Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.
CUCM McCully served in a construction battalion, more commonly known as the Seabees, during Vietnam.
The Naval Construction Battalions, which quickly became known as the Seabees due to their abbreviation, were formed at the beginning of American involvement in World War II. They were created as an amphibious force to construct advanced bases in combat zones, and quickly became well respected because they were composed of only experienced men.
Johnny McCully was inspired by the bravery of family members he saw volunteer to fight in World War II, and enlisted in the Navy at 17, right after the war ended. He was assigned to a Seabee unit, and helped rebuild infrastructure in countries around the world following the war.
Two decades later, McCully deployed to Vietnam. A day after he was sent to Dong Xoai, the VietCong launched a surprise attack on his base. McCully was on watch when the first mortar hit, and played a significant role in defending the base during the first stages of the attack. He was hit with shrapnel, but continued to fight despite his injuries.
McCully was then separated from his battalion during a fight with a VC soldier who had a flamethrower. McCully’s battalion thought he had been burned alive, but he escaped, and spent over 48 hours on the run, hiding from VC forces without any food, water, or ammo. Eventually he found an American helicopter that was landing, and was airlifted to safety.
Upon reaching a hospital, the doctors told McCully he’d permanently lost 75% of the strength of his right arm. After physical therapy, he regained almost all his strength.
Click here to learn more about the Battle of Dong Xai.
Photo Credits: NAVFAC and the U.S. Navy Seabees Museum
Hi, I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. If you love listening to this show as much as I love hosting it, I think you’ll really like the Medal of Honor Podcast, produced in partnership with the Medal of Honor Museum. Each episode talks about a genuine American hero, and the actions that led to their receiving our nation’s highest award for valor. They’re just a few minutes each, so if you’re looking for a show to fill time between these warriors episodes, I think you’ll love the Medal of Honor Podcast. Search for the ‘Medal of Honor Podcast’ wherever you get your shows. Thanks.
I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today, we’ll hear from CUCM Johnny McCully. McCully served as a Navy Seabee during Vietnam, and fought in the Battle of Dong Xoai. During the battle, his battalion thought he was burned alive, but he escaped, and spent over 48 hours on the run, hiding from VietCong forces without any food, water, or ammo.
I'm Johnny McCulley, M-C-C-U-L-L-Y, former mass chief of the CBs. I was mass chief for the US Navy CBs from 1973 to 1977 when I retired.
The CBs were formed in 1942 by Admiral Moreell. He was Chief of Civil Engineers at that time. It was formed to meet immediate construction needs throughout the world. But prior to that, we had had small jobs going on. Well, some large jobs also going on, but it was all being done by contracting, especially what they call the PNAB, Pacific Naval Air Bases in the Pacific. Those people were on Midway, Guam, Wake Island, places like that. They were very much in danger out there when the Japanese attacked because if they offered resistance and they were captured, they'd be tried as gorillas because they were not in the military.
That idea came to origin in World War I. They had a construction regiment formed at the Great Lakes Naval Station in Great Lakes, Illinois. And that was filled up and started by, at that time, a Lieutenant Allen and some other people. Later Captain Allen, Captain Smith, and some of those people. Later in 1937, they were on the staff at the Naval Facilities Engineering Commander. At that time, the Bureau of Yards and Docks. The nomenclature or the name changed in 1965, I believe it was. But same organization doing the same work. The idea of having a construction force to go forward and do work. The men at Great Lakes originally was just to work at Great Lakes building housing at that time, big tents and such as that, to take care of the influx of all the recruits coming in there. They got pretty good at their job. So during near the end of the war, they went to France. They put some of the antennas on the Eiffel Tower over there for the Marconi Wireless and also did some pier work in France. But after the war, after World War I, they was basically established and they weren't known as CBs at that time, but that put the idea in these lieutenant, lieutenant commander's heads at that time. So they inserted these plans in these ideas into the war plans, and they were serving on Admiral Moreell staff. Admiral Moreell was the chief civil engineer all the way through World War II.
I joined the Navy in 1947, in August 1947. I was 17 years old. We had a different outlook on life than a lot of people have today. Our older brothers had all been in service. We had to get in there. So I joined the Navy, went out to San Diego to recruit training, received orders to a destroyer ship. And the ship came in and they said, "No, we're not taking anybody board. We're being decommissioned." So I was still sitting over at the receiving station. And that was there in San Diego.
One day the boatswain came out and read a set of orders, said, "The following men will muster in the morning with their sea bags and go to Port Hueneme, California. Well, that's Port Hueneme we found out later. And we went up there and we rode the train up.
