Medic Fred Blakemore survived 14-hour shelling during Tet Offensive
For years afterward, Fred Blakemore still worried about the quality of the aid he'd rendered in Vietnam. “I just wondered if it had been good enough,” he said. “They called me `Doc Fred.' But I was not a doctor. I was just a frightened, raw corpsman in a godawful jungle of enemy trying to kill us.”
That status — and feeling of inadequacy that went with it
— was never more obvious to him than on February 8, 1968.
During the Battle of Lo Giang near Da Nang, Vietnam, Blakemore, a Navy medic attached to a Marine unit, scrambled for hours to provide care to his 13 comrades as they were pinned down by hundreds of enemy fighters.
When Blakemore worries about having been “good enough,” it's mainly that event that he's thinking of. However, his superiors were more generous in their assessment. For his heroic attention to his duty under fire, Blakemore received the Navy Commendation Medal.
Now, he's written a book about his unit's experience at Lo Giang, a battle that he says has been for too long overlooked.
Blakemore recently learned that his self-published book, which features his recollections and those of some of his fellow survivors of Lo Giang, has been accepted for inclusion in Texas Tech University's Vietnam Center and Archive.
Titled “The Untold Miracle at CAP Echo 4,” it's being made available online as part of the center's mission to document the war experience.
The assault begins
While the name of Lo Giang is seared into Blakemore's brain, he's all too aware that almost no one else has heard of it.
Vietnam Magazine, when it did an issue on the Tet Offensive a few years
back, largely overlooked it, he said.
The Battle of Lo Giang, the 51st anniversary of which was last Friday, was part of Tet, “but it was barely mentioned” in the magazine, he said.
Blakemore has found that to be the case in most Tet discussions. And it's what prompted him — a veteran who hadn't talked about the war for years — to decide to tell the story.
It's time the world knew, he said.
Blakemore, who grew up in Tulsa, was 24 and married when he received his draft notice.
However, he opted to join the Navy rather than let the system decide his future. He became a hospital corpsman, thinking that he might later pursue a pharmacy career.
Ultimately, Blakemore would be sent to Vietnam, where he was to provide medical care for the 3rd Marine Amphibious Force.
He would end up assigned to a combined action platoon (CAP) — a special unit that joined a group of American troops with native militia members, and placed them near a Vietnamese village.
Blakemore was part of CAP Echo 4, one of four such units grouped closely together south of Da Nang Air Base.
Made up of himself, 11 Marines, and two militia men, Echo 4 was stationed in a makeshift compound bordering the village of Lo Giang, where Blakemore's job included providing medical aid to the villagers.
The attack on Echo 4 of Feb. 8, 1968, was not a complete surprise.
With the Tet offensive in full swing (it had started on Jan. 30), there had been fierce fighting to the south, Blakemore said. And the day before, Feb. 7, they were all but tipped off that something was coming.
While on lookout duty, Blakemore had spied several enemy troops outside the village. His Marine comrade opened fire and killed some of them.
Just what the enemy was up to, though, wouldn't be known for several more hours.
It started, Blakemore said, about 3:30 a.m. the following morning when a shell fell out of the sky and hit their sleeping quarters.
The loud explosion shook everyone up, but luckily no one was inside, he said — the men were either on watch or sleeping outdoors in a trench.
And with that opening salvo, it was on. Next, the gates to the compound were blown off. Four enemy soldiers attempted to storm through, but were cut down by the Marines' guns.
Then, a barrage of mortar rounds and small-arms fire began pounding away at the compound.
“It was steady — no let up,” Blakemore said, adding that he and the other occupants were effectively trapped.
`Thought I was dead'
When one of his comrades went down, Blakemore would wait for cover fire, then jump into action.
“Each time I knew I might get a bullet between the eyes,” he said. “I was frightened but never hesitated. I just ran or crawled like hell.”
“I was pretty athletic,” added Blakemore, a former point guard at Central High School under then-coach Eddie Sutton. “I think that helped me a lot.”
Efforts were made to send troops to Echo 4's aid. An Army push was mounted, but was forced to turn back.
