Farewell Darkness

 

 

This article is reprinted with permission of The Daily Camera

Daily Camera (Boulder, CO)

Veteran says meeting with rescuer reinforces worth

November 17, 2002 

Section: Local News 
Page: B1 
Justin George, Camera Staff Writer 
Caption: Vietnam War veteran Carl 'Britt' Friery holds a hat with a military emblem Friday in the cafeteria of Base Line Middle School, where he works in the lunch room. Friery, who was wounded in action in 1967, has struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Jon Hatch/Daily Camera

LONGMONT -- When he finally encountered his real-life savior on Veterans Day, Carl "Britt" Friery said the meeting reinforced what God made him believe -- that his life was indeed worth much.


 
Friery said he spent almost three decades suffering from survivor's guilt, wondering if he should have been one of three members of his reconnaissance unit who survived a vicious firefight in Vietnam that left the other four members dead.

He said he questioned his self-worth more over the years when he heard that the chopper crew that rescued him and the crew chief who rocked him while he neared death may have been killed later in the war.

"Was I worth it? Was I worth all of the danger?" Friery's wife, Kathy, said her husband asked over and over.

Puff the Magic Dragon

May 9, 1967.

The seven members of the 3rd Reconnaissance Unit, Alpha Company, were flown by helicopter to the site of a B-52 bombing to assess damage. The planes had bombarded a large concentration of Northern Vietnamese Army troops.

The team included Friery, who had joined the Marines as a 19-year-old looking to bail out of tiring University of Houston classes and to escape the grasp of a "domineering" mother who lived nearby.

The chopper landed a few yards from the bomb site, where the reconnaissance unit discovered enough bunkers to house about 250 men.

No enemy soldiers were in sight, presumably dead or driven into tunnels under the bunkers.

After investigating the site, the reconnaissance team was to wait for a chopper to retrieve them the next day, May 10.

For a night, the unit was on its own.

The men set up camp on the tip of a thumb-like hill, staying low so the 3-foot-tall elephant grass would hide them from any enemy soldiers that might have lived through the bombing.

In the middle of the night, two North Vietnamese soldiers walked in on their position and fired an automatic burst that wounded two of Friery's unit.

Grenades flew into the unit's camp from enemy bunkers.

"We threw them back whenever possible," Friery said.

A lieutenant who had been wounded in the abdomen died. A grenade exploded near the face of a wounded sergeant trying to summon help over a radio. He later died.

The remaining members of Alpha Company made a circle around the two officers.

On one side of Friery was Sam Sharp Jr., a close friend and bunk mate.

Sharp drew a ton of fire, forcing Friery to set up his pack -- which included a radio and a "case of chow" -- between the two for cover. But one bullet struck Friery in the buttocks and shot its way inside his abdomen.

Three grenades fell. Friery threw two back. He couldn't find third.

"It got me in the back," Friery said. "I`ve got a groove in my back from it. Sam was killed."

On the other side of him was Steve Lopez and Clarence Carlson. "Doc" Miller was wounded.

He later died, leaving Carlson, Lopez and Friery as the last members of Alpha company alive.

They nicknamed their position "Puff the Magic Dragon" because of the fire they were taking, and they kept calling for help.

The night stretched on. Ten helicopter rescue attempts were driven back.

One pilot died, his crew seriously hurt.

On the ground, Carlson was wounded several times over. Lopez kept calling for fire support. A concussion from a grenade blast knocked Friery out.

On the morning of May 10, planes flew over Alpha company and dropped napalm at the bottom of the hill.

But the fuel-laden flames climbed toward Friery`s unit "burning some of our dead," he said.

One helicopter crew -- assigned to fly Major General Bruno A. Hochmuth in Vietnam -- decided to make an 11th rescue attempt to save Friery, Lopez and Carlson.

The Huey "slick" chopper, stripped of artillery, made a daring landing.

"I was pouring a canteen on Sam Sharp`s body because he was smoldering," Friery said.

As Lopez, Carlson and Friery tried to board, a North Vietnamese soldier running up the hill was shot dead by the helicopter pilot -- but not before two grenades landed under the Huey.

They didn`t explode.

The chopper, struggling to get lift because of the weight, began to climb. Lopez and Carlson were on board, but Friery remained on the ground.

He said he thought he was going to be left behind when the crew chief`s hand reached for him.

Dangling in the air, Friery -- with a hole blown in his back and a bullet wound that had ripped apart his now infected intestines -- was pulled aboard.

All Friery said he remembers is the chopper`s crew chief, rocking him like his grandmother, urging him to live.

Leaving a mark

The medevac crew chief, Ron Zaczek, recalls retrieving Friery in a book he later wrote.

"He is conscious, and I roll him toward me as gently as I can," Zaczek wrote. "He looks up at me with unaccountably clear eyes. They are brown. Not dark like my own, but brighter. Hazel, you`d probably call them. And his hair is brown, like mine, but it is hard to tell under the dust of the zone. He is about nineteen and has probably been in the Country longer than I. He looks older. I, too, am nineteen, but you age badly in Vietnam. Every month seems to leave its mark. I offer a weak smile, meaning it to be reassuring, but he doesn`t smile back.

"His lips are split and caked with dust, and not a sound escapes them nor a breath. The bright eyes seem to look deeply into my own but tell me nothing. I wonder if he can see me."

Friery spent nine months in the hospital, recovering from wounds that should have killed him. He came back home a purple-heart recipient and met his wife, a Vietnam War protester, in his hometown of Houston.

He became a park ranger and historical interpreter, working in places such as Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone national parks, Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas and Morristown National Historical Park in New Jersey.

But he was forced to take a medical retirement because of post-traumatic stress disorder in the mid-1990s.

While undergoing treatment in Fort Davis, Texas, a counselor told Friery that he had listened to the rescue effort to save Friery`s unit over military radio. The counselor was also in the war and flew helicopters.

He told Friery that he knew the crew chief who had rescued him and gave Friery his phone number.

Friery always wanted to find the crew chief. He never knew his name or what he looked like since a helmet and visor obscured his rescuer`s face.

In past years, Friery thought the crew chief was killed after learning that Major General Hochmuth and a helicopter crew transporting him had died in an accident on Nov. 14, 1967.

But Friery didn`t know that crews rotated. Zaczek was not aboard the doomed craft.

Instead, he had moved to Baltimore after the war. He wrote "Farewell Darkness" in 1994, documenting his own triumph over post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Ron thought Britt had died after he had left him," Friery`s wife, Kathy said.

Friery called Zaczek, and the crewchief sent him a book.

It was signed, "To Britt Friery, 3rd Recon, Khe Sanh Recon Team 'Breaker.` We were there for each other, may it always be so."

Reading the book caused Friery to fall back into post-traumatic stress disorder. His wife said he barricaded his family at home for a few days, believing the enemy lurked outside.

Through prayer, the couple said, he overcame his delusion.

Surprise meeting

Although they spoke over the phone, Friery and Zaczek hadn`t seen one another since May of 1967.

But during an Alpha company Veterans Day reunion this week in Washington, D.C., Friery`s friends called Zaczek, who lives in nearby Baltimore, and invited him to dinner on Monday night.

Kathy Friery said her anxious husband almost didn`t make it out of the hotel room.

But after 35 years, Friery, the saved, and Zaczek, his savior, met for the first time at a formal dinner at the Washington Hilton.

"I spent the whole time talking to him," Friery said. "I don`t remember what the dinner was."

 a battle.

"  Justin George at (303) 473-1359 or georgej@dailycamera.com.


 



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