Thursday, March 13, 2014
Young Men and War Third Part: Al Conetto's Vietnam
War Zone D was controlled by the Viet Cong, specifically the 9th VC Division. Until early November of 1965 the VC had avoided contact with U.S. Army units whenever possible. But during Operation Hump, the VC would stand and fight. Brigade intelligence estimated that the 9th VC Division could mass 8500 troops within 48 hours, armed with 81mm and 82mm mortars, 57mm and 75mm recoilless rifles, .50 caliber and .30 caliber machine guns, and AK-47 rifles.
The first three days of Operation Hump were uneventful, as the VC continued to avoid contact while the paratroopers patrolled near the intersection of two rivers, the Song Be and the Song Dong Nai. But late in the afternoon of 7 November, brigade radio direction-finding equipment located a VC command post in the vicinity of the 1st Battalion. With daylight fading, patrols from the battalion’s B and C Companies found nothing. The next morning, an attempt would be made to find and fix the VC positions.
At first light, 8 November 1965, 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 Captain 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 Captain 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.
The enemy sent patrols to the west and northwest. Charlie Company made contact first. At 0800 Second Lieutenant 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, Private First Class Julius House, began checking a clothes line. An NCO hollered to him to watch out for booby traps, and then Lieutenant Russ ordered the unit to join up again. Staff Sergeant 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, First Lieutenant 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, lost forever. Lieutenant 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. Second 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. Lieutenant Waller had been hit in the right shoulder and left wrist. Right behind him, his radio telephone operator’s right thigh had been shattered by a .50 caliber round. Hutchens was next in line 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 because they were closer to the enemy. The right file, although not hit as hard, had 50% casualties.
Platoon Sergeant Rick Salas of 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 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.
Lieutenant Waller now commanded his platoon to pull back and set up a defensive perimeter. He also ordered his artillery forward observer to request immediate fire support. Chaplain Hutchens then helped drag the platoon RTO back, and with the medics pulled the wounded engineer back into the small perimeter.
The Battalion Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Tyler, later 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.
Captain Henry Tucker, commanding C Company, was at the company command post 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.
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." He 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 enemy’s powerful AK47s. The intensity of the firepower told him 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 Platoon Sergeant George Hino, a Japanese-Hawaiian, was hurrying down a small opening when he saw a wounded RTO telling Captain 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 this 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. Sergeant 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 nearby and all at once he was dazed, he couldn't see or hear. Spec5 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, because he was still firing at the small trees running everywhere around the hill.
At the sound of gunfire, shortly after 0815, Captain 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 the direction of the fire; And third, he notified battalion that he had stopped his search and awaited orders.
At 0830 Colonel Tyler ordered Bravo Company to secure Charlie Company’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, 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, Bittrich attempted to establish radio contact with C Company, but was unsuccessful and became concerned that he might have problems with friendly fire.
Colonel Tyler informed Bittrich that the situation on Hill 65 was unclear and that while speed was of the essence, he was not to take unnecessary risks. 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 about 0925 hours, 3rd Platoon’s leader, Second Lieutenant 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 Captain Tucker did not have contact with his forward elements, but would make every attempt to cease its fire. Tucker and Bittrich agreed that C Company only needed to halt its fire 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, Sergeant 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 returned fire and then realized he had only one other man with him. Charlie Company was about 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 Sergeant Membreno. He also grabbed an M-16, fifteen magazines of ammo and three 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 the Hump Operation, sitting in a tent drinking beer with Sergeant 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.
First Lieutenant Mike DeFrancesco was the platoon leader with 1st Platoon. He led a charge up the hill, which featured 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 the paratroopers had moved across a major enemy area. At some point the VC either had had enough and retreated or had absorbed 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.
Spec4 Joe Diaz, from San Antonio, Texas, was a 26 year old experienced medic who normally moved with the Battalion Aid Station during operations. For Operation Hump, however, he was asked to cover 2nd Platoon, B Company because 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 firefight 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.
All three of Captain Bittrich's platoons were under enemy fire from heavily fortified positions. Lieutenant 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. First Platoon cut them down. Three men in First Lieutenant 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 recalled 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.
