There are only three principles of warfare:
Audacity, Audacity, and AUDACITY!
—GENERAL GEORGE PATTON
Alpha and Bravo companies, the first units to land, had now been locked in violent battle for more than two hours, had suffered no small number of casualties, especially among the sergeants and radio operators, and had shot up most of their ammunition. The two commanders, Tony Nadal and John Herren, needed time to evacuate their dead and wounded, to reorganize and regroup their diminished platoons and designate new leaders, and to replenish stocks of ammunition and grenades. They would have forty minutes to accomplish this; then heavy artillery fire would rain down ahead of them as they kicked off one more attempt to break through the ring of enemy troops and rescue the survivors of Lieutenant Henry Herrick’s 2nd Platoon.
Meanwhile, help was on the way. Back at 3rd Brigade headquarters in the tea plantation the orders were going out: Our sister battalion, the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, was informed that one of its companies, Bravo, was being detached and sent to Landing Zone X-Ray to reinforce. On arrival in X-Ray, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion would come under my operational control for the duration of the fight.
Three platoons of Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion were pulling guard duty around Colonel Tim Brown’s 3rd Brigade headquarters this afternoon, and were closest at hand and the easiest to move when Brown cast about for reinforcements. All the other 2nd Battalion companies were dispersed on patrols in the thick brush and would take much longer to assemble. So Captain Myron Diduryk’s B Company troops won the toss, hands down.
Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion had good, solid, professional noncoms, and its troops had served together for a long time. It was a good rifle company and I was happy to get it. Captain Diduryk was twenty-seven years old, a native-born Ukrainian who had come to the United States with his family in 1950. He was an ROTC graduate of St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, New Jersey, and was commissioned in July of 1960. He had completed paratrooper and Ranger training and had served tours in Germany and at Fort Benning. Diduryk was married and the father of two children. He was with his mortar platoon at Plei Me camp when he got the word by radio of his company’s new mission.
Specialist 5 Jon Wallenius, twenty-two and a native of Gloucester, Massachusetts, was in Diduryk’s 81mm mortar platoon, which had not moved back to brigade headquarters with the rest of the company. He says, “We waited in the red dust outside Plei Me camp. The constant coming and going of helicopters made conversation almost impossible. Word filtered down that 1st Battalion had got themselves into a fight and that we should be ready to go to their relief at any time. I was assigned to the first bird with Captain Diduryk; his radio operator, PFC Joe Keith; Platoon Sergeant SFC John A. Uselton; and his radio operator, Specialist 4 Virgil Hibbler, Jr.”
While our reinforcements were saddling up at Catecka and Plei Me, my Alpha and Bravo companies were about to launch their second attempt to break through to Lieutenant Herrick’s trapped platoon. John Herren and Tony Nadal had pulled their men back to the dry creekbed during the lull, so they would begin the attack from there.
Tony Nadal was on the left with his three Alpha Company platoons. John Herren was on the right with his two remaining Bravo Company platoons. Herren would be given priority of supporting fire since he was closest to the cut-off platoon and had only two remaining platoons under his control.
Nadal and his men removed their packs and replenished their ammo. What little water was available was shared out. Nadal was well aware of the threat from the mountain and down the ridge line: “I planned to use an echelon left* initially, since all the enemy movement had been from our left, and then switch to a wedge if we met no resistance.” John Herren planned for Bravo to use “fire and maneuver,” with one platoon moving forward under covering fire from the other.
Nadal called his three platoon leaders to a conference in the creekbed: “I told them what we were going to do and gave them our formation. I also instructed Joe Marm to guide on Bravo Company because we did not know where their cut-off platoon was located. Then I got most of the company together in the creekbed and gave them a pep talk about going out to rescue that platoon from Bravo, and told them how we were going to do it.” Platoon Sergeant Troy Miller remembers the scene: “Our morale was very high after the first contact. Before we went after the cut-off platoon, Captain Nadal got us together, then he said: ‘Men, we’ve got an American platoon cut off out there and we’re going after them!’ The replies were: ‘Yeah!’ and ‘Let’s go get them!’ and ‘Garry Owen!’”
