Military history



A Dawn Attack

A brave Captain is as a root, out of which as branches the courage of his soldiers doth spring.


It was 6:20 A.M., Monday, November 15, and in the half-light before dawn, the battalion operations officer, Captain Matt Dillon, knelt rummaging through his field pack for the makings of C-ration hot chocolate. An uneasy feeling nagged at me as I stood nearby peering into the calm dimness around the clearing. It had nothing to do with Sergeant Savage and the Lost Platoon. They had survived the night without further casualties, and Dillon and I had worked out a new plan for their rescue. No. It was something else that bothered me. It was too quiet. Too still. Turning to Dillon, I told him to order all companies to immediately send out reconnaissance patrols forward of their positions to check for enemy activity. Dillon put out that order while his radioman, Specialist 4 Robert McCollums, fired up a heat tab under a canteen cup of water for their hot chocolate.

While the patrols were preparing to ease out of the perimeter to check for enemy infiltrators, I told Dillon to radio all the company commanders to meet us at Bob Edwards’s command post just behind the Charlie Company lines to discuss the best attack route out to Savage. I had decided we would try to break through using three companies—John Herren’s Bravo, Tony Nadal’s Alpha, and Bob Edwards’s Charlie—deployed in a wedge formation. I would be with Bravo, leaving Dillon in charge of the LZ. We would jump off from the dry creekbed after heavy, close-in air and artillery prep fires and keep the artillery walking just ahead of us as we moved west toward Savage’s platoon. Diduryk and Litton’s companies would remain behind in reserve to protect the small landing area. It was a good plan, but it never happened.

Captain Bob Edwards remembers: “At first light Colonel Moore was planning to attack to reach the cut-off platoon. The company commanders were to meet at my command post to discuss this. He also directed us to patrol out from our positions for possible snipers or infiltrators that had closed in on the perimeter during the night. I passed this on to my platoon leaders and told them to send a squad from each of the four platoons out about two hundred yards. The patrols from 2nd Platoon, Lieutenant Geoghegan, and 1st Platoon, Lieutenant Kroger, had moved about a hundred and fifty yards in the search when they began receiving heavy small-arms fire. They returned fire and started back.”

Geoghegan’s platoon sergeant, Robert Jemison, recalls that just before daybreak he and Lieutenant Geoghegan shared the last few drops of water in a canteen; their other three canteens were bone-dry. “At first light we sent out a patrol. Staff Sergeant Sidney Cohen, Specialist 4 Arthur L. Bronson, and three other men were picked to go,” says Jemison. “They saved us from being surprised. They spotted the enemy on their way in to attack our position. They came running back, with Bronson screaming: ‘They’re coming, Sarge! A lot of ’em. Get ready!’ I told the machine gunners to hold their fire until they were close.”

At the battalion command post the attack shattered the early-morning stillness like a huge explosion. The intense heavy firing told us with jolting clarity that the south and southeast sections of the X-Ray perimeter were under extremely heavy attack. I yelled to Dillon to call in all the firepower he could get. Fire swept across the landing zone and into my command post. It was 6:50 A.M.

Then–Lieutenant Colonel Hoang Phuong, who was present in the Ia Drang and wrote the North Vietnamese after-action report on the fight, says, “We had planned to launch our attack at two A.M., but because of air strikes and part of the battalion getting lost, it was delayed until 6:30 A.M. The attack was carried out by the 7th Battalion of the 66th Regiment. The H-15 Main Force Battalion, a local-force Viet Cong unit, was also in that attack.”

Bob Edwards was on the radio desperately trying to get information from his four platoons. The heaviest firing was in the vicinity of his 1st and 2nd platoons, who were holding down the left side of the lines. He could not get either Lieutenant Kroger or Lieutenant Geoghegan on the radio. Only Lieutenant Franklin and Lieutenant Lane, whose platoons held the right side, responded; they were in good shape. Captain Edwards and the five men sharing the command-post foxhole began shooting at the onrushing enemy.

Moments later, there was a desperate radio call from Edwards: “I need help!” I told him no; he would have to hold with his own resources and firepower for the time being. It would be tactically unsound, even suicidal, to commit my small reserve force so quickly, before we got a feel for what the enemy was doing elsewhere around the perimeter. Charlie Company was obviously in a heavy fight but they had not been penetrated.

