A Minnesota PBS Initiative

Deliver Us From Evil

My dad is Wilbur E. Bowe (SP4). He was 20 years old and still living on his family’s farm in Tilden, WI (near Chippewa Falls) when he was drafted in October 1965. He and his fellow skytroopers fought and survived in the Central Highlands of Vietnam from August 1966 to July 1967. They were assigned to A Company, 5th Battalion - 7th Cavalry, 1st Air Cavalry Division. 

Each day, their mission was to search and destroy. They patrolled the valleys, villages, jungles and rice paddies of the Bong Son, Eastern Coastal Plain, and An Lao regions.  

The Worst Day

They encountered the enemy often, but rarely in full force. An exception to this was on Thanksgiving Day, 1966. A, B, and C Companies were air assaulted into a vast L-shaped rice paddy on the southwestern corner of the Cay Giep mountains. Between the rice paddy and the mountains sat a tiny village occupied by a battalion of North Vietnamese fighters.  

The LZ was hot as enemy fire was coming from fortified bunkers in the village. Two choppers carrying C Co troops were hit with automatic fire before they could unload their human cargo. As the choppers banked to the right and ascended, the soldiers were forced to jump out at a height of approximately twenty feet. With only the earthen dikes providing cover and a wide expanse to cross, the skytroopers began the battle at a disadvantage.

The village was cleared, the enemy’s weapons gathered, their dead counted. Little was left of the tiny hamlet aside from burning huts, bodies, and parts thereof.

Throngs of villagers evacuated the hamlet as fighting commenced. Shortly thereafter, it was pummeled by artillery. The mortars were set and began lobbing shells at enemy positions. Fighting continued with little movement for about twenty minutes when two fighter jets descended from the clouds. As they approached, the troopers marked their positions with smoke and took cover in the muddy water behind earthen dikes of the rice paddy. The jets ripped the enemy positions with their guns, while dropping several canisters of napalm in and about the village. A third jet would arrive just as C Co was preparing to assault the enemy positions. The last two bombs would land short, directly on top of C Co’s 3rd Platoon, killing one trooper instantly and severely wounding several others.  

As the bombing was finally called off, C Co advanced on the village from the south as A Co attempted to prevent the enemy from escaping north into the forested mountains. The village was cleared, the enemy’s weapons gathered, their dead counted. Little was left of the tiny hamlet aside from burning huts, bodies, and parts thereof. The bodies of several NVA snipers were found hanging from trees surrounding the village. Apparently, they had tied themselves in place, so they could keep firing even after being shot by the advancing Americans.

When it was over, several of A Co’s troopers had been cut down in the rice paddies. Seven were dead, and many more wounded. My dad and three others carried the dead and wounded to a collection point and waited for the medevac to arrive. There were not enough body bags to go around, so they used their own ponchos to cover the remaining dead.

A rice paddy in a valley, helicopters on solid ground in the distance.

Rice Paddy.

The medevac chopper landed at the edge of the rice paddy, blowing water in all directions. Through the muddy water, they carried the bodies to the waiting chopper. One was that of SP4 Donald Duncan, a former supply clerk who had volunteered to join A Co just a week before. Another was that of their radio operator, SP4 Donald Rankin. Part of his skull was missing.

In his will, Donald Rankin had left all his worldly possessions, including a substantial part of his life insurance benefit, to his church in Cynthia, Kentucky.

The proceeds of over $2,500 were used to help build an addition to the Silas Baptist Church in 1967, which was dedicated to his memory.

Donald Rankin was known as the nicest guy you could ever meet. One of his friends spoke of his death in a letter home, "Today the heavens cried for him. It started raining at noon today and has now finally just stopped after 10 hours of the hardest rain I have ever seen."

Also among A Co’s dead were SP4 Robert Cain from Sumter, SC; PFC Thomas Erickson from Saint Paul, MN; SP4 Russel Ferrebee from West Union, WV; and PFC Malcolm Brouhard from Wheatfield, IN. Malcolm Brouhard had just gotten married prior to departing for Vietnam. As a recent replacement, he had been with A Co for exactly one month. PV2 Eddie Lopez was the C Co trooper killed by the friendly airstrike.

Night was approaching, as were rain clouds. C Co remained at the scene for the night to mop up, while A and B Co’s were airlifted to an LZ, along with the prisoners. A torrential rain commenced as they arrived at LZ Hammond.  

As it was Thanksgiving, a chopper arrived with the day’s special meal. Although there was a shortage of both body bags for the dead and ponchos for the living, there would be no shortage of food for the day’s survivors. Containers filled with turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and all the fixings were hastily unloaded from the chopper. There was more than enough to go around. As the rain poured down on the skytroopers and their meal, it’s hard to say what they may have given thanks for. 

It was still raining as they prepared to dig in for the night of Thanksgiving 1966. As my dad and others had given up their only form of shelter to cover the dead, they consolidated whatever ponchos they had left. Under a make-shift tent of sorts, they huddled together as the downpour continued through the night, and so ended my dad’s worst day in Vietnam.

As it was Thanksgiving, a chopper arrived with the day’s special meal. As the rain poured down on the skytroopers and their meal, it’s hard to say what they may have given thanks for.

Deliver Us From Evil

The An Lao Valley in particular, represented the most frightening type of terrain to patrol for my dad most others. The troopers could only see for a few feet in front of them as they hacked their way through the dense vegetation. Each platoon moved in a line formation. My dad felt like they were going to be ambushed here under the jungle canopy, where no attack helicopters or artillery could come to their rescue. Although they searched intently for the enemy, no one actually wanted to find him under these conditions. The company had already suffered the loss of several troops in small skirmishes throughout the Central Highlands.

One evening, shortly after they had set up their patrol base and dug in for the night, my dad’s platoon sergeant came to him with an unusual question. SSG Donald Burtis stood before him along with PFC Bruce Madison, asking if he would teach them how to pray. It is not known exactly why he chose to come to my dad with this request. I suspect that like any good NCO, SSG Burtis knew his soldiers well and was likely familiar with my dad’s background attending Catholic high school.  

A U.S. soldier with a rifle in hand and a rocket launcher on his shoulder.

SP4 Wilbur Bowe.

As darkness fell upon them, quite literally in the valley of the shadow of death, the three skytroopers joined hands and bowed their heads as my dad led them in the same prayer that Jesus taught to his disciples, "Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day, our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."

Biographical Details

Primary Location During Vietnam: Central Highlands, Vietnam Vietnam location marker

Story Subject: Military Service

Military Branch: U.S. Army

Dates of Service: 1965 - 1967

Unit: A Co, 5-7th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile)

Specialty: 11C - Indirect Fire Infantryman

Three U.S. soldiers standing outside, mountains in the near background.

SSG Donald Burtis.

Story Themes: Cavalry, Combat, Death and Loss, Draft, Firefight, First Impressions, Holiday, Landing Zone, Religion, Terrain, Thanksgiving, Weaponry

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