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Vietnam Voices: 'That's pretty unnerving to go through a body to get the rifle'

Vietnam Voices: 'That's pretty unnerving to go through a body to get the rifle'

From the Vietnam Voices: Veterans' stories, told in their voices series
Vietnam veteran Richard Schiltz

Vietnam veteran Richard Schiltz joined the Marine reserves in 1966.

Richard Schiltz served with the U.S. Marines from 1966 to 1969. He was raised in Billings. This is part of his story. 

Schiltz: “I knew I wasn’t going back (to college in Minnesota) with my 0.79 grade-point average. My dad wasn’t too happy. When I got back, I knew I was going to get drafted. So I joined the Marine reserves.”

He originally qualified for flight school, but it would have required three years of service. A month before he was scheduled to begin training, the Marines canceled the program.

Schiltz: “I still had my three years to do.”

Instead, the Marines sent Schiltz to radio operator’s school. He got orders to go to Vietnam in July 1967.

Schiltz: “If I remember right, we flew in on Friday the 13th ... which wasn’t a good omen. I flew in, and it was raining when I got there. You don’t know what rain is. Where I ended up, up on the (demilitarized zone), it rains 220 inches on an average year, in about three storms. You never wanted to wear socks because you would just rot. I mean your body would rot. Two layers were pretty hard to dry out.”

Schiltz went to Camp Evans, 25 miles south of the DMZ. He spent a month on Hill 494 in the A Shau Valley. He also went up to Quang Tri. Right after Christmas 1967, the Marines went to the Philippines for supplies. While there, they were called back suddenly for Tet Offensive. In May 1968, the U.S. believed the North Vietnamese were coming to attack Dong Ha.

Schiltz: “We went up Highway 1, about a mile. Then went east, and that’s where we went to Dai Do. We were west of Dai Do. The two other companies in 24 came in from the east side the night before and they got really shot up. We went in the next morning, probably the first of May. We had to fight our way across a big paddy. The village was probably maybe the size of Daylis Stadium. It wasn’t very big. ... We had to go across a big rice paddy to get there.”

Gazette: That’s getting closer and closer to the DMZ.

Schiltz: “We could see the DMZ. We could see the southern end of the DMZ.”

Gazette: When you’re taking fire was it NVA?

Schiltz: “I never saw the Viet Cong that I know of. We saw all North Vietnamese. They all had uniforms.”

Gazette: Tell me about what taking fire from the NVA looks like.

Schiltz: “The NVA had machine guns and (rocket propelled grenades). They had 47s. They had uniforms, badges. They weren’t just four or five guys. At Dai Do we ran into a whole regiment, which was a lot of people.”

Gazette: You’re up north. You’re moving constantly. Are you always getting shot at?

Schiltz: “They didn’t shoot at you all the time. At Dai Do, there was a regular battle. They were set into that town and they had bunkers and machine gun pits — a whole pile of them. They fought, just as we did. Then after the battle was over — it only lasted a day and a half — they pulled back to wherever they came from, and we didn’t have many left and we went back to the firebase on the Cua Viet River, called ‘Camp Big John.’ An army unit came up and relieved us.”

Gazette: You sustained pretty horrible losses.

Schiltz: “We took about 70 or 80 percent casualties, well over 200 killed, if I remember right.”

Gazette: Let’s talk about preparing for Dai Do. What did you know was happening?

Schiltz: “We just knew there were a whole bunch of them, because two of the other companies got shot up pretty bad the night before. They were coming in from the east going west and we were coming in from the southwest.”

Gazette: That’s probably a little unnerving or disturbing to know that you’re heading into that?

Schiltz: “We knew it wasn’t going to be an easy day.”

Gazette: When did it start for you, and what do you remember from Dai Do?

Schiltz: “The worst thing that I remember is that we were going into the village after we got across the rice paddy. The rice paddy was about 100 yards. We were pretty exposed. A lot of people were getting wounded there. As we got in the village, I was alongside Capt. James Livingston and I was shooting, firing my M14, and I took a bullet right in the magazine, which was a little unnerving. And I didn’t have a weapon other than the .45. Probably the hardest thing I did the whole time I was there is that I went to a dead body and got his rifle and his ammunition. I had to make sure (I had a gun). He wasn’t going to use it. That’s pretty unnerving to go through a body to get to the rifle.”

