The Longest Night, The Shortest Night
by Roy Tschudy
I was all of 18 years when I shipped off to Vietnam in Jan 1968. The U.S.S. Upshur was a Navy Troop Carrier ship that would take my company, the 271st. Aviation Assault Helicopter Unit across the Pacific Ocean to South East Asia. It took thirty days to do so, and none of us ever realized just how vast the ocean really was.
We were located in the bow of the ship; (front end) stacked six high, one bed atop the other. “Grab a top bunk,” my friend DeWit Studway yelled to me. I replied “Crap on that! I’ll fall out of the bunk at night and get killed before I even get to Nam!” Once again, DeWitt said, trust me, hurry and grab a top one, as he himself scrambled up to the very top bunk, directly opposite the other stack of beds.
“What the hell?,” I thought to myself, and dutifully climbed up and up to what I was certain was going to be my undoing. “You’ll see, you’ll see” he said to me. “Yeah, I’ll see alright” I said back. “I’ll see the floor of this ship when I come crashing down at night.” DeWitt just laughed and shook his head.
The two of us were friends. Admittedly not best friends, but friends still the same. As we both learned early in our very first conversation, he had joined the Army on July 26th 1966, the same date that I had. Funny as it seemed, that was probably the only thing that we had in common. DeWitt was twenty years old; a light skinned African American, and married with a baby daughter. He hailed from a small town in Mississippi where he was born and raised. DeWitt was a likeable fella; quiet and soft spoken. He seemed more mature than most of us. He also was a skilled mechanic who was promoted to Sergeant and put in charge of the company motor pool (Army Vehicles) probably not just because of his skills, but also his likeability.
I, on the other hand, was an E-4 in rank and was soon to discover what my duties would be, upon my arrival in Nam. I was an eighteen year old white kid from The Bronx, NY who grew up in the housing projects with my mom and two sisters. My Dad had died when I was five, and my mom raised the three of us by herself.
Splat! Aarrph! Splat, Splat What the hell?” It was our first night out at sea on the ship; we were all hunkered down in our bunks when the good old Upshur ran into a few large ocean swells. Well that sound I quickly learned was from a few of the guys who became green around the gills and began puking from the side of their beds. The unlucky souls who found themselves on the lower half of the stack were now getting a bath of vomit from the above troops. As I was gazing over and around this chaos, I heard a loud, but subtle “AHEM.” It was DeWitt looking directly at me with a cocky smile on his face. I mouthed the words “THANK YOU” very slowly and with great appreciation. He nodded, and fell back to sleep. I remember that as if it were yesterday.
Thirty days later, we disembarked from the Upshur (good riddance!) in the Mekong Delta in a place named Vung Tau. We were then to be flown to our base camp a place named, Can Tho. The date was Jan. 31, 1968. For the uninformed, Jan 31st is the Vietnamese lunar new year…also called Tet. The North Vietnamese army (NVA) along in conjunction with local militia, the Vietcong, had planned and acted upon a strategic surprise attack on all of the major cities, villages, and towns throughout all of Vietnam. Saigon, the major city in the south, along with others, suffered devastating losses. The enemy was eventually beaten back and although we didn’t know it at the time, the tide of the war was changing, and changing fast.
In the middle of all this I reflected to myself and said, “Self…this is a fine way to be greeted, I deeply appreciate this hospitality.” Thankfully, we survived our “WELCOME GREETING.” In fact, my one buddy, Gene Kramer, stated to another friend, Rich Radowick, and myself, “Holy Shit,” if we made it through this; we gotta make it through the year!!!”
Once things started to settle down a bit at Can Tho our company, the 271st, went about its tasks day and night, seven days a week. War is not a movie, no commercials with few breaks. The C.O. directed that a company day room be built on our base and one of my job functions became head of entertainment. On a weekly basis, I would fly via Chinook helicopter to Saigon and procure odds and ends for the troops. Four to five nights per week I was assigned perimeter guard duty, out past the flight line near the elephant grass. This consisted of twelve bunkers with the largest of them in the middle. This was the command bunker. This bunker had certain distinct advantages compared to the other bunkers. It was larger than the rest, had a total of six soldiers assigned in it and also had a roof made of additional sandbags.
Last but not least, it had an M-60 machine gun mounted and pointed directly at where, “Charlie” might come, if indeed he came at all. The other bunkers stretched out the length of the airfield. They held two men each, and only stacked five sandbags high, and yeah, no roof, no cover, if it rained (and boy did it ever in monsoon season) tough cookies for you. Xin Loi! Every now and then, DeWitt would be the Sergeant of the guard for the night. Lucky for me, he always made sure that I was in the command bunker with him.
Fast forward, Friday, Feb. 11, 1969, DeWitt and a few of the guys were heading over to an area on the base that served beer and halfway (AND I DO MEAN HALFWAY) decent food. DeWitt was going back to the world on Monday. His tour of one year would be completed. We stopped to chat for a minute or so, “Hey short timer, congratulations man goin’ home.” He smiled and gave a quick laugh, “yeah baby, goin’ home, I can’t wait to see my wife and little girl, everyone.”
I asked if he planned on working as a mechanic back at home, and he replied that there really was not much work where he lived. He said that the Army has been good to him so he was going to stay in and make it a career. He was being promoted to Staff Sgt as well. I was happy for him because he was a good dude. I said that I would see him tonight because we were both assigned to perimeter guard duty “sure enough” was his reply before hurrying off to catch up with the guys. That evening as we formed up prior to heading out to our posts I was a bit surprised to see that DeWitt was not the Sergeant off the guard. Instead some “newbie” with clean fresh olive drab fatigues was in charge for the night.