PFC John "Dutch" Holland, from Nicoma Park, Oklahoma, was part of the 18 man contingent from 2nd Platoon left behind by Lieutenant 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 20 by 30 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, Staff Sergeant 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." Private 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, the enemy threw another grenade 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 – friendly fire. Then a lull occurred 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 Goias never made it. Holland recalled, "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 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 Spec4 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 going for the field radio that 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 Langston unconscious with a large hole in his helmet. There were dead enemy bodies 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 shrapnel in it, 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, the trooper dropped Holland to the ground as a sniper fired on them. When that danger passed, Staff Sergeant Bernoski assisted Holland back to Bravo Company's perimeter.
Meanwhile, enemy bodies stacked up as B Company moved against the VC rear. It seemed to Captain Bittrich that C Company had pushed the enemy 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 jungle 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 Captain Tucker. Bullets were flying and he was in a well dug in position with an RTO and his 2nd Platoon leader, Lieutenant 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 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 Tucker, to locate the remainder of C Company and consolidate the position.
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 Lieutenant 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. Lieutenant Robert Frakes, 2nd Platoon’s 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 mainline North Vietnamese Army 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' position, Lieutenant 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. Spec5 John Moore and Spec4 Davis Uptain, 173rd Engineer Company, were assigned to Thurston's platoon. They were lying 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. He then said to him, "Go out and get the radio." Thurston's body lay some 20 yards to Moore's front. 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 ten 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 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 3rd Battalion, 319th Field Artillery responded and brought a steel curtain forward of the beleaguered troops. They initially placed fire north and northeast of the hill and walked it 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 those 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: Spec5 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 would not go unrewarded. On the recommendation of Spec 4 Joe Diaz and Lieutenant Colonel Tyler, one year later President Lyndon Johnson bestowed upon him the Medal of Honor.
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 Lieutenant 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, First Sergeant 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.
Sergeant 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 Officer Candidate School. 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 creased the middle of his back and lodged in the muscle next to his backbone.
Sergeant 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 Captain 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.
As the artillery continued to fire, the enemy adjusted. They moved closer to the paratroopers’ positions thereby, negating the American artillery. This was obviously a well-trained and highly-disciplined enemy. Bittrich reported to Colonel Tyler that he was surrounded, but would hold. He was, however, going to need help. Tyler answered that he was working on it. Then came the sound of three bugles. When later 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 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, but it met the same fate. This time they were in retreat. But it wasn't over just yet.
Spec5 Moore remembered that every time he moved he 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 he started moving again. Moore hooked up with Private 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, they’re 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.
Lieutenant Waller's Forward Observer had begun to "walk" the artillery in as the enemy was immediately to the platoon's front. Dust and artillery fragments filled the air. 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 Captain Bittrich was able to secure his company perimeter and tie in with C Company. At this point Bittrich again radioed battalion to report more than 40 Americans dead from Bravo and Charlie Companies, approximately 70 wounded and 20 others missing. There was a long pause on the radio and then 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. Colonel Tyler had good reason to believe that Captain Tucker was wounded or dead as most radio traffic was with Bittrich.
When the fighting started on the morning of the 8th, Alpha Company was sweeping to the east towards the Song Be River. Tyler immediately ordered us to return to base camp. Around noon, Alpha had reassembled and was ready to join the action.
About 1300, Tyler decided to commit his reserve company--us. His orders to Captain 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."
Tyler's list of options was short. The 1st Royal Australian Regiment was in contact with the enemy across the Dong Nai River and at least one to two days march away from us. The 2nd Battalion, 503rd 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.
Captain Daniel issued his 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. Second Lieutenant Dave Ugland had 1st Platoon, First Lieutenant Bob Biedleman had 2nd, and I commanded the 3rd. Captain 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 command post 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 Lieutenant Biedleman and two more 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.] Captain 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 (battalion operations officer), the S-3 operations sergeant, the S-2 (intelligence) operations sergeant, the battalion sergeant major, and one of the battalion commander's RTOs. Spec4 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 dived 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."
Long after the war, 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 was placed on the floor of a helicopter and the rounds 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 Daniel that these were "friendly mortars."
On Hill 65 Captain Bittrich heard that the battalion headquarters had been 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. Captain Daniel brought our platoons on line with Dave’s on the right flank and my platoon on the left. We advanced up Hill 65 towards B and C Companies and the enemy. As we neared them, Daniel halted the Company and ordered one patrol from each platoon to go forward to find out what was to our front. Here, Daniel later admitted 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. 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 Dave 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 dead in the short time it took for the enemy leaders to recognize that our threat was to their rear.
