Thursday, March 13, 2014
Young Men and War: Al Conetto's Vietnam
Gate 46 at Don Mueang International Airport in Bangkok reminded me of the War. It was in the airport's remote wing, far off by itself, as if no one cared about it and wanted to forget it. The same way the American people wanted to forget the War's veterans. Push them off to the side. Put them someplace where they were not seen on a continuous basis, where they were not a constant reminder of a failed undertaking. Ignore Gate 46 and maybe no one would know it was there. Ignore them and maybe they would go away.
So I arrived at Gate 46 and waited. At 10:15 a.m. we boarded the Thai Airline jet and at 10:40 a.m. it took off from the friendly confines of Bangkok for Ho Chi Minh City. I was really going to go through with this. But, at least, it would not be like the first time.
Twenty-seven years earlier I was on the troopship General Simon B. Buckner sailing from Charleston, South Carolina, through the Panama Canal to Vietnam. We were the first American Army division to be committed to the conflict. We had no idea what lay ahead.
I was with a few thousand other G.I.s, armed, cocky, and feeling in control of the situation. We had set sail on 15 August 1965 intent on winning the war by Christmas. It was an exciting adventure for most of us. We were America's finest: charter members of the new 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). We had spent the previous four weeks packing our equipment for movement and searching surplus stores in Columbus, Georgia, for individual weapons such as K-Bar knives in case we had to kill Charlie close up. We had been organized originally as the 11th Air Assault Division (TEST) at the recommendation of the Howze Board report of 20 August 1962.
The test unit was activated on 15 February 1963 at Fort Benning, Georgia. We had trained for two years just waiting for the opportunity to demonstrate our prowess. In March 1965 it was tentatively decided to convert the 11th Air Assault to a permanent component of the Army. Finally, on 1 July 1965 the 11th was officially activated as the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). On 28 July, President Lyndon Johnson announced on national television that he was sending the 1st Cav to Vietnam. That was our chance. We packed, boarded the train to Charleston, loaded on to our troopship, and headed for Southeast Asia.
Thirty days at sea had us foot soldiers eager to get off that rusting, World War II bucket of bolts and get ashore. Our only previous excitement was worrying whether an enemy submarine might try to sink us before we arrived. The fact that the North Vietnamese did not have submarines did not enter our consciousness. We were bored with the lack of meaningful activity, stuffed with too much rich food, physically out of shape, but mentally ready to go. We were foot soldiers and we wanted our feet on terra firma, now!
Forty-eight hours from the coast of Vietnam, we began preparations for a "hot" beach landing. We were ordered to take the beach with necessary force, then air assault along Highway 19 to secure it for the movement of our logistical support to the division's new base camp at An Khe. We were very aware that the French Mobile Group 100 had been destroyed by the Viet Minh on this same road on 24 June 1954. Now we were going to secure it so that our road-bound vehicles would not meet the same fate.
At 0600 on the warm, clear morning of 13 September 1965, the first elements of the 1st Cav disembarked off the coast of South Vietnam, near Qui Nhon. Similar to World War II landings, the troops maneuvered down rope ladders and into assault landing craft. Most of us carried more than fifty pounds of equipment on our backs and we were ready for anything the enemy might throw at us. The assault boats filled with their human cargo and headed for the beach. We passed the line of departure and locked and loaded our weapons. Our time was now. This was our hour, our moment. My pulse was beating one thousand times a minute. The adrenaline was flowing. I was tense, I was anxious, I was nervous. I was scared.
In what seemed an instant, the landing crafts edged up to the beach, lowered their ramps, and thousands of America's finest charged forward amid shouts, screams, curses, and anticipation. As we surged forward looking for somebody to kill, anybody to kill, we were met by General William C. Westmoreland and the United States Army band. A collective groan could be heard as we were lined up and channeled onto waiting Chinook helicopters and flown into An Khe. Highway 19 had been safeguarded, An Khe was secure, and we meekly filed in and out of Chinooks to await further orders. It was our first day in Vietnam, but none would ever be this easy again. I had not even seen a Vietnamese.
All my built up emotions dissipated in minutes. I not only expected to assault a "hot" beach, I wanted to. I wanted that brutal introduction to war. I wanted to test my courage, I wanted to prove to myself that I was capable of leadership. Instead we flew to An Khe and began to build our base camp, pulled perimeter security, acclimated to the countryside, and prepared to meet the enemy.
But for now I was on a Thai Airlines jet heading for Ho Chi Minh City. One hour and forty-five minutes after take off, the plane's tires made contact with Vietnamese earth and I was back. Unlike my first landing with a battalion, now I was alone, unarmed, apprehensive, and definitely not feeling in control. I did not have the protection of the United States Army and government behind me. I was an American citizen in a country not recognized by our government, and not authorized for visit by our citizens. An uneasiness settled in. I was alone in a Communist country ruled by my former victorious enemy.
We disembarked from the Thai Airlines jet at 12:31 p.m. January 3, 1992. I had returned after twenty-three years. As we left the plane, a bus met us for the drive to the terminal. Saigon was still hot and very sticky and humid, the way I remembered it, and the other thing that remained the same was the smell. The smell of Vietnam was unlike anything I had ever experienced before or since. I recalled it from my first two times in country, and now it returned to me in a rush. The closest description would be the smell of something rotting, of everything rotting. We clamored aboard the bus for the short ride to the terminal, and as I got off I decided to take a picture of the Tan Son Nhut airport sign. I fumbled with my camera as the rest of the passengers moved towards customs. As I focused on the sign, a uniformed Vietnamese moved towards me and signaled for me to hurry up and join the others. I was in his country. I moved quickly.
Tan Son Nhut was desolate, dilapidated and dirty. It looked like it had not seen any maintenance for twenty years. There were scores of uniformed Vietnamese, male and female, just sitting around talking while we went through customs and waited for our bags. There seemed to be more of them than us, but most of them were doing nothing. The process of entering the country was tedious and long with an endless list of forms to be completed. When that was accomplished there was a delay in getting our baggage off the aircraft and through X-ray again. Automation had not yet replaced manpower here.
While I waited for my bags I noticed a remarkable lack of activity at this facility considering it was the main hub into the southern part of Vietnam. No other aircraft landed while I was there, and no foreign airliners could be seen on the tarmac. Only a few Russian-made Air Vietnam jets lingered on the ground. The last time I had been in Tan Son Nhut was in 1965, when I was transferred from the 1st Cavalry Division to the 173rd Airborne Brigade. Then the airport bustled with American servicemen coming and going to all parts of the country, or arriving from and departing for home. American and South Vietnamese fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft were continuously taking off and landing. It was hectic. But now there was nothing. The only reminders of an American presence were some unused helicopter revetments I spotted as we were making our runway approach.
An hour and a half after landing I exited the terminal area and was met by my guide for the trip into the city and to my hotel. The drive through Saigon, or rather Ho Chi Minh City, was uneventful, yet deeply significant in a personal way. I had been here before; part of me may still be here.
The city was teeming with people, more than six million of them. Motor scooters, bicycles, and pedicabs were the major forms of transportation. And my driver constantly hit his horn to clear a way. What we would consider rude behavior, the constant blaring of a car horn, was acceptable to and expected by them. It would take some getting used to on my part.
My initial impression of Ho Chi Minh City-Saigon as we drove to the hotel was that it had certainly seen better days. There was an apparent lack of maintenance; the buildings were filthy and in bad disrepair. The outskirts of the city were dirty and in a decaying state; I wondered what the main downtown area would look like. But there was no battle damage from the city's fall in April, 1975.
I checked into my hotel, unpacked, and thought about the last few days. I had left home in California, flown 10,000 miles, crossed the International Dateline, and just like the war years had landed in another country and another culture, without any transition period. I had to stop, take note of the past seventy-two hours, and sort out my feelings and impressions.
My first response was, "It's Saigon, it's Vietnam, but it's not the Vietnam I remember." The Vietnam I remembered was a Vietnam with a jungle, a Vietnam with hills, a Vietnam with the rhythm of war, endless patrols and air assaults. I didn't remember a Vietnam with Saigon and bars and restaurants and city noises.
As night closed on Ho Chi Minh City, I sat alone in my room thinking. It was Vietnam again, and it was dark. I remembered the blackness of previous nights in a hostile countryside. In November and December 1967, in the wee hours of the morning, usually 0100 or 0200 hours, I woke my troops and got them ready to move out on a cordon and search mission somewhere in the Bong Son Plain. We moved silently in total darkness, marched for hours through wretched terrain, then circled a village located by itself somewhere in "Indian country." There were countless missions like this. They all began in the complete darkness of the early morning, involved harrowing movement through enemy territory, and centered on a village that intelligence sources determined contained the enemy. They were all the same, except one.
It was black. 0100 hours. The troops mumbled and bitched as they woke from a short, uncomfortable sleep. Equipment banging together broke the quiet, still night as they saddled up for a cordon and search operation. Thirty minutes after the wake up call, Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) moved out from its hillside encampment in the Bong Son Plain and headed towards its objective four kilometers away. Navigation in the 'Nam at night was difficult at best. The terrain was treacherous: full of marsh, swamps, rice paddies and, worst of all, booby traps. I had briefed my platoon leaders the afternoon before on this cordon and search operation, selected the lead platoon, and gave specific areas of responsibility for each segment of the assignment. We had done many of these operations in the past so minimal orders were needed to accomplish the mission. Additionally, my officers, NCOs, and enlisted men were highly professional, motivated, and knowledgeable.
The lead platoon always selected one of its best soldiers to be point man during these night operations due to the difficulties in navigation. He would be our "eyes and ears" until we got to our objective.
We moved out, single file, snaking down the hillside, each man two to three feet behind the man in front. It was not wise to lose contact after dark in Vietnam and get separated from your unit because Charlie ruled the night. Our progress was slow and most of the march towards our destination was uneventful. We moved quietly, slowly, and steadily along. The men were accustomed to this type of duty, so in many ways it was routine to them.
About 400 meters from our objective, however, in an area where the sand resembled fresh powdered snow, my point man hit booby traps. There was that muffled, sickening explosion and then the dreaded cry "Medic! Medic!" Sound seems to travel fast in the dark and I was on the radio immediately asking my lead platoon leader what had happened, what was the situation, injury report, etc. He replied that four men were down from shrapnel wounds, the severity of which were unknown. My company medic moved forward to help the injured men and I also moved forward to observe first hand the situation and determine my alternatives.
"Doc," as every company medic was called, indicated to me that although the wounds were not life threatening, they could become serious without proper and timely medical attention. I only had one decision to make even though I knew it would compromise our mission: call for a medevac and hope some crew was crazy enough to fly "blind" in the darkness. Normally pilots would guide on terrain features when flying during the day, but there were none at night, only instruments. And this was hostile country. It would take a daring team to fly in this situation, but Cav pilots were known to go the extra mile for one of their own. I radioed Battalion headquarters, informed them of my predicament, and requested DUST OFF. Sure enough, within minutes I could hear the familiar "whoop whoop" of chopper blades and the pilot was on my company frequency requesting light on the landing zone. We gathered flashlights, set security, and prepared an LZ for the Huey as close as possible to the wounded men. One of my men guided the pilot using the flashlights and in no time the bird was on the ground. It took only seconds for my troopers to carry the wounded to the chopper and for it to lift off and head for the nearest hospital unit.
Once again the advantages of being assigned to the Cav were evident: availability of rotary winged aircraft and the willingness to risk one's life for someone else in the same command. We were all 1st Cavalrymen. We all wore the black and gold horsehead patch with pride. It is doubtful that any other unit could have had those men lifted out before dawn, because no other division had a medevac unit as part of its TO&E, Tables of Organization and Equipment.
My concern now was that our position and mission had been compromised. It was necessary, therefore, to move towards the village as quickly as possible. Also, we confronted a rapidly approaching sunrise. So speed was imperative. We hastily reorganized and headed towards the village at a quickened pace. Within minutes the silence of the still, early morning was shattered again, this time by M-16 gunfire. My lead platoon had observed three Viet Cong running from our objective and fired at them. They missed all three. (We knew they were VC because anyone moving after dark was considered the enemy.)
Now it was clear we had been detected and any chance for a successful operation was deteriorating fast. But we continued on and the cordon was effectively in place just after 0600 hours. The sun had risen over the nearby hills, but we had stopped any more villagers from escaping. I radioed Battalion and informed them that three suspects had escaped, but that the cordon was now secure. It was turning out to be one rotten morning: four friendly WIAs and three escaped VC. I was not in a good mood. Frustrated and extremely pissed off would best describe my disposition.
With the cordon secure, Battalion began the morning delivery of supplies to my company. Usually this meant fresh coffee and breakfast: dehydrated eggs, bacon or sausage, and toast all served hot in mermite cans. We ate, drank and waited for the South Vietnamese National Police to arrive. They were the ones who conducted the actual questioning of the villagers and searched the village. My unit's responsibility was only to secure the cordon.
Within thirty minutes a CH-47 (Chinook) approached my position with the National Police on board. I briefed their leader as to what had happened earlier expressing my strong conviction that this was an enemy village and that these people knew something. I based these two accusations on our earlier encounter with the booby trap and the three escaping Viet Cong. As we continued to eat breakfast, the Police began to round up the villagers for government propaganda and questioning. Since the indoctrination and interrogation were always in Vietnamese, we had no idea what they said to the peasants, nor did we care. This process usually lasted a few hours, so cordon and search operations became pretty lackadaisical for us after the initial phase was completed. One half of my unit relaxed while the other half stood guard as the Police proceeded with their operation. With boots, socks, and shirts off my men soaked up the sun, read, wrote letters home, or caught up on sleep lost from the night before.
It soon became evident that the Police were meeting resistance from the villagers. This did not set well with me. I was convinced these people knew something. About mid-morning the South Vietnamese commander informed me that his unit had found nothing. I again emphasized my conviction that these villagers had information about the Viet Cong operating in the area. The villagers had to know where booby traps were because they did not detonate them, just us. Also, there was guilt by association. If Viet Cong were in the village at night, the villagers had to know about them. He indicated he understood, but that his men could not turn up anything; the villagers were not talking.
At this time, without my knowledge, one of my NCOs, PSG Mac, grabbed a Vietnamese girl and dragged her behind a thatched hut. She was about thirteen, 5 feet tall, with a cherubic face. A face of innocence. Initially, Mac was not sure of my reaction, so he kept her out of my view to do his own interrogation. Later he explained what happened.
