Let your memory be your travel bag.” –Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
The following is an excerpt from the memoir AFTER THE FLAG HAS BEEN FOLDED, Wm. Morrow/HarperCollins.
I received an e-mail from another veteran who had served with Dad. Doug Johnson, of Nebraska, was an assistant gunner under Daddy. He sent me the following e-mail, titled “Surprise”:
Say, I have been wondering about Sgt. Spears’s children for a long time. I was with him in Vietnam in the same gun section (2nd). He was quite the guy. When we did something it was done the best. Our gun pit was the sharpest, the personal bunker was the best.
I was surprised all right. I asked Johnson to recount what he remembered of the day Daddy died. Here’s his reply:
For some reason I never heard the explosion (as I must have been darn tired). Saylor came and got me saying Sgt. Spears has been hit. They need blood bad since I was Type O, we ran to the tent. Bob Kessler was giving blood ( 1 section trucker ) at that time but I didn’t have to because he had expired. Our regular medic got hit at the same time (Riddle) and headquarters was there with us at the time. I think that is how medic Pablo Gallegos got in our battery because he had to take care of both of them, and since we lost our regular medic he stayed with us. I don’t think medic Riddle wounds were life threatening. All of us guys were in a state of shock over Sgt. Spears’s death.
Johnson said it was not an incoming mortar but a short round from Thorne’s gun that killed Dad:
It was Sgt. Thorne’s 3 section gun. This was at night so most people were sleeping, as I was. You never know which way they are going to fire these guns. You always set up your sleeping tent or canopy behind the gun. But when they start to firing and it’s over you, you just lay there with your hands over your ears and bounce on the air mattress. As you don’t know if they are shooting right over you or how far down the tube (barrel) it is. If it’s possible, you are better off to get up and help. Anyway, Saylor said it was a muzzle blast (where the projectile goes off a short distance from the tube).
With Johnson’s help, I found several other men from B Battery – Gary Smith of New Jersey, who plotted the coordinates for the gun; Gary Catlett of California, my father’s driver in Vietnam; and Andrew Melick Jr. of Oregon, a gunner.
Smith didn’t see the gun blast that killed my father. Like Daddy, he was sleeping. He wasn’t sure who was conducting the H&I fire that day. He wondered if perhaps Daddy was operating the gun when the muzzle blast happened. But the retired police officer is sure of one thing – it wasn’t incoming fire that killed my father. “The ammo we were using was leftover from Korea stockpiles,” Smith said. “We’d all been worried about how stable those rounds were.”
Smith, who was nineteen when he did his tour in Vietnam, said my father’s death stunned him. “It shocked us all,” he said.
Andrew Melick, Jr., was on R&R in Thailand, when Daddy died. He learned of Daddy’s death from the other guys in the camp. “Nobody ever said anything about it being incoming fire,” he recalled. “I was told it was a misfire from one of our own guns. That your daddy had been hit be a piece of shrap metal.”
Melick was one of the fellows who regularly played poker with Daddy. But during those games, neither man conversed much. Melick knew Sergeant Spears was married but he had no idea that my father had three children. “I didn’t make very many friends over there,” Melick explained. “Your daddy and I didn’t talk buddy, buddy.”
Gary Catlett, my father’s driver, spent a lot of time with Daddy and he remembers one day in particular, when my father got pissed at him. “We were going into a hip shoot. I was driving along, out of nowhere. The information we got was that headquarters wanted us to shoot from the road. So I pulled off the road into this big open field. The engineers had gone in and cut down all these trees. But they left stumps about two feet high.
“Your dad was standing up, over the window. He was pointing in the direction he wanted me to go. I was watching his hand. The drive was really bumpy. I could feel the guys behind me. They were barely able to stay in the truck. The ammo was bouncing around. I’m surprised we didn’t all get killed.
“I was watching your dad pointing, when Wham! We came to a dead stop. I hit one of those stumps. It tore the entire front end of the truck.
“Your dad was so mad. He screamed at me, ‘Catlett, I ought to leave your ass here!’
