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Posted: 4:04 PM- During his half-completed tour of duty in Vietnam, U.S. Navy corpsman George Lindell had seen enough combat to recognize the "pop" of a mortar being fired and to calculate where the shell would hit.

This one was headed directly at him.

In the late afternoon of Feb. 14, 1968 - Valentine's Day - Lindell glanced at his squad leader, Corporal Dennis Fleming. They shouted a warning to each other and dug their fingers into the ground, hoping for the impossible, trying to somehow burrow themselves out of harm's way.

The explosion sucked the air from Lindell's lungs, and the intense wave of searing heat that accompanied the bursting mortar round made those oppressively humid Midwestern summers that always enveloped his hometown of Wautoma, Wis., seem like an ocean breeze.

"It felt like I got smashed in the chest with a sledge hammer," Lindell recalled, 40 years later. "I couldn't catch my breath. I was numb all over. I couldn't move. I just flopped around, like a fish out of water. My ears were ringing."

Only a few feet away, Fleming had been killed instantly.

As Lindell struggled to regain a sense of his surroundings, a lightening bolt of pain from his shredded left leg raced through his body.

"I heard someone screaming - above the ringing in my ears," Lindell said. "Then I realized it was me."

Not wanting to draw unwelcome attention to himself or his location, Lindell forced himself to stop. He didn't want to look at his leg, fearing it might not be there. Another corpsman arrived to help and asked where he had been hit.

Lindell welcomed the question: "I figured my leg was still there. Otherwise, he wouldn't have asked."

Nearby, Marine Steve Miera tried in vain to conceal his position. Like Lindell, he found himself in the crosshairs of this fierce North Vietnamese Army attack - a far cry from his carefree elementary-school days in Ogden.

Without warning, a "potato-masher" hand grenade known as a "chi com" hit the ground next to him and rolled once, stopping about 18 inches away.

"There wasn't anything I could do," Miera said. "I just pulled my helmet down and pulled my shoulders up and waited for the explosion."

It never happened.

"I waited and waited and waited," Miera said, "but all it did was smoke a lot. It was a dud."

For Miera, Valentine's Day was just beginning.

'Deal with the whatever is out there'

For most people, Valentine's Day is flowers and chocolates, cards and special meals with loved ones. For Miera, Valentine's Day is a bloody jungle ridge in a long-ago war.

During the Vietnam War, the Ca Lu combat base was spread over low rolling hills, where a narrow dirt road known as Route 9 comes up from the south and bends toward Khe Sanh, a besieged U.S. outpost about eight miles to the west.

This was dangerous country, just a few miles from North Vietnam. Thousands of the enemy's best troops thrived in the surrounding mountains and jungles.

"Morale is high," Staff Sgt. John Edwards wrote at the time, "partly because we live at the edge of civilization but mostly because of our XO, Major John Oliver. . . . He has our confidence. We feel safe with him. He knows the ropes."

Because North Vietnamese attacks had made Route 9 a treacherous supply route, the U.S. troops at Ca Lu did not have much to eat. Breakfast often consisted of a peach slice or dr y cereal bar.

In early February, American patrols along Route 9 and in the mountains west of Ca Lu started coming under increasing mortar and small arms fire. A company-sized patrol - about 170 men - was ordered into the area to "deal with the whatever is out there," Edwards wrote.

Another Marine, Gene Miller, heard the same thing.

"We had been getting incoming from those ridge lines and I guess they wanted to find who was sniping at us," he said.

Asked what he remembered about the orders for Kilo Company, Lindell shrugged and said, "Most of us didn't know what we were doing - never did."

As a communications chief, Edwards could have stayed in the relative safety of the combat base. Instead, he asked Major Oliver if he could go on the patrol.

"He gives me his blessings," Edwards recalled, who also secured needed permission from Capt. Alexander Ward.

"He gives me a warm welcome and said, 'We're just going out to get that mortar.' I think it's optimistic to believe the NVA only have one mortar out there, but I keep that counsel to myself."

After dark, Edwards became restless. He rose from a fitful sleep before dawn, stuffed a can of fruit cocktail into his pack, put on a flak jacket and helmet, holstered his .45-caliber pistol and decided to pick up an M-14 rifle.

As a non-commissioned officer, Edwards had the option of carrying a rifle into the field.

On Valentine's Day, he took one along.

Not alone on the mountain

Kilo Company left the sanctuary of the combat base through the north wire, turned west and inched its way through thick brush alongside Route 9. The pace was maddeningly slow, but one designed to prevent a careless rush into an ambush.

Lindell remembers stopping only to fill canteens with rain water that had collected at the bottom of bomb craters. Edwards transferred his .45 from holster to pocket, fearing the thick brush would rip it from his side.

By midafternoon, the patrol reached an unremarkable 200-meter mountain about one mile west of Ca Lu.

Kilo Company was standing - uninvited - in the NVA's living room.

The Marines, along with their Navy corpsmen, circled the mountain before starting toward the top. Miera had the unenviable job of "walking point," meaning he led his comrades into the unknown.