When we arrived, they took us out to truck. Picked us up, took us out to the base. They said, "Fall in." Of course, we were all just raw recruits right out of bootcamp. And we fell in like we'd been taught according to height and in two ranks and there we were. And the guy came out and split us down the middle and say, "You men on this side, you're going to be electricians. You men on this side are going to be drivers." That's the way they classified you. All the tall men was on our left. So all the tall people ended up as equipment operators or construction drivers, bulldozers, cranes, such as that. For years, we had all the short people as electricians. And good classification system. Worked great for me.
I was very excited to think that a young boy like myself at that time, remember that I was born in 1930 here. I grew up through the Depression and World War II. We didn't have near the luxuries that we have today. For a young kid like that to be given a bulldozer, a truck, and things like that to go out there and learn how to operate, I thought it was great. That was the best toys I'd ever had.
At that time when I first went in, of course, we were in a peace situation. After World War II, the drawdown was very rapid. If I recall correctly, in 48, along in there, we only had about 2000 CBs worldwide. There were very, very few. And I was stationed on Guam from early 1958 until 1951 with the 103 Naval Construction Battalion out there. We only had about 200 people in that whole battalion. We had detachments that went to Okinawa and did some work. We had detachments to go down to Koror, which is in the Western Carolina Islands down there and did work. But the main battalion stayed there on Guam itself. Myself and about 16 men, 16 CBs, went up to what they call JCA, Joint Communication Activity at that time, later Naval Communication Command. We took care of the roads, the antenna fields, put in new antennas, 60 and 90 foot poles with antennas on them for communications. That was one of the largest communications that we had outside the United States at that time. And basically maintenance. Road maintenance, equipment maintenance, such as that. We had a typhoon hit there in 1949, October 49. Typhoon Eileen almost leveled ... Well, it leveled everything on the island. Didn't level the island, but it leveled everything on the island. And you got a lot of experience as a young man. I did, anyway. From drilling holes to blast for coral, operating dozers, road graders, rollers, cranes, shovels, such as that. And for a long time, I was the only petty officer as a third class. I was the only petty officer, CB petty officer, up there at that station. So I felt I had a lot of responsibility, a real challenge. And I think that's what keeps a lot of CBs going is that challenge. They've always got a job to do and when they do that job, they can see it. It's there for other people to see. If I've got to aboard that destroyer and went to sea, I would've probably did one enlistment in the Navy and got out because it only leaves a weight behind and then soon disappears. But those roads the CBs built, they're there forever.
At one time, we were drilling wells out in Arizona and New Mexico and some of the desert areas out there for the Indian tribes. And that's great work. You're doing something for somebody. You're helping somebody. You're teaching them. One thing we were required to do was to give a 30 to 45-minute class on road building or some profession of the CBs without saying a word. That was to eliminate any language barrier. You get up there and with tinker toys or something, you show people how to do things. And do it all with sign language and never say a word to them. And so they can do it. We drill wells in Vietnam. We drill wells in Saudi, Somalia. Everywhere the CBs go, they do something for the people. And that's good relations, good public relations for the CBs. Good public relations for the United States.
It seemed like the longer I stayed in and the more I studied the CBs and the more I was a CB, the prouder I was of them. It grows on you and it's a great feeling.
I think it's the way the CBs work, normally in teams. Not that a dozer operator is out there operating by himself or a truck driver is working by himself and such as that. But several dozers are in there accomplishing the same job of moving the earth or on scrapers, pans, such as that. They're moving the earth. So it's the teamwork and the togetherness of the CBs. So when they eat, sleep, and work together, remembering in the fifties, throughout the fifties, we deployed as mobile construction battalions and were gone from home for nine months to a time. If you're single, that wasn't too bad. If you was married, that was a tough life. But while you're deployed, you had your friends in the battalion, your people you worked with. You lived with them every day and they grew just like a family together. You knew that the man next to you could take care of himself and help take care of you and you could do the same. And that grew on you and you knew what your abilities was. You could do anything as long as you just kept on working at it.
One time I had a commanding officer, he had a sign over his door, it said, "God created one indispensable man. That was Adam." But that doesn't apply it to all CBs. All of us were indispensable, the way we looked at it.
They started out very small in Vietnam. Actually it was in the CB teams. Originally they were called STAT teams, CB technical assistance teams. Changed their name, changed the designator in 1964 to just CB teams. They had worked someone in South and Central America, in West Africa, places like that before. Very small scale. They went into Thailand. Thailand and Vietnam. And that's when it really became a big part of the CBs life. And it was like most small units, the smaller you are, the closer together you are. We had 13 men on the CB team. It was the officer in charge, then the chief assistant officer in charge, usually two builders, builder being a carpenter, and two mechanics to take care of the equipment, two equipment operators to operate the equipment. We had a steelworker, steelworkers, a welder for any type of steel work, utilities man for plumbing, water purification, all that, corpsman for the medic, and an electrician. So we had all the jobs covered in there with those 13 men.
