The most precious commodity with which the Army deals is the individual soldier who is the heart and soul of our combat forces.
—GENERAL J. LAWTON COLLINS
Our intention with this bold helicopter assault into the clearing at the base of the Chu Pong massif had been to find the enemy, and we had obviously succeeded beyond our wildest expectations. People’s Army Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Huu An, deep in a command bunker no more than a mile and a half away this Sunday afternoon, November 14, was issuing orders by land-line telephone—remember the commo wire spotted by the H-13 helicopter scouts?—as well as by old, unreliable walkie-talkie radios and by foot messenger. His orders to every battalion in the vicinity were simple: Attack!
Shortly after two P.M., with the battle well under way, Colonel An’s boss, Brigadier General Chu Huy Man, was safely in his headquarters hard by the Cambodian border almost ten miles away from the action. My boss, on the other hand, was right over my head. With the battle raging on two sides of the perimeter, Colonel Tim Brown suddenly came up on my radio from his command helicopter, asking if he could land and get a firsthand look at the situation. I waved him off without explanation. There was too much going on to deal with the distraction of a visit by the brigade commander; besides, his command helicopter, bristling with a large array of radio antennas, would be too tempting a target. Brown did not press the question. He instantly understood.
The reports of continued heavy fighting in both Herren’s and Nadal’s sectors to the west reminded me again that the entire north and east sides of the landing zone were still wide open. I was praying that the next helicopter lift, bringing the last of the Charlie Company troops and the lead elements of Delta Company, would arrive soon. It was on the way.
Delta Company commander Captain Ray Lefebvre was in the lead chopper, flown by Bruce Crandall. With Lefebvre were members of his command group. In the helicopters behind were his machine-gun platoon, part of his mortar platoon, and the last of Captain Bob Edwards’s Charlie Company elements. “By the time I came in around two-thirty P.M. there was plenty going on. We were about eleven minutes out, approaching X-Ray, and I was listening on my radio handset,” says Lefebvre. “In the lead chopper were my radio operator, PFC Gilbert Nicklas; the mortar-platoon leader, Lieutenant Raul F. Taboada, and his radio operator and others. I could hear the battalion commander on the radio.
“You could see the artillery and air strikes going in. You’re flying in a helicopter and you watch this battle and listen to all this shit going on on the radio. The pilot, Bruce Crandall, turned around, shook his head, and made this face like: ‘Man, what are we getting into?’ I recall that pilot’s expression. We could see a lot of firing. I was trying to figure out exactly where I was going to go. I was sitting on the left side, facing out toward the mountain, in the middle between the two radio operators.” Crandall radioed that he was on short final approach, dropping toward the LZ, and I told him to come on in but be quick getting out.
As this fifth lift of the day roared in at treetop level, the landing zone suddenly turned red-hot. The enemy at the creekbed turned their guns on the helicopters and filled the air with rifle and automatic-weapons fire. Says Crandall: “As I was flaring out to touch down we started receiving heavy ground fire. I touched down at the forward part of the LZ, looked out to my left and saw a North Vietnamese firing at my ship from a point just outside the length of my rotor blades. Another enemy soldier was firing from the other side. Everybody and his brother seemed to be shooting either at us or at them.
“It seemed like this went on forever, but in reality the infantry cleaned up these guys rather quickly. Even though the enemy was that close, my door gunners could not take action to defend themselves. Troops on the ground, or those getting out of our birds had to handle the enemy in the landing zone. We couldn’t shoot without killing our own people on the perimeter, so our policy was not to shoot.
“I stayed on the ground a little longer on this lift so that I could pick up wounded. As I pulled pitch my flight of four came out and the next four choppers hit the landing zone almost immediately. I reported the heavy fire to the incoming aircraft and directed them to continue with the approach. I knew several helicopters were hit but I couldn’t stick around; my job was to get those wounded aboard my helicopter back to Plei Me to medical help and start getting support and reinforcements going for the people on the ground. I had three dead and three wounded on my bird. The wounded included my crew chief, who had been hit in the throat. When we landed we saw that every bullet had struck the wounded in the head or neck. Excellent marksmanship by the other side, and not a happy thought for a helicopter pilot, to say the least.”
