Recollections Of A Day In Battle
RECOLLECTIONS OF A DAY IN BATTLE
IA DRANG VALLEY
PLEIKU PROVINCE, VIETNAM
NOVEMBER 17, 1965
By George Wasenko Jr.
PRELUDE TO BATTLE
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
for he today that sheds his blood with me
shall be my brother.
Shakespeare, Henry V, Act IV, Scene 3
November 17, 1965 has special meaning for me as I feel I was handed a new lease on life following that fateful day in the elephant grass on the banks of the Ia Drang River in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. It was on this day my understrength battalion of 375 men, the 2nd Battalion 7th Cavalry, of the 1st Cavalry Division was ambushed by 1,100 North Vietnamese regulars.
The battle at Landing Zone Albany began at 1:30 on the afternoon of November 17, 1965 and continued into the evening hours. Out of the 375 men in my understrength battalion, 155 were to lose their lives with 135 wounded that day. Of that total, 17 were killed in action from my company with countless wounded who were scarred both physically and mentally for life. It would turn out to be a costly battle for the North Vietnamese as well. 400 of their crack troops who recently crossed into South Vietnam after making the long trek down the Ho Chi Minh trail would lose their lives in the bloodiest engagement of the entire Vietnam War.
The battle at LZ Albany was my first taste of combat. The first few months were spent carving a base camp out of the jungle at Anh Khe which would be my home for the next twelve months. Once work on the the base was complete it meant more time could be spent searching for Viet Cong in the jungles to the east and west of Anh Khe. After spending the first month in base camp I would soon come face to face with the cold and remorseless face of combat as fighting shifted to the west in Pleiku Province on the Cambodian border, a long time stronghold of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese.
LANDING ZONE X-RAY
THE BATTLE BEGINS
“Either come back from battle carrying your shield or
being carried on your shield.”
~~Creed of the Spartan soldiers, 480 BC
The four day battle in the Ia Drang Valley began on the morning of November 14, 1965 when the 1st battalion of the 7th Cavalry, my sister battalion, landed in a clearing at the foot of Chu Pong Mountain. This small clearing was designated L Z X-Ray. Chu Pong Mountain had long been suspected as a dumping area into South Vietnam from the Ho Chi Minh trail as military intelligence detected activity in the area for some time. Prior to the 1st battalion landing at LZ X-Ray elements of the 1st Brigade had overrun a Viet Cong hospital and fought a number of skirmishes in a nearby area. The1st Brigade was then relieved and replaced by the 3rd Brigade which was to resume action in the area. The 1st Battalion of the 7th Cav would soon find it landed in the middle of a hornet’s nest confronting three North Vietnamese regiments who recently arrived in South Vietnam and were desperately wanting to kill Americans.
The helicopters dropping off the lead companies of Col. Moore’s 1st Battalion encountered little resistance during the initial landings. Little did they know they were being keenly observed by the dug in North Vietnamese on the slopes of the Chu Pong massif as successive waves of helicopters dropped off several more companies of Moore’s battalion. As each new wave touched down they moved into assigned areas and began digging foxholes. Intelligence reports of large numbers of North Vietnamese in the area certainly didn’t bode well as each trooper dug nervously into the dry, baked earth with his entrenching tool as he gazed up at the mountain looming before him. A sense that something terrible was about to happen was in all their minds.
Soon several platoons were advancing on line up the slopes of Chu Pong Mountain in hopes of making contact with the elusive NVA before they moved on the LZ. A North Vietnamese soldier captured early in the landings informed Col. Moore there were many soldiers on the mountain who wanted desperately to kill Americans. At this point Moore knew he would be in for the fight of his life and he still didn’t have all his companies on the ground and in position. Rather then wait for the NVA to move on the LZ Moore decided it would be wiser meeting them on the slopes and giving him more time for the remainder of his companies to arrive.
Two platoons advancing up the wooded slopes soon began receiving withering fire from North Vietnamese troops coming off the mountain towards the landing zone. Under intense fire they began taking heavy casualties. Facing the prospect of being surrounded and cut off they began withdrawing.
One platoon found it self completely surrounded and taking heavy small arms and mortar fire as the North Vietnamese swarmed all around them. Cut off from the LZ, they dug in on a finger-like slope to defend themselves in the midst of the enemy. The remