Veterans, survivors share their memories, 50 years later

Veterans, survivors share their memories, 50 years later

Doug Godshall: ‘Like being punched by Mike Tyson’

Those hairy first moments of the attack on FOB 4 in Vietnam still keep many of them awake at night.

Doug Godshall, at the time a specialist who had come in for the promotion board, was staying in the hooch of his best friend Pfc. Bill Bric. He watched him run into the night to be with his men on the perimeter and never saw him again.

Speaking at the Special Operations Association memorial breakfast, Godshall recalled the sounds of the battle: the explosions, the flares, the “shouts of desperation.”

Suddenly, Gene Pugh was transported back. It was as if time fell away, he said.

“I had gone back 50 years just for that one little moment,” Pugh said. “It was kind of reliving the entire night in a nanosecond. It was like being punched by Mike Tyson.”

On the night of 23 Aug. 1968, Pugh shot an enemy sapper in the barracks before he managed to get his shirt on. Pugh was knocked down multiple times by explosions, and shrapnel and splinters sprayed across his arms.

Doug Godshall and Dan Thompson, who served as young Green Berets across enemy lines during the Vietnam War, stand at attention at a memorial service for 16 of their fallen comrades on Oct. 17, 1968 in Las Vegas, Nevada that they helped organize. Godshall and Thompson survived the attack of Aug. 23, 1968 in which 16 Americans were killed and dozens wounded. Dianna Cahn/Stars and Stripes

He pulled a young lieutenant to safety after he was shot, helped load him and others onto a jeep to get to the dispensary while taking mortar rounds and gunfire. He wounded and likely killed at least one other enemy sapper in their hooch. He and two other men got pinned down by enemy fire and fought to neutralize the sniper.

Then he made his away across the camp, ran into some of his buddies, and ultimately reached the tactical operation center, where he worked, which had come under heavy fire. He stayed there to help defend it for the remainder of the fight.

Godshall was still talking when Pugh emerged back to the room, tears running down his face. “I got something in my eye,” he later joked.

But he noticed some of his buddies were doing the same thing.

“This is the first time I actually cried for (Staff Sgt. Robert) Bobby (Uyesaka) and (Staff Sgt.) Talmadge (Alphin) and (1st Lt. Paul) Potter and everybody else,” Pugh said.

Paul Uyesaka: ‘He died saving people’s lives’

At the table, Paul Uyesaka — Bobby’s younger brother — sat beside Luke Frazier. The two had not met before, but organizer Bonnie Cooper had made it a point to seat survivors with family members. Frazier had requested the Uyesaka table.

Frazier told them he was there when Bobby was killed. And that Bobby died a hero.

Paul, who had been an Army soldier, was overcome.

Both brothers had been slated to deploy to Vietnam in 1968. But Paul’s deployment was deferred after a parachuting accident. Bobby, a Green Beret, was deploying first.

Days before he left, he drove from Fort Bragg, N.C., to Fort Benning, Ga., to deliver his car to Paul.

It became a vital day in his life. Growing up in a Japanese family, Paul learned young the importance of the firstborn. In his eyes, Bobby lived up to his position, and the younger brother held him in immense esteem.

Paul Uyesaka, center holds a plaque on Oct. 17, 2018 commemorating his brother Sgt. Robert Uyesaka, one of 16 Green Berets killed in an attack on their base in Vietnam Aug. 23, 1968.The event was the first memorial service held for the families of the men who died in the battle, fighting a top secret part of the Vietnam War. Uyesaka is surrounded by his son Greg and retired Maj Gen. Eldon Bargewell to his right and his daughter Brooke speaking with ret. Command Sgt. Maj. Robert "Spider" Parks to his left. Dianna Cahn/Stars and Stripes

So when Bobby told his younger brother that he was proud of him, Paul was elated.

“When I talked to him, my life was complete,” Paul said. “I always wanted to be as good as him. I was the kid brother.”

The next day, Bobby flew to Santa Barbara to see his parents, then he left for Vietnam.

When he died, their father was devastated, Paul said. Paul knew he would never be able to fill his brother’s shoes. And he would never fully forgive himself for not deploying to war.

But he would always have that last day together.

