War Stories 14

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Losing Cap

By Curley Bowman

Scout Dog teams are an integral part of Army and Marine combat patrols. Their mission is to walk point for infantry patrols, to provide early, silent warning for enemy personnel, booby-traps, caches of equipment, etc.

Having been removed from the Non-commissioned Officers Candidate School (“Shake and Bake”) in Ft. Benning, due to an attitude issue on my part, I was assigned to the Scout Dog School for training as a dog handler.

Both my dog Cap (serial number 4K87) and I arrived at Ft. Benning about the same time. I was his first and only handler. Cap was my first and only dog. We worked, ate and often slept together for more than a year, until he was killed by enemy small arms fire on 28 June 1971.

Cap was a Husky-German Shepherd mix. He was smaller than most Scout Dogs, weighing in at about 65 pounds. That later proved to be an advantage. He was not an attack dog, his mission simply to alert. Loading him into dipping tanks, trucks, helicopters, etc., proved to be much easier than the guys handling dogs 20 to 30 pounds heavier.

Basic Scout Dog School lasted 12 weeks. Those handlers were summarily shipped to Vietnam and assigned a dog left behind by a departing handler. The top 12 teams in each basic class advanced to another 8 weeks of off-leash training. Cap took top honors in our off-leash class. After a short leave, Cap and I met up at Dover Air Force Base. Twelve Scout Dog teams boarded a C-141 bound for Vietnam, along with a cargo of empty aluminum “human remains transfer cases” (caskets). Many will recognize Dover AFB as the largest military mortuary in the DOD.

Cap and I were assigned to the 25th Infantry Platoon Scout Dog (IPSD), 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). Soon after, the 25th IPSD stood down and we were assigned to the 34th IPSD for the duration of my tour.

Scout Dog teams were the point element for infantry patrols, and most effective when walking trails or roads. Typically, Cap walked 10-15 meters ahead of me, but never out of sight. I usually worked with a “slack man” who followed closely behind me. My primary focus was on my dog, the slack man watched for other signs of enemy presence. The patrol followed 10-15 meters behind us, but also never out of sight.

Normally, we were attached to an infantry unit for 3 to 5 days, then went back to our unit in Bien Hoa to let our dogs recharge. When I first arrived at the 25th IPSD, I went out with an experienced Scout Dog team to learn the ropes. It was on my second or third solo mission that Cap gave his first combat alert. It was classic. He was standing dead still, raised on his toes, ears up, hackles up, and his attention was focused on a single point ahead. I signaled a halt, recalled Cap with my silent whistle, and I told the patrol leader that I believed personnel were directly ahead and due to the strength of Cap’s alert, bad guys were probably pretty close. The patrol got into hasty fighting positions and opted to “recon by fire”. This is a technique used in hopes of drawing enemy fire, and then possibly calling gunships; or, alternatively, the enemy would head for the hills. Return fire came immediately, but we quickly realized that gunfire coming in was also M-16 rifles, M-79 grenades and M-60 machineguns. We had unknowingly stumbled into another American unit. I never did find out who was where they were not supposed to be, but the good news was that the initial engagement started so far apart that no one was hurt. Score one for Cap.

Cap and I walked point for Infantry patrols and reconnaissance missions for eight months. We made contact with mostly VC on several occasions, and not once was one of our patrol members injured seriously enough to require medical evacuation.

On June 28th Cap and I were attached to C Company, 2/8th Cav., 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), having been airlifted to the unit from Fire Base Fanning. We were attached to a platoon sized patrol. The platoon leader opted not to use my dog during their movement. I suspect he had a bad experience with a scout dog team, maybe a missed alert, false alert, or simply did not like dogs, who knows. During movement I was placed in the center of the column. Due to the intense heat and humidity, I released Cap to move at his own pace.

At about noon that day, our patrol began setting up a perimeter to break for lunch. C Company trooper Dennis J Walosz (whom I contacted in 2018) and I both distinctly remember seeing fresh branch cuttings, indicating cleared fields of fire. We realized we were setting the perimeter in the kill zone of a suspected ambush. It was later learned that it was a large VC/NVA resupply complex’s defensive perimeter. Within seconds we were fired upon, wounding many and killing three. The enemy was close enough to be heard communicating from their hidden positions in the trees.

