News: Two 5th Cav. Vietnam veterans meet 46 years after one saved the other's life
Story by Sgt. Ken Scar
KILLEEN, Texas - More than 35 Vietnam veterans of Company D, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, met April 15-19 for their third annual reunion. The reconciliation was particularly profound for two of the men, who hadn’t seen each other in 46 years.
In 1967, one saved the other’s life on the grassy Bong Son plain near the South China Sea.
The soldiers of Company D set out early in the morning of March 13, 1967 in what was the latest in a continuous cycle of missions they had been executing for months.
“Like a rifle company anywhere we were in and out of the base camp in An Khe,” said Lt. Col. Jim Buckner, retired, a silver-haired, soft spoken gentleman who was then a captain and the company commander. “We were a line company so we were always going out.”
On this mission, the company was moving toward their objective when they started taking sporadic sniper fire.
“The area was all open, with grass about knee high and bunches of boulders here and there,” said John Therrien, a beefy and affable retired first sergeant, who was then a specialist and Buckner’s radio telephone operator. “We started taking sniper fire from a huge boulder to our left.”
“It was coming from about a quarter mile away,” said Buckner. “It wasn’t that accurate – and there was only a shot every once in a while, but one guy went down. I had him taken care of, called in a medevac, and we kept moving forward.”
The sniper shots kept peppering the company from it’s left as they moved, so Buckner called the battalion commander and got permission to add the sniper as an objective. He ordered a left flank, straight toward the enemy.
"We went up about 150 to 200 meters. The sniper kept hitting people, but we kept moving on up. Our scout dog took a round right through the neck," said Therrien.
“We saw a huge rock, like somebody had put a small mountain right there,” said Buckner. “And that’s where the fire was coming from. My RTOs and myself moved to the right to see if we could get a better glance. I had three RTOs, and we were sort of in a gaggle. Three big ol’ antennas and me, so that meant, ‘there’s the old man’. I think that’s what drew the fire.”
Buckner was shot in the head.
“I was hit in my right temple and went out like toast,” said Buckner.
The other two RTO's dropped their radios to return fire, leaving Therrien alone with his gravely wounded commander, enemy fire hitting all around them. Therrien knew it was urgent to get the commander to safety before he was hit again.
"I dragged him behind a rock, patched him up, and called for medevac," said Therrien. He had other soldiers carry the commander quickly to the casualty collection point. Then, he had to crawl into the open, still under heavy fire, to retrieve the other two radios.
The company first sergeant was at the CCP, and the lieutenants were with their squads more than 150 meters away, so Therrien found himself in a very unusual situation.
“I have all the radios, and now I’ve got command of the company, as a specialist.”
He threw everything he could at the boulder, which they determined was hiding about two dozen enemy combatants who fought fiercely with the approaching Americans.
"I had one radio on my back, one on my chest, and one on my left arm. That left my right arm free to talk on the radio and shoot," said Therrien.
“So now I’m calling in close air support. I had the Battleship New Jersey, I had the Australian air force, I had the Navy, and I had the Marines – every air force you could get,” said Buckner. “This was a 50-to-60-foot boulder they were using as cover. We hit it with a 500-pound bomb and it didn’t even scratch it.”
After having it strafed from the air, Therrien led the remaining members of D Company in an attack on the enemy position, taking heavy fire until he and two others were able to maneuver close enough to fire three light anti-tank weapons straight into the heart of it.
“That’s when the firing calmed down, and we finally overran the objective,” he said. “Nobody was there, but there was blood all over the place and an M1 Garand with a Chinese scope braised on laying there with blast damage. There was also a brazier. The next day they searched and found a female body with blast injuries. She was either the sniper or the spotter, but I think she was the sniper.”
Meanwhile, Buckner was treated for his wound, which turned out to be a very close call for him. The bullet had entered his temple next to his right eye, traveled around his head between his skin and skull, and exited the back of his head without damaging his brain.
“It went right around his hard head,” laughed Therrien.
“My wife said that’s the best place I could’ve been hit,” smiled Buckner. “An eighth of an inch and I would have been a dead man. Instead, I got my wound repaired, had a nice meal with the brigade commander, and went back.”
Thanks to Therrien, Buckner not only lived, but was out of the field for less than twelve hours.
Therrien stayed in command of the company for approximately two hours, until the battalion commander could fly in a replacement for Buckner.
Buckner remained in theater until June, 1967. He retired as a lieutenant colonel In 1982.
Therrien went on to do three more tours of Vietnam. He retired as a first sergeant in 2008.
The two men didn’t see each other for 46 years, until someone contacted Therrien about the D Company reunion.
“I received a call from [a man named Pat Peterson] who was looking for former Delta 1/5 soldiers,” said Therrien. “After telling him that I was indeed a former Delta soldier, I said that I was looking to get in touch with Capt. Buckner. He said I have his number right here! I called him up and said sir, you’re not going to believe who this is. He told me that he was going to the reunion and asked if I could make it. I told him I wasn't sure - but I knew I would. I just wanted to surprise him.”
Therrien arranged to surprise Buckner upon his arrival at the Killeen airport.
“I recognized him as he hadn't changed much, but he didn't really know who I was until I told him, and then there was a big long hug and lots of smiling all around. It was great to see him again,” smiled Therrien.
“We’ve been having fun ever since.”