A combat veteran's tribute to a life-saving angel who fell from the sky
By RUBÉN ROSARIO | Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn. | Published: April 19, 2020
Gilbert de la O's 74 now, battling cancer on three fronts. But there's still quite a trace left of the spunky and passionate 18-year-old son of migrant workers from St. Paul's West Side Flats neighborhood who eagerly if not naively enlisted in the Army in 1964 right after high school.
"I grew up watching John Wayne, the Green Berets, those movies," the longtime community activist said as he sat in his living room, wearing a surgical mask, like most of us trying to protect himself from an unseen and potentially deadly enemy.
It was either the military or jail for de la O, as he tells it.
"I was gung ho. I told the guy" -- the military person who approved his request to be sent overseas -- "I hope they don't kill all of the (Viet Cong) because I'm coming over."
As street smart and tough as they come, de la O choked up several times last week as he opened up and shared the events of a fateful, life-defining day that took place 54 years ago this month in Vietnam. These memories are not easy to share, even more than a half-century later.
There are high-profile event markers from that tragic war that claimed the lives of more than 50,000 Americans and divided a nation, politically and culturally.
There's the Tet Offensive, the My Lai massacre, the airlift out of Saigon, among others.
But de la O fought in and survived one of the bloodiest and little-known early battles of the war -- Operation Abilene.
"It was chaos," recalled de la O, then an infantryman and radio operator with the "Big Red One" -- Charlie Company, 16th Battalion Infantry, and First Infantry Division.
On April 11, 1966, less than four months after he had suffered shrapnel wounds to his head and back in a jungle skirmish, Charlie Company walked into a massive ambush as they were seeking to surprise and flush out an elite force of Viet Cong troops known as D800.
The triple canopy and dense foliage made perfect cover for Viet Cong perched in trees, hiding in thick brush and shooting at American troops with 50-caliber bullets. This was no movie. Mortar and machine-gun rounds were coming from everywhere.
The rising casualties were made worse by friendly fire when incorrect coordinates were communicated to American artillery and an explosive round slammed into the ambushed troops within their defense perimeter.
The "old man" -- jargon for the captain commander de la O was assigned to as his radio operator -- took a hit. The young Minnesotan, whose radio was rendered inoperable during the battle, pulled out dressing to tend to his wounded commander, who actually wasn't that much older than him.
The commander stopped him.
"You better save it for yourself," he told de la O.
Then, in the midst of the bloodshed, explosions, screams and carnage whirling about, an angel descended from heaven in the form of William Pitsenbarger. The 21-year-old was a para-rescuer -- PJ for short -- among an Air Force chopper crew dispatched to help evacuate the wounded.
The chopper lowered a basket one at a time to lift the critically wounded. But it was taking too long. Pitsenbarger, trained as a medic, lowered himself down to the ground. When the chopper began taking rounds, a chopper crewman beckoned Pitsenbarger to climb back up so they could flee and not risk crashing.
Pitsenbarger was Air Force. They had been called in because the Army choppers were unable to land in the thick jungle terrain. Those on the ground were Army "mud soldiers." This was really not his fight. He did not know a soul. He did not owe them anything.
Pitsenbarger, called "Pits" by his colleagues, waved the chopper off. De la O watched in disbelief.
"He stayed down there with us," de la O shared, choking up again, his Humboldt High School sweetheart and wife of 52 years, Joyce, sitting nearby. "He was going around helping the wounded and firing along with us. That's what I saw him do."
Pitsenbarger, according to reports, was credited with tending to the injured as best he could and possibly saving the lives of 60 men that day before he felt it necessary to pick up a weapon and join in the fight.
His body was found the following morning after the Viet Cong D800 troops were chased off with the help of soldiers from Alpha and Bravo Companies. The 134-member Charlie Company suffered 80 percent casualties in the battle, also known as the Battle of Xa Cam My, located roughly 42 miles east of Saigon.
De la O's name, as well as that of other surviving members of the company, appears in the final credits of "The Last Full Measure." The movie premiered in theaters in January and focuses on a 32-year-long struggle to posthumously award Pitsenbarger, an Ohio native, the Medal of Honor.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Go8zI2sytEc
The film, now available to view in various streaming services as a result of the pandemic, features an all-star cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, Christopher Plummer, Diane Ladd, Amy Madigan, Sebastian Stan and William Hurt, among others.
De la O, a Purple Heart recipient and father of two, was interviewed during pre-production.
"The survivors I spoke with told me that this was not combat like on a chessboard, where you can see where the good guys and the bad guys are," said writer/director Todd Robinson. "It was complete chaos. That's how they remember it and that's what we tried to capture."
De la O, who recently underwent chemo and ongoing treatment for non-Hodgkins lymphoma, prostate and bladder cancer, was invited to take part in one of the film's pivotal scenes. But he declined.
It would be too emotional for him, it did not feel right. He still struggled with survivor's guilt, though he's found the nerve to open up more about his war experiences after he retired years ago from his staff position at Neighborhood House.
He learned after his tour in Vietnam that a close company medic buddy, Jim Stamey of Alabama, died in another battle
"He had a good voice," de la O recalled, again choking up. "He sang songs from the Drifters to me, one of them was 'Up on the Roof.' "
Stamey's mother invited him to come down and talk about her son. He politely declined. He emotionally could not do it at that time. But he eventually reached out to the family in recent years. Survivor's guilt, which is addressed in a strikingly similar way in the movie.
The gung-ho teenage war hawk who came back intensely angered at anti-war protesters gradually changed his view a few years after his return.
He notes "Hearts and Minds," a 1970s documentary that in one scene featured an emotionally distraught Vietnamese father mourning the loss of a daughter killed by American troops in the conflict.
"He's crying and I'm thinking he's feeling the same way I would feel if that was my son killed," de la O shared. "I was conditioned to believe that for these people, death was nothing to them, that they had no feeling."
As for the anti-war protesters, in the end, taking a step back and looking at the conflict from a wide lens, "they were right -- the war was wrong. We should not have been there in the first place."
But that does not malign or diminish in any measure the sacrifices of his buddies, those who came back alive and those who came back in coffins.
"Those men answered the call to duty and whatever you think about the war, they deserve juice (respect)," he said, again fighting back tears.
He will never forget Pitsenbarger, that angel who descended from the sky that day.
"He had balls. He could have left. But he didn't. He stayed with his brothers ..."
(c)2020 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)
Visit the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.) at www.twincities.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.