“I yelled back at him, ‘I don’t think so, sir!’”
Gary Catlett laughed as he related this story. Then he quickly added, “But your dad never stayed mad. Two minutes later, he was over it.”
Dad was all business. “We talked a little, but your dad wasn’t one to get too personal,” Catlett recalled. “He was really good friends with Sergeant Thorne. But your father’s first priority was to take care of us. He was all soldier. Well-versed and straightforward. There’s nobody I’d have rather have gone to war with, your dad was so confident. He had experience. He was the kind of guy that could walk through a minefield and have mines exploding all around him and he’d still be calm. He knew how to keep morale up. We respected him.”
After Dad’s death, Catlett withdrew to a quiet place. “When somebody gets hit, it numbs you. When we went to Vietnam, your dad told us that a lot of us wouldn’t be coming back. I remember thinking I didn’t know about anyone else, but I was coming back. I never had much fear over there. It wasn’t like we were going into the tunnels, blood-hunting out the Viet Cong.”
He tried to prepare for the inevitable loss of his fellow soldiers. “It’s hard to get close to anyone. That’s the way war is. You know they could be gone, so you prepare yourself for that. I was saddened by your father’s death, but what can you do about it?’”
All the fellows were worried about the aged mortars. “We could never depend on those rounds,” Catlett said. “I put one in a tube one time and the tip of the fuse hit the breech block and started sizzling. We slammed that thing up and shot it. That was scary. From that point on we started cutting the fuses.”
Catlett said he was asleep on the ammo pile the morning Daddy got hit. “I used to sleep right on the ammo. I figured if I was going to go, I would go up in style. If that round had been incoming fire, everybody would’ve known it. I’m sure it was H&I fire. It went out of the tube and blew up. Faulty rounds weren’t an unusual thing. But usually they’d get further away from camp before they exploded. The guns were sitting twenty-five meters apart. We staggered em, like a W. So when the round hit, it covered a big area.”
Catlett said the round had come from the forward gun. Thorne’s gun.
The eyewitness testimony from the men who were at the camp the day Daddy died – Osborne, Nash, Thorne, Johnson, Smith, Melick and Catlett is conflicting. But they all agree on one important fact – Daddy’s wounds were caused by shrapnel, not a gunshot.
Daddy’s autopsy report indicated he had a gunshot wound from his back through his abdomen, but I could not find one eyewitness of that day’s event to support that finding. Nor could I find any evidence that he had been decapitated or that the mortar round detonated prematurely while he was operating his own howitzer.
A congressional investigation launched by Senator Gordon Smith resulted in the following analysis by researchers at the National Archives at College Park:
Our staff searched all the records we have in our custody that might have contained information regarding the incident in which SSgt. David P. Spears was killed. There are not records of the 2/9th artillery for this time frame. The daily journal and the daily situation report for the 3rdBrigade/25th Infantry Task Force mention the accident. Copies are enclosed. The task force was attached to the 4th Infantry Division at this time. Their records provide no additional information, either in the division general staff or division artillery files . . . The records of the next higher echelon, First Field Force Vietnam, reiterate the information that was passed to them by the brigade. The G-3 daily journal reads: “Fm 3/25 LT. Powell, to MAJ Cropper, 240525 – B/2/9 had a 105 muzzle burst. Rslts: 3 wounded, 1 serious, 2 minor. Medvac requested but weathered in. No additional details.” The records of the United States Army Vietnam Provost Marshal and the 18th Military Police brigade do not cover this time frame. Line of duty investigations and summary court martial are not included among our records.”
I was never able to verify by documentation the story Osborne told me about regarding the dereliction-of-duty charge against the helicopter pilot who failed to fuel up the night before the mortar attack. Nor was I able to track down any proof of the money orders Osborne said he sent to Mama. The copies of the situation report, sent from the National Archives and marked “confidential,” provided no further information, other than that at 0530 “a muzzle burst occurred in B Btry area, resulting in two wounded and one killed.”
Third man down.
None of this searching can change the outcome of what happened the morning of July 24, 1966.