Name: Frank Anthony Celano
Rank: E5/US Army Special Forces
Hometown of Record: Los Banos, Calif.
Date of Birth: 19 Jul 1949
KIA: 22 Jan 1971
Frank Anthony Celano was a sandy-haired man of medium build, plain features, and a quiet, unassuming demeanor. Frank was a guy you could talk to about serious matters--matters of the heart, current affairs, philosophy. Women would like Frank for his sensitivity. Frank would be faithful, a good father, and a hard worker. Frank had a destiny in suberbia, and we knew he'd be the first to marry, the first to settle down, and the first to have kids.
Frank and I had San Diego in common. We shared a love of the beach. We even looked alike. People recognized us as California boys. I guess we had that Beach Boy look and attitude. We became fast friends because we knew our friendship could carry on after the Army. In contemporary vernacular, we were homies.
I didn't see Frank during my first tour, but we met in my second at a SOG training camp at Long Thanh in Bien Hoa province between Saigon and Vung Tao on Jan 22, 1971. He was there attending recon team leaders school. I was there preparing for a POW snatch mission with my team--RT Montana.
We ran into each other in the mess hall. Neither knew the other was in camp. I was just finishing my meal as he entered. We sat and talked for fifteen minutes, catching up on each others lives.
Frank had a fiancee, a beautiful girl in San Diego. He showed me her picture. I told him she was hot stuff. She was a California dream girl. Frank brought the picture out to show me but looked at it longer than I did. He had no business being in SOG. I didn't either, for that matter. He knew Connie and saw her picture numerous times in Training Group, so I didn't bring it out.
I was bone tired after a grueling morning and needed a long nap. Montana had the rest of the afternoon off, because we were going out that night to work on night movement. I begged off, setting up a meeting after evening chow, several hours before we had to depart. We'd have three hours to catch up properly.
I returned to our team hooch and simply crashed on my bunk. Several choppers landed in the pad beside the hooch shortly after I laid down. The noise didn't bother me, and the breeze they sent in through the louvered slats put me to sleep.
I dozed for almost an hour when Bentley, a team mate, shook me, saying, "Get your shit. A chopper went down. We may be going in."
You have no time or inclimnation to stretch and yawn when you hear, "Get your shit!" You don't "get your shit" unless you might have to use your shit. Going in after a downed chopper was high risk. The enemy often set hasty ambushes for recovery teams. I was on the pad with the rest of Montana, checking equipment, checking ammo, chambering and extracting oiled rounds. Bentley made radio checks, and Shepard talked with a captain in contact with the airborne command and control ship. We waited.
Five minutes went by. Shepard came over and said, "Stand down. They recovered the bodies, and they're bringing them here. Put your gear up and get back right away. There's quite a few, and they're going to need our help."
I breathed a sigh of relief, but the adrenaline was still pumping. Excitement charged the atmosphere. This was war. People died. That's the breaks. The big question running through my mind was, did we get the bastard that shot down the chopper.
When I returned to the pad, the chopper was in-bound. Minutes latter, it set down and cooled us off. We ran under the whirling rotor blades and reached for body bags. Eight were stacked on the deck of this Huey. I dragged the top one off, and one of the Yards helped me pull it clear of the chopper. I pulled the heavy zipper down three feet and looked into the face of Frank Celano.
Had I seen my mother's face, I could not have been more stunned. Plain as day, the face was Frank's. Furthermore, the face was that of a dead man, eyes half open showing the white underside. Once you look into the eyes of a dead man, you don't need to check a pulse. The dead look dead. He showed no sign of injury. I saw no blood. He was just dead.
I went about checking his pockets for personal effects and removed his ring and wallet. Once again, I saw the picture of his girl, fighting hard not to slip it into my pocket. That picture was the most valuable possession Frank owned. I wanted it for that reason but placed it in the plastic bag with everything else.
He wore his dog tags. We wore them in Vietnam, but never when going across the border. The tags would insure that his body would not get mixed up with any other, and he would go down as a KIA. I removed the tag on the long neck chain, placed it between his front teeth on edge, and smacked his jaw shut. The tag on the small chain, I fixed to the zipper tang. I then zipped Frank's body and handed the captain the plastic bag with his personal items.
One bag cantained the body of the bastard who fired the B-40 rocket that brought down Frank's chopper. I stood over him for the longest time, just staring. He was an enemy hero, a lucky bastard and an unlucky one, all within the space of a minute. I felt no animosity. I didn't feel like spitting or kicking. He was just another dead hero on a PSP pad littered with dead heroes. I didn't cry or yell. My work was done. I returned to my bunk and resumed my nap.
During the evening meal, I learned the whole story. The dust had settled by then. No one had answers four hours prior. This is what happened:
Right after I walked out of the mess hall, the camp sergeant major entered and grabbed eight men he found there. He said, "Get your shit. We're going in on a downed chopper. The bird is in-bound."
The rotor wash that put me to sleep was there to pick up Frank and seven other SF men. An observation chopper, a two-man loach, had crashed and burned in dense growth thirty clicks from Long Thanh. The recovery team hovered over the wrecked craft and lowered rolled aluminum ladders down both sides. The team was climbing down the ladders when a B-40 rocket hit the front of the chopper, taking out the pilot and flight controls.
The chopper lifted rapidly, then rolled to its side, flinging the men who were clinging to the ladders. All died from the fall. Several who were in the chopper survived. In all, twelve Americans--eight SF and four aviators--died in the two crashes. One NVA body was recovered, along with his B-40 launcher and backpack.
In a letter home, I referred to the incident as a bad day at Blackrock. I referred to the eight SF men we lost. The others didn't matter, I suppose. I mentioned Frank Celano by name, but lumped him together with the others I knew personally. I read that letter recently, amazed that I could treat Frank's death that way. He was anything but "another guy I knew."
The person who suffered the greatest loss was the young woman in San Diego who, undoubtedly, married someone else. If I had just stayed in that mess hall a little longer, perhaps the man still eating would have been left. If I had been on that chopper. If I had seen the man raising the rocket launcher. If I had just kept her picture, and looked her up, and....IF?
Ifs can drive you crazy.