Closing the Door for Frank...
Jack Stoddard
CW2 Jack C Stoddard, USA, Ret.
© � 2003
 
My tribute to Memorial Day -- Jack Stoddard, 12:35:25 05/25/03 Sun
This story is from a book that I wrote a few years ago about my tours in Vietnam.
 


Closing the Door for Frank

I just got off the phone with Fran Fleming, Frank Saracino�s sister. I had known Frank for less than a month while I was in the ARPs (Aero Rifle Platoon) in 1969. I was his roommate and was with him the day he died.

Fran had been desperately looking for someone to talk to for more than twenty-nine years. She wanted to know how her bother died and to talk to someone who knew or worked with him in Vietnam. She was only a little girl in 1969 and was now determined to put the unknown to rest. But it had been so long and she was close to giving up the search when somehow my friend Bruce Stephen�s name was given to her. Bruce and I had served together in the ARPs.

When Bruce called and asked if I would talk to the Saracinos, I told him of course. Until the call came through I had an uneasy feeling. Questions raced through my mind, How would I react? Was I really ready for this? I was expecting to talk to Frank�s Dad, but it was Fran who made the call. She wanted to screen the information for her distraught father. That was fine with me.

At times it was hard for me, as well as Fran. It did bring back memories, but the hardest part was trying to explain everything in a way as not to upset her. Questions about how he died were hard enough to answer, but why he died was almost impossible to explain. How can you explain to someone who wasn�t there all the feelings one felt? Like the pride of being in an elite unit, the willingness to give your life for your fellow soldier or the unselfish risks you would take to help a man you hardly knew.

As we were talking I got lost in time and my mind took me back to that morning. I was twenty-two and back in Vietnam again ....

Frank felt just like I did, both scared and excited. This was to be our first combat mission in the ARPs and we had no idea what to expect. The weather was nice, at least it wasn�t raining. We flew out to the landing zone in separate choppers as we were in two different squads, but I do remember waving good-bye to Frank as we walked toward our choppers on the heli pads. I said, �See ya later buddy.�

That was the last time I ever heard Frank�s laugh.

 

ARPs My First Mission

After Sergeant Frank Saracino, my new roommate, and I had completed our few days of intense in-house training, our platoon sergeant, Staff Sergeant Port, decided we were ready to join the ARPs (Aero Rifle Platoon) on their next mission, Operation Atlas Wedge. The ARPs consisted of four squads of seven men each. I was assigned to the third squad and my new friend, Frank, was in the second. I was hoping we could both be in the same squad, but the platoon sergeant didn't want two new guys together. Because we shared a room, Frank and I had become pretty close during training. We would spent a lot of nights just laying in our bunks talking.

On the morning of our first mission Frank was to be walking in the point man position, which meant he would be in the front of his squad. I was informed by Specialist Fourth Class Jarvis, my squad leader, that my position was to be walking back up. That would be right behind Groucho who was the third squad's best point man.

It was still dark as Frank and I sat in our room doing a final check on all our equipment. We were nervously talking about the weather as I once more checked out my CAR 15 rifle. Deep inside I was scared, but I didn't want Frank to know that. I had been in Vietnam over nine months and had already been in a few hairy fire fights, but I'd always had the protection of my tank to help me feel safe. This time I'd be going into combat as a grunt with the only protection being my jungle uniform!

It's funny because while I was scared, I was at the same time very excited. Talk about butterflies in your stomach! I sort of laughed and said to Frank, "Do you realize we're the only ARPs up in the middle night getting ready?"

He just laughed and loaded his magazines with ammunition. In the back of my mind I knew I would have to prove myself today if I expected to earn the position of squad leader in the future.

Two hours later we all met outside the mess hall. Everybody was joking around, but I just sort of stood back. I found my squad, but didn't know what to talk about. I surely didn't want to sound like a know-it-all.

Soon Jarvis came up to me. "Lets check you out Jack, before we leave," he said looking over my gear. I tried to look as cool as I could hoping he couldn't see my legs shaking. We broke into our own squads and walked to the chopper pad.

On the way over I looked back at Frank and hollered, "See you later good buddy!"

He smiled and waved back, "We'll have a cold one tonight, Jack."

I started to feel a little better as I boarded the Huey. Each squad had their own Huey as well as a Loach and a Cobra gun ship that escorted our platoon everywhere. They were our eyes in the sky. Those two ships together were called a "pink team." They got that name because in the Air Cavalry Troop the Loach was classified under the White Team and the Cobra under the Red. I don't exactly know why or how the different "teams" worked, all I knew is that red and white made pink.

