‘Divine providence' plays many roles in lives of two vets
By Sue Hadden The Record Herald

It was February 1968.

“Green Tambourine” by the Lemon Peppers was soaring to the top of the charts, Lyndon Baines Johnson was in the White House, and Barbra Streisand's “Funny Girl” was a hit at the box office.

A half a world away in the imperial city of Hue in Vietnam, two young Franklin County Marines were engaged in the fight of their lives.

It was a house-to-house, eye-to-eye, bloody and horrific fight that lasted an interminable 26 days.

And when the dust cleared, remarkably, both young men were still alive.

The Battle of Hue is not the only thing Crist Newcomer of New Franklin and Dennis Ommert of South Mountain have in common.

Mirrored lives

The lives of the two 56-year-olds have been like mirrors, with an amazing string of coincidences and perhaps a touch of divine providence linking them forever.

Two weeks ago, some 38 years after the horrific battle, the two shared yet another experience when they were honored in Jacksonville, Fla., along with about 50 other survivors of Hue.

Newcomer and Ommert were made honorary members of the USS Hue City, a Navy cruiser and the most modern missile ship afloat.

The brochure for the memorial weekend contains still another coincidence: On the front cover is a photo that appeared in Life magazine in 1968. It shows the bloodied Ommert being evacuated from the city. The back cover depicts Marines fighting for the gate in Hue where Newcomer lost his innocence ... the spot where he took his first life in battle.

Both former Marines suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. It can be treated but never cured.

The sights and sounds they witnessed ... their buddies being blown apart, the screams of friends being burned alive, the look in an opponent's eyes at the moment of death ... will be with them every day for the rest of their lives.

They are not just memories. They are experiences - experiences to be relived over and over again.

The beginning

Their story begins in 1967, when both were about to graduate from Chambersburg Area Senior High School. On the class trip, they found themselves sharing the same hotel room in Washington, D.C.

Ommert was leaving the next day for Marine boot camp, and his enthusiasm was contagious ... so contagious that Newcomer impetuously decided to follow in his footsteps. Although still just 17 and blind in his right eye, Newcomer convinced his father to sign a consent form.

With gung-ho attitudes matched only by their testosterone levels, the two were determined to prove their manhood.

Today, both admit they had absolutely no grasp of the magnitude of the decision they had made or of the horrors that waited just around the corner.

War is hell

Although Ommert went to boot camp in May 1968, and Newcomer didn't follow for six months, both were trained in the same specialty: as anti-tank rocket system operators.

Both also were attached to the same battalion: the First Battalion, Fifth Marines, First Marine Division.

And in yet another twist of fate, both found themselves at Phu Loc, a tiny dot of a place in the middle of the Vietnam jungle ... Ommert as a combat veteran and Newcomer as a green Marine fresh off a chopper.

First meeting

“I saw a guy who looked familiar, and when I looked again, I realized it was Denny,” said Newcomer, recalling his first day in the bush.

“He started kicking me in the butt because I had kept my promise to join the Marines.”

Someone snapped their picture - and they parted, destined not to meet again until both were home safely in the States.

Newcomer remembers his first weeks in Vietnam were difficult. He couldn't understand why he was being ostracized by those who had been “in country” for months before he arrived.

Later, he realized that as a “new guy,” he was poison. His fellow Marines didn't want to get to know him because tomorrow, he could be dead, one more buddy to mourn. Fresh out of boot camp, he had none of the skills he needed to survive in a real war.

He could, in a word, get somebody killed.

Just 16 days after Newcomer arrived in Vietnam, his mettle would be put to the test in one of the fiercest battles of the war.

The Battle of Hue

In the early morning hours of Jan. 31, 1968, North Vietnamese regiments invaded Hue, the ancient imperial capital and cradle of Vietnamese history and culture. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army killed thousands in the assault on the city of 140,000.