PFC Walosz and I were among the first to be wounded. Walosz was shot in the leg. I was hit in the right arm. One second I was standing, the next I was on my back with a god-awful ringing in my ears. I didn’t feel any pain but knew I had been shot in the arm. According to an old wives’ tale, if you could move your fingers, your arm was not broken. Afraid to look at my arm, I wiggled my fingers and took a peak. “Fingers work. Check.” I then lifted my arm to inspect my wound. My arm’s humerus had been shattered just above the right elbow, both broken ends of the bone were sticking out of the wound and my arm was cocked in a surreal position. Smart people call that a compound fracture.

Cap immediately came to my side. He was shot in the hip and began to spin. I grabbed him by the throat, trying to bring him under control. Another round struck Cap in the head killing him instantly. That same round went through my left hand, breaking my thumb.

I was armed with a pump shotgun and four grenades attached to my web gear. With a broken right arm and broken left thumb, my weapons were useless to me. The only thing I could do to protect myself was to try to get as small as possible.

Within a few minutes I was hit by a third round in the chest. It felt as though someone had rammed a burning poker into my chest and pushed it down to my lower stomach area. After thrashing around for, who knows how long, I regained some composure and realized I needed to make a plan. My thinking was, if they hit me in the head it will be over quickly. My legs were my only means out. If hit in the legs, I will ultimately lay there and die a long, agonizing death. With that in mind, I reoriented my body so that my head was toward the enemy and I coiled my legs underneath me as much as possible.

Not having a helmet, I covered my head with Cap’s body. Why, you ask did I not have a helmet? I was a dog handler. Dog handlers were ‘special’. We didn’t HAVE to wear helmets. And, we also got to wear ‘special’ uniforms, camouflaged fatigues. Everyone else in the patrol had standard OD (olive drab) fatigues, I was wearing cammies. I have always believed that my ‘special’ uniform resulted in me becoming a primary target from the outset.

Soon a medic was by my side, sealing my sucking chest wound. The medic bluntly told me I was going into shock and would soon start getting very sleepy, He warned me to stay awake, that if I allowed myself to fall asleep, I would probably die right there. He also told me that morphine was out of the question due to my sucking chest wound. He did all he could do for me and had many others needing his help and was gone. Minutes later I was shot, again, in the right arm. Seeing my predicament, another trooper tried to come to my aid and was summarily shot during this effort – I was “sniper bait”.

Requests for air support and Medevac were immediately made and gunships were very quickly on station firing “danger close” rocket and machinegun fire.

I then heard the well-known thump of Huey blades directly over me and through the trees I saw the huge red cross painted on the chopper’s nose. I had been struggling so hard to survive that I had not considered dying; yet, seeing that Medevac hovering over me affirmed that I would make it home. A smoke trail suddenly appeared and a whoosh of a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) which struck ‘MY’ Medevac squarely in the belly. The chopper began to spin and crashed, seemingly right on top of me. And the battle resumed.

I was shot, yet again, in the right arm, a minor flesh wound, but it took its mental toll. Sometime later, my arm took another hit. In the period of just less than three and one-half hours I had been shot 7 times, 5 in the right arm, once in the chest and once in the left hand. One of the patrol members had come to my side to help me get out of the kill zone. Others threw several smoke grenades between the enemy and us to hide our retreat.

Once we felt there was sufficient concealment from the smoke, the trooper next to me tried to pull me up to help me to a safer location. Selfishly, I convinced him that we would be to too slow and awkward moving together. I convinced him to go first and show me the way. Before leaving, he helped me remove my web gear and situated me so I could get up. He made it untouched. With enough smoke to cover my retreat, I cradled my broken right arm, got up and ran to a fallen tree about 50 yards away from the enemy and dove to the other side. Without question, I had expended that last bit of energy in me. I am embarrassed to say that my only intent in sending that soldier out first was to ensure we had enough cover from the smoke. In fairness, had we tried to go together, we both would probably have been gunned down. Sometimes a little cowardness isn’t all bad.