We also had cross-training. In other words, people were trained in water purification. You were trained in construction of buildings and block laying and such as that. Some of our teams worked on people to people, what we call people to people programs through USAID. That's where they went into a village, not attached to another military command within that village or anything. They worked with the local natives to build schools, facilities, public facilities for them, such as that. The corpsman or the medic providing medical attention. Many of those people had never been to a doctor in their life.
So that was one phase of a CB team in Vietnam. The other phase was we had, in support of the Special Forces, the Army Green Berets, that was building their camps up and down the Cambodian borders. Building or improving their camps, I should say. We'd go into a place and build a camp for ... The Special Force A team had 12 men. So we were almost identical in our abilities as far as people. And they were well-trained people. Their mission was a little different than ours. Our mission was to go in there and build a decent place for them to live, plus a decent place for their Vietnamese, what we call the CIDG, the Civil Irregular Defense Group, or the rough puffs. That's a regional popular force. They had many different names, but basically militia type people, from two to 400 of those people in each camp. They got bare essentials. They got a building with the roof over it, sleeping areas that they could roll out their mat on, their Tommy mat, and place where they could rest when they came back from a patrol. They'd go out for patrol maybe two or three days at a time, sometimes a week at a time. Come back in, get a little rest, get food, and go again. The special forces was the advisors to these people, military advisors to them.
The CB team 1104 was in the process of finishing up a camp at Ben Soi west of Tay Ninh. And that was in late May, early June of 1965. On June the third, 1965, Frank and some of the other men moved over to Đồng Xoài. Myself, well, I stayed at Ben Soi two or three more days to finish up some odd jobs that we had there. And a couple of other men stayed over there with our equipment at that time. We had some men on rest and recreation, so they did not go to Đồng Xoài. I went to Saigon for two days to get a little rest and get a hot bath, first one in a couple of months. And then Frank told me to take a few days. I took two. I thought that was long enough. I got home sick, and went up and joined him at Đồng Xoài. I must have got in there on the 8th of June. So I had only been in that camp, that was my second night in the camp when we got hit. So I wasn't real familiar with the camp, although I had scouted it out, checked where the airfield was, found out where the gravel was, where we was getting ready to do concrete work, building and stuff. So I knew where the gravel was. It was stacked up down by the runway, runway being a wide spot in the road about a kilometer ... Let's see, that would be south of us, I guess. Or east. Anyway, about a kilometer away from the camp. And I'd look for some sand. Wasn't much sand around there, but I had seen some. And the reason I mentioned that, it comes into play later on in my story here.
On June the ninth, 1965, as I said earlier, my second day at camp, I had the watch from midnight till two o'clock in the morning. I woke up a little earlier, of course. Navy guy. We always relieved to watch the early, at least 15 minutes early. And so about 11:30, I was up. The special forces man that I was relieving on watch slept down at the end of the building where I was sleeping in. We all slept in ... I had to clarify a little bit on that. We slept in whatever was available in these camps. This happened to be a 10 roof building, no insulation or anything. Just a corrugated metal roof and corrugated metal sides down to about a foot above the ground. And then just earth floor. But it was comfortable to get in out of the rain if it was raining or out the sun if the sun was shining.
He was down at the end of the building and he'd made a pot of coffee for me and everything. So I got up and assumed watch. We had to call in every hour. We reported in to Saigon. Or actually, a report went to a radio down in Ba Den, which was Black Virgin Mountain down there. So I had basically relieved him about a quarter of. I'd walked the berm around the camp, our portion of the camp, and made sure that the Vietnamese people that was on watch out there was awake and alert. And they were. And came back into the building, picked up my coffee cup, and the first mortar round hit. And this was about a quarter of 12. If they'd waited 15 more minutes, well, I'd already made my report Saigon and they'd have thought we was all safe and sound out there for another hour. But the first rounds hit the rice storage building where Captain Stokes, the commanding officer of the special forces team, Marvin Shields and some other people slept in that. That was their quarters. It wounded some of them. The captain was wounded severely. As he came out of the building, more rounds hit and broke his legs and his arms. He was really disabled right there. But he was still alert, very alert and kept his wits about him. Of course, I said I woke everybody up, but when you're under that kind of attack, you don't have to wake them up. Just hit it and they're gone. People grabbed their weapons. We always slept with our weapons. At that time, we were carrying M-14 rifles. Grabbed their rifles and headed for the berm, berm being an earthen wall approximately four feet high around our portion of the camp.