Nadal was worrying over a major problem that he had discovered during the earlier fight: “There was only one artillery-fire-request radio frequency for all the battalion artillery forward observers. It was difficult to get fires in front of more than one company at a time, and the more experienced and aggressive observer, who happened to be with Bravo Company, managed to control the fires. As we prepared to move out, I tried to get artillery fire support but my forward observer was unable to communicate with the batteries.”
The troopers came to their feet at 4:20 P.M. and moved out of the creekbed on the attack. They didn’t get very far. There was an immediate and furious reaction from the North Vietnamese, who had obviously taken advantage of the temporary American withdrawal to move well down the slope and draw the circle that much tighter around us. Some were in the trees. Others were dug into the tops and sides of the termite hills. Still others were in hastily dug fighting holes. They had gotten well inside the wall of artillery fire, and we would pay dearly as a consequence.
Captain Tony Nadal, Alpha Company, was the first man out of the creekbed, leading the 1st Platoon in the assault. He recalls, “We moved out about fifty yards when we ran into the enemy force which had come down the mountain. I presume they were preparing to launch their attack about the time we launched ours. The fighting quickly became very vicious, at close range. We took many casualties. Lieutenant Wayne Johnson, the 1st Platoon leader, was hit. At least three squad leaders were also hit, two of them killed—one while going forward in an attempt to rescue one of his soldiers against direct orders.”
Sergeant Troy Miller was in the thick of the 1st Platoon fight. “I became the acting platoon leader when Lieutenant Johnson was wounded. We got ahead of Marm’s platoon. Right after Lieutenant Johnson was hit, Sergeant Billy Elliott, one of my squad leaders, yelled out: ‘We got a man killed.’ It was Sergeant Ramon Bernard. [Bernard, who was from Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, would have been twenty-six in five days.] We were pushing fast when we started getting heavy small-arms and automatic-weapons fire, mostly AKs.” Sergeant Elliott himself was killed shortly after he reported the death of Sergeant Bernard.
Over on Nadal’s right, John Herren’s Bravo Company troopers had run into the same deadly buzz saw. The “fire and maneuver” plan was forgotten. By necessity, Bravo Company got on line and attacked toward the sizable enemy force in the brush ahead of them.
Lieutenant Dennis Deal, whose platoon anchored Bravo’s right flank, was again in a storm of enemy fire. “We stood up and started the assault—got out of the trench and the whole world exploded. I don’t know how many there were. I couldn’t see ninety percent of them but I sure heard their weapons. We had men dropping all over the place. Finally, the assault line which had started out erect went down to our knees. And then down to the low crawl. One of my men right in front of me absorbed the full impact of a rocket-propelled grenade. His sergeant, to my rear behind a tree, kept yelling: ‘Come on, Joe, come on, you can get back here.’ I crawled up to him, took his weapon, and threw it to the rear. That M-16 landed on top of an anthill in full view of the enemy.
“The soldier was a mess. He asked me if I had any morphine. I said no, nothing. I said: ‘Joe, crawl toward that tree.’ He did. He got there and the sergeant took care of him. I now took his place and was basically a rifleman. As I turned I saw North Vietnamese coming around our right flank, and we were the right flank unit on line. I screamed and yelled and one of my machine gunners got up and walked through all this fire and started shooting them from the hip. I went along with him and we killed them all. We got rid of them. We returned to the assault line, unhurt, and got back down.”
Over in the Alpha Company sector, machine gunner Bill Beck, who had now rejoined his company, was in the first group charging out of the dry creek. Beck says, “Captain Nadal was the first man over the top. I was right beside him, to the left five yards or so. I saw the North Vietnamese out front.” Tony Nadal had ordered his men to fix bayonets for the attack. Bill Beck, firing a burst from his M-60 machine gun to his right front, was transfixed by what he saw just forward: “A tall, thin sergeant bayoneting a North Vietnamese in the chest. It was just like practice against the straw dummies: Forward, thrust, pull out, move on. One, two, three.”
Beck kept moving and firing when suddenly a swarm of wasps or hornets—real ones this time—got inside his helmet. This courageous soldier, who had withstood everything the North Vietnamese could throw at him, was momentarily defeated by a swarm of angry, stinging insects. Says Beck, “For a moment I dropped my machine gun and knocked my helmet off. My head was full of welts. I could not believe anything could make me forget the enemy, but I was in such instant pain.”
