CHESTERTOWN — At 91, Samuel Tiller recalls the events that earned him a Bronze Star Medal with “V” Device and a Purple Heart.
Tiller, who grew up in Big Woods, served in both the Korean and Vietnam wars. In total, Tiller has 43 years of service in the United States military.
Tiller attended Garnett High School, but did not graduate. He said in an interview at the Kent County News office Thursday, Oct. 31 he opted to enlist in the United States Army in February 1946 when he was in ninth grade. He said he later got his GED through the military.
“I set my age up and got drafted. I set my age up to 18,” Tiller said. “I did 21 years and then I set my age back.”
Tiller served in the infantry during the Vietnam War, saying “that’s the one where you go out in the field and do the fighting.”
“Immediately after the companies had established a line of fire, Sergeant Tiller, without regard for his own safety, returned to the landing zone and while exposed to heavy insurgent fire, evacuated friendly casualties,” Tiller’s Bronze Star report signed by Maj. Gen. Richard Stillwell reads. “Throughout the operation, Tiller set a personal example that was an inspiration to all of those with whom he served. Sergeant Tiller’s actions were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Army, and reflect great credit upon himself and the military service.”
Tiller can recall the events from April 12-14, 1964 with vivid clarity when he performed those acts of heroism and valor. Tiller was serving as a Light Weapons Infantry Advisor to the 1st Battalion, 32nd Regiment, Army of the Republic of Vietnam.
“The day before I got wounded was on a Sunday afternoon at about 4:30 p.m. We got a call that some village had been overran and we were to go in and help them out,” Tiller said. “They brought 20 helicopters.”
According to Tiller’s Bronze Star report, the village under attack was Tan Phu. The battalion Tiller served in was “heliborned into a fully exposed rice field near the village,” the report reads.
“We were all lined up. We all got in the helicopters and took off. It was about, I’d say a 15- or 20-minute ride,” Tiller said. “Then the helicopter started coming down. There was 12 Vietnamese captains, myself, two machine gunners — one in each door. As we start coming down, the machine gunners open up with the helicopters making a lot of noise and the machine guns firing out of both doors.”
Tiller said the closer they got to the ground, the captain began giving him signals to go out the left door with the Vietnamese captains behind him. He said the group headed to the rear of the chopper, as they were taught, but did not have their bearings yet.
“The VC (Viet Cong) was in the wooded area and they started firing,” Tiller said. “So we just split up and ran across the field. It was an open field and we came to a big crater in the field. Like a ditch where a bomb or something had been and we got in there.”
At the same time, a radio operator in a fighter plane above called to tell his company they were “pinned down.” Tiller’s Bronze Star report said the company Tiller served in suffered many casualties during landing.
“The guy in the airplane, the pilot radioed back and said, ‘Mark your position.’ And the radio operator threw out a red smoke grenade,” Tiller said.
He said the grenade started to fire, with his group still seeking shelter from the fight in the crater.
“The fire started coming to where we were at. One guy was shot (through the leg) and he was crying, so I picked him up in my arms and carried him to the other end of the hole because the fire was coming around this way,” Tiller said. “And the fire got hotter, hotter and hotter so we had to get out of there.”
He said the group ran for the wood line, one after another. Tiller said he doesn’t know who carried the man who was shot, but he made it to the wood line.
He said there, things quieted down until dusk. He said they were notified a “flare ship” — or planes that drop flares and provide light — would be coming through.
“Every time they’d drop a flare, the VC would let out lots of firing,” Tiller said.
He said they called the ship asking them not to drop any more flares, to which the pilot responded with “goodnight” and left.
“Everything quieted down for that night. So the next morning the sun came up shining bright and we were saying everything was all over,” Tiller said.
Tiller said at maybe 9:30 or 10 a.m., his company decided to meet up with the second and third companies. He said they got about halfway to those companies’ location when the VC caught them.
“That’s where they put it on us,” Tiller said.
He said his company made it back to the wood line, but there were four men who were wounded trying to get back.
“So I told the captain, ‘I’m going and getting them.’ And I told him ‘give them some firepower.’ So they started shooting at the VC and I went out there and I brought those guys back one at a time,” Tiller said.
Later, Tiller said the company decided to try again and get back to the other companies, but the VC shot at them again.
“There was two guys out there wounded that couldn’t walk. I went out there and got them and brought them back. And things kind of quieted down,” Tiller said.
“Tiller exposed himself to hostile fire as he made several trips across the open field carrying the wounded to the defensive position,” the Bronze Star report reads.
At this point, he said the company had no water or food for a day. He said it was not until Tuesday when the area was quiet enough for a helicopter to come that the company got any bread or water.
He remembers his company being so thirsty and tired, they were “wasting their water.”
“They were pouring out of a five gallon can trying to pour it into a canteen and water spilling everywhere,” Tiller said. “They were wasting so much water I loaded my rifle and hollered telling everyone to get back.”
Tiller said he told the interpreters to get the men in line and pour each one a canteen cup of water.
“After it was over the major said ‘Sgt. Tiller you did a hell of a job. They were just wasting water,’” Tiller said.
Tiller also remembered being so thirsty he went to drink water he found in a ditch. Despite putting two water clarifying tablets in his bottle, he said he remembers having a gut feeling telling him not to drink the water.
When he checked the bottle, he found two live bugs in it, saying if he had some of that water he would not be here today.
On the way out with 15 to 20 men walking in front of him, Tiller said he stepped on a landmine, which landed him in the hospital for 28 days and resulted in his Purple Heart.
“That was the biggest one I saw,” Tiller said of the landmine.
Tiller said despite it all, he had more good days than bad days during his time in the military.
“But I had some rough days,” Tiller said.
Tiller worked for the Air Force for more than 20 years at an airport in New Jersey. He said his jobs ranged from clearing the runway of snow to driving officials to and from planes.
Tiller said his decision to join the infantry during Vietnam was driven by hearing what people said about combat, wanting to experience it for himself.
However he said his experiences were not like what other people said.
“War is hell,” Tiller said. “Some make it out and some don’t. I went through a lot of things in Vietnam, because I was assigned to a Vietnamese outfit. I went with them. We ate what they ate, slept where they ate and did everything they did.”
Tiller said Vietnam and Korea were like day and night calling them “two different wars.” He said because of his time in Vietnam, he still suffers from post traumatic stress disorder and has trouble sleeping.
“I tell you the honest truth I tell people now, sometimes I lay in bed and cry,” Tiller said. “You get thinking about it. How lucky I am, you know. I just can’t help myself.”