EDITOR'S NOTE: "Recollections - Vietnam" is an occasional series offering veterans of the conflict a chance to tell stories of their time in service. If you are a Vietnam veteran and would like to share your story, please contact the Observer, 642-8181.
AP TRANG DAU, VIETNAM - The early morning hours of Sept. 6, 1968, 19- year-old Ron Salme dozed off, but at 2:15 a.m. "all hell broke loose" as the firefight and a "storm of steel" began. Two battalions totalling more than 600 Vietcong troops overran Salme's position near the only road out of the village Ap Trang Dau, 26 miles north of Saigon. "We were just too thin," he says of the 96 men of A Company, 187th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division who were hunkered down in rice paddies.
PFC Salme immediately grabbed his 90-mm bazooka-like weapon and was about to fire a canister when he saw the white smoke from a rocket propelled grenade. "I could tell the RPG was coming in and when it exploded, shrapnel hit me here (his palm covers his upper right chest) and some got me here (his finger touches his neck), in fact I still have metal next to my jugular."
Salme has only told this story to "four or five" people the last 40 years and his emotions seep out as his wife Jennifer sits by his side. "I tried to aim the 90-mm again, but I was shot with an AK-47 just below my right shoulder. I still have an indentation where my arm was almost blown off (his raised sleeve reveals an inch-deep wound) and then an instant later I was hit in the right forearm. The bullet went in here and came out here and I later found out it fractured both bones. That one hurt the worst."
Salme slumped into the 18-inch deep water of the rice paddy near where his gunner assistant was also badly wounded. A flare had given the fetid, black water a hellish, red glow. "I saw a VC less than 10 feet away so I slipped back under water. My assistant lifted me up like a shield - you do that kind of thing in a war, I don't blame him - so I opened my eyes as wide as I could and tried to look dead. If I had blinked, he'd have fired."
The other GI then toppled into the water from his injuries. The VC squeezed the trigger and his automatic weapon instantly fired three rounds. "I was hit above the right ear and the bullet came out my jaw. It felt like I was socked with a big round house. The guy who landed on top of me took two hits to his back and he was gone. Lucky for me the bullets didn't pass through his body. Each time we were hit I bobbed in the water like an apple."
Salme says, "I held my breath for as long as I could, then came up and saw there was no one around. To keep from going into shock I struggled to breathe slowly. Weird things like 'How's it going to feel to die?' and 'This is just like cowboys and Indians' went through my head. Once I had a brilliant white flash of my stepdad, my mom, and my two sisters (Bob and May Ziesmer, Janna Katyryniuk and Gayle Gorley). I don't remember ever hearing a sound. This all happened in a couple of minutes."
For Salme the first 18 years of his life were spent in another village half a world away. He was born and raised in Naselle where he hunted and fished, played cornerback and fullback for the Comets' 1966 state championship football team and played guard on the 1967 basketball team that lost to a loaded Reardan squad in the state finals. "I shot my first elk around age 10 and I loved to fish in the rivers for salmon and the lakes for trout and I still do those things," Salme relates.
After graduation in 1967 he went to work as a choker setter for Weyerhaeuser. "I knew the war was going on and sometimes I watched it on the news because I had a feeling I might get drafted, but I never thought about the politics of it or of fighting communism."
January 1968 Salme received his draft notice and spent 16 weeks at Fort Lewis in basic and advanced individual training. He then went to Fort Benning, Ga., and became a paratrooper. "I actually jumped out of an airplane five times and survived," he jokes. "Later when we'd go on three-hour marches in Vietnam with no food and little water I'd ask why were we an 'airborne' division?"
In June that year, Salme returned to Naselle for a few days and then took a 22-hour flight from San Francisco to Alaska and then to Bien Hoa, "the busiest airport in the world at the time" Salme relates. His first impression of Vietnam was how humid and hot it was and how putrid it smelled. "We spent five days in P-training (physical and tactical) to get in shape and then we were out with our company. I actually was the assistant on the 90-mm, but on the night I was shot the main guy was on R and R."
During his 100 days of duty Salme fired his weapon several times, but does not know if he ever hit anyone. "You didn't always know who the enemy was and sometimes you were in 'no-shoot' zones. It was like they didn't want us to win." Jennifer adds, "The guys were expendable."
Ron says, "I had one really close call. I was going between two bunkers when I decided to stop for a smoke. I heard a bee, but it wasn't a bee. The bullet came so close to my left ear that I felt it go by. I dove four feet into the bunker so hard it felt like I'd fallen 400 feet."
