Mike Warren: And then there were two…Published 6:50pm Friday, November 9, 2012
Mike Warren knows that, had it not been for a skinny, redheaded boy from Tulsa, Okla., no American soldiers would have left that valley in Vietnam alive.
“Two of us made it out alive. I owe my life to Capt. Terry Gardner, no doubt about it,” Warren said. “If he had not disobeyed orders and come back for us, we would have been dead.”
Warren was a member of the U.S. Army’s 101st Cavalry Division during the Vietnam “war.” His squad was boxed in a valley in a hot landing zone.
“The helicopters had come in and gotten some of our squad out,” Warren said. “Many had been killed, but me and another soldier were still alive. The choppers had been ordered to stand down. There were just too many North Vietnamese. We didn’t stand a chance.”
Warren said Capt. Terry Gardner heard the radio communication to “stand down” but he disobeyed the direct order and came in.
“He got us out – saved our lives – and we didn’t know until later that he got hit twice coming in for us, once in the left side and again in the leg.”
Warren said he saw Gardner several times after his daring rescue but he was not into “gratitude.”
“He was not the kind to leave a soldier behind to die,” he said. “I owe my life to him.”
Vietnam was a place of death and dying and a place of horror for a boy of only 20 years.
And it was such a place the day Warren’s squad had to use a topical map from 1944 to make its way through a river region of North Vietnam.
“During monsoon season, the rivers could move three or four miles, so even with a current map, it would have been difficult to find our way,” he said. “We made it to the other side of the river but it was not the side where we should be.”
Thirteen members of Warren’s squad were captured by the North Vietnamese and placed in bamboo cages at the river’s edge.
“The river water was not cold but it got cold,” he said. “The water was constantly moving and the longer you stayed in there, the colder it got. You couldn’t sit down in the cages. You had to stand there with the water rushing over you with just your head above the water. And there was almost no way that you sleep. Sometimes, we would try to reach across the cages and hold each other up so we could get a little sleep and sometimes just to keep a man’s head out of the water so he wouldn’t drown.”
When a soldier was taken from his cage, it was to be interrogated and tortured.
One torture technique was taken from the Russians. It was called “stooling.”
“The enemy would put you on a three-legged stool and tie your arms behind your back braced with a bamboo stick and your legs tied together, too,” Warren said. “Three North Vietnamese would question you and, no matter what your answer was, one of them would kick the stool out from under you and you would hit the floor on your shoulder or your face or your back. They would pick you up, ask you another question and kick the stool out from under you. They would do that over and over until you gave them what they thought they wanted or until you passed out.”
Warren said, from time to time, one of the soldiers would be taken from the cages to be killed.
“Sometimes they would give one soldier a gun and force him to shoot another,” he said. “Death was always five minutes away.”
Warren and the other members of his squad were “caged” in captivity for about 17 days. One fateful day, the camp was empty except for one guard who fell asleep and Warren and another soldier overpowered him and escaped.
Two came out.
Warren returned to his unit and was often the one sent to scout an area and report back what he was seeing. He would be on his own for days. When he could sleep, he often slept in trees.
“I got to a point where I could go six days and six nights without sleep,” he said. “But on the seventh day, I would begin to hallucinate and see all kinds of boogie men.”
Warren was on another “map starved” mission when his squad got lost and was captured by the North Vietnamese.
“There were a half dozen of us and they would have killed us if they’d had time,” he said. “But another unit was also lost and stumbled upon us and overpowered the Vietnamese. Together, we made our way back to our units.”
Warren remembers vividly when his unit engaged the enemy and one of the American soldiers, who was welding a 50-caliber machine gun, stepped on a “Bouncing Betty.”
“We were going across a rice paddy and began taking fire from along a tree line and one of our men stepped on a Bouncing Betty, a mine that wouldn’t go off until you took your foot off,” he said. “The soldier was standing there with that big heavy gun and taking fire, knowing if he moved he would be blown to bits.”
When the firing died down, the American soldiers wedged their bayonets under the soldier’s foot and he was able to “dismount” the mine.
“When he woke up the next morning, every hair on his body had fallen out,” Warren said. “He was a black man and his skin had turned almost white, all from the tremendous rush of adrenalin. I’d never seen anything like that. None of us had. But that’s what fear can do to a man.”
Warren returned home from his first tour of duty and was enjoying the comforts of being home until Uncle Sam “invited” him back to Vietnam. He didn’t have to sign up for a second tour of duty in Vietnam but his country needed him and he knew the consequences of not going back.
“Those ‘90 day wonders,’ the second lieutenants that were just coming out of college, were being sent over there to lead squads,” Warren said. “They were college boys with no field experience. Those of us who had the experience were needed. Not going meant the difference between six soldiers being kill and 60 being killed. There was no way that I couldn’t go.”
Warren said the American soldiers were told over and over to do their jobs, but “Don’t try to be a John Wayne.”
But there were a lot of John Waynes in Vietnam. And many men came home to their families because of them.
Mike Warren came home because of a skinny, redheaded version of John Wayne from Tulsa, Okla. And he will be forever grateful.
Please pick up a copy of the weekend edition of The Messenger for a special section with even more stories saluting Pike County veterans.