Gazette: But they had shot your magazine, and it disabled your gun.

Schiltz: “They hit right above the magazine, and it just ruined it.”

Gazette: You were trained as a radio operator. Is that what you were doing on that mission?

Schiltz: “Yes, but I was part of a naval gunfire forward observer. Shortly thereafter, through attrition, I moved up to being the team leader. I probably made a sweep through the DMZ, and you had all the replacements and I had a whole bunch wounded. I came back and the Navy lieutenant that I worked for, or was in charge of us, he kind of jumped on me and I said, ‘They wouldn’t spread out.’ ... They bunched up, and we got mortared. None of them got killed, but they all got wounded. There was about three or four of them. I was supposed to be training them. I made three or four other trips up to the DMZ. I have been in the DMZ.”

Gazette: If you study the war, you hear about the DMZ. What’s it like?

Schiltz: “There’s a river that runs right through it. ... On the north side, there was a big banana plantation or two. It was just hilly. ... We kind of went into, but we weren’t supposed to. We never went past the river, the Ben Hai River. There was about a mile or two on each side where it was no man’s land. Theoretically, you weren’t supposed to be in it, but everybody was in it all the time. The North Vietnamese were in it all the time.”

Gazette: When you found yourself in Dai Do, with a lot of fire, did you have to take a bunker position? What did you do?

Schiltz: “We shot. Everyone shot. It was every man for himself. We didn’t use much naval gunfire. We were using a lot of artillery and airstrikes. That night, you matched up two guys — two apiece and you matched up with each other. You took turns sleeping and then the next morning, they sent tracks up to pick us up, take us back to Camp Big John. That was a mile or two away.”

Gazette: What was that night like? Did it calm down?

Schiltz: “It calmed down. We kicked a lot of butt that day. I mean, we had a lot of butt kicked.”

Gazette: You were with Livingston, who was actually awarded the Medal of Honor. He was actually shot through the hip, right?

Schiltz: “He was shot three times. The hip was one. I think he was shot in the shoulder and maybe the arm. Maybe the leg, too. I know he was shot three times.”

Gazette: And he kept trying to go.

Schiltz: “He kept trying to go. What we finally did was after it was pretty much over, we got the village back and the little hamlet next to it. We drug him back and finally said, ‘You’re medevacing.’ He wasn’t too happy about that.”

Gazette: Wow. You guys were tough.

Schiltz: “Well, he kind of ordered us not to take him back, and we took him back and put him on a helicopter, and that’s the last I ever saw of him.”

Gazette: How do you keep on fighting when there’s absolute chaos and people next to you are getting hit?

Schiltz: “You just have no choice. If he gets killed, it’s probably a bit easier because you don’t have to bandage him or hear him cry, scream. If a guy’s just wounded, first thing is to either find a medic or get a bandage on him.”

Gazette: Tell me about crossing rice paddies. They tend to be muddy, and guys don’t like to do it.

Schiltz: “The rice paddies we crossed up there, it was a free-fire zone, so theoretically there were no Vietnamese there. So the rice paddies weren’t flooded. Most of the rice paddies we crossed were real dry. I was a couple of times in a muddy rice paddy, and it was pretty hard walking.

“... There’s no place to hide. In the dried rice paddies, you could try to get on the bank on the other side. They weren’t that big. They were maybe 100 yards squared, maybe. They weren’t huge. Maybe they were down south. They’re like a field in Montana, some of them are huge, some of them aren’t.”

Gazette: Coming back from Dai Do, you’ve sustained a 70 or 80 percent casualty. How do you regroup after something like that?

Schiltz: “They just send us replacements.”

Gazette: That’s a lot of replacements.

Schiltz: “That is a lot of replacements, and that’s why we had trouble the next time you went out.”

Gazette: When’s the next time you went out?

Schiltz: “Probably a week later. And we got mortared a lot.”


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