If your officer’s dead and the sergeants look white,
Remember it’s ruin to run from a fight;
So take open order, lie down, and sit tight,
An’ wait for supports like a soldier.
—RUDYARD KIPLING, “The Young British Soldier”
Lieutenant Robert E. Taft was leading the 3rd Platoon of Alpha Company at a lope toward the sound of battle. He had gotten orders to move from the company commander, Captain Tony Nadal, and he was carrying them out. Lean, boyish, just twenty-three years old, Bob Taft of Highland Park, Illinois, was setting a pace toward the tree line at the edge of the clearing that his heavily laden radio operator, Specialist 4 Robert Hazen, also twenty-three and a Chicagoan, had trouble matching. Hazen was carrying his M-16 rifle, a bundle of ammunition, and the big PRC-25 field radio strapped to his back.
Captain Nadal was moving two of his platoons toward the dry creekbed in order to secure that critical piece of terrain, as well as to protect the left flank of Bravo Company, as I had ordered. Nadal says, “I was just east of the creekbed, walking through elephant grass, when suddenly there’s my West Point classmate, John Herren, laying on the ground with his radio operators. He looked up and told me: ‘Lots of VC up there!’” Herren also remembers that chance meeting. “I told him to get down or get his ass shot off. Nadal got down.”
Farther out in the scrub brush, John Herren’s 1st and 3rd platoons were linking up and moving out to try to reach Lieutenant Henry Herrick’s embattled platoon. Nadal had loaned his 2nd Platoon, led by Lieutenant Walter J. (Joe) Marm, to Herren for this attack. There had been a delay in getting Marm’s men on line and oriented, and Deal and Devney had already kicked off their attack. Marm was about a hundred yards behind Herren’s two platoons.
Lieutenant Deal recalls what happened next: “I’m on the left and Devney on the right, out of physical contact with company headquarters. Both platoons advanced toward Herrick and were met with automatic weapons and small-arms fire, causing light to moderate casualties in both platoons. Intense fire caused a withdrawal to a position where we could evaluate the situation.”
At that moment, Lieutenant Bob Taft and his 3rd Platoon of Alpha Company collided head-on with an enemy force of about 150 men charging down and along both sides of the dry creek. A savage fight now broke out over ownership of the creekbed. Captain Nadal, who had spent a year in South Vietnam with the Special Forces, looked out across the creekbed at the enemy boiling out of the trees and knew these were not Viet Cong guerrillas but North Vietnamese regulars. He got on the battalion net radio and yelled: “They’re PAVN! They’re PAVN!”
Specialist 4 Carmen Miceli, a native of North Bergen, New Jersey, remembers, “We were told to drop our packs. We got on line and moved forward in the attack. I saw Specialist 4 Bill Beck on an M-60 machine gun out to my left. Captain Nadal was right there with us. We took fire, and guys started going down. We could see the enemy very plainly. We were assaulting. A lot of our guys were hit right away.”
Sergeant Steve Hansen was behind and to the right of Lieutenant Taft. He says, “We moved at a trot across the open grass toward the tree line and heard fire up on the finger to the west where we were headed. My radio operator friend, Specialist 4 Ray Tanner, and I crossed the streambed. Captain Nadal’s party and the two other platoons were off to the right. Lieutenant Taft was well forward as we crossed over into the trees. SFC Lorenzo Nathan, Ray Tanner, and I were close, maybe ten yards behind. We were moving fast. Specialist 4 Pete Winter was near me.
“We ran into a wall of lead. Every man in the lead squad was shot. From the time we got the order to move, to the time where men were dying, was only five minutes. The enemy were very close to us and overran some of our dead. The firing was heavy. Sergeant Nathan pulled us back out of the woods to the streambed.”
Bob Hazen, Bob Taft’s radio operator, recalls: “Lieutenant Taft got out in front of me. I was off to his left. He had the radio handset in his left hand, connected to the radio on my back with that flexible rubber wire. It got tight and I pulled back on the lieutenant and hollered: ‘We’re getting offline.’ He glanced back at me, turned back to his front, and took four more steps. Then he fired two shots at something. I couldn’t see what.
“Then he dropped facedown on the ground. Lieutenant Taft was hit. I didn’t realize how bad till I rolled him over. He was shot in the throat and the round had ricocheted down and came out his left side. He was dead and it was difficult to roll him over, even though he was a slightly built man.”
