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Alive in Vietnam
by Shaindy Perl

[Growing up in a small town in Massachusetts, Hank Webb spent his days like most Americans ― playing guitar, going on camping trips, and planning his future as a lawyer. After joining the ROTC in college, Hank went to boot camp in 1968, and received orders for deployment to Vietnam. He recalls:]

A year or two before I came to Quang Tri, the place was a hotbed of activity. By the time I arrived, things had calmed down considerably, but the attacks were still frequent. We always had to be on the alert, because the attacks could begin again at any time. Sometimes, however, there would be peace and quiet for weeks.

The base in Quang Tri was very primitive. Some soldiers poured buckets of water over each other to "shower." Later, makeshift wooden structures were built with a number of small shower stalls that provided the luxury of a true shower, albeit still with ice-cold water.

In Quang Tri, I became both the Battalion Signal Officer and the Signal Equipment Maintenance Officer. I was responsible for everything from field phones to counter-mortar radars. I had to ensure that everything was installed and working properly…

Although I didn't know much, I soon became the selfappointed Jewish lay leader on the DMZ. The place lacked Jewish books and supplies, though, and I wrote my father, telling him of our situation. My father contacted the National Jewish Welfare Board in New York, and a short time later

I received a box that was filled with tallaisim, yarmulkes, siddurim, and other much-needed materials. The package was accompanied by a warm letter that was written by a woman named Eiga Hershman. She recommended that I contact the Jewish chaplain, Chaplain Glenn Stengel, whom I had already met, to help me.

Chaplain Stengel was brought to us by a Special Forces helicopter from Phu Bai on a Friday afternoon. Shortly before his arrival, we received intelligence reports warning us of plans for an imminent enemy attack on our base. Therefore, on Friday night, I slept in my boots and flak jacket and kept my loaded weapon handy next to my bed.

Unfortunately, the report proved to be accurate. At about 0300 hours (three o'clock in the morning), we were awakened by the shrill whistle of incoming rockets. After several seconds, there was an earsplitting explosion. The sky lit up as the rockets continued coming in, one after another. Soon we could discern the sound of our own artillery and nearby machine guns returning fire. The place was in an uproar.

We all jumped out of bed, preparing to run towards our assigned battle positions. One fellow, Captain Doug McGill, also slept in my hooch.

"Here," McGill said, holding out his flak jacket to Chaplain Stengel. "Take this. You will probably be needed down at the battalion headquarters bunker to assist the dying with their spiritual needs."

I looked at my friend incredulously. I could not believe that he was ready to go into battle without his flak jacket for protection! I wasn't about to part from mine, and here he was offering to give his away to a Jewish chaplain whom he barely knew. It was truly amazing! After handing the jacket to Chaplain Stengel, he ran out, completely exposed, to do his job.

I followed Doug into the night, running toward the sector for which I was responsible. The noise was incredible, and the entire sky was illuminated, so that I had no trouble seeing where I was going.

In addition to one's regular duties, everyone on base also had a designated position that he had to assume in the event of an attack. I was in charge of defending one section of the perimeter, which included nine bunkers that were each manned by four or five soldiers. The "bunkers" were not dug into the ground, but they were small areas that were enclosed with sandbags for protection.

I was in constant communication with the men I commanded, directing their fire toward the enemy's position. After some time, I suddenly lost communication with some of the bunkers. It was imperative that I be in contact with my men at all times. I was now forced into the terrible position of having to order one of my men into a life-threatening situation. Luckily, one young soldier, Sergeant Bob Emery, instantly agreed to crawl toward the perimeter and try to restore communication.

As Emery slithered away through the mud, I highly doubted that I would ever see the man alive again. There were bullets flying everywhere, and it was unlikely that he would manage to avoid them all. Nonetheless, the sergeant bravely did his job. He followed the wire and, incredibly, managed to repair it while the firefight raged around him. I believed I was witnessing a miracle when I saw him crawl back unscathed shortly thereafter. I was immensely relieved to see him back alive.

The battle continued uninterrupted for two hours. About halfway through, I could no longer command effectively, since I was unable to see what was going on outside my bunker. There was an observation tower with four soldiers inside directly above the bunker where I sat huddled with several men. I decided to go up there to get a better view of the enemy's position.

While the tower itself was fortified against enemy fire, I was exposed during my climb up the ladder. I tried to ascend as quickly as possible, despite the heavy protective equipment that I was wearing and the rifle slung over my shoulder. Just as I was standing on the top rung, about to step over the tower's railing, a bullet came straight towards me. I felt a breeze as it whizzed by, grazing my right ear as it passed. I hurled myself over the railing, startling the four guys who were crouching inside as I fell on top of them.

As I lay on my back, looking up at a sky ablaze, I wondered whether I was still alive. Was this what death felt like? I had heard the bullet; I had felt its breeze. Was it possible that my life wasn't over yet?

I pinched myself hard. Surprisingly, it hurt. An odd sensation came over me, as I listened to the sound of my breathing in disbelief. I had never felt more alive, as I suddenly became keenly aware of each intake of breath.

At that moment, I was overcome with a tremendous sense of gratitude to God. "Thank you, God," I whispered. "You kept me alive. Please help me get through this until the end. I know that you saved me for a purpose. I must have something important to do with my life. I will try my best to figure out what that is, and I will do whatever You want of me. Just keep me alive and give me a chance to fulfill this promise."

All this happened in a matter of seconds, but it was a moment of truth and incredible inspiration. I quickly got to my feet and surveyed the battlefield. I saw incoming fire that originated from an enemy position on the right side of the perimeter. I directed my men to aim toward that position, and I fired at it as well. Soon the firing from that location ceased. I will never know if my bullets killed or injured anyone, but I do know that we all fired in self-defense.

At about 0500 hours, just as the first rays of sunlight appeared, the incoming fire stopped completely. The long, terrible night was finally over.

As I climbed down from the observation tower and inspected the surrounding area, I found a young man who had been hit in the stomach. I stopped a sergeant who was driving a jeep nearby. Together, we dragged the man onto the front seat, placing him between us. While the driver made his way toward the hospital tent, the young soldier was losing color in his face with each passing moment. He was bleeding profusely, and I literally had to hold his stomach together with my hands. At last, we reached the surgical area, where doctors began treating him immediately. (The man lived for several days, and I stopped by twice to visit him. Sadly, he died while he was being transferred by air to a hospital in Japan...)

By now, I could no longer ignore the deep yearning I felt in my heart for a more committed lifestyle. My sudden brush with death was a major turning point, and it made me long for a more meaningful life. Thus, shortly after the terrible battle, I decided to begin observing the Shabbos. I was trying to make good on my commitment to God that "I will do whatever You want of me."

Reprinted with permission from www.InnerNet.org.il

 






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