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One close call after another

Lyle Foltz served one year in Vietnam with the Black Scarves

By Tim Engstrom

APPLE VALLEY — Vietnam veteran Lyle Foltz has been a member of Mabel Post 299 for 53 years, lives in Apple Valley and is a former Department of Minnesota adjutant.

But in 1966, he was just planning to get his degree and pursue a career. That’s when his country called on him to serve in the Army.

He was raised across the border in Hesper, Iowa, and that’s where he attended K-7. Then he went to high school in Mabel. The two towns had a reciprocal agreement. He was attending junior college in Rochester when he was drafted.

“That changed my course, my direction, significantly,” he said.

The Army put him a bus with other draftees headed to Fort Des Moines in Iowa. A sergeant handed him a clipboard and said he was in charge during the ride. He was at the processing center there a couple of days, then headed to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, for basic training.

After basic, most other soldiers left for their assignments, but he and a few other men waited around for days. Finally, they got the word: advanced infantry training at Fort Polk, Louisiana.

When he arrived, he learned there had been an outbreak of spinal meningitis and three guys died. So for the entire AIT, Foltz experienced no physical training, and everyone had to maintain space, even at the movies.

“Fortunately, no one got spinal meningitis, but we were unable to have a meaningful experience,” he said. “But in the Army way, at the end, they gave us a PT test.”

His training focused on the 81 mm mortar. The soldiers there had an idea they were going to Vietnam, but by the end, the drill sergeants told them they were going.

Foltz flew to Travis AFB, where he spent a few days with his parents, then he left for Vietnam on Feb. 16, 1967, aboard a C-141 Starlifter.

He handed the Air Force his duffel, and the plane flew to Wake Island, then to Clark AFB in the Philippines, then to Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon.

He got off the bird. It was the middle of the night and Foltz said it was pitch dark. The heat, he said, stuck to you like a wet rag.

“And the smell was so bad it just about knocked you over,” he said. “I think it was just about three weeks before I had my appetite. The smell was horrendous.”

Buses took him to the 90th Replacement Battalion. There was a large field with flood lights. Soldiers searched for their duffels. Foltz didn’t find his. He was sent back to the plane. Gone.

All he had were the clothes on his back: khaki pants and shirt and a maroon undershirt. He wore them for a week and stood out among the green fatigues the Army wore in Vietnam.

Three days later, he was assigned to The Big Red One. He was among replacements sent to Di An Base Camp, where the 1st Infantry Division’s headquarters were. The next day, he and a Japanese-American were assigned latrine detail. Drag the barrel out. Dig a hole. Burn it. That got old, and no one was around, so they beat feet to the Enlisted Men’s Club and closed the place down.

Next day, in formation, the sergeants weren’t impressed and assigned them latrine detail again. Again, the duo headed to the EM Club.

Next day, Foltz and others were sent on a C-130 Hercules from Di An to Phuoc Vinh Base Camp. The crew told them they were going to a combat zone and to run as soon as the door drops. They bolted out.

But there was only a group of children selling Coca-Cola.

“The joke was on us,” Foltz said.

He was a new member of 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, often called the Black Scarf Battalion. He also was issued jungle fatigues, jungle boots and equipment.

Early on, his platoon sergeant assigned Foltz to ride shotgun in the first truck in a convoy of deuce-and-a-halves. They stopped suddenly. Troops got out with minesweepers and found a mine 40 yards ahead in the road. The convoy went back.

He was in an infantry platoon, and, this one time, a chopper crashed in a river. Troops in it had been rescued, but the pilot and co-pilot were dead. His platoon, 3rd Platoon, had to get the bodies. Foltz carried one of them up a riverbank and another 75 yards to an awaiting helicopter.

The division was involved in Operation Junction City, one of the largest operations during the Vietnam War. It took place in War Zone C, northwest of Saigon, starting Feb. 22. With infantry on one side and airborne troops on the other, its mission was to flush out the military headquarters for the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army operating in South Vietnam and destroy it.

“After the war, they found it didn’t exist. It actually was groups of eight to 12 people, core leaders, who would never stay in one place. We came close a couple of times to getting them, but they changed all the time,” Foltz said.

On March 31, the Battle of Ap Gu occurred, up near the Cambodian border, at LZ George. The result was 609 VC and 17 Americans dead after Lt. Col. Alexander Haig’s 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry was pinned down by enemy gunfire.

The Black Scarves were nearby that night, and Foltz and another soldier were on a listening post about 100 yards outside the perimeter of their camp. They could hear noises. Movements. The platoon sergeant came out and listened, too.