Captain Nadal says, “The enemy on the mountain started moving down rapidly in somewhat uncoordinated attacks. They streamed down the hill and down the creekbed. The enemy knew the area. They came down the best-covered route. The 3rd Platoon was heavily engaged and the volume of firing reached a crescendo on my left. At this time I lost radio contact with Taft’s platoon.”
In the center of that fury, Bob Hazen struggled and rolled his dead platoon leader over. “He was gone and there was nothing we could do. The first thing I thought of was what they taught me: Never let the enemy get his hands on a map or the signals codebook. I got those from Lieutenant Taft and was kneeling over to try to pull his body back. That’s when my radio was hit and the shrapnel from the radio hit me in the back of the head. It didn’t really hurt; all of a sudden I was just laying facedown on the ground next to Lieutenant Taft. I felt something running down my neck, reached back, and came out with a handful of blood.” Carmen Miceli was on Hazen’s right: “We knew what had happened. The word passed fast: ‘They got Lieutenant Taft!’”
Lieutenant Wayne O. Johnson’s 1st Platoon of Alpha Company was just to the right of Taft’s men. Johnson’s platoon sergeant, Sergeant First Class Troy Miller, recalls: “We could see the enemy go after the 3rd Platoon like crazy. It was a more exposed area than we were in and the North Vietnamese had a better-covered and [better-] concealed route into them. The enemy was well camouflaged and you could barely see them because their khaki uniform and hats of the same color blended in well with the brownish-yellow grass. They all seemed very well disciplined and did not seem to have any fear of dying at all.”
This was a very critical time. Whichever side owned that dry creekbed, with its cover and concealment, owned the open area where the Hueys were landing. We had to hold that creekbed, and it had come down to Nadal and his men to do it, face-to-face with a very aggressive enemy.
Like every other unit in the battalion, the 3rd Platoon’s weapons squad was understrength. It had two M-60 machine-gun teams, each authorized a gunner, an assistant gunner, and two ammunition bearers. In reality, one team was down to three men, the other to only two. One team consisted of the gunner, Specialist 4 Russell E. Adams, twenty-three, of Shoemakersville, Pennsylvania; assistant gunner Specialist 4 Bill Beck, twenty-two, of Steelton, Pennsylvania; and ammunition carrier PFC John Wunderly. Russell Adams was exactly fourteen days short of completing his Army obligation when he landed in X-Ray. At five feet eight inches tall and 145 pounds, Adams was small but wiry; he handled the heavy M-60 machine gun with ease. Beck was six foot two, lean and hard. The other M-60 crew was made up of Specialist 4 Theron Ladner, twenty-two, a tall, thin native of Biloxi, Mississippi, and his assistant gunner, PFC Rodriguez E. Rivera.
Bill Beck says Russell Adams was his best buddy, a calm, soft-spoken man with big hands. “He didn’t talk much, never bitched—just oiled his M-60,” Beck says, adding: “We moved toward the creekbed after chow. Suddenly fire was everywhere and Jerry Kirsch, three yards directly in front of me, got hit with machine-gun fire and dropped screaming, rolling on his back, yelling for his mother. That scared the shit out of me and I jumped to the left for cover, beside a soldier on the ground. He was in a firing position and looking at me. It was Sergeant Alexander Williams. He had a small hole in his forehead and he was dead.” Williams, twenty-four, was from Jacksonville, Florida.
Beck says: “I jumped up as fast as I jumped down and ran forward toward Adams, who had gone past Kirsch. We were in the open about thirty yards left of the creekbed, moving parallel to it toward Chu Pong. Nobody had told us how far to go, so we kept moving. I heard Bob Hazen yelling about Lieutenant Taft getting hit. I saw him leaning over Taft when an NVA blasted him and his radio exploded into pieces. His back was to the creekbed. That all happened at once, you know, thirty seconds. We kept moving. Adams, firing from the hip, blew away an NVA aiming his AK at us through the fork of a tree.”
Over on the east side of the creek Bob Hazen lay, briefly unconscious, beside his dead lieutenant. When he came to, he helped drag Taft’s body back to the creekbed. “We were under fire. I looked over to our right and behind us was an NVA leaning up against a tree facing it [the tree]. We had bypassed him. The medic and I saw him up tight against that tree, pith helmet on, tan uniform, pistol belt, and a weapon. I didn’t have a weapon. He looked over at us. Then somebody on my left shot him. He slammed into that tree real hard and then just crumpled.”
