The night was quiet at Fire Base Jack. All except one platoon had returned from daily patrol to the base that rested at the foot of a mountain.

Spc. Fred Axson and his squad watched as fireflies flitted along the razor-sharp wire surrounding the camp.

Suddenly, the peaceful night exploded into chaos.

“We thought we were seeing fireflies,” Axson said. "But it was the Viet Cong flashing a light every now and then so they could see to set charges to the razor-sharp wire to blow it open.”

Once the charges went off, a crowd of naked suicide fighters rushed in and started throwing grenades into the bunkers, he said.

Axson quickly positioned his men to fight off the incoming enemy.

That one platoon was still trapped outside, he said. “We couldn’t call in an air strike because we didn’t want to drop anything on them.”

Axson had moved off to search along the camp perimeter for enemy snipers who had penetrated the fence when he saw one of his men being dragged away by two Vietnamese soldiers.

“I didn’t know if he was dead or alive,” he said. “I just knew they weren’t taking him with them.”

The Vietnamese abused and tortured their prisoners, and Axson didn’t intend to let another American be taken into that situation.

He opened fire, killing one of the enemy soldiers and wounding the other one, he said.

As it turned out, the American soldier had been hit with a piece of shrapnel and was merely unconscious.

"We didn’t lose but one fellow in that attack, and he died of shock,” Axson said.

The enemy threw a charged grenade into that soldier's bunker and it blew his legs off, Axson said. He could have survived the injury, but the shock killed him.

For his actions in the battle, Axson was awarded a Bronze Star. He would go on to win another Bronze Star and an Army Commendation Medal during his tour of duty in Vietnam.

That battle at Fire Base Jack was tough, but the 10-day battle of Hamburger Hill was probably the worst experience he had in Vietnam, Axson said. The hill was lush and green like the jungle, but 10 days of fighting and American bombing just about wiped it clean, he said.

The hill was very steep and covered with an enemy that was hidden, Axson said.

“You’d be climbing up it, and you’d get to a little flat area,” he said. “When two or three of you got there, they’d come up out of the ground and shoot. Then, 'poof,' they’d be gone -- back in the ground.”

The Vietcong had dug miles of tunnels all over the place, he said. They’d be fighting and then they’d crawl into a tunnel and come out a mile away.

That was not only a problem for the men on the ground; it was also a problem for cover coming in by air, Axson said.

“You’d call for an airstrike and when the plane got there, they’d be gone in the ground,” he said.

That battle went on and on, he said.

“The United States finally took the hill and then they turned around and gave it back. I never could understand that,” Axson said. “I never could.”

The wounds and memories of the war stick with you, Axson said.

He was in Vietnam from August 1968 to August 1969. At the end of his tour, he had six months left in the service.

He was told if he'd agree to stay there for another month, the Army would forget his last five months of service. But his answer was a firm "no."

“They said I’d get a discharge when I got back home. I said, 'I’m alive now. I’ll spend my six months in the States when I get back,'” Axson said.

The only physical problems he still has as a result of the war are with his knees, he said. Sometimes the helicopters weren’t able to land. You’d have to jump out from as high as 10 feet from the ground with 40 pounds of supplies and equipment on your back and it put stress on your knees, Axson said.

He’s had to have surgery and is currently facing another operation.

The painful memories of the war still stick in his mind, he said.

Men dying in front of him, bouts with malaria, sleeping in water-filled foxholes and the Vietcong popping up out of tunnels, shooting Americans and then disappearing -- those memories are still part of his life 45 years after he came home from the war.

“One time I was walking point (first in line) and I ran up on this North Vietnamese and the only thing that saved me was that I was ready with my gun in my hand,” Axson said. “He had his weapon across his shoulder.”

Axson does have one good memory of Vietnam.

“I came back home,” he said.

Getting together with old friends, seeing the guy who had his back helps him deal with the memories, Axson said. It helps to see them and remember the ones who didn’t come back.

You build relationships in wartime that you don’t have anywhere else, he said.

It helps that Vietnam veterans are finally getting some respect, Axson said. World War II veterans were honored when they came home, but those from the Vietnam War were disrespected, he said.

Many Vietnam vets have come to believe the war was a mistake, but Axson’s not among them.

“I thought I was doing the right thing then and I still do,” he said. “If we hadn’t gone over there, who knows what might have happened.”

It might have made a difference that’s not visible now, he said.

“I was serving my country,” Axson said.

Contact the writer: dlinder-altman@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5529. 

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