Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Kenneth Stumpf on the Ambushes and Accidental Deaths in Vietnam

Excerpts from James McIntosh's oral history interview with Medal of Honor winner Kenneth Stumpf of the 35th Infantry Regiment.  Among other things, Stumpf criticized high-ranking officers for focusing on their careers over winning the war and taking care of their men.  I'm most interested, though, in an incident in which a priest and altar boy on their way to serve mass were killed, and Stumpf's reactions to the event.

Stumpf: No, no, no. Your clacker back here by you, you have the cl—you have the
wire, you have that thing right here in your hand, and the guy that’s up and
alert has it where if the trip, a flare goes off, you can make the decision to
blow it, to blow the Claymore. And it shocks him or keeps him away or
whatever it might be. Well anyways, there was a stream and I’m on guard
duty now. Now what I see in front of us is a—there’s a road, it’s a dirt
road, um, there’s a rice paddy, a small rice paddy, and there’s a village.
And from where we were at there was hedgerows, about, just about five
foot tall. There was hedgerows and we were in an area right along the
hedgerows. So about 4 o’clock, 3 o’clock in the morning, something like
that, I’m on duty and I hear something or somebody coming through the
stream, walking in the stream. Because at night everything is so quiet, a
guy could hear the trickle; I could, I could always hear the trickle, always
hear the trickle. Something was in there, so I had Billy, Sergeant Billy,
next to me and I said, [whispers] “Billy!” I said, “I think somebody is
coming, something or somebody is coming through the stream.” And we
heard it and we had our weapons ready. And all of sudden on to, off to our
right, where the trail led out of the stream, here comes a man—here comes
a tall person and a short person and a bicycle. They weren’t riding it, they
were walking it. So we had—I said to Billy, “Dude.” Remember, we had
an Easter truce. He said, “Let’s get him.” “Okay.” He says, “You take the
big one.” Me, I’ll take the big guy in front and he’ll take the smaller one in
the back. So we drew our 16s up and had ‘em on full automatic [makes
automatic firing sounds]. They went down and fell into the rice paddy,
then they got back up. I reloaded, we both reloaded and shot some more,
and then we could see them both. They just—ducking way down low, they
made their way to the village. 
James: You missed them? 
Stumpf: No, we didn’t miss ‘em; we didn’t kill ‘em, though. We, we didn’t know,
we didn’t know. We knew, we knew they went down. They went down
first; we knew they were both hit first. Where, how bad, I don’t know. It’s
dark outside yet. So what had happened then, oh everybody in the platoon,
they got up, “What’s going on? What’s going on? What’s going on? Had
we seen somebody?” Dah, dah, dah, dah, dah. And we told the story to
these guys and [unintelligible]. So at whatever time, 5:30 in the morning,
it started to get light outside, Billy and I, we go out through the brush, we
go out to the road. The bicycle is there. And then we get, we get some
guys and we start walking, following the blood trail. Blood trail all over
the place, going through the rice paddies, into the village. All of a sudden,
man, we got into the village, people were crying and screamin’ at us, and
it was like, “What the hell?” So we had to get an interpreter out and I went
over there—and I don’t remember where Billy was, but he was probably
next to me or something. I went over there to the lieutenant and the
interpreter and I says, “What happened? What are they all screaming
about?” And the interpreter said Billy and I shot a priest and an altar boy;
they were going to church services. Oh man, I don’t know if we killed
them. I walked away. I walked away; I’m not even sure if we killed them
or not. But that’s what happens in war and that’s, it’s still on my—I don’t
have, I don’t have tremendous, I don’t have nightmares, but I feel kind of
like, Oh man, I shot a priest, you know, and Billy shot the altar boy. But
it’s somethin’ I never really talked about much, but I thought about for a
long time, and it doesn’t cause me to have any kind of flipouts or anything
else; it’s just—you know, Vietnam made me strong. I mean, for the guys
that got killed, I’m strong for them. I says, “I’m not going to let, I’m not
gonna let a nightmare bother me about this or that or whatever and I’m not
gonna whine and snivel when I go see the Vietnam Memorial. I’m gonna
be strong,” you know. So it never bothered me, it doesn’t bother me, but I
never talk about that. I talked to that about—oh, I probably told ten
people, ten people that story. But, you know, it was, it was an Easter—that
was just the way we were. We got an Easter truce, all these other ones had
been broke, why are we out on an ambush to begin with? We were. We
didn’t care if it was Christmas day, or Christmas whatever, if we were out
on an ambush, we were out on an ambush. Days of Tet, their holiday, it
didn’t make a difference; we’re still on ambush, you know. So that’s just
the way it was. What happened, it was dark, it was dark outside, we seen a
big guy and a smaller guy, and of course, you know, a grown Vietnamese
is about 5’1” and just that he was bigger than the other guy. So we killed,
or we killed, we wounded and I, and I would suspect we killed ‘em, that
we killed them both or shot ‘em up pretty darn, pretty darn bad just on the,
on the blood, the blood that we followed into the, into the village. But I
didn’t even, I didn’t ask, I didn’t ask. When the interpreter told the
lieutenant that we shot a priest and an altar boy that was going to serve
mass down the road I guess, um, I walked away. Yeah I did.


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