From Court to Field

Written by Randy Tucker
At 6’6”, David Orbell was the big man on his McKeesport High School basketball team.
A short three years later, he was leading troops in the central highlands of Vietnam.

Dave went straight to a community college out of high school, eventually earning an associate’s degree in electronics.  He went to work for US Steel as many young men from the Pittsburgh area did in the mid-1960s. The day he turned 21, a letter arrived from Uncle Sam. Dave had been drafted into the US Army. He went in on the buddy system with a friend from high school with orders to become an MP, but the friend went AWOL and Dave was rotated back into the regular pool of hundreds of thousands of young men destined for Southeast Asia. In November 1968, he arrived in Vietnam as part of a rifle team.

The big man found himself on a finger of land, in the highlands with a fellow soldier on lookout duty one night. “We were out there all alone, at a listening post,” Dave said. “We heard the CO call in all the other guys on watch, with just us out there by ourselves. We could hear the NVA coming up the trail.  We set off our claymores, then hot-footed it back to the base.  The CO yelled at us for coming back in but just then mortar rounds began to fall. Those North Vietnamese mortar men were good. They knew what they were doing.”

As the mortars crept into the American position, snipers began to fire down from the high ground above the base. “An AK47 round went right through our M60 gun squad leaders head, going through from ear to ear,” Dave said. “Another guy and I tried to pick him up and get him to the medics but he was so heavy we couldn’t move him very far. He had over 600 rounds of M60 ammo in bandoliers strapped to him.” They removed the ammo and hauled the man to a medic but he was KIA. The CO realized he needed a new gun squad leader. “One of the guys said, ‘Orbell knows how to use a machine gun’ and I became the gun squad leader with a new M-60,” Dave said. “It was a promotion, but the best part was no more listening duty.

A few miles away a company was overrun by NVA, reduced to just 12 men, and Dave’s unit was ordered in to reinforce them. “It was 3 p.m. when the colonel ordered us up there,” Dave said.” That was awfully late in the day to get started, but we figured we could get there before dark. They took us to the wrong finger and we didn’t find them until 1 a.m.  The area was full of dead GI”s and the perimeter had even more dead NVA. They had us carrying either heavy mortar rounds or sacks of grenades. That mortar round was heavy, so I carried a bag full of grenades that swung back and forth with each step. Less than half the mortar rounds made it. Men were just tossing them away.”

When daylight finally arrived, many of the Americans were scrounging through the dead NVA for souvenirs. “A few guys were hit digging through the enemy dead,” Dave said. “We moved into the teak woods, and a South Vietnamese 105 battery was overrun by NVA. They turned their guns on us. We found a wire leading uphill. It was a phone line a spotter was using to direct fire on us.”

A unit of 101st Airborne arrived to relieve Dave’s company at the end of the fourth day. “Bodies had been out in the heat for four days now,” Dave said. “They were swollen, rotted, and ready to pop.” The area was so heavy with teak trees that choppers couldn’t land. Dave and a group of other soldiers were sent to clear a flat area with machetes.

“There were dead and wounded in all three remaining companies and a couple of prisoners,” Dave said. “The choppers finally came in and we left the 101st behind to hold the area. It was just another few days on Dave’s 365 days in Vietnam. As an M-60 gunner, Dave packed the hefty 23-pound machine gun, along with a 100-round belt of 7.62x61mm ammunition. M-60 gunners generally carried at least two bandoliers of ammo, an extra dozen pounds on a soldier already carrying, grenades, water, medical supplies, and food. “My assistant gunner carried another 200 rounds at least and an extra barrel,” Dave said. “Our ammo carrier had four or five belts on him.”

That’s a lot of weight for a soldier humping it through the highland terrain, slogging through jungles, or high stepping through rice paddies to carry. Add the weight of a rucksack with personal belongings and you have a tremendous amount of weight for a man to carry.

One night near their base a squadron of B-52’s came in on an arc light strike. “We could see the flash from the arc light, then it felt like an earthquake when the concussion hit,” Dave said. They were sent out the next morning to reconnoiter the area and determine the damage the Air Force had done the night before. “We came up to a ravine. The only way across was single file on a big log,” Dave said. “Sometimes they let the point across, then a few more men and opened up, but not this time.”

They found equipment, ammunition, and supplies used by the NVA in the assault. They also found some other grizzly results of the arc light strike. “There were a couple of NVA, completely roasted with their hands still on their anti-aircraft guns,” Dave said. “A direct hit by the B-52’s.”

With little rest, the company was sent out a couple of days later to advance on an area hit hard by CN gas. “We had to wear gas masks for five hours in the jungle heat,” Dave said. “When we were finally able to take them off, a lot of guys were red and blistered around the outline of their masks from the CN.” After five grueling hours in gas masks they were told to dig in.

“They called an air strike in right on top of us,” Dave said. “I glanced up at a Skyraider as it flew past and looked the South Vietnamese pilot right in the eyes. They were that close.” The South Vietnamese Air Force was not nearly as accurate as their American counterparts and often dropped napalm right on American troops. “We were digging in and heard pop-pop-pop from down below,” Dave said. “Mortars began to fall all around us. One round went straight into a fox hole and killed two men. Those NVA mortarmen were good, one shot and then dead on.”

