Austin Civil War Round Table

Fred Schattenberg

Medical Corpsman

United States Navy, 1969-1972

Fred Schattenberg was born in Harlingen, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, and moved with his family to Austin in 1960. At age 19, Fred decided to enlist in the Navy. At that time, nineteen was the average age of most combat veterans in Vietnam.

"I always had a dream since I was a child to join the Navy and serve my country," Fred says. "I always liked the water. I was an outdoors person -- it was a perfect match. I had no fear of going into combat, because I had a long tradition of people in my family who had served in the armed forces. My uncle was a Lieutenant JG on PT boats in the South Pacific and served on Guadacanal. My great-grandfather was a general in the Franco-Prussian war and was in charge of all the field hospitals in 1870 and 1871. So we had a pretty good tradition."

Fred Schattenberg Fred chose to become a hospital corpsman. In addition to basic training, Fred went to the Naval Training Center in San Diego in December 1967, attending a five-month training course on how to be a hospital corspman medic. There he learned basic medicine -- how to take temperatures, blood pressure, pulse, respiration, how to change dressings, give bed baths, and basic medical terminology. "The more challenging part was when I volunteered to go to Vietnam and went to a four or five week school with the Marines at Camp Pendleton," Fred says. "It was field medical school, where you learned how to administer first aid, do triage, call for medical evacuation, do IV's for injured men, how to save the lives of men hurt in combat. You also learned how to shoot -- they had a whole arsenal of weapons. M16 rifles, Colt .45 pistols, machine guns, throwing grenades rocket launchers."

In 1969, Fred volunteered to go to Vietnam. "I was stationed at a Naval hospital in Guam, and I was bored out of my head. I figured it was something more exciting to do. Navy corpsmen and medics had a very short survival rate in Vietnam, and I figured that was where I would be needed the most. I also realized I would get a chance at special schooling, and going on R&R. A lot of the Marines who I was taking care of in the hospital said they'd had a chance to go to various places in the Pacific on R&R. I've always loved traveling. So I thought I'd have that opportunity.

"However, I didn't know the hell I was about to step into," Fred says. "Most young men don't. They see this on TV and think about the glory, and they don't see the agony and the pain, to have people around you dying, and getting hurt yourself, too."

Fred remembers vividly the day he arrived in Vietnam in August 1969. "We flew into Vietnam -- I was flying on a charter plain from Okinawa to Da Nang. I did one day of in-country processing there, and flew out the next day on a C-130 which was a two-prop, cargo/personnel/ paratrooper plane. We went from Da Nang up to Quang Tri, up in the northernmost province of Vietnam.

"We went to the battalion surgeon's office, and were given our choice of units. I chose Recon Marines, because I got specialized training related to Navy diving school, scuba school, and jump school. I was always very gung-ho -- I thought, 'Man this is what I want to do.' I felt I had a better chance of surviving with the Recon Marines unit than with the regular infantry. Most of the corpsmen chose infantry, First Battalion Marines or Third Battalion Marines. And most of them didn't come back alive.

"There were three of us who chose Recon. Of the three of us, one was killed in action, and two of us were wounded in action, so I guess you could say that at least we survived."

Some of Fred's best recollections were of going to Navy diving school in Subic Bay in the Phillippines, where he learned to scuba dive -- a sport he still enjoys. "In one of our dives in the school we saw an underwater clam that was at least three or four feet across," Fred remembers. "My diving buddy and I promised not to tell anybody else about the clam so hopefully it's still down there, eating plankton to this day."

Fred served for a year with the 3rd Recon Battalion. "We were were mainly inserted with small teams, on UH1A helicopters or CH46 helicopters. We were given a choice of carrying a Colt .45 pistol. In order to survive, I chose to carry a semi-automatic M16 rifle, smoke grenades, extra rounds, most of my regular medical kit, plus all the wonderful C-rations that they would always give you. I always carried extra C-rations or water, so when the other team members would run out of food, I'd be able to barter and trade.

Fred Schattenberg "At times when the elephant grass was too high for the helicopter to sit down on, we'd just have to jump five, six, seven feet out of the helicopter and roll correctly on the ground in order to get to our serviceman zone. Other times, in thick jungle, we'd just have to rappel out of the helicopters into the jungle or dense terrain. It was quite an experience."

As a medical corpsman, combat, death and dying were something Fred had to face every day in the field. "Everybody who goes into combat is scared and you just have to get over it," Fred says. "You have to remember your training, move forward and try to overcome your fear. If somone's wounded, you immediately go into the mode of taking care of that person and not really thinking about yourself. This is what all trained Navy corpsmen and medics do. You're trained to save as many people as possible, and do as good a job as possible.

