Veteran’s memories of Vietnam include ‘Ordeal of Con Thien’
The worst of Pat Neal’s PTSD nightmares came 30 years after he left Vietnam, but those three decades didn’t diminish their impact.
“During all those years, I was working and busy, and I drank a lot at night. I would go to work, come home and drink, get up the next morning and go to work. One day, a little bit before I retired, I decided I would quit – but then I couldn’t quit. But I made up my mind, and I did it. Didn’t have another drink,” Pat said recently, sitting in the South Fork home he shares with his wife, Rachell. Sometime earlier, he had quit smoking the same way.
After he quit drinking and retired from his job as a mechanic for executive vehicles at the Ford Proving Grounds near Dearborn, Michigan, Pat was no longer busy. He blames that change in his life for letting the Vietnam memories creep back into his head.
Pat grew up in Willow Run, Michigan, about 30 miles from Detroit, the son of a mechanic and a stay-at-home mom with six kids. He quit school in ninth grade and worked as a lifeguard and then for Western Union, delivering telegrams on bicycle.
In 1957, out of curiosity, he walked into a Marine Corps recruiting office. “I saw that guy in his uniform ... and a week later, I was on a bus to San Diego,” he said.
10 years with the Marines
Pat served with the Marines 10 years, including two tours of Vietnam. He was wounded by shrapnel during his service but declined a Purple Heart, feeling the wound wasn’t serious enough to deserve the honor. There was also a time when a young Marine who worked for Pat accidently put 400 gallons of fuel in the engine compartment of a tracked vehicle. When the vehicle started up and caught fire, Pat yanked the young man off the burning tracker and jumped up to drive it away from the buildings and personnel nearby.
“I don’t know whether to court martial you or give you a medal,” his colonel told him when the situation was safely resolved.
In late 1958, while Pat was training at Yermo Marine Base in California, he happened to be in town and met an attractive young girl, Rachell Trujillo at a pizza parlor. They were married 18 months later, February 1960. Two and a half weeks after that, Pat was sent to Okinawa, Japan, where he served for 15 months while Rachell waited back home. When he got back from Japan, Pat re-enlisted.
Their son Eric was born in April 1962 while Pat was assigned to the Marine base in Barstow, California. In late 1963 he was deployed to Okinawa, and from there he was sent directly to Vietnam in late 1964. Rachell and Eric stayed behind, moving from California to Michigan for much of Pat’s tour.
Pat worked as a mechanic on tanks and other tracked vehicles. He survived his first Vietnam tour in good shape but was sent back for a second tour in 1966, shortly after their daughter Wendy was born. It was during that second tour that the nightmares were born.
He served with B Company, 1st Amtrack Battalion, 3rd Marine Division and about 300 fellow Marines plus some Army infantry and South Vietnamese soldiers at Con Thien, on the edge of the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam. By then he was a platoon sergeant. At 27, he was the oldest of the 41 men in his platoon, he said.
The hilltop outpost at Con Thien was so difficult to get to, when Pat’s grandmother died back in the States, neither the USO or the Red Cross could reach him in time to bring him home for her funeral.
In Con Thien, the Marines lived “in holes in the ground,” Pat said. In front of the outpost, across the DMZ, was a contingent of 12,000 North Vietnamese with heavy artillery.
It was a miserable place. In a 1967 CBS News Special Report, “The Ordeal of Con Thien,” one interviewed Marine said, “If I live 100 years, I’ll never be able to tell how it was here.”
The CBS correspondent described the outpost as “the least defensible of any American outposts because it’s so close to the big guns of the North Vietnamese.” Another problem was that, since it was up against the DMZ, “Con Thien was a poor place to defend because the Marines can’t move out to attack,” the reporter said. Also, during the monsoon season, the outpost was very difficult to resupply.
For several months, the soldiers and Marines at Con Thien were under almost daily bombardment while their own artillery in the rear sent thousands of shells over their heads, according to the CBS report.
Pat, in charge of keeping 11 amphibious tracked vehicles running in the challenging conditions at Con Thien, worked mostly wearing a helmet, flack-jacket (vest) and boots. His M-14 rifle was always nearby.
‘The Ordeal of Con Thien’
In the middle of the night on May 8, 1967, the North Vietnamese unleashed a ferocious mortar and artillery attack – and then overran the Con Thien outpost.
“They started dropping artillery and mortar on us about 2 in the morning,” Pat said. “Delta Company called us and said the NVA were inside the compound, and they needed supplies and men.”
Seventeen infantrymen prepared to respond, and one of Pat’s tracked vehicles, a troop carrier, was readied to take them where they were needed.
“Usually the men rode on top” of the vehicle, Pat said, explaining that riding on top was an easier and more efficient way to move small groups of men quickly over short distances.
“The lieutenant said, ‘Get the guys up on top,’ but the major said, ‘No, get them inside.’ So they loaded up inside the tracker,” Pat said.
The vehicle headed out. “But the driver got hung up in the concertina wire. It got wrapped up in the tracks, and the tracker couldn’t move,” Pat said.
Before the men operating the vehicle were killed or wounded, they dropped the ramp door so the guys inside could get out.