The mortar rounds, rocket rounds kept coming in. The second and third ones. In fact, the ones that broke the captain's legs hit our medical supplies and our communications in that part of the camp, knocked them out completely, our main communications. So I got outside, got to the berm. Captain Stokes, we got him in a foxhole there. Like I said, he couldn't walk. He couldn't fire, but he could still keep his wits and tell us what he wanted done. I checked the line. He asked me to check the line, make sure everybody was okay. I checked the line, got people positioned in place where he thought they'd ought to be. Shields, Hoover, and I fired the M-79, M-79 being a 40 millimeter grenade launcher basically. We was firing that into the gunfire flashes that we could see. And the captain called for me to come back over by where he was at. I went back over there and kept feeding him information on where we was at. And Frank moved in to around where Hoover and them was. I'm not sure exactly where because it was dark. But Frank can tell you where he was at.
And this went on for about two, two and a half hours. Very heavy fire. Your adrenaline is pumping so fast, you don't feel anything hardly. The shrapnel hit me in the back and the arm and we were getting low on ammo. Our ammo trailer had caught on fire. We had a little slack period. Fire led up a little bit and Shields went around and salvaged some ammo and brought it back, distributed it as he went down the line. And then the firing all started very heavy again. Myself, my M-14 got phosphorus on it from a flame thrower. Imagine it was a flame thrower. Anyway, the phosphorous sprayed down the berm. Got on the stalks of the M-14 and I was out of ammo. So one of the sergeants found a 57 recoilless rifle. He loaded and I fired that, knocking out some machine gun positions that kept ... It seemed like he'd knocked it out in and the time you pulled your 57 recoilless back down and look up, they'd have another one sitting in the position, although you had seen it actually blow out. And I believe they had three or four in there anyway.
This went on for until 2:30, 3 o'clock in the morning it seemed like. I was hit in the right arm. I took a round through the right arm in my shoulder area. Sergeant behind me thought he'd been hit and he looked and he said, "No, that's your meat." I mean, it splattered him. But I didn't even feel it basically. Your adrenaline's popping and you're so busy, you don't really feel the pain or anything like that. At least I didn't. Now, some of them might've felt it, but not I. And so it was really getting heavy. I said, "I'm going around and see if I can get some more grenades." We were out of grenades. We'd throw a rock out and when the rock would hit out there in the grass, they'd jump up cause they thought it was a grenade. And I had a 38 pistol I found there, and I'd fire that at them. And so we were in desperate need of ammo. And I went around and got the grenades. We took some more mortars around there and I was knocked down. I laid there for a second and got up and went and got back around there. The men were pulling out. Captain Stokes, Marvin Shields, Sergeant Ham... Or excuse me, Private Ham. Only private and fifth special forces over there. Private Ham. And they were taking Captain Stokes over to join the rest of the camp. So that camp was sort of split three ways. District headquarters, the LLDB, the Vietnamese Special forces, and us down at one end. And then we had a little triangle in there with some armored cars in it, Vietnamese armored cars.
The Vietcong came between myself and where Shields and Larry Iman and Ham was taking Captain Stokes. And came through with a flamethrower. When he swung around on me with the flamethrower, I dove over at the berm. And later on when the men got into Saigon and they got lifted out the next day. When they got back in Saigon, they said I didn't make it. They saw me get it with a flamethrower. And I was surprised them the next day when I came in. But I crawled back over the berm, worked my way through the fence, and went out through the village and found two soldiers over there in the ... I guess it'd be the area of the camp closest to the road. I'll put it that way. Because directions were a little mixed up in there. But I found two soldiers. Vietnam soldiers. They had a 30 caliber machine gun. And we took it and got underneath the house right across the road from the camp and opened fire on the Vietcong that was in our portion of the camp. And about 30 rounds and we were out of ammo. And we were being bombed by planes and the house was on fire. So we decided we'd better get out from under there. This house was built up about a foot, foot and a half off the ground. So we had room to lie underneath it. We took the gun apart, laid it up on the seal under there and started what we called escape and evasion tactics, working our way out. One of the soldiers, he was spotted by one of the Vietcong and shot there in a town as we rounded a corner in a, I called it an alley, but it was really a street about eight or 10 foot wide.
While I’m in, the Vietnamese was cutting through the town there. Came basically a squad, looked like eight or 10 of them anyway, of Vietcong coming down the street almost head onto us. I dove underneath a pig pen. And people say, "How do you get under a pig pen?" But in a lot of those Asian countries, they build them pig pens up two feet or so, maybe three feet off the ground and have a bamboo floor in there with bamboo poles and it's got holes in it where all the mess from the pig goes and they wash it off every day. They pretty clean about keeping their animals and everything.
