Shouting “hang on, sir!” as he punched the gas, Spc. Gary Douglas somehow guided the jeep to safety through the first burst of machine-gun fire.
But the trucks farther back weren’t so fortunate.
Realizing an ambush of their convoy was in progress, Douglas’ commanding officer, seated behind him, ordered him to turn the jeep around. Their comrades needed them.
Looking back today, more than 50 years later, the events that followed play in Douglas’ mind as if in slow motion: his CO, Capt. Gregory Kernahan, running to check on survivors, then, as he made his way back, taking a bullet before he could reach the jeep.
“I had spent a lot of time with him, driving him, and had so much respect for him,” said Douglas, who tried to save his captain’s life only to learn later that he had died.
This Tuesday, Kernahan’s will be the first name Douglas looks for when he visits the National Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., for the first time. From there, he has a couple more comrades he wants to find on the memorial wall, which records the names of the war’s dead.
Douglas, a Coweta resident and two-time recipient of the Silver Star for valor, is visiting the memorial as part of the latest Oklahoma Warriors Honor Flight. He’s one of 75 veterans who will spend the day touring the nation’s war memorials and other sites.
The group is set to depart Tulsa International Airport for D.C. Tuesday morning, returning to Tulsa on Tuesday evening.
The flight includes veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, with nearly 60 representing Vietnam.
Besides the Vietnam memorial, Douglas is also looking forward to the National World War II Memorial. His late father, Gene, a WWII Navy veteran, never had a chance to see it, he said.
Douglas’ dad was a survivor of the infamous USS Indianapolis disaster in 1945, a nightmarish ordeal. The ship was returning from a top-secret mission to deliver atomic bomb parts when it was sunk by a torpedo.
Douglas believes the experience later allowed his father to relate to him and the emotional baggage he brought back from Vietnam.
The elder Douglas had been one of only 316 Indianapolis sailors found alive after the sinking; nearly 900 had survived initially, but over four days, as they waited in the water for rescue, hundreds died, many of them victims of sharks.
Douglas said his father never really spoke about the horrific experience. But he also didn’t shy away from talking to his veteran son.
After his return from Vietnam, “we sat and talked, and he was able to help me” readjust to post-military life, Douglas said.
That transition wasn’t an easy one for Douglas, a self-described “country boy” who grew up in Talala.
Drafted into the Army in 1967 at age 22 and sent to combat engineering school, he thought his assignment to the 585th Dump Truck Company would be a relatively safe one.
Even better, he ended up driving a jeep for the 585th’s commanding officer, Capt. Kernahan.
But then, just days apart in March 1968, Douglas was involved in two deadly roadside ambushes that changed his mind on the matter. Both times, part of a convoy going to pick up materials for building roads, it was on a route he’d been driving for months without incident.
In the first ambush, when Kernahan was shot in the leg, Douglas aided his CO, applying a tourniquet before going on to assist the other wounded.
Finding himself pinned down, he and other survivors exchanged fire as they could with their Viet Cong attackers.
“It got hot and heavy,” he said. But finally, support arrived.
Douglas remembers looking up from where he was lying and seeing an American tank, the barrel nosing forward just above his head.
The blast when it fired left him temporarily deaf. But he was too elated to care.
Douglas would see his captain one last time as he was loaded onto a helicopter with the wounded.
“I found out later that he passed away on the way back,” he said.
Exactly one week later, Douglas was back on the same road, driving for a platoon sergeant. This time the ambush happened up ahead of him in the convoy.
“We got there near the end of it,” he said, adding that there were dead and wounded troops lying in and around the road. Many of the fallen, Douglas would learn later, had been executed point-blank by a North Vietnamese commander as he walked among them.
Unable to find a smoke grenade to summon medical helicopters, Douglas ran across a field to where a friendly South Vietnamese tank was sitting. The tank had been hit in the attack and its gunner slain.
While he took over the gun for the crew, they searched and found a grenade for him.
Douglas ran back and used the smoke grenade to signal a helicopter.
For his actions in that and the previous ambush, Douglas would be awarded two Silver Stars for valor.
Not long before the two incidents, Douglas had declined an offer to join the night crew, which would mostly involve vehicle repair and maintenance.
But after the ambushes, “I thought maybe the good Lord was trying to tell me something,” he said.
He accepted the offer.
On Tuesday, when he stands before the wall, Douglas has no doubt that his memories of Vietnam will come flooding back.
That includes the image of his late captain, Kernahan, who will be on his mind “big time,” he said.
Douglas applied to go on the Honor Flight about a year ago, he said. He was “over the moon” when he learned he’d been accepted.
“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” said Douglas, who will be accompanied by his son, Joshua, of Broken Arrow. “I’ve seen the smaller traveling version, but not the real one.”
The best part, he said, is getting to experience the memorials in the company of other Vietnam veterans.
“We really were a band of brothers,” he said. “You were there, and you depended on each other, watching each other’s backs. There’s no red, yellow, black or white.”