Mac lit a Marlboro cigarette with his Zippo lighter, took a deep drag on it to get the ash hot, and asked her in pidgin English where the VC were. When she said she did not know, he burned her inner wrist with the cigarette. Again Mac asked her the VC's location, again she denied any knowledge, and again he burned her. After the third time, she volunteered the location of some Viet Cong. Mac came to me with the girl in tow. He explained what he had done and what the girl had said. I rounded up a squad of my men, a couple of National Policemen, and we headed towards the area in the village the girl had described as the enemy's hideout. As we neared the hole, the South Vietnamese began yelling to the VC urging them to give up their arms and surrender. Threats of gas, grenades, and rifle fire were used. Finally, three enemy guerrillas came out of the hole, wearing black pajamas, with their hands up, but without weapons. The high-pitched, staccato screeching of Vietnamese on both sides dominated the ensuing interrogation. The Police would shriek a question and the VC would yell back that they were only villagers and did not know anything. Then the Police would kick, punch or slap them, and the VC would scream in pain. This continued until one of the suspects finally broke. It always was only a matter of time. He would begin to talk, and eventually lead us to another hole and more Charlies. The routine process of interrogation, denial, torture, pain, breaking down, and talking continued until we had twenty-one Viet Cong suspects in our possession. I was now feeling happier. The loss of four men was easier to accept now that we had prisoners to send back to the rear. We had accomplished our mission.
Sergeant Mac was an interesting story. He came to the Cav from the 173rd Airborne Brigade by way of the 101st Airborne Division. Since I had also served in the 173rd, he told me the following story. In the fall of 1965, he was in Saigon to identify some 173rd casualties. He told his driver to park the jeep, go have a beer, and meet him back at 1600 hours. When he finished his business and his driver did not show, McDonald went looking for him in the bars on Tu Do Street. He walked into the Asia Bar and saw three Vietnamese beating his driver with bamboo poles. Mac drew his .45 caliber pistol and shot them. One of the dead turned out to be Nguyen Cao Ky's cousin. Mac's superior officer at the 173rd quickly gave him an Article 15 and shipped him out to the 101st at Phan Rang. The 173rd told the Vietnamese that Mac had been sent to the military prison at Fort Leavenworth. The 101st eventually transferred him to the 1st Cav.
Mac was a career soldier, a master parachutist who loved this war. In his mid-30s then, he was old only in experience. He was the kind we called "hardcore" or "strac," a compliment meaning tough, strong, motivated, competent, and knowledgeable. He was a true leader, the type I always wanted with me when the going got rough. He had been in country for a total of three tours, only going home for 30-day leaves between the tours. Eventually, my Battalion Commander, LTC Wilbur G. Jenkins, refused to allow Mac to extend in Vietnam for a fourth tour, and sent him home with the admonition to "Go see your wife and kids." Mac may have been a little wacky in wanting to stay for a fourth tour, but he was one great NCO and his departure left a gigantic void in my unit. I had come to rely on his advice, and I missed him.
My troops tied up, tagged, and organized the suspects for pickup and delivery to the rear while I reported to my Battalion Commander. As it worked out he was flying over my position in his command and control chopper; so as I described the operation, he could see the village and the surrounding terrain. Suddenly, as I was relaying the details of our success to him, rounds began cracking over my head. There were shouts and yelling, explosions and heavy rifle fire. My commander asked what the hell was going on, and all I could muster was, "I don't know, sir, but I will find out!" I then threw my hand mike down and rushed toward the area of action. I could hear my heart beating in my chest and I was short of breath. The adrenaline was really flowing. I shouted "Cease fire, cease fire!" In a clearing, about twenty-five yards from my previous position, I came across a dozen National Police and one of my platoons. In between them lay the bodies of five Viet Cong. From what I could piece together from my men and the Police, the VC had emerged from a spider hole directly between the two friendly units. Evidently they were attempting to escape from our cordon. They emerged firing hand-held weapons and throwing grenades. Most of the grenades were duds, and their pistols were no match for my unit's M-16s and the Policemen's carbines. All five VC died in a hail of gunfire, some with their heads blown completely off. Fortunately, none of the friendlies were injured although bullets were going everywhere.
As a fitting end to this operation I coaxed one of my men to take pictures of me kneeling among the five dead bodies. I wanted a souvenir of this operation. I urged him to hurry with the snapshots as my stomach was becoming unsettled. The stench was horrendous. The Army did not print this roll of film when I turned it in. It disappeared. I found out later that there was an unwritten rule not to print pictures of dead VC, especially if it looked like we had mutilated, tortured, disfigured, or in some way mistreated the bodies. Even then the military was concerned about our mission in Vietnam and in no way wanted to bring attention to anything resembling a massacre.
I have often thought back to this operation and have come to realize that in many ways this village and its reluctance to turn over the enemy to us epitomized the futility of the Vietnam War. We were not defenders of freedom, we were invaders. The Vietnamese peasant did not welcome us just because we were Americans. The only ones who did were the bar girls on Tu Do Street and the politicians whose offices we safeguarded. The peasants did not trust us or the ARVN because once we left the area Charlie was in charge again. They probably did not trust Charlie either, but he had a greater hold on them because of his constant presence.
I have also thought about Mac's mistreatment of that girl and, how I as a commander, could have condoned it or overlooked it. Obviously, SGT Mac was not sure how I would react because he did the torture out of my sight. The more I thought about it the more I realized that I wanted satisfaction from that village for the earlier loss of four men. I wanted revenge, and if it was necessary to torture civilians to obtain that end, then so be it. I felt nothing for that little girl, nothing. Today I find curious my absence of emotion. Although I had a daughter at home, I made no connection between the two and the plight of one Vietnamese teenager was unimportant in the war. She was not a human, just an object. An object just like the enemy. I had lost four men and it was necessary to make up for that. Only killing and capturing the enemy was important to me. If a few Vietnamese civilians became casualties because of my desire to kill the enemy, then that was the way it would have to be.
Once a soldier makes the enemy human, he is finished as part of a killing machine. We were taught at the Infantry School at Fort Benning that the mission of the infantry is "...to close with the enemy and kill or capture him." The enemy is an object to be destroyed, not a human to be loved. So, I had absorbed that lesson, that basic rule, without realizing that just as I made others less than human, so did my men and I become less than human, too. Perhaps that is the saddest fact of war. Perhaps that is what makes war possible.
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After I decided to make the trip back to Vietnam, I listed the areas I most wanted to see: An Khe, Bong Son, War Zone D, the Iron Triangle. But, the most important was Bien Hoa, the former home of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the area of many of my most vivid memories: Bien Hoa and specifically Camp Ray, our Battalion base camp. Bien Hoa, some 30 kilometers northeast of Saigon, had been the site of a major American air base, and the 173rd had occupied a portion of its northwest perimeter. It was the center of my universe for only a few months in 1965 and 1966, but those were intense months: forays into the Iron Triangle, War Zone D, and Xuan Loc. We had made contact with and killed many enemy soldiers in that time. The biggest battle of my combat experience, as it turned out, was fought while I was assigned to the 173rd in Bien Hoa: Operation HUMP.
I arrived in Bien Hoa on 6 October 1965 at 1700 hours, and reported into Company A, 1st Battalion (Airborne) 503rd Infantry, by 1800. CPT Walter B. Daniel, aka Diesel Stamp 6, was my new company commander. CPT Daniel was born in Kingsport, Tennessee and had enlisted in the Army in 1955. An Airborne Ranger, he graduated from Infantry OCS in 1960. Although only 3 years older than me, he wore Master Jump Wings and already had 10 years Army experience.
I had been transferred to the 173rd from the 1st Cav as part of a new policy called the Officer Infusion Program. Although I was proud to be a charter member of the Cav, now I was with the Army's most elite unit: the airborne. The airborne! Silver jump wings, glider patches, bloused corcoran jump boots. Three weeks of intense training at Fort Benning. $100/month jump pay for officers, $55 for enlisted men. [I guess officers were considered twice as important as enlisted men and NCOs.] Bastogne, Normandy, Corregidor; the 82nd, the 101st, the 187th. James Gavin, Maxwell Taylor, William Westmoreland. The airborne's history was riddled with familiar names and glory. And, now I was part of it.
But, it wasn't just the uniform, jump school or famous names that made the airborne. It was more than that. It was volunteers. It was a mind set that allowed a normal human being to jump from a perfectly safe aircraft at 1500 feet into hostile territory. It was pride; in one's unit, in oneself. It was dedication; to succeed, to be the best. It was camaraderie. Paratroopers took care of each other; it was knowing that the wounded and killed in action would NEVER be left on the battlefield. Like all elite units, the airborne accounted for ALL its men. It was an attitude; that airborne troopers were better. It was a drive to perfection. It was all of these that led to the heroic defense at Bastogne, the jump behind enemy lines at Normandy, and the airborne assault to free the Phillipines at Corregidor. It was all that that made my chest swell with pride. It was the airborne, all the way! Everyone else was a "leg."
The 173rd had been activated on 25 June 1963 and assigned to the Ryukyan Islands with an authorized strength of 3530 officers and men. Its organic units were the 1st and 2nd Battalions (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment; Company D, 16th Armor; 3rd Battalion, 319th Artillery; 173rd Engineer Company; 173rd Support Battalion; and Troop E, 17th Cavalry. Brigadier General Ellis W. Williamson was Brigade Commander.
Its mission was to be the Army's response force for the western Pacific theater: to quickly drop onto an objective by parachute and hold it until reinforced by a larger force. To meet that mission the Brigade conducted extensive airborne, guerrilla, and jungle warfare training in Okinawa, Taiwan, Korea, and Thailand. It had received the nickname "Sky Soldiers," or "Tien Bing," from its many airborne exercises conducted in Taiwan. By the end of 1963 more than 10,719 parachute jumps had been made and six field exercises conducted.
As a result of BG Williamson's tireless efforts, the 173rd quickly established itself as one of the finest units in the United States Army. Morale was so high that the brigade often achieved a 100% reenlistment rate, an unheard of achievement. Officers selected to attend career enhancing courses in the United States sometimes turned them down in order to remain with the brigade. This practice became so prevalent that Williamson had to promise those officers that he would make room for them in the brigade when they completed their stateside courses.
By 1964 the units within the brigade were trained, tested and operationally ready. For the remainder of the year the brigade conducted varied and diversified training, most of it based on previously formulated contingency plans. The Sky Soldiers conducted 26,339 parachute jumps that year proving they were "airborne, all the way." In addition to its airborne training, the brigade constantly and continuously worked on airmobile tactics, developing and refining the new concept of vertical envelopment by helicopter.
Early on the morning of 25 April 1965, BG Williamson, his S-3, S-4, and aide arrived at Ton Son Nhut airport outside of Saigon. He had been summoned by GEN William C. Westmoreland, MACV commander. Williamson's trip to Saigon was in response to a top-secret message received at his headquarters the previous day. GEN Westmoreland had requested deployment of the 173rd to Vietnam and Department of the Army had ordered the unit to prepare for movement.
At MACV, Westmoreland outlined his plan for the 173rd. With the expansion of Operation Rolling Thunder, a program of measured and limited air action against North Vietnam, Westmoreland was concerned about the ability of the ARVN to provide adequate security for the American Air Force bases supporting the raids. Also, the introduction of U.S. Army units in country to provide base security would free those ARVN units currently providing security to perform offensive operations against the enemy.
In addition, Westmoreland revealed to Williamson that several American divisions were scheduled to arrive in South Vietnam within a few months. Thus, the 173rd would also have the mission to clear the enemy from the proposed base camp sites. Westmoreland stated that the Brigade's deployment to Vietnam would be temporary, no more than 60 days.
General Williamson spent the next three days visiting the air bases that the Brigade would be guarding, meeting with a variety of American military advisors, as well as key ARVN commanders, and formulating plans for the Brigade's deployment. Preparing for the unit's mission in Vietnam would involve a tremendous amount of work, but Williamson had a history of overcoming difficult obstacles.
General Williamson was born and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina. His goal, as a teenager, was to play the trombone in a swing band. To gain some practical experience, Williamson joined the North Carolina National Guard in 1935 as a bandsman. He would spend ten years with the regiment rising from private to lieutenant colonel; the regimental commander.
Just before World War II, Williamson's unit was called to active duty as part of the massive American military buildup. The unit became part of the 120th Infantry Regiment, 30th Infantry Division. His natural talent and ability to motivate others impressed his superiors and in early 1941 he was given a direct commission to 2LT.
The 30th trained for three years in the States before debarking for Europe in February 1944. The division entered France through Omaha Beach in Normandy on 10 June 1944; four days after D-Day. It received its baptism of fire during the struggle to capture St.-L“ and then participated in Operation Cobra, the massive Allied breakout from the Normandy beachhead. The 30th chased the fleeing German army across France and entered Belgium in early September. Williamson was now a company commander and his unit was part of the bloody struggle to capture Aachen, the German town anchoring the formidable West Wall defensive barrier along the Belgian border.
Aachen finally fell on 16 October 1944 and Williamson and the 120th Infantry pushed into Germany; remaining until mid-December. When Adolph Hitler launched his last desperate offensive into the Ardennes the 30th was sent to plug the weak American defensive line. It fought from 17 December to 26 January clearing the Malm‚dy-Stavelot area of Germans.
At the end of the Battle of the Bulge, Williamson was a major and regimental executive officer. He kept that post as the 30th charged across north central Germany, capturing Hameln on 7 April 1945 and taking positions forty miles from Berlin along the Elbe River. The 30th remained there when the war in Europe ended on 8 May 1945.
Soon after the armistice, Williamson was promoted to lieutenant colonel and given command of the 120th Infantry Regiment. Convinced that the Army was his true calling, Williamson applied for and received a regular Army commission.
He saw combat in Korea; making the famed Inchon landing in September 1950 as Assistant G-3 for GEN Douglas MacArthur's X Corps. His superior performance during the "forgotten war" led to his promotion to full colonel.
A Pentagon tour followed Korea, and here Williamson was a key staff member during the planning stages for the new aforementioned airmobile concept which led to the activation of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). The Army made several alterations to the Howze board recommendations, recognizing the need for an airborne unit in the Pacific to fulfill the mission of a theater quick-reaction force. COL Williamson was unanimously selected to command the new airborne brigade.