Tragically, one relief force formed from neighboring Marine platoons was ambushed and wiped out.
Standing at the radio, Blakemore was there when the doomed group's final transmission came across.
“You could hear the gunfire in the background,” he said. “Then the captain came on and said, `There's too many . ... Tell my wife I love her.'”
“I still hear his voice,” Blakemore added of the captain, who died along with most of his men. “It's just fixed in my mind.”
That last transmission also had the effect of crushing hopes. Blakemore was now convinced, he said, that no one was going to be able to help them.
The firing would keep up except for one lull about mid-morning.
When it paused, the silence “was eerie,” Blakemore said. “We were all alone. No way out. … We were just mentally drained of hope.”
Further chipping away at their resolve, the bombardment began anew, and would continue for several hours.
They still had no idea where their enemies were or how many there were.
At one point, American jet fighters came through and dropped napalm. But that, too, was to no avail.
Finally, with the day waning and no sign of help, the captain issued a grim order.
“He told us to put our bayonets on our weapons,” Blakemore said. “He believed we were about to be overrun and needed to prepare for hand-to-hand combat.”
As he affixed his bayonet to his M-16, Blakemore, who wasn't a fighting man, was afraid he wouldn't have much of a chance.
He remembers reciting the Lord's Prayer with a Marine corporal.
“I really thought I was dead,” Blakemore said. “I thought of my mom, my family.”
It was at that moment, when all seemed lost, that he saw the helicopter.
The Army relief effort that had earlier failed to reach Echo 4 had been dubbed Task Force Miracle. But Blakemore has his own opinion about where the miracle occurred.
“Everybody thought we were dead,” he said, adding that when the rescue helicopter at last arrived, the crew expected the worst.
Instead, they found all of the Echo 4 men still alive.
“We had several wounded, but none life-threatening,” Blakemore said. “To me, that is a miracle.”
Of the neighboring three CAPs, more than half of their troops — 12 out of 21 — were killed in the attacks of Feb. 8, including two of Blakemore's fellow medics.
How Echo 4 escaped that, with everything thrown at it, “is, again, a miracle,” he said.
Blakemore helped load the wounded onto the helicopter, then stayed behind and caught the next flight.
He vaguely remembers, a day or two later, lining up with other platoon members to receive medals: “But I have no remembrance of what was said. … I wasn't in my right mind. … My mind and feelings were shot. Kind of like you're dead but still alive.”
His Marine comrades, too, seemed different. “You look in their faces and nobody looked right. Nobody looked like the same guys.”
Blakemore was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal with a combat “V” for heroic achievement.
“With complete disregard for his own safety,” the citation reads, “(Blakemore) unhesitatingly exposed himself to the intense enemy fire while moving from one casualty to another...” His skill and concern under fire “were an inspiration to all … and contributed significantly to the accomplishment of his unit's mission.”
As for the Tet Offensive overall, it was ultimately defeated by American and Southern Vietnamese forces. But the size and scale of it shocked everyone, and led to increasing public disenchantment with the war back home.
To this day, Blakemore wonders how he made it home alive.
It helped, no doubt, having his own Marine assigned to him, he said.
He also has to give credit to his mother: “Every day while I was gone, she read Psalm 91 and prayed for me,” he said.
Blakemore's own prayer is that Vietnam veterans will finally get their due.
After he came home from the war, he walked into a local Veterans of Foreign Wars post once. He felt out of place, he said, among the veterans there, who were mostly World War II.
“They won and we didn't,” he said, adding that he believed he made for awkward company and left.
But, he said, the country has become more embracing of its Vietnam veterans in recent years.
And as long as interest is growing, everyone should know about the Battle of Lo Giang, he said. He hopes his efforts can contribute.
“Years ago I went to counseling, and that was the best thing I ever did,” he said.
Writing the book has further helped that healing.
“I just wanted to put it out there,” Blakemore said. “I held it in all these years. I want people to know what really happened.”
Tulsa native Fred Blakemore is shown here eating a meal in a village near Da Nang, Vietnam, in the late 1960s. As part of his job as a medic, Blakemore provided medical care to villagers.