Frazier told the Uyesakas that he and Bobby were sleeping when the attackers threw a satchel bomb into their barracks, Paul said. Bobby threw it back and saved Paul’s life.

“He died saving people’s lives,” Paul said, overcome with emotion. “That’s the kind of person he was.”

Mary Welch: ‘I felt different inside’

Mary Welch had long realized that she was never going to stop crying for her late husband, Donald. But sitting at the breakfast memorial in October, the 80-year-old thought to herself, “Not today.” She’d waited too long to finally, properly mark the sacrifice of 23 Aug. 1968.

They’d been married 11 years when he was killed and she’d just had their second child. She was left alone -- with an infant and a 10-year-old -- to pick up the pieces.

Over the years, Mary had learned to live with the knowledge that the Army was Donald Welch’s first wife, and that she was not to know where her husband was or what he endured.

Mary Welch, left, who was widowed in 1968 when her Green Beret husband Donald was killed in an attack on his base in Vietnam, and her longtime partner Ronnie Morton, look through pictures on Oct. 17, 2018 with Loren Yaeger, a Green Beret who survived the attack. The Special Forces soldiers had been conducting a secret war over enemy lines and this event 50 years later was the first time the families were invited to a memorial for their fallen. Dianna Cahn/Stars and Stripes

After he died, she gleaned a few details from his buddies. But it was only this year, as Godshall and Bonnie Cooper reached out to organize the memorial, that she learned what he had been doing in Vietnam and just how immense the battle had been.

Those first days were hard. She brought flowers to his grave each day and would wake up at night certain that she could feel Duckle – as his family called him -- standing over the bed, watching her. She always believed he was keeping her safe.

Family in Pennsylvania urged her to move there, but she was unwilling to leave all the memories.

Then, in 1972, Mary met Ronnie Morton, an Army communications operator. He was outgoing and doting and his birthday was Aug. 23. He’d been celebrating his 18th birthday the day that Donald Welch died four years earlier.

It was as if their lives had always been intertwined.

Soon she stopped bringing flowers.

“I felt like Duckle knew that someone was taking care of me,” she said.

Over the years, Donald’s colleagues would call to check in, see how the girls were doing. Melinda is 60 now and Lynne is 50.

Morton stayed by her side. He embraced the girls and the family grew to love him.

But Mary could never fully move on. She refused to marry Morton until 2016. She was 77. She could not bring herself to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. It wasn’t until she learned that Donald’s unit would be there Aug. 23 this year that she agreed to go.

“It brought me a lot of heartache to see it and see his name – knowing I will never see him again,” she said. “But Ronnie was with me.”

She thought it helped. Then she came home and saw Donald’s picture on her wall. All the sadness resurfaced.

As she watched the reunion ceremony, the memories came flooding back, Mary felt the tears well up yet again.

Then she felt a hand reach for hers under the table. Morton gave her hand a squeeze, giving her strength.

After the breakfast, Mary said something had changed. “I don’t know how, but I felt different inside,” she said. “He’s gone. He won’t come anymore.”

Larry Trimble: ‘He’s my hero’

He’s a quiet guy who doesn’t ask for recognition. But Larry Trimble’s name was on everyone’s lips.

“Sweet Larry Trimble -- one of the nicest men you’ve ever met,” Godshall said in his memorial speech. “He not only silenced the mortars that were coming in, he fought off another group of NVA who were trying to attack him and found some intel indicating this group of NVA were going to attack the Marines the next day.”

“The thing about him, he can catch bullets with his teeth,” Gene Pugh said as Trimble walked by after the breakfast. “This guy, he’s my hero.”

Former Green Beret Larry Trimble, 79, reflects on his days as a Staff Sergeant when he and a small team of South Vietnamese forces battled dozens of enemy forces atop Marble Mountain, while their base below was under attack. Trimble is credited with silencing several enemy mortar positions and seizing valuable information from the enemy that helped prevent another ambush on U.S. forces. Dianna Cahn/Stars and Stripes

Trimble, Staff Sgt. Cecil Ames and a team belonging to an ethnic group known as Nungs, went up the mountain Aug. 22 to take up position at the listening post. Already a seasoned fighter who’d deployed to Vietnam a few years earlier with the 101st Airborne Division, Trimble was more equipped than most to fight the battle that he encountered.