Captain Ray Lefebvre, commander of Delta Company, was about to earn his Combat Infantryman’s Badge, a Silver Star, and a Purple Heart, all in the next seven minutes. He remembers, “When we came in, the mountain was off to our left and we were taking a lot of fire. We settled down near the wood line. There was lots of fire coming from the woods. Taboada was hit in the hand while we were hovering.
“I was starting to unhook my seat belt when I felt a round crease the back of my neck. I turned to my right and saw that my radio operator had been hit in the head; the same round that cut me killed him. He just slumped forward, still buckled in. Nicklas was a young guy, just twenty, came from Niagara Falls, New York. I jumped out. Firing was coming from the mountain, and three or four of us moved about fifty to seventy-five yards toward the trees, to the sound of the firing, and stopped in a small fold in the ground.”
With Crandall, flying Serpent Yellow 3, were Chief Warrant Officers Riccardo J. Lombardo, thirty-four, of Hartford, Connecticut, and Alex S. (Pop) Jekel, forty-three, of Seattle, Washington. Pop Jekel was the father of nine children. During World War II, at the age of twenty, he had flown B-24s out of England, and B-29s during the postwar years, until he left the service in 1950. Pop Jekel reenlisted in 1952 and had been flying helicopters since 1963.
Lombardo was in the pilot’s seat and recalls that lift: “As I approached I saw the battle smoke getting heavy. I told Pop Jekel to get on the controls with me. As my skids touched down, my troops leaped out. I saw men lying on the ground. I felt and heard bangs on the back of my seat. I glanced at Pop and he was staring straight ahead, his eyes as big as pie plates and his mouth wide open. I looked ahead and saw a man about fifty yards ahead on the edge of the LZ. He was standing in plain view, pointing a weapon at us. I thought it was one of our people, but something didn’t look right. His uniform was khaki color and he wasn’t wearing a helmet.
“Before I even noticed the muzzle flashes, three holes appeared in my windshield. In my mind I was asking, ‘Why is that bastard shooting at me?’ As fast as that man appeared, he disappeared. Then I was off the ground and banking to the right in a climb, and all the while red streaks were following me. To that point not a word had been spoken over the intercom. Before I could say a word, Pop Jekel keyed the intercom and said: ‘I flew thirty-one missions in B-24s in World War II and that’s the closest I’ve ever come to swallowing my balls.’ That was the last lift of troops I made into the LZ.”
Lombardo’s Huey was so badly shot up it was barely able to limp to Plei Me for patching and then back to Camp Holloway for further repairs. Rick and Pop spent the rest of that afternoon listening to the battle on the tactical radio and sucking down several beers.
First Lieutenant Roger K. Bean was flying a Huey in the second wave of birds behind Crandall’s. “When we landed I was flying on Captain Ed Freeman’s right wing. We were all taking fire and the number four ship didn’t look like he was going to make it out of X-Ray. I was in the pilot’s seat and Captain Gene Mesch was in the left seat. I was looking over my shoulder at the number four ship when we got hit by AK-47 fire. A round came through the door in front of Gene, entered the back of my flight helmet, tore a hole in the side of my head and came out through the front of the helmet. I was bleeding like a stuck pig and my flight helmet was turned sideways on my head with the earphone covering my eyes. At first I thought I was blind. That concerned me because I was still flying. Gene took the controls and the door gunner patched me up. I was X-rayed at the Special Forces camp and went back to the unit after they sewed me up.”