Bob Edwards estimated that his men were being attacked by two or three companies and, to make things worse, a large number of the enemy had closed with Geoghegan and Kroger’s two platoons before the artillery and air could be brought to bear. The North Vietnamese were now safely inside the ring of steel.

My command post and Alpha and Bravo companies, directly, across the flat, open ground behind Edwards’s foxholes, were now catching the enemy grazing fire, which passed through and over the Charlie Company lines.

The Bravo Company commander, John Herren, says: “I alerted my men to be ready to swing around and defend in the opposite direction if the enemy broke through into the perimeter behind us.” In Alpha Company, Captain Nadal’s radio operator, Specialist Tanner, remembers: “When morning broke it all started over again. I remember using a big log for cover. Every once in a while I would see muzzle flashes in the trees. We would fire at any muzzle blast seen.”

Bob Edwards could not raise Lieutenant Kroger or Lieutenant Geoghegan on his radio because the two platoon leaders and their men were fighting for their lives, blazing away at the on-rushing enemy. Sergeant Jemison says Geoghegan’s troops were in two-man, foot-deep holes spaced about ten yards apart, in which they could lie prone. Jemison says, “The enemy was wearing helmets with nets on them and grass stuck in the netting. They looked like little trees. There were over a hundred of them, hitting our right flank hard and over in the 1st Platoon. Geoghegan’s foxhole and mine were in about the center of our position. They hit us once, then fell back; then they split into two groups. One began trying to flank us on the left but [Specialist 4 James] Comer’s machine gun stopped them. The other kept hitting the right. One of the first men to get hit was Sergeant Cohen to my right; then other people got wounded.”

PFC Willie F. Godboldt, twenty-four, of Jacksonville, Florida, was hit while firing from his position twenty yards to Sergeant Jemison’s right. Jemison remembers, “Godboldt was hollering: ‘Somebody help me!’ I yelled, ‘I’ll go get him.’ Lieutenant Geoghegan yelled back: ‘No, I will!’ Geoghegan moved out of his position in the foxhole to help Godboldt and was shot. This was ten minutes or so from the time the firing first broke out.” Struck in the back and the head, Lieutenant John Lance (Jack) Geoghegan was killed instantly. The man he was trying to save, PFC Godboldt, died of his wounds shortly afterward.

The enemy now closed to within seventy-five yards of Edwards’s line. They were firing furiously, some crouched low and at times crawling on their hands and knees. Others, no taller than the elephant grass they were passing through, came on standing up and shooting. They advanced, screaming at each other and at Edwards’s men. Leaders were blowing whistles and using hand and arm signals. A few were even carrying 82mm mortar tubes and base plates. This was clearly no hit-and-run affair. They had come to stay.

Specialist 4 Arthur Viera, Jr., twenty-two, of Riverside, Rhode Island, was armed with an M-79 grenade launcher and a .45-caliber pistol. “Once the firing started, out with the patrol, it all happened fast. They were into us in about ten minutes. I remember one guy hollering: ‘Look at ’em all! Look at ’em all!’ There were at least two hundred of them coming at us fast. I yelled at him to start firing and shoved him in a foxhole. I kept firing with my M-79. Our medic was shot in both legs and going crazy, trying to push himself up from the ground with his arms.”

Sergeant Jemison says, “We had one man run into our position from the 1st Platoon. He was shot in the head and hollered to me: ‘Damn, Sergeant, they are messing us up!’” Jemison says one of his squads—under Sergeant Reginald A. Watkins, twenty-five, of Charlotte, North Carolina—was on the far right, next to Kroger’s 1st Platoon, and was virtually wiped out when Kroger’s platoon was hit so hard. Sergeant Watkins was among the dead.

Playing a key role in keeping Geoghegan’s platoon from being overrun were two M-60 machine guns—one manned by Specialist James C. Comer of Seagrove, North Carolina, and Specialist 4 Clinton S. Poley, and the other operated by Specialist 4 George Foxe of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and Specialist 4 Nathaniel Byrd of Jacksonville, Florida. Comer and Poley were on the left; Byrd and Foxe were off to the right, next to the 1st Platoon. Comer’s gun interlocked its field of fire with that of Delta Company on the left, while Byrd and Foxe interlocked their fire with that of the 1st Platoon. Those two machine guns kept cutting down the enemy.

