A long ago stranger than strange night and day in war torn Vietnam

April 19th, 2024 by Tom Lynch

As I write this, there are wars all over the world. Ukraine, Gaza, Sudan, Yemen to name a few. All are horrific and are ongoing for no good reason whatsoever, with untold death and destruction.

In the early 14th century, Dante Alighieri published his Inferno, the first part of the Divine Comedy. In the Inferno, Dante created the Circles of Hell. He created his Seventh Circle for warmongers who commit wanton brutality, like the ones who’ve started these current atrocities. The Seventh Circle is home to many.

War, with all its brutality and “collateral damage” is the most horrid man-made catastrophe in the history of humanity. And in every war, strange things happen, things which you could never believe possible. But they pop up and happen. I’m living proof.

This is a story in three parts, true in every particular, and it will show you what I mean.

So, sit back, and let me tell you a story.

Part One — The Night

It is Spring, 1970, and I am far north in South Vietnam, halfway between the city of Huế and the A Shau Valley, one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. The Valley is a feeder route from the Ho Chi Minh Trail, down which come thousands upon thousands of North Vietnamese Regulars determined to take back their country. Our job is to prevent that.

My team and I have just choppered in to Firebase Bastogne for what is supposed to be a few days off. We’ve been in the mountainous jungle for nearly a month and a half; we need a break.

Bastogne was built in 1968, used for a while, and then closed. In late 1969, seven months ago, the Army reopened it. When we get there, the 501st is expanding it.

The evening my team and I get there, three officer friends and I who haven’t seen each other in a while, commandeer an empty bunker and christen it the Firebase Bastogne Officers’ Club. It is small, perhaps 6 feet by 10 feet, and if you’re tall, standing up could be a problem. I have no problem.

Earlier, we had found a bucket and thrown as many beers in it as it would hold. It was warm beer, but we didn’t care.

The four of us were three Captains and one 1st Lieutenant, me, although I’d be promoted to Captain in a few months. Tom Higginbottom was the one with the wide smile; he was going home the next morning to what we called, “the world.” He’d been in Vietnam for nearly two years, two consecutive tours, which was unusual. After maybe his third beer, Tim Forest says to him, “What’s the second thing you’re going to do?” We all had an idea of what the first thing might be, which was one of the reasons for the man’s four-star smile. Danny French says, “I’d have a cigarette shortly after the first thing.”

Higginbottom reaches into his ammo can beside him and pulls out a picture. We all use ammo cans for the important personal stuff. If you get blown up, the ammo can might survive. Mine’s where I keep photos of my wife Marilyn and the baby girl I hope to get to know. Higginbottom shows us a picture of Chrissy, Mrs. Higginbottom, and we ooh and aah as we’re supposed to. And why not? The lady is gorgeous.

We spend another few minutes in the bunker, and then decide to turn in. So, we leave the bunker, walk up a little hill, turn to the right, and enter a pretty good-sized tent where cots have been set up for us, as well as for a few other Officers we don’t know. I don’t bother to check on my team. I know they want to be left on their own, just as I do.

It’s perhaps 2300 hours, that’s 11:00pm. Our mortar crew is firing out into the jungle on the off-chance some of our friends from the North might be there. All of us leave the tent to watch the show, when, suddenly, the ammo dump, which is below us, lights up like burning Rome. The mortar crew has fired a short round, which, instead of the jungle, has landed in the ammo dump and set the C-4 explosives on fire.

The fire is intense, and hot, and sits right beside all kinds of things that can go bang in the night.

Suddenly, into the ammo dump comes a huge bulldozer driven by one of the Army Engineers on Bastogne doing the expansion work.