Over the course of three days, he repeatedly came head to head with the enemy, silenced two mortar teams and watched Ames -– the only other American with him on the mountain -- hop on a helicopter and make his way back to base.

He nearly ended up alone at the listening post when the Nungs, exhausted and fearful after many hours of battle, decided they wanted to try to head back to base.

Trimble wasn’t budging. He heard the camp below erupt with explosions and live fire, Even if he had to stay there alone, he was going to try to help from above. In the end, the Nungs ran into enemy fire and had to retreat back to the listening post, Trimble said.

Long after the fighting in the camp quieted down, Trimble and the Nungs were still fighting on their piece of mountain.

Days later, they emerged to find total destruction. Barracks were crumpled like pieces of paper and some buildings were still smoldering.

He never forgave Ames, who had departed the camp by the time Trimble returned.

Now, at 79, Trimble says he’s become more reflective. He realized that he didn’t know a lot of the men. He just knew their faces, would see them coming and going in camp. And when they died, they’d note that a face that used to be there was missing.

It wasn’t until later that he realized that he avoided getting too close to the guys. It made it easier when one didn’t come back. “You don’t do it on purpose, but you try not to get too close,” he said.

The war took its toll. Trimble’s teammate after the Marble Mountain battle became a buddy. They often sat and talked for hours during their operations. But his teammate could never get the battles out of his mind, Trimble said.

Several years ago, his old teammate called his wife on the phone and said he wasn’t doing well, Trimble recalled. He took her advice and went to the VA hospital for help. But instead of going in, he stood outside the hospital and shot himself in the head.

“I didn’t know then, but emotions are strong and everyone has them,” Trimble said.

Louise Cogan: ‘Such a raw emotion’

After volunteering to help find the families, Bonnie Cooper spent months poring through every account the MACV-SOG men had written about that night, then pulling at strings and going down rabbit holes.

But she wasn’t prepared for the emotion of having a family member pick up the phone and open the door to this painful past.

Louise Cogan and Anthony Santana had been married all of 20 days when the knock came.

He had treated her like a princess, taking her from the Bronx to New York City on dates. On Christmas he bought tickets to take her whole family to Radio City Music Hall and then to dinner at Mamma Leone’s. She had no idea that not all men were so gallant.

Louise Cogan, who had been married just 20 days when her Green Beret husband Anthony Santana was killed in Vietnam, arrives for a Special Operations reunion on Oct. 16, 2018 during which she and other family members participated in the first memorial for 16 Green Berets killed in a devastating attack on Aug. 23, 1968. Dianna Cahn/Stars and Stripes

“He was so young. How did he know?”

Just before he deployed in early August 1968, Anthony persuaded Louise to elope. They found a judge in the Bronx and pulled witnesses off the street. They stopped on Arthur Boulevard, bought a cake and a bottle of wine and went over his mother’s house on Long Island, where he cooked a celebratory meal.

The next morning, he shipped off. She remembers that he did not turn back to look at them.

And she remembers the knock on the door. She opened it, saw the men in uniform, closed it again. When she reopened the door they were still there. It was early morning. She was at home, babysitting her younger siblings.

She walked around and around the room, unable to focus for a long time, terrified of falling apart.

Over the years, Louise remarried, had children. Even went back to Vietnam a few years ago and swam in the water off the coast at the foot of Marble Mountain, in honor of her husband, who loved to swim. She thought she had grieved; that she was complete.

Then, on Feb. 22, she got a text message from Cooper. It said, “Looking for Louise Cogan whose first husband Anthony Santana died 1968. The Special Operations Association is looking for information for a 50-year memorial.”

The years fell away. Louise found herself walking around the house like when she had learned of Anthony’s death. The grief that came that day – she didn’t even know it was there.

When she and Bonnie spoke, both women cried like the pain was brand new.

As a Special Forces wife for many years, Bonnie recalled all those years knowing that her husband was off doing something dangerous and might not come home.

“Here these people were living my worst nightmare,” she said.

Cooper worried she was opening up old wounds. But Louise welcomed the release.

“It was such a raw emotion,” Louise said. “I am actually feeling very blessed to have this closure.”

By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 5, 2018

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