Several of the Hueys in the first wave of eight took hits, but none crashed, none caught fire, none had to be abandoned in the landing zone. I radioed orders for the other eight Hueys in the fifth lift to get out of the area and wait until I got the landing zone cooled down and under control. They headed back east to Plei Me where they landed, off-loaded the troops, refueled, and shut down to wait.
Captain Ray Lefebvre now swung into action. Purely by chance, he and several of his Delta Company men had run toward a critical section of the perimeter, an uncovered gap on the left flank of Tony Nadal’s embattled Alpha Company troops. Lefebvre recalls, “My executive officer and first sergeant didn’t come in on that lift, so the only sergeant I had was George Gonzales, a staff sergeant from the machine-gun platoon, and he had gone in another direction.
“There was no one between us and the tree line; we had an unobstructed view forty yards to the front. Lieutenant Taboada was to my left. I hollered to him saying I needed his radio and to stay where he was. He yelled back that he had been hit but was OK. When his radio operator got over to me, I contacted Sergeant Gonzales and told him to bring his machine guns to my location. He was about 150 yards to my rear and said he was on the way. I called him three or four times but we never got together.”
Although it seemed that the North Vietnamese were attacking purposefully, the enemy commander, Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Huu An, was frustrated and angry. He says, “I ordered the 66th Regiment’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel La Ngoc Chau, to use his 7th Battalion to attack you constantly, to encircle you, and not to allow you to withdraw by helicopter. In the first attacks [on the Bravo and Alpha Company sectors] by the 9th Battalion and the 33rd Regiment, our reconnaissance soldiers learned your positions—but the 7th Battalion commander did not know where you were. I ordered him to keep searching for you. I told him to move forward personally to the front so he could control the situation and directly encircle you.”
The People’s Army 7th Battalion commander, Major Le Tien Hoa, thought he had finally found the open door into Landing Zone X-Ray on the southern side of the perimeter, and he swung his battalion in a broad encircling maneuver around Tony Nadal’s left flank toward the south side of the clearing. But, thanks to Charlie Company, that open door was closing fast.
Charlie Company’s commander, Captain Bob Edwards, raced down the line of newly arrived infantrymen, picking up those who belonged to him and hurrying them into position with the rest of the company on the south and southeast sides of the landing zone. Edwards sited his machine gunners and riflemen along a thinly stretched blocking position that now ran for 120 yards.
No more than five minutes had passed when a huge wave of North Vietnamese, the lead assault units of Major Hoa’s 7th Battalion, charged headlong into the thin line of 112 American riflemen. Added to the din of battle in the Alpha and Bravo Company areas was the sudden heavy firing in the woods where Charlie Company was located. Captain Bob Edwards was on the radio to battalion instantly, shouting: “We are in heavy contact. Estimate a hundred and seventy-five to two hundred enemy. Damn! These guys are good!”
Captain Edwards says, “The enemy were moving fast toward the landing zone, headed northwest. More toward the center of the LZ where the helicopters were landing. They had to be surprised to hit us. Right after we got into position there was a lot of fire, then after the initial rush it tended to slack off. You could see them. It was shooting ducks out there.”
Simultaneously, the 9th Battalion of the 66th Regiment launched a strong attack against Tony Nadal’s Alpha Company, feeling for the forty-yard gap between Alpha Company’s left flank and Charlie Company’s right flank and desperately trying to seize control of that dry creekbed. Nadal’s brave machine gunners—Beck and Adams, and Ladner and Rivera—were covering most of the gap between my companies with their deadly fire. Now a handful of newly arrived Delta Company troopers led by Captain Lefebvre played their part as well in stemming the enemy tide.