The back side of that fallen tree seemed to be a safe-zone where several were huddled. Someone offered me a cigarette. Seeing that it had a filter, and me being the ‘manly man’ I was, I asked for a non-filtered smoke. He promptly tore off the filter and put the cigarette in my mouth. The pain of unfiltered menthol smoke filling my collapsed lung was indescribable.

I was then dragged/carried to the pickup point where I was to be hoisted to a hovering Medevac by a cabled device commonly called a JP, short for Jungle Penetrator. Hooked to the cable, I began my assent to the helicopter 40-50 feet above me. While the hoist tediously pulled me up, I heard the unmistakable crack of several bullets pass by me. As I neared the helicopter, I also heard rounds striking its side. To this day, I am in awe that the pilot held a constant hover and of the crew who worked to get me in as if nothing else in the world was going on. More amazing, is the fact that they lowered the JP and brought up more wounded. My memory fails me, but I suspect they left with a full load of patients, and no telling how many bullet holes in the copter.

I do not remember my ride to the Field Aid Station at Fire Base Mace but do vividly recall my reception. Somehow a quantity of blood had splashed on my head. The doctors were first concerned about my head (wound which I did not have), ignoring the other 7 gunshot wounds I was suffering. There was also a priest in the midst, trying to read me my last rights which I waved off in most undignified terms. Then as things seem to come under control, there appeared a nurse, who took my hand and assured me that everything would be alright. I am not sure if I was succoring to medication or exhaustion from my injuries, but my last words to her were, “Am I going to live?” to which this angel of mercy assured me I would be OK. I believed her unconditionally, I had to.

A day or two later, around 3 a.m., I next opened my eyes in the 93rd Evac Hospital in Long Binh. There was a doctor sitting next to my bed, reading a book. He was dressed in an OD T-shirt, cut-off fatigue pants and flip-flops. He did a quick cursory check of my vitals, told me I was going to be OK and disappeared. You would have thought it a scene out of MASH. His demeanor told me that without question, I was in good hands. Skeptics say he was working the night shift. I firmly believe this doctor could not sleep and routinely sat by his patients during his sleepless nights. I think of him often, and wonder if he ever learned to sleep through the night. Another time I later awakened to find a Purple Heart Medal on my night stand, accompanied with the PH Orders and PH Award. Coffee had been spilled across my orders and award. I still have and cherish my stained award.

The battle continued long after I was medevaced out. In 2018 I spoke with Harold Monroe and Michael Hohnholz, who were both with B Co 2/8 the day I was wounded. They both had similar stories. They were on stand-down at Fire Base Fanning and were alerted to ‘saddle up’ and airlifted to support C Company. Both were wounded within minutes of getting to the battle scene by friendly fire from a Cobra gun ship. Hohnholz remembers a fallen tree he took cover behind just before committing to the battle. Based on the way he described the tree and its location in relation to the enemy position and LZ, I am confident that that is the same fallen tree I fell over on my way out. Forty-eight years later, we found we both most likely took refuge behind the same tree.

I also spoke with Donald Couture of C Company Recon. He arrived about 2 hours after the initial contact. He was shot in the shoulder and was also hoisted by a Jungle Penetrator after dark. He vividly remembers muzzle flashes and rounds cracking as they passed him while being hoisted.

Months later, my platoon sergeant, SFC John D. Beurer, tracked me down at Ft. Gordon. He told me that Cap was brought back to our unit and received a hero’s burial. He also told me that my web-gear had to be blown in place. A round had struck the pin on one of the grenades attached to the web-gear. The pin was hanging by a thread and deemed too unstable to handle. On June 28th I was even closer to eternity than I realized.

Because the wounds in my right arm were so close to my upper torso, there was talk of amputating my right arm to prevent infection from setting in and spreading to my chest. My radial nerve had been severed and there was little hope that I would ever have use of it. Little did they know. I became the product of a remarkable military medical machine that put broken boys back together and let them grow up to be men.

