THE LAST AMERICAN OUT IP: 188.8.131.52 Posted on June 10, 2020 at 10:31:22 AM by dh
THE LAST AMERICAN OUT
By Rebecca Komppa
Matt Mattick and three fellow American soldiers quickly loaded their wounded comrade onto the first “chopper.” The plan was that as soon as the critically injured Seabee was safely stored away, they would make a dash for the second chopper and get out of the fight.
Mattick, who found himself as the last man in the dash, was waved away from the second chopper. They were full, overloaded in fact. No big deal, Mattick thought, he would just get in the third chopper.
He quickly discovered – there was no third chopper. It had been shot down enroute to rescue them.
Mattick stood there, small arms fire from the Vietcong kicking up dust all around him. As far as he knew, he was the last American soldier alive, that is standing in the midst of the battle at Dong Xoai. It was the last and only battle he would fight in as a U.S. Navy Seabee.
Douglas “Matt” Mattick was less than a year out of high school and 18 years old by only a month when he joined the Seabees in January 1961. He had graduated from Albert Lea High School the summer before.
His four and half years of naval duty would carry him all over the world Bermuda, Puerto Rico, Antarctica, Okinawa, and Vietnam. He traveled back and forth between the East and West coasts as well, receiving training. As a Seabee he was trained to be build, but he also was trained well to fight. The motto of the Seabees is “We build. We fight. Can do!”
He built ammo dumps in the jungles of Puerto Rico, corrals and cages for Wendell seals in Antarctica for a zoologist, and renovated Quonsets at Okinawa, he helped build barracks and gymnasiums. He was trained to be a carpenter, but in the 1960’s being a carpenter meant you “did it all,” from the foundation up.
Mattick was stationed in Puerto Rico, when his battalion was awakened in the middle of a night in October 1962. It seems President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev “had gotten into a shouting match” over some Russian nuclear missiles placed in Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis had put all U.S. military on high alert.
After being briefed, guns were issued to all the soldiers and the ammo handed out to the squad leaders. Mattick’s squad leader was away at the time, and as assistant squad leader, the 19-year-old suddenly found himself coping with the reality of possible, imminent war.
The next night found all the soldiers and Seabees moved from the barracks to the beaches, and the following day he was on a LST (Landing Ship, Tank) headed for Cuba. Mattick said they were expecting to unload on the southern shoreline, as they were coming up from the south, but Kennedy and Khrushchev resolved their “disagreement” and the LST’s were turned around at sea. They went instead to USMC Camp Lejeune in North Carolina for six weeks of military training.
From Lejeune he was transferred to the Seabees base at Davisville, Rhode Island. While stationed there, he applied for a transfer to the Antarctic Support Activities. His transfer was approved and after four more months of training, he left in September 1963 for New Zealand and onto Antarctica. He served the five months of summer there -- from September to March 1964 where the Minnesota farm boy found himself herding seals instead of cows.
On a return trip from New Zealand for some R&R, Mattick experienced his first plane crash. The pilot, believing he could make it in before “whiteout” conditions covered Antarctica, wasn’t that lucky.
The whiteout was not caused by snow, but by diffused lighting from overcast skies that causes all surface outlines to disappear. It becomes impossible to tell how far away the snowy surface is and whole snow-covered mountains can become invisible against the backdrop of white clouds.
The radio tower crew tried unsuccessfully to “talk” the pilot through a safe landing. It was too far to return to New Zealand on the plane’s fuel, so when finally the fuel was exhausted, the C-130 cargo plane basically fell from the sky and skidded to a stop just yards from the base’s fuel station. Mattick and his fellow travelers had exited out the back of the plane the moment it touched ground. The pilot and co-pilot, on the other hand, had to ride it out.
Leaving Antarctica before winter set in, he was sent to San Francisco in March (1964) for new orders. He was joined to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 11, which was stationed in Okinawa. By now Mattick was a “short-timer.” His tour of duty with the Navy set to end in January (1965), renovation work on Okinawa seemed an easy way to end his Navy career. He was eager to get home to Minnesota and go to college.