"He was very good at it, being the outdoors-type," Miller said.

Miera was the first to realize the Marines were not alone on the mountain: "We were coming out of dense jungle - toward a big ravine - and heard a metal clicking sound. Like hitting pipes with a hammer. So I stopped the column and called for a fire team."

Instead of receiving support to deal with a possible attack, Miera was pulled off the point and sent "about three guys back" in the column.

"The C.O. made up his mind, I guess, that nothing was going to stop us," Miera said.

Word of the clicking noise and Miera's request for a fire team trickled back to the other Marines on the patrol.

"They told us not to worry about it - to keep going," Miller said. "We didn't like that very much."

The young American who replaced Miera as the column's point man inched forward. He didn't get far, Miera said, before "all hell broke loose."

This anonymous place in Vietnam had just gotten a name: Valentine's Ridge.

No more jokes

Lindell was wounded just above the ankle - the back of his leg torn open. Fleming, his squad leader, was not as fortunate. The direction of the mortar fire and the slope of the ground at its impact point hurled most of the shrapnel at him.

"Only a short time before, we'd been joking as we hugged the ground, joking to keep the fear from overcoming us," Lindell said.

Another corpsman came to Lindell, tore off his boot and hastily dressed his wound. Lindell heard the screams of others all around him. Suddenly, a wide-eyed lieutenant slid down next to him "like Pete Rose." He shouted an order to retreat because of the advancing North Vietnamese and ran down the mountain.

The corpsman helped Lindell stand and, together, they followed the lieutenant - enemy bullets crackling around them every step of the way.

Lindell felt "tremendous guilt" about leaving Fleming's body behind, but there was no choice. In the gathering darkness, getting away from an enemy who did not take prisoners alive was a matter of survival.

Crashing through the brush, Lindell lost his .45, which because of its worn condition had always made him think it was World War II vintage.

"My hope," he said, "was that some NVA would find it, try to fire it and it would blow up in his face."

Lindell had been wounded by a faceless enemy.

Others were not.

As soon as the firefight began, Miera "saw a bunch of NVA" and opened fire.

"I killed two of them," he said, though he quickly turned and started down the mountain because "there were too many of them. It was total chaos. We were getting hammered from both sides. ... I made it down on my belly."

Trading his now-jammed rifle for one off "a guy who'd been killed," Miera moved forward again to search for the Marines who had replaced him at the front of the column after he reported the clicking noise.

There no sign of them - just the enemy.

Backing down the ridge on his stomach, Miera ran into a "guy from my squad," who started shouting when the NVA began throwing rocks from the top of the ridge.

"In hand grenade school, you are taught to holler if you saw one coming in," Miera said. "Maybe the NVA knew this because they started throwing rocks and this guy starts yelling, "May Day, May Day" - like they were real grenades. I told him, 'Shut up, man. If you holler again, they're going to kill us.' "

In the confusion and under heavy fire, Miera lost track of the panicked Marine. He made it down the mountainside but decided to make a final search of the initial firefight area and moved forward again.

"There was nobody there, not even the NVA," Miera said. "I wondered what the hell was going on."

The enemy spotted Miera during his final retreat and opened fire. Miera dropped behind a tree. A burst of bullets passed through the pulpy trunk, just over his head, spraying him with "an acid-like juice. ... I could feel in burning."

On the move again, Miera ran into two more NVA soldiers. The first "saw me and fired but nothing happened. I guess his gun jammed." The second "fired and missed. I returned fire and killed him. But I put another burst into him, just to make sure."

Darkness now claimed Valentine's Ridge, and Miera was alone. He felt for one bullet he had put in his pocket. It was still there. He sighed with relief.

"They told us - because of how the NVA treated captured Americans - to save the last round for yourself," Miera explained. "So that's what I did."

When the firefight began, Miller saw his squad leader, Cpl. David Schneider "get killed right off the bat. I was close to him and went over the checked on him. But ... "

The enemy fire increased. Along with several others, Miller withdrew but stopped to help a Marine who had been wounded. They talked about home.

"I didn't know the guy," Miller said. "But he was telling me about his car."

Miller wasn't finished giving first aid when word came to continue the retreat. The Marines in the group started to do so, but Miller screamed for them to wait until he was done with his corpsman-like task. He threatened anyone who thought about leaving.

The others waited.

Headed down the mountain again, Miller saw "several NVA popping up out of the brush and firing at us. So I fired back. I don't know if I hit any of them, but they were not far away - not at all."

Miller's group reached the base of the mountain.

"We set up in kind of a defensive perimeter, but we were so far from the rest of the platoon, there was no way to get back," Miller said. "And it was pitch black by then."

Edwards was also caught in the chaos, despite his position near the rear of the column. A tear-gas grenade forced him to gasp for breath. Shrapnel from a mortar shell grazed his left temple. Another nearby mortar blast killed Lt. William Reese and wounded Capt. Ward, who later died.