I spent 5 days at the 93rd Evac Hospital, in Long Binh, being stabilized. I was then moved to the Tan Son Nhut Hospital (near Saigon) to be shipped out of country. It seemed appropriate that I left Vietnam on July 4th, was flown to the hospital at Clark AFB, in the Philippines.

Shortly after being settled into the Clark Hospital, my initial assessment was made by someone I believe to have been a Philippine intern who spoke very broken English. He started cutting and removing the bandages on my right arm in a much more aggressive manner than I thought appropriate. I told him to slow down, that my right arm was broken. He replied, “No, left thumb broke.” I responded “Yes! And my God-damned right arm is broken too!” To which he replied, “No, left thumb broke.” This went on for a while and eventually my right arm fell to the table, to which he replied, “Ahh, right arm broke too.” Soon after, responding to a barrage of shouting expletives, this intern was replaced with more competent medical people. I have to say, during my entire ordeal, this was the only time I have anything, emphasis, ANYTHING, to say negative about my medical treatment. Everything else from day one to discharge was stellar.

A couple days after arriving at the Clark Hospital, and with little explanation, I was taken into surgery. When I woke, I found that a stainless-steel pin had been placed through my right arm near the break, which was used to suspend my arm in traction. I was told that they had taken a large strip of skin from my leg which was to be used to graft the skin on the back of my arm. The entire back side of my arm was an open wound. And, oh by the way, “we took an extra strip for someone else who needed it.” Now, in addition to a gaping wound on my right arm, my left hand still in a cast and recovering from a sucking chest would, (and worse, the insertion and extraction of the chest tubes), I then had two large areas on my leg that were missing skin. The area the skin was taken from had all the attributes of a third-degree burn and was similarly treated.

The last time I had been able to move the fingers on my right hand was the day I was wounded. Due to the damage to my radial nerve, there was little hope that I would regain any use of my hand or elbow. Then, one day while in traction, I was able to move my four fingers in unison, on command. The doctors were amazed and very encouraged. Having nothing else to do while lying in traction, I devoted my every waking moments working with my hand. The next hurdle I cleared was moving each finger individually. Soon came the big day when I was able to shoot my doctor “the bird” as he walked in my room.

I ‘hung around’ Clark AFB in traction for four weeks. When unhooked from the trapeze I was tied to, they left the pin in my arm and wrapped the cast around the pin to continue the traction to my arm. It looked similar to the knobs coming out of Frankenstein’s neck. They said, “Looks like you are going to the big orthopedic hospital in Ft. Gordon, Georgia.” To which I replied, “Yea, I guess.”

My air ambulance stopped to refuel in Anchorage, Alaska. I was met by some USO ladies and kneeled down and kissed the ground when I first stepped on US soil. Upon reboarding, I again heard, “Oh, you are heading for the big orthopedic hospital in Ft. Gordon, Georgia.” “Yea, I guess.”

I landed in Augusta, Georgia on an incredibly hot September afternoon. The heat and humidity were stifling as I stepped off the airplane. I was met by a blue, un-air-conditioned Air Force bus that resembled a third world school bus. The driver looked at my paperwork and said (predictably), “Ahh, you are going to the big orthopedic hospital at Ft. Gordon.” To which I replied, “Yea, I guess.”

At the second or third stop, the driver shouted, “Bowman, you’re home.” As I stood in the door, all I saw was a single story, wood, WWII vintage barracks like building. I asked incredulously, “I thought I was going to the big orthopedic hospital in Ft. Gordon, Georgia?” to which he replied, “You’re here!”

The building was narrow and extremely long. It had connecting passageways to rows upon rows of similar buildings, covering massive acreage.

The ward I was assigned to was open with 20-30 beds (I never counted). The floors were old linoleum that was polished so you could see your face in it. Some of the walls were sheetrock and some were painted bare wood. The inside was immaculate.