But here I am underneath that pig pen in that mud. And I was barefooted because I had on white tennis shoes and the reason I wore white tennis shoes, I wore combat boots all day and you take them off at night and you sleep in your tennis shoes. They're a little lighter. Well, these happened to be white ones and I knew people could see them. So I kicked them off over in the campus as we was evading out of there. The Vietcong did not see me under there. I guess they thought nobody'd be stupid enough to get in a pig pen.
But they went by me and that's when the one soldier was shot. Me and the other soldier made it about another 50 feet. And we came to a rice storage building, although I didn't know what it was at that time until we got inside of it. But it had a transom over the door, about a foot over the door. And it was about two foot square. And how I did it, I'll never know. But my right arm by that time was almost useless and I'd had, not only the round to it, but I'd had a lot of shrapnel wounds in it and then to my back. And my left arm wasn't quite as bad, but I jumped up and pulled myself through that hole and their building was full of about 50 kilo weight or a hundred pounds of rice sacks. So that made a good place to hide. And the soldier and I stayed in there till about daylight, and this was probably 4:30 or so when we got in there. So an hour, an hour and a half.
Our planes came in bombing, scraping because the VC had the town. And I did not know it at the time, but Lieutenant Williams, who was the executive officer of the special forces team, he and the other members over there had was running out of ammo and they was hollering for help and the sky raiders were coming in and bombing, trying to keep the VC out of their compound, which, our compounds actually joined, but with maybe a 20-foot separation between. And so that's why they was bombing all the way around and I was in the bomb zone. All of a sudden, the building just disintegrated. Just, the bomb hit close enough that it just blew it down. So here I was looking around and figured, "Boy, I'm really exposed here."
So across the road or this small alley thing and into a house, all the houses had been vacated. I mean, the people had left out during the battle or been driven out by the Vietcong. And I first looked at a water tank thought, "Maybe I can get up in it and hide." The water tanks were built up about eight or 10 feet off the ground, just a concrete rectangular surface up there. A tank. Then I looked and I saw bullet holes hole in there and I said, "I guess they go through there thinking people hiding there, fire in there." So I didn't want in there. So looked out the front door of the building and the Vietcong was setting up a machine gun position at the intersection of ... I think that was Route 1A and 13 at their crossroads of the camp there. And they were setting up and sandbagging a machine gun position there. This was very early in the morning, just daylight. So I thought about what my chances was of just staying in town or making an escape. I took off across the road. The soldier was following me everywhere I went, the one Vietnamese soldier I had with me. And I ran right across that pile of sand that I'd seen the day before. So the building had been blown away. So I knew where I was at basically. And about, oh, two, 300 yards in there. We came across the ranger camp, Vietnamese strike course. Or actually, they were Cambodians mercenaries. They had been in our other camp with us over at Ben Soi. There were a lot of them dead. I found no one alive in that camp. I looked for something that I could use, some ammo or weapons. I still had my 45. Had no ammo for it, but I had my 45. Made a pretty good club, I thought. And I found a five cell flashlight. So I picked it up and I held onto that flashlight for all the next day. And finally, I opened it up and it had no in it. So that's the way people do out there.
We worked our way down to a rendezvous point where we had supposedly gone to assemble for evacuation in case something like this had happened. Found a lot of VC down there. They were sitting around where the field was, this wide spot in the road. And the gravel, crushed rock that they had over there, they'd stacked up in preparation for construction on that airfield, which we was going to do something like a little better field for them in there. They were sitting around on that having breakfast, smoking cigarettes. And we figured that wasn't no rendezvous point for us. So we pulled back from there, working away. And I was debating then whether the head for Phu Binh, which was about 37 kilometers away, or try to wait out the battle and see when our troops was going to come in there and rescue.
As we were going back towards the road, which would be east of the camp, I came upon a civilian out there pulling a parachute out of a tree, small tree. And it was one of the pursuits for a flare where they dropped in incinerators the night before, where our planes were dropped incinerators. Of course, they salvage anything they can. The soldier went ahead of me and spoke to him. Motioned for me to come up. I was very leery because I didn't know whether I could trust him or not. But they had the sawmill and had a bunker underneath a large pile of lumber. And there was two women, two men, and two little children in the bunker underneath this pile of lumber, this stack of lumber, this saw lumber. And so they got me in there. I asked them for water. They wouldn't give it to me. They'd point to my wounds and shake their head no.
We was in there approximately an hour and a half or two hours and a large battle developed right across the road from us. The clearing over there where they had cut timber for this sawmill. We came out. It looked like maybe a large company of Vietcong was being flushed by our planes, being scraped by them. And they were coming towards us. So we took off for the jungle.