The pink team took off first then our four Hueys lifted up and hovered above the heli-pad. The tail of our chopper kicked up while at the same time the nose went down. I could hear the jet engine roar as our ship swiftly moved down the runway. I thought to myself, lets do it! and we lifted into the air.

We flew low over the tree tops and I could see the farmers and water buffalos working the fields below. The ride was so tranquil just watching the scenery slowly drift by. It would have been really nice if I didn't know for a fact we were going into a suspected enemy strong hold. I tried to relax a little. I couldn't see our pink team, but could hear the pilots talking with them. They were now flying over our LZ (landing zone) trying to draw fire from the enemy, if he was down there, in the thick jungle and rubber plantation that was to be our search area for today.

"We're getting ready to land. When we touch down, you unass this ship fast and stay behind me," Jarvis ordered.

I responded by shaking my head yes. Within minutes our four ships dropped from the peaceful sky and rocketed into a small clearing. It was the only clearing in the jungle. The ARPs were on the ground and I did exactly as I was told, I ran like hell behind Jarvis.

The squads met up just outside a small hamlet on the outskirts of a very large rubber plantation. I later learned it was the Michelin Rubber Plantation and was owned by a French family. The trees in the jungle around us were layered one on top of each other so thick you couldn't see the sky above.

As we walked through the hamlet we spotted a few chickens and small pigs, but no people. I guess they were out working with the rubber trees, I thought.

I was feeling pretty relaxed as we entered the front of the plantation. Our platoon broke in half with the first and second squads taking the left side and the third and fourth squads taking the right. Our pink team was still flying overhead, but we couldn't see them. We only heard them going back and fourth trying to locate a target for us.

We moved slowly forward as the point men took the lead. I was walking ten feet behind Groucho straining my eyes for any movement around us. Our platoon leader, Captain White, was talking to our pilots over the radio as we moved deeper into the trees.

This place looked a lot like an orange grove except all the trees had a notch cut into them and a wooden peg was tapped into the bark. A small bucket was hanging from the peg and raw rubber was dripping into it. Boy did that crap stink! It was the worst smelling stuff I have ever experienced in my life. The more seasoned guys just laughed at me as I tried to cover my nose.

About a quarter of the way into the plantation Groucho signaled us to stop as he looked beyond the rubber trees and into the very thick, six-feet tall jungle bushes in front of us. Groucho had a sixth sense and could smell the enemy before seeing them. We could see two squads to our left, twenty feet ahead of us. Capt. White was calling them over the radio to slow down when we heard a very loud and very close POP, POP, POP. It was the sound of a large caliber machine gun and it was firing in our direction! By the time I realized what it was, we were being sprayed with both rifle and light machine gun fire. We hit the ground like a shot.

All I could think of was, oh crap, as this once quiet grove of trees was now a solid blanket of green tracers flying in all directions from the enemy's guns. Although I was pinned to ground, I returned fire. I couldn't see anybody so I just fired into the tree line. I felt the heat of the bullets as they were flying all around me, tearing at my clothes. I heard the platoon sergeant yell for us to find some cover. I reloaded my rife and looked for cover, but there wasn't any.

I looked for Groucho and found him fifteen feet to my left front. He was laying behind a fallen tree stump and I could see the bullets ricocheting around him. I saw the heel on of one of his boots had been blown off! He couldn't move an inch in any direction without being hit.

Someone yelled that the second squad had a person down. The captain hollered we had to get Groucho out of there and move to the rear were we could find some cover. I was no longer in fear as adrenalin had kicked in. I reloaded again and tried to locate the source of the green tracers. I yelled back to Jarvis and pointed to where I thought the majority of the fire was coming from. Himself and two other ARPs crawled forward as best they could and all four of us opened up. We must have been close because for a few seconds the enemy fire stopped. Well, at least long enough for Groucho to jump back to the safety of our small group.

All of the third and fourth squads were now able to very slowly crawl backward away from this killing zone. We tried to lay down as much M60 machine gun fire as we could and we leap- frogged by twos to the rear. If I wasn't so scared, I would have enjoyed the light show from the mixture of the enemy's green tracers and our own red tracers as they covered the jungle floor.

We then set up a better and more controlled base and were now able to position our own machine guns to cover a much wider area. Our M79 grenade launchers were now hitting around the enemy with a POP-CRACK as they tore at the jungle brush. The captain knew we had to rescue the guys in the first and second squads and he was busy trying to get help from our choppers above. They said they could just barely see the smoke from the rifle fire floating above the jungle and that they, too, were receiving heavy fire from the ground. Holy crap, what in the hell had we run into was the thought felt by us all as we regrouped to help the other two squads.