“I think they went right past us and attacked the 1st of the 26th,” Foltz said.

The next day the Black Scarves swept through the area to flush out remaining VC.

The 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment moved every day, and at night, they had to dig an NDP, night defensive position.

They used shovels, picks and sandbags and would build DePuy bunkers, named for the 1st Division’s commander, William E. DePuy. It had a back entrance, and apertures in the front corners, allowing men to shoot 45 degrees to either side.

They could go for weeks without showers. If they found a stream, they might be lucky to have the time to bathe.

“It seems like those times were extremely rare,” Foltz said.

They patrolled so much that one time, when Foltz took off his socks, some of his skin came off, too. That’s why they usually slept fully clothed with their boots on. The majority of the time, he had one set of fatigues. Eventually, he got a second pair.

In May, at dusk, the company was called out. A Rome plow (an armored bulldozer) was stuck in a swampy pond. His platoon was sent out to secure the area. They marched out, and, by now, it was dark.

The plow was on the other side of the pond, and the platoon for some reason went through it single-file. Foltz was on his tippy-toes trying to breathe, holding his weapon above him.

“It was just asking for trouble,” he said.

A typical contact with the enemy was a one- or two-minute firefight, with the Army troops pulling back to call an artillery strike and airstrikes. The main forms of indirect fire from the enemy were 60 mm and 82 mm mortars, but they also had devastating 120 mm rockets now and then, too.

This time, on July 18, after the airstrikes, the VC were waiting for his platoon to check for dead. The VC unleashed an attack and killed six infantrymen and one medic from Foltz’s platoon. The dead included his squad leader and platoon leader.

“It was just the luck of the draw that I wasn’t killed,” he said.

On listening posts, the soldiers became accustomed to the distinct sound of enemy mortars coming out of the tube. They would yell “Mortars!” and everyone would dive into their bunkers.

His battalion moved to a large camp where bunkers already were built. One bunker had 16-foot-high bags even. A 120 mm rocket had killed everyone in that bunker prior to his unit’s arrival.

Foltz patrolled as a rifleman for the first six months, then he became the RTO for the 3rd Platoon. (That’s radio-telephone operator.) Radiomen, in Vietnam, had short life expectancies because they were clear targets. He carried a PRC-25, which weighed 25 pounds with batteries and accessories.

“It would hook on any vine and branch. It was just impossible. It was a bitch to maneuver, but you learned how to move, how to adapt to it,” Foltz said.

The downside was the extra weight, but the upside was not doing listening posts. The division, for three weeks, required RTOs to point antennas down, but that resulted in poor reception, so they went back to normal.

The Black Scarves had routine search-and-destroy missions. They would find small hooches, slang for Vietnamese huts, in the free-fire zones, where no one was allowed. Anyone in a free-fire zone who wasn’t American was an enemy. The American soldiers would have Zippo raids, where hooches were lit on fire.

One of Foltz’s buddies earned the nickname Terry the Torch because he lit himself on fire by mistake. Another fellow who humped the M-60 earned the nickname Cool Breeze, after he mentioned it would be nice if they had a cool breeze.

On Oct. 3, his platoon set up an NDP near Hobo Woods. They had a new leader, too, a second lieutenant this time. The bunker for the command post typically accommodates five men with shelter halves for cover. The new LT didn’t like officers sleeping with enlisted, so they had to dig a new bunker 20 feet away for him and the platoon sergeant.

At 1 a.m., “Mortars!”

Foltz and another RTO were changing shifts right at that moment. A soldier in the CP named Dale wanted to wake up the leaders. They went out.

Kablam!

A mortar round struck near Dale, the platoon leader, platoon sergeant and Foltz.

“It feels like a tornado has hit you with a large basket of sand and gravel and everything,” he said.

Foltz fell on his back, stunned. He scrambled to the CP bunker. He had been hit in the right leg. He had small pieces of metal in his neck, too, and another in his right index finger. He heard the medic screaming and blinded, so he dragged him into the bunker.

He got on the radio and called the company CP, asking for medics. Medics convoy in, and a medevac helicopter lands. Four guys get loaded on, and they ask Foltz whether he wanted to hop aboard, too.

He bristled at the thought of riding in the chopper at night and passed.

A staff sergeant from none other than St. Paul, Minnesota, took over the platoon, and the next morning, still Oct. 3, Foltz and others had to clean up the blood, and they had to hump the entire camp to a new site.