Beck was not the only man attacked by those hornets. Others were also distracted by their painful stings.
At the combination battalion command post and aid station, the casualties began to mount rapidly. Captain Carrara and his two sergeants had their hands full treating the wounded, who were lying about them on the ground. We had run into a deadly buzz saw. Still, the enemy commander had not yet attacked us from the eastern side of the clearing. All the fighting that afternoon had been and was now on the western and southern sides of X-Ray. In Hanoi in November 1991, when I told General An that my rear was open all that afternoon, his reaction was one of surprise and chagrin. Then he made a wise comment: “No commander ever knows all that is happening on a battlefield.” Fortunately for us, and because of Major Crandall and his brave aviators, we were able to get our wounded evacuated, and we were resupplied with ammo and water.
Captain Tony Nadal had four men in his command group as he charged into the brush: his two radio operators—Sergeant Jack Gell, a twenty-five-year-old native New Yorker, and Specialist 4 John Clark of Michigan—plus the company’s artillery forward observer, Lieutenant Timothy M. Blake, twenty-four, from Charleston, West Virginia; and Blake’s recon sergeant, Sergeant Floyd L. Reed, Jr., twenty-seven years old, of Heth, Arkansas. As they moved up Nadal had the radio handset to his ear. A burst of enemy machine-gun fire swept across the group. Sergeant Gell was hit and dropped without a sound. Nadal kept moving until the long black cord pulled back on him. He looked around to see what was wrong. The same burst that killed Sergeant Gell had also killed Lieutenant Blake and struck Sergeant Reed, who died shortly afterward. Sergeant Sam Hollman, Jr., a native Pennsylvanian, knelt beside his mortally wounded buddy Jack Gell and heard him gasp, “Tell my wife I love her.”
Tony Nadal had no time to mourn Jack Gell, a man he greatly respected. Too many other lives were in his hands. He swung back into action: “I removed the radio from his back, had some soldiers near me take Gell back to the aid station, and told another soldier to put on the radio.” That soldier was Specialist 4 Ray Tanner, a twenty-two-year-old trooper from Codes, South Carolina. Tanner was normally Sergeant Steve Hansen’s radio operator, but they had gotten separated and Tanner was tagging along with the 1st Platoon.
On the right flank of the Bravo line, Lieutenant Deal was now rolling around on the ground desperately trying to dodge a volley of machine-gun slugs cutting through the grass all around him. Suddenly, twenty-five yards away, Deal saw an American get up and charge forward while everyone around him was flat on his belly. Says Deal, “I saw him throw a grenade behind an anthill and empty his weapon into it. Then he fell to his knees. I said to myself: ‘Please, get up, don’t be hurt.’ I didn’t know who it was; I couldn’t make out the form. There was so much battlefield haze, dust, smoke.”
It was Lieutenant Joe Marm. He had spotted an enemy machine gun dug into a big termite hill; it was chewing up both the Bravo Company platoons. After failing to knock it out with a LAW rocket and a thrown grenade, he decided to deal with it directly. He charged through the fire, tossed a hand grenade behind the hill, and then cleaned up the survivors with his M-16 rifle. The following day, Lieutenant Al Devney found a dead North Vietnamese officer and eleven enemy soldiers sprawled behind that termite mound. Says Deal, “Joe Marm saved my life and the lives of many others.”
Lieutenant Marm staggered back to his platoon with a bullet wound to his jaw and neck. He joined a growing stream of walking wounded flowing back toward the battalion aid station. Sergeant Keeton treated Marm’s wound, and one of Bruce Crandall’s Hueys evacuated him to the rear. Within days, Lieutenant Joe Marm was recuperating at Valley Forge Army Hospital near his home in Pennsylvania. In December of 1966, Joe Marm reported to the Pentagon where the Secretary of the Army, acting on behalf of President Lyndon Johnson, presented him with the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor.
