The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

March 31, 2013

42 years later, Nam jungle claims soldier

By Jerry R. Barksdale
For The News Courier

— (Author’s note:  This event occurred following my interview of Wayne Barksdale a few years ago after writing my book, “DUTY”).

Wayne Barksdale of Athens stared at the computer screen, disbelieving the Facebook message about his Nam buddy, Jim Craig. It was too bizarre to be true. He decided that David Eickhorn, another Nam ground-pounder who sent the message was pulling his leg. Barksdale and Craig had hacked through dense jungles, waded rice paddies, endured scalding heat, swatted mosquitoes, pulled blood-sucking leeches from their bodies, dodged bullets, killed the enemy and saw friends killed.

They were members of Bravo Company – “Bushmasters” – 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry, 196 Infantry Brigade, Americal Division.

Eickhorn of Ohio, served in Charlie Company. That was 42 years ago. But the sounds of creaking rucksacks, clinking M16’s, men grunting under heavy loads and the putrid smell of the jungle, were still vivid. Seldom a day passed that he didn’t think of beautiful green land where more than 58,000 Americans died.

His thoughts drifted back to late July 1970. He heard the fluckata – fluckata – fluckata of the rotary blades on the UH-1 chopper beat out a disconcerting rhythm as it hovered above the jungles of the central highlands like a large insect. He gazed below. The countryside was a beautiful, peaceful looking emerald green. But he wasn’t deceived. Men were killing each other.

His life had abruptly changed in November 1969 when he arrived home to East Washington Street after classes at Athens College and found a plain envelope addressed to him — a draft notice. Following basic training at Ft. Sam Houston and 14 months of medic training, the alphabet played a trick on him.

“Now listen up,” said the sergeant, “Everyone whose last name starts with A through N is going to the Republic of Vietnam.”

Now, here he was, a 23-year-old “green seed” aboard a Huey chopper flying north to war and an uncertain future.

The chopper kicked up a cloud of dust as it landed at Firebase Center. He unloaded and saw seven or eight Viet Cong dressed in black pajama bottoms squatting on the ground with their hands tied behind them. He was assigned to Bravo Co.’s Bushmasters, who were out running patrol in the jungles.

If the alphabet had sent him to Vietnam, the calendar may have saved his life. Had he arrived a month or two earlier he could be dead. The majority of Bravo Company had been killed and wounded at Hep Duc. He was a medic replacement. But luck was on his side. The 196th Brigade was choppered back to Chu Lai for R&R and it was there he met Jim Craig, a tall, skinny rifleman from Iowa who won a Bronze Star at Hep Duc. Craig loved Alabama football and “Bear” Bryant. The Yank and the Reb became tight friends. Over the following months they fought NVA (North Vietnamese Army) and Viet Cong in the jungles and rice paddies, killing them by the scores. But they received as much as they dished out. The Vietnamese were small, but tough fighters.

Barksdale – called “Doc” – applied a tourniquet and started an IV on his good friend, Larry Flurry, Tallassee, Al., after a mine blew off both legs below the knees. Flurry dreamed of raising horses when he returned home.

“Well Doc,” quipped Flurry, “There goes my horse farm.”

In the jungles, Craig slept in a hammock — most of the more experienced soldiers did — smf Barksdale wanted one too.

“Doc,” said Craig, “we gotta kill an NVA to get you a hammock.”

Craig got Barksdale his hammock.  I’m sleeping in a dead man’s bed, Wayne told himself. It bothered him, but not for long.

Craig was sent to the rear and Barksdale never saw him again. He had only his memories of Jim Craig, one of the bravest men he had ever known.

Then in 1989, Barksdale spoke with Craig by phone and received a follow-up letter.

“I don’t know why but I think of Nam and you guys all the time,” Craig wrote. “I always thought it was because I liked 60’s music and listened to it on the radio all the time. The songs takes me back to a certain time and place.”

In March 2012, Barksdale received a Facebook message that Craig and Eickhorn were going to Nam on tour. Barksdale Facebook messaged Craig: “Take pictures and do not step on an old bobby trap and kill yourself, Hah!”

Now the shocking news.

Barksdale stared at the computer screen and read Eickhorn’s disturbing message: “Jim Craig was killed in Vietnam.” That’s all the message said. Eickhorn and Craig were playing a joke on old Doc Barksdale. More news of his death came over the ensuing weeks.

Then Eickhorn called and said that Craig had fallen off a cliff and was killed. Barksdale still thought it was a joke, that is, until Craig’s daughter, Dee-Anna, called and told him the story.

Craig was touring Firebase Mary Ann, which had been overrun by NVA in March 1971. It was only a few miles from Firebase Center, and Craig wanted to return to see where he had fought and cheated death.

While at Firebase Mary Ann someone spotted a water buffalo down in the valley and Craig departed with his camera to get a close-up shot. The tour group walked back to the bus.

Craig did not return.

It was getting dark. Concerned, they organized a search party with an old Vietnamese man and searched all night. Craig’s body was found at the bottom of Firebase Mary Ann. Having survived enemy bullets, mines and booby traps, it appeared that he had perished by accident when he slipped, fell and stumbled down a steep embankment.

Reminiscing, Barksdale said to me: “The Yank and Reb were friends in a bad place for a short period of time, but the time sinks into your soul for a lifetime. I cried.”

— The full story of Wayne Barksdale can be read in “DUTY,” on sale at Pablo’s and the Alabama Veterans Museum.