Ray Lefebvre had dropped into a fold in the ground in the western edge of the clearing, just short of the tree line. “Captain John Herren came out of the trees to my right and said: ‘There’s a hell of a lot of enemy up there coming into our area.’ Then I saw sixteen or seventeen enemy real close, twenty yards, coming down the creekbed right at the edge of the LZ. They didn’t seem to know what they were doing, coming out into the landing zone. We had a machine gun [and] our M-16s, and we were throwing grenades. I fired two magazines of M-16 ammo at them and then they just disappeared. The machine gunner on my right got hit. I think he was killed. About then I was hit also, as was my replacement radio operator. I called Sergeant Gonzales again and told him: ‘You get up here quick as you can.’ I was on the ground and John Herren helped give me a tourniquet. I radioed Colonel Moore and told him I had been hit.”
John Herren says, “After finishing my latest report to Matt Dillon, who was overhead, I looked up to see a North Vietnamese soldier with an AK-47 just over the bank I was standing behind with my two radio operators. I fired a burst from my M-16 which promptly fell apart. The pin holding the trigger mechanism to the barrel had broken off or dropped off. The North Vietnamese, who was obviously the lead man for his unit, dropped down behind another embankment, so I grabbed my one grenade and threw it toward him. It hit a branch above him and bounced back just in front of us and exploded. Not knowing whether the enemy was dead or not, and fearing that there were more enemy in the creekbed behind him, which meant that they had gotten between my platoons, I moved out with my radio operators across the creekbed and back into the LZ, then to the southwest, where I thought Dennis Deal’s platoon would be.
“I thought the people in the ditch were Deal’s men. I saw a machine-gun crew off to the right. I ran over and told them there were NVA in the creekbed. We immediately came under withering fire from the south and dropped down next to some other troopers behind what little cover there was. It was part of Delta Company, and I was next to Captain Lefebvre. Shortly after, automatic-weapons fire swept over us. My tireless radio operator, PFC Dominic De Angelis, nineteen, from Queens, suddenly turned toward me after a shot ripped into his arm, with the words ‘Captain Herren, I’m hit’ frozen on his lips. As he turned a bullet hole appeared in the center of his helmet and he was dead.
“On my right, Lefebvre was also hit and the blood was gushing out of his right arm. He tried to stop the bleeding himself. I grabbed my first-aid kit compress and pressed it on the wound, using it and some other cloth to make a tourniquet. Lefebvre began to weaken, and after about twenty minutes—while I was firing and hugging the ground and talking on the radio to Lieutenant Herrick and checking on Ray Lefebvre’s wound—I got the nearest man to help me get Lefebvre back to the rear. I returned to find Tony Nadal in the same general area where we were pinned down, dragging some of his dead men back. It was a wrenching, frustrating experience for me, out of physical contact with my platoons and pinned down while Henry Herrick’s platoon was in trouble.”
Lefebvre, seriously wounded, was fading fast: “I had lost a lot of blood. I could see people shooting but I couldn’t hear any sounds anymore. I told John Herren somebody had to take over. I again called Colonel Moore and told him that I was going to turn the company over to Sergeant Gonzales. Then the medic arrived to bandage my wound. Shortly after, I remember someone putting me in a poncho and hauling me over to the area of the battalion command post. When I saw Lieutenant Taboada again later, we never did talk much about it. It was just too damned close a thing.”
Ray Lefebvre and his handful of Delta Company troopers had unknowingly joined the Alpha Company fight at a crucial moment. About thirty North Vietnamese were flanking Nadal’s men on their left, and Captain Lefebvre’s party ran smack into them and killed most of them. Nadal’s men dispatched the rest. Unknown to Lefebvre, Sergeant Gonzales had been hit in the face by an enemy bullet. Gonzales simply said, “Roger,” when Lefebvre told him he was now in command, and for the next hour and half ran Delta Company.
Lefebvre and Taboada were carried into the battalion aid station at the termite hill in poncho litters. They were shockingly wounded, a terrible sight to see. Lefebvre’s right arm and dangling hand were both mangled and shattered, with bones protruding. Lefebvre was quietly moaning. One of Taboada’s legs was a gaping, raw, bloody mess from hip to foot; he was screaming in agony. (First Lieutenant Raul E. Taboada was something of a mystery man. One story that made the rounds had it that he was Cuban-born, and that he fought against Fidel Castro in the Bay of Pigs invasion.)
