WADENA, Minn. — “I absolutely knew I was going to die,” said veteran Bruce Boyne, about a day during the Vietnam War that he remembers clearly. “It was the last day that I was out in the field.”
As a draftee into the United States Army in May 1968, Boyne trained for 16 weeks and left for Vietnam as part of an infantry company on Oct. 24. The Charlie Company 4th Battalion 9th Infantry Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division was part of fire support bases including artillery support, and the infantry completed sweeps, ambushes, helped with road security and went on missions.
“They were really in need of infantrymen,” Boyne, of Wadena, said of being drafted at 19 years old, only months after the Tet Offensive on Jan. 31. The My Lai Massacre of 400 Vietnamese civilians by U.S. soldiers was in March. In 1968, there were anti-war riots almost every weekend, largely on college campuses where students protested against the war especially because if students dropped out of college they could be drafted, according to Boyne.
On Nov. 23, his last day in the field, Boyne and his unit flew out for a mission, much like situations they had faced previously. Though the unit didn’t daily engage in fighting, this was a day of loud noises and confusion with bullets flying, mortars dropping and helicopters shooting into a jungle area in the Boi Loi Woods.
The ground steamed and 30-foot wide and 20-foot deep craters marked the area after a B-52 strike from the previous night, as Boyne described. Once on the ground, the soldiers discovered a trail of blood with Boyne having to walk first as his platoon headed toward the jungle until they found three graves. While starting to dig up the two covered graves, Boyne investigated a noise in the jungle, and the shooting started.
While he wasn’t shot initially, during a second ordered inspection he saw tracers within the jungle.
“They were coming towards me, so I dove towards the ground and before I hit the ground a bullet hit me,” Boyne said about the bullet that went through the back of his arm. “It flipped me completely over and I landed on my back, could remember that weird feeling. And I’ve never felt so much pain in my life. It was unbelievable, and I’m sure I was screaming; I don’t really remember that.”
A medic rushed in with morphine and bandages, and another man came to support the medic after his back was sliced open by a bullet. The two then headed off for more help as Boyne continued losing blood. But for those who came to help and then stood up, they were spotted in the open field and killed. Boyne knew the same would be true for him if he stood up so he laid still for four hours as the bullets from both directions traveled right over his head. He also had a piece of a mortar round hit his neck.
He slept as he could, likely from the morphine, when the weapon noises briefly ceased occasionally. People continued hoping Boyne could move out of this position, including fellow soldier Bill McGinnis, who wanted to drag Boyne out.
“‘I’ve got to get you out of here because they’re going to call on a nape bomb strike. If you stay here, you’re going to die,’” Boyne recalls McGinnis saying.
"I know I wouldn’t have lived if they wouldn’t have helped me that day."
— Bruce Boyne
While he was OK with dying, though hopefully without additional wounds, Boyne said in these types of situations you can’t think “rationally” or “hardly” help yourself. But he knew they couldn’t both stand up, so he slowly crawled his way up a hill. After hours of losing blood and having no water, Boyne carried on in exhaustion. He kept going until another soldier, Craig Stevens, offered to help, and as he rolled over to take off his backpack Stevens was shot and later died.
Boyne quickly made his way to a bomb crater where he finally received water, more morphine and protection as planes dropped bombs on the jungle behind them. By the end of the day, out of the 50 soldiers in his company, 13 were killed and at least 20 were wounded, Boyne said.
“What I got out of that day is that it’s kind of unbelievable what one soldier will do for another one even though they’re not friends or anything. They just automatically do these things,” Boyne said. “I know I wouldn’t have lived if they wouldn’t have helped me that day.”
He didn’t know the names of the soldiers who helped him or those who died — everyone had nicknames and the more experienced soldiers didn’t often associate with the new soldiers.
Over the years he’s met several veterans who were on that mission or served in his unit through reunions. On his way to one of these reunions, Boyne remembered Stevens had lived in Indiana and wanted to reach out to possible family members. He had learned Stevens’ name on a website about 12 years ago. The families continue to meet at reunions or when passing through each other’s states.
While that day was Boyne’s last in the field, he served for two years in the Army with the remainder of his time in Fort Hood, Texas, in a chemical, biological and radiological unit.
During the Vietnam War, 58,000 Americans lost their lives, according to History.com. The “war that should have never happened probably,” as Boyne said, left returning veterans blamed and mistreated, and with post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism and homelessness that continue today. Boyne said he experienced PTSD and struggled with drinking for about 10 years. On Veterans Day he didn’t originally want to be reminded of Vietnam, and neither did people want to hear his experiences.
“The other thing that really was tough about Vietnam was coming home from Vietnam. The country treated us Vietnam veterans very poorly,” Boyne said. “They kind of blamed it on us as soldiers. Well, we certainly didn’t have any say … about what happened to us or the war. We were generally the grunts that were over there doing the fighting.”
He thinks about Vietnam and Nov. 23, 1968, almost daily over the past 52 years, “it just never goes away,” as he said.
“The thing that I got out of the war … mostly was that camaraderie with other veterans that served in the infantry,” Boyne said. “It still amazes me, and I’m so thankful that those guys helped me that day.”