"It's kind of a shock at first but after a while you become numb to it, you just do your job and try not to dwell on it too much. After a while of seeing your friends in Recon and people you've meet on the base be killed in action or seriously wounded, you learn not to become too close to that many people. Because it hurts very much to have friends who die -- die right in front of your eyes, or they're here one day and gone the next. So you just have to kind of deal with it. "

The typical tour of combat duty in Vietnam for Navy personnel was 12 months, and for Marine personnel was 13 months, with teams spending 7 to 10 days at a time in the bush. "We had what you call a 'short-timer's calendar,'" Fred recalls. "Every day that went by, you would cross off and look forward to the day when you'd rotate out of the country."

Fred Schattenberg

 

After being in country about a month, Fred began to develop a "sixth sense" -- visions or precognitive dreams of combat that was going to happen that night or the next day. "This was very beneficial, because it helped me know what decisions to make, medically speaking, when people got wounded. I'd tell the team leader what to expect, and we had nobody in the team that I was attached to that was killed in action. It enabled me to call in the right kind of Medevac to administer life-saving procedures. It was pretty interesting."

Fred recalls one day when his team got some unexpected media attention. "We were shot out of our LZ and had to land in a secondary area, and a reporter came up with a camera with a big CBS News 'eye' on it. It was Dan Rather," he says. "We got to be interviewed by Dan Rather for the 'CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.' The next evening back in the States, we were on the news. My mom and family got to see it, and about fell out of their chairs to see me with camouflage on, name on the bottom of the screen and paint on my face. They didn't believe it was me," Fred laughs.

In the midst of trying to help others facing suffering and death, Fred was lucky not to lose his own life. Fred remembers one particulary harrowing night: "We were in a night action and the NVA had come up on our previous site on the top of a hill and were looking for us. They had forty or fifty men, and there were only six of us. Gradually, they came down the hill to where we were and surrounded us. We exchanged gunfire and grenades, and I was wounded, along with two other Marines, by a grenade blast, with grenade shrapnel fragments. I tended to them first, then took care of myself -- one was seriously wounded, one had minor wounds.

"I called in a Priority Medevac amidst the firefight. A helicopter came to pick us up with the North Vietnamese artillery firing on us, and we barely got out by the skin of our teeth. They were just a matter of yards away. We boarded the helicopter, the NVA firing on us from the ground, and I remember knocking out a window in the helicopter and firing a fully automatic M16 out the window. When we got back to the base, the helicopter pilot complained how I ruined one of his windows. I said, 'Better the window than one of us, or your life.'"

After a brief stay in the hospital, Fred was back in combat. "I went back on duty after several days, back with the team and back on the line. If you were able to walk, fight, and do your job, you were sent right back out. "

During this time, Fred relied a lot on cards, letters, and packages from home. "Never underestimate the importance of your letters, phone calls, and in this day and time, your e-mails. Friends and family mean a great deal to one's morale when you're in a combat zone, " he says. He still remembers how painful it was when he received a "Dear John" letter from a girlfriend in California he'd been writing to. "I had one of my fellow Marines write her back and tell her I was killed in action. She was quite sorry to have written that letter."

After finishing his tour of duty in Vietnam, Fred served for a year in Okinawa as an instructor in Medical Recon School, giving lectures to fellow servicemen on first aid and medical procedures. It was a lot of responsibility for a 21-year old.

The day Fred came back to the States was a happy day for him. "We flew into Long Beach Naval Station and were processed out of Long Beach. We were there about five days, and it was just a wonderful feeling of freedom, not being shot at. I met a girl who worked at the PX. We went to the movies and the beach there, outside of L.A., Santa Monica, different places. It was quite a different feeling to be at the beach and do all the things you want to do and knowing you have all your friends and family waiting to see you when you get back to Austin."

Fred Schattenberg After celebrating his homecoming with his family, Fred immediately enrolled in college. He took some courses and St. Edward's University and got a job in the lab at Holy Cross Hospital. After going part time to St. Ed's and taking night courses at the University of Texas for a couple of years, Fred enrolled at Texas A&M University. He graduated in December 1975 with a degree in history and modern sociology. "I was very grateful to be going to school on the G.I Bill, because it provided me with an education I otherwise couldn't have afforded," Fred says. Today he is the president of IT Copy and Printing, a successful business near the UT campus in Austin.

Fred has never forgotten the suffering and loneliness that soldiers experience in the combat zone. "Always appreciate the freedoms that you have, because there are many servicemen and women who have had to sacrifice and die, become wounded, handicapped, disabled, to preserve those freedoms for you. Many of these servicemen laid their lives and fortunes on the line at a young age, to preserve those freedoms," he adds.

Fred looks back on his tour in Vietnam as an interesting and maturing experience. "I think it helped me grow up and helped me appreciate some of the finer things in life, especially the simple things," he says. "It's led me to believe that no matter how tough the situation I face, that things have always been tougher before, and that I've overcome a lot of obstacles. It's given me a continued love for my country, a sense of patriotism. I'm glad I served, and I'm glad I'm alive and I've got all my limbs and am still basically a normal person.

"It makes you think very seriously about life and the purpose of life, and how you conduct your life. You learn to enjoy life -- every moment."

 

Return to Wartime Heritage Project

Return to Austin Civil War Round Table Home Page