Here’s how Lieutenant Joe Marm himself modestly describes what happened: “I was located at the right flank of my platoon, with SFC George McCulley on the left flank. On the right of me was Lieutenant Al Devney’s platoon. So I was in the center of the action. That bunker was holding up the line and I first shot a LAW into it. There were no apertures in the anthill and the fire was coming from the sides of the bunker. There was heavy tree covering around it which prevented hand grenades from landing effectively. I thought it would be a simple matter to run up to the bunker and toss a grenade over the top. I tried to motion what I wanted done to one of the troops. The noise of battle was very high and the sergeant nearby thought I meant to throw it from our position. It landed short. In order to save time and get the job done as quickly as possible, I told both companies to watch their firing because I was going to rush the anthill. I was wounded immediately after silencing the bunker.”
Joe Marm’s heroic action unfortunately failed to open the door to the cut-off platoon. Bravo Company had progressed only about seventy-five yards, Alpha Company a bit further. All three of Nadal’s platoon leaders were now either dead or wounded, as were many of his noncoms. Worse yet, Alpha Company’s 1st Platoon had gotten out ahead of the other two and was heavily engaged with perhaps a hundred enemy. Some of the Alpha troopers bypassed the enemy in dense brush, and those North Vietnamese had opened up on them. Not only were we unable to punch through to rescue Herrick’s platoon, we were now in danger of having another platoon cut off.
It was the 1st Platoon’s turn. Platoon Sergeant Larry Gilreath recalls that moment: “They must have captured one of our M-60s from the cut-off platoon and turned it on us. We were behind a fallen tree and we were flat pinned down by machine-gun fire and couldn’t move. I remember saying that Sergeant Hurdle must be mad at us ’cause he’s shooting at us. That was because of the difference in the sound of that particular machine-gun fire and the other automatic-weapons fire we had been receiving.”
Sergeant Gilreath and his men weren’t really on the receiving end of friendly fire. Sergeant Paul Hurdle had been killed covering the withdrawal of his buddies in Herrick’s platoon. But Sergeant Gilreath’s sharp ears did not deceive him: The weapon he heard was, in fact, Paul Hurdle’s M-60. After Hurdle and his gunners were killed, the enemy first used that gun on the cut-off platoon and then turned it against the troopers trying to fight their way through to rescue Lieutenant Herrick’s men.
It was now near five P.M. and Crandall was bringing thirteen Hueys in on final approach to X-Ray, with the reinforcements from Captain Myron Diduryk’s Bravo Company 2nd Battalion. Specialist Jon Wallenius was aboard the first helicopter. “There was so much dust and smoke it was difficult to see very far off the LZ, but we could see tracers ahead of us on Chu Pong and hear the sounds of small arms. Then we were on the ground and running away from the chopper. I headed for the anthill area because it was the only cover I could see and it was close. Captain Diduryk ran up and saluted the officer in charge.”
Sergeant John Setelin, a slender twenty-two-year-old South Carolinian, led the 2nd Squad of the 2nd Platoon on the third Huey coming into the landing zone. “The crew chief hollered: ‘We are going into a hot LZ and hover; get your men out fast and head to the right!’ Then from the air I saw what appeared to be soldiers in khaki. I thought we must really be desperate if we’re bringing in guys just back from R and R without giving them time to change into their fatigue uniforms. Then I realized their rifles were pointed at us; that was the enemy! When we jumped out, people were firing down on us. The gooks were up in the trees!”
Captain Diduryk ran up to me and shouted: “Garry Owen, sir! Captain Diduryk and Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, a hundred and twenty men strong, reporting for duty!” His eyes sparkled with excitement and the challenge of the situation. I told Diduryk to assemble his men in a clump of trees thirty yards northwest of the command post to act as battalion reserve for the time being. Another unit came into X-Ray about that same time, unasked, unheralded, and, in fact, unnoticed by me. It was a Department of the Army Special Photographic Office (DASPO) team of two sergeants, Jack Yamaguchi and Thomas Schiro, armed with their 16mm silent movie cameras. It would be a quarter-century before we unearthed their film from military archives and saw the eerie color images of ourselves in battle.
Up in the scrub brush, in the thick of the fight to reach Her-rick’s cut-off platoon, the Alpha Company commander, Captain Tony Nadal, had come to a decision. He had one platoon pinned down in a hail of enemy fire and he knew that the longer this went on the harder it would be to get them out. It was 5:10 P.M. Nadal ordered his reserve, the 3rd Platoon, to move up on his left in an attempt to circle the enemy forces. It didn’t work. They ran into the same buzz saw that was chewing up all the other platoons.
