Drawing on a well of courage

Patrick L. Boudro of Durand sports the Army jacket he wore while serving as a sergeant in Vietnam, from 1968-69. In a frame behind him are some of the medals and honors he won, including two Bronze Stars for valor and achievement.

DURAND — When movement by the enemy was detected near Firebase Crook, in South Vietnam 10 miles east of the Cambodian border, the officers in charge decided it was nothing out of the ordinary.

Hours passed. Then, at 3 a.m. June 6, 1969, U.S. Army Sgt. Patrick L. Boudro was exhausted, having just come off guard duty. That’s when rockets and mortar shells came flying in — at a rate of 150 per minute.

“Bang, bang, bang,” Boudro, 72, remembered during a conversation at his home in Durand. “I’d been shot at before, but this was unbelievable.”

Someone lit up a flare and the North Vietnamese were everywhere the Americans looked.

“Our guys (about 225 soldiers) opened up and just ripped them,” he said, first with guns and then high explosives.

Boudro and his squad quickly dug a pit to protect themselves as they fired back, but Boudro’s adrenaline was so high he stood up and kept shooting until he ran out of ammunition.

Then he grabbed an M-16, hustled over to a different bunker and commenced firing again. When the firing finally stopped, Boudro was completely drained but the battle wasn’t over. The following night was almost an exact repeat of the first, but this time he was rested and fed, and had a lot more ammo.

The third night, the fighting was over almost before it began. When the bodies were counted, it turned out to be possibly the most lopsided casualty-producing battle in the Vietnam War. More than 400 of the 750 enemy soldiers were killed, contrasted with a single American fatality.

In charge of burying the dead North Vietnamese, Boudro had to take their photos first, a trickier proposition than it might sound. Enemy soldiers were taught to grab hold of explosive detonators as they lay dying.

“The bombs would go off if their bodies were moved,” Boudro said. “They could kill you after they were dead.”

Along with the one fatality, the Americans suffered many casualities. One soldier was shot in the groin, and another had fingers shot off. Boudro was nicked by a piece of shrapnel, but he felt his injury was too minor to be deserving of the Purple Heart he was offered.

He did accept two Bronze Stars, for valor and achievement during the battle of Firebase Crook. His heroism and the honors were duly reported in a local newspaper. He also recieved a Combat Infantry Badge and Air Medal, among other awards.

At that point, Boudro, known for his sense of humor and nicknamed “Satch” by his Army buddies, was a seasoned soldier who felt almost invincible, “like John Wayne,” he said.

When he’d first landed in Vietnam, he’d been scared. Then came his John Wayne period. Now, having survived a horrible battle in which the Americans were greatly outnumbered, he worried about pressing his luck any further.

“I never felt lucky to begin with,” he said. “My attitude was, ‘Get me out of here.’”

Born and raised in Durand, Boudro graduated from Durand High School in 1966. He hired on at the Midland-Ross plant in Durand, and hoped the war would end soon. But the fighting raged on and in the summer of 1967, he was drafted into the Army.

An injury to his ankle while playing baseball deferred his service for six months, but at the end of March 1969, he was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for basic training and Fort Polk, Louisiana, for infantry training.

Boudro said he was not very political at the time, and keenly felt the legacy of his father and uncles’ military service during World War II.

“I was going to do my duty,” he said. “I didn’t figure the war was right or wrong, I just did what I had to do. I’m an American. I love it here. I figured it was my turn.”

He landed in Ben Wa, South Vietnam, on Sept. 7, 1968. After a short time he was stationed with the 25th Infantry Division in Tay Ninh, at the end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail — a North Vietnamese supply chain through the jungles — close to the Cambodian border.

“We were surrounded by Cambodia on every side but the east,” he said. “What we were was bait. They stuck us in the middle of nowhere. Come and get us, Charlie.”

He and his men built the fire support base themselves, creating berm lines with plows, and installing razor wiring and landmines for protection. Then the soldiers built bunkers 3 feet deep, shored up with sandbags and equipped with ammo boxes.

“That’s where we lived — the bunkers,” Boudro said.

He slept in a hammock to avoid the snakes that lived alongside them in the bunkers. The men had one hot meal each day, and otherwise ate C-rations. One of the nastier jobs the men had to handle was burning the excrement from the outhouses.

“I didn’t like being there,” he said. “The worst were the ambushes, especially at night. I was scared to death. I believe you only get so much courage, and that you can use it up.”

His very first day in the field, Sept. 20, 1968, he pulled security duty for a group of engineers who were repairing a blown-up bridge. No sooner did Boudro climb out of the truck than the enemy started shooting at them.

Following a more experienced soldier, Boudro low-crawled from tree to tree. A fellow soldier who joined the guard duty even though it was the last day of his tour in Vietnam, was killed.

“I thought, I’m not going to make it,” he said. “I can’t do this every day.”

He coped by taking it one day at a time, retaining his humor and appreciating that he was part of a good group of men who took care of him and taught him a lot, he said.

He participated in a number of search-and-destroy missions during which the men would get dropped off by a helicopter, do their work, and either walk back to the base or get picked back up by the chopper.

Following the battle of Firebase Crook, Boudro enjoyed a two-week leave in Australia before returning to the Vietnam jungle. He flew back to the States Aug. 25, 1969, and spent the last six months of his two-year hitch in Fort Hood, Texas, playing sports for the U.S. Army: basketball, flag football and volleyball.

“That’s how I got my anger out,” Boudro said. “I was mad at everything. Later, I found out I had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”

He has also suffered from tinnitus, a serious ringing in the ears, since 1968. He was deemed 40 percent disabled by Veterans Affairs 25 years ago; not that he’s complaining.

“For me it worked out,” he said. “For 58,000 kids (who died in Vietnam), not so much.”

Boudro blames his post-Vietnam problems for the demise of an early marriage. He took a job at the U.S. Post Office, working delivery routes in Owosso and Durand for 37 years before retiring.

He has one son, Jason Boudro, from his first marriage. Two other sons, Mike and Kyle Boudro, are from his marriage with Kathy Boudro, with whom he tied the knot 36 years ago. Patrick L. Boudro is a member of the Durand VFW and serves as chaplain.

He didn’t get a parade when he came home, he noted, but he didn’t get spit on by protesters, either. Mostly, he was thrilled to be back in the U.S. He remembers getting off the plane and kissing the soil.

He hasn’t stepped a foot outside the U.S. since 1969.

“I turned 21 on the Cambodian border,” Boudro said. “I’m just glad to be anywhere.”

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