In the dry creekbed with Alpha Company’s 3rd Platoon, Sergeant Steve Hansen had fired all his mortar ammunition and had now become a rifleman. His description of these events: “Delta Company landed after our first firefight. They took fire coming in, and several casualties. One was Lieutenant Taboada, who was shot in the hand and the leg. I found him up near Alpha Company. Sergeant Jose Robles-Claudio, an Alpha squad leader, talked to him in Spanish. I remember Taboada was holding a picture of his wife and children in his bloody hand. He was ranting in Spanish. How he came to be in the Alpha Company outer perimeter is something I attribute to a lack of information about the LZ and where the bad guys were.
“The choppers approached the LZ from the east and the lead ships were setting down only a few feet from the NVA marksmen in the tree line. Our Alpha left flank was exposed until later in the day when Charlie Company lengthened its lines and took up positions there. Initially the gap between Alpha and Charlie companies was covered by fire only. It was a critical point, and an open avenue of approach. When Charlie Company came under attack, Alpha Company was attacked down the creekbed. They came down from the massif.”
All this time, Bill Beck and Russell Adams and their buddies on the other M-60 were out front, anchoring the far left flank of Alpha Company, and their sheets of machine-gun fire wreaked havoc on the attacking enemy. Beck now briefly became a medic as well. Beck recalls, “I spotted an arm, off to my left about twenty yards, reaching up above the grass with a GI canteen in hand. Right arm. Like he was trying to drain one last drop out of it. Adams covered me and I ran over. It was a radio man, helmet off, radio on the ground. He was tall and thin with brown hair. He asked me for water and said he’d been hit. I opened his shirt and there was a small black hole in his chest. I tried to comfort him, telling him he’d be all right, that it’s not bad. I gently rolled him on his side expecting to find half his back blown out, but the same small black hole was there also.
“I wrapped his first-aid pack and a plastic wrapper over both holes, screamed for a medic, got his M-16, and tried to fire it at the NVA shooting at us. It was all shot to hell. I screamed again for a medic and dragged him back ten or fifteen yards till Doc [Donal J.] Nail got him. Then I spotted an officer—I remember the silver bar on his shirt—he was in shock, moaning, his hand blown apart and his thigh equally bad. He was sitting facing the creekbed. I knew he had got hit from that area and I was scared shitless that I was going to get it in the back while tending to him.”
Beck, down on his knees, bandaged the wounded officer and screamed for a medic. He adds, “I wasn’t with him for more than a minute. I got his M-16 and tried to fire it and it was inoperable. I took his .45 pistol and fired into the jungle toward the enemy. Somewhere along the line I picked up an M-79 grenade launcher from a dead guy and tried to fire it, and it was no good. I fired more .45 rounds into the jungle. The enemy firing picked up.
“Just then I heard Ladner screaming, ‘Beck, Beck, help! Adams is hit.’ I ran back. Russ was on his back staring at me, the M-60 lying on its side. The side of his head was a mess. He was trying to talk to me but nothing was coming out. The enemy knew they had shot him and were closing in on us from the front and right front thirty yards out. I righted the M-60 fast and started firing at them. Every time I fired Adams winced. He was lying right beside the gun, so I tried not firing so often. Besides, we were low on ammo and this was no small firefight.
“Suddenly the M-60 jammed. We were being assaulted and I could see the enemy twenty-five yards out. It’s surprising how fast you think and act in a situation like that. Lying prone I opened the feed cover, flipped the gun over and hit it on the ground. It jarred the shells loose. Debris from the ground had caught in the ammo belt when Adams was hit. I flipped it right side up, slapped the ammo belt back in, slammed the feed cover closed and began firing again. It seemed like a lifetime, but wasn’t more than five or ten seconds.