Over on the right, Sergeant Larry Gilreath of Bravo Company wasn’t finding the going any easier. Captain John Herren asked Sergeant Gilreath if he knew of any other way that they had not tried. Says Gilreath, “My answer was ‘No sir.’ Even without all our dead and wounded that had to be taken care of, the time of day was against us.”
Captain Nadal says, “The fight continued for another twenty or thirty minutes with neither side making headway. It was getting dark and as the casualties mounted I decided we were not going to be able to break through. I called Colonel Moore and asked for permission to pull back.” John Herren, who was monitoring the battalion net, heard Nadal’s request and quickly concurred. It was now 5:40 P.M.; I ordered both companies to withdraw to the creekbed under cover of heavy supporting artillery fires.
With night approaching there was no real choice. I did not want to go into the hours of darkness with my battalion fragmented, with the companies incapable of mutual support, and subject to defeat in detail. The cut-off platoon would have to hang on to their little knoll tonight. We had to pull back, get our wounded and dead out, and resupply ammo and water. Then we had to get all units on line, tied in tight, with artillery and mortar fires registered for the long night ahead.
For Nadal and Herren, the hardest part would be breaking contact with the enemy and pulling back. Disengagement is always one of the most difficult military maneuvers to accomplish successfully. Doctrine calls for a deception plan, covering elements, fire support, security, mapped routes, a precise schedule, and the use of smoke. We had fire support and we could call down smoke, but we had neither the troops nor the time to work out a school solution.
Captain Nadal, with his artillery observer and artillery radio operator both dead, was now calling and adjusting fire support over the battalion command net. He recalls: “I told all platoon leaders that no one was pulling back until everyone, dead or alive, came back. In order to cover my withdrawal, I called Colonel Moore and asked him to give me a smoke mission and to drop the range about a hundred meters closer to us than the high-explosive fire missions. This would put the smoke almost directly on top of us.”
Nadal’s request went to the battalion command post and was relayed to the command helicopter overhead, where Captain Jerry Whiteside called it back to the fire direction center at LZ Falcon. In seconds the reply came back: “No smoke available.” Drawing on my Korean War experience, I asked if they had white phosphorus (WP) shells. They said yes. I told them to fire the mission using Willy Peter.
The bursting WP shells release thick clouds of brilliant white smoke and spew out fragments of phosphorus, which ignites on contact with air. I reckoned that if the North Vietnamese had never made the acquaintance of Willy Peter it would be a real eye-opener for them. Within a minute the shells whistled in, low over my head. The explosions were instantly effective in breaking up the NVA and silencing their guns.
Specialist Ray Tanner, pressed into service as Nadal’s replacement radio operator, says: “We started to pull back carrying out dead and wounded. We were under heavy fire that made it hard to move. Captain Nadal called for some smoke rounds for cover. Colonel Moore informed artillery to use WP. We got down as low as possible when the shells came in. The noise and bright light was shocking. No one was injured and we managed to make our withdrawal. The WP rounds were landing within yards of our positions. I still remember how bright they lit up when they exploded.”
Captain Nadal reacted to the Willy Peter with anger, surprise, and gratitude, in roughly that order. He recalls, “When this WP burst in the middle of us I got rather upset. Miraculously, not a single Alpha Company soldier was hit by any WP. It was very effective. All the firing died down and we started to recover our dead and wounded. The success of this volley now led me to ask for it to be fired again. Once again it fell among us and no one was hurt. I believe it was that WP that enabled us to pull our forces back to the creekbed without taking any more casualties in the process. I remained behind with my radio operators to provide covering fire for the withdrawal and was the last person back to the creekbed.” Seeing how well the white phosphorus worked in front of Alpha, we also dropped it in front of Bravo Company. It gave us the edge at precisely the moment we needed it.
Over on the left, Lieutenant Dennis Deal got the word to stop and withdraw to the dry creek—“which we did at a run. The executive officer, Lieutenant Ken Duncan, who was handling casualties, looked up and said: ‘Are you guys being chased?’ I said no. We had recovered all our radios, but that M-16 was still out there on that anthill, and I knew exactly where it was. One of my sergeants and I took off. No web gear and we both ran fast. He was covering me. We ran out there about a hundred yards. I went right to the anthill, got the missing weapon, and we ran back to the perimeter—straight at two hundred Americans who had their weapons aimed at us. Only then did I realize that I had forgotten to coordinate what I was doing with anybody, and it was almost dark. Thank God they held their fire. Otherwise there would have been a dumb lieutenant and a brave sergeant, both dead.”