But when the ramp door fell open, “there was an NVA guy there with a flame thrower,” Pat said.
All the men inside the tracker were killed. And they may not have died quickly, he said.
One other tracked vehicle was destroyed that night, and “a lot of our bunkers were blown up and burned out,” Pat wrote in some personal notes about the devastating battle.
“When I think of the guys we medevacked out, we had to put tourniquets on limbs that had been blown off and hear their screams of pain,” he wrote.
Then the dead had to be removed. “We had to pick up our troops piece by piece and put them in ponchos, gather the four corners and put them on the choppers,” Pat wrote.
The vehicle carrying the 17 soldiers had been loaded with fuel and ammunition, and even after the battle ended, the exploding ammunition made it too dangerous to reach the dead soldiers.
Three days after the battle, Pat and another Marine went into the tracker to bring out the bodies.
“When we went to pick them up, the burned bodies fell apart ...,” he wrote.
After all the American casualties were tended to, “we started to pick up the North Vietnamese bodies,” Pat wrote. “We had a bulldozer dig a big hole, and we began to throw all the dead Vietnames bodies in the hole. A lot of them were blown to pieces also. Not one of them was taken alive. ... Bodies and pieces of bodies, altogether with their weapons went into the ground and was covered.”
Two of the 44 men who died in the battle were from Pat’s outfit. The rest were Army infantry. About 100 men were wounded that night.
The CBS report blamed Pentagon and Johnson administration decisions for putting the American troops in the hellish place that was Con Thien. In one of the reporters’ closing statements, he said that, until those in charge of the war made a change, “the North Vietnamese will continue to shell [Con Thien], and the Marines will continue to take it.”
Back home, Rachel saw the report – and “spent a lot of time talking to the priests,” she said. “I kept asking, ‘What if he doesn’t come home?’”
But Pat did come home from Vietnam in September 1967. When he and his fellow Marines arrived in Seattle, some of the other people in the airport with anti-war sentiments, seeing the troops deplane, spat on the glass separating them from the returning Marines and “gave them the finger,” Rachell said.
Pat finally arrived in California and hitchhiked from the Marine base in Orange County up to La Puente, where Rachell and the kids were living. He hitchhiked most of the way and “walked the last five miles, carrying my duffle bag,” he said.
The little family moved back to Michigan. Pat tried several things. At one point, he was running a small garage and Rachell, who had transcribed court recordings and worked in a post office, had managed to build up a small savings account. They went to a bank for a loan to buy a house trailer but were denied the loan because, they said, Pat “hadn’t established himself in a job” – despite spending the 10 previous years in the Marines.
A man standing nearby overheard the conversation and offered them the $20,000 loan they needed.
Another day, a man came into Pat’s garage, asking to have a tire fixed. Pat quickly obliged. Then the man asked, “Do you know who I am?”
“It turned out he had been the truant officer during my school years,” Pat said.
The man had become a “big executive” with Ford Motor Co and helped Pat land the job as a mechanic at the Ford Proving Grounds, a job he held until he retired in 2001.
He and Rachell moved to Florida, where they’d always believed they would live out their retirement years. They lived in a nice home in central Florida 2 1/2 years – but discovered they hated it there.
One day they spread a map on a table, and Pat closed his eyes and put his finger on the map to figure out where they would live next. His finger landed on West Plains.
They found a place in South Fork and moved there in 2003. They became active in the American Legion post in Bakersfield and helped its members construct a new building there. Pat now serves as post commander.
They enjoy their life here. Their son Eric lives in Jackson, Michigan, and their daughter Wendy lives in Taos, New Mexico. They have four grandchildren.
Today: a life of service ... and remembering
Pat and Rachell stay busy with family and volunteer activities. Until recently, Pat was a volunteer driving other veterans to medical appointments in West Plains, Poplar Bluff and other sites around the state. He continues to lead the American Legion post in Bakersfield, and Rachell serves with the auxiliary.
They are happy and thankful for their life today. But Pat continues to struggle with post-traumatic stress syndrome. And still, the nightmares sometimes come.
He has lost his sense of smell, except for certain scents from candles ... and the smell of that ordeal in Con Thien that returns to him in his dreams.
“I can still smell in my mind the smell of burned flesh. I sometimes have nightmares about not being able to find all the body parts of the Marines we picked up. The worst part is being able to remember the smell and stink of the dead and the cries of the wounded,” he wrote in his personal notes.
He also thinks about the North Vietnamese soldiers who were buried in the bulldozer-dug hole.
“As I think about it nowadays, they had loved ones too, mothers and fathers and wives,” he wrote. “They probably wonder to this day what became of their loved ones. They will probably never know. This makes me sad when I remember.”
Pat has made some surprising discoveries since moving here. For one, he’s learned that a family friend from Michigan is buried not far from his South Fork home. Showing photos of the Marines who were in Con Thien with him, he points to one who lived in West Plains when they served together.
And then there was the day when he was in the VA clinic in West Plains not too long ago, talking with another veteran there. Somehow Con Thien came up, and Pat told the man about that big hole where the Marines buried the North Vietnamese soldiers.
The other veteran stopped him. “I drove the dozer that dug the damn hole,” he told Pat.