By: Randy Tucker
He played low post for the Tigers. 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.
“We didn’t have any food or water, just weapons,” Orbell said. “Everything was still up that hill in our rucksacks. It was loud in that chopper, and we were taking sniper fire. A round hit between me and another guy in the chopper bay.”
As they were being resupplied, the CO realized they 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,” Orbell said.
He was promoted to Specialist 4 and provisioned to buck sergeant a few months later. He was placed in charge of six other machine gunners.
“It was a promotion, but the best part was no more listening post duty,” Orbell said.
One of the companies a few miles from Orbell’s post was overrun, reduced to just 12 men, and his unit was ordered to reinforce them.
“It was 3 p.m. when the colonel ordered us to reinforce that company and take over their job,” Orbell said. “That was awfully late in the day to get started, but they figured we could get to them 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 of the guys were hit digging through the enemy dead,” Orbell said. “We moved into the teak woods, and a South Vietnamese 105 battery was overrun by NVA. They turned our own guns on us. We found a wire leading uphill, and it was a phone line a spotter was using to direct fire on us.”
A unit of 101st Airborne troops arrived to relieve Orbell’s company at the end of the fourth day.
“Bodies had been out in the heat for four days now,” Orbell said. “They were swollen, rotted, and ready to pop.”
‘It felt like an earthquake’
The area was so heavily wooded that helicopters couldn’t land. Orbell and a group of soldiers were sent to a clear a flat area with just machetes to hack down the teak trees and make an LZ.
“There were dead and wounded in all three remaining companies and a couple of prisoners,” Orbell said. “The choppers finally came in, and we left the 101st behind to hold the area.”
B-52s came in at high level on an arc light strike.
“You could see the flash from the arc light, then it felt like an earthquake when the concussion hit,” Orbell said.
He was sent on point the next day to reconnoiter the damage created by the B-52’s.
“We came up to a big ravine. The only way across was single file on a big log,” Orbell said.
“Sometimes they’ll let the point across, then a few more men and open up, but not that day. We found equipment, ammunitions, and supplies used by the NVA in the assault five days before.”
‘We had to wear gas masks for five hours’
A few days later, orders came to advance across an area hit hard with CN gas.
“We had to wear gas masks for five hours in that jungle heat,” Orbell 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 gas. We marched four or five miles in those masks.”
A perimeter was established and the men began to dig in.
“They called in an air strike again, on top of us,” Orbell said. “We’re digging in, and pop-pop-pop – mortars began to fall. One round went straight into a fox hole and killed two men. These guys were good, one shot and then dead on.”
‘The firing pin had rusted shut’
Weather, climate, and humidity were all corrosive elements to American made weapons.
“An NVA was shooting at us from a tree, and the machine gunners opened up on him, but only one gun would fire,” Orbell said. “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, too. 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 the field, Orbell was made 3rd brigade squad leader. He was back at a base, but it was even more dangerous than field duty.
‘The scariest job I ever had’
“I had to take out cooks, clerks, mechanics, and office staff on patrol,” Orbell said. “None of these guys knew anything about combat. I had to take people who had no idea what they were doing out for two nights of patrol among the Montagnard villages. It was the scariest job I ever had.”
They entered hooches, inspected them for suspected Viet Cong or NVA support, and moved on.
“It was dangerous duty; you didn’t know what you’d find or what the men would do,” Orbell said. “They finally brought in guard dogs for night duty. That was great – you could trust the dogs.”
Memories flow from any combat veteran, but specific moments stand out.
“Seeing those cargo nets full of dead GI’s carried out by helicopter and then just laid on the ground for two days before anyone did anything was hard,” Orbell said.
Something as simple as opening a case of C-rations was affected by military supply decisions.
“The old M-16’s had triangular flash suppressors, the new ones were smooth,” he said. “With the old ones, you just slide the barrel under the metal band, twisted it and it cut the band. The new round ones didn’t work at all. We had to get a cutter or chisel them open with a screwdriver.”
Vietnamese people jumping out of the brush as a convoy is something Orbell hasn’t forgotten, either.
“Some kids came out one day with popsicles for a dollar,” he said. “What these kids found a freezer in the middle of the jungle in a war zone was impressive. They were good little businessmen.”
Orbell returned to McKeesport after the war, took a job with U.S. Steel, and had a long career at the Keystone Chemical Plant, Clairton works. He and his wife Darlene had three children: Phillip, Leah, and Adam, and are now retired in North Huntingdon, an east suburb of Pittsburgh.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at [email protected].