“The enemy firing slacked off. Adams’s helmet lay in front of me. I could see a bullet hole in it and I reached out and turned it over. It seemed like his entire brain fell out in front of me on the ground. I was horrified! I screamed over and over for the medic and tried to tell Adams that it wasn’t nothing, that he’d be all right. I told him the choppers would get him out soon. I took his .45 pistol; now I had three of them. I remember Adams laying there for at least a half-hour. Ladner and Rivera were firing and I saw more movement to the front and right. I started firing again. At one time I stood up and, using a poncho, kicked out a brush fire moving toward us.”
Bill Beck, thirsty, exhausted, and shocked by his friend’s terrible wound, now heard screams from the other machine-gun position. He says, “Ladner cried out to me, horror in his voice, ‘Rodriguez is hit! Help! His guts are on the ground!’ Doc Nail came, patched Adams’s head, and carried him to the rear while I covered for them. Doc then came back for Rodriguez but Ladner had already taken him back.”
Beck was soon rejoined by Specialist Theron Ladner and Ladner’s ammo bearer, PFC Edward F. Dougherty, the only men left out of the two M-60 crews. They were fifteen yards apart, each one steadily firing at the close-in enemy. Someone brought up a load of ammo for the machine guns. Beck says, “That made me very happy. There was no one on my left for a long time. It was lonely as hell up there until a captain came over to me from my left rear and ordered me to ‘stay put. You are with such-and-such a company now!’ I’ll never forget that. I can’t remember what company he said; hell, one company’s as good as another. I don’t know what the hell’s happening. I’m out there by myself. I’m only a twenty-year-old kid. I don’t know what’s going on. I followed Russell Adams; I’m his assistant gunner so I go where he goes. That’s how I got up there.”
The captain was John Herren of Bravo Company. Bob Edwards and his Charlie Company men were off on Beck’s left but not in direct contact. Beck, Ladner, and Dougherty—and, before they were hit, Russell Adams and Rodriguez Rivera—all of them draftees, none of them with combat experience, were undergoing a profound and shattering experience. Russell Adams somehow survived the traumatic head wound, which left him partly crippled. He recalls the wood and bark chips flying as a stream of enemy fire chewed up the tree next to his machine gun. “The next burst hit me.”
It was during all this horror that Beck remembers the fear coming over him: “While Doc Nail was there with me, working on Russell, fear, real fear, hit me. Fear like I had never known before. Fear comes, and once you recognize it and accept it, it passes just as fast as it comes, and you don’t really think about it anymore. You just do what you have to do, but you learn the real meaning of fear and life and death. For the next two hours I was alone on that gun, shooting at the enemy. Enemy were shooting at me and bullets were hitting the ground beside me and cracking above my head. They were attacking me and I fired as fast as I could in long bursts. My M-60 was cooking. I had to take a crap and a leak bad, so I pulled my pants down while laying on my side and did it on my side, taking fire at the time.”
Over to Beck’s left, Charlie Company was getting its baptism of fire. Sergeant First Class Robert Jemison, Jr., was the top sergeant in Lieutenant John Geoghegan’s 2nd Platoon. Jemison, a native of Aliceville, Alabama, married and the father of four, was an old veteran who had already helped make history in Korea. Drafted in 1947 at age seventeen, Jemison stayed in the Army. In February of 1951, he was a rifleman in K Company, 3rd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment. At Chipyong-ni, twelve miles behind enemy lines, the 23rd Infantry was surrounded by two Chinese army corps and miraculously defeated them.
Fate and the United States Army hadn’t done all that well by SFC Jemison. He was now surrounded again, and making history again. Says Jemison: “We received fire on the landing zone. We had one man killed, a Specialist 4 from Phenix City, Alabama, and one private who was a replacement. We moved into position and started digging in. We sent an ammo and casualty report to the platoon leader, Lieutenant Geoghegan. We reported one killed. He said: ‘May God have mercy on his soul.’ We were attacked throughout the day, off and on, where we had set up.”
