The Tet Offensive—North Vietnam’s surprisingly massive push against the South that began Jan. 30, 1968—proved to be the turning point of the war. The North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong guerrilla forces incurred immense losses, but American antiwar sentiment was galvanized by the news of the enemy’s continued strength—and continued determination. During the four weeks of ferocious fighting, 1,829 U.S. servicemen died. One of the fiercest battles of the Tet Offensive took place in Hue, which was formerly Vietnam’s cultural center. There for nearly a month U.S. soldiers battled North Vietnamese regulars on the city’s streets. Many American casualties were evacuated to a medical outpost a couple of miles out of town. The trip took 15 minutes or so, but it probably seemed like hours to the Marines on the tank in the above photograph, who were either wounded or ministering to the wounded. Five of those men from the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Division, were tracked down by PEOPLE, and spoke about that grueling journey.
“The smell was napalm and burned bodies,” remembers Richard Schlagel, a lance corporal. “That’s one smell you never forget. The guy I was holding was unconscious. He had a hole in his lung, and I had to tilt him up at an angle [to keep his lungs from filling with fluid]. I heard he died a few days later. The guy with the bandaged eyes kept asking where we were and where we were going….
“I’d be a fool if I said I wasn’t scared. We were riding down the middle of the street with no protection. But you could almost call it a peaceful ride. Not too much sniper fire. A few rockets. There were no tourist maps, and I didn’t know anything about the city. We stopped at a white house—someone got off and found out it was a South Vietnamese hospital. But we couldn’t communicate with them. Then a rocket flew over the tank. Somebody inside yelled to get back on and we took off.
“Pretty soon we got to the right place. I remember getting off the tank and seeing a lot of body bags. Not stacked. Laid out in neat lines. I don’t even remember what happened next.” Schlagel, who is now 38 and a supervisor at Dodge Truck, shrugs his shoulders and becomes very quiet. “They told us it would be bad when we went into Hue. They sent Delta and Bravo companies in ahead, and they were wiped out.”
Schlagel, who grew up in Berkley, Mich., enlisted at the age of 19. He arrived in Vietnam six months later. “In the beginning,” he says, “you don’t know if you can ever pull a trigger and kill somebody. But then one day you’re talking to someone and bang, he’s dead. Like that you start to change inside. It’s survival—a different way of life. Everything you were taught—well, a monkey wrench is thrown in.”
Now married and the father of two children, Schlagel lives in the house where he grew up. His return from Vietnam was relatively easy, starting with a cab driver who drove him from the airport and said, “Glad you’re back.” The war has been consigned to the attic, where he keeps a couple of scrap-books, some propaganda leaflets dropped on Vietnam by both sides, a hand-carved decorative knife that probably couldn’t even cut an apple and the plastic squid he is wearing on his helmet in the picture. A present from his brother, Charles, a sailor (or “squid” to Marines), the gold-colored toy was “too big for my pocket. And it would have gotten too beaten up in my pack. So I put it on top of my head [along with a pack of cigarettes and saline solution to kill leeches]. The squid,” says Schlagel, “saw as much action as I did.”
“People who have seen that picture seem to have the idea that Schlagel and I were medics,” says Jim Beals (he’s holding the IV bottle in the photograph.) “Hell, we were just riflemen; we just cared about our people, man. I wish that fellow’s life could have been saved, but I hope he died knowing that we tried. Nam could be such a lonesome place.” Beals was a private, just 18, and had been in Vietnam less than a month. He had already seen his best buddy from the States killed by a bullet in the face. Now, in Hue, he was trying to keep another man from dying. “Schlagel and I were right next to him—I don’t remember his name—when he caught a round that entered his chest from the upper right and came out of his lower back on the left. We ripped down a door and put him on it, then snagged a tank and loaded it up. We headed for a South Vietnamese aid station. They either couldn’t or wouldn’t take care of our guys, and rather than stand there waving our arms, we loaded everyone back up on the tank and took off for the American aid station. We’d no more than gotten started than a rocket went right over our tank. A lot of the guys didn’t expect to get out of this one alive. I guess I was too new, or too damn dumb, to be that pessimistic.”
Beals learned. “I soon caught on that if you don’t make no new friends, then it’s not so bad when they die on you,” he says. “God knows, there’s plenty to get you down without that. There were plenty of guys you could see it getting to. Sometimes we’d take cover, and you’d see a guy sticking up an arm or a leg, trying to catch a wound that would get him the hell out.”
Three days after the picture was taken at Hue, Beals caught some shrapnel in the face. “It wasn’t too serious,” he says, “but the Marine officer who walked up to my mother’s door in Johnson City, Tenn. didn’t have a chance to tell her that before she fainted, thinking I was dead. I was wounded three more times before I was sent home, and one of those times, they sent someone to my mother’s home again, and she fainted again.”