That NVA soldier could well have been the man who had done a lot of damage to Nadal’s 3rd Platoon. Dead were Lieutenant Taft, Sergeant Travis Poss, Specialist 4 Albert Witcher, and Sergeant Alexander Williams. Several men were wounded, including the platoon radio operator Bob Hazen, whose PRC-25 radio had been shot to pieces. Survivors, dragging their wounded comrades, pulled back to the creekbed.
Although they had been hit hard and had suffered several casualties, Taft’s platoon, now led by Korean War veteran Sergeant Lorenzo Nathan, stood firm and stopped the momentum of the attack. The enemy recoiled and slowly drifted off to their left still trying to find a way to flank Bravo Company. This brought them directly in front of Joe Marm’s troopers, who had been moving up to join Bravo. About eighty North Vietnamese soldiers were caught by surprise as Marm’s troopers opened up with volley after volley of grazing, point-blank machine-gun and rifle fire and heaved hand grenades into their packed ranks on their exposed right flank. Marm’s men mowed them down. Two enemy were taken prisoner.
Several of the men still remember the curious behavior of the North Vietnamese who came under this murderous fire. Captain Tony Nadal says, “It wasn’t much of a fight; the 2nd Platoon just mowed them down.” Staff Sergeant Les Staley recalls, “Fifty NVA came right across my front and were cut down almost immediately and they did not turn and try to return our fire.” The enemy survivors fell back to their right rear, toward the creekbed. That brought them back in front of Tony Nadal’s 1st and 3rd platoons, which were now in the four-foot-deep cover of the creekbed. Again the enemy were cut down by close-range flanking fire from their right. They just kept walking into the field of fire.
Sergeant Troy Miller of the 1st Platoon was in the thick of it: “I saw one NVA in the creekbed hit in the upper part of his body, killed by a sergeant from 3rd Platoon and a team leader from my platoon. He was no more than ten feet away. We searched his body later and found he had taken Lieutenant Taft’s dog tags.”
Captain Nadal, out of radio contact with Taft’s platoon, moved toward the furious firing on his left flank to find out what was happening. Nadal says, “My radio operator, Sergeant Jack E. Gell, the company communications chief who had volunteered to carry one of my two radios, ran with me out of the creekbed into the open area toward Taft’s position. We ran into Sergeant Nathan and I asked him what was happening. He said the platoon had been attacked on the left flank; the left squad had taken a number of casualties and had pulled back out of the creekbed, refusing their left flank to the enemy. Nathan said Taft had been hit and was left in the creekbed.
“That made me angry. We had been taught never to leave any wounded or dead on the battlefield. Sergeant Gell and I crawled forward of our lines to that creekbed, where the enemy were, to find Taft. We came under grenade attack from the west side of the creekbed but had some cover from a few trees. We located Taft, dead. While bringing him back we saw another soldier who had been left behind. After leaving Taft’s body with his platoon, Gell and I went back again and we picked up the other man.”
Bill Beck and Russell Adams had by now moved about a hundred yards toward the mountain and were heavily engaged with masses of enemy thirty yards to their south and west around the creekbed. Beck says their charge into battle had been eventful: “As I was chasing after Adams, above the noise of automatic fire someone yelled ‘Grenade!’ and right in front of me, less than two yards away, one of those wooden-handled potato-masher hand grenades rolled to a stop. I started to go to ground, my knees bent; then came an explosion and flash of bright-white light. I never did hit the ground and continued to move, carrying my boxes of M-60 ammo.
“On the right, twenty yards away, was an anthill with a clump of trees on it, just outside the creekbed. American GIs were on one side and two NVA soldiers were on the other side, not five yards away from each other. I don’t think our men could see the enemy. I yelled at the top of my lungs but nobody could hear me because of the overall noise of battle. It was deafening. The only weapon I had was my .45-caliber pistol.”
Beck says, “All this time I had been jumping, dodging, hitting the dirt, and moving forward with Adams. Now I pulled my .45 and fired the entire clip of seven rounds at the left side of that anthill and both of the enemy dropped. Adams called for ammo, and I moved up with him beside a little tree. We were now the forwardmost position. I was feeding belt after belt of 7.62mm ammunition into the gun. We were prone and he was firing at the enemy in front and to the right. On the right about ten yards out were our buddies Theron Ladner and Rodriguez Rivera on their gun. We could hardly see them in the grass.”