While the costly effort to reach the remnants of Lieutenant Herrick’s platoon was playing out in the brush a hundred yards away, Sergeant Ernie Savage and his surrounded buddies were clinging desperately to their little patch of ground. Savage had walked the artillery in tight around them and each time he heard voices or saw any movement he called in the heavy stuff. “It seemed like they didn’t care how many of them were killed. Some of them were stumbling, walking right into us. Some had their guns slung and were charging bare-handed. I didn’t run out of ammo—had about thirty magazines in my pack. And no problems with the M-16. An hour before dark three men walked up on the perimeter. I killed all three of them fifteen feet away. They had AKs. At first I thought they were South Vietnamese. They had camouflage uniforms. Sergeant McHenry killed three more of them on the west side.”
Captain Herren was on the radio keeping Savage informed of the attempts to break through. Finally Herren told Savage they couldn’t make it before dark and were withdrawing. Herren told Savage, “Don’t worry. You’ve won this fight already.” Savage and Sergeant McHenry seemed confident they would survive if they could hold out through the night. Specialist Galen Bungum and others had their doubts: “Word came over the radio that we would have to hang on till morning. I could not believe what I heard. I thought there was no way we would be able to do that. Others thought the same thing. PFC Clark kept asking me: ‘Do you think we’ll make it?’ I didn’t know, but I said we have to pray and pray hard. It was a big question mark in all our minds. We all had to keep our cool and bear down.”
As Bravo Company pulled back toward the creekbed, Sergeant Gilreath was getting the word on who had been killed. “Sergeant Roland told me that Chief Curry had been killed. I went with Roland and helped carry him back. He wasn’t going to get left behind. I owed him that much. I had a special feeling for Curry. He was a squad leader in my platoon before he was transferred to the 3rd Platoon. I had known Curry well at Kelly Hill [Fort Benning]. He had never talked much about his family or relatives. He wasn’t married. He was known as a barracks soldier.”
The Bravo Company commander, Captain Herren, was making dispositions for the night. “I ordered my company to dig in, in front of the creekbed where we could tie in better with Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion on the right and Nadal’s Alpha Company on the left. We kept that artillery going around Sergeant Savage.”
I had thought the situation over in the interim and decided to strengthen our thin lines by deploying Diduryk’s Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion and continuing to hold my recon platoon in battalion reserve. I ordered Diduryk to position two of his platoons between John Herren’s Bravo Company and Litton’s Delta Company on the northeastern side of the perimeter. I also told Diduryk to turn his two 81mm mortars and crews over to the Delta Company centralized fire-direction center.
I also ordered Diduryk to send his 2nd Platoon, commanded by Lieutenant James L. Lane, to reinforce Bob Edwards’s Charlie Company, which was thinly spread over 120 yards of the perimeter on the south and southeast sides. Says Edwards: “The attachment of the 2nd Platoon was greatly appreciated. I placed it on my right flank, where it filled that critical gap between Alpha Company and my 3rd Platoon. Our ability to trade off platoons with other companies and work with them was important.”
As Lieutenant Lane’s platoon began settling in, a shocking event occurred. Sergeant John Setelin had moved his men into some of the foxholes vacated by Charlie Company men when they shifted left. “I got everybody down and started scouting to my left to hook in with Charlie Company. As I started out I heard one round sizzle over my head. I heard the crack of the rifle and the sizzle. I had never seen anybody or been that close to anybody who was hit before. The round struck Glenn Willard, our machine gunner, in the left side of his chest. I rushed to him; I thought a lot of Willard. He was a small man but he never let anybody help him carry his M-60 or the ammo. He was gurgling and his eyes rolled back in his head. It was almost like he was having a stroke.”
