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Fifty years later, a Vietnam veteran hopes to find the men who saved his life

By GILLIAN GRAHAM | Portland Press Herald, Maine | Published: May 17, 2019

YORK, Maine (Tribune News Service) — Every morning when Rich Newcombe looks in the mirror and sees the shrapnel under his skin, his mind travels back to May 17, 1969.

It was on that day, in the Binh Duong province of South Vietnam, that Newcombe was the only survivor of an explosion when the vehicle carrying him and six other 1st Infantry Division soldiers drove over an enemy land mine in the midst of an ambush. Seriously wounded and bleeding, he was plucked from Highway 13 by the crew of a helicopter gunship and flown to a hospital, where he spent eight months recovering.

Fifty years later, Newcombe still doesn’t know who those men were or how many other lives they saved under similar harrowing circumstances. He doesn’t even know if they survived the war. But he does know he owes them more thanks than he could ever express.

“That event absolutely, no doubt about it, changed my life, forever,” he said. “I’ve never seen such bravery like that. The nerve it takes to do something like that for someone you don’t even know …”

As the 50th anniversary of that ambush approached, Newcombe, who splits his time between York and Massachusetts, penned an open letter to the crew who saved him and submitted it to newspapers in Portland, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

He hopes that, somehow, surviving crew members will see his words published in a newspaper and recognize themselves as the heroes who saved his life.

“I now live in a beautiful part of the country, and will spend my remaining years thankful that you risked your lives saving mine,” Newcombe wrote in his letter. “But, more importantly, I hope that you survived as well and have had the same happiness that you have given me to enjoy all these years.”

Newcombe, now 73, grew up in Keansburg, New Jersey, and was a college student in Detroit when he quit school to join the Army. He had hoped to train as a helicopter pilot, but instead went to engineering school after a physical revealed a problem with his eyesight.

Newcombe was assigned to the 1st Infantry Division, the first division that had been called to fight in Vietnam. From 1965 to 1970, the division – known as the “Big Red One” for the red numeral on its shoulder patch – fought Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army forces in the jungles northwest of Saigon, according to the First Division Museum.

Newcombe was 22 when he shipped out to Vietnam in August 1968 with his unit, the 8th battalion, 6th artillery regiment.

Nine months and 13 days after he arrived in Vietnam, the truck Newcombe was riding in hit a land mine.

The unit had recently returned after two months on the Cambodian border in Operation Atlas Wedge. Its equipment was in bad shape and it headed out in a truck to pick up parts for repairs.

The seven soldiers had just reached the northernmost checkpoint at the Lai Khe base camp when they paused to let a convoy pass. They pulled onto Highway 13, known as Thunder Road, and were trying to catch up to the convoy when the truck ran over the mine, Newcombe said.

“It caught the right side of the truck and blew it up,” he said. “The next thing I know there were people on the ground trying to take care of us. They pulled us onto this gunship and took off.”

Five of the soldiers died immediately. Newcombe said he and his best friend, Brian McNew, were bleeding to death when the gunship crew rescued them. McNew died hours later.

Newcombe, temporarily blind and deaf from the explosion, was flown first to a base camp and then to Japan, where he had surgeries on an arm, hand, eye and ear.

In a letter dated May 30, 1969, his battalion commander, Lt. Col. John H. Mitchell, wrote to Newcombe’s parents about the circumstances under which their son was injured.

“It is my hope that this letter will reassure you that, although seriously wounded, he is receiving the very finest medical attention and is going to be alright,” Mitchell wrote.

Two months after the explosion, Newcombe was transferred to a military hospital in New Jersey, about an hour from his parents’ house. He was finally discharged from the hospital just before Christmas 1969.

“After eight months in the hospital and several more thereafter recovering, I returned to college, learned a trade, became successful, have enjoyed the love of a woman, and have created memories that others didn’t have the opportunity to have. All because of you,” Newcombe wrote in his letter to the crew that saved him.

Newcombe was awarded a Purple Heart and an Army Commendation Medal for meritorious service and bravery, along with other medals for his service in Vietnam. He was officially discharged from the Army in 1974.

After he finished his recovery, Newcombe graduated from college in Detroit and went on to work in the computer industry for 30 years. He later opened a realty group in Massachusetts and, for the past 10 years, has been fixing up his house in York.

Through all of that, Newcombe thought often of the soldiers who never made it home from war. He still wonders what they would have done with their lives.

“You have these rushes of survivor’s guilt,” he said. “You can’t imagine your life being more valuable than somebody else.”

Thirty-one years ago, his wife, Karen Newcombe, suggested they go out to dinner to celebrate the day his life was saved and remember the men who were lost. It’s become a tradition they celebrate every May 17, including this one.

“It’s a very important day to Rich,” Karen Newcombe said. “He gets emotional and does some crying, but it’s part of our tradition. It’s something we’ve always done and will always do.”

And if, by some remote chance, Rich Newcombe finds the pilot and crew who saved him, he knows what he’d say.

“I’d tell them I thank God every day he was flying close to me,” he said. “I hope the risk he and the crew took to come in and get me … I hope my life was worth it.”

©2019 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)
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