Beck adds, “I would spot movement to the front, point where, and Adams did the firing. This went on for several attacks. The enemy were zeroed in on Russ and me, their bullets hitting the tree trunk, the dirt around us, and crackling over our heads. Russ stopped those assaults and we started looking for our ammo bearer, John Wunderly. He was gone. I can remember the extreme heat and exhaustion taking hold now, like I hadn’t taken a breath the entire time. We were soaked with sweat and the sun was very hot as we lay in the brown grass, in the open with really no cover but the grass.”
On one of his trips up to collect Taft and the wounded soldier, Captain Nadal spotted Beck and Adams on his left about twenty yards out and running toward the mountain. Beck and his gunner, Russell Adams, and the other M-60 crew ended up at least seventy-five yards out front of Alpha Company’s 3rd Platoon. Adams puts it simply: “Nobody told me to stop so I kept going.”
In piecing together the mosaic of a confused and fast-paced fight, it is clear to me that those courageous machine gunners inflicted heavy casualties on a large North Vietnamese force that was hurrying down to reinforce the attack on Alpha Company’s left flank. Bill Beck and his buddies paid a terrible price, but virtually single-handedly they kept the enemy from turning Nadal’s left flank and driving a wedge between Alpha and Charlie companies.
Overhead, some of the best air-support work was being done by the A-1E Skyraider, an antiquated single-engine propeller plane of Korean War vintage that proved of great worth providing tactical air support to ground troops. It was slow, but heavily armored and simply built; it delivered very accurate fire and, best of all, could hang around for up to eight hours.
Captain Bruce M. Wallace, an enlisted man in the Korean War and a 1956 West Point graduate, was on his second Vietnam tour with the Air Force in 1965, this time flying the old “Spads,” as the A-lEs were nicknamed. Says Wallace: “The Skyraider was uniquely suited for putting ordnance on the ground at the exact time and in the precise place that the ground commander needed it. It was slow, cumbersome, ungainly, greasy and hot to fly. But you could hang everything under its wings but the kitchen sink. As fighting intensified around the Ia Drang, all available aircraft and crews of the 1st and 602nd Air Commando squadrons were committed to the mission.”
At around two P.M. one of those A-lEs was coming in from the south just above the slope of the mountain, very low, just over the trees, on a bombing run directly over the location where the enemy was attacking from. Suddenly there was an explosion, and the Spad burst into flames. It continued on down the creekbed, trailing fire and smoke, passed directly over us and the fighting, turned back east, and staggered on for perhaps two miles before crashing in a black ball of smoke. We saw no parachute. Overhead, Captain Matt Dillon in the command ship had a clear view: “The plane caught fire, veered off and crashed to the east of X-Ray. There was an explosion and fire. We flew over to see if we could see any sign of life. Very soon after the crash a lot of enemy, twenty or thirty of them, came running to the plane. I called the Aerial Rocket ships in on them.”
Air Force records indicate that the pilot who died in that crash was Captain Paul T. McClellan, Jr., thirty-four, of West Stayton, Oregon, who flew for the 1st Air Commando Squadron. Captain Bruce Wallace says, “Paul was probably downed by fragments of his own ordnance. We were carrying both bombs and napalm on a single aircraft, and safe separation altitude [s] for the two types of ordnance were different. It was easy to select the wrong switch in the cockpit during the heat of a low altitude mission under fire. The precise cause of that crash, however, was never officially determined.”
Meanwhile, back at 3rd Brigade headquarters, Brigadier General Dick Knowles had been filled in on details of our rapidly developing fight. The prisoner we captured had been debriefed; he identified his unit as a battalion of the 33rd Regiment of the People’s Army. Intelligence said the 66th Regiment and the 320th Regiment were also in the vicinity. At Knowles’s urging, the division commander, Major General Harry Kinnard, flew in from headquarters at An Khe for a briefing. Says Knowles: “When General Kinnard arrived I showed him a situation map. He took one look and said, ‘What the hell are you doing in that area?’ I replied: ‘Well, General, the object of the exercise is to find the enemy and we sure as hell have.’ After an awkward pause and a few questions he said, ‘OK, it looks great. Let me know what you need.’”