Specialist 4 George J. McDonald, Jr., twenty-four years old and a native of Pass Christian, Mississippi, was a mortarman in Charlie Company. When he bailed out of a helicopter onto Landing Zone X-Ray he had precisely fourteen days left to serve in the Army. “LZ X-Ray has never left my mind. Sunday morning my squad saw the LZ. There were troopers laying and firing their M-16s into the trees and waving and signaling to us that they were under fire. As soon as we hit the ground we started getting automatic rifle fire from the left up on Chu Pong. We had to hug the ground for a while; the rounds were hitting all around and very close. I could see muzzle flashes coming from up in the trees. Since they were out of range of my M-79 grenade launcher, I borrowed an M-16 from the trooper next to me who couldn’t see them. I fired directly at the muzzle flashes until they stopped.
“Then we grabbed the mortar and moved ahead into the trees and set up and quickly used up our mortar ammo. There were some dead Cavalry troops laying on the ground, and word was being shouted that there was heavy fighting up ahead and they needed help. I went in the direction of the heavy rifle fire and used up what ammunition I had, then returned to the mortar.”
From my command post at the termite hill, the enemy were clearly visible a hundred yards to the south. They were damned good soldiers, used cover and concealment to perfection, and were deadly shots: Most of my dead and wounded soldiers had been shot in the head or upper body. The North Vietnamese paid particular attention to radio operators and leaders. They did not appear to have radios themselves; they controlled their men by shouts, waves, pointing, whistles, and sometimes bugle calls.
The North Vietnamese regulars were good, but Charlie Company was cutting them down with fire that scythed through the tall elephant grass. Bob Edwards and his thin green line were stopping the most serious threat of the afternoon. Edwards had run his company for nineteen months. His company first sergeant, John James, was in the hospital with malaria and the acting first sergeant for this operation was SFC Glenn F. Kennedy, a soft-spoken Mississippian, thirty years old.
Edwards had gotten three brand-new second lieutenants as platoon leaders just before we shipped out of Fort Benning. The 1st Platoon leader was Neil A. Kroger, twenty-four, a recent Officer Candidate School graduate from Oak Park, Illinois. Kroger’s platoon sergeant was SFC Luther V Gilreath, thirty-three years old, a tall, slender paratrooper who hailed from Surgoinsville, Tennessee. The 2nd Platoon leader was John Geoghegan, a handsome, red-haired young officer, commissioned out of the Pennsylvania Military College, who was four days past his twenty-fourth birthday. Geoghegan was married and the father of a baby daughter born three months before we shipped out to Vietnam. His platoon sergeant was Robert Jemison. The 3rd Platoon leader was William Franklin, another OCS graduate, who was older than Kroger and Geoghegan; he was married and the father of two children. The 3rd Platoon top kick was SFC Charles N. Freeman, another old pro.
The attacking North Vietnamese 7th Battalion ran straight into a company of American infantrymen in a sector that had been completely undefended only minutes before. They were violently thrown back. Now Major Hoa tried to regroup under blistering ground fire and murderous air and artillery barrages. Bob Edwards reported that Charlie Company was in good shape, was locked in a heavy fight but had things well in hand.
It was 2:45 P.M. All three of my rifle companies were heavily engaged. We had lost the use of the larger clearing for helicopter landings. Wounded were streaming into the command-post aid station. We were in a desperate fix and I was worried that it could become even more desperate. By now I believed we were fighting at least two People’s Army battalions; turns out it was three. They were very tough and very determined to wipe us out, but a major difference between Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Huu An of the People’s Army of Vietnam and Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore of the 1st Cavalry Division was that I had major fire support and he didn’t.
