Editor’s Note: Throughout the week and in observance of Veterans Day, @Ford Online will spotlight stories of those who have served their country and their connection to Ford Motor Company.
LIMA, Ohio - Lima Engine Plant’s (LEP) Mike Clark has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. He’s not at all ashamed to admit that Lady Luck was watching over him during the Vietnam War. “It wasn’t skill at all,” Clark said, adding, “It was sheer luck. I was just fortunate enough to always be in the right place at the right time.”
By the time Clark got off the bus for basic training at Ft. Bragg, he was a wide-eyed, 21 year old whose only observation of Vietnam has been provided via his television set. “At the time, I thought Vietnam was all rice patties and canals, and whatever else they showed you on TV,” Clark said. “But where I went, it was all mountains. It was like the Appalachian Mountains to me.”
Clark was situated in northern I-Corp, which was the main infiltration route that the Vietnamese used to bring supplies and weapons down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Although he had received advanced infantry training before his arrival, Clark served as an indirect fire crewman and settled in with Charlie Company. He was given his orders and a rifle, “and that was about it,” Clark said.
That was May, 1970 – a lifetime ago in many aspects. For Vietnam vets, though, it can seem like only yesterday. A rainy day, a sudden and loud noise, or the sound of a helicopter overhead can quickly take a vet, at least figuratively, back to the jungle. “That’s why I pretty much live my life today. I don’t think about two days from now. I think about today,” Clark said. “You really have to work to get out of that mindset or you just become functionless. There’s nothing anyone can do about it, so you just have to go and do your thing.”
That’s exactly what Clark did.
Just two weeks after arriving in Vietnam, Clark became a part of what would ultimately become known as one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Lasting for 23 days, the battle of Fire Base Ripcord would claim the lives of 75 U.S. servicemen, and wound nearly 400 others. It would also become known as the last major ground confrontation between the United States and the North Vietnamese Army.
Fire bases, which were constructed after blowing off the top of a mountain, allowed personnel to bring in heavy artillery in support of U.S. troops. Soldiers providing security at the base would inflict whatever damage possible on the enemy. “We actually provided security for quite a few fire bases,” Clark said.
Despite facing unknown and unseen danger every day, Clark said his duties were relatively mundane at that time. “We would be up at the break of dawn and would hunt for six to eight hours up the side of the mountain,” Clark said. “We’d get to the top, dig in for the night, and start all over again the next day.”
On occasions, members of the 101st Airborne would come across enemy caches of food, but at that time, there was not a lot of direct combat. “For the most part, it was just hoping and praying you didn’t run into anybody,” he said. “I was fortunate and a perfect example of that was Fire Base Ripcord.”
“This was not a battle we won, and we actually got our ass kicked,” Clark said. “They had reopened this fire base, but what we didn’t know at the time was that the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) was forming their last push.”
Like many other vets, Clark is extremely humble about his time spent serving. “Somebody always had it worse than you,” he said. “Yeah, I guess I feared for my life every day in the same sense that everyone else did. I think everybody I was with always wondered ‘is today going to be my last day?’”
According to the United States Government’ After Action Report, FSB Ripcord took daily mortar, rifle and machinegun attacks. An explosion from a helicopter destroyed much of the artillery being housed there. “We ended up helping put this firebase on the map, and everybody had their small part in it,” Clark said, adding “the company I was with was on there for two weeks.”
Clark’s company was a swing battalion, which would take over another battalion’s area of operation to allow that battalion to come in and train. “About the first week of July is when the NVA started their push, and we ultimately ended up abandoning the fire base,” Clark said. “They had taken our company off and put in somebody else, so again, I was just in the right place at the right time.”
Even still, daily threats from sniper fire, disease, and booby traps remained a constant concern for soldiers. “It wasn’t full scale, but we took incoming from time to time depending on what their agenda was,” Clark said, adding “but there were so many little things you had to worry about. Accidents were pretty common too. There were a lot of accidents.”
When it became evident that the troops were suffering from extreme casualties, U.S. forces were ordered to evacuate the fire base, but not before the damage was done. “We didn’t win that one, that’s for sure,” Clark said.
In September of 1971, Clark came home from the war and put his time spent in Vietnam behind him. “I had to blow it off. It really didn’t affect me one way or another. It actually wasn’t until years after that I spent some time dwelling on the whole history of this thing,” he said.
Clark, however, was intent on making his own history. After spending three years in Quincy College, “I woke up one day and realized I didn’t want to sit behind a desk for the rest of my life,” he said with a laugh. A buddy got him a job as a plumber, and Clark spent years working in that capacity until he came to LEP in 1994 to work as a training coordinator and pipefitter.
“The rest, as they say, is history,” Clark said.