Lt. Frank Peterlin was heading up a Seabee Technical assistance Team to go into Vietnam. He harangued Mattick about him joining his group. Peterlin needed a “builder” to finish out his 13-man team. BUH2 Mattick had the qualifications he needed, but Mattick resisted until a “Dear John” letter arrived from back home. The day after the letter arrived, he volunteered for Peterlin’s S.T.A.T. 1104.
Four more months of training followed, this time survival training in the mountains of California and intensive physical conditioning. In January, when he should have been getting out of the Navy, he was instead flying into Vietnam. It was the early days of the Vietnam War. There were not many U.S. soldiers in the country, only about 16,000, and most were assigned to advisory roles over U.S.-trained South Vietnamese special forces (Luc Luong Dac Biet, LLDB) and militiamen (Civil Irregular Defense Force, CIDG).
The first month was spent readying equipment left by the previous team at a airport near Saigon. Their first building assignment was at Ben Soi where they built gun ports, barracks and ammo structures at the Special Forces camp there. Sniper fire could be heard, but they didn’t take part in any combat, although the Army lost two soldiers.
Their next job was at a Special Forces camp at Dong Xoai, about 60 miles north of Saigon. The camp consisted of LLDB and CIDG with only 11 Americans – 10 Special Forces officers and one warfare psychiatric officer. The camp was formed like a lazy L, with the CDIG and Vietnamese Special Forces in the Ranger Camp to the east (upper camp) and the district headquarters camp to the west (lower camp).
Mattick and three other S.T.A.T. members arrived there June 4 after another harrowing plane trip. This time the plane didn’t crash, but Mattick got to watch the tops of 50-ft. trees pass by his plane window. The Seabees had underestimated the weight of the cargo and the plane fully loaded with fuel and taking off on a 2,000 ft. runway, was barely able to lift over the trees. The pilot was not a happy man.
Seabees and equipment continued to filter into the Special Forces (SF) camp at Dong Xoai for several days. However, two members were on R&R in Bangkok and two others were still in Ben Soi overseeing the convoy to move their heavy equipment to the new camp.
The A-Team, overseeing the camp improvements, had commissioned the Seabees to expand the building complex into a mine field laid by the South Vietnamese adjacent to the camp. The Seabees finished removing all the mines sometime in the afternoon of June 9.
Prior to the attack, the Seabees heard small arms fire and occasionally a mortar round landed in the camp. But the night of June 9 at a quarter to midnight the Vietcong (VC) hit and hit it hard. Within seconds, four or five bombs struck the upper camp. The first mortar took out the first aid bunker where the supplies were; next the communication shack blew; one bomb landed in the barracks killing one American asleep in a bunk.
Seabee Johnny McCully had just finished rounds and was having a cup of coffee with Army Sergeant 1st Class James Taylor, when the mortars struck without warning. McCully grabbed his M14 rifle and 300 rounds of ammunition. He ran to where fellow Seabees William Hoover, Lawrence Eyman and Marvin Shields were returning fire. Both Hoover and Shields had already sustained injuries.
Lt. Peterlin, awakened by the blast, grabbed his weapons and ammo and was soon engaged in the fight. For nearly an hour, the compound was pummeled by machine-gun fire, heavy mortar and grenades. During a lull, Shields sprinted to a burning shed to retrieve more ammo. McCully took a .50-caliber round through his shoulder but managed to keep is 7mm recoilless rifle in action.
At 02:45 June 10, waves of VC accompanied by flamethrowers overran the upper camp. Shields, Eyman and Taylor, along with two U.S. Army soldiers, withdrew, sprinting through enemy fire. Shields and Taylor carried a gravely injured Army officer. Peterlin, Hoover and SF Staff Sgt. Donald Dedmon became separated from the others. As they maneuvered across the camp, Peterlin was knocked to the ground by an explosion and wounded in the foot by a bullet. He managed to crawl through barbed wire, where he found a foxhole outside of camp and burrowed into it. He remained hidden away there until he was rescued on June 11. Hoover and Dedmon, unable to find foxholes, died fighting.
At the lower camp, Mattick, ale rakken, Jim Wilson, and James Keenan (corpsman) were fighting furiously. Shields and Eyman were able to reach the lower camp to join them, but Eyman was seriously wounded in the process.