Edwards, who always brought maps and critical communication frequencies into the field with him, found a radio. He contacted Maj. Oliver, who told him to gather everyone he could find and withdraw to Route 9.

Edwards happened upon Miera, Miller, Lindell, a communications wireman from his platoon named Wilson and another Marine.

(In the confusion - in such complete darkness - Miera, Miller and Lindell didn't know about the other two members of their group until years later.)

According to Edwards, "Everyone [was] wounded to some extend. . . . We [took] stock of our situation in a gully at the bottom of the ridge."

Edwards radioed for an evacuation helicopter. None were available. He told the others and called for a vote on a course of action.

Do they spend the night at the base of Valentine's Ridge, or do they try to hack their way through the pitch-dark jungle and reach Route 9?

'Let's get off this hill'

Bleeding from a shrapnel wound near his eye, Miera wasn't sure what he wanted to do, so he asked Edwards if they should try to search out and rejoin the rest of the company still fighting on Valentine's Ridge.

Miera didn't like the answer: "John said, 'If we try walking to their perimeter, 100 grenades are going to come our way.' Since he had the highest rank, I said, 'Well, you're in charge.' And he said, 'Let's get off this hill.' "

George Lindell recalls "a couple of guys were thinking about trying to reach the road beside the hill."

His training took over.

"They asked if I wanted to go," Lindell said. "Since one of them was wounded, I figured they may need a corpsman, and I still had my corpsman bag, so I went."

It was a terrifying journey.

The group started up the mountain, slipped over the top and dropped down the backside, mostly on their knees and stomachs. Their pace was glacial because of the darkness, the terrain and fear of stumbling upon an enemy that was all around them.

"We were just trying to find a way out," Miller said. "And in that situation, you are scared sh-less."

Miera started as the point man. He used a sheath knife his father had sent him from home in Taos, N.M., to cut a tunnel through the jungle vegetation.

Even at such a slow pace, Lindell had a difficult time keeping up. His pants were soaked in blood from ankle to groin and, he was missing one boot, leaving his foot prickled with thorns.

"I was falling behind when I heard - very close to me - a large animal breathing," Lindell said. "I assumed it was a tiger or a rock ape. But I wasn't armed and I didn't want to yell out because there was fighting go on all around us. So I kind of whispered to the guys, 'Hey, hey, hey.' They held up until I stumbled up to them."

Edwards replaced Miera as the group's point-man, and Miera dropped behind Lindell, who feared he was becoming a burden.

"My leg was cramping and I was exhausted," Lindell said. "I remember telling them, in my best John Wayne voice, to leave me there because I knew I was slowing everybody up. I said they could come back for me. They laughed, quietly of course, and said they'd move as fast as I could. Thank God."

Because he still had the radio, Edwards was able to talk to Maj. Oliver and others along Route 9. They kept shooting flares, so any stragglers on Valentine's Ridge would know where to head.

"Later," Edwards wrote, "the mortar guys told me they spent $4,000 on flares."

Hours into their journey, Miera "heard someone behind us. So I told John, 'Why don't you guys go about 30 paces and I'll sit here and see what the hell is following us.' Then I thought I'd just rig a grenade with some fishing line my dad had sent. But I thought about that and said, "Sh-, it might be a Marine and I don't want to kill one of our own guys.' "

Edwards was not interested in a confrontation.

"We do not fire," he remembered. "They might be Marines and, if they are the enemy, we are in no condition for a fight."

Said Miera: "We stopped. They stopped. We stopped. They stopped. Then I heard a crack in the brush and a little rock rolled down into the big ravine next to us. That was it."

No love for Valentine's Day

As the pitch darkness at Valentine's Ridge grudgingly surrendered to dawn, the exhausted group inched its way down a stream bed when Edwards heard the voices of Marines patrolling Route 9.

Miera's first thought: "I was afraid somebody was going to open up and cut us to pieces."

Safely on the road, Miera asked Edwards for his sheath knife - the one they had used to slash their way through the jungle. But it was missing.

"Losing that damn buck knife," Edwards wrote, "was the lowest I felt all night."

Thirty-five years later, Edwards met up with Miera again. One of the first things he did was give him a new knife.

Edwards, Miera, Miller, Lindell, Wilson and the unidentified sixth Marine were escorted back to Ca Lu for treatment for their wounds and - in Lindell's case - medical evacuation.

"Without those guys," said Lindell, who still lives in his Wisconsin hometown, "I would not be here today."

A short-timer with only three months left in Vietnam, Miera was "sent to the rear" and served as a military policemen on a bridge in Quang Tri where, he said, "I got shot at more times than I did during that ambush."

Miera returned home to New Mexico in July.

Miller replaced Cpl. Schneider as a squad leader for a short time before being pulled from his in-country duties to work in "company supply, for some reason."

Asked if his experience on Valentine's Ridge still impacts his life, Miller fell silent.

After a brief pause, he said, "I never get too happy on any holiday."

Tribune reporter Steve Luhm is the first-cousin of George Lindell.