Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

September 4, 2011

Vietnam veteran visits comrade’s grave after 43-year-long search

BLUEWELL — As he spoke with the Reverend Dr. Earl Rogers and Al Hancock, Lewis “Hoss” Hosler glanced in the direction of a photograph on top of a headstone at Oak Grove Cemetery. It was almost as though Hosler was including the photograph in the conversation.

The photograph was of SP5 Phillip Rogers, a medic in 2nd battalion, 47th Infantry, 9th Infantry Division who was killed in action on June 25, 1968, on the north bank of the Vam Co Tay River in Vietnam. It didn’t matter what story Hosler was telling — happy or sad. He kept looking at the picture of “Doc” Rogers, including him in the conversation.

At 6’3” tall, it is easy to pick Hosler, 67, out of a crowd — even in published combat photos from Vietnam. But he said he didn’t know if he could kill another human being when he first entered the military.

“I wasn’t mean,” he said. “There wasn’t a mean bone in my body. I never thought I would kill anyone. I had no bad feelings about the people of Vietnam ... still don’t. That’s the way I thought until I saw one of my buddy’s get killed. It will make you mean. It made me mean.

“You take a guy like Doc here,” Hosler said, motioning in the direction of Rogers’ grave. “He was a medic. His job was saving lives. He never carried a rifle. He always had a .45 caliber pistol on his hip, but the whole time we served together, I never saw him clean it. He never fired it that I knew of. We had run Charlie out of their position, but they left snipers behind to pick off anyone who came up to help the wounded.”

Hosler paused. He clinched his lips together tight and looked away from Rogers’ headstone for a moment. After looking back, he resumed his narrative. “That’s how Doc got hit,” he said. He paused again for a few moments. “He was going back in to help another guy who was down. That guy, Pfc. Don Ungaro, didn’t make it either.”

Even as a young man, Phillip Rogers took responsibilities seriously. “We were living in Davy and our grandparents were living up in Detroit,” Earl Rogers said. “My grandmother had become ill and my mother [Carrie Rogers] went up to Detroit to care for her. When she was gone, dad [Grant Rogers] collapsed. He died in Phillip’s arms. We were just kids and we felt so helpless. I think that’s why Phillip wanted to become a doctor.”

Phillip Rogers took on the roll of helping to raise the family while he was still in school at Kimball High School, one of McDowell County’s four, all-black high schools. He graduated in 1963.

“Our oldest sister was living in New York at that time,” Earl Rogers said. “Phillip went up there to work and he talked to a military recruiter who told him that after he finished his tour, the military would help him with school. He was a straight-A student. He wanted to be a doctor.”

“He was the best medic in our division,” Hosler said. “Doc could give shots when guys needed them, but he carried a big bag of big white tablets with him all the time too. Guys would come up to him and say they had malaria, dysentery or anything else and Doc would give them one of those big white tablets.”

Hosler said that he hurt himself while working his way through some thick jungle, and asked Rogers for something. “He gave me one of those big white tablets and I asked him what was in those pills,” Hosler said. “He leaned over and told me that they were just extra strength aspirin. There’s a whole generation of people who don’t know what it was like over there. There are so few of us left to tell the story.”

After he returned home to Brownsville, Hosler worked in the construction industry for a time, then spent several years working as a business manager, according to his wife, Marciene Hosler who made the trip with him from Brownsville to Bluefield. The ground is irregular at Oak Grove since many graves have sunk in. Marciene Hosler cautioned her husband about getting hurt, but only a little bit.

“Doc was a medic and part of his job was to write people up for medals,” Hosler said. “On May 10, 1968  we got over-run when we were fighting near the city of Cholon. I kept laying fire down on them with my .50 caliber machine gun. I was in my track and the enemy was piled up two and one-half feet deep in front of me.” He pulled up the sleeve on his shirt to reveal a scar on his left arm from his elbow to his armpit.

“They took part of my arm off, but Doc fixed me up on that,” Hosler said. He paused again and shook his head. “Doc wrote it up that Lew deserves a Silver Star for What I done that day. They gave me a Bronze Star, but that was because of what Doc wrote.”

Hosler explained that Rogers was a “short timer,” and was set to go home. “On the afternoon that Doc got killed,” Hosler said, pausing again to choke back emotions. “They brought us up a hot meal when they brought on a couple new guys. When they dropped the food, they told Doc he needed to go home, but he said he wasn’t going to leave these guys up here without a medic.”