Now Bob Edwards’s 3rd Platoon, led by Lieutenant Franklin, came under attack, but fortunately with nothing like the numbers or ferocity of the assault against Kroger’s and Geoghegan’s platoons. A heavy firelight developed on Franklin’s right, involving Lieutenant Lane’s reinforcing platoon from Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion. Sergeant John Setelin was in that scrap: “It seemed like half a battalion hit us all at once. He hit us headlong and he hit us strong. I thought we were going to be overrun. When Charlie hit us, he had this strange grazing fire. He shot right at ground level trying to cut your legs off, or, if you weren’t deep enough in your foxhole, he shot your head off. When he started firing at us, it came like torrents of rain. You couldn’t get your head up long enough to shoot back. You just stuck your weapon up, pulled the trigger, and emptied the magazine.”

Back at the battalion command post, I had my ear glued to the radio handset when Captain Bob Edwards’s voice broke in with a quick, curt “I’m hit!” I asked him how bad it was and whether he could still function. He replied that he was down and his left arm was useless, but he would do his best to carry on. Specialist 4 Ernie Paolone, sharing the foxhole with his boss, says Edwards was bleeding badly from the back of his left shoulder and left armpit.

Edwards’s commo sergeant, Sergeant Hermon R. Hostuttler, was hit in the neck and went down, bleeding heavily. Edwards then saw two or three enemy “right in front of us. I stood, threw a grenade, and immediately felt a tremendous, hard slap on my back. I found myself on the ground inside the foxhole. I had lost the ability to move my left arm but otherwise was conscious. I called Colonel Moore and told him what happened and asked that he send my executive officer up to take command.”

Edwards’s executive officer was Lieutenant John W. Arrington, twenty-three, a native of North Carolina and a graduate of West Point, class of 1964. I called him over from the ammo storage area, briefed him, and told him to move out and take over Charlie Company. Arlington headed out at a low, crouching run across fifty yards of open ground toward the company command post.

Now Edwards was on the radio to Matt Dillon, telling him he was very worried about the enemy exploiting their penetration. “When I saw those enemy right in front of my position, I knew I needed at least another platoon to assist me. I needed somebody up there to plug the gap. I tried to convince Dillon that my need was as great as anyone’s, because I was stretched thin. I pushed the other two platoons over to try and plug this gap. They tried, but were under too much fire to do it effectively.”

The penetration Edwards was talking about was in Lieutenant Neil Kroger’s 1st Platoon position directly in front of Bob Edwards’s command-post foxhole. The enemy had obviously burst through at that point.

Edwards’s artillery forward observer was pinned down in the command-post foxhole, unable to adjust the fires. The battalion fire support coordinator, Captain Jerry Whiteside, calmly stood up, peered over the termite hill in the face of enemy fire, and adjusted the artillery and aerial rocket gunship fire forward of Charlie Company.

Lieutenant Charlie Hastings, our forward air controller, had already swung into action. Sensing disaster, Hastings made an immediate, instinctive decision: “I used the code-word ‘Broken Arrow,’ which meant American unit in contact and in danger of being overrun—and we received all available aircraft in South Vietnam for close air support. We had aircraft stacked at 1,000-foot intervals from 7,000 feet to 35,000 feet, each waiting to receive a target and deliver their ordnance.”

Now it was 7:15 A.M., and suddenly fighting broke out in front of the Delta Company machine guns and mortar positions. It was a separate, heavy assault on a section of the perimeter immediately to the left of Edwards’s Charlie Company. Initial reports estimated two companies of enemy, many dressed in black uniforms. It was a Viet Cong battalion, the H-15 Main Force Battalion, making its first appearance on the battlefield.

Delta Company’s first sergeant, Warren Adams, a three-war veteran, was dug in on the perimeter. He remembers, “There were enemies who sneaked up and hit us. My radio operator and I kept getting fragments from hand grenades popping all around us. One of them hit our fire-direction center foxhole and Sergeant Walter Niemeyer’s leg was blown off. My radio operator and I decided to clean up a termite hill where the grenades were coming from. We each pulled the pins on two grenades, one in each hand, and packed off through the trees and brush, got on the back side of the hill, and tossed them over. Sure enough, two or three bodies, clothing, a couple of AK-47s were back there when we looked. One must have been an officer; we picked up his pistol.”