In November of 1968 Beals went home on a stretcher, stopping at the Anchorage airport on the way. He remembers, “There were these two young kids there. And they asked me, ‘You just back from Vietnam?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I’m on my way home. Ain’t it great?’ And they said, ‘Did you kill women and kids over there?’ I said, ‘Only if I had to.’ And they spit on me. After that, I never told anybody else; I pretty much kept my mouth shut.”
He doesn’t even talk too much about his string of ears, which some GIs collected the way American Indians collected scalps. Beals, now 35, also returned home with a cocaine habit, which took him years to kick. He claims he still has trouble sleeping more than three or four hours a night; luckily, he works as a long-distance trucker. The father of five kids, he confesses, “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to settle down. There’s too many things to see before I die. Nam taught me how easy it is to die and how important it is to pack things in before you go.”
“There are a lot of things I don’t want to remember,” says Dennis Ommert, “like learning to tell the difference between the smell of a dead American and a dead Vietnamese. And getting shot at for the first time. I realized, well, hell, this ain’t no game like on TV.”
Ommert, now 35, would also like to forget the time he was hit by mortar fire while setting up an antitank gun in Hue. (He and James Rice were members of the same crew.) Initially he received only a bit of shrapnel in the right temple. But while bending over another injured man on a side street in Hue, he was wounded by a second mortar round. Ommert recalls feeling a searing pain in his left leg just above the knee. Seventeen years later, that leg still hurts him. “When I first went over,” says Ommert, “I thought we were going to win the war. I thought we were doing the right thing.” Before he shipped out, he even had the Marine emblem tattooed on his right forearm with the slogan, Death Before Dishonor. “At first it was that way,” Ommert says. “But after a while it got to the point where you’d seen so many dead people and blood and stuff, you knew you were just there to survive and get out the best way you can, to look after yourself and your buddies.”
Because he had only been in-country for three months when he was hurt at Hue, Ommert was not eligible to leave Vietnam. Instead he was reassigned to guard duty and was made a corporal before he went home to Pennsylvania in 1970. Three years later Ommert got “a good job” as a telephone company installer, a position he still holds. With his wife, Debbie, who is expecting their first child in August, he lives in a cabin in the woods near Fayetteville. The cabin has no flush toilet, but Ommert explains, “I like to be away from people. I like to hear the wild turkeys calling.”
When Ommert learned that John Olson, who was photographing him for this issue of PEOPLE, was the same man who had photographed him in Vietnam, he said, “I wish you could see my face” in the Hue picture. “Well, next time,” Olson said. “No; no next time,” Ommert said, laughing. “No next time, please.”
James Rice, a Marine for just over a year, was a lance corporal when he was sent to Hue. “I knew it was going to be bad,” he says. “We were a heavy weapons unit, and there was no way to hide a big gun like our recoilless rifle. Before, we’d had jungles, trees. In Hue we were out in the open.”
Rice was hit by mortar fire on his third day in the city. “I couldn’t see a thing. I knew my eyes were hit. I had gotten shrapnel in my left arm too, and my left side. Also my left leg and the back of my feet. While we were in the hooch getting fixed up, I got hit again.”
When he was lifted onto the tank, Rice didn’t know if he’d ever see again. “At the hospital I waited for hours for them to operate. The place was filled with casualties. I just waited.” Rice still has a spot in the corner of his eye.
He was 19 when he enlisted: “I was a gung-ho type. I never thought I would be killed. It would be someone else. It’s funny, but I was never scared.” He was frustrated, however. “We could have won over there,” he says. “But our hands were tied. We did not aggressively pursue the enemy. We just sat there waiting for them to attack.”
Rice, now 37 and a roofing contractor in Candler, N.C., has one other complaint: “I never did get my Purple Heart. I guess they lost my records.”
In 1966, Clifford Dyes of Atlanta, Ga. put on the Marine uniform. Dyes says, “I didn’t know there was a war. I didn’t read the paper that much. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I figured you leave here, you’re going somewhere else.”
Hue was definitely somewhere else. The city, he remembers, had “beautiful homes, temples and a college. It was intact when we went in. When you see pictures now, it’s rubble.”
Dyes helped create the rubble as one of the men assigned to a 106 mm recoilless rifle, a gun so powerful it could knock down houses. “If they wanted a path,” he says, “we made a path.”
On their third day in Hue, Dyes and his mates(including Ommert and Rice) were hit by mortar fire. At first, he says, “I didn’t know I was wounded.” As a squad leader, he adds, “My thought was to get to my people who were hurt and get them out.” Another man noticed Dyes’ head wound. Doctors saved his left eyeball but not the vision.
Now 37 and a mechanic in a Newnan, Ga. plastics factory, Dyes only wishes he’d accomplished more in his 19 months in Nam: “What you won in the daytime, they’d recapture at night. Everything you’d done, you did over—and then you’d get pushed back even further.”