Going out through there, our planes continued scraping. Of course, they had no idea that I or any other friendlies were down there. But napalm hitting trees above your head, you move out from under it pretty fast. The one woman, when the bombs were really getting laid down, they'd fall and the Vietnamese would fall on their back and look straight up. I'd fall on my stomach and look straight down covering up my eyes. But the woman got hit. Knocked her kneecap off and she punched her ... Suppose it was her husband. And he pulled off his shirt and wrapped up that knee. And then we got up and took off again, and them little kids with us. To me, that's the tough part of any conflict is women and children. It is hard on them.
We made our way back and we end up right back at the bunker. Within a few minutes, the Vietnamese had two chickens and pulling the feathers out of them and cooking them. And I was amazed. And of course, I was dizzy because I'd been over 48 hours without any food or water and I was getting lightheaded. But they gave me some chicken broth, but they still would not give any water. They'd point to my wounds and say no. So I looked at my watch and I saw it was three o'clock in the morning. And I either passed out or dozed off, but this was the night of the 10th.
I came to. It was about 6:30 or seven, getting daylight and I was in that bunker by myself. That's when I got scared. All the rest of the time, I hadn't really been scared. I figured I could take care of it. We had some excellent training earlier in our training in Pickle Meadows, Bridgeport, California, the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center, Davis. Excellent training up there. And here I was. All of a sudden, I was by myself. The Vietnamese was gone. I knew they had gone up to report me to the Vietcong. And I got out of there after about three tries. I finally was able to get myself out of that hole. I found five gallons of water up there and I turned it up and took a big drink of it and it popped out like a sieve all over me. It was just coming out through my glands.
Then I watched. I saw a helicopter come in and sit down up towards where our camp I had been. And took off again. And no one shot at it. So I started working my way towards that. I went up parallel to the road about 150 feet off to where I wasn't exposed out on the road. I had always been trained and read about people getting shot when they were coming back through their own lines because the guys up there is on high alert and all they know is, the enemies out there on that side where you're coming from.
I got up near the ... There was a berm around that whole town there and I got up near there. I saw two Vietnamese soldiers up there from the Meerkat division. They had the helmets on them, steel helmet. Most Vietnamese, the rangers and the CIDG, they didn't have helmets or anything. They dressed with pajamas and that was about it. But they had the helmets on. I see the Meerkat, but I was concerned about them thinking I was the enemy because I thought I was dark after being through the pig pen and rolling in the dirt and everything. So I unbuttoned my shirt and opened it up to where I could see white skin down here and hollered, "Hey." And they saw me and waved and two of them came out to escort me and they escorted me up to the helicopter. Another helicopter had came in and it was getting ready to lift off. In fact, two or three feet off the ground when I came out of woods near the landing zone, which was at the schoolhouse where Marvin Shields and Lieutenant Williams had knocked out the machine gun the day before.
And as the helicopter raised up about three feet off the ground, I came out the woods with these two soldiers escorting me and they sat back down. As I pulled myself on the helicopter, I see Frank Peterlin there in the stretcher on the chopper. And I was very happy to see him. But neither one of us knew anything about where the rest of the team was, how they made it out or what. And the pilots, of course, they gave me one of the gunner's helmets with the earphones on it and the radio where I could talk to the pilot and asked me normal questions. Name, rank, service number, unit. And where was he yesterday? And I'm down there waving a flag, telling them, coming to get me yesterday. That's where I was at. But when you get out in the open, the VC shoot at you if you stayed in the jungle. The VC couldn't see you, but your rescue choppers couldn't see you either. So you had to make a choice. Get shot at a little bit and hope somebody sees you. But it was a very, very quick ride over to Phu Binh. They'd set up an aid station over there. Took good care of us from there to the Saigon hospital a week or so in there. And to the Philippine Hospital for a couple more weeks, then the stateside hospital in San Diego.
I was very weak. The doctors had told me I'd lose 75% in my right arm, 75% of the strength in my right arm. I couldn't even lift a cane like this one when I started therapy. But put your mind to it. You can get over it.
When I pulled myself up on that chopper and saw Franks, first thing I asked him, was he okay? And of course, he got the bottom of his foot blown off basically, right in the instep. And he thought he was okay everywhere else, but he couldn't walk. They had found out later, and he'd tell you how he got in and everything. They carried him in there and they got him on the chopper. He'd hid the night in a hole just right outside the camp. And the VC went right over the top of it basically.
