30″ x 26″ • Pastel
I thank Michael Pumphrey for sharing his story with the public. It was difficult for me to paint Michael’s Vietnam experience, because I served my time during the war at Ft. Bragg. I’m a realistic pastel painter, so I decided the best way to capture Michael’s battlefield experiences was to paint them in one narrative. Hopefully, seeing this narrative from a distance will put things in perspective and temper the reality of his and others’ dreams. This painting required a lot of research as to the uniforms, weapons, equipment, and terrain at the time of the war to make it authentic. A lot has changed in the years that passed. I hope my effort honors not only Michael, but all those who served in battle in our country’s wars. They are our true heroes.
Facebook: Al Leitch
by Ron Osso
“We were coming into a hot LZ, (landing zone). The North Vietnamese were throwing everything they had at us while our Cobra gunships were launching rockets at them along the tree line. Aside from the Cobras we were hitting them with heavy artillery from behind. I mean, bullets flying everywhere, explosions, smoke, tracers, and the helicopter’s coming in flaring. At a certain point we were probably a hundred fifty feet off the ground and to me it was like I was watching all this, but I wasn’t in the helicopter. I felt as if I was above all the action, just looking down at everything that was going on and thinking, wow, this is really cool. I still get choked up when I think about that day. It was very emotional, but in a good way.”
Mike Pumphrey’s father was a career Army Officer and discouraged his son from joining.
“You won’t make it, you’re a rebel, you’ll end up in the stockade.”
So, he waited. In 1966 his dad was deployed to Vietnam, so naturally that’s when the rebel made his move because he knew his father couldn’t stop him.
Pumphrey joined the Army, volunteering for Vietnam, looking for combat. But after completing basic training at Ft. Polk. Louisiana, he was assigned to clerk school. It took him a while to find the right officer who would listen, but when he did, and Pumphrey told him he’d joined the Army to become an Airborne Ranger and go to Vietnam, not to become a company clerk, the officer assured him he would be contacted in a day or two and this would all get fixed. Two days later he received orders for Fort Knox Kentucky to an armor unit, and from there he was reassigned to Infantry OCS at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Upon completion of the 23-week OCS program, Pumphrey was assigned to jump school, also at Fort Benning, where he received his airborne wings. He was then assigned to 101st airborne Divisions 3rd brigade, which trained at Fort Campbell for deployment to Vietnam. He arrived at Bien Hoa Airbase, South Vietnam, in early December 1967.
“One of the big advantages I had was our company was trained specifically to go to Vietnam. We were all volunteers, ya know, people who wanted to be there. I went over with the platoon I trained with. That meant we didn’t have some of the negative issues, that platoons staffed by draftees sometimes experienced. I’d heard of racial issues and low morale. We didn’t have any of that. We’d been trained to do one thing, and we worked together to get it done.”
He was an infantry rifle platoon leader with forty-four guys in his unit. They went out on search and destroy missions and ambush patrols. During his tour, Pumphrey was awarded the bronze star for valor, the silver star, and the purple heart.
“One of my vivid combat memories, was early on in my tour. We were in the woods and came upon a hamlet where we received a few shots of rifle fire. We all think sniper or whatever, so we hit the ground, and we’re just lying there for a seemingly long time doing nothing. The CO is calling in support and a thought hit me. We’re a rifle company of the 101st Airborne division, of the United States Army, and we’re laying here in the dirt because someone took a couple of shots at us? Anyway, I got up and started walking towards the village. My platoon Sargeant looks at me and says, ‘Sir, what the hell are you doing’?
I said, this is bullshit, and kept moving forward. After continuing beyond the area where I thought the fire had come from, I saw three men with rifles running from the hamlet. I engaged them and they returned fire. I hit one, and the other two ran. I went after them and shot the second. The third fired a few more shots and disappeared into heavy brush. I stopped at that point as common sense somehow prevailed. But I remember feeling like we were supposed to be searching and destroying, not running and hiding. When it was over, the CO said he was torn between court martialing me for stupidity or giving me a medal; he decided on the medal. Looking back, that was a good example of luck being more important than skill or brains. Yet at that time I still thought myself bulletproof.”