McCully and two CIDG troops moved to the east in hopes of locating a buried cache of weapons and a radio. Instead they found 500 VC sitting over the cache, eating breakfast and having a “good time.” Heavy fire prevented them from returning to their original positions, so they pulled back and hid under a house in the nearby village. The CIDG troops had rifles and fired on the enemy until their ammo was exhausted. McCully passed out from his wounds.
Even after being wounded twice, Shields volunteered to accompany the commander to knock out an enemy machine gun placement. They were successful, but Shields was wounded a third time mortally. Five of the 20 Americans at the camp were killed (two Seabees and three Special Forces); all the rest were wounded.
During the night, Mattick reports that they were given phenomenal air support. Mostly it was flares to keep the battlefield in light so the Americans could see their enemy to shoot. The Navy and Marine fighters offered the best ground support, Mattick said, adding that he believes if he had a 20-ft. stick he could have touched their planes, they flew that low to the ground bombing and strafing the enemy with their machine guns. It continued all night.
With morning light, the air support pulled back. Two companies of South Vietnamese sent as relief were met by the VC and annihilated. With no ground support available for hours, that’s when word was received that three helicopters were coming in to pick up the surviving Americans. Carrying Shields on a poncho, the soldiers pulled him under the barbed wire fence with them and reached the landing site for the choppers. Only two choppers made it, leaving Mattick stranded.
On board the choppers, Mattick’s buddies asked the pilot to return for him. They couldn't; they’re were overloaded, but they would make sure help was sent.
Standing alone in the field with bullets striking all around him, Mattick ran back to the pit and found the field radio they were using to communicate. Not knowing if the voice on the other end of the conversation was friend or foe, Mattick told him he was the last American left in the battle. The response was an astonished “holy cow,” which assured Mattick that the speaker was American.
Mattick was told it would take the choppers a hour and half to return. His response: I can’t make an hour and half 10-15 minutes at the very best. I can’t hold out by myself.
There were five Huey helicopters in the area. The radioman assured Mattick that they would come in over the area and one would come down to get him.
The hueys came in five abreast, noses pointed to the ground and their 40 mm cannons laying down a wall of fire. Just before they reached Mattick, the two hueys on the outside made a circle and started laying napalm down. They built a chimney out of napalm and the middle chopper came down the chimney.
Mattick took off from his pit, but stopped to return and get his hat, then with the adrenalin pumping he ran as fast as an Olympic runner. Seeing the dust ahead riddled with VC bullets, he jumped the last 20 feet and landed belly high in the chopper. The gunner grabbed him by the belt and pulled him in, all the while his machine-gun blazing.
Mattick saw the middle huey hit on its nose, rock back to the end of its skid, and then hit on the nose again, but by that time he was onboard and the chopper was off. It never had to land. Mattick heard later that the chopper had 80 bullet holes in it when it reached its home base, but no one inside was hit. They safely got the last American out.
On June 11, American forces seized control once again of the Special Forces camp at Dong Xoai from the fleeing VC. It was at that time, Peterlin and McCully were also rescued from their hiding places. Mattick estimates that 1,000 South Vietnamese troops were killed and 2,000 VC.
S.T.A.T. 1104 became the most decorated Seabee unit in the history of the Bees. Their unit received one Congressional Medal of Honor, two Silver Stars, Seven Bronze Stars with Combat V's, 3 Navy Unit Commendations the smallest unit to ever be awarded this), 11 Purple Hearts, 3 National Defense Service medals, 13 Vietnam Service medals with Bronze Stars, 13 Combat Action ribbons, 13 Republic of Vietnam Campaign medals with Device and 13 Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross medals with Palms.
Construction Mechanic Third Class Marvin C. Shields died on board the evac chopper. He is the only Seabee to ever receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry above and beyond the call of duty. A destroyer escort has been named after him, the USS Marvin Shields, as well as new barracks at the naval Great Lakes Training Center in Illinois.
The seven Seabees surviving the battle plus the other four in the unit have been honored many times for their service. Deservedly so.
We did not do anything that any other Seabee or soldier would not have done if placed in the same circumstances, Mattick says. Like other veterans, he shies away from the label "hero."
We had a job to do, we did it, Mattick said. And that is in the finest tradition of a U.S. Navy Seabee.
Freedom is worth
– Seabees BUH2 Douglas “Matt” Mattick, Menahga, MN