On 5 May 1965, the 173rd became the first American Army ground combat unit assigned to Vietnam. Its initial missions were to protect the Bien Hoa airfield and the Vung Tau seaport, to keep the enemy off balance until more American units arrived, to assist the ARVN, to protect the entry of American units in country and orient them, and to open up and pacify the countryside. One battalion was assigned to Bien Hoa and one to Vung Tau in order to accomplish the first mission. By early June, however, the Brigade was back together and incorporated the crack 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment to bring it up to its TO&E strength. It would now train for offensive operations.
PFC Juan Jaime, from Humacao, Puerto Rico, was 18 years old and assigned to Company C, 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry. He remembered the brigade being composed of many different ethnic backgrounds: Filipinos, Guamanians, Mexicans, Irish, Puerto Ricans, Blacks, Hillbillies, Italians and American Indians. It was a strange mixture, but one that would be common place in this war.
After initially conducting movements around Bien Hoa and Vung Tau, the Brigade expanded its area of operations to War Zone D, Phuoc Tay, Pleiku-Kontum, Ben Cat (Iron Triangle), Phuoc Vinh, Di An, Phu Loc, and Phu Loi. All were preludes to the first major unit engagement of the war between the American Army and the Viet Cong. It would take place in War Zone D.
Brigadier General Williamson, named the operation HUMP (OPORD 28-65) to signify the halfway point in the twelve-month tour for members of the Brigade. The unit had deployed to Vietnam on 5 May 1965 and HUMP would begin on 5 November.
War Zone D was named by the French in 1950 and was located due north of the Bien Hoa Air Base. The zone, some 60 kilometers (37 miles) wide and some 35 kilometers (22 miles) deep had belonged to the Viet Minh since the early days of the French Indochina War and subsequently was controlled by the Viet Cong. It was predominately jungle terrain bounded by rice paddies and small villages near the banks of the Dong Nai and Song Be rivers. For the most part, the South Vietnamese government and military failed to challenge the Viet Cong for its control.
In 1965 War Zone D was home to the 9th VC Division and its three main force regiments: 271st VC Infantry, aka Q761; 272nd VC Infantry, aka Q762; and 273rd VC Infantry, aka Q763. This division was the first Communist main force division fielded entirely in the South under COSVN in September 1965. It origins could be traced back to two battalions organized from "regroupees" in 1961. Each of the 9th's regiments was structured with three main force battalions and each of its battalions consisted of three main force companies. Elements of the 9th faced the 173rd in War Zone D in late June (OPORD 16-65) and early July (OPORD 17-65). For the most part the Viet Cong refused to fight and avoided contact whenever possible.
The 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry and 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment would air assault into War Zone D and search for the Viet Cong's Q762 Regiment and D.800 Battalion (an independent VC main force battalion) rumored operating in the area. The 1/503 would search north of the Dong Nai and west of the Song Be while the 1/RAR would search east and south of the two rivers. The Brigade S-2 estimated that the enemy could mass up to 8500 men within 48 hours. Their armaments reportedly included 81mm and 82mm mortars, 57mm and 75mm recoilless rifles, and .50 caliber and .30 caliber machine guns. The 2/503rd would remain at Bien Hoa.
Brigade Staff Journals recorded the following.
0530 E/17 Cav departed base area.
0540 E/17 Cav CP 1 at 0538.
0547 E/17 Cav CP 2.
0554 E/17 Cav CP 3 at 0550.
0600 3/319 reports 1st march unit SP.
0618 3/319 CP 1.
0619 All elements 3/319 crossed SP.
0635 3/319 Arty CP 2.
0650 3/319 Arty (D/16) at RP.
0709 3/319 Arty closed RP.
Early in the morning of 5 November the 3rd Battalion (Airborne), 319th Artillery, protected by Troop E, 17th Cavalry and Company D, 16th Armor moved by convoy to Position Ace, a few kilometers southwest of the operational area. The artillery registered its batteries in preparation for the helicopter assaults to begin later that morning.
0720 CG announces 30 min. delay.
0745 XO informs of 1 1/2 hour delay for weather.
The 1/RAR's scheduled air assault at 0800 hours on LZ Queen was delayed by heavy ground fog.
0825 FSCC informs DO that alt LZ will be used.
0830 XO reports opn. a go on new schedule.
0845 XO reports Tac Air Prep on Jack commencing.
0915 Arty prep commenced.
0917 1st lift off at Snakepit.
0927 Arty prep completed.
0930 1st element 1st lift on LZ.
0936 1st lift completed.
0955 1st element 2nd lift down.
1001 2nd lift completed.
1014 1st element 3rd lift on LZ.
1015 1/RAR reports neg contact all elements on LZ Jack. Phase II in progress.
1021 1/RAR lift complete.
Finally at 1021 the Australians completed the assault on alternate LZ Jack with no opposition.
1130 1/503 elements moving to Snakepit.
1200 Air strikes on King in progress.
1230 Arty prep commencing.
1237 1st element 1st lift off from Snakepit.
1240 Arty prep complete.
1245 1st element 1st lift down.
1250 1st lift 1/503 on LZ.
1307 1st element 2nd lift on LZ.
1313 2nd lift 1/503 on LZ.
1330 1st element 3rd lift on LZ.
1335 1/503 reports choppers receiving heavy SA fire west of LZ YT122245 during landing.
1335 1/503 landing complete.
At 1245 hours on D Day, the 1/503rd air assaulted into War Zone D near the intersection of two rivers, the Song Be and the Song Dong Nai. The LZ had been heavily saturated by intense artillery and helicopter gunship fire. We boarded UH-1D transport helicopters at the "Snake Pit," the Brigade's assembly area, for movement to the LZ. Prior to landing the troop ships received some ground fire but by 1335 the
battalion was on the ground at LZ King with no ground opposition and began sweeping north-northwest with the Song Be to our east and the Song Dong Nai to the south. The terrain initially consisted of low paddies, but as the units
moved, small hill masses came into view. These hills seldom
exceeded seventy feet. The vegetation on the LZ was tall
grass and reeds that stood six to ten feet high. As the units progressed, the terrain became semi-jungle with thick undergrowth near stream beds. The first layer of canopy was thick reaching a height of forty to fifty feet; the second
was 250 feet high.
The paratroopers were over packed: 100 rounds of 7.62 ammo for the machine guns, one mortar round, more than 800 rounds of .223 M-16 ammo, 4 grenades, one bar of C-4, 3 C-ration meals and one poncho. All told more than 70 pounds of equipment on the young soldiers' backs.
We spent the rest of the day sweeping the immediate area around the LZ encountering only light sniper fire. Walt Disney nature photographer and noted outdoorsman, Chuck Keen, was on the operation with the 1/503rd. He remarked that "...until now he would have called anyone a dam [sic] liar that told him it would take most of the day to cover 800 meters in any kind of terrain. But there we were, just 800 meters from where we landed and preparing to secure the perimeter for the night."
1515 1/503 locations: CP YT143284, A Co YT139281, B Co YT141281, C Co YT141278.
The Aussies swept south and east. Both units encountered jungle with "wait-a-minute" vines. These vines grow vertically as well as horizontally and invariably caught on pieces of equipment as we bent to go underneath them. They hooked onto almost anything; and as you moved forward, they restrained you then jerked you back. In other words, two steps forward, one step back. The point man in each unit used a machete to cut a path through the jungle, but he could not get all the vines. So for the rest of us it was two steps forward, one step back; two steps forward, one step back. Men cursed as the vines dragged them back, and it echoed up and down the column. Progress was very slow. The heat and humidity were oppressive. Sunlight seldom speared through the canopy, so the moisture never evaporated; the ground remained wet and soggy and the humidity high. Fighting 90-100 degree heat was one thing, but 90-100 per cent humidity was another. Sweat quickly soaked through our uniforms, burned our eyes, and dehydrated us. Water became a precious commodity. The jungle has never been a pleasant place for American soldiers with 50-70 pounds of equipment on their backs and steel pots on their heads. And it never will be.
Chaplain James Hutchens from Indianapolis, Indiana, recalled that the "...jungle canopy overhead gave some relief from the burning sun, but still we marched through steaming humidity in clothes that were drenched with sweat almost as soon as we began. Burning thirst gave our mouths a coating like chalky glue. Each man carried at least two quarts of water and some had three or four. It was imperative that fresh water be supplied every day. The cool mud of swamps and marshes was a welcome sensation to our tired, burning feet.
"An added peril were the legions of leeches which found their way to any open flesh, and every low hanging branch had its own army of biting, stinging red ants which invariably found their way down the backs of our necks if we even brushed against a tree."
1720 1/503 reports loc sta A,B,C on obj #1 YT134288.
2400 All units neg sit rep.
On D+1, 6 November, we continued our north-northwest movement with platoon-sized patrols operating out of company patrol bases. We made only light contact.
0650 1/503 observed 9 people across the river, 5 female, 4 male, do not appear to have weapons.
0910 1/503 sit rep: B Co found VC water point at 135295. Loc sta: A Co-138294, B Co-129291, C Co-126288, Bn CP-144290.
1030 1/503 operating in sectors A1, B1, C1.
1115 B Co 1/503 used cry baby on VC tunnels at YT135307. No enemy personnel.
1120 1/503 reports co base locations remain same. Patrols operating N and west.
1700 1/503 reports all units except Recon platoon closed into Obj #1 vicinity.
1710 1/503 reports will move to obj 2 tomorrow.
PFC John "Dutch" Holland, of Nicoma Park, Oklahoma, was with Bravo Company. "We patrolled for a couple of days with no enemy contact at all. At nights we'd sit into defensive perimeters with half on full alert while the other half slept. This kind of routine will quickly wear down the best of soldiers because we stayed on edge expecting to fight the enemy instead of the difficult elements presented by this unforgiving terrain."
Battalion Commander, LTC John E, Tyler from Winona, Mississippi, had just turned 40 years old on 4 November. He was short, wiry and tough; but was taller than most when he stood on his heart and courage. He reported that the "...operation proceeded smoothly with little or no enemy contact. We frequently employed small arms fire and artillery fires to 'feel out' suspicious areas in a reconnaissance by fire role. This was standard 173rd procedure which prescribed that we use firepower rather than fatigue jackets to rout the enemy from his hiding places. The nights of 5 and 6 November passed with no contact other than minor brushes with enemy forces of no significance.
This was only my second operation in country and already I was bored with the constant searching for the enemy with no contact. My mind became numb and I became unfocused. I found myself drifting to other times and other places. This was dangerous. I was not prepared for contact, to react decisively, to do my job. I had to kick myself in the ass. I needed to remember where I was and what I was doing and that lives hung in the balance with my decisions.
0735 1/503 rpts all elements moving.
0900 1/503 rpts loc: A Co-135300, B Co-129305, C Co-126298.
0955 1/503 found tunnels at YT140301. Destroying them now.
1100 1/503 rpt loc: A Co-117309, B Co-116305, C Co-112307.
1240 1/503 reports all elements closed obj 2.
1513 A/C received ground fire NE of obj 2.
After the order for Operation HUMP was issued, but shortly before the air assault began, the Brigade's Radio Research Unit held a special briefing with the Battalion Commander, the three Company Commanders, and the Battalion S-2 and S-3. They were told that if they received the code words "Sour Apple" followed by map grid coordinates, that area was to be reconnoitered and findings reported. American forces had used radio direction finding equipment to locate enemy command and control sites in War Zone D. "Sour Apple" meant that such a site had been found and Brigade wanted to know what was there. This information was not to be disseminated below the company commander level.
We neared the base of Hill 65 in the late afternoon of the 7th, (D+2), although we had been drained by the humidity, slowed by the terrain, and frustrated by the vines. We set up base camp just east of the hill in a dense jungle with a wide former logging road, equivalent to the size of an American two-lane street, running north-south through the eastern portion of the perimeter. The road would play a significant role later.
Bravo and Charlie Companies secured defensive positions north and west of the road and Alpha Company deployed east of it. We hooked up with Bravo to the north and Charlie to the south.
As we set up our defensive perimeter, Brigade encrypted and transmitted "Sour Apple" to Battalion. With little daylight remaining, LTC Tyler initiated recon patrols from B and C. They found nothing, however, C Company Commander, Captain Henry Tucker reported hearing chickens cackling to his north. Not much attention was paid to CPT Tucker's report. Who ever heard of chickens in the jungle?
1815 1/503 repts patrol cleared area of Sour Apple and returning to base position. Sour Apple will be taken under fire tonight. A patrol will check area at first light.
Platoon patrols from each company would be dispatched the next morning to find and fix the Viet Cong position.
PFC Juan Jaime recalled that night. "During the night of the 7th, we saw some lights, maybe flashlights or torches, and we passed the word, there was to be no smoking or any lights on and complete silence. The night passed quietly."
With little contact during the operation's first two days, GEN Westmoreland requested that BG Williamson fly to Saigon to help brief some VIPs from the States; two governors and several U.S. senators and congressmen. Only 30 minutes from Saigon, BG Williamson turned command over to his deputy and flew there. He would be gone about four hours and would be unaware for some time of the developments to soon take place.
8 NOVEMBER 1965
A translated Viet Cong newspaper article written 30 November 1965 stated:
"At 0530 on 8th November, we received orders to attack a large force of Americans...Our fiery lads were hungrily searching for the few enemy reaction force battalions left. HQ said this time we would clash head on with US combat troops, an entire airborne brigade of the Johnson-MacNamara gang. On learning we were to hit the Americans, we were enthusiastic, as for a long time we had wanted to match our strength with the Americans, to see what 'spirit' they possessed. What made for our stomach's strength [translator note: courage] and belief in individual strength was the entire unit's resolution to hold the battlefield to the last moment. The political officers exhorted us to remember the compatriots and comrades slaughtered in North and South Vietnam by the Americans. Our wish to come to grips with the Americans rose higher."
0800 1/503 repts receiving .30 & .50 cal fire vic village at YT106309.
At first light, D+3, platoon-sized patrols from each company moved out to search for the enemy. My platoon, with the rest of Alpha Company, was facing almost due east. Alpha Company as a whole went towards the Song Be River. Bravo, led by CPT Lowell Bittrich, sent patrols to the north and northeast. Before they moved out, however, a strange thing happened. Tom Marrinan was a medic assigned to Bravo Company. Early in the morning, he checked his pack and medical kit and reported to CPT Bittrich. Bittrich said, "Hey Doc, we won't need you here today. We're just going up a hundred." Marrinan was shocked as Bittrich normally was on his case to keep busy.
