Lt. Frank Szczebak served briefly as platoon leader for Recon in May, 1970. He was assigned to Recon after we were already in Cambodia. As I recall we had been out on patrol near FSB North with Lt. Jenkins* as platoon leader. We were close enough that we just walked back on to the firebase. Enter a new platoon leader, a position Szczebak had been filling with Bravo Co.
Szczebak was a likeable fellow with an unusual name, but someone who took their job seriously. He took command of our rag-tag looking group while we were on North for a day or so; resting, getting some hot chow and refilling our canteens. Cleaning weapons and restocking our ammo. Showers and beer, hot or cold, were to be infrequent events in Cambodia. I don’t remember any here. I think what strikes me most about L-Tee would be I can’t recall if he ever raised his voice or cursed at all. Something unusual in the infantry to say the least. No one could say that about me! Of course, when in the field we were trying to be quiet! Make that extra quiet.
We had been guarding a bridge on Hwy 7 south of Snoul to insure the 11th ACR could get through to the city where they were engaging the NVA ( North Vietnamese Army ). We had spent an exhausting day humping in and out of an enemy bunker complex where we killed at least 6 NVA and had taken at least one casualty; Dob was wounded by a Chicom grenade, but for the most part things had been pretty quiet for Recon. That was about to change. After loading up at North and changing platoon leaders, we were sent into O rang, Cambodia to have a look around. I think the brass were wanting an assessment of the situation there. Were there any NVA or VC there? No, but there was fresh pineapple on the plants…and it was good! Seriously, there was a Cambodian Army post there, which was deserted. There was a dirt airstrip that I think was the focus of the brass at that time; could it be used to bring in supplies? Yes it could and I think it was key to where FSB David would be built.
What I wanted to say about L-Tee was even though he was not with Recon a long time it doesn’t seem that way. Our short stay in O rang was almost idyllic and seems longer in my memory than perhaps it really was. We moved out of O rang and headed into the beautiful rolling hills of Cambodia. I remember walking into a Montagnard village with L-Tee and the gang. I really had not been long in the field at this time and thought I was having a hell of a adventure. There was a small number of people in the village as I recall. One fellow with a long ponytail and loin cloth drew our attention and when questioned by the Cambode scouts he began to look suspicious. He was saying, “No VC, no VC here!”, well of course, the Ho Chi Minh trail was just over the hill. We couldn’t see it, but it was no more than 100, maybe 150 meters away.
Well, well, it looks lak des gonna be a heap o’ trouble now!
The platoon headed out of the village towards the trail. I could see a lone NVA off in the distance and below the ridge. I guess I wasn’t expecting trouble just then ( Oh really? ) and didn’t realize right away he was a soldier, not a villager. The scouts started yelling, “VC! VC!” and we fired off a few shots his way before he disappeared in the jungle. We headed down that way following the trail and set up a night position. It was this day that Stallion took his leave of the platoon and Tim Brown arrived. We had no way of knowing it at the time, of course, but Tim had less than 24 hrs to live. He was killed in a brief firefight the next morning as an “RPG squad” ( North Viets armed with rocket propelled grenades ) came down the trail to where we had set up our position. L-tee remained calm under fire and helped us through a bad situation. He was ordered to move Recon north up the trail and “reengage the enemy” as the afternoon monsoons started. The rain saved my life; near the top of the ridge I walked directly into an NVA outpost. The “guard” was wearing a pith helmet and had his head down… I guess because of the pouring rain and perhaps his mind had wandered to thoughts of his girlfriend back home or maybe it was Mama’s dumplings!
I don’t know what Tim “Salty” Brown could have thought about this, but there was about to be some serious “payback” the afternoon of May 30, 1970.
This was also L-Tee’s last day with Recon. Like everyone else in the front of the file, he was quickly emptying the 30 round mags for his M-1 Carbine. When I ran down the trail later looking for more M-60 ammo, I saw him crawling along the trail. I ran over to him to ask about ammo, then realized he had been wounded in the leg. I started to pull my field dressing out and he just waved at me to go and said, “Get the ammo!” Ok, I think he did raise his voice.
We would see him again, of course, when he was commanding officer for Echo Company back in Viet Nam. We talked at times of the events of May 30th, he said he was forever grateful to the pilots that picked him up from a hot LZ and the Recon troopers who carried him to the Medevac.