The guy driving the bulldozer heads to the C-4. He’s going to put out the fire by smothering it. “Oh, Christ, don’t,” says Higginbottom, who’s standing beside me. Out of my mouth comes, “Oh, shit.” The four of us start screaming for him to stop, but he can’t hear us. He doesn’t know that C-4, on fire, will never explode, but if you smother the fire… And that is when the great big pile of fiery C-4 blows up in as loud an explosion as I ever heard. The bulldozer was pretty much on top of the C-4 when it blew, and now the bulldozer has been reduced to many pieces that are flying everywhere. We hit the ground instantly. Behind us, our tent suddenly resembles swiss cheese. If we’d been inside it, we’d all be dead, but not one of us has a scratch.

The ammo dump is soon crawling with soldiers trying to make things right, but this will never be right. We’re lucky nothing else, except the bulldozer, went up with the C-4.

We head down to the Command Post to see if there’s anything we can do, but there really isn’t. The bulldozer’s driver, a hero in the making, has been vaporized. We never find him. We later discover his name was Cameron Smith, Staff Sergeant Cameron Smith, whose name will eventually wind up on the Vietnam Wall at the end of the Mall in D.C.

We walk back up the hill, and, as we’re standing there, the strangest thing in a night of strange things occurs. Around a corner to our left, at the base of our hill, come two soldiers carrying a stretcher, on which a body lies under a white sheet. They pass beneath us. Tim Forest says, “Who is that and where did he come from?”

It isn’t until the next morning that we learn the soldier’s name is PFC Samuel Lavezolli, another name for the future Wall. He had been sleeping on the open ground far on the other side of the firebase when a chunk of the bulldozer, its flywheel, which had “flown” all the way from the ammo dump, landed on him, killing him instantly.

We four officers look at each other, realizing the explosion should have killed us all, but didn’t. We were untouched. However, PFC Lavezolli, a few hundred yards away, dies instantly, without ever knowing a thing about it.

We separate to check on our men, and then turn in for the night. It takes me a long time to get to sleep.

Part Two — The next morning

Early the next morning, we roll out of our cots, which had somehow mostly survived the prior night’s explosion. “Mostly,” because two of them now had a few new holes, but they worked.

The four of us stroll down to the rudimentary mess hall and head to the coffee. One thing the army is good at is mess hall coffee, and this stuff is much better than the instant crap the army sends us when we’re in the field.

We grab some scrambled eggs and well done bacon, find some stools to sit on, and eat. We, all four of us, are reticent this morning, what with the two strange deaths the night before. Tim Forest says, “How are we not dead?” Tom Higginbottom tells him, “Don’t think about it. There’s no way to explain it. We’re alive, and a couple of guys aren’t. I’ve seen it before. It’s what war does.”

I say to Higginbottom, “That’s fine for you to say. You’re out of here in about two hours. We’re not. We should hoist a few more for you before you shove out.” Higginbottom smiles the big smile again.

But we don’t hoist anything. Instead, we split up to check on our men.

After I do that, I head to the CP to see if there’s any radio traffic about last night we might have intercepted. But there isn’t.

So I decide to hang around for a bit, and then just see what the day brings.

I spend a few minutes with my friend John Crosby, a Major who’s Battalion Surgeon. Suddenly, there are explosions outside, two of them. Bang and then bang. We all duck, waiting for the next one. You always duck immediately after the thing that was meant to kill you misses and goes whizzing by. But there isn’t a next one. What there is is Tim Forest running into the CP wearing his steel pot helmet and looking awful.

“It got Higginbottom,” he says. “No hope. He’s dead.” All I can say is, “What the…?” He says, “He was walking down the street. Landed right beside him.”

Our Battalion Commander is with us, listening. Instantly, he takes charge and tells Forest to get back out there to see if anyone knows where the mortars came from. As Tim turns to leave, LTC Carter¹, says, “Get our mortars firing right away.” With that. Tim is gone.

Colonel Carter, callsign Bulldog, now turns to me and says, “Get your men and go find those guys. Now.” With one, “Yes, sir,” I’m out the door. Crosby is right behind me trying to find out who needs medical help and how much.

I run to where I know my guys will be. There are eight of them. I give our orders to Staff SGT Lucey, a firefighter when he’s home in California, and say, “We need to get our gear and head out ASAP.” Lucey takes charge of that, and we agree to meet back here in five minutes.