Specialist 4 George McDonald, a Charlie Company mortar-man, was beside his mortar near Sergeant Adams’s position. “When our perimeter was attacked it was so close that we weren’t able to use the mortars. I was told to use my M-79 and hand grenades and was pleased with the results. I remember talking to a new trooper who had just joined the Army. He told me that he was only 17 years old. A short time later a rocket round hit a tree close by and riddled his back with shrapnel. He had on a white T-shirt and I bet that it was the only white shirt in the 1st Cav Division. [All the cavalry troopers had dyed their underwear Army green, on orders, before they sailed for Vietnam.] The last I heard was that he had been evacuated.”

Across the clearing, hugging the ground under the hail of fire snapping through the battalion command post, was reporter Joe Galloway. “I was down flat, clutching my rifle, expecting at any moment to see the enemy break through into the clearing. I could see blips of dust where rounds hit and an occasional rocket grenade or small mortar explosion. In the middle of all that a kid wearing a white T-shirt stumbled out of the trees, lurching toward us. We all started yelling and waving to him to go back to cover. He kept coming, but finally saw us. When he turned around we could see his back was shredded, the red blood a startling sight against the white shirt. He later made it to the battalion aid station.”

By now I was convinced that the enemy was making a primary effort to overrun us from the south and southeast, and I alerted the reserve platoon for probable commitment into the Charlie or Delta Company sectors. The noise of battle was unbelievable. Never before or since, in two wars, have I heard anything to equal it. I wanted to get help to Bob Edwards, but decided it was still too early in the game to commit the reserve force. Instead, I told Dillon to direct Captain Tony Nadal of Alpha Company to quickly move a platoon across the clearing to reinforce Charlie Company.

Not wanting to weaken his critical left flank, which was closest to Charlie Company and was holding that sharp left turn in the line just east of the creekbed, Nadal chose to pull out his right-flank 2nd Platoon—Joe Marm’s unit, now led by Platoon Sergeant George McCulley—and send them over to help Edwards. Nadal then ordered his 3rd Platoon leader, Sergeant Lorenzo Nathan, to stretch his men out to fill the gap left by the departure of McCulley’s men. McCulley and his sixteen men, all that were left of Lieutenant Marm’s platoon, came through the battalion command post. I briefed the sergeant and pointed out where Edwards’s command post was located.

McCulley and his men headed out at a low crouch, moving fast in short bounds across the open ground under heavy enemy automatic-weapons fire. They lost two killed and two wounded—including Sergeant McCulley, who was wounded in the neck—during the dangerous move but finally made it to the right center of the Charlie Company sector, about fifteen yards behind their lines. There, taking up positions that gave them good fields of fire, the remnants of the 2nd Platoon men provided some measure of defense in depth to Charlie Company. But the loss of four men crossing the clearing convinced me that further internal movements were inadvisable until we reduced the enemy grazing fire.

Unnoticed at my command post because of the deafening uproar from the Charlie and Delta Company sectors was a stiff little firefight taking place forty yards north, involving Specialist Wallenius and his fellow Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion mortar-men. “About 6:50 A.M. I observed a soldier in a khaki uniform with helmet and web gear stand up to our front, and pump his arm up and down. He was in waist-high grass and obviously signaling. I alerted Sergeant Uselton in time for us to see four more helmeted troops rise from the grass to our left and cross right, carrying a light machine gun. We were convinced we were behind friendly troops and assumed that these strange, well-disciplined soldiers must be Australians. We radioed back and learned that there were no Aussies with us—and our front was not protected. About then, the North Vietnamese machine gun opened up on us.

“There was a small tree that formed a ‘Y’ four feet from the ground about thirty yards to the left. It was from there that the machine-gun squad had slipped from cover and ran across our front. I saw a man’s head peer out between the Y, and snapped off a quick shot. A second or two later the head reappeared and I took a more careful single shot at it. I was surprised when the head showed again in the same spot. I am a good shot and this was close. I took a shooting-range stance and fired again. Again the head disappeared, then reappeared. I stood there and kept shooting this pop-up target. I fired ten more times, methodical single shots until the pop-up target range closed down.”