A different medic looked at Foltz’s wounds, put a salve on his legs and popsicle sticks on his finger. Well, the popsicle sticks broke in five minutes. And that medic never recorded Foltz’s wounds. You know what that means? There’s no record of him being wounded. Foltz didn’t receive a Purple Heart. In the ensuring years, his platoon sergeant gave statements on his wound, and X-rays showed the shell fragments, but still no medal.

Of the guys on the chopper, Dale went home. The others returned to the field. The medic had been blinded temporarily by the mortar sand. If Foltz had got on the chopper, he might be a Purple Heart recipient. Instead, he chose his buddies.

The little BB-size fragment in his knuckle was there for 17 years before it grew out. He was going to save it, but it dissolved like grains of sand turning into dust.

Walking to the new site, the platoon got into a firefight, killing a few VC along the way. They got there, dug bunkers, got the CP set up, welcomed their new medic. It was now Oct. 4, and 3rd Platoon of Bravo Company led a battalion-sized patrol.

After a few dozen steps, Charlie Company moved along the right and ahead of Bravo, right into an ambush. Six people were killed. The firefight was more like a battle and lasted all day long, with airstrikes and artillery coming in. His company hunkered down on the perimeter.

During the battle, the company surgeon, a captain, and a medic, who was a conscientious objector in battalion HQ, together ran out into the battle to help wounded and got killed.

The medic was helping people get on a medevac chopper. When he went back to get another person, he was shot and killed.

“We just came that close to being unlucky,” Foltz said.

The Black Scarves next were assigned to protect convoys on Highway 13. Called Thunder Road, it connected Saigon to Loc Ninh.

One evening, Foltz was sitting on the corner of a bunker, he could see the lights of a Chinook helicopter. He noticed tracers from the ground going up to the chopper, and, somehow, the chopper crashed.

“It was like in the movies,” he said, “just an incredibly big ball of flames.”

The new 3rd Platoon leader and the sergeant from St. Paul were at the battalion CP getting orders, and Foltz radioed them about the chopper being shot down. The platoon headed down the road to the crash. Another helicopter landed to pick up possible survivors, and then more troops joined. Both the pilot and co-pilot died.

Sometime in October or November, 3rd Platoon was providing security for an artillery battery. They had planned to fly back that afternoon, but the weather turned bad. The artillery was flown out but not the infantry. It was raining cats and dogs in the dark as they headed to a Special Forces camp two miles down the road.

On the way, a radio call informed them not to jump in the ditch if attacked because the ditches were full of mines.

There, they encountered the Green Berets and Montagnards, indigenous mountain people who opposed communism because of its religious suppression. Foltz was smoking three packs a day at this point, and a Montagnard gave him a Ruby Queen, a Vietnamese cigarette, to satisfy his need for a smoke.

But he was soaked, too, and he knocked on a door to ask for fatigues. The door opened, and he offered to trade his lighter for a uniform.

The man said: “I am the executive officer of the camp. I don’t want your lighter, but I will give you fatigues.”

They were tight, but they fit. Foltz still has that uniform.

Around Thanksgiving, the 1st Battalion commander gave a speech on a stump about needing to be gung-ho and aggressive, Foltz said. That officer was killed in April 1968 by a sniper. He left behind a wife and six children.

In early December 1967, they flew out on a chopper to an LZ a quarter mile from Cambodia, near the village of Bu Dop.

The chopper could not land, so they had to stand on the skids and jump 10 feet with all of their gear. Shortly after, they found bamboo nearby that had been chopped to have pointy ends. Good thing they didn’t jump there.

They go set up an NDP, and the ground is all laterite, which is rich in iron and aluminum and hard.

“A pickaxe after 20 minutes would only get you three inches,” Foltz said.

Instead, the soldiers used C-4 plastic explosives.

“You blow it up, get a foot down, and repeat until you have a decent bunker,” he said. “There was no secret where we were.”

After chow on Dec. 7, Foltz received a care package from home and was sharing it with the guys. He told them he had a feeling this camp was not a good place to be.

He said: “I think we are going to get attacked tonight somewhere between 1 and 2 in the morning.”

The guys did not believe him.

There was a buck sergeant who made a deal with the first sergeant to extend his tour in exchange for a two-week leave and duty in the rear. He went on leave, returned, and the first sergeant was gone. There was a new one, and he wouldn’t honor the bargain. The sergeant was sent back to the field, totally upset.

That sergeant was assigned to the listening post on Dec. 7 and decided not to go 100 yards out. He would sit just outside the perimeter, thinking it would be safe there. Of course, the NDP always had Claymore mines around its perimeter.