While all of this was taking place, John Herren was still desperately trying to reach Lieutenant Herrick’s cut-off platoon. His other platoons were battling a large number of enemy who had moved between them and Herrick. During the confusion, Lieutenant Bill Riddle, Herren’s artillery forward observer, made his way forward and linked up with Lieutenant Al Devney. Herren was still in the creekbed area, to the right of Nadal’s Alpha Company location, trying to get Lieutenant Joe Marm’s platoon of reinforcements linked up with Deal and Devney.
The devastating flanking fire Nadal’s Alpha Company soldiers poured on the enemy, and the shock of the continuing artillery and air bombardment, caused the North Vietnamese ahead of Devney and Deal to reel back and slack off. This gave Lieutenant Marm and his troops the opportunity to move forward and link up with the two Bravo Company platoons. Now they were able to launch a full three-platoon attack in the direction of Herrick’s cut-off men. It was three platoons abreast, left to right: Deal, Devney, and Marm.
Dennis Deal remembers: “We moved on line for about a hundred or a hundred and fifty yards before the volume of firing forced us to stop. We were taking too many casualties. I radioed Herrick’s platoon and said: ‘I think we are close to you. Shoot one round off; wait to the count of three and shoot two more.’ The radioman, or whoever was on the radio, did that, so we had a pretty firm fix on where he was. We got up and started the assault again. We went about ten yards and the whole thing just blew up in our faces. The enemy had infiltrated between Herrick’s platoon and us and now were starting to come in behind us.
“I saw Platoon Sergeant [Leroy] Williams shoot into a tree; a weapon fell but the body didn’t. It was roped into the treetop. There were at least fifteen of our men, wounded and dead, out front. At this point our medic, Specialist 5 Calvin Bouknight, rose from cover, ran over, and began administering aid to the wounded. He succeeded in treating four or five of them, always by placing his body between the continuous sheets of heavy fire and the man he was treating. Bouknight was mortally wounded less than five minutes after he began performing his stunningly heroic acts.” Bouknight, twenty-four, was from Washington, D.C.
Deal says, “Suddenly a lull occurred on the battlefield. During that lull one of the men in my platoon got up on his knees while the rest of us were all flat on our stomachs. He was promptly shot in the upper body, ten feet from me, and I heard the bullet strike human flesh. It sounded exactly like when you take a canoe paddle and slap it into mud. One bullet, one hit, another man down. During the same lull, my radio operator’s hip suddenly exploded, if you will, and before the bleeding started I saw white, jagged bone sticking out. We gave him first aid and tried to keep him out of shock. He said: ‘I’ll be all right. Just show me where to go.’ He made his own way back to the aid station.”
Lieutenant Deal adds that he and the other two platoon leaders now began planning yet another attempt to break through and rescue Herrick’s men. “Leaders were running back and forth coordinating this when all of a sudden firing began. The lull dissipated quickly. It was at this time that my weapons-squad leader, Sergeant Curry, ‘the Chief,’ was killed. His last words were ‘Those bastards are trying to get me!’ He was caught rolling around on the ground. Later on, as my men were carrying him back, I had them put him down and I turned his face toward me and looked at him. I could not conceive of the Chief being dead.” Staff Sergeant Wilbur Curry, Jr., of Buffalo, New York, was thirty-five years old.
Deal says his platoon and the others got up to launch the attack and again were driven back by extremely heavy fire. “We slugged it out for all we were worth but finally had so many wounded we had to stop and say ‘Let’s get out of here.’” Sergeant Larry Gilreath says, “We tried fire and movement and on line attack but the NVA were waiting for us each time.”
Less than a hundred yards away Herrick’s men were in a running gunfight for their lives, and had been from the first minute of contact. Shortly after Sergeant Ernie Savage cleaned up that enemy machine-gun crew, he spotted movement out of the corner of his eye, back toward the little creek. Turning in that direction he saw a large group of fast-moving enemy. Savage says: “There were fifty, maybe seventy of them. They weren’t firing on us; they were going around to our right trying to get in behind us. We fired on them and kept firing to our front also. Then they outflanked us. There was no way we could control it with what we had. We were short on people.”