Wallenius’s attention now shifted toward the right, where the mortar pits had come under direct fire from the enemy machine gun. “All three mortar pits knocked over their tubes so that the machine gun wouldn’t have a direct fix on their positions in the tall grass. The enemy gun team was placed between Sergeant Alvarez-Buzo and Sergeant James Gother’s 2nd Squad mortar pits. Sergeant James Ratledge and his 1st Squad crew, along with Gother and the 2nd Squad, had managed to withdraw their men and guns right under the nose of a firing machine gun. That left Alvarez-Buzo and two men still in position. We were afraid to lay down fire for fear of hitting them. Ratledge made an attempt to put M-79 fire on the machine gun. This distraction allowed PFC Fred S. Bush to make a run for it and he headed toward our regrouped positions followed by PFC Jose Gonzalez. Bush made it but Gonzalez was hit several times. Ratledge and several others were wounded from grenade shrapnel that seemed to be buzzing all over.

“We got to Bush and Gonzalez; Bush said that Alvarez-Buzo was still in the mortar pit, wounded. Without hesitation, Virgie Hibbler dropped his web gear and started to crawl toward the 3rd Squad mortar pit. I followed him. We got about halfway, fifteen yards, and the machine gun started firing at the moving grass over our heads. We reached the mortar pit, a shallow two-yard circle not more than ten feet from the machine gun. He was still firing too high. Alvarez-Buzo looked dead. I didn’t see any obvious wound but he wasn’t breathing and we couldn’t feel a pulse.”

Hibbler and Wallenius weren’t done yet. Wallenius says, “We crawled back and reported Alvarez was dead. When asked where he had been hit, we had no answer. Some doubt surfaced as to whether he was dead, or maybe that we hadn’t actually been there. This was our platoon’s first casualty and no one wanted to believe it. Somebody said you could put a mirror under their nostrils and it would fog and prove he was alive. Sure enough, somebody had a mirror. Virgie led again and we crawled back out to Alvarez-Buzo to make sure. The mirror didn’t fog up, but still we weren’t sure. The machine gun had ignored us this time, so we decided to take Alvarez-Buzo back. He weighed about two hundred pounds; the machine gun immediately got our range again. Just when they figured out exactly where we were, our guys saw us and opened up on them. Everyone now agreed that Sergeant Alvarez-Buzo was, indeed, dead. With no friendlies around the machine gun, we decided to dispatch it with hand grenades. After the second grenade, the fire stopped.” Sergeant Elias Alvarez-Buzo, from Ponce, Puerto Rico, was twenty-five years old when he was killed.

The enemy commander was getting better at this. His attacks on Charlie and Delta companies were well planned and came close to achieving complete surprise. And, unlike the first day when he committed his forces piecemeal, today he threw perhaps as many as a thousand men against us in a twenty-five-minute span. Then, too, I had spent too much time worrying about Herrick’s platoon and how to rescue them. I should have paid more attention to the enemy’s capabilities. If I had, I would have gotten the H-13 scout helicopters up at first light, sweeping the approaches at low level and looking for the enemy.

Clearly the enemy commander had moved his troops and reinforcements all night to get them in position. His objective was to position his assault force right under our noses, so close that our artillery could not be effectively used, and then smash through Charlie Company’s lines and on out into the open clearing. With that, he could then roll right into the battalion command post and attack into the rear of Alpha and Bravo companies. Only the re-con patrols at first light averted complete disaster.

The enemy troops had Geoghegan’s and Kroger’s under-strength platoons in a deadly bear hug. Americans and North Vietnamese were dying by the dozens in the storm of fire.

The bloody hole in the ground that was Bob Edwards’s command post was crowded with men. Sergeant Hermon Hostuttler lay crumpled in the dirt, now dead. Specialist 4 Ernie Paolone crouched low, bleeding from a shrapnel wound in his left arm. Sergeant James P. Castleberry, the artillery forward observer, Castleberry’s radio operator, PFC Ervin L. Brown, Jr., the only unwounded men in the hole, hunched down beside Paolone. Bob Edwards, shot through the left shoulder and armpit, slumped, unable to move, in a contorted sitting position with his radio handset held to his right ear. “I continued to command as best I could,” Edwards says. “An automatic weapon had the CP foxhole zeroed in and we lay there watching bullets kick dirt off the small parapet around the edge of the hole.”

Edwards didn’t know how badly he had been hurt, only that he couldn’t stand up. The two platoons he had radio contact with continued to report that they were under fire but had not been penetrated. No one answered the captain’s calls in the two worst-hit platoons, and the enemy had penetrated to within hand-grenade range of Edwards’s foxhole. All this had taken place in only ten to fifteen minutes.

