpha Company suffered heavy casualties during the L-shaped ambush with machine-gun fire that had pinned them down in an open field.
“A Company had walked right into it,” McTear said. “Within 10 minutes they had 80 percent casualties.”
In the documentary, 1st Platoon team leader John Sclimenti remembers Charlie Company being called in to recover Alpha Company’s bodies.
“One of the things that struck me the most is that I would find a body and their helmet would be off their head, and it would be laying beside them and there would be a picture of their girlfriend or their wife or their family inside their helmets,” he said. “And that struck me because in my mind I was picking up a soldier, but then when I saw the helmet with the pictures inside, I was picking up a family member, a father, or a brother, or a son.”
According to Christopher, Charlie Company, as well as soldiers from Alpha and Bravo companies from the 4th Battalion and three companies from the 3rd Battalion, had been “pinned down all day and fought into the night.”
“The next morning they assaulted the mile-long VC complex with over 100 fortified bunkers and overran the VC base, but most of the VC had left the night before, leaving a small force to defend their base,” which the 2nd Brigade River Raiders destroyed, he said.
Bodies of at least 300 Vietcong were found “but many believe the figure was higher and the Nha Be 5th was months in rebuilding and never returned to the strength and threat they had once been,” Christopher said.
Looking back, McTear said for Charlie Company the Vietnam War was more about staying alive than anything else. But with that came another invisible wound on top of war stress. “We had a lot of survivor’s guilt. ‘Why am I coming back and my brothers are still out there in the field with the battle?’” he asked.
“I don’t think it was ever about fighting a war for whatever reason that we were supposed to be fighting a war,” he said. “It was about survival. Getting home. I don’t want to sound unpatriotic but it was. We had done some things most people don’t know about that war. It was more about us.”
Whatever support the American public had for the war when they left, it had deteriorated by the time they returned.
“We were united together from Day One,” McTear said. “From the time we were sworn in, until we left Vietnam, either in a body bag, wounded or came back on the plane safe. So we got really, really, really close.”
After they had flown back to the United States on a Pam Am “freedom flight” to the West Coast, many of the soldiers kissed the ground. But there was no parade or homecoming reception, only jeering, spitting anti-war protesters.
“I was so hurt I took my uniform off,” McTear said. “I didn’t want to be part of any war.”
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at email@example.com or 702-383-0308. Follow him on Twitter @KeithRogers2.