My ward was a ‘septic ward,’ meaning that everyone there had open wounds to be healed. I could not feel sorry for myself as I was the only person on the ward with both arms and both legs. The doctors, nurses, and corpsmen could not have been more caring, nicer or more efficient. The day came that the stainless-steel pin in my arm was to be removed. The doctor attached a Craftsman-like, hand cranked drill to the pin, had me hang on to a water pipe that ran up the exposed wood wall, and literally cranked it out. Surprisingly, this procedure was a relatively pain free. The doctor had tried to assure me earlier that it would be painless, but I had heard that song before. I was pleasantly surprised.

There were two guys on the ward that changed my outlook on life forever. Through the years I have forgotten their names but will never forget them.

The first had lost both legs and an arm. The joke on the ward was that he was wounded by an exploding C-Ration. He was nicknamed C-Rat, go figure. In truth, he was heating a ration over a heat-tab and an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) hit right in front of him. It was amazing that he was alive at all. There was absolutely nothing his family or the staff could do to get a positive response out of C-Rat. He withdrew and just lay there staring at the ceiling. He was moved to the VA Hospital in Gainesville, FL. I tried to visit him a few months later only to learn that he had died. His health was otherwise good, and I am convinced he had simply willed himself to die.

The other guy was nicknamed “Cowboy”. Both of Cowboy’s legs were amputated, one above and one below the knee. He was a large man, with striking red hair. He always had a big smile and positive words for anyone near him. Cowboy had returned to the septic ward for the 3rd or 4th time. He lived on a ranch and kept falling off his horse, reopening his wounds. Cowboy actually lived that “Get back on that horse” attitude. He has been a positive influence for me the rest of my life.

EPILOG

I spent five months in the hospital, until all my wounds had closed. It took another 2 to 3 years for full recovery. There was still some weakness and limited range of motion, but when challenged, I think of Cowboy and somehow “get ‘er done.”

In 2017 I began in earnest to try to recover as much information as I could about what happened and who was involved.

Due to a clerical error, Cap’s date of death is listed a day early on many War Dog memorial pages. I have tried in vain to have that corrected. I have a photo of him in my top dresser drawer that I look at often. I often wear his photo on a t-shirt. Cap is still very much a part of my life.

By matching dates of death from the Vietnam Memorial and units, I determined that the three killed were: CPL Bernard (Deet) F Brzezinski of Clearwater, FL; SSG Willie James of Mobile, AL; SGT Gerald J Dowjotas of Downers Grove, IL. Many times I have seen their names on “the Wall’, panel 3W, lines 91 and 92 Each time I wonder why my name is not there with them.

My Purple Heart orders have 13 names, including CPT David Sheets, the pilot of the downed Medevac helicopter, and several from C Co and B Co, 2/8 Cavalry. As our serial numbers in those days were our Social Security Numbers, it was fairly easy to find addresses for each. I wrote all of them and have received 4 replies. Their comments were included in the narrative above.

I have been working with the 15th Medevac Battalion Association historian, Terry McCarl who put me in touch with CPT Sheets, the Aircraft Commander of the Medevac that was shot down. I spoke with him on the telephone. The co-pilot was 1LT Bill Cooley, SP5 Ray Flynn Crew Chief, SP5 Larry Lund, Medic and SP4 Richard Dubray, Door Gunner. CPT Sheets received serious wounds and was pulled out of his burning helicopter by Lt Cooley and Sp4 Dubray. Remarkably, no one was killed in that crash.

In May 2018 I attended the 15th Medevac Battalion Association reunion where I met with the Medic and Crew Chief of the helicopter that saved my life: Kevin Raftery and Dan “Doc” Holiday. Standing between them for a photo was a breathtaking moment. Sometimes we jokingly say, “You saved my life.” Well, these guys literally Saved – My – Life!

From the National Archives I was able to locate the Monthly Report from the 34th IPSD for June 1971. A portion read: KIA: Cap, 4K87…….WIA: 1 handler.

There is a Chinese proverb that says even the longest journey is started by a single step. For me, that single step was the moment I was pulled into a Medevac helicopter by Kevin Raftery and Mark Holiday. To them I will forever be grateful. I hope one day to identify the pilots of that aircraft and thank them as well.

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