LONE SURVIVOR

I’m a proud U.S. Army veteran. Today, I’m going to try to make a Veteran’s Day call to Cary Durham in Moonville, South Carolina. I’ve taken to making the call every year. Sometimes I reach him, sometimes not.

I’ll tell you Cary’s military story — his Veteran’s Day story — and why I hope to talk with him today.

His given name is Cary Julius Durham. He’s 72-years-old now, an affable Southerner, widower and father of two grown sons, currently living alone, battling a few health problems, some of them service-related.  I did a television story about him when I discovered, through a little research, that he was in the same Army infantry unit as Edward “Buddy” Scahill, a kid with whom I’d grown up in Boston’s Dorchester section.

That unit – Cary and Buddy’s unit — fought a desperate jungle battle on Thanksgiving Week, 1966 in the early stages of the Vietnam War. I did a television story about it. It aired on the 35th anniversary of that battle, November 21, 2002. It was a battle that brought Cary, Buddy and about twenty other young Americans together. I located Cary through a little library research. Buddy Scahill and I were far from close friends, but we happened to have been born the very same day in the same Boston hospital. For a kid, that’s kind of a special bond. Our families – Buddy’s many sisters and younger brother — were Catholics and fellow parishioners at St. Ann’s Church. We lived about a half mile apart. Our fathers were friends through the Knights of Columbus. Each November 27th, our birthday, we exchanged greetings in the school corridor, or in the classroom, if we happened to be assigned to the same home room.  “Happy birthday, Greg,” Buddy would say to me. I’d return the greeting. We spent some time together in those early years, talked about many things, misbehaved together in Sister Innocentia’s class.

I envied Buddy’s athleticism, daring male youthful brio, toughness and antic sense of humor. Cary Durham says he didn’t know him well, since Buddy came to his platoon months after him. But he smiles at the mention of Buddy’s name, recalling him as a blond “cut-up” and “prankster.”   From time to time growing up, Buddy protected me from his mean-spirited companions who plainly didn’t like me, no matter how much I wanted to be liked and accepted by them. We’d all gone to the St. Ann’s School, played at the same playground and in time, visited the same teenage haunts. Buddy was prominent in that wilder cohort that gradually settled down to the point where Buddy was inviting me to join the Knights of Columbus along with him and some of those other guys.

After high school, Buddy had no college plans and – according to his sisters – couldn’t get work because he hadn’t fulfilled his military obligation. All males of a certain age had a military obligation in those days of the Selective Service draft. I went off to college, barely getting in and cherished my 2-S deferment until being draft and inducted into the Army in the fall of 1969. I’m proud of my service, but admit the prospect of landing in Vietnam was unwelcome. I wound up in Korea, a quiet war zone.

I believe Buddy enlisted – and, from all accounts, wound up loving the Army. He even went to paratrooper school down in Georgia. Meanwhile, Cary Durham had worked in South Carolina textile mills before enlisting and winding up, first in Germany, then in Vietnam. He loved it enough to stay on to become a staff sergeant.

At the end of October, 1966, Buddy and Cary were in the 2nd Brigade, 5th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division of the U.S. Army. (If you ever see the image of an Army patch or veteran’s decal with a yellow shield crossed with a black slash and an image of a horse, you’re seeing the automobile or house of a 1st Cav veteran. From the time of the Civil War and Indian Wars, the 1st Cav has been a distinguished fighting unit. From horseback, it had evolved to traveling in quick-strike helicopters and in Viet Nam was called the 1st Cavalary/ Air Mobile.) Buddy and Cary, arriving in country, as noted, months apart and were assigned to the 1st Cav pretty much by the luck of the draw once they got off the plane in Pleiku. Buddy, based on his letters home, had expected to be assigned to the 173rd Airborne, not a “leg unit.”

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The objective for all four of the 1st Cav’s Paul Revere missions was an extensive “search and destroy” operation against Viet Cong Communist guerrilla forces in the areas of Chu Pong and the Ia Drang Valley, in and around the Central Highlands, up against the Cambodian border. The Vietnam War was still young and hopes of victory were still high.