As a tactic, soldiers randomly set off the Claymores, and a couple of other guys were with the sergeant when one blasted them. A medevac helicopter had to extract the wounded. Fifteen feet from the chopper, the buck sergeant gets off the stretcher and runs to the bird.

The St. Paul sergeant was there and commented: “He’s not hurt that bad.”

That night, the VC started a mortar attack, as Foltz predicted. An ambush patrol got hit and had to run back to the perimeter. Soon, a ground attack began, killing a listening post soldier trying to return to safety. The two sides battled the rest of the night.

It turns out they were attacked by two regiments of North Vietnamese Army troops. The Americans would drop flares, allowing them to see the enemy and gun them down. A battery of artillery was inside the American perimeter. The battery had beehives, which are anti-personnel rounds that fire directly at the enemy.

“They blasted the [expletive] out of them with beehives. Once they did that, it pretty much put a stop to the attack,” he said.

There was a body count of 49, but the Vietnamese removed their dead to stymie counts. The estimated Vietnamese dead was 250. Four Americans were killed, with none in Foltz’s platoon. They had to put the Vietnamese bodies in cargo nets to be flown out.

Foltz’s platoon was on patrol in January 1968 and found a 500-pound bomb and leaflets in the grass about American imperial dogs. Was this a booby trap? A dud?

They called back to the CP, and they wanted to have them blow it up. They had a demolition expert with them, and after packing it with C-4, the platoon took off running down the road and waited. And waited. And waited. Nothing.

The St. Paul platoon sergeant said they have to go back. Foltz, the platoon sergeant and the demo guy go back and determine the fuse was wet. The demo guy replaces the fuse, and they run again.

Ten seconds later: Kablewy!

Shrapnel rains down on the trees.

“I wondered what would have happened if it had gone off when we came by it,” Foltz said.

One time, Foltz and the St. Paul sergeant were scouting 200 yards ahead of the point. Suddenly, there were screams of terror from the platoon. They had walked into a real beehive, and those big Vietnamese honeybees were chasing them.

The Black Scarves were riding with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment at the end of January when they learned the Tet Offensive had begun. Foltz and others rode atop tanks.

“I would just as soon walk,” he said.

They were called back to Quan Loi Base Camp, where Foltz spent the rest of his tour. On Feb. 13, a friend said, “Let’s go to headquarters so we can go home.”

They walked over, signed out, the commander shook his hand, and off they went in a helicopter to Di An, then to the 90th Replacement Battalion, then on a freedom bird to Travis AFB. From there, he flew a commercial flight to Minneapolis, then to Rochester, where his family greeted him and took him home to Mabel and Hesper.

“I then got insulted by a World War II veteran,” Foltz said.

It was some comment about his Class A uniform.

His time in Vietnam was done, but his service wasn’t over. He was sent to Fort Hood, Texas.

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4. The Army flew his unit to Chicago for riot control. They stayed at Mayor Daley’s gym by Lake Michigan and slept on the floor. They were issued M-14s and no ammo. It was over swiftly, and Foltz was sent to North Fort Hood, where he stayed in a tent city for five more months. It was almost like Vietnam but no combat.

“The tent was a next step up from sleeping on the ground in Vietnam,” he said.

They spent their time training National Guard troops that summer. He was discharged Aug. 31. He got home on a Saturday and went to work at his father’s construction company on Monday.

He did that for a year, then enrolled at Winona State and graduated in 1973 with a degree in social studies and a teaching certificate. He was unable to find a job teaching, though, and returned to the construction company.

In 1986, The American Legion Department of Minnesota had a job opening — hospital representative serving vets at the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis. Two years later, his boss retired, and Foltz got the job as Department service officer, only back then it was called director of rehabilitation.

After six years, he applied for the assistant adjutant position. He was in the role for a year and a half when the adjutant, Al Davis, left. Foltz served as adjutant for the Department of Minnesota from 1995 to his retirement in 2010, one of the longest tenures.

Some of his accomplishments were:
• Going to secret ballots to elect Department officers.
• Reorganizing the Finance Committee to recognize the commander and treasurer as voting members.
• Assembling a staff of dedicated and conscientious people: Laura Weber, Jennifer Kelley, the late Sharon Perrins, Misty Padilla, Roger Myren and Al Zdon.

“These people provided the Minnesota American Legion with reliable support and quality work,” Foltz said. “I was privileged to work with them and for The American Legion Department of Minnesota.”

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