By now Sergeant Paul Hurdle’s two machine guns were firing on enemy to the front and to the right. Savage’s squad was also fighting on two sides, thirty yards out front of the machine guns, and began withdrawing by fire and movement, one fire team shooting while the other fell back toward the rest of the 2nd Platoon on the lower end of the finger. Says Savage: “The machine gunners were already set up on the lower part of the finger and firing. There was so much noise, I didn’t know that at the time. When we started pulling back I saw both gunners sitting there. They were firing just over the rise and downhill. We pulled back past the guns. PFC Bernard Birenbaum was one of the gunners and he damned sure did some damage before he went down. His firing allowed us to get back. We pulled straight back toward him. It was a wonder he didn’t shoot us; the enemy were behind us and he was firing past us. Things were going real fast.”
Herrick and the other two squads were holding precariously to the small knoll near the bottom of the finger. Savage teamed up with McHenry’s squad, which was pinned to the ground. Herrick was with that squad. Sergeant Zallen’s squad was to their left rear. Savage checked on his men when he tied up with McHenry. He knew that Specialist 4 Robert M. Hill, the M-79 grenadier, was no longer with them. “Hill got killed in there somewhere. He had his M-79 and a .45 pistol and he was firing both at the same time.” The twenty-three-year-old Hill came from Starkville, Mississippi.
Now the men of Herrick’s three rifle squads were all grouped together on the small knoll, under heavy fire from enemy troops close in on their north and east. Unfortunately, the two M-60 machine-gun crews were separated from them by a distance of about thirty yards, downhill. As Savage began to deploy his men into firing positions, the North Vietnamese mounted a reinforced attack from three directions: up the finger from the north; down the finger from the southwest; and, worst of all, fifty to seventy attackers coming from the ditch toward the rear of the two M-60 machine guns. Lieutenant Herrick and Platoon Sergeant Carl Palmer were in the middle of the action. By now Savage had personally killed fifteen to twenty enemy. “The machine guns were still firing and we were all fighting as hard as we could to hold the enemy off. There were a lot of them, all over,” Savage recalls.
Lieutenant Herrick shouted to the machine-gun crews to come up the hill. One was out on the north end of the finger, with Sergeant Hurdle. The other, closer in, disengaged and scrambled up the knoll and into the tiny American perimeter. Sergeant Hurdle’s gun kept firing to cover the withdrawal. It came under attack by a large number of enemy who swarmed all around the crew. It was during this desperate mêlée that Herrick’s platoon suffered its worst casualties and lost one of its precious machine guns.
Sergeant Savage again: “The enemy were past the machine gun before it ever quit firing. I could hear Sergeant Hurdle down there cursing. Even over the firefight I heard him. He was famous for that: ‘Motherfucker! Son of a bitch!’ I could hear him hollering that down there. Then they threw grenades in on him.” Hurdle, thirty-six, was from Washington, D.C. Birenbaum, twenty-four, was a native of New York City. PFC Donald Roddy, twenty-two, hailed from Ann Arbor, Michigan. The three of them died in a hail of rifle fire and enemy grenades.
As Sergeant Wayne M. Anderson and his assistant gunner made it up the finger, carrying the other M-60, the enemy down below turned Sergeant Hurdle’s M-60 around and began using it on the Americans on the knoll. The only ammo for the platoon’s last machine gun was what was left in the belt hanging out of the gun. Sergeant Anderson was screaming and yelling that his face was on fire. It was. Fragments from a white phosphorus grenade were smoking and smoldering in his flesh. Sergeant Zallen tripped Anderson and, with Savage’s help, they used bayonets to scrape and dig the burning “Willy Peter” fragments out of Anderson’s face.
The enemy, more than 150 strong, now attacked the knoll from three sides—north, south, and east—and soldiers on both sides were falling. Lieutenant Herrick ran from trooper to trooper trying to get a defense organized. An enemy volley cut across Herrick, his radio operator, Specialist 4 John R. Stewart, and the artillery recon sergeant, Sergeant John T. Browne, wounding all three, Herrick and Browne seriously. Stewart took a single bullet through his leg.
Herrick radioed Bravo Company commander John Herren and told him he had been hit bad and was turning command of the platoon over to Sergeant Carl Palmer. Herrick then gave explicit instructions to his men to destroy the signals codes, redistribute the ammo, call in artillery, and, if possible, make a break for it. Herren says, “I give Herrick all the credit in the world for pulling that platoon together so that they could make their stand.”