As Shields and them got Captain Stokes over to the other camp, they were in dire straits over in that portion of the camp the same as we had been. Lieutenant CQ Williams, who later was awarded the Medal of Honor also for that instance there, was in charge and he helped direct fire. He asked for a volunteer to go help knock out a machine gun position. It was giving them havoc. A machine gun position was located in a schoolhouse directly across the road from the district headquarters. Marvin volunteered. I already knew Marvin had been wounded several times. Shrapnel like most of us had because that metal was flying around a lot over. And Lieutenant Williams made their way over to where they would flank the machine gun. And Shields was to load the, they had a rocket launcher. And as Shields would load the rocket launcher and CQ Williams would fire it. He knocked out the machine gun position. And as they started to pull back, another machine gun to their flank, of which they had not known was there, opened up on them. And Lieutenant Williams was hit in the arm. His hand and his elbow and the lower part portion of his arm. Marvin was hit in his leg, basically severed his leg except for a few tendons. He tried to crawl back. He crawled into a building and commenced to make a tourniquet for his leg to try to stop the bleeding.
Two other men came out, two CBs came out and carried and got him back over into what they considered a safe position in 105 pits where they was holding up at that time, 105 Howitzer pits. They needed help and a special forces man came out and got him on his back, carried him the rest way in. This was when they were going through a little draw under a fence there, carried him on. And he died just prior to getting on the helicopter on the rescue. And the helicopters came in around 11 o'clock. And the medic treated him and tried to do everything he could to save him. Shields was very alert and awake. Told the corpsman, the medic, "Treat me with care. I'm fragile." And he thanked everybody, all the CBs and Special forces for helping him. And just went under.
Phu Binh, that was Navy Station. They treated me as theirs, and then took me down to Saigon Hospital and that's where I got the story on it. And of course, Captain Stokes was taken back to the Philippines and the hospital there at the same time I was, and he and I discussed it back there also.
It's difficult. When you see it happen or when it happens right in front of you or something, I think you can accept it easier because you're so busy, you that you have to do something. You have to go ahead with life. You have to keep fighting. You have protect the people, that type of thing. When you're out of it and hear about, it's a little tougher. You're lying there in the hospital bed and you get the word and it's tough. When they carried me into that Saigon hospital on a stretcher, I met about four of the men coming out of a hospital, four of our people. And it shocked them. They thought I was a ghost because they had seen that flamethrower get me. But we had good people.
We lost two CBs and three special forces there at night. Five out of 20 Americans that was there. That's tough, real tough. Casualty rate was very high on that. I went back to Vietnam on two other deployments plus some business in their later on in the years. And we'd come under attack once in a while, but never anything that severe and that strong and that long of an attack. Yeah. You could take a few rounds and you could throw a few rounds back, but that was a long, long battle. It seemed like forever. But you aren't conscious of that, right then. The time passes so rapidly because you're busy firing, protecting the people, protecting yourself, watching for the enemy. You don't have time to worry or be concerned. It's later when you're back there and saying, "How in the world did I get out of that?" Can you start worrying about it.
When I was in my hospital in Saigon, when them special forces sergeants to come in there and team sergeants and things like that from other camps that I had known or they had heard of us or something, they come in there and say, "You guys are the most ... You stood there, flatfooted and fought." Said, "We've never had anybody do that with us before." The special forces were an elite bunch. They thought they was the only one that can do that. Great bunch of guys, don't get me wrong. They're great. But the CBs was right there.
Special forces that I worked with over there in Vietnam and Ben Soi, and then I was down Khe Khe, went on a patrol down there for a few days, Frank and I did, earlier in the game, was trying to survey to build another camp for this special force way down south there. And it took us almost a week to get in there and get it up. 600 Vietnamese to help escort us in there. So you don't think about the danger. You think, "Hey, this is the mission. Here's what I've got to do. I've got to go there and find out how high the water gets where I know how much earth I've got to get to raise that camp out of the water." This is down in Delta. Things like that. You don't think about, "What if somebody shoots at me? Hey, somebody shoots at me, I'm going to shoot back."Saigon was declared a safe city or no fire zone, but somebody shoots at you, you're going to shoot back. We made that mistake when we first went in there. Said, "No weapons in Saigon." So our weapons was all packed away in a neat box and everything, and somebody threw a grenade in the back of our truck. Had three, four people in the back, two in front. And little girl come bouncing along the sidewalk there one morning and the men was on their way to work and she tossed a loaf of French bread in there and the grenade rolled out of the bread. But reaction. Supczak, my electrician, our electrician, grabbed about grenade and tossed it out the back. He got wounded a little bit and one of the other men got wounded a little bit with it, but nothing serious. And so that's reaction and training.
How old was this girl? How old was the child?