I run to where Tim Forest is talking to the guy in charge of artillery and mortars. There’s a lot of artillery on Bastogne, 105s, 155s, 175s, and more, but all we need now are the mortars. They agree the mortars that got Higginbottom came from about 170 degrees south. The artillery guy agrees to put some mortar rounds out beyond where we’re going to give us some cover. That’s all I need. I run back to meet Lucey and the men, and we head out.

Part three — The mortar that wasn’t

As we leave Bastogne I know we’re probably looking for only a couple of guys, one to hold the mortar, the other to load it. We’ve seen this kind of thing before. But that makes them nimble and quick.

PFC Sammy Gullett walks point for us. He had a huge chip on his shoulder when he came to us. Since then, he’s  lost the chip and has become a fine soldier, who will be killed walking point seven months later, when a new Lieutenant leads him and his platoon straight into an ambush that should never have happened.

Sergeant Ben Criegesberg, a Pennsylvania farmer, follows Gullett. Then comes Lucey, followed by me and the other guys. Criegesberg will be wounded and lose the use of his left arm in the ambush that kills Sammy.

We move carefully, but at a rapid pace. Tom Higginbottom is dead. He’ll still be going home today, but not in the manner any of us ever imagined for him. So, I make up my mind to do the very best we can for him by trying to find the guys who killed him. However, Lucey and I both know those guys are long gone. They will have unassed the area about ten seconds after firing their rounds. But still, we try.

Up far ahead, our guys are landing 81 mm mortar rounds. That should eliminate the possibility of a surprise we don’t need, like an ambush.

It is at that moment, when we’ve gone about 700 meters from Bastogne and are passing through a small clearing, that we hear the impossible to mistake swishing sound of “incoming.” Then there’s a deep thud. Frozen in time, we look to our right, and about 20 feet away we see an 81 mm mortar round sticking up out of the ground. Unexploded, it just sits there.

Lucey looks at me and says, “Ah, Lieutenant, don’t you think…?” “Yeah,” I say, and we all slowly and carefully move away.

I immediately get on the radio to the artillery guy to tell him what happened. I also tell him to stop firing before he kills us all.

In the end, we set a charge and blow the mortar in place. I call Bulldog to ask if we should continue the search. But he also knew the bad guys had boogied right after they fired, so, because so much time has gone by, he tells us to come back in. Which we did.

That night, Forest, French and I once again find ourselves in the brand new Firebase Bastogne Officers’ Club. We toast Tom Higginbottom and PFC Lavezolli, and Sergeant Smith, and then just sit there.

Then, we leave the Club, walk up the hill, turn to the right, and enter our swiss cheese tent to be with our own thoughts about the day and night before.

I don’t know what the others are thinking, but I cannot get out of my mind the lunacy of what we’ve all just gone through. Three men died. Three good people. Not one of them knew it was coming. All three of them felt relatively safe just before it happened.

Why had I been saved? The mortar that landed just feet away should have killed me and at least some of my men. But it didn’t. Why not?

There is no answer, and in all the years that follow there never will be.


Years later, I will visit the Wall and find the names Thomas Higginbottom, Cameron Smith, Samuel Lavezolli, Samuel Gullet, and a few more I had known. It still made no sense to me that I was standing there, and they weren’t. In addition to the mortar that wasn’t, I had been shot down in a Light Observational Helicopter—twice—and never suffered a scratch out of either.

Sherman said, “War is hell,” and it is. But war can also be stranger than strange.

Mine was.


¹ LTC Carter, call sign “Bulldog,” is one about whom I have written before. Eight months after these events, he and I, along with my partner Buck Kernan, will mark the end of my time in Vietnam with a nightly observance, spanning 60 days, in which we will light a ceremonial candle, mark a big red X on a Playboy pinup’s body, and eat one Macadamia nut. The X will grow more lascivious as the days pass.