The story of THE LOST PLATOON of the Vietnam War is a story CBS News has been covering for half a century. Of the eight survivors, three have been sharing their experiences with us over the years, including a report by Bruce Morton first broadcast in 1982. So how are they today? On This Memorial Day weekend, John Blackstone picks up the story:
Fifty years to the day after most of his platoon was killed in a Vietnam jungle, Clifford Rountree has found serenity on a northern California river, teaching another Vietnam vet how to fly fish. "That looks like a good one, man!"
Rountree said, "A lot of us have been in combat. And it is healthy for us to hang out together. You know, it's good to be here in this environment with another veteran."
Rountree prefers not to dwell on the battle that left shrapnel in his arm … that he survived by playing dead. The fighting he'd willingly forget; the 22 men who died, he never will.
"I don't think there's too many days that go by that I don't think about them, and their families, and the loss and the hurt that they had to suffer," he said.
In Texas, another survivor of the battle, Kenny Barker, has a wall full of memories.
"When you are thinking about it, like today, it brings you back to the reality of the time," he said.
That time, 50 years ago, is never far from his thoughts.
"There are very few days that go by that a sound, or a smell, a sight, something will throw you back into that," Barker said.
In the ambush Victor Renza took a bullet in the back. Lying there, he could taste the blood in his mouth.
"Yes. I thought for sure I was going to die," Renza said.
Fifty years later, to the day, he carried a wreath to the Vietnam Memorial: "This list is the guys that were killed in my platoon that day. They take up a whole section of the wall."
Back in 1982, it was Renza who organized the survivors' reunion at the wall. But he's returned many times since.
"I feel a calmness about going there," he said. "And I see my friends' names, and I am okay with it. I know that I gotta deal with it. I moved on with my life."
Clifford Rountree now admits that back in 1982 he was struggling to stay sober -- a battle he's been winning for more than 30 years.
"It took some changes in my life to be able to look at it in a way where I could accept it and not be at war with it, let go of some of the anger about it," he told Blackstone.
For Kenny Barker, it's not so much survivor's guilt ("Why me?") as survivor's obligation. "Be the best you can be every day, because you can't let 22 people down," he said.
For fifty years the lives of the survivors have largely been defined by that one day: May 18, 1967.
"I have a daughter who got married five years ago, [who] insisted that her wedding would be on May 18th," Renza said. "This is hard to talk about! So I tried to talk her out of it, and she said, 'No, I want that to be a happy day for you.'"
So on that May 18th, Renza walked his daughter down the aisle. "And the guys who fought side-by-side with me that day were sitting at the reception and at the church."
And on May 18th this year, the 50th anniversary of the battle, she joined her father at the Vietnam Memorial.
Staring at the names on the wall, Renza said, "This is so good to be here at this wall and honor these guys."
Saluting them, he humbly said, "Thank you for your service."
For more info:
- "Nine Days in May: The Battles of the 4th Infantry Division on the Cambodian Border, 1967" by Warren K. Wilkins (University of Oklahoma Press)