Charlie sent patrols to the west and northwest. Charlie Company made contact first. At 0800 2LT Sam Russ and his 1st platoon found a primitive Viet Cong village. He split his unit in half with one searching to the left, one to the right. His point man, PFC Julius House, began checking a clothes line. An NCO hollered to him to watch out for booby traps, and then 2LT Russ ordered the unit to join up again. SSG Andrew Matosky, a squad leader, then saw 10-15 enemy soldiers coming down a trail towards his position. They were talking and carrying weapons, but didn't see him. He fired and got most of them on the first burst. PFC House was then hit in the arm by enemy fire. Matosky fired the first shot of the battle; House received the first wound. The whole front then opened up with small arms, machine gun fire and grenades.
About the same time, approximately one hundred yards beyond the point reached by the patrol the previous night, 1LT Ben Waller and his 2nd platoon came across a similar camp set up. Waller ordered an immediate search of the area and found it was deserted, "...but only recently for there was warm rice on the tables and hot coals from a fire someone had tried to smother". He then moved his unit "forty more yards into the jungle when the whole earth seemed to erupt furiously" in front of them. Claymore mines exploded all around the platoon, and interlocking machine gun fire rained down with deadly accuracy. Young men, who only seconds before had been strong and daring, now lay lifeless, their bodies torn apart, forever lost to this world. 1LT Waller's platoon was on Hill 65. Waller and Russ were effectively pinned down, with Waller's unit surrounded.
Chaplain Hutchens was with Waller's platoon. He recalled that the contact happened with nerve-shattering speed. There was no time for thinking or philosophizing. 2nd Platoon's existence was now a matter of reaction by instinct. Indecision or hesitation meant death.
Every man still standing made a dive for cover and began to return fire. Chaplain Hutchens, recovering from the initial shock of the contact, began to see what had happened. The point man was killed instantly. Next in line, the Vietnamese dog handler and his dog were unscathed. 1LT Waller had been hit in the right shoulder and left wrist. Right behind him, his RTO's right thigh had been shattered by a .50 caliber round. Hutchens was next and not hit. But, behind him an engineer had both legs broken by machine gun rounds. The twelve men in the left file had been hit hardest as they were closer to the enemy. The right file, although not hit as hard, had 50% casualties.
"We calmly let them come to within 20 metres before opening fire, to be sure of a hit. This group of 'rice flower dandies' decided that they were not brave enough to close with the Liberation Forces positions. We had not encountered an entirely American unit before, though we had put scores of American advisers to flight. 7 Section commander looked at me and said, 'They are as big and as slow moving as buffalo. They crawl along with their behinds stuck up in the air, taking routes that make them good targets, and always move on old tracks.' Each time they came in groups of 7 or 8 against we three. They were crying and yelling wildly, and at first this was strange to our ears...After we listened carefully and heard them crawling around, yelling and bellowing like cattle, we all couldn't help smiling. You can see their feeble spirit-how can this red-faced scoundrel Johnson stand against us?"
PSG Rick Salas, 2nd platoon, saw bullets flying all over the place; he didn't know where they were coming from. Salas had made it to the top of Hill 65 with a machine gunner and his assistant. The artillery recon sergeant had gone back down the hill and left his radio. When friendly artillery was fired on the hill the machine gunner and assistant were killed. Salas was able to call off the artillery, but spent the next nine hours on that hill separated from the rest of the company. He finally was able to roll down it when friendlies began firing uphill at him.
1LT Waller now commanded his platoon to pull back and set up a defensive perimeter. He also ordered his artillery forward observer to request fire support ASAP. Chaplain Hutchens then helped drag the platoon RTO back, and with the medics pulled the wounded engineer back into the small perimeter.
At the Battalion Patrol Base, LTC Tyler recalled that "...normally when enemy contact was first made there was a gradual increase in the sound and intensity of the engagement that progressed from the sound of individual gunfire to an ever increasing crescendo of sound as soldiers on both sides joined the firefight. Such was not the case that morning though for there was an immediate thunder of sound that echoed through the jungle of both friendly and enemy fire...Both sides responded with heavy gunfire and heavy casualties were sustained on both sides from the first few minutes of the encounter.
0845 1/503 rpts 15 walking wounded. No LZ available. Will call for "dustoff" later.
CPT Tucker was at the company CP when the call came. The platoon leader's voice crackled excitedly over the radio..."We found 'em...lots of 'em...they've got fifties...we're taking casualties."
Tucker listened a moment longer. Machine gun staccato drowned out the platoon leader's voice. He depressed his hand mike and spoke loud and clear: "Okay, 2nd platoon is on your left. They'll move over and help you."
Time stopped. Mortars and .50s spoke in concert. The radio crackled again. Second platoon had been hit too, unable to move.
CPT Tucker spoke as the rest of C Company moved. "Okay, I'm on the way. Pull your boys back to the left. Join us as we move up to 2nd platoon." Tucker and the rest of C Company were already moving forward on the double as he spoke.
PFC Juan Jaime was with 3rd platoon at C Company's command post as the reserve. He was making hot chocolate in his canteen using C-4 for fuel when he "...heard a few rounds pop, followed by a few more and then all hell broke loose. Mortar rounds, machine gun fire and what seemed to be whistles blowing for a drill." The word came down to Jaime and the rest of 3rd platoon to get ready, leave all the heavy stuff, bring only water and ammo; they were going to help out the rest of the company. He saw tracer rounds going up the side of Hill 65 and recalled saying, "I hope these guys don't kill them all and leave some for us to shoot at." Jaime could make out M79 rounds being fired and also the slow "tat, tat, tat" of the powerful AK47. The intensity of the firepower told him that there were more of them than us.
With his entire company committed, Tucker attempted to join up his platoons. He would be unsuccessful and his unit would end up split into four elements, unable to link up with each other.
Jaime's platoon led by PSG George Hino, a Japanese-Hawaiian, was hurrying down a small opening when he saw a wounded RTO telling CPT Tucker that if he was planning on going up that hill he was crazy; there had to be at least an enemy battalion up there. The medic was called to patch him up and the platoon moved on. Jaime was frightened and hot. "I could smell the gunpowder of all the rounds fired and a strong smell of torn leaves, broken branches and morning dew. Our first sergeant was screaming at us to hurry up and get up the hill; he was already wounded. Then I was really scared!" Midway up Hill 65 Jaime saw the company interpreter, Ahn, lying lifeless with his head split open like a watermelon. He also saw a number of small bushes running around. He began firing. Scared, he crawled behind a tree and began to dig his body into the dirt as best he could. PSG Hino was walking around, cooly drawing enemy fire. It looked like a walk in the park to him. Hino's bravery calmed Jaime and he began to take the enemy under fire. Receiving sniper fire from above, he engaged what looked like a big nest in the treetops, but nothing came down.
"The fire fight became more and more fierce, men were screaming with pain, our boys were getting hit from all over." Jaime took an enemy machine gun under fire, but a grenade exploded near by and all at once he was dazed, he couldn't see or hear. SP5 Lawrence Joel, C Company's medic, came over, talked to him, calmed him down and Jaime began blasting away at anything and everything that moved. Although the fight had been going on for sometime, it was still early in the morning. As it seemed to ease up, Jaime noticed that he was alone. Then artillery began landing on the hill above him; was it enemy or friendly? He didn't have time to decide, he was still firing at the small trees running every where around the hill.
At the sound of gunfire, shortly after 0815, CPT Bittrich took three actions: First, he ordered all platoons to halt and hold their positions; Second, he told them to prepare to move out in direction of the fire; And third, he notified battalion that he had stopped his search and awaited orders.
At 0830 LTC Tyler ordered Bravo Company to secure Charlie's right flank and Alpha Company to return to the Battalion patrol base. Alpha turned around and began to almost double-time through the jungle back to the battalion area. Meanwhile, CPT Bittrich decided to reorganize his company on the move rather than have them close on his position. He ordered 3rd platoon to move towards Hill 65 while his command element and 1st platoon caught up and 2nd platoon secured the rear. While on the move, CPT Bittrich attempted to establish radio contact with C Company, but was unsuccessful and became concerned that he might have problems with friendly fires.
LTC Tyler informed CPT Bittrich that the situation on Hill 65 was unclear and that while speed was of the essence, he was not to take unnecessary risks. CPT Bittrich's final instructions to his platoon leaders were to move in the general direction of Hill 65 and to hold up short of the creek bed just east of the hill. Here he planned to move the 1st and 3rd platoons on line, with 1st platoon on the left and 3rd platoon on the right. 2nd platoon would follow 3rd for the assault up the hill.
At approximately 0925 hours, 3rd platoon leader, 2LT Clair Thurston reported enemy movement on the far side of the creek, short of Hill 65. Thurston did not believe the enemy was aware of his unit's presence, but he was beginning to receive fire from C Company. Bittrich raised C Company on the radio and alerted them to his unit's presence. He also learned that CPT Tucker did not have contact with his forward elements, but would make every attempt to cease its fires. Tucker and Bittrich agreed that C Company only needed to halt its fires on the east side of Hill 65 as that was the direction in which B Company would attack.
Bittrich then deployed his company as previously planned and began to move west to the creek totally surprising the enemy force to his front. His 1st and 3rd platoons opened up with everything they had and began to climb the hill, stacking enemy bodies as they went. Sam Scrimanger, an M-79 grenadier, and 3rd platoon were crossing a stream when a mortar round detonated and knocked him down. Uninjured he continued up the hill until a platoon sergeant from C Company stepped out and said, "Don't shoot. We are friendlies, Charlie Company." At that time 3rd platoon began receiving fire from its right flank. The platoon went to ground and returned fire. Once in position, Scrimanger saw his squad leader, SGT Hector Membreno, stand up, grab his stomach and walk back to the rear. He would later find Membreno sitting behind a tree with the other wounded. But before that, 3rd platoon received a hail of incoming fire. A good portion of it was from an RPD light machine gun. Scrimanger would learn that distinct sound from three tours with the 173rd. He not only served with the 1st Battalion at HUMP, but with the 2nd at Junction City and the 4th at Dak To. Scrimanger returned fire and then realized there were only two of them together. Charlie Company was approximately 20 meters to their left and the rest of 3rd platoon was 20-30 meters to the right. The two paratroopers continued to engage the enemy and then the firing settled down. At this point, low on ammunition, he crawled approximately 40 meters to the rear where Charlie Company's dead and wounded were grouped. This is where he found SGT Membreno. He also grabbed an M-16, 15 magazines of ammo, 3 grenades and crawled back to his previous position. "We stayed there, I suppose, for an hour and a half to two hours. And then the aircraft came. I don't know what type of aircraft it was or what it was, but there was a whistling sound that you knew were bombs dropping. They say in the movies that bombs do not whistle when they come down, but these did."
Doc Marrinan recalled, before HUMP, sitting in a tent drinking beer with SGT Membreno and Membreno said, "I'll go anywhere in Vietnam but D Zone." The reason was that every operation before in War Zone D, Membreno had been wounded. And this was the last, the final operation. He would survive Hill 65, but would be evacuated out of country with his wounds.
Mike DeFrancesco was platoon leader with 1st platoon. He led a charge up the hill which consisted of dense underbrush and tall trees. As he moved with his platoon, he looked down and could see tracers crisscrossing in a path low to the ground. There was a lot of noise and confusion for a long time as B Company tried to gain the top of the hill. DeFrancesco remembers passing VC machine gun emplacements and realizing they had moved across a major enemy area. At some point the VC either had enough and retreated or had too many casualties. When he attained the top, 1st platoon formed a defensive perimeter and started to care for its wounded. Although expecting an enemy counterattack at any time, DeFrancesco sent out small patrols to try and retrieve any casualties.
Bill Acebes was with 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company and he remembered all of a sudden it sounded like an entire machine gun range opened fire at once with explosions every few seconds. The word came back: "Charlie Company's in contact, we're moving up." They didn't get very far when all hell broke loose, NCOs started yelling orders and the wounded yelled for medics. At first, Acebes did not fire his weapon because he not only was scared, but was afraid he might shoot a friendly to his front. He could not see anything until he hit the ground. Then it was clear not only where the VC were, but that they were dug in, camouflaged, and had well prepared firing lanes cut knee high. He listened for orders and when none came, he saw a VC firing straight at him. He rolled behind a tree that just wasn't big enough and returned fire. At this point he recalled someone passing the word to "fix bayonets." Someone else, in a half hearted attempt at humor, replied that a bayonet wound not fit on a .45 caliber pistol.
SP4 Joe Diaz, from San Antonio, Texas, was a 26 year old experienced medic who normally moved with the Battalion Aid Station during operations. For HUMP, however, he was asked to cover 2nd Platoon, B Company as the regular medic had "accidentally" shot himself in the foot while cleaning his .45 pistol. Diaz remembers booby traps being set off as the lead elements of B Company moved through the thick jungle toward the hill. He rushed to the front as the words "Medic, medic" rang in his ears. He first came upon another medic, Joe Keys, administering first aid to the platoon leader's RTO who had accidentally set off a booby trap underneath his legs. "Doc" Keys assured him the situation was under control, so Diaz moved further forward and came across PFC Brown who had a bullet hole clean through his hand. Diaz dressed it and continued forward. Near the slope of the hill, he came across a trooper with several bullet holes in his stomach but with no external bleeding. Diaz administered albumen intravenously. He then moved to PFC Bill Delia who had a bullet hole through the rear of his upper right arm. Delia sat on the slope of the hill while Diaz dressed his wound. Suddenly the fire fight erupted again and both dropped to the ground. As they did so Diaz took cover behind Delia. Delia looked at him and asked, "Doc, why are you hiding behind me?" Diaz replied, "Ain't no need in both of us getting shot, is it?" Shortly afterward, Diaz was wounded above his left lung while treating yet another wounded trooper.
0930 1/503 rpts 2 Co. still in contact at YT106309. 1 VCC w/wpn, 2 VC KIA (more to follow by body count), 1 MG captured.