Probably about 16. But nobody could shoot her because she was in the crowd. Nobody had a weapon. That day, we opened the weapons box. We issued the weapons, ammo, and we were working building hard stands at Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base, air base. Saigon International actually at that time. This was when we first arrived in there. And everybody had a weapon. And so from then on, so our tactics changed. Before that, we'd straggle to work and make sure nobody uses the same route twice. Don't set a pattern. Keep people to where they can't track you all the time. And don't all go together. We issued those weapons, 13 men in that weapons carrier. I don't know if you know what a weapons carrier is, like a pickup truck. And so we had 13 weapons sticking out of it. It looked like a porcupine coming down the road. Nobody ever threw anything at us again. So you learn very quickly.
I see CBs, and you give them a job and they don't say, "I don't have the equipment. I don't have the money. I don't have the resources." They say, "Okay." And they go do the job. They'll beg, borrow, or steal the equipment. They'll get the resources somehow. But they'll do the job and they'll do a good job for you. And as a young man in the CBs and as a petty officer in the CBs and as chief and mass chief in the CBs, they were the greatest. You've always got little problems, but hey, you can keep them straight.
I had been my mass chief at the facilities engineering command headquarters for four years. I had my 30 years in and I had had several senior and mass chiefs want to stay beyond 30 years. And we had a mandate. No one goes beyond 30 years because we need to open up the ranks and let some advancement come in. We got a chief down there. You got a first mass in there wanting to make a chief. You got a chief wanting to make senior chief. You got them senior chiefs wanting to make mass chief. So you go out when you got 30 in. And I had preached that to them and made sure that no one stayed in over 30. And when my 30 came up and a couple people asked me about, "Will you stay for over 30?" I said, "No." I couldn't do it.
But yes. I thought I would be lost when I left. I just lived down the road from our headquarters. At that time, we were over in Alexandria, Virginia. And I think I was back out there two or three times a month anyway and have coffee visits, such as that. And I worked five years commercial producing sand and gravel for all these tunnels here in the district, for the metro tunnels. And went back to work for the engineering command as civilian and stayed with them until 1994. And that was like being back in the CBs. When I went to Kuwait and visited those four battalions over there, I could just turn back to clock and see myself as a 17, 18-year-old on Guam. 19-year-old. Same little problems. Have I got a place to sleep? Have I got food to eat? That's your only worry. You always got work. You never run out of work.
But I said earlier about the wake that a ship leaves behind. And we need those ships, but those ships have a hard time getting along without the CBs because they need a place. And the Desert War was very evident of that. They go over there. They got fuel. They got tankers to carry them with fuel and everything. But if they want mail, they have to land it somewhere. And then the cod flights or the choppers pick it up and take it from the shore out to them with thousands and thousands tons of mail. If they need supplies, they have to get them in their air fields and such as that that we build for them. That's the way they get it. And so it's very, very evident. They need the CBs. They won't give you the money, but they'll help you.
Unveiling the CB Memorial over there on Avenue of Heroes or entering Arlington cemeteries, when I unveiled at in 1974, that was one of the proudest moments I think I've ever had.
Today, in this and this time and age, has changed a lot since I was a young man. But if a young man puts his mind to it and joins any military and takes a choice of his lacking something that he feels he's capable of doing or takes the test ... Now, I mention earlier how they classified us by saying, "You 50% are going to electric and you 50% are going to driver school, equipment operator school later." They have very good classification programs now where they can get a person classified, get him in a program that he likes and that he's capable of. But I advise him to get into something because self-discipline and the training he gets will be worth it the rest of his life. It's great. They get much better paid than they used to. They get a lot of benefits, college benefits and such as that. So I really encourage him to get in there. If he's wanting to be in the engineering field, build things, it's some of the best training in the world. And I've had many people tell me that. Some of the people that we've had in the CBs have gone a long ways. One of our former mass chiefs worked for one of the world's largest construction consortiums right now. And he does well.
I've never seen a CB who wasn't proud of being a CB. And I'll give you a real good example of it. When they were building the CB memorial over there, we had a contractor doing it. And I had just reported in back here in Washington DC. And in September. August, September of 73. And they were in the process of erecting it. The men laying the stone over there, we'd had the concrete poured and then they were setting the stone around it, the marble. And we were concerned about him getting behind schedule because we had set that for Memorial Day in 1974 for the unveiling. And we had all kinds of problems because we had a shipping strike and everything else. This stuff's being shipped in. So the contractor sent some more masons down there to give them a hand to speed up things. They ran them off. Why? One of the masons that was working down there was World War I or World War II veteran of the CBs. Another one was in between the Vietnam and World War II. And one of them was a Korean War veteran. So the three masons on there said, "We'll do it if we have to work all night, every night." Said, "We're CBs. We'll get it done." So even when they go away from us, they're still there. They're part of us.
That was CUCM Johnny McCully. If you liked this episode, check out our interview with Doug Morrell, nicknamed “The Legend.”
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Warriors In Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with The Honor Project.
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