Medic Fred Blake­more sur­vived 14-hour shelling dur­ing Tet Of­fen­sive

Tulsa World - - Front Page - Veter­ans Re­mem­ber by Tim Stan­ley

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.

Mir­a­cles

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.”

COUR­TESY

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.

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