So should we all. Savage and Zallen paint a clear picture of a green young lieutenant who did a superb job in a hailstorm of enemy fire. His platoon stopped a very large North Vietnamese unit clearly headed down to join the attack on the landing zone. I long ago concluded that the very presence of his platoon so far to the northwest confused the enemy commander as to exactly where we were and how far out we had penetrated in all directions, and thus helped us as the battle built.
Sergeant Savage recounts the final moments of Henry Herrick’s life: “He was lying beside me on the hill and he said: ‘If I have to die, I’m glad to give my life for my country’ I remember him saying that. He was going into shock, hit in the hip and in a lot of pain. He didn’t live long. He died early in the fight, next to a little brush pile.” Specialist 5 Charles R. Lose, twenty-two, of Mobile, Alabama, was the new platoon medic. He had joined the platoon only a few days earlier. “Lieutenant Herrick was kneeling when hit. He had a bullet wound to the hip. He told me to go help the other wounded.
“Carl Palmer got hit about the same time as Lieutenant Herrick, just as we came back in. It was alongside his head. Not a fatal wound, but it knocked him out. He fell right behind me. I thought he was dead but he wasn’t. Palmer came to and said: ‘Let’s get these guys out of here.’ I told him there was no way we could get out with all our wounded. Palmer was still talking about getting everybody out, fading in and out of consciousness.”
It was now 2:30 P.M. and the cut-off platoon’s ordeal had been going on for more than an hour. Palmer was lying wounded on the ground, beside a log. The man closest to him was Galen Bungum. Bungum says: “Palmer was lying there with his bandage held on the wrong side of his head, so I helped him get it on the side he was wounded on. As we were getting it changed, a North Vietnamese threw one of our own hand grenades toward us. It landed just behind Sergeant Palmer and exploded, killing him. A piece of that grenade hit me in the knee and I pulled the splinter out. The North Vietnamese that threw the grenade just stood there and laughed at us. Specialist 4 Michael L. Patterson must have put a full magazine in his stomach. I swear I saw daylight through him before he went down.”
Sergeant Carl A. Palmer died in action two days before his fortieth birthday. As he predicted, he did not live to see it.
Specialist Bungum had quickly run through his limited supply of M-79 grenades and had begun hunting for something else to fight with. “I was crawling around looking for an M-16. I got my hands on one, and Specialist 5 Marlin T. Dorman said: ‘That doesn’t work; I’ll get you another one.’ Then he hollered: ‘That doesn’t work either.’ I headed for a third rifle and PFC Donald Jeffrey hollered: ‘It don’t work!’ Finally I did find an M-16 and some full magazines from our dead. About then PFC Johnnie Boswell [thirty-two, from Eatonton, Georgia] got hit in the buttocks and was bleeding bad. He said to me: ‘I am going to get up and get out of here.’ I told him, ‘You’ll never make it.’ He started to get up. I grabbed his foot and held him with us, but he died a little later. Sergeant [Robert] Stokes was hit in the leg. Doc Lose bandaged him up and went on to somebody else.”
Sergeant Savage had earlier sent PFC Boswell, Sergeant Joaquin Vasquez, and Private Russell Hicks scurrying on all fours to the three sides of the perimeter under attack. He was also working with Sergeant Stokes on bringing in mortar and artillery fire. He had moved two wounded men, PFC Calix Ramos and Specialist Stewart, over to the north side of the knoll. Specialist Clarence Jackson took a round clean through his left hand, shifted his rifle to his right, and continued firing until he was hit a second time. Sergeant Vasquez and several of the other wounded men likewise fought on, thanks to their own courage and Doc Lose’s medical help. Specialist James Blythe had his thumb shot off. Patterson, Hicks, and Jeffrey were all wounded. Sergeant Ruben Thompson was struck by a bullet above his heart that exited under his left arm; bleeding heavily, he grabbed a rifle and fought on. The encircled infantrymen of the Lost Platoon refused to give up.
Specialist Dorman: “We were all on the ground now and if you moved you got hit. Our training really showed then. We shifted into defense positions. We had five men killed in twenty-five minutes. Then all of a sudden they tried a mass assault from three directions, rushing from bush to bush and laying fire on us. We put our M-16s on full automatic and killed most of them.” Galen Bungum: “We gathered up all the full magazines we could find and stacked them up in front of us. There was no way we could dig a foxhole. The handle was blown off my entrenching tool and one of my canteens had a hole blown through it. The fire was so heavy that if you tried to raise up to dig you were dead. There was death and destruction all around.”