Air Force Captain Bruce Wallace and his fellow A-1E Sky-raider pilots, as well as jet fighter-bombers from all three services, helped provide that edge, flying fifty sorties in close air support that Sunday afternoon. Says Wallace, “The importance of airplanes in a vulgar brawl is to be down among the palm trees with the troops, putting ordnance on the ground at the exact time and in the precise place that the ground command needs it.”
While he was in the airspace over Landing Zone X-Ray, Captain Wallace observed the attacks of the 1st Cavalry Division’s aerial rocket artillery (ARA) helicopters with more than passing interest. He says, “It is always an experience for an Air Force pilot to watch a gaggle of Hueys attack a target. We pride ourselves on flexibility of thought, quick response time, ability to react to ever-changing situations, but we are committed to a somewhat linear thought process. In the attack the target is always directly in front of us. Not so with a Huey. To watch four or eight of them at a time maneuvering up and down and laterally and even backward boggles a fighter pilot’s mind. Those guys swarm a target like bees over honey. I had to hand it to those Huey guys. They really got down there in the trees with the troops.”
The ARA helicopters chewing up the slopes of Chu Pong on our behalf were from Charlie Battery, 2nd Battalion, 20th Artillery (ARA), commanded by Major Roger J. Bartholomew, the legendary “Black Bart” Bartholomew, who would later be killed in combat in Vietnam. One of Black Bart’s pilots, Captain Richard B. Washburn, then thirty-one, recalls, “The Battery fired all day in support of X-Ray. We refueled every third trip, never shutting down the engine. Each helicopter carried 48 rockets, and with six helicopters plus the battery commander we were going through ammo in a hurry. An artillery battalion commander, a lieutenant colonel, and his driver were among the volunteers opening boxes of rockets to help keep us armed. CH-47 Chinook helicopters flew in load after load of ammo to keep us going. We stayed with it all day.”
The field artillery, what we called “tube artillery” to distinguish the howitzer folks from the helicopter-rocket folks, proudly calls itself the King of Battle. During training at Fort Benning my battalion’s fire-support coordinator, Captain Robert L. Barker,presented me with a print of an impeccably uniformed artillery officer, circa 1860s, lighting a match to a small cannon aimed at a pile of grubby men engaged in swordfights, fistfights, and gun-fights. The legend engraved across the bottom said: “Artillery Lends Dignity to What Would Otherwise Be a Vulgar Brawl.”
By the time of the battle at LZ X-Ray, which was without question a very vulgar brawl, Bob Barker was the commander of Battery C, 1st Battalion, 21st Artillery, whose six 105mm howitzers were firing in support of us from LZ Falcon, just over five miles away. Lieutenants Bill Riddle, the forward observer with John Herren’s Bravo Company, and Tim Blake, who was killed with Tony Nadal’s Alpha Company, were on loan to us from Barker’s Battery C. Also located in Falcon were the six big guns of Battery A, 1st of the 21st Artillery, commanded by Captain Donald Davis, twenty-eight, a native Ohioan.
The brave cannon-cockers in LZ Falcon went without sleep for three days and nights to help keep us surrounded by a wall of steel. Those two batteries, twelve guns, fired more than four thousand rounds of high-explosive shells on the first day alone. Says Barker, “On the first afternoon both batteries fired for effect [directly on target] for five straight hours.” One of Bruce Crandall’s Huey slick pilots, Captain Paul Winkel, touched down at Falcon briefly that first afternoon and was astounded by what he saw: “There were stacks of shell casings, one at least 10 feet high, and exhausted gun crews. They had fired for effect for three straight hours by then, without even pausing to level the bubbles. One tube was burned out, two had busted hydraulics. That’s some shooting!”
No matter how bad things got for the Americans fighting for their lives on the X-Ray perimeter, we could look out into the scrub brush in every direction, into that seething inferno of exploding artillery shells, 2.75-inch rockets, napalm canisters, 250- and 500-pound bombs, and 20mm cannon fire and thank God and our lucky stars that we didn’t have to walk through that to get to work.