After he’d been in country for 8 months, his company commander told him he was the most senior field platoon leader in the entire battalion and wanted to get him out and make him the Executive Officer at base camp. Typically, the XO stayed back and made sure the water bags were full and tended to paperwork.
“But the present XO is senior to me and that doesn’t make any sense.”
“Yeah, but he’s never been in the field and I’m the company commander and I decide who does what.”
“Anyway, I get to thinking, hey, wow, I just might survive this thing, and I can go to the PX and buy camera gear and audio equipment. I was like, okay, cool, just one more week”
The next day, 27th of August, he was on a mission and got into some seriously heavy contact.
“My platoon is on point and we’re in two columns. The left column comes under heavy fire, I’m on the right and I’m lying there, thinking, aw shit man, I don’t want to do this. Then my radio operator crawls over and says,”
“Sir, don’t you think we should get over to the other side and see what we can do to help out?”
“And I’m like, well Sargeant Combs is there and he’s good, he knows what he’s doing. He’ll let us know if he needs anything. I mean that was the first time since I arrived in country I acted like that because I’m thinking, man I really want to buy that stereo gear. Then, the radio operator says to me again.”
“Don’t you think we should really go over sir?”
“And it was kind of one of those, yeah, I suppose, ah sure, I guess…
So, we low-crawled forward through heavy brush to get a better idea of what was going on amid a lot of rifle and machine gun fire that was fortunately over my head, cutting through the vegetation. Once over to the left side I see a foot laying there and I ask who’s this? Turns out it was Sargeant Combs, he’d been killed along with three or four other guys. At that point, I forget about cameras and stereos, I just got very mad. While crawling forward I came across an M60 machine gun with belts of ammo. One of our casualties was our platoon’s machine gunner. I picked up the M60 and continued moving forward. It was totally by luck I came across the NVA position from an angle they didn’t expect. I shot the three men in that position. Then I saw another position through the vegetation, so I continued, killing two more. Basically (I learned later) I was flanking the ambush setup. Fortunately for me, at least up to this point, my aim/luck was better than theirs. At the third position I shot three more, but I had not seen a fourth position. From there I was hit twice, once in the upper right side of my back – shoulder blade area – and once in the lower back right next to my spine. Docs said I was lucky because the second shot was more of a grazing wound, not penetrating to any great extent so no spinal damage.
As this was occurring, my platoon was moving up behind me and carried me back out of the fighting area. Medivac choppers were incoming for the earlier casualties. I told the medic I was staying until the action was completed; he and the CO advised me I was not. So, they loaded me and a few others onto the medivac and that was the end of my tour as a rifle platoon leader. I never got to be the XO, lost my opportunity to buy stereo gear and cameras, and found out I was definitely not bulletproof.”
It was in that situation I was awarded the silver star, and purple heart.”
At that point in the interview Pumphrey sits back in his chair, he doesn’t speak for a moment, his face thoughtful.
“One of my nieces wanted me to come to her school and talk about Vietnam. I asked her why.”
“Well, I know you got the Silver Star, and I want you to tell them why you got it.”
“So, I told her, well, to be honest, I got a Silver Star because I killed a lot of people. I didn’t rescue anybody, didn’t jump on a grenade. Ya know, killing people is the kind of stuff you get medals for in combat. I know you hear about people who saved five guys or whatever, and that’s great but that’s not what I did.”
Pumphrey has no regrets, no bad feelings about Vietnam, however…
“Just before that last mission, Cobra gunships were raking the area with rockets and minigun fire. Upon getting organized we came across a tiny hamlet – just a couple of hooch’s a short distance from the LZ. A family was crying over the body of their husband/father who had been killed by the Cobras during the LZ prep. I had our medic check him, but he was dead. We were so upset over it, I called the CO on the radio and requested he notify Battalion about the needless prep which had killed the man for what we saw as no reason at all. We were decidedly angry with the Cobras whereas, on any number of other occasions, they were our favorite air support. It’s interesting how a view of something in war can change when it becomes more personal.”