We received word from them that they had been able to move back a short distance but had to leave one KIA behind. It was my new friend and roommate Frank! I just said, "God damn it," and reached down to load another magazine of ammunition. Wiping the tears from my eyes I tried to focus on another target.

Capt. White said a company of First Cavalry infantry soldiers had been diverted from their mission, were already in the air and would be at our landing zone in fifteen minutes. He instructed Groucho, Jarvis and myself to return to the landing zone and assist them back to his location. We grabbed Wheaty, our RTO (radio operator), and took him with us. The cracking sounds of incoming bullets could be heard all around as we crawled then ran the two-hundred yards back to the safety of the hamlet.

Suddenly, I heard the whistle from friendly artillary rounds flying over our heads and exploding on their targets, fifty yards in front of the pinned down ARPs. I didn't have time to think of Frank now, I only knew it could have been me instead of him.

Soon we were looking at the clearing that was our landing zone and saw ten choppers full of First Cavalry troopers coming to our rescue. We popped green smoke and guided the ships in under a barrage of artillary explodding only two-hundred yards away.

A very young second lieutenant from the First Cav came up to us and Jarvis informed him that we were pinned down under heavy fire and could sure use their help. The lieutenant just laughed and told us how the First Cavalry was here now and it was no problem for his guys!

All his men were busy dropping off their large back packs as we talked. He told us to give him one man to guide his group and for the rest of us to watch their gear until they got back. Groucho led the large group of soldiers back to our men.

I stood there dumb founded. Jarvis and I looked at each other and at the same time said, "There's no way we're staying here," and we headed back just as soon as the infrantry boys were out of sight.

The artillery had just lifted as the First Cavalry troopers reached Capt. White and our men. As the two officers spoke, small arms fire started to go off once again, only this time it was answered with at least six machine guns firing in unison. The First Cavalry lieutenant told Capt. White to have his ARPs take the far left flank and his troopers would move up the middle in force. With that, the ARPs moved out and at least seventy-five First Cavalry soldiers advanced deeper into the plantation, the roar of their weapons echoing off the trees. The jungle soon smelled of gun powder and was covered in a smokey haze.

By the time Wheaty, Jarvis and I got back to where we had left our guys earlier, they weren't there, just some of the First Cavalry soldiers. The rest were about thirty feet ahead in the plantation.

We went looking for Capt. White when the well hidden enemy's 51-caliber machine cut loose again. We dove for cover, but troopers of the First Cavalry were dropping like flies right in front of us! I couldn't believe my eyes! A pile of at least twenty dead bodies layed only ten feet away from me. They had walked right into an ambush.

I remember this next part as if it was yesterday. I saw a medic crawl over to the pile of bodies trying to give some aid. He didn't have a rifle, only his aid bag as he tried to perform his magic. I watched helplessly as a series of bullets tore through his body, then he fell to the ground. This brave, wounded soldier then got up on his knees, looked me straight in the eyes and pointed to where the fire was coming from. I nodded back to him I understood and when more rounds hit and killed this young hero, I saw the smoke from the muzzle of the machine gun. I'll never forget the look on his face. He knew he was going to die, but he tried to help those wounded Cavalry guys anyway. If it was not for his selfless dedication, many more lives would have been lost because no one else could see where that machine gun was located. Even though we weren't in the same unit and I didn't know his name, this medic was a hero in my book.

I called out to Jarvis that the machine gun was dug in and hidden under a dead tree stump and for everyone in the area to direct their fire upon it. The hidden gun that had been spraying death so accurately throughout the battlefield was now silent. We had blown the crap out of it. The rest of the enemy must have moved further back out of our range and deeper inside their well hidden bunker system because the firing came to an abrupt halt.

With artillery still heard in the far distance, we now retrieved the bodies of our fallen comrades. That young second lieutenant from the First Cavalry was laying dead on the ground.

We were regrouping as myself and three other ARPs requested permission to search for Frank. Capt. White told us to be careful and also take an RTO with us. We quickly headed in the direction where the second squad had last been seen. We found Frank laying in a ditch. It looked like the enemy had tried to take his boots off and his weapon was also missing. The four of us almost religiously carried Frank off the battle field. He had been shot in the head by the 51-caliber machine gun. He never knew what hit him.

There were four helicopters on the ground when we reached the small LZ on the other side of the hamlet. One of them had a Blackhorse patch painted on its side so we carried Frank to it. As we layed him inside, one of the pilots turned to us and said, "You'll have to take that soldier back to one of the dust-off choppers." We looked at him and replied, "He's one of us, he's an ARP, and we want you to take him home!"

