Monday, April 22, 2019

Memories of Frank Beltran by a Member of his Marine 1st Recon Squad (Republic of Vietnam, 1968)

The details concerning Frank’s experiences while assigned to the 1st Marine Corps Recon Battalion, 1st Marine Division was told to me by Sergeant Art Salcedo, a member of Frank’s 1st Marine Recon team. Photographs were obtained from Google Images and are not associated with Frank or Frank's Marine Recon team.

Assigned to Frank’s Recon team on arrival in Vietnam, Art explained how concerned Frank was in training new team members on how to spot enemy booby traps, punji pits, trip wires, and buried mines. “While on patrol,” said Art, “I’d always keep an eye on Frank as he had a sixth sense regarding Viet Cong booby traps. You could see the alarm in Frank’s eyes when he sensed trouble.” When not on patrol, the team spent their time relaxing, reading, and writing letters home. Art recalled how Frank would add a line to Art’s letters to his mother. “Frank had a skill in writing backward and would add a line to many of my letters home. I had to explain to my mother how to read Frank’s message by holding the letter up to a mirror,” recalled Art. At their base camp, Frank had scrounged several sheets of plywood to build a series of storage lockers around his bunk to house his books, magazines, and personal effects. Art remembers that Frank’s storage lockers were very well built which was a surprise given the shortage of materials and lack of proper tools.

Being a Marine reconnaissance unit, Frank and Art spent weeks at a time in the jungle. According to Art, Frank’s skill in detecting signs of enemy movements and in spotting enemy booby traps gave the team a feeling of confidence while on patrol in enemy territory. Art claimed that Frank could smell the enemy minutes before the rest of the team were able to recognize the scent. Given Frank’s skill in spotting danger, he often walked point ahead of his team, exposing himself to initial enemy fire. “Frank was a Marine’s Marine,” according to those on his team. “Frank should have been an officer,” said Art, “He was smart and had great leadership skills.” 

While on a routine patrol, Frank decided to cook up a mulligan stew using his steel helmet as a cooking pot. He then asked his Marines to contribute something from their field rations. Art remembers the stew was actually very good thanks to the condiments Frank always carried in his backpack. It was little things like this that Frank did to help his squad members deal with the tension of being on patrol in enemy territory.

While on one of their frequent patrols, the team came upon a group of Vietnamese kids that invited them to their village. When the group reached the river, they were greeted by several village men in dugout canoes waiting for them. The team split up, got into the several canoes, and headed down the river to the village. Art and Frank, in canoes side-by-side, were talking about their upcoming visit as their hosts paddled to the village. Art noticed an old man in the front of his canoe was rummaging through a straw basket – a danger signal to an experienced combat Marine. Before Art could signal Frank, the grinning old man stood up with a fragmentation grenade in his hand. Art remembers shouting to Frank in the other dugout, “he’s got a frag.” Before Art could unholster his .45  sidearm, the old man had dropped the grenade into the river. Within seconds, the grenade exploded sending a column of water into the air drenching Art. As the shock of a potential fragging evaporated, Art noticed that a number of stunned fish had floated to the surface of the river. It appeared that the grinning old man was charged with securing lunch for his guests and he decided that fish would be something he could easily harvest on the trip back to the village. According to Art, while most of the team nervously sat eating with village elders, Frank was in the middle of a large group of village kids excited over their Marine guests. According to Art, Frank eagerly sought out any chance to interact with the local citizens. Frank may have been a combat Marine but he had real compassion for the people of South Vietnam.

Frank’s Last Day on Hill 200

The Recon team was assigned to an outpost on Hill 200 overlooking a jungle clearing from which enemy troops might launch an attack. The team had been in the outpost for several days when Frank told Art of a series of dreams that he had over several nights. While on watch one night, Frank told Art of his dreams.

“Art, I don’t think I’m going to make it home,” said Frank.

“We all have bad dreams – don’t let it upset you,” replied Art

“I was on a bus back home in Rochester. I was walking down the aisle looking for a seat when I saw my sister. When I looked at my sister she immediately started screaming,” said Frank.

Sometime later on Hill 200, Frank and Art were on watch. Art was in a pit manning a machine gun and noticed Frank a little further down the hill in the communications bunker. 

“I could see that Frank was preparing to cook something,” said Art. 

A minute or so later, Frank came up to Art’s position.

 “Hey Todo (Art’s nickname), would you like a cup of hot chocolate,” asked Frank.

“Sure, would love one,” replied Art.

Frank returned to the communications bunker and, within a minute or so, returned with a cup of hot chocolate that he handed up to Art. 

“As I sipped my hot chocolate, I could hear Frank raking the C-ration cans into the wire. A minute or so later I heard an explosion and knew that Frank was gone,” said Art

To defend the outpost if attacked, claymore mines are typically deployed around the perimeter. When detonated by its trigger device, 700 steel balls are sprayed towards the enemy by about 1.5 pounds of C4 plastic explosive; however, the explosion also produces a backblast that’s deadly up to 50 feet behind the exploding mine. Frank had been policing up the area just inside the razor wire perimeter where Marines had tossed their empty C-ration cans. According to Art, Frank had been raking the empty C-ration cans into the concertina wire. In addition to making the area less cluttered, the empty cans will make noise if the VC tried sneaking in through the wire – a common tactic.

While raking the empty C-ration cans, Frank must have accidentally tangled his rake in the razor wire. As Frank pulled the rake free from the wire, a trigger device for one of the claymore mines that had been hung on the wire fell to the ground triggering the mine. The resulting backblast killed Frank instantly. Once the shock of Frank’s death passed, a medevac chopper was then called in to retrieve his body (photo shows typical evacuation - not Frank's). Several days later, Frank’s team members returned to base camp in order to pack his personal effects for shipment home. Over fifty years later, the memory of that day still brings a tear to the eyes of Frank’s 1st Recon members. 

Monday, April 15, 2019

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