All three of Bittrich's platoons were under enemy fire from heavily fortified positions. 1LT Mike DeFrancesco's 1st platoon reported incoming incendiary grenades just before his RTO was hit by automatic fire and killed. The VC then blew bugles and charged. 1st platoon cut them down. Three men in 1LT Bob Frakes's 2nd platoon were wounded by mortar fire, so he split his unit in half leading one group forward and leaving one to guard the wounded. His two elements were then hit by another bugle charge. Acebes remembered the bugle charge as a "sound I can never forget. Everything seemed to go in slow motion. The VC rose and began running right at us-then past us. I couldn't understand. Then the bugle again and someone yelling at me to 'get ready, they are coming back.' And, again humor, as someone yelled 'Give the motherfucker some bugle lessons.' I was too up to my ass in fear to laugh until later." Frakes reported that every one of his men had been shot at least once.
0952 1/503 rpts 5 additional VC by body count.
PFC John "Dutch" Holland, from Nicoma Park, Oklahoma, was part of the 18 man contingent from 2nd platoon left behind by 1LT Frakes to care for the wounded while the remainder of the platoon advanced to support Charlie Company. This seemed, at the time, to be the safest place on the battlefield. Holland remembers that they had positioned themselves into a small clearing about 20x30 meters. It was elevated to the right and surrounded by dense foliage. Security was placed facing the trail they had just moved from and forward where the rest of the platoon had gone. PFC Holland was to the right of the trail, hidden by the dense undergrowth when he saw what looked like American soldiers coming up the trail. They were wearing jungle fatigues, steel helmets, boots and backpacks and moving in formation. Holland whispered to his squad leader, SSG Theodore Shamblin that it looked like friendlies coming up on their rear. Shamblin hollered, "B Company, 2nd platoon." It was a deadly error. The Americans did not have a prayer. The VC opened up; they had the paratroopers vastly outnumbered.
The VC immediately set up an RPD machine gun on the top of the slope. A young paratrooper not more than a couple of meters from the gun was the first to die. Although he was dead, the enemy continued to fire into the body literally tearing it apart. Holland estimated the VC put more than 100 rounds into the young paratrooper's body, "just blowing the shit out of him." PVT Everett Goias and Holland lay not three meters from the dead paratrooper behind a small log. It wasn't big enough to hide both of them and besides they were in the enemy machine gun's direct field of fire. Holland heard Goias grunt as the first round tore through his lung and saw smoke from a white phosphorus round come out Goias's right shoulder. Yet Goias continued to fire. Holland knew that the log they were behind would not stand up to much more of the intense small arms fire they were receiving. Too close to throw a fragmentation grenade, he decided instead to toss a tear gas cannister. Unfortunately, it hit a branch close to their position and the tear gas floated towards them. Holland grabbed Goias and began helping him down the hill. The VC also felt the effects of the tear gas and stopped firing the RPD. As they moved away from the VC an enemy grenade hit the right side of Holland's helmet. He turned his head and waited for the grenade to detonate. It looked like the old German potato masher and fortunately, it was a dud. As they moved further down the hill another grenade was thrown at them. Again, Holland waited and again, it failed to detonate.
Holland and Goias reached the remaining half of 2nd platoon only to find most of them dead. It was apparent that some of the fighting had been hand-to-hand. Those still living poured a heavy volume of fire into the enemy positions. They used the bodies of their dead comrades to shelter them. Just as Holland and Goias reached the remaining members of the unit the enemy blew "...that damn one note bugle..." and "...charged into the clearing, camouflaged with small tree branches and screaming their fucking heads off." The Americans fired everything they had to stop this mad, suicide assault.
The intense American small arms fire did stop the enemy, who retreated back into the jungle and continued to fire on the paratroopers. At this time, Holland noted that small arms fire was coming in from behind the American position. The sharp crack meant they were M-16s, they were Americans. Then a lull as both sides ceased fire. Holland yelled "B Company, over here!" Another mistake. Automatic weapons fire poured into Holland's position. Between volleys fired by the friendly patrol Holland told Goias that he was on his way home with a million dollar wound. But he never made it. "When the second burst was fired in on us I was holding this brave man's head and looking into his eyes and unlike action movies there was no cry of pain, distortion of features, or animated facial expressions instead his eyes just lost their glow of life and I knew he was dead from friendly fire."
Holland now thought he was the only one left alive. He knew the VC were going to kill him. They were going to come into the perimeter because they wanted the American's equipment and they were going to kill anybody and everybody. Holland refused to play dead. He knew he was going to die, but he was going to kill as many of the bastards as he could. He rounded up as many M16 magazines as he could find. He hoped that if he put out a heavy enough amount of fire, the enemy would respond and kill him quickly. At that moment, a sudden peace engulfed the young PFC. It was a total calm; fear left him. There was no noise; everything was quiet, serene. It was total, total bliss. Holland would remember that feeling would last until the American patrol succeeded in reaching his position and saving what remained of the 2nd platoon.
At this point, however, he began to slowly crawl back down toward the dry ravine when SP4 Jerry Langston came inching up from that direction. Holland thought for sure that Langston had lost his mind; he was crawling towards the area that had been the main field of fire just moments before. But Langston was thinking, he was going for the field radio which was still operational. He secured the radio, made contact and led a patrol from Bravo Company in by firing a .45 caliber pistol for them to guide on. Holland feared that the .45 firing would bring all kinds of fire down on them again, but it did not. The patrol arrived and found fifteen dead paratroopers, two severely wounded and SP4 Langston unconscious with a large hole in his helmet. There were dead Charlies everywhere. Holland later thought it was a small tribute to the gallant men who gave their all in that short but very intense battle for survival.
Langston recalled that the enemy tied bushes and branches "...to their backs and they started blowing bugles and charged us from three sides. They came down off the hill behind us, from the flank, and across the creek to our front. The fighting was close in, real close. We were really cut off and there didn't look to be much chance left."
The patrol worked to take the two seriously wounded first. Holland had a small piece of his scalp shot away, the flesh over the end of his right shoulder blade had a piece of frag and his right buttocks was mostly gone from an RPD round. Rather than wait for a stretcher, he placed an arm around the shoulders of a paratrooper and attempted to walk out. Only a very short distance from the battle site Holland was dropped to the ground as a sniper fired on them. When that danger passed, he then was assisted by SSG Bernoski back to Bravo Company's perimeter.
Meanwhile, enemy bodies stacked up as B Company moved against the enemy rear. It seemed to CPT Bittrich that C Company had pushed the VC off the hill and to the north. B Company had closed on the enemy's left flank and with the element of surprise moved virtually unopposed up the hill.
As Bittrich climbed the hill with his command element, he spotted a series of well dug in and covered enemy positions. None were occupied and a number of enemy soldiers lay dead around them. As he reached the hill's top he noticed it was shaped like an egg, running generally north and south. It was approximately 400 meters wide at its northern crest and some 600 meters deep from north to south. It was triple canopy and heavily vegetated with teakwood trees. The jungle floor was generally clear as the sun could not penetrate the treetops. There were well traveled trails leading off to the north and south sides of the hill. He spotted CPT Tucker. Bullets were flying and he was in a well dug in position with an RTO and his 2nd platoon leader, 1LT Waller. They yelled for Bittrich to get down, but his immediate concern was what he saw less than one hundred feet to his front: an M-60 machine gun was being dragged backwards. The weapon was pointed to the north and Bittrich was anxious to get it moving back in that direction. Once that was accomplished, he returned to Tucker's position. From what Bittrich could determine, C Company had 21 effective soldiers left on the hill and they were taking fire. The locations of the remainder of the company were unknown. His job now was, with CPT Tucker, to locate the remainder of C Company and consolidate the position. "My stomach hurt, there had to be more."
Bittrich's early assessment was that they had a mess on their hands and that they must initially try to secure their position. The firing was very intense from the north and he had no idea what was between the paratroopers defending the hill and that firing. At this point, Bittrich ordered 2LT Thurston to attempt to make contact with any C Company personnel by extending his position north of Hill 65. He was to maintain his tie with 1st platoon on his right. 1LT Robert Frakes, 2nd platoon leader, was to extend the perimeter to the right of 1st platoon. Immediately 1st and 3rd platoons reported that the enemy had moved behind them and they were receiving fire. Bittrich's first thought was that the enemy had deliberately let them in and was now in the process of closing off all escape routes. Thurston reported he was receiving .50 caliber fire from two locations. Bittrich could hear it from three locations. At this point he reported to battalion that he had a very confusing situation on his hands, he could not determine exactly where all elements of C Company were located and that he could be facing up to three VC battalions or a main line PAVN unit. He based this conclusion on the fact that the enemy only deployed .50 caliber machine guns at the regimental level and that the guns were firing from distinct and well dispersed directions. In addition, Bittrich reported that C Company had taken severe casualties, maybe as high as one-third of the company.
As Bittrich worked to consolidate the paratroopers's position, 2LT Thurston reported that he had spotted one of the machine guns and was going to take it out. What he did not tell his company commander was that he was going to do it himself. As he made his personal assault against the enemy position, he was shot in the head by machine gun fire. SP5 John Moore and SP4 Davis Uptain, 173rd Engineer Company, were assigned to 2LT Thurston's platoon. They were laying about five or six yards from Platoon Sergeant Walter Power when Thurston was hit. Since Thurston carried his own radio, the platoon sergeant yelled at Moore to get his attention. And then said, "Go out and get the radio." Thurston's body lay some 20 yards to Moore's front. SP5 Moore turned to Uptain and said, "Go ahead and keep an eye on me and if I need some help, come forward." At that Moore jumped up and went about 10 yards, hit the ground and rolled. Uptain came up immediately and as soon as he came to Moore's position, was hit and went down. As he fell, Uptain's last words were, "John, I'm hit." Blood foamed from his mouth, he closed his eyes and went silent. Moore tried first aid, but Uptain had been shot in the chest and was dead in about a minute. Moore low crawled to Thurston's body, grabbed the radio and crawled back to the platoon sergeant's position.
For Bittrich, the death of 2LT Thurston made the fight personal. He had lost one of his best officers and now the enemy would have to pay. At this point Bittrich called for as much artillery fire as he could command. The 3/319th responded and brought a steel curtain forward of the beleaguered troops. They initially placed them north and northeast of the hill and walked them in. Although initially devastating, the enemy would adjust.
The steel curtain provided by 3/319th bought Tucker and Bittrich time to locate the lost elements of C Company. All but seventeen were found, and they would be discovered the next day. At this time B and C Companies had formed a defensive perimeter around the hill that extended from the southeast to the northwest. The south side was not covered, so Bittrich ordered his 2nd platoon to extend as far south as possible. As the two companies consolidated their position, the wounded and dead were recovered. Both companies medics worked feverishly.
All during the morning and afternoon as Charlie Company found itself under a constant and intense enemy fire, one man distinguished himself above all others: SP5 Lawrence Joel, Charlie Company's senior medic. Wounded twice in the leg, he hobbled about in the heaviest fighting to aid his fallen comrades. He "...crammed battle dressings into sucking chest wounds, jabbed morphine syrettes to comfort those already drunk with pain, gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation amid blood and vomit as he breathed life into the near dead. Every medic out there quit himself like a man, but this one was made of superior stuff. He had that indefinable quality that separates the great from the near great. Many a man on Hill 65 on November 8, 1965, can look back and say with pride that he is alive today because of the selfless gallantry of Specialist-Five Lawrence Joel."
Joel's exploits on Hill 65 were not to go unrewarded. SP4 Joe Diaz initiated, LTC Tyler recommended, and one year later President Lyndon Johnson bestowed upon him, the nation's highest and most coveted combat award: the Medal of Honor. [See page 303]
Later when he was told that he had been recommended for the Medal, Joel thought for a moment and said: "I sure hope I get it. That means my son can go to West Point."
As the firing began to die down, PFC Jaime found some of his friends wounded and began pulling them to an area that seemed secure. It was a small shaded clearing where there were some rickety structures built from trees, branches, twigs and leaves. Although not good for cover it did offer a clearing where the men could regroup. Tired, weak, 18 years old and 145 pounds, Jaime began dragging fellow troopers through sporadic enemy fire to the clearing.
At Charlie Company's defensive position, Chaplain Hutchens moved among the wounded, dead and dying men looking for the faces that made up the initial left file of LT Waller's platoon. Some were there but most were not. They had been the closest to the enemy during the initial outburst. Only four men from the left file made it back. All but one was seriously injured. The other eight were missing.
They were presumed dead, but that had to be confirmed. Someone could still be out there alive and in need of help. "Throughout the morning during lulls in the fighting we could hear the screaming pleas of the wounded to the left and front of us.
"Help me...help me...somebody please help me!"
Hutchens approached the company first sergeant and told him some of our wounded were still out there on the left front. Without a word, 1SG Board moved toward the area where the cries for help sounded. He returned and reported that of the eight men out there, all were dead but one. The survivor had two broken legs and had dragged himself behind a tree for cover.
1SG Board had a hammock that could be used as a makeshift litter to carry the wounded man. He asked for volunteers. "I need three men," he said, placing a full magazine into his M-16.
Hutchens battled with his conscience. To go or not to go? Where was he needed most? Here with the wounded and dying, or out there? "That's right, Lord, you are sovereign. You alone control the circumstances. There is a purpose in it. All right, Lord, I'll go."
One of the volunteers was an RTO who was scheduled to leave for the States immediately after this operation to attend OCS. The other was an engineer who loved a good scrap.
The four of them moved cautiously, running and crouching from tree to tree until they reached the wounded man. "Around him were his dead buddies. Most of them had been hit in the head. It was an awful sight. Their helmets were overflowing with what resembled cauliflower mixed with mucous and blood-the remains of their brains."
Just as they placed the wounded soldier on the hammock, an enemy shot rang out at close range. "Suddenly the young officer candidate who was on his last operation in Vietnam before going home threw his hands in the air, his face wincing with pain. He turned and fell. He was dead, his spine severed at the neck."
Another shot and the engineer was hit; the bullet creasing the middle of his back and lodged in the muscle next to his backbone.
1SG Board found cover behind a tree. Chaplain Hutchens looked for cover and rolled towards another tree. Suddenly he felt a hot, numbing, stinging sensation. A .30 caliber round grazed his rib cage and entered the inside of his right thigh.
"Are you hit, Chaplain?" yelled Sergeant Board.
"Yes, in the leg, but I think I can move on it,"
"Try to make it back if you can. I'll cover you."
Sergeant Board covered the engineer and Chaplain Hutchens as they moved back toward friendly lines. Sergeant Board was also hit. When they made it back, Hutchens reported what happened to CPT Tucker. Tucker then sent out a full squad to bring back the dead and wounded. They did, although suffering more wounded in the process. The airborne does not leave its casualties on the battlefield.