Back in the world, Lt. Szczeback signed up for the National Guard which helped pay his way through law school. He stayed in the Army for 24 years and was eventually a Judge in the U.S. bankruptcy courts in Washington, D.C.
Lt. Szczebak became seriously ill and died in 2010. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. I never saluted you in the field L-Tee. I salute you tonight.
*In hindsight, I regard Jenkins as something of a dud. I think he was simply putting in some time in the field and planning to put that on his “resume”. Just my guess. Perhaps the brass was looking to have a more aggressive or competent officer at that crucial time.
Kevin Gallagher says
Hi, Terry. My name is Kevin Gallagher, and I had the honor of serving with and under Frank for over 30 years at the Administrative Office of the US Courts (AO). The leadership qualities he exemplified while with your unit carried over throughout his career at the AO, and I was privileged to know and work with him, and to be his friend. On this, the 12th anniversary of his passing (September 18, 2010), I thought you might appreciate the following email I sent at the time to the federal judges we served:
To Frank’s many friends –
I am sure you all share in the sadness of having lost our good friend, Frank, but also in the joy of having been blessed with his presence in our lives.
Frank considered you, and the many judges and colleagues he has known over the past thirty years, as members of his family. Frank was a very humble person, with a deep sense of mission to serve his country through
service to the bankruptcy system (which he once referred to as the “emergency
relief valve for our economy.”) He would be especially proud to know that our deputy chief, Amanda Anderson, was chosen as his successor as Chief of the Bankruptcy Judges Division. She will carry on Frank’s mission and dedication to serving the people of the bankruptcy community for many years to come. You are in good hands with Amanda and the wonderful folks in our office selected by Frank and Amanda.
I have two personal observations about Frank that capture his essence as one of the nicest guys I have known, and as a person from whom I can learn much. First, Frank was always concerned about others rather than
himself. Perhaps this is best conveyed by a poem that one of his former troop members wrote in tribute to Frank several years ago. I
have attached it to this e-mail, in case you have not seen it, as well as Frank’s personal account of his experience in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Although I have known Frank for 30 years, I did not realize
until I read the poem that he selflessly saved his troops from an enemy grenade, receiving serious injuries to himself in the process. True
to form, Frank was never one to say or do anything that would promote himself.
My second observation about Frank is that he had a remarkable love for and ability to relate to young children. It was marvelous to observe him on a number of occasions playing with children as if he were one himself, and both he and they thoroughly enjoyed each other. Frank also had a special way of relating to animals, especially dogs. He and his
wife were planning to get three or four more dogs to be part of their family at their new home and acre of land in Winchester, where they moved shortly after Frank retired. The attached picture of Frank with Ed the bomb-sniffing dog from a recent Committee meeting captures the essence of Frank’s love
Frank called last Thursday, and was in good spirits. He wanted to get together with those of us left from the old gang who started work with him at the AO many years ago. It was apparent that he was thoroughly enjoying
his new life when he said, “Kev, you’re really going to love retirement!”
Although we all wish that he had many more years to enjoy and to fulfill some of the goals he set for himself in retirement (especially
to help teach adults and children to improve reading skills), it was not to be. Frank lives on, however, in our hearts. In his memory, and as he would have wanted, I would like to extend his best wishes and God’s blessings to each of you and your families.
Frank’s wife, Sharon, is understandably taking his passing very hard. If you would like to send condolences, please send them to our office at the address below, and we will send them as a package to her. A copy of the obituary from today’s Washington Post is also attached for your information. The obituary provides a link to the funeral home, where you can also post messages. I understand that we can upload pictures to the site as well. I will post pictures of Frank from the recent celebrations of his retirement for your enjoyment.
Francis “Frank” Szczebak was a little guy that made a big impact. As his Battalion RTO I was usually only a couple steps away from him most of the time. One of the things, I too remember, was his calm demeanor. Many years later we would find out that he had been transferred from a Special Forces unit to the Cav because we were going through Platoon Leaders like peaches and pound cake. They didn’t last long. Frank was all business, right down to his bloused boots and ammo belt. The day he was wounded was very challenging for all of us because of the multiple firefights and the rain. All during these engagements he maintained the leadership qualities that we had been missing since Denny MacVittie was our Platoon Leader. I am proud to have served with LT and glad to honor his memory.