“Crap,” I thought to myself, it’s raining and I’m gonna be stuck in some little pill box for the night. Ah, but lady luck intervened and lo and behold Royboy was indeed in the big one, yeah baby! The next day I found out why my man DeWitt was not present for guard duty. It seems that both he and the boys celebrated a tad too much and since DeWitt was a “teetotaler” who rarely if ever at all drank, fell victim to having one too many.
Missing guard duty is a serious offense. AWOL, dereliction of duty, busted down in rank; any and all charges could be brought against that individual. Being the Sgt. Of the guard and also missing his duty was even more serious. The “old man” Major Johnson (NOT HIS REAL NAME) read Sgt. Studway the riot act on Saturday morning. Knowing that he was “short, very short” (Going Home) and that the good Sgt. was an excellent soldier, plus the fact a career was being planned, the Major showed some compassion, or so he thought. Sgt. Studway was ordered to be the Sgt. Of the guard the next night Feb 13.
Since the Major believed the man standing before him was still suffering from the effects of the previous day, guard duty tonight was not an option. Directed or ordered to pull said duty on this Sunday night and then go straight to the “freedom bird” that would take DeWitt home, back into the world.
As it so happened that Sunday Feb 13th, I was off. No guard duty for me tonight. To make things even sweeter, I was in possession of a small transistor radio and the Super Bowl would be on. Not only that, but the N.Y. Jets were playing (Yes, NEW YORK!) the Baltimore Colts for all the marbles. There is a twelve hour difference between Nam and the U.S., so at 1am I’m laying in my bed in the hooch(Living Quarters) with radio in hand, eyes closed, envisioning the game.
ERRING, ERRING, shrieked the base siren, it was a sound pitched so high and loud that it would make the hair on the back of my neck raise up. KABOOM, BAM, BANG, RAT-A-TAT-TAT, RAT-A-TAT-TAT, flares suddenly lighting up the sky, bright as possibly can be. All of us scrambled from our hooch, M-16 in one hand and a bandolier containing magazines with ammo in the other. A few guys ran directly to the flight line and others jumped in a three quarter vehicle and rode toward the ensuing attack. Enemy Sappers had some how managed to slip past the guard bunkers, put explosive satchel chargers on as many aircrafts as they were able to, and then started blowing them up.
Mayhem was now upon us all. Soldiers scrambled about, “Charlie” shooting at us, in front of us, behind us and beside us. Unless one has faced what could be their own mortality, they can only guess what it may seem like. In the midst of all this hell, it slowly and emphatically became clear to me that I was not going to survive this night. I’m going to die. Fear grips you unlike anything you have ever known. Ringing in your ears so high it makes Church bells pale in comparison. The stomach tightens and you’re derriere starts to pucker, but something else also happens, adrenalin and….ANGER! As scared as you may be in that thinking you will die, you are equally as angry that the finality of life is at hand. The combination of both almost seems like an oxymoron, yet strange as it is, with all that is happening around you, I have never, ever been more focused. IT WAS THE LONGEST NIGHT OF MY LIFE.
I do not need to close my eyes to remember, it is a picture so sharp and clear today, as it was then, many years ago. The raging gun fire slowly ebbed and finally fell silent, the sunrise was just beginning to rise over the tree line to my left, exhausted and relieved, I silently thanked God. A few of us formed up and started to sweep the area in a straight line. We walked with our backs of what was left on the flight line towards the perimeter. The area was littered with enemy dead. One dead sapper lay on his side with his left arm resting upon his forehead and his left leg bent at the knee, as if he was sunning himself by a pool. I was amazed to see that in his final earthly position, all the holes he had through his body and the glint of sunlight pouring through those holes. I remember this well.
Another V.C. lay dead at my feet as I continued on, he was fully intact, except that his cranium was wide open and the inside of what remained of his head shined brightly, almost as if it had been polished. Towards my right, approximately three feet away, lay this dead sappers brain. Fully intact, just like it was somehow removed by a surgeon, that is until I picked up a large rock and dropped it on to the brain, causing it to shatter in many pieces. “Screw you,” I silently said to myself and again continued on. Now by this time dead bodies were removed and being removed, both ours and enemy alike. Myself, and another soldier slowly came upon the command bunker, the same one I had been in so many nights before. Every one was dead, all six. The bodies had been removed shortly before our arrival and taken to a makeshift morgue that had hastily been set up.
It was reported that that during the night of Feb. 13th, the enemy sappers, who had knowledge of who was who and what was where, fired rockets into that bunker killing all who were in them. They then commandeered the M-60 machine gun and began to fire on our troops. Dazed, confused from firing coming out of our own bunkers, many a life was lost. Sgt. DeWitt Studway was among them, IT WAS THE SHORTEST NIGHT OF HIS LIFE.
Sadly, he was to leave Vietnam and return home in just a few short hours. Inside of the bunker our boots sucked for air as we waded in the deep blue black blood that was thick and sticky. The flies and stench of death was among us, the price of war. A piece of human skull was embedded into the wooden beam which was supporting the heavy sandbags that was the top part of the bunker. My friend Rich said that we have to bury this, and with that, slowly raised his hand and with a kind of reverence, removed the remains. Out side of that bunker I dug a small hole with my hands and together we buried it. This was an act we both needed to do and we did it in silence.
I have often thought of DeWit Studway over these many years. A life lost like so many others, a future never realized, love nurtured no more, only memories. If then, only memories, know this: There once was a man named DeWitt Studway, a kind and sweet man, a man who loved his family, a man who loved his country, a man who died too young. I remember, I will always remember. My friend may your body rest in peace and may your soul rest in Gods loving hands. Thank you for the opportunity to have known you and oh yes, thanks for that advice, long ago.
Your Friend and Brother, Roy