Honoring Veterans: It was my fate to step on a mine | News | The Press and Standard
by The Press and Standard | May 28, 2016 5:00 am
Last Updated: May 25, 2016 at 12:51 pm
By KATRENA McCALL
It was 1964. Ben Simmons was 18. He walked across the stage to receive his diploma from Colleton High School one day, joined the Army the next.
And it was the year before the U.S. sent the first combat troops into Vietnam. But he wasn’t concerned. “It was something I always wanted to do. I always wanted to go into the military. Protect my country,” Simmons said. “I thought it was the best time — when I was really needed.
His first few years in the military were relatively uneventful: basic training, more training in Korea, back to Fort Benning, then to Fort Hood. He trained on 90mm gun operations and communications and advanced rapidly through the ranks, making staff sergeant in three years. “They have a system, and if they said that’s what you’re going to do today, that’s what you did. You didn’t go changing anything. It’s always preparing for war, a constant school for war.”
But in 1968, Simmons and 13 of his buddies got to use that war training. In Vietnam.
Shortly after his arrival in-country, Simmons got promoted from buck sergeant to staff sergeant and squad leader of an armored personnel carrier squadron. The armored personnel carried rode on tracks like a tank, but carried massive firepower. Interestingly, the personnel carrier didn’t carry soldiers inside — everyone rode on the roof in case it hit a mine, “It’d blow you off instead of blowing you up.”
The worst battle was in the A Shaw Valley, Simmons said. The day before, the team “hid” their armored personnel carrier in a foxhole. “They dug it so we could just drive right on in there. Had about six inches sticking up above the ground.
“That (battle) was the worst thing I’ve ever seen. We’d been told we were going to be overrun, so we were bracing for it. One morning about 4 o’clock — that’s when they’d attack usually cause they figured Americans would be asleep at 4 o’clock — and that’s then they attacked.
“We were putting out so much firepower — every fifth round was a tracer that could be picked up from above. But we were putting out so much firepower that if someone had picked you up and set you down, you could have walked all the way around the perimeter. That’s how much firepower was going out.
“Other units had attacks like that got down and buttoned up, and when they came back up, they were already on them. But we didn’t do that, button up. When they attacked, we just got up and started firing. We didn’t always know who we were firing at, but we’d just fire the whole perimeter and I believe that saved lives.”
During the battle, Simmons “felt something hit me. I felt around and it wasn’t blood, so I got back on my machine gun.” When dawn came and the battle wound down, he looked behind them and there was a hole about 4 ½ feet deep, where a rocket hit. “Thanks be to God that they couldn’t aim,” he said.
That battle involved regular NVA (North Vietnamese Army). “They dressed in regular uniforms and fought just like regular soldiers.”
But the Viet Cong were a different story. The Viet Cong were all in the jungle where he was based at Chu Lai and along the Ho Chi Min Trail. “Regular soldiers hit and fought. The VC hit and hid. Regular soldiers, they were there and they’re going to fight you. They didn’t shoot at you and move from one position to another.
“They’d work with you in the daytime and then in the nighttime, they’d come and ambush you. The one who’s cutting your hair in the daytime would be cutting your throat in the nighttime.”
Ironically, Simmons tour of duty didn’t end in a major battle. It ended on a routine patrol. “We were going out on ambush patrol. I was squad leader. And we got ambushed going out on ambush patrol. That just kind of messes everything up because on ambush patrol, nobody’s supposed to know you’re there. If somebody knows you’re there, it’s not an ambush no more.
“So we got a call we might as well come on back because the element of surprise was gone. But our platoon leader, he wanted us to stay out there. I must have walked about 20 feet. I stepped on a mine.”
Simmons doesn’t remember anything else until he woke up in the field hospital. “I really don’t know how long I was out after I stepped on the mine. But what I saw when I woke up in the hospital, what I saw, I said that’s amazing how they put me back together.
“At first, I could look down at my right leg, and there was no skin there at all.” He took shrapnel over the entire front of his body. Lost a finger. Had a hole where his intestines were coming out. (The nurse, he said, looked at that wound and put a white towel over it and poured on cold water. And the intestines went back in the hole. She told him they didn’t like cold, so they went back where it was warm.)
They stitched him up at the field hospital, then shipped him to Japan, where he was loaded on a hospital plane and ended up in San Antonio, Texas. He spent eight months recuperating. The war ended for Simmons after just 16 months: eight months in Vietnam, another eight in the hospital.
But he came home. And so did the other 13 members of his squad. “Believe it or not, we all came out. We were so attached to each other. We all left Fort Hood together, and we knew where we were going, so we were just like a family all the time. It was amazing we all made it out.”
Coming home to a hospital did have one small plus — Simmons never had to go through the humiliation so many Vietnam soldiers faced, coming home to a country that spit on them, called them baby-killers. “I heard guys talk about people spitting on them and stuff like that. I was fortunate I was wounded,” he said.
Neither did he experience any racism during his military service, even through the 1960s were the height of the civil rights era. “I never had an issue there. I’m sure it was there, but I never had a problem. I always did my job and I always advanced. I made staff sergeant in three years. I always just did what I was supposed to do, and it all went fine.”
As soon as he recovered, Simmons went back to school and became a welder, a trade he’s worked at for over 40 years. He also became an artist with wrought iron, encouraged by a teacher who wanted him to make a railing for her porch. He didn’t think he could do it, but she insisted he could. So he did, and has been doing it ever since.
About 30 years ago, he married his wife Joyce, and they have two grown children: one in Atlanta and one in Pennsylvania.
And now that he’s semi-retired, they plan to spend as much time together and with their grandchildren as they can.
But the most amazing thing about Ben Simmons is that, even knowing what he knows now about the horrors of war, the pain of his wounds, the multitude of scars he still carries, he’d do it all again.
“I’d join back up in a heartbeat. I love my country.”