"Suddenly the call to attack roared out! Our Number One Company received orders to advance. We leapt into the parapet. When they saw our gleaming bayonets lifted in their direction, the Americans scattered and ran, but whatever they did, they could not escape our hate-filled bayonets." This wasn't quite how it happened.
As the artillery continued to fire, the enemy adjusted. They moved closer to the paratroopers positions thus negating the American artillery. This was obviously a well trained and highly disciplined enemy. Bittrich reported to LTC Tyler that they were surrounded, but would hold. They were, however, going to need help. LTC Tyler answered that he was working on it. Then came the sound of three bugles. When asked if he had heard them, Bittrich said he hadn't, but in fact had. His mind just didn't want to accept it. He moved fast. He called for more artillery as B and C Company reacted to the threat. Platoons responded quickly, almost without direction, repositioning machine guns as well as men to meet the assault. Leaders seemed to appear everywhere knowing what was about to happen. The VC came at the paratroopers shoulder-to-shoulder. It was unreal, like something from films of the American Civil War. They made it half way up the hill before the American fire broke them. The enemy backed down the hill slowly and then made a second attempt, more desperate than the first, it met the same fate. This time they were in retreat. But it wasn't over just yet.
SP5 Moore remembered that every time they moved they received sniper fire. During this period someone in the company threw a smoke grenade and yelled, "Let's get the hell out of this fire lane." So they started moving again. Moore hooked up with PVT George Pappas, an M-79 grenadier. He and Pappas kept searching for the defensive perimeter, but it was difficult to find as it continually shifted. They would try to adjust by listening to the M-16 fire. Pappas and Moore were together for 2 or 3 hours that afternoon constantly engaging the enemy, constantly receiving sniper fire. Then they heard bugles and whistles and Pappas said to Moore, "God damn, their coming by the hundreds." Moore thought, "This is it!" But the VC went in another direction and right after that the firing stopped where they were. At this time, Pappas and Moore joined up with the rest of Bravo Company and waited.
1LT Waller's FO had begun to "walk" the artillery in as the enemy was immediately to the platoon's front. Dust and artillery fragments filled the air. And then above all the noise came a spine-tingling screech resembling a bugle.
Chaplain Hutchens turned to a grizzled old sergeant lying next to him to ask what it was.
"That means they're going to eat us alive, if they can," he answered.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, you'd better get ready, Chaplain. That's the signal for sending in the human waves....Just like Korea.
"Quickly the platoon moved three M-60 machine guns in the direction of the enemy's most likely avenue of attack. The M-79 grenade launchers reinforced the machine guns. Shortly, Hutchens heard the frenzied screams of the charging enemy."
But, the paratroopers held their ground and with supporting air strikes repulsed the enemy charges. It was after 1500 before CPT Bittrich was able to secure his company perimeter and tie in with C Company. At this point CPT Bittrich again radioed battalion to report more than 40 Americans dead from Bravo and Charlie, approximately 70 wounded and 20 others missing. There was a long pause on the radio and then CPT Bittrich heard a pained "out."
But as B and C linked up, and as the battle raged near Hill 65, it became apparent that not only were Bravo and Charlie pinned down, but that the artillery and air strikes could not get close enough to dislodge the enemy force. They were surrounded. The situation was grave and reports from the Company Commanders were vague as neither wanted to broadcast his actual dilemma in case the enemy was monitoring the frequency. LTC Tyler had good reason to believe that CPT Tucker was wounded or dead as most radio traffic was with CPT Bittrich.
1110 DCO rpts that 1/503 still heavily engaged. Receiving indirect fire in CP. Est VC Bn.
1150 CG directs that air relay for 1/503 internal net be put on station ASAP.
When the fighting started on the morning of the 8th, D+3, Alpha Company was sweeping to the east towards the Song Be. LTC Tyler immediately ordered us to return to base camp. Around noon, Alpha had reassembled and was ready to join the action.
About 1300, LTC Tyler decided to commit his reserve company--us. His orders to CPT Walter B. Daniel, Company A commanding officer, were short and to the point. You "...must take the pressure off B and C Companies....There is no help on the way, do not, I repeat, do not become decisively engaged. Alpha Company is the only maneuver element left to the Battalion."
LTC Tyler's list of options was short. The 1RAR was in contact with the enemy across the Dong Nai River and at least one to two days march away from us. The 2/503 was in base camp at Bien Hoa, but there was no nearby landing zone to allow them to reach us in a hurry. They were at least one day away. Alpha Company was it; the battalion was on its own. If A Company lost its freedom to maneuver, we were stuck. The Battalion would likely have to fight to the last bullet and the last man.
CPT Daniel issued his frag order to his platoon leaders and then gave us time to issue ours to our men. We were to move up Hill 65 and relieve pressure on B and C Companies so that they might move back towards friendly lines. We were to move in column formation until we made contact with the enemy or linked up with Bravo or Charlie Companies. 2LT Dave Ugland had 1st platoon, 1LT Bob Biedleman had 2nd, and I commanded the 3rd. CPT Daniel directed us to saddle up and move towards the west with 1st leading, 3rd next, and 2nd in the rear. Dave and I began moving our platoons from our defensive positions towards 2nd platoon's CP to pick up Bob's unit. But just before Dave and I reached Bob's CP, mortar rounds landed inside the Battalion perimeter. The volleys fell on the Battalion Command Post and 2nd platoon, A Company. It was devastating. In seconds the platoon sergeant and two squad leaders were killed and 1LT Biedleman and two other squad leaders were wounded. The platoon medic, RTO and FO were also killed or wounded. I remember moving by their position and seeing nothing but broken bodies and blood, and hearing moans, screams, and medics yelling orders. The colors red and white flooded my mind. [Later I took red to represent blood and white to represent bandages.] CPT Daniel left 2nd platoon in the Battalion base area under the command of a buck sergeant and continued the approach to Hill 65 with Dave and my platoons.
The mortars that hit the Battalion CP wounded the S-3, the S-3 Operations Sergeant, the S-2 Operations Sergeant, the Battalion Sergeant Major, and one of the Battalion Commander's RTOs. SP4 Jack Fleming was a 20 year old RTO for the S-3. He remembers the command group being hit. "After an uneventful night the command group was shaken...by a significant explosion. To this day I am not sure what happened. It was either a booby trap in the trees above or we were hit by a well placed mortar round." Fleming dove for the ground and was stunned by the concussion. There was great confusion and several men had received shrapnel wounds. The trees had been shredded by the blast and he could smell the smoke. Wounded soldiers screamed for assistance. Knowing all the medics were forward with the line companies, Fleming took off running to bring some medics back to treat the wounded. He quickly directed them to the command group to attend those in need. "My adrenaline was flowing and I was both thankful I was okay and concerned that if it were mortar fire we might get hit with additional rounds."
On 28 August 1993 at a mini-reunion in Cartersville, Georgia, COL Daniel surmised that the mortars that hit 2nd platoon, Alpha Company and the Battalion CP were dropped from American helicopters. They were called MAD, Mortar Aerial Delivery System. A wooden box laid on the floor of the helicopter and the rounds were put in it with the nose down. Two feet of engineer tape was tied to the end of each round. The mortar pin was pulled and the mortars were spin-armed by a propeller. The green engineer tape found in trees after the attack suggested to then CPT Daniel that these were "friendly mortars."
On Hill 65 CPT Bittrich heard that the battalion headquarters was hit by mortar rounds. "That came as a surprise as we had not experienced any mortar fire on the hill."
As we again moved towards the contact area, anxiety and doubt gripped me. This was my first action under enemy fire. It is one thing to be on patrol searching for the enemy. It is quite another to attack up a hill knowing that he knows you are there, and he is in fortified positions. How would I act? Would I do my duty? Would I lead or panic? Would I remember my training? Would one of my men die today? These questions shot through my mind not from a fear of dying, but because I had to do my duty. I needed to prove to myself that I could act like a man under the most difficult conditions. I needed to earn acceptance by my fellow officers and respect from my men. I needed to know that I really belonged to this elite unit. This would be my rite of passage.
Not long after clearing the perimeter we encountered some enemy dead and some wounded stragglers from Bravo and Charlie Companies. CPT Daniel brought our platoons on line with Dave on the right flank and my platoon on the left. We advanced up Hill 65 towards B and C, and the enemy. As we neared them, CPT Daniel halted the Company and ordered one patrol from each platoon to go forward to find out what was to our front. Here, CPT Daniel admits to committing a classic error that Rangers are taught to avoid: he did not tell the patrols how far to go and when to come back. Dave's patrol returned first and indicated that there was an enemy machine
gun position approximately 30 yards in front of 1st platoon. The patrol leader stated that the machine gun was aimed in the direction of Hill 65 and that it was not dug in. My patrol returned much later and reported making contact with a large number of troops from B and C. The way to Hill 65 seemed to be blocked by the machine gun in front of 1st
platoon and open all the way in front of my platoon. CPT Daniel's plan was to take out the machine gun as quietly and
quickly as possible, then slip to the left and up the hill and make contact with B and C. The plan did not work.
As the platoons began moving again, I don't recall seeing or hearing anything. It was quiet, it was eerie. Was I leading or following? Were we receiving fire? Were my men
firing? Were we close? My only recollection was that everything was green, and I felt closed in. I reacted automatically. Two years of infantry training kicked in. Unaware of our presence, the enemy assaulted up the hill with their backs to us. While enemy bugles blared in the jungle,
1st platoon mowed them down by the dozens. Dave led his
platoon forward to maintain contact and attacked the machine
gun position killing all but one of the crew. That one enemy soldier lived long enough to shoot 2LT Ugland. He was killed instantly. One of his NCOs later reported that Dave had commented just before being hit: "What a beautiful place to die." A squad leader took out the machine gun position with a grenade, and the whole hillside opened up. The bulk of the enemy fire was directed up the hill into Bravo and Charlie Companies. Only a few VC realized we were behind them and fired in our direction. 1st platoon accounted for a large number of enemy KIAs in the short time it took for the enemy leaders to recognize that our threat was to their rear.
Alpha Company 1SG Bill Workman recalled: "We came in on their flank. The jungle opened up and we could see almost the entire length of their battle line. How the Colonel figured it out, I don't know, maybe it was luck, but we caught them just as they were blowing bugles to make an attack. Our M-16 and M-60 fire rolled up their line, and took 'em out like ducks in a shooting gallery. The rest of the VC melted back into the jungle."
The volume of enemy fire, combined with the number of machine guns and bugle calls suggested to CPT Daniel that he was taking on a superior force. He reported such to LTC Tyler and his orders were to break contact and return to the Battalion patrol base. LTC Tyler had a quick decision to make. He reevaluated the current situation and reminded himself that the mission was to destroy the enemy and not to seize and hold ground. He needed Alpha Company to assume the responsibility for the battalion defensive perimeter and he was concerned that they continue to hold the ground surrounding the LZ should it become critical. Which it would in the next 24 hours.
Quickly, the enemy leaders turned their men around to fire on us. Green tracers flew in our direction. The stunned 1st platoon, learning of 2LT Ugland's death, either let up fire or went to full automatic. The platoon NCOs restored fire discipline immediately, increasing it when it went slack and controlling it when it was too fast to be aimed. My platoon engaged the enemy with consistent fire. But now, CPT Daniel radioed to me "Papa Lima Delta," which meant "platoon leader dead," and the order to break contact.
CPT Daniel began an orderly withdrawal. My platoon was given the mission to support by fire as 1st platoon moved to the rear. We laid down a base of fire as the 1st withdrew approximately 75 meters and then took up firing positions. My platoon then fell back with 1st platoon, and with both platoons on line the enemy assaulted us. A single wave attacked taking two steps and stopping to fire; two more steps and stop to fire. Both platoons were on the ground, engaged the attacking enemy soldiers and "...really mowed them down." We repeated this maneuver one more time and when the enemy went to ground the second time, the jungle grew silent. The VC had left the battle. We finally broke contact and both platoons returned to the Battalion perimeter. There was still sporadic fire from Bravo and Charlie, but for the most part it sounded like the main battle was over.
1320 1/503 sitrep - B & C Co at 105307. Broken contact getting out cas at this time. A Co closed obj 2.
When I reached the company area, I went to see Dave. One of his NCOs had carried his body back and it lay under a poncho near the company CP. I slowly walked over, kneeled, and raised the poncho, but I could not see him. To this day I cannot recall what he looked like under that poncho. I could see him alive; tall, blond, quiet, easy going. I could not see him dead. He was my tent mate and now he was the first American soldier I saw killed in action.
Dave was a graduate of West Point, class of 1964, just like Clair Thurston. When Dave's body was brought back to the Battalion patrol base, the Brigade Chaplain, Father John McCullagh, wanted to remove his West Point class ring to insure "...that some ghoul in Graves Registration didn't get it." Because of the confusion, however, it has never been determined if Father McCullagh did what he set out to do.
SP4 James Serna of Hayward, California had been with Weapons Platoon, Bravo Company since 1964. He was a qualified squad leader and also trained as a forward observer. He had fulfilled both roles in Vietnam. He had set up earlier with Weapons Platoon on the logging road that snaked through the battalion perimeter. Expecting to go out as 2LT Thurston's forward observer, Serna was infuriated to learn that as punishment his platoon sergeant was sending someone else. Serna's fury built as he listened to the battle unfold. He was trained to be with his fellow paratroopers suffering out there, not to sit in the rear and monitor the battle. Serna remembers the rifle fire as just a blur, a roar. He had mortars, but he was not allowed to fire them. He had rifles, but he was not given the order to join his comrades. The battle continued and the orders did not come. Men he had trained with, worked with, fought with were out there taking fire and Serna could do nothing except listen. He heard when Thurston went down. He heard when various members of his unit went down. And he listened.
The reports were frantic and the battle inside James Serna's body was as frantic. He was 19 years old, and this most important moment in his life was forever altered because his platoon sergeant was angry at someone else. So Serna listened and it was agony. He recalled that "...they wouldn't let me register my mortars, they wouldn't let me fire...they wouldn't let me be part of the team to go out there and rescue these poor bastards and be part of the battle." Serna did not want to go out there for the glory, but for who they were. They were Bravo Company, they were 1st Batt, they were the 173rd. "We didn't function like any other asshole unit in the Army. We were different than everybody. One fought, everybody fought. One died, we all risked. Nobody got left behind. And here I am sitting on this fucking hill listening to this whole thing go down and wondering what insanity is this?"