Lieutenant Neil Kroger’s platoon had taken the brunt of the enemy attack. Although artillery and air strikes were taking a toll on the follow-up forces, a large group of North Vietnamese soldiers had reached Kroger’s lines and the killing was hand-to-hand.

Specialist Arthur Viera was crouched in a small foxhole firing his M-79. “The gunfire was very loud. We were getting overrun on the right side. The lieutenant [Kroger] came up out into the open in all this. I thought that was pretty good. He yelled at me. I got up to hear him. He hollered at me to help cover the left sector. I ran over to him and by the time I got there he was dead. He had lasted a half-hour. I knelt beside him, took off his dog tags, and put them in my shirt pocket. I went back to firing my M-79 and got shot in my right elbow. The M-79 went flying and I was knocked over and fell back over the lieutenant.”

Viera now grabbed his .45 pistol and began firing it left-handed. “Then I got hit in the neck and the bullet went right through. I couldn’t talk or make a sound. I got up and tried to take charge, and was shot with a third round. That one blew up my right leg and put me down. It went in my leg above the ankle, traveled up, came back out, then went into my groin and ended up in my back close to my spine. Just then two stick grenades blew up right over me and tore up both of my legs. I reached down with my left hand and touched grenade fragments on my left leg and it felt like I had touched a red-hot poker. My hand just sizzled.”

Sergeant Jemison was over in Lieutenant Geoghegan’s 2nd Platoon lines. “My machine guns just kept cutting them down. The enemy drifted to our right front. At least a battalion was out there.”

Some thirty-five yards to Jemison’s right rear, Lieutenant John Arrington had safely negotiated the open clearing and made it to the Charlie Company foxhole to take over from the badly wounded Captain Edwards. “Arrington made it to my command post and, after a few moments of talking to me while lying down at the edge of the foxhole, was wounded. He was worried that he had been hurt pretty bad and told me to be sure and tell his wife that he loved her.

“I thought: ‘Doesn’t he know that I am wounded, too?’ Arrington was hit in the arm, and the bullet passed into his chest and grazed a lung. He was in pain, suffering silently. He also caught some shrapnel from an M-79 that the enemy had apparently captured and were firing into the trees above us.”

The enemy were now closing in on Lieutenant Geoghegan’s platoon. They were already intermingled with Kroger’s surviving men and were pushing on toward Edwards’s foxhole.

At 7:45 A.M. the enemy struck at the left flank of Tony Nadal’s Alpha Company, at that critical elbow where Alpha and Charlie Companies were tied in. We were now under attack from three directions. Grazing fire from rifles and heavy machine guns shredded the elephant grass and swept over the battalion command post and aid station. Leaves, bark, and small branches fluttered down on us. Several troopers were wounded in the command post and at least one was killed. My radio operator, Specialist 4 Robert P. Ouellette, twenty-three years old, a bespectacled six-footer from Madawaska, Maine, was hit and slumped over in a sprawl, unmoving and seemingly dead. I kept the handset to my ear. The situation was now so critical that there was no time to deal with Ouellette.

At about this time fifteen or more mortar and rocket rounds exploded all around the termite-hill command post. We were locked into a fight to the death, taking heavy casualties in the Charlie Company area, and there was no question that we were going to need help. I radioed Colonel Tim Brown to ask him to prepare another company of reinforcements for movement as soon as it could be accomplished without undue risk. Brown, with typical foresight, had already alerted Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion and had it assembled with the helicopters to fly in on call.

Joe Galloway remembers: “The incoming fire was only a couple of feet off the ground and I was down as flat as I could get when I felt the toe of a combat boot in my ribs. I turned my head sideways and looked up. There, standing tall, was Sergeant Major Basil Plumley. Plumley leaned down and shouted over the noise of the guns: ‘You can’t take no pictures laying down there on the ground, sonny’ He was calm, fearless, and grinning. I thought: ‘He’s right. We’re all going to die anyway, so I might as well take mine standing up.’ I got up and began taking a few photographs.” Plumley moved over to the aid station, pulled out his .45 pistol, chambered a round, and informed Dr. Carrara and his medics: “Gentlemen, prepare to defend yourselves!”