Once as Salme slept in a half-culvert he awoke to feel something crawling up his arm. "It was only a frog, but I hit my head so hard I almost passed out," he laughs. "You had to have a sense of humor, but you were always tired. On patrol we'd be in groups of three and you'd sleep two hours and be on guard for one."
He says, "We were mostly in the rice paddies, but once a bunch of red ants fell from leaves in the jungle down my back and boy did they bite. My rucksack and shirt came off in a second and the guy behind me began smashing ants like mad." He adds, "I usually had two pairs of socks drying on my rucksack all the time. You had to take care of your feet. Any kind of rash in that humid heat and you were in trouble. Deciding to sleep with your boots on or off was a big deal."
Sept. 5 in Ap Trang Dau his A Company used a "skid landing" because of enemy sniper fire. Salme was the second man to jump from the chopper's runners and he immediately sank over his knees in the muddy paddy because of the weight of his 90-mm. "The guy behind me grabbed the 90-mm and the next two scooped me up under the arms just like we'd practiced that a 100 times," he chuckles. In the meantime two GIs were killed 200 yards away.
"There was a high spot in the rice paddy behind us with a small hooch setting on it. We spotted a sniper inside and Capt. (Kenneth) Jenkins radioed for help. Pretty soon a Cobra chopper came and fired a missile. There was no more hut, no more sniper, and where there had been high ground there was now a hole," Salem, as his Army buddies nicknamed him because of his brand of smokes, says. "That was impressive."
Sept. 6 about 4 a.m. a Medevac helicopter came to pick up the wounded and by 5 a.m. Salme was on a folding chair in a MASH unit. "Even when we got in the chopper I could hear the pling, pling of bullets hitting us. I thought, 'Wouldn't it be crazy to survive and then get killed in a chopper?'" The triage team took one look at Salme and began to treat his three bullet wounds and shrapnel injuries. "I remember the doctor going 'whoa' when he first saw me and I knew that was bad, but I kept thinking I've made it this far, I'm going to survive."
Salme spent almost six months recuperating in a hospital in Japan. "We had brilliant surgeons there, but you saw some strange things. One officer had his nose grafted to his forehead while it healed. Some things you just can't mention, but the burn victims were the worst. I'll never forget their screams."
In February 1969 he came home to see the Ziesmers and his dad, Wally Salme. "I got a real warm welcome and nothing but support from the people in Naselle. When I went back to Fort Lewis to finish my tour in the supply depot I didn't get such a nice welcome from the protesters."
Salme married Jennifer in 1971 "on the first day of deer season." He smiles, "You could say I bagged my dear." They have a grown daughter Crystal, who lives in Naselle. He and Sam Katyryniuk became partners in a logging operation where Salme worked until he semi-retired in 2006. He and Jennifer enjoy hunting, fishing, a dinner and movie and they go to Naselle sporting events.
The couple is also remodeling their house that overlooks the Naselle River. Jennifer explains, "For the bathroom we found a toilet we liked, but when we saw that it was made in Vietnam we decided to buy a different one. There'd just be too many reminders."
Salme had to search to find the nine medals he earned. "I tucked the medals away just like I've put the memories of how ugly war is on the back shelf," he relates. As he sits at the kitchen table he focuses on his Purple Heart. Tapping the glass case he quietly says, "Lots of guys get these for being wounded in action, but too many of them never get to see them." His voice trails off as he ponders those who didn't make it. "I can remember just like it was yesterday that VC just standing there on the dike with his gun resting on his arm, knowing he had us whupped. For years I had the image of his face etched in my mind, but it has finally faded."
Just above a whisper he says, "I probably won't sleep much Sept. 6. There isn't hardly a day that goes by where something doesn't trigger a thought about that day." Salme pauses, "I was lucky over there. My mom told me right away to go to church and say a prayer of thanks and believe me I did. What's amazing is that after that night I never again saw a one of the guys who were there."
At Ap Trang Dau 38 U.S. troops were killed in action, with 24 GIs shot through the forehead at point blank range and a total of 80 casualties were sustained, while 44 VC were killed in action. Salme says, "They came at us in waves and they had women and children in front as human shields." Two days later the same two VC battalions were cornered in rice paddies outside the next village. "I heard that none of the enemy survived," Salme says.
The telephone rings and Jennifer calmly answers it. Ron reacts to the sudden noise by instantly going into a crouch and pivoting to his right, the side of his most severe injuries. He then relaxes, straightens and smiles almost apologetically.
Sometimes 40 years isn't long enough.