Setelin rolled Willard over and started pulling his web gear and his clothing off. “He had a sucking chest wound and I remembered training to treat that. I must have done it right, protected his wound, but when I tried to pick him up my hands sort of disappeared in the lower portion of his back where the bullet came out. Lamonthe ran over to help. Tears were running down my face. I was yelling: ‘He’s about to die on me!’ Willard was my first casualty and I felt like I wasn’t doing my job. A tall guy came over and picked Willard up in his arms and carried him to the medics at the battalion CP.” The gravely wounded Willard survived.
With the pall of smoke and dust choking the valley, twilight would be brief. We had only a little time to set up the nighttime perimeter around X-Ray. In positioning the five infantry companies I took several things in account: the fighting strength of each company; the need to defend the small two-chopper landing zone; enemy routes of attack; and placing the Delta Company machine-gun platoon with its six M-60s where they could do the most good and the most damage. I wanted those machine guns in the more open, flat terrain on the eastern edge of the clearing.
I now considered the toll this day’s fighting had taken. Tony Nadal’s Alpha Company had lost three officers and thirty-one enlisted men killed and wounded, and now reported effective strength of two officers and eighty-four enlisted. John Herren’s Bravo Company had lost one officer and forty-six enlisted men killed or wounded, and was down to four officers and sixty-eight enlisted men with one platoon, Herrick’s, trapped outside the perimeter. Those two companies were given smaller sectors than Bob Edwards’s Charlie Company, which had lost only four casualties and was reporting a strength of five officers and 102 enlisted. Even so, I beefed up Charlie Company with Lieutenant Lane’s platoon from Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion. Myron Diduryk and his other two platoons were assigned to the sector northeast of the small landing zone to help protect the clearing, the eight mortars, and the aid station-command post-supply dump near the termite hill. The battalion recon platoon was held back in a reserve assembly area close to my command post. I made certain the machine-gun platoon was tightly tied in to Bob Edwards’s left flank in the southeast sector.
At about 6:50 P.M. I radioed Matt Dillon to come into X-Ray as soon as possible, bringing Hastings and Whiteside, two more radio operators, and as much ammo and water as they could carry on two Hueys. We now had good, direct communications with brigade headquarters and no longer needed the command ship overhead relaying our radio traffic. This was thanks to First Sergeant Warren Adams of Delta Company, who brought in a RC-292 field antenna. Installed in a tall tree, the long antenna gave us the range to talk to brigade at the tea plantation, more than twenty-five miles away. Besides, this battle was far from over, and I now needed Dillon at my right hand to help me control the fight. With the fire support coordinators on the ground we would also cut our response time in the fluid, fast-paced situation.
For almost eight hours I had been involved in the minute-to-minute direction of the battle. Now I wanted to personally walk the perimeter and check the preparations for what promised to be a tough night and another tough day tomorrow. Just before dark, Sergeant Major Plumley and I broke away from the command post and set out to check the perimeter, talking with the troopers and getting a feel for the situation on the ground. What concerned me most was the morale of the men, how well the companies were tied in, their defensive fire plans, and the situation with ammunition and water supplies.
Morale among the men was high, although there was understandable grief over the friends we had lost. The men I talked with realized that we were facing a fierce, determined enemy, but he had failed to break through our lines. They knew the fight wasn’t over. I heard weary soldiers say things like: “We’ll get ’em, sir” and “They won’t get through us, sir.” Their fighting spirit had not dimmed, and they made me proud and humble. In every one of my companies that had landed in this place this morning there were fifteen to twenty soldiers who had less than two weeks left to go in the Army. Some of those men now lay dead, wrapped in ponchos, near my command post. The rest of them were on that perimeter, standing shoulder to shoulder with their buddies, ready to continue the fight.
With the coming of full darkness, around 7:15 P.M., Plumley and I moved back to the termite-hill command post. When we got back I checked on Sergeant Ernie Savage and his’ band of survivors in Herrick’s cut-off platoon. The report came back by radio that they had taken no additional casualties and were hanging tough. I mulled over possible options for their rescue: a night attack; night infiltration to reinforce the platoon; or a fresh attempt to fight through to them early the next morning. They would be on all our minds this night, that brave handful of men surrounded and alone in a sea of enemies.
* In an echelon-left formation, the company commander positions one platoon in the lead; the second follows, staggered left at forty-five degrees, and the third follows that, also staggered left at forty-five degrees. Such a formation is used to counter a perceived threat from the left flank.