The enemy commander’s assault into the Delta Company line was not going well. In fact, he would have done a good deal better attacking any other sector of the perimeter. Delta Company now had its own six M-60 machine guns, plus three more M-60s from the recon platoon, stretched across a seventy-five-yard front. Each gun had a full four-man crew and triple the usual load of boxed ammunition—six thousand rounds of 7.62mm. To the left rear of the machine guns were the battalion’s 81 mm mortars, whose crews were firing in support of Charlie Company and, meanwhile, fending off the enemy at closer range with their rifles and M-79s.

Specialist Willard F. Parish, twenty-four years old and a native of Bristow, Oklahoma, was assistant squad leader of one of Charlie Company’s 81mm-mortar squads. Parish was one of the mortarmen who had been outfitted with the spare machine guns and rifles collected from our casualties and put on the Delta Company perimeter.

Parish recalls: “When we were hit I remember all the tracer rounds and I wondered how even an ant could get through that. Back to our right we started hearing the guys hollering: ‘They’re coming around. They’re coming around!’ I was in a foxhole with a guy from Chicago, PFC James E. Coleman, and he had an M-16. I had my .45 and his .45 and I had an M-60 machine gun. We were set up facing out into the tall grass.

“I was looking out front and I could see some of the grass going down, like somebody was crawling in it. I hollered: ‘Who’s out there?’ Nobody answered so I hollered again. No answer. I turned to Coleman: ‘Burn his ass.’ Coleman said: ‘My rifle’s jammed!’ I looked at him and him at me. Then I looked back to the front and they were growing out of the weeds. I just remember getting on that machine gun and from there on I guess the training takes over and you put your mind somewhere else, because I really don’t remember what specifically I did. I was totally unaware of the time, the conditions.”

On that M-60 machine gun, according to extracts from his Silver Star citation, Specialist Parish delivered lethal fire on wave after wave of the enemy until he ran out of ammunition. Then, standing up under fire with a .45 pistol in each hand, Parish fired clip after clip into the enemy, who were twenty yards out; he stopped their attack. Says Parish: “I feel like I didn’t do any more than anybody else did up there. I remember a lot of noise, a lot of yelling, and then all at once it was quiet.” The silence out in front of Willard Parish was that of the cemetery: More than a hundred dead North Vietnamese were later found where they had fallen in a semicircle around his foxhole.

Specialist 4 Vincent Cantu had been drafted into the Army the day before President John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. He had one week left in service and he had been praying that he would live to make it home to Refugio, Texas, where he had been the lead guitarist and singer for a local band called The Rockin’ Dominoes. Says Cantu, “The fighting never let up for long. The artillery fired all around us continually. The jets bombarded the hell out of that mountain. I got word that a friend of mine from Houston, Hilario De La Paz, had gotten killed. He had only four days left in the Army. He had two young daughters back in Houston.” Hilario De La Paz, Jr., was killed that morning in the attack on Delta Company. He was just eighteen days past his twenty-sixth birthday.

During that fierce attack on the Delta and Charlie Company lines, Cantu recalls, “I was hugging the ground better than a snake when I saw what appeared to be a soldier in camouflage with 2 or 3 cameras dangling around his neck. He came from behind a tree and took 2 or 3 snapshots, then ducked back behind a big old anthill. I thought to myself: ‘Man, he wants pictures for his scrapbook real bad.’ I lay there for a moment and I started to think: ‘This guy reminds me of someone.’ I crawled to the tree because next time this guy appears I wanted a better look—but I also wanted protection. I didn’t have to wait long; there was no mistake. It was hot, his face was red; it was my old friend, Joe Galloway. I felt joy at seeing someone from Refugio, but at the same time sadness because I didn’t want anyone from home being killed, and he was going about it the right way.”

Galloway and Cantu were classmates; in 1959 they graduated from Refugio High School together with fifty-five others. Cantu braved the hail of fire, sprinted across the corner of the open landing zone, and dived under a bush, where Galloway was kneeling. “Joe. Joe Galloway. Don’t you know me, man? It’s Vince Cantu from Refugio.” The two men embraced, agreed that this was “some kind of bad shit,” and for a few brief minutes stolen from the battle raging around them, talked of home, family, and friends. Cantu told the reporter: “If I live, I will be home for Christmas.” Vince Cantu survived and made it back to Refugio, Texas, population 4, 944, just in time for the holidays.

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