Hosler said that the Vietcong were mounting an offensive known as Tet II. “Doc came over to my track and asked if I had seen his first aid bag,” Hosler said. “We had an old black and white TV that we used to watch in there, and I had seen his first aid bag beside it. When I got it, I told him that I had seen his first aid bag there. I told him I was concerned about him going in that day.”

“I’ve waited all these years to tell you this,” Hosler said to Rogers. Al Hancock who also served with the U.S. Air Force in the Vietnam War, came out to meet Hosler as well. Hancock was among the group of volunteers who helped clear Oak Grove Cemetery.

“Doc said: ‘Don’t worry about me Hoss. I’ve been here a long time and Charlie hasn’t gotten me yet and he’s not going to get me now.’ He went up to the wood line with the rest of the patrol and that was the last time I saw him,” Hosler said. “About 15 minutes later, all hell broke loose.” Rogers was killed by sniper fire as he was trying to put bandages on the wounds of another soldier.

“When they first contacted us, we thought it was my other brother, Alonzo Rogers who was killed,” Earl Rogers said. “He was one of 89 soldiers on board a plane that was shot down. He had been listed as missing in action for about 9 months and we thought that might have been him. He was an engineer, but everyone called him ‘Doc’ too.” Miraculously, Alonzo Rogers was one of the 10 soldiers who survived the plane crash and made it out of the jungle.

“It took them about two weeks to get Phillips’ body back here so we could bury him,” Earl Rogers said. “It seemed like it took a long time.”

Hosler, who is still getting used to walking after having both of his knees replaced, walked around Oak Grove to visit the graves of other soldiers and Marines who were killed in action in Vietnam. Hancock told a story about working at the airport in Saigon near the morgue and watching the body bags containing the remains of soldiers and Marines killed in action as they were unloaded.

“Everyone wore two dog tags, a little one and a big one,” Hosler said. “If they got killed in action, you put the big one between their teeth and the little one around their big toe.” He explained the reason was because of the severity of the combat wounds and the extent of the damage to the bodies of those who were killed in action.

“I used to go to some of the big Vietnam War veterans’ reunions like the one in Kokomo, Ind.,” Hancock said a few days after visiting with Hosler and Rogers at the cemetery. “You’d have 40,000 to 45,000 Vietnam vets telling stories the whole time. None of them got to me like the story SP5 Hosler told.

“I’ll be 74 years old on Monday, and I can’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday,” Hancock said. “But I can remember everything that happened when I was in Vietnam. I remember every minute. It’s amazing what SP5 Hosler can remember.”

“I was in Vietnam three years, 2 months and 13 days,” Hosler said. “The reason I remember that is because I counted every day.

“I was scared the whole time,” he said. “If anyone ever tells you they aren’t scared out there in combat, they’re liars.” He told a story about walking point on a patrol through some high grass when he flushed about 20 large locusts. “I opened up with my machine gun and fired off 100 rounds before my platoon leader got up to me and asked what I was shooting at,” he said. “That’s how scared you were.”

After visiting Rogers’ grave, Hosler and his wife spent the next two days visiting places in McDowell County that would have been familiar to Rogers. Marciene Hosler said she and her husband had traveled on I-77 through Mercer County a couple of years ago and even stopped and visited the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial at the West Virginia Welcome Center in Princeton.

“We walked around and looked at the counties represented, but we never thought of looking at the names to find Phillip Rogers,” she said. “Back then, we still thought he was buried somewhere in North Babylon, N.Y.” They got help from a cemetery staff person in New York, who checked on line and tracked Rogers’ grave back to the Bluefield area, and ultimately to making contact with Rev. Rogers. They made contact with Rogers on Tuesday and arrived in Bluefield on Wednesday.

Hosler gave Reverend Rogers copies of the materials he collected through the years including a copy of SP5 Rogers’ picture on the wall of honor at Fort Benning, Ga. He also gave Rogers a copy of Heith William Nolan’s book, “House to House: Playing the Enemy’s Game in Saigon, May 1968,” that makes reference to Doc Rogers in at least two places.

“That was a crazy place to grow up,” Hosler said of his time in Vietnam. “I never forgot him,” he said, struggling with his emotions again. “I never will forget Doc Rogers. I lost a great friend that day. The story’s gotta be told over and over again.”

Hosler and Gary, “Doc” Rutledge, another medic who served with Rogers, both posted their recollections of Rogers’ on the Virtual Wall. Rogers and Ungaro were two of 15 soldiers with the 9th Infantry Division who were killed in individual engagements near the Van Co Tay River on June 24-25, 1968.

—  Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com

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