Jungle conditions were not only a challenge for the men but wreaked havoc on equipment as well. “An NVA sniper was shooting at us from a tree,” Dave said. “The machine gunners opened up on him, but only one gun would fire. The firing pin had rusted shut on all the other weapons. That night I ordered everyone to clean and inspect their M-60’s. Mine was rusted shut.  It took a cleaning rod and a rock to break it loose. We started to oil our guns every night after that.”

After nine months in country, Dave became a squad leader. “It was dangerous duty, you new knew what you’d find or what the men would do,” he said. “They finally brought in guard dogs for night duty. That was great. You could trust the dogs.” “Seeing those cargo nets full of dead GI’s carried out by helicopter and then just laid on the ground for two days before anything was done was hard,” Dave said. Some images stand out starker than others for this combat veteran. Other memories were not as bad.

“Vietnamese people jumping out of the brush to sell something when a convoy approached was amazing,” Dave said. “Some kids came out one day with popsicles for a dollar. Where these kids found a freezer in the middle of the jungle in a war zone was impressive. They were good little businessmen.” The business of war is a vastly different thing than regular commerce.

On a couple of occasions, Dave nearly had his ticket punched, once by NVA armed with flame throwers and machine guns, and on another occasion with an RPG round that narrowly missed him. “The NVA assaulted two positions behind us with flamethrowers and mortars. They were trying to turn one of the 105 howitzers on us,” Dave said. “The other four guns in the battery fired beehive (similar to a giant shotgun shell) rounds on them and blew the gun and the NVA away.” Their objective was to go up a hill when the attack came. An airlifted 8-inch gun was brought in from the valley below but couldn’t reach a high enough trajectory to take out the NVA so an airstrike was called in.

The napalm silenced most of the NVA.

With the trees and brush still on fire, Dave and his company moved into the still blazing hot area. “It was still hot, fires everywhere, everything was smoldering,” Dave said. “We found spider holes and a couple of dead NVA. The trees were just sticks, the NVA were roasted in their fox holes.” Not all the NVA were killed in the bombing.  As Dave and his company advanced, they removed the cover on one of the spider holes. “The guy in front of me had a shotgun,” Dave said. “When we pulled the cover off the spider hole an AK47 round fired and went right through the barrel of the shotgun. We dumped a few grenades in the hole and didn’t hear anything else.” At 1 a.m. the NVA hit the perimeter with flame throwers.

“They opened up on the bunker we had just left,” Dave said. “We couldn’t tell what was going on but we heard machine guns and men dying. Those flamethrowers sprayed gasoline, then they ignited it. It was the most terrifying weapon we faced.” As they continued their assault on the hill an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) glanced off Dave’s leg then exploded a few yards behind him. “It hit the side of my leg and gave me a heck of a Charley horse,” Dave said. “It went off behind me and a couple of the guys were hit with shrapnel in the face.”

The unit they were fighting turned out to be an elite squad of North Vietnamese Rangers. “They had folding stock AK-47’s, all new uniforms and equipment, but they threw those old WWII style German potato masher hand grenades,” Dave said. “The scariest thing was still those flamethrowers with that gasoline sprayed on you.” The battle with the NVA Rangers took a heavy toll with 30 of the company’s 115 men either killed or wounded.

At 6-6, Dave was the tallest man in his company and had the biggest shoes, size 16s. You don’t just find size 16 shoes on the shelf, even in the U.S. Army. “One day we were cutting through some brush,” Dave said. “I’d just sharpened my machete and it was like a razor. It fell off my pack and hit me in the foot, cutting the top of my boot open. It didn’t cut me, but the flap on the boot kept getting worse and worse. I tried putting on two or three pairs of socks to protect my feet, but the socks filled up with sticks and stickers. I had to get another pair of boots.” The CO was annoyed to begin with but ordered a replacement pair of boots.

“I looked up and a helicopter dropped my new boots down to us, wrapped in a plastic bag,” Dave said. “They were size 14.”
Standard Army issue, along with most modern retail stores, only goes to size 14 shoes and boots. I squeezed into them, tried wearing them without socks, and was able to wear them for a while. I asked for bigger boots, but the CO just seemed angry about it,” Dave said. “They killed my feet, but I eventually got a bigger pair.”

Dave returned to McKeesport after the war. He took a couple of weeks off and went back to his old job at the Keystone Chemical Plant at the huge US Steel Clairton works plant. He married his wife Darlene in 1970, soon after his return and they had three children, Phillip, Leah, and Adam. Leah and Adam live within a mile of Dave and Darlene in an eastern suburb of Pittsburgh with four grandchildren. Phillip is a science teacher in Wyoming with his wife and two sons. The couple just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. After a career with US Steel Dave lives a quiet life in the suburb of Norwin. He recently had surgery on his ankle, a result of his early basketball career and those undersized shoes in the jungles of Vietnam. He hunts and fishes, volunteers at his church, and spends a lot of time taking care of his grandchildren, his garden and fruit trees, and repairing things for his two children and their families that live nearby.