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There isn’t a day goes by that Don Parrish of Bardstown doesn’t think about the terror of that night or the 14 men who lost their lives in a surprise attack by Vietnamese soldiers on their artillery base.
“It was scary beyond anything I can describe in words,” he said.
Parrish, a noncommissioned officer in charge of 11 men at Fire Base Tomahawk, just south of Danang, awoke to the sound of gunfire and the grasp of a firm hand.
Tommy Raisor, his assistant, had gone outside to turn off a generator used to charge radio batteries and returned to get Parrish out of bed when the shooting started.
“He had his hand on my shoulder, trying to wake me up, when the first rounds hit. I heard him and the rounds all at the same time,” he said.
“I had everybody get up and take defensive positions,” Parrish said, and Raisor went back over to the part of the bunker that was the fire direction center, or FDC, where the men provided the coordinates for the big guns to hit their targets miles away.
Their location, Fire Base Tomahawk, was being overrun by a battalion of the North Vietnamese Army, which had ascended the hill from two directions. Three hundred or more NVA against 65 Americans on a hill that was “impossible to defend” was a calculation for disaster.
By the time the sun rose on Tomahawk Hill, the base had lost about a quarter of its men and 44 were wounded. It was Parrish who called headquarters and gave the names of the dead. Of the 14 who died, 10 were from Battery C, 138th Artillery. Of those, five were National Guardsmen from the Bardstown unit —David Collins, Jim Moore and Ronnie Simpson, all from Nelson County, Luther Chappel of Carrollton, and Ronnie McIlvoy of Washington County. That same month, two other local men from the unit died in combat — Jim Wray and Harold Brown, both of Mount Washington.
That day, June 19, 1969, was one of the darkest episodes in the history of Bardstown, and it left Nelson County with the distinction of having lost the most soldiers per capita of any county in the U.S.
It was a tragedy that touched almost everyone in the community.
“It had a terrible impact,” Parrish said.
When Parrish enlisted in the National Guard, Bardstown had a population of only about 5,000 people. It was the kind of quiet community where everyone knew everyone, or almost, he said. That’s changed in 45 years.
During the Vietnam Conflict, many joined the Guard to avoid the war. Soldiers who served in Vietnam were mostly “regular Army” or draftees. But when Parrish joined on April 20, 1964, avoiding the war was the furthest thing from his mind. At that time, there wasn’t much of a war to avoid. U.S. involvement was mostly limited to advisers.
“I was involved in management of my family business, and I wanted to be away from here as little as possible,” he explained, so he joined the Guard.
Guardsmen did six months of basic training for three to six months, and after that, had occasional duty.
So when Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford activated Guard units in 1968, it was “a big shock,” Parrish recalls.
The Guardsmen were sent to Texas for training and then on to Vietnam in October for a one-year tour of duty.
“We were determined to be one of the best firing artillery battalions in the entire United States Army system before we were activated,” he said.
“That had a large bearing on us being activated,” he added.
He believes it’s also one of the reasons “Charlie” (the NVA and Communist insurgents in South Vietnam) targeted them for elimination.
“They wanted us gone because we were creating some serious problems for them,” he said.
Fire Base Tomahawk was what Jim Wilson, in his book, “The Sons of Bardstown,” called “a bad hill.” It was surrounded by high ground. Gen. Hal Moore of Bardstown, the main character played by Mel Gibson in the 2002 movie, “We Were Soldiers,” visited Parrish whenever he came to Bardstown and told him it never made any sense to have a military unit on that hill because “it was impossible to defend it.”
Several men had already died at Tomahawk before the Bardstown artillery unit was sent there.
Before Tomahawk, the unit had been based at Fire Base Denise (also known as Hill 88), eight miles away. That was a “good hill” — easily defendable, and from which they could hit most of the same targets.
Combat in Vietnam mostly happened at night. During the day, to ease their boredom, the men wrote letters, listened to the radio, tossed a softball or even went to a nearby beach.
“It was kind of business as usual until dark, and then all hell would break loose,” Parrish said.
That’s when the Communists would blow bridges, mine roads and attack U.S. troops.
From Tomahawk Hill, the Guardsmen could watch the fighting because of the tracers and explosions. One of the ways the firebase helped the infantry was by sending up flares that came down by parachute, illuminating the battlefield.
“Charlie liked to work at night, but we had the capacity to take the nighttime away from him,” he said.
The night of the battle at Tomahawk, however, it was hard to see where the enemy was.
Parrish said his bunker, the fire direction center, was the only one on the hill that wasn’t destroyed by rocket-propelled grenades, probably because it had a third layer of sandbags over it. He also didn’t lose any of his own men.
They were the lucky ones.
“I understand there was a second battalion waiting in reserve that was supposed to be there to kill off any survivors, and a green flare was seen going up, and it was assumed the person who sent the flare up sent the wrong color. The green flare meant to retreat,” he said.
After the battle, some wounded Nelson Countians, like Jerry Janes and Ronnie “Smiley” Hibbs, were sent home. But those who weren’t wounded stayed.
Parrish had a five-day leave in Tokyo scheduled and couldn’t get out of it, so while he was there, he called home and told his parents he was OK. Word got out that he was missing in action, but his parents, fortunately, never heard that.
In October, 12 months after they went to Vietnam, the sons of Bardstown came home.
Most of them still live here in Nelson County —Tommy Raisor, Kent Bischoff, Jerry Janes, Jodie Haydon, Pat Simpson and his brother, Mike Simpson, and Parrish, to name a few.
Eighteen have since died, most of them from cancer. Parrish believes the cancer was caused by Agent Orange, a defoliant used in Vietnam.
“I’m convinced of that,” he said.
Parrish said the United States did achieve its stated purpose of keeping Communism from spreading throughout Southeast Asia, but he blames Washington for the war’s failure.
But another way of looking at it, he said, is that all wars are failures.
“I think there’s nothing but losers in a war,” he remarked. “I don’t think there are any winners.”
It pleases Parrish that those who sacrifice for the country are held in higher regard now than they were during Vietnam.
“It was routine for a Vietnam returnee to come to an airport and be spat upon,” Parrish said. “I talked to a number of people it happened to, but I never did see it myself.”
That’s a sharp contrast to what he saw Monday of last week at an airport in Tampa, Fla., where people “made a way” for soldiers and thanked them for their service.
“It was a complete reversal,” he said.
“I’ve never figured out how this country got to where they had so little respect for Vietnam veterans,” he said. “I’m having trouble with that.”
In 1995, Parrish, and six of the other men from the 138th Battery returned to Vietnam and were welcomed by the Vietnamese people. They didn’t seem to hold a grudge against their one-time enemies.
Parrish said he would like to go back there and take his wife, Judy.
The country is “absolutely gorgeous,” and the Vietnamese are “some of the friendliest people I’ve ever encountered,” he said.
“It was a great time. I’d love to do it again,” he remarked.