Within days, three battalions of the 5th Marines - some 2,500 Marines, including Ommert and Newcomer - were on the move, about to encounter 10,000 entrenched troops in horrific conventional warfare unmatched since World War II.

Ommert was wounded on the second day of the battle when a mortar exploded, sending shrapnel into his thigh and head.

“We were eating C rations and everybody starting running past us, away from the front lines. We went to our guns and the mortar exploded,” he remembers.

After he was evacuated, Ommert kept asking about his buddy from Franklin County.

“I tried to find him in the rear. But because he was so new, nobody knew his name. I kind of wrote him off as dead,” said Ommert, who was awarded the Purple Heart.

Newcomer was far from dead.

“We entered the battle on Feb. 12 and encountered the largest group of resistance at one of the gates to the city,” he remembers. “On the first day, we were almost annihilated.”

He recalls “tossing grenades back and forth like tossing softballs” and throwing one after another at the enemy.

One of those grenades hit the top of the gate and fell back. The reverberation sent Newcomer head over heels. He heard a man scream, and he wondered if his legs were still there. He wiggled his toes and looked down.

“I wasn't hurt. It was a miracle.”

Because the grenade had hit cobblestone, the shrapnel had gone up and not out. If the battle had been fought in the mud, Newcomer wouldn't be around to tell the tale.

The man he killed at that battle at the gate reappeared for years in his dreams.

“It was the day I lost all my innocence.”

Newcomer's memories of the following days are sketchy. “There's a lot of time I can't account for.”

All Newcomer knows is what is written on the commendation he received after the war:

“Lance Cpl. Newcomer participated in seven major combat operations,” it reads, citing his “courage and composure under fire” and his “disregard for his own safety as he maneuvered his team to advantageous positions, tirelessly training his men and molding them into an effective fighting force.”

“How he survived is a miracle,” said Ommert.

The bridge

In April, Newcomer and eight or 10 other members of his Alpha Company were assigned to bridge security over the Troi River.

An hour before sunset, Newcomer was pulled off the Troi bridge and sent to another span that needed a rocket gunner.

That was the night that Newcomer lost his “family.”

“That night, the bridge got hit. Everyone I knew was killed. I was an orphan.”

Ten years later, back in Franklin County, Newcomer and Ommert came to a stunning realization during a conversation about the war.

“We were both on the same bridge that night,” Ommert said, shaking his head in disbelief.

Through sheer coincidence, Newcomer had been assigned to guard one end of the bridge and Ommert the other.

“Through divine providence, both our lives were spared,” added Newcomer.

It bothers Newcomer that so few people know about the fierce fighting at Hue.

“We were victorious,” he said, “and the lessons learned during that battle are winning victories today.”

Marines used the same tactics and lessons learned at Hue to win the battle of Fallujah in Iraq, Newcomer noted.

“It makes me proud that the sacrifices we made in 1968 saved lives in the current war.”

The recognition

When Ommert and Newcomer returned from Vietnam 13 months after their deployment, they didn't want to talk about the war.

In truth, they didn't know how to talk about it.

Vietnam was an unpopular war, plaguing both LBJ and his successor in the White House, Richard M. Nixon.

Protesters were everywhere, and Vietnam vets were being portrayed as baby-killers ... as long-haired, dope-smoking savages.

Nixon's “peace with honor” called for U.S. troops to withdraw from Vietnam, leaving the Southeast Asian nation to the Communists.

“My country just up and quit, leaving the South Vietnamese to cope on their own. It was a travesty,” said Newcomer.

“We won the battle, but our governments - the American and South Vietnamese governments - lost the war,” he observed.

Years of depression followed their months “in country.”

While they will never be the same two young innocents who enlisted in the Marines back in 1968, the recent weekend in Jacksonville has brought a healing the two vets admit they had never expected.

“I cried when I got the invitation to attend the memorial for the battle,” said Newcomer.

“After 38 years, we were finally recognized. In a way, I think we got our pride back.”