Yet through all the fighting, casualties, and killing Pumphrey found some of the things that happened, humorous.
“Well for instance, the Starlight night vision scopes were brand new when we got there. Each rifle platoon had been issued one. When we were done with a mission, the CO, due to the scopes highly sensitive, security nature, would call each platoon and check to be sure everyone had theirs. One by one we’d say yes sir, but then one of the platoons said, no sir, we don’t know where it is. So, the CO immediately calls battalion; I mean we’re already in the air heading back to basecamp, and battalion, in no uncertain terms says GO BACK AND FIND IT! So, we circle around, go back to this now unsecured LZ and line up on police call like we’d do in basic training, only this time instead picking up cigarette butts, everyone’s looking at the ground, slowly walking forward, trying to find the scope, and sure enough, we end up finding the damn thing. It struck me as ya know, funny, I mean we’re so careful and always very secure, because we could be in combat at any time, then, nah, the hell with that, find that Starlight scope!”
Pumphrey says he didn’t have any, what he’d call “bad experiences” in Vietnam. Says he really didn’t have anything to recover from, even though in his words,
“That’s not to say I don’t still have dreams, I’ll wake up screaming about something related to Vietnam, my wife will tell you that, but I never felt like I had any “head issues” about any of it. But I’ll tell you this, I wouldn’t go back.”
Pumphrey has a buddy who was in Vietnam too who recommended they go back together but he has no desire to revisit that place.
“I have nothing against the Vietnamese people. It’s just I remember it the way it was, and I’d just as soon keep it that way. I have no desire to see the place all built up and…”
His thoughts trail off before he continues,
“I mean if some North Vietnamese battalion commander showed up, I’d be happy to talk with him, I think it would be fun, ya know, comparing stories.”
Again, he shuffles in his seat, but this time a smile comes to his face.
“On another mission we were inserted into an LZ that turned out to be mildly hot. We were receiving enemy fire, though not particularly heavy or accurate and we suffered no casualties. However, one of the bad guy’s final shots was from an RPG, (rocket propelled grenade) that hit a few meters from me. A piece of shrapnel hit the Seiko watch on my arm, broke the crystal, and embedded itself in the watch. Later in the day, when we set up our company perimeter, one of my squad leaders, seeing the watch still on my arm, looked at it closely and said, ‘Sir, the watch says Shockproof, you ought to send it back to Seiko and demand a replacement!’
Several of us thought that was pretty funny so, entering into the spirt of it, I packed up the watch in a C-rations box and sent it to Seiko with a letter explaining its lack of ‘shockproof-ness’. We laughed about this for several days as the mission continued. A week or two later I received another shock… a box with a brand-new Seiko watch and a note from the company apologizing that it had not stood up to its guarantee!”
He shifts in his seat trying to call up another memory.
“There was another time that really sticks with me. We were sitting eating C-rations, and out of nowhere a small beetle landed on my arm. It was just about a half inch long, but it was solid, iridescent gold colored, and somehow, as crazy as this sounds, because I could have just brushed it off, it was really meaningful to me. I guess it was like, with all this crap going on, I don’t know, it just seemed like a good omen.”
When asked if he had any advice he’d like to pass on to other soldiers…
“Actually, I got a real good piece of advice from my father.
Whatever job you get assigned, no matter how stupid or simple you think it might be, do it the best you possibly can.
And I’ll tell you, almost anything good I do now, or did professionally, came from being a soldier. The Army is what made me realize more about how the world is than anything else. They get credit for almost everything good that came to me later.”
Mike Pumphrey, a soft spoken, compassionate, humble man. A rebel? Sure. But if you found yourself in a tough spot, he’s the kind of rebel you’d want by your side.