Barely a year before all this, in November, 1965 ( when Cary, Buddy and all their fellow soldiers were far from that battle zone), Army General William Westmorland had dispatched thousands of troops to pursue and fight the Viet Cong enemy across some 2500 square miles of jungle. A week before the campaign ended, the vastly outnumbered elements of the 7th Cavalry, under Col. Hal Moore, was set upon and encircled by a battalion of the North Vietnamese Army’s 66th Regiment. The close-quarter fighting was savage and terrible. It became known as The Battle of the Ia Drang and was the subject of  a book by Colonel Moore and Mel Gibson’s movie, We Were Soldiers. It was the U.S.’s first big victory against the odds, a proud but bloody moment for the 1st Cav and was taken as a sign that total victory might not be far off. It wasn’t. We all know that now. But we should also remember veterans of that terrible battle today. Many are still among us.

It was a year later in the same region, and the 1st Cav, along with Cary Durham and Buddy Scahill, was still fighting in the jungles of Ia Drang Valley, setting out on missions from their base camp farther south at An Khe. Buddy’s letters home give strong hints that he’d been in danger. In a letter to his mother, he wrote, “I could almost cry when I think I’m going to be here another ten months.” Buddy wasn’t the crying type.

A military record of this period notes rather dismissively that, during the course of Operation Paul Revere IV, “only light contact with the enemy was achieved.”

This is what “light contact” felt like, as both Buddy and Cary experienced it:

In the mid-morning of November 21, 1966, Company “C”, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry “was searching south of Duc Co along the (Cambodian)  border. This was Buddy and Cary’s unit. The record reads, “suddenly, 2nd Platoon began trading fire with an NVA force of significant size.”

“Significant size indeed. They’d encountered, and would soon be surrounded by a battalion of the 10 NVA Division that had crossed over from Cambodia and was obviously been lying in wait for them.

The military record says 3rd Platoon, hearing a radio distress call, gathered itself up to the aid of 2nd Platoon which was a considerable distance off.  “I bet we hadn’t move ten yards when they attacked us,” Cary told me. 3rd Platoon’s radio man was quickly cut down. That loss and the dense jungle foliage prevented effective artillery or any air support from helicopter gunships. They were completely cut off. While all this was happening, 2nd Platoon, which had made the initial contact with the enemy, was suffering 50 per cent casualties and was saved only by the arrival of of the 1st Platoon and a flight of Skyraider jets. The dwindling group of boys in the 3rd Platoon fought desperately in isolation but soon everybody was either wounded or dead from automatic weapon fire and hand grenades.

“We did pretty well for the situation,” Cary told me, his voice tightening, recalling it all.  But they were very soon overrun. Buddy Scahill, according to his family, was shot six times and at this point probably lay dead or bleeding to death. Cary says a soldier close to him named Smythe spoke his last words to him, saying, “I’m hit real bad, Sarge.” Cary was bloodied from a gunshot to his arm. The fire power had slowly gone silent all around him and the NVA soldiers were moving among them, collecting guns, ammo and web gear and executing the wounded. “You’d hear a guy scream and then you’d hear, bang!” Cary says.  There were only about 20 to 25 in 3rd Platoon — well under full strength due to months of combat attrition.  Cary says he felt he had no choice but to play dead where he lay in the grass– and soon an NVA soldier was standing over his prone figure. He grabbed Cary’s M-14 rifle, kicked off his steel pot helmet and put the barrel of his AK-47 to the back of Cary’s head. Cary held his breath, tried not to move — but in that eternity of seconds, assumed he was about to have his brains blown out.

“Then, he just walked away,” Cary says of the NVA soldier, either assuming he was dead or not wishing to carry out the execution. Either way, Cary was the lone survivor of 3rd Platoon at that point and would lay in the grass for a long time, waiting for help that ultimately came.

The record says “A” Company located the ambush site of 3rd Platoon and medevaced the one survivor. That was Cary Durham. The jungle foliage was too think to cut a landing zone. It is chilling to read that the dead of 3rd Platoons, including Buddy Scahill “were placed in a cargo net and lifted out by a Chinook helicopter.” He was waked toward the end of November at Mulry’s Funeral Home on Neponset Avenue, had a funeral mass at St. Ann’s and was buried with full military honors. His sisters and his friends – who, though a little mean and wild in youth, all grew up to be generous and respected family men, some of them also veterans. They told me Buddy’s mother never recovered from that death.

Cary Durham received the Army’s second highest honor, the Silver Star, pinned on  him personally by General Westmoreland, for his leadership and combat behavior under horrible circumstances that day. He spend time in a Japanese military hospital, then was transferred to the DMZ in Korea, staying in the service until the early 70s, then going to work in his wife’s family’s grocery business.

He had his share of nightmares. “Time heals a lot of things,” he says. “But you never forget. You never forget.”

So let’s remember him today, and remember Buddy Scahill.

Now it’s time for me to make that phone call.

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