I think the pilot saw the stern look in our eyes and he talked to his superior over the headset. In a moment he told us, "We'd be proud to fly him back."

The Blackhorse Huey was just clearing the tree tops by the time we got back to the plantation. That was the last time I ever saw my friend Frank. Fly, Frank, fly, you're leaving this Hell on earth.

It wasn't long, maybe an hour, before word was sent down to pack it up and return to base camp before it got to dark. The twenty-seven remaining ARPs headed back to the LZ and our awaiting choppers.

The flight home was very quiet. All I could hear was the pop, pop, pop of the rotor blades cutting into the wind. Nobody talked about Frank. They were already starting the process of trying to forget. That wouldn't come for me for a long time. I just layed against the wall of the chopper completely exhuasted.

At 5:00 p.m. the ARPs stood in formation and our flag was lowered to half mass in honor of our fallen comrad, Frank Saracino. My night was spent packing up his belongings. Rollie came by to help and to see how I was doing. All I could say was, "Boy, that was one hell of a first day!" He chuckled a little and, trying to cheer me up, said, "They're not all like that, some days are really bad!"

We talked for awhile longer until everything was packed, then he said, "I'll have somebody pick up those bags in the morning. Try to get some sleep, Jack, we're going back into Michelin in the morning."

That's another story, but right now I have to try and get some sleep. I'm really tired.

 

At times it was hard for me, as well as Fran. It did bring back memories ...

Was he in a good mood? Yes, I believe he was. He was happy because he had made the team. He was an ARP. He didn�t have to, but rather he wanted to be with this outfit, just like the rest of us.
Was he scared? Yes, we all were. That too was part of the job.

The hardest part of this conversation for me was realizing all of the questions his family still had. Questions that had gone unanswered for such a very long time. I was counting on her asking ...
�how did he die?� but not the
�was he happy or what was the weather like?� questions.
�Was he wearing a helmet� or
�was he put in a body bag?� were a few more questions that caught me off guard. Yes, he was wearing a helmet, even though it was optional at the time.
Fran asked why didn�t the helmet protect him from the bullet and I had to explain that a .51-caliber bullet goes through a helmet like a hot knife through butter. Even while I was saying the words I knew it was hard for her to hear them, but there was no other way to explain it. It was nothing Frank did wrong! He made no mistakes. One bullet in the head and it was all over. At least there was no pain. Maybe now for his family, but not for Frank. For a soldier it was the fastest way to go. I know that might sound strange but it�s true. We soldiers actually sat around talking about such things. Death was a very real part of our lives.

Her phone call that Sunday morning more than anything else made me realize, without being able to close the doors, the families of our fallen comrades face Vietnam and what it did to them almost daily. It almost makes me feel guilty for serving in the war and coming home. I only wish I could answer those many questions for all of the friends and families of our fallen comrades. I know what it�s like to be able to finally close a door and I know what it feels like to have that weight lifted off your shoulders.

Fran, I hope our talk helped. Frank Saracino has a lot of friends like myself and we won�t forget him.

After I hung up the phone my wife Sue asked me if I was all right or would I have nightmares again tonight. Yes, I�ll survive this, I always do. But sometimes I do wonder if people really understand the burden we soldiers will always carry, even for many years after our job is done and we are pretending to be normal beings.

Official Information:

FRANK DE PAUL SARACINO JR

SGT - E5 - Army - Regular
11th Armored Cavalry
20 year old Single, Caucasian, Male
Born on Oct 30, 1948
From FT COLLINS, COLORADO
Length of service 1 year.
His tour of duty began on Oct 16, 1968
Casualty was on Mar 20, 1969
in BINH LONG, SOUTH VIETNAM
HOSTILE, GROUND CASUALTY
MULTIPLE FRAGMENTATION WOUNDS
Body was recovered
Religion
ROMAN CATHOLIC

Panel 29W - - Line 92

Department of the Army
Headquarters, United States Army Vietnam
APO San Francisco 96375

GENERAL ORDERS 14 MAY 1969
NUMBER 1724

AWARD OF THE DISTINGUISHED SERVICE CROSS

1. TC 320. The following AWARD is announced posthumously.

SARACINO, FRANK D JR SSAN 521-68-6426 SERGEANT
United States Army, Air Cavalry Troop, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, APO 96257
Awarded: Distinguished Service Cross
Date of action: 20 March 1969
Theater: Republic of Vietnam

 
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