1525 Sit Rep from 1/503: 26 WHA & KHA have been evacuated.
By now CPT Bittrich estimated that he had received more than 900 artillery rounds and 35 air strikes in support. And although fighting continued throughout the day there were indications that the enemy was trying to disengage. His estimate up to the point of three major attacks was that the enemy had more than 110 KIA, with unknown wounded. With the last action completed, he estimated that more than 220 enemy soldiers had been killed.
1605 1/503 rpts B Co rpts 60 VC KIA by body count. All bodies stripped. C Co after action report incomplete at this time.
Around 1600 hours SSG Billie Wear from 3rd platoon approached CPT Bittrich and asked if he could lead a patrol to recover 2LT Thurston's body. Wear stated that he knew where Thurston fell. Bittrich approved the request, but stated that he was going with them as a rifleman. He later realized that this was probably not the wisest decision he had ever made, but he felt compelled to go. So finally, at 1630 an improvised squad from 3rd platoon consisting mostly of NCOs was able to recover 2LT Thurston's body. Thus, all members of Bravo Company were accounted for. There were still 17 members of Charlie Company missing. They would not be left on the battlefield.
At this point Bittrich with Tucker set about to secure their position on the battlefield. They began the process to get the critically wounded out, receive more ammunition and prepare their defense. To accomplish this mission, Bravo and Charlie continued to clear an area for an LZ. It became quickly apparent that this would not be accomplished before nightfall with the means at hand. Mike DeFrancesco recalls that more than one Army UH-1D attempted to make the descent into their position. The crew chiefs stood on the outside skids giving directions to the pilots who had no room to maneuver. They tried, but they just could not do it. At this point, the Air Force came to the rescue. From the Bien Hoa air base they sent a helicopter to hover above the units while lowering a basket. Five times critically wounded paratroopers were placed in baskets and then wenched through the triple canopy jungle. One soldier who was evac'd was the sergeant SP4 Diaz had administered to earlier with multiple gun shot wounds in the abdomen. Diaz later received a letter from the sergeant's mother thanking him for saving her son's life. Diaz remembered that when treating the sergeant he had told him, "Don't worry Sarge, I'm not going to let you die on me."
Returning from Saigon in the late afternoon, BG Williamson became aware of the battle when he turned on his helicopter command radio. He flew directly to the battle area, but could not find a place to land. He then went back to base camp and got parachutes for himself and his aide. He was going to jump in. Fortunately, common sense intervened. The General realized that even more casualties would be taken just trying to get him and his aide out of the trees.
1717 1/503 sit rep - C & B Company still using Dust off. Dust off status at this time-33. Unit locations no change. Neg enemy contact.
1719 CG directs chain saws go to 1/503 ASAP.
In between the Air Force flights Army helicopters dropped resupplies to the beleaguered troopers. At this point it began to get dark and CPT Bittrich had a painful decision to make. Did he continue or end the rescue operation? To continue would mean he would not be able to hear the battlefield with the choppers hovering above. As it was, he could not see far to his front. The risk was too great. It was a painful decision for him, but Bittrich called off the rescue attempts.
At this point Bittrich moved the remaining dead and wounded to the rear of his position on the top of the hill. He felt he could better protect them from this position than at the bottom of the hill. Through the night only one of the wounded died, a tribute to the extraordinary efforts of the company medics.
John Holland remembers that night. He was keyed up and almost came unglued at every sharp noise, especially recon by fire. At daybreak he realized just how brutal the battle was as he lay among the wounded and the dead.
Joe Diaz and Lawrence Joel huddled together in one poncho as the rain fell and artillery fired through the night. They wondered, before falling asleep, if they would make it out of there alive the next day.
Juan Jaime also remembers that night. "Night began to creep up on us, so I made a perimeter with Robles, Spenceley, Tallbull and the others. I could see many were missing. I was not hungry, but thirsty. Night came and Charlie attacked our foxhole. We held off returning fire because we had very little ammo left and did not want to give our position away. Although Charlie was throwing grenades at our perimeter, no one could stay awake we were all so tired. Later that night in the foxhole, Spenceley was on watch and wanted to sleep so he turned the time on the watch forward so that it showed time for Robles to go on watch. Robles caught on to the trick and they began fighting. When Robles hit Spenceley with a steel pot it made a big commotion and Washington in the next foxhole shouted, 'What the f.... going on? Tell me or I'm going to shoot!' I shouted back, 'It's only Robles and Spenceley fighting.' Washington yelled to 'Keep it quiet, dammit!' Things settled down again. Later that night, I shit my pants because it was too risky to leave our post. It was a dark night but the moon gave small night vision. All that night we could see V.C. walking around, trying to get our positions; so we didn't fire at them."
I rejoined my platoon at our previous position and reestablished our defensive perimeter. Since we did not know how badly we had mauled Charlie, we were concerned that a counterattack would come during darkness. To make matters worse, it began to rain. It came in driven sheets all night, but no one complained.
Throughout the night Bittrich paced the area and tried several times to rest on an enemy crafted log table, and listened and listened. He wanted to hear the sound of the battlefield, but it was quiet even with the suffering of the wounded. He and CPT Tucker began to formulate plans to get the remaining dead and wounded out of this location. They could not walk and carry them out. They had no idea what the situation was at the battalion base site. There were too many wounded for the Air Force to continue the basket operation. There was not very much progress in cutting a landing zone. CPT Tucker and CPT Bittrich conferred and came up with a plan. At dawn they would request chain saws and explosives to help cut a hole in the jungle for the helicopters.
"The day that seemed to be never ending came to a close with the 1/503 occupying two perimeters separated by several hundreds yards of thick jungle containing an unknown enemy force."
2220 Received call from Brig Gen DePuy, who wanted a description of today's action. Told him 1/503 was in contact from 0800 until approx 1430, that casualty figures were incomplete but that 110 VC KIA had been reported.
9-12 NOVEMBER 1965
The enemy usually attacked just before dawn. He had a great ability to sneak up undetected on American lines, penetrate defensive wire, reposition Claymore mines to detonate on friendly locations, and pinpoint defensive positions with deadly accuracy. One of our counter moves was to have a "mad minute." At a designated time, usually just before dawn, the whole perimeter would open up with small arms fire for exactly sixty seconds. If Charlie was out there, he was in a world of hurt.
The early morning of 9 November, D+4, was designated as a "mad minute" for the units around the battalion perimeter. At the precise hour the whole battalion perimeter erupted with a crescendo of fire. For sixty seconds we raked the area to our front so that no living thing could survive. This "mad minute" was followed by clearing patrols. Fortunately for him, Charlie had decided not to counterattack. Or, we had administered such a beating to him the previous day that he could not attack. Either way, there was no enemy to our front.
0720 CG directs 12 axes be sent to 1/503 ASAP.
0815 Bde surgeon reports that HU-1 can now get into 1/503 area for evac.
As dawn broke on the morning of 9 November 1965, LTC Tyler, with BG Williamson's concurrence, made another important decision. With no reinforcements available, he decided to break contact and evacuate the area. In order to do so, however, it would be necessary to cut out by hand a landing zone on the logging road that bisected the perimeter. Decades of uncontested growth had allowed the trees in the jungle to overgrow the area above the road so that choppers could not penetrate without damaging their blades. We had to cut down enough trees to allow at least three Hueys into the improvised LZ. LTC Tyler had power saws dropped to us, and units not in contact with the enemy selected men to clear the landing zone. Artillery, gunships, and air strikes continued to suppress and harass the Viet Cong. We began right after dawn. We faced two problems: cut the LZ, and do it fast enough to give us time to evacuate the complete battalion before dark. It would be close.
At the same time LTC Tyler made his decision, gun ships, medevacs and BG Williamson were above Bravo and Charlie's position. But first, Bravo and Charlie had three tasks to accomplish: first, to probe forward of their position to determine if the enemy was still there. Second, find the missing paratroopers from C Company. Third, blast and cut a hole in the jungle. The first was answered quickly as the enemy had fled the battlefield leaving many of their dead. Second, C Company found the missing seventeen troopers in different locations, although only one was alive. He had spent the day on the battlefield surrounded by the enemy and playing dead. Cutting the hole in the jungle proved more difficult. The saws proved impossible against teakwood trees. Dynamite accomplished the job but created a mess that had to be cleared. Medevacs were there, but the area was still too small. The choppers would need twice the opening to get on the ground.
At this point, BG Williamson attempted to have his command and control chopper land near B and C so as to extract their wounded. Additional trees, however, had to be felled before a helicopter could get into the LZ. He dropped smoke grenades from his Huey to mark the area. He then directed his chopper back to LZ Ace where the artillery support position was located. There, Williamson dropped off the co-pilot, artillery officer, two door gunners with their machine guns and ammunition, and his radio operator. In addition, he had fuel drained from the helicopter to make it lighter. BG Williamson, his pilot, and the general's aide would attempt the landing.
At the landing zone, the Brigade Commander's pilot, WO Charles Smith, began a 250-foot straight descent through a hole in the jungle. One small error on his part and the chopper would be down for good as there was hardly a foot of clearance between the helicopter blade tips and the trees. But skill and daring prevailed, and they made it down. General Williamson and his aide jumped from the chopper and told CPTs Bittrich and Tucker to load it up with as many wounded as possible. WO Smith then started his slow, vertical climb out of the jungle. This was even slower than when he came in, but he cleared the trees. "Dust Offs" followed. The evacuation had begun. In two hours all the wounded and dead had been evacuated.
BG Williamson was a tough, distinguished looking, white- haired, highly decorated, 47-year-old professional soldier. He was highly respected by his officers and men and his presence on the battlefield comforted them. "Everything was going to be alright."
Russ Roever was a medic with B Medical, Support Battalion. He remembers walking a wounded soldier to the helicopters for evacuation. The soldier was bent over holding his side and his cheek. Sitting in the gunner's seat in the chopper was BG Williamson. As they approached the chopper, the soldier saw the General, pushed Roever away, stood up straight and saluted. Williamson sat up, his chest went out and he saluted back. He then got out of the seat, put the young soldier in, lashed his seat belt and said, "Okay, son, where's the war now?"
Juan Jaime also remembered the next morning. "Next day, I was a mess, stinking of shit; the whole place was a stinking mess, bloody bodies all over, covered with the flies that attack the dead. Helicopters came in to drop power saws, we began cutting a clearing to evacuate the wounded. The smell of blood, dead bodies, gunpowder, shattered trees and mosquito repellent was intense. Slowly the mess began to take shape as we gathered in the dead and wounded and secured the area. Once we had a landing area cleared, a chopper came in. To my surprise, there was Gen. Williamson. He looked like God, clean, starched fatigues, polished boots and a big shining belt buckle. He was wearing a pistol. It made us all feel secure, like the whole thing was over with. We were brought chow and then evacuated. I saw some men cry. Some were brave, some were confused and sick, some were so cool and clean I thought they must have changed clothes on the field...I became a man, but did not know how to curb my anger.
"There is not much I can say in writing, but my soul talks through my eyes."
As BG Williamson moved among his men, he was somber and unsmiling. "He paused for a long time before the rows of lifeless bodies wrapped in ponchos....Then, lifting his head he looked about. He raised his hand to his helmet and saluted."
On the ground, the General gathered his two company commanders together and realized they were both physically and psychologically exhausted. He then directed the evacuation of wounded and searched for those unaccounted for. One of the company commanders reported three men missing, so the general went with a five- man patrol in the direction where they were last seen. They found all three. Two were dead and one was wounded in both legs and unable to walk. The general sent two men back to get help while he and the other two stood guard.
0910 Capt Hammett reports 3 walking wounded & 29 dead left to evac from 1/503.
0940 CG directed that Dust off be speeded up.
1000 CG notified DO to complete current evacuation before diverting ships to any other unit.
1033 CG requests 2 D models at 1/503 loc ASAP for final evacuation.
The evacuation begun earlier continued as the LZ had been enlarged. By 1000 hours all the wounded had been evacuated, all the men accounted for. At this point Bittrich expected one more helicopter to come and get BG Williamson. But Williamson said no, he was walking out with his two companies. Now Bittrich was very concerned. He did not know the situation between his position and the battalion base. How the hell was he going to protect the General? Why take the chance? He called LTC Tyler seeking assistance to convince the General to fly out. LTC Tyler's appeal fell on deaf ears, as he knew it would. BG Williamson "...did what all 300 pound gorillas did--exactly what they wanted to do." In this case it was for the good of the unit: BG Williamson was walking out with his two companies. LTC Tyler's orders were to take it slow and get the General back to battalion base safely.
1130 1/503 reports 102 VC by body count today for total of 206. Uniforms consisted of green shirts, blue pants, white scarf with a red dot.
1200 1/503 reports 391 VC KIA by body count. Three types of uniforms- 1 black pajamas, 2 Fatigues with steel pots, no cover and packs, 3 Khaki pants and green shirts.
1235 S3 rptd fol info: 1. Recon in area of B/1/503, complete; 2. all friendlies accounted for; 3. VC body count in 3 locations now 391; 4. One portion of one hill where major action took place has not been counted yet. 5. 4 different enemy uniforms: A. Khaki, B. Gray, C. Green, D. Peasant; 6. Will move to area of 1/503 as soon as body evacuation completed.
1255 Msg to Col Duddy - CG will not return to this location at this time. Will extract 1/503 today.
Knowing Bittrich's concern, BG Williamson looked at him, smiled and said, "Let me know when your ready." At that point, Bittrich left him with CPT Tucker and began to organize the march back to battalion base. He insured all the troopers knew that the Brigade Commander was with them, that they would move slow and would not be taking any chances. With that, he asked BG Williamson to stay with his command element and ordered his men to move out. They were spread out and moved slowly, followed by Charlie Company. Within an hour Bravo and Charlie closed on the battalion base area. Bittrich put his company on the perimeter and then stood on that perimeter until the last man from C Company closed the position. That last man straightened up and said, "All the Way, Sir." Bittrich responded proudly, "Airborne."
Doc Marrinan watched as B Company moved back into the perimeter. He told Bittrich, "I should've been with you." Bittrich responded, "You would have been dead." Doc then made him a cup of coffee.