Alpha Company First Sergeant 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 Daniel that he was taking on a superior force. He reported such to Tyler and his orders were to break contact and return to the battalion patrol base. 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 it continue to hold the ground surrounding the LZ should it become critical. And it would become critical 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 Lieutenant Dave 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, Captain Daniel radioed to me "Papa Lima Delta," which meant "platoon leader dead," and issued the order to break contact.
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; then two more steps and stopping to fire. Both platoons were on the ground, engaging the attacking enemy soldiers and "really mowed them down." When the enemy went to ground a 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 Companies, but for the most part it sounded like the main battle was over.
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.
Spec4 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 Lieutenant 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 his friends. They were Bravo Company, they were 1st Batt, they were the 173rd Airborne. "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?"
By now Captain 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. With the last action completed, he estimated that more than 220 enemy soldiers had been killed.
Around 1600 hours Staff Sergeant Billie Wear from 3rd Platoon approached Bittrich and asked if he could lead a patrol to recover Lieutenant 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 Thurston's body. Finally, 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.
Now Bittrich and Tucker set about securing their position on the battlefield. They began the process of getting the critically wounded out, receiving more ammunition and preparing 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 recalled that more than one Army Huey 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 evacuated was the sergeant with multiple gun shot wounds in the abdomen that Spec 4 Diaz had administered to earlier. Diaz later received a letter from the sergeant's mother thanking him for saving her son's life. He 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, the 173rd Brigade’s commander, Brigadier General Ellis W. 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.
In between the Air Force flights Army helicopters dropped resupplies to the beleaguered troopers. It began to get dark and Captain 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.
He 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. At daybreak he realized just how brutal the battle had been 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 VC 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 Captain 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. Tucker and 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 ended with the 1st Battalion, 503rd occupying two defensive positions separated by several hundred yards of jungle. We didn’t know the size of the enemy force, or whether the VC would come back at us again.
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 countermoves 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 was designated 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.
As dawn broke on the morning of 9 November 1965, Colonel Tyler, with General 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. 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 Tyler made his decision, gun ships, medevacs and Williamson were in the air above Bravo and Charlie Companies’ positions. But Bravo and Charlie still had three tasks to accomplish: First, to probe forward of their positions to determine if the enemy was still there. Second, to find the missing paratroopers from C Company. And third, to 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, General Williamson attempted to have his command and control chopper land near B and C in order 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. Then Williamson, his pilot, and the general's aide would attempt the landing.
At the landing zone, the Brigade Commander's pilot, Warrant Officer 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 Captains 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. Within two hours all the wounded and dead had been evacuated.
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. We knew with him around that everything was going to be all right.
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 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.”
As 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.
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 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 Colonel Tyler seeking assistance to convince the General to fly out. Tyler's appeal fell on deaf ears, as he knew it would. Tyler's orders were to take it slow and get the General back to battalion base safely.
Knowing Bittrich's concern, Williamson looked at him, smiled and said, "Let me know when you’re ready." At that point, Bittrich left him with Captain 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 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."
Spec4 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."
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 got a bunch of trees in line ready to fall, then fell 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.
When the area was large enough, evacuation began. First the wounded and then the dead. And after the dead, the remainder of B and C Companies who had not walked out 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: Captain Daniel; his executive officer, First Lieutenant Gene Krause; First Sergeant Bill Workman; three other NCOs; two company RTOs; the forward observer, Captain 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 Captain Daniel's RTOs manned the gun. But we did have Captain DeBausch. He called in fire from eighteen 105mm howitzers to support our little perimeter.
At this time, Bill Workman led two others to the far end of the extraction zone where the abandoned helicopter blade lay. He connected communications wire to the blade, placed a hand grenade under it, pulled the pin and ran back to the company command post. The blade held the grenade handle. Some minutes later Daniel observed movement near the helicopter blade and 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 Huey 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. 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. First Lieutenant 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, who had been shot and killed.
Only years later did we learn that the enemy’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."
The next day General Westmoreland, accompanied by General Williamson and Colonel Tyler, inspected Bravo Company. Captain Bittrich led General 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 in 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 limit after several questions. When Westmoreland asked, "How do you know you killed the enemy?," the soldier responded without a stutter, "Because I got his blood all over me." Colonel Tyler remembers as he and Westmoreland walked away, the General whispered to him with a chuckle, "I asked for that."
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."
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."
Platoon Sergeant Sylvester Bryant of C Company 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 Operation Hump. But no one who was there will ever forget it.