By now eight men of the platoon’s twenty-nine had been killed in action; another thirteen were wounded. The twenty-five-yard-wide perimeter was a circle of pain, death, fear, and raw courage. Medic Charlie Lose crawled from man to man throughout the raging firefight, doing his best to patch the wounded with the limited supplies in his medical pack. Although he was wounded twice himself, Lose never slowed his pace. He would keep all thirteen of the wounded alive for twenty-six long, harrowing hours. Lose says, “On several occasions I had to stand or sit up to treat the wounded. Each time the VC fired heavily at me.” Lose used his .45 and an M-16 rifle to help defend his patients.
Captain John Herren got a desperate radio call from the weapons-platoon forward observer with Herrick’s platoon: “Sergeant Stokes was saying they were finished and he wanted to infiltrate out. I told him it was hopeless to try and break out. He was hit shortly afterward.” In the combined mortar-fire position on the landing zone, Specialist 4 Vincent Cantu, twenty-three, of Refugio, Texas, a Bravo Company mortarman who had only ten days left on his two-year tour as a draftee, says: “We set up and got our elevations and deflections from Sergeant Robert Stokes, the mortar forward observer who was trapped with the platoon up the mountain. His pleas for help over the radio were desperate. We could all hear him. They were surrounded. He called for everything we had. Within minutes all our mortar rounds were gone.”
Cantu said the mortar crews were tortured by their inability to provide any further fire support for the trapped platoon and by their friend’s pitiful pleas for help. He says, “Sergeant Montgomery told us we were going after Sergeant Stokes. We got our personal weapons and started up but we couldn’t advance. The firepower was overwhelming. We moved back.
“By 2:30 in the afternoon it seemed like half the battalion was either dead or wounded. I remember rolling this soldier in a poncho. He was face down when I turned him over. I saw the lieutenant’s bars on him. I snapped; I thought to myself, These rounds don’t have any regard. Gary Cooper, Audie Murphy, they all came out of it, but that’s in the movies.”
Sergeant Ernie Savage, who was lying next to Sergeant Stokes, remembers: “There was a lot of fire coming in on us and they had people coming up at us, but they had a hell of a lot of fire coming down on them. The mortarman was calling artillery around us and we were all firing from the perimeter. The only cover we had was the rise of the hill. If you moved, you crawled, and if you crawled you drew fire. After Sergeant Palmer got killed, Sergeant Stokes says: ‘We’ve got to get out of here.’ He got up.
“There were a lot of enemy out there, right on the ground, and if they saw your helmet they shot. Well, Stokes got hit right in the head, two shots in the helmet and one below the rim, and fell backward over a log with the radio on his back, laying on the radio. It was underneath him, on the other side of the log from me, but I reached under the log, got the handset, and called in more artillery and mortars.” Sergeant Robert L. Stokes, twenty-four, was from Salt Lake City, Utah.
Command had passed from Lieutenant Henry Herrick to Sergeant Carl Palmer to Sergeant Robert Stokes as each, in turn, died fighting. Now it was the turn of buck sergeant Ernie Savage. “Sergeant Savage came up on the radio,” Captain Herren recalls. “He said Herrick, Palmer, and Stokes were dead; to give him more artillery and he would direct it in as close as possible. We could never establish the platoon’s exact position but Lieutenant Riddle could adjust fire on Savage’s sensing, and he began to do that.”
The extraordinary, unyielding resistance that the dozen or so effective fighters were putting up, plus the artillery barrages that Ernie Savage was bringing down, finally beat off the heavy enemy attack. During a brief lull, the Americans collected ammunition,grenades, and weapons from the dead and those too badly wounded to shoot, and redistributed them. A few riflemen were shifted to better firing positions. Sergeant Zallen collected maps, notebooks, and signal operating instructions booklets from the dead commanders and burned them all. Lieutenant Herrick’s PRC-25 radio was secured. Captain Herren was now talking to Savage, telling him of the desperate attempts to break through to him.
Ernie Savage and his small band hunkered down, determined to hold their ground to the end.