SP4 James Serna watched as the men from Bravo and Charlie Companies returned to battalion base. He recalled, I "...watched these men that I have drunk with, fought with, knew really long." I saw them "...come in out of the jungle and it was like they weren't even hardly alive. They'd left part of themselves behind...One of the finest captains you could have...big, tall Lowell Bittrich. He looked like he was sunken eyed. And I was counting heads. What the fuck is going on here? Where are these guys? And, they weren't coming back."
1345 Msg from CG - 1. Enemy wore helmets similar to ours but not as deep. 2. Enemy pack uniform and precisely camouflaged with wire net and natural foliage. 3. Several new types of weapons being evaced. 4. Enemy def positions had 30" log and dirt overhead cover, consisted of 2 man fighting position, rather long trenches. 5. One camp complete with picnic type tables and reasonably sophisticated latrine system. 6. Although some contact CG believes main force has withdrawn. 7. Spirits high.
The Battalion worked continuously under a hot, blazing sun to prepare the main LZ. Only with the help of photographer and ex-logger Chuck Keen, was the LZ finished before nightfall. Keen used a method he called the "Arkansas Drive." In other words, you get a bunch of trees in line ready to fall, then fall the first one and it takes the others down with a domino effect. Keen's actions influenced the Brigade to recommend that a special team be trained to cut LZs in the jungle, as he produced five times the results of anyone else.
1438 1st lift 1/503 on way.
1600 1/503 requests extraction be speeded up if possible.
When the area was large enough, evacuation began. First the wounded and then the dead. And after the dead, B and C Companies were flown back to Bien Hoa. The pick up went smoothly until one of the Hueys went down on the LZ with a damaged rotor blade. For whatever reason, the decision was made to repair the helicopter and fly it out rather than destroy it on the ground. At this time, units guarding the extraction and protecting the downed helicopter crew reported enemy movement near the LZ. Until the chopper could be repaired, the pick up zone capacity was reduced to only two birds. A replacement blade was available only in Saigon, and had to be flown from there to the battle area to repair the downed helicopter. Valuable time was lost, and it was later recommended that in future operations a decision be made immediately whether to evacuate the damaged chopper, attempt to repair it, or destroy it on the spot.
After the Huey was repaired, there remained only fourteen men on the LZ: CPT Daniel; his XO, 1LT Gene Krause; 1SG Bill Workman; three NCOs; two company RTOs; the FO, CPT Gary DeBausch, and his RTO; three troopers and me. And it was 1745 hours, dusk. I was scared shitless. After all, there were only fourteen of us, and out there an unknown number of VC, an inhospitable jungle, and no choppers. To make matters worse we were taking sporadic small arms fire from enemy patrols searching for their dead and wounded or fleeing to Cambodia. We huddled behind logs, large rocks, or anything else we could find for cover. We did not have much firepower: mostly .45 caliber pistols, some M-16s and one M-60 machine gun. Our one machine gunner had been hit earlier so one of CPT Daniel's RTOs manned the gun. But we did have CPT DeBausch. He called in fire from eighteen 105mm howitzers to support our little perimeter.
At this time, Alpha Company 1SG Bill Workman led two others to the far end of the extraction zone where the abandoned helicopter blade lay. He connected commo wire to the blade, placed a hand grenade under it, pulled the pin and ran back to the company CP. The blade held the grenade handle. Some minutes later CPT Daniel observed movement near the helicopter blade and 1SG Workman pulled the wire. There was an explosion, but it was not determined if any VC were killed or wounded by it.
I looked around and knew it would take a miracle to get us out of this mess and back to Bien Hoa safely.
But suddenly came the most precious sound to an American soldier: the "whoop, whoop, whoop" of chopper blades cutting the heavy, humid air. Three beautiful UH-1D troopships, with supporting gunships, appeared out of nowhere and descended into the hastily constructed LZ. A fantastic sight! The door gunners fired into the jungle at the edge of the landing zone while the gunships used rockets and machine guns to shoot even deeper into the jungle. CPT Daniel yelled out to everyone to head for the nearest bird when it landed, and to do it "double time." As if we needed to be told.
As the three Hueys touched down, we scrambled for the nearest one. I remember running as hard as I could with two of my squad leaders in pursuit, diving through the open door of the Huey, and nearly sliding out the other end as I skidded on my stomach on the compartment's floor. The two NCOs were on my tail and jumped in right after me. The pilot did not wait for any signals, but immediately pulled the stick and began to ascend. I prayed we made it up and over the jungle's triple canopy without taking any hits from the VC snipers. Luck and alternating artillery and gunship fire allowed all three choppers to rise above the jungle floor and head south towards Bien Hoa and home. It was a short flight before we landed within the confines of Camp Ray. We had made it! A small reception committee from Company A welcomed us back. 1LT Bobby Oakes, who commanded our weapons platoon, was one of the official greeters. He never looked better. He told me that when the radio message "Papa Lima Delta" was first transmitted, everyone listening on the company net thought it was me, not Dave, that was shot and killed.
1900 Notified 1st Div that 1/503 extraction completed approx 1835 hours.
1904 1/503 rpts all elements closed & all pers accounted for at 1845.
Earlier, upon closing base camp CPT Bittrich reported all personnel and weapons accounted for and headed for the hospital. He wanted to get there as fast as possible to let the wounded know they were uppermost in his mind and that they were wanted back as soon as possible.
Sam Scrimanger remembers arriving back at battalion base. "As we disembarked the Hueys which brought us in behind our company and as the Hueys departed there was complete silence. No one talked, said anything, we just filed through the concertina wire where there was a gate. There was a chaplain at this point. He spoke to a few of us.
SSG Harold Dale was new with the battalion. He had arrived the day that Hump began, 5 November 1965, and since he did not have all of his equipment was left behind. When the troops from Bravo Company began arriving at the helipad, Dale went to meet them. "They all had their head hanging down, tired and I said, 'Talk to me.' And they all said, 'Later.'"
That night most of us met at the Battalion's officers' club, "The Teahouse of the August Moon," and reminisced about the events of the past five days. We discussed Dave, Clair, and the other fatalities, consumed great quantities of beer and whiskey, and toasted our lost comrades. Our bonds were forged. We were the Sky Soldiers, and proud of it. We had done our duty. We had met an enemy force three times our size and destroyed it. The enemy had decided to stand and fight, and lost. Only years later was it learned that Charlie's "...whole purpose was the destruction of a 'Named or Identifiable Unit of the U.S. Armed Forces.' He wanted this victory for the psychological effect that it would have on the civilian population back in the U.S."
CPT Bittrich returned from the hospital to learn that GEN William Westmoreland was due to visit his company on the 10th. Tired, dirty, and with no sleep for two days, Bittrich called his platoon leaders and platoon sergeants together and issued his instructions: get a shave, a shower, some chow and sleep. The next morning they would prepare for the General's visit.
The next day GEN Westmoreland accompanied by BG Williamson and LTC Tyler inspected Bravo Company. Bittrich led GEN Westmoreland to each soldier in his squad tent. As the officers entered each tent the soldiers were called to attention and then instructed to continue working on their equipment. The officers then approached the individual soldiers. Each came to attention and stood toe-to-toe to the General. Westmoreland then asked each man if he was in the battle and if he fired his weapon. All responded to the affirmative, except one. When asked why he did not fire his weapon, the soldier responded, "Sir, I'm a Grenadier, I was so damn busy firing an M60 machine gun, an M16 Rifle and my .45 I never got to my Grenade Launcher." One soldier with a speech defect felt pushed to the point that after several questions, the last of which was: "How do you know you killed the enemy?" responded without a stutter, "Because I got his blood all over me." LTC Tyler remembers as he and GEN Westmoreland walked away, the General whispered to him with a chuckle, "I asked for that."
Operation HUMP found a well trained and disciplined enemy force. First, the enemy moved his forces as close as possible to the American troops to minimize his vulnerability to our artillery and air strikes. This tactic was later described as "clinging to the belt." Second, once the enemy "fixed" our positions, he quickly moved to the flanks to bring us under fire from all directions and to conduct human wave attacks to overrun the position.
There were two other strange findings during HUMP. The first was the enemy's mixed uniforms: khaki, gray, black, and still others wore a dark blue. A number of dead were also stripped of uniforms in an attempt to hide their identification. Second, some of the dead did not appear to be Vietnamese or Cambodians. It was subsequently reported that a significant number were Chinese.
Newspapers picked up the story of those five days in War Zone D. The New York Times wrote that the Sky Soldiers inflicted major losses on the Viet Cong, reporting 391 enemy killed. The Los Angeles Times reported a smashing American victory in the "...first large-scale, stand-and-fight battle between nearly equal-sized Viet Cong and American forces...." The Washington Post reported that the "...toll of Vietcong known dead is one of the heaviest since American combat units were committed in March." The San Francisco Chronicle wrote the enemy "...employed, for what is believed the first time in the Vietnam War, flame-throwers and thermite grenades." For the troops overseas, the Pacific Stars & Stripes also credited the 1/503rd with 391 enemy killed, and reported that it had defeated an enemy regiment.
On 12 November 1965, the Battalion held memorial services for its fallen comrades. Those of us who were left stood in formation, at attention, to salute our departed colleagues.
"The sky again was dark with angry clouds. A gentle breeze across the open field played with the fluttering flags in their standards. It was time for solemn reflection, a time to worship, a time to remember. And then the roll call began."
The adjutant, CPT Dick Chegar, read the name of each man killed:
Aguilar, Rudolph Rene
Brayboy, Bryant Jr.
Cannon, Henry Tucker
Carlton, Lavalle Ernest
Eidson, Samuel Arlan
Elmore, Gary Lewis
Foster, Byron James
Goias, Everett William
Graham, Kenneth Errol
Greene, Lloyd Vincent
Hamilton, Joseph Thomas
Hannigan, John Edward III
Harden, Robert Wesley Jr.
Harrington, Clifton W.
Holcomb, Rebel Lee
Howard, Lawrence Paige Jr.
Hughlett, John Albert
Humphries, Wayne Warren
Jones, Theodore R. Jr.
Keel, David Latimore
Mathison, Michael K.
Medley, Michael Milton
Mitchell, Charles Leroy Jr.
Nathan, John Arthur
Orris, Steve III
Potter, Jerry Lee
Russo, Michael Phillip
Rutowski, Dennis David
Smith, Harold McRae
Sobota, Daniel James
Thurston, Clair Hall Jr.
Tolliver, Samuel Stanley
Turnage, Thomas Alfred
Ugland, David Leonard
Ward, Danny Russell
Whitaker, Kelly Eugene
Williams, Troy Byron
(SSG Theodore Shamblin died on 11 November, Wardlow W. Partee died on 12 November, and Francis Moody died on 14 November. All from wounds suffered on 8 November 1965.) These names are all inscribed on Panel 3E of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC from line 29 to line 39. Shamblin, Partee and Moody are on lines 41, 46 and 50, respectively.
The 1/503rd did not fight this battle alone. Supporting artillery units fired 5352 rounds. Army aviation flew the heliborne assault and provided armed helicopters, aerial resupply, airborne radio relay, command and liaison assistance, and medical evacuation support: a total of 1747 sorties. The Air Force flew 117 tactical air sorties and expended 158.5 tons of ordnance. In addition, Air Force H-43 helicopters flew 60 medical evacuation missions.
For this engagement on 8 November 1965 the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation for extraordinary heroism by President Lyndon B. Johnson. We had officially killed 403 enemy soldiers. "The largest kill, by the smallest unit, in the shortest time in the war in Vietnam to date."
"About three months later the 1st U.S. Infantry Division captured the records of an enemy field hospital that recorded that the 8 November battle was backed up by not one but TWO field hospitals and that just one of those hospitals had received over 700 bodies, dead on arrival."
In Saigon, a few days after the battle, selected members of 1/503 attended a news conference known as the Five O'clock Follies. The following two quotes came from that conference.
SSG Billy Wear, B 1/503, was with a platoon that knocked out two machine gun positions. "I don't know what VC unit was there, but I know the other side knows we were there and won't want to tangle with the 173rd again for a long time."
PSG Sylvester Bryant, C 1/503, probably articulated the American victory best. He was asked about the number of enemy killed. "I don't know how many they lost," he answered wryly, "but I can tell you one thing, old Charlie could hold his morning roll call in a phone booth."
American casualties were 51 killed and more than 100 wounded.
Only days later the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley began, and America quickly forgot the HUMP.
The battle for Hill 65 followed by the 1st Cav's engagement at the Ia Drang may have marked a turning point in the war. For the first time the enemy chose to stand and fight rather than break contact and melt back into the jungle.
The American Army may have lost a golden opportunity to inflict major casualties on the enemy by not following through with its advantage. In both battles, the Americans chose to leave the battlefield rather than pursue the enemy through the jungle.
COL Walter B. Daniel's recollections of the battle for Hill 65 were written on November 30, 1996. His account included some thoughts regarding the change of enemy tactics.
"Shortly after the battle, there were assertions from the press about being ambushed and about falling into a Viet Cong trap. These were quickly put to rest on the spot by the leaders at all levels. There was no trap and no ambush. Nevertheless, something had changed. What was it? Employing the advantage of hind sight, I offer the following:
"As late as September 1965 the strategy of the enemy seemed unchanged. Control the population, build up supplies, and avoid decisive engagement. The tactic was to disrupt the economy, interdict lines of communication, and discredit the central government (collect taxes, confiscate crops, destroy bridges, and assassinate local political leaders). Occasionally, targets of significant strategic value (airfields, ammunition dumps and supply depots) were infiltrated and damaged but only rarely would any unit other than Regional and Popular Force outposts be attacked. Our challenge was not defending our base camp.
"Our challenge was finding and fixing the enemy. We were always good at finding. Our training had taught us that the jungle was neutral. We could, and did, live there just as easy as the enemy. We could patrol (search and destroy) for days or even weeks, and we could find the enemy before he knew we were there. When we fought we won. But, we could never seem to fix the enemy long enough to bring him to decisive battle. They were always able to escape.
"Sometime in September we heard rumors that units of The 1st Inf Div had fought long jungle battles and rumors that they left the jungle before they occupied the terrain defended by the enemy. We passed these off as either false or the result of inexperienced troops. I now think that the enemy strategy (or at least his tactic) had changed. He was now willing to stand and fight if he could do so on his terms. Our failing was that we did not recognize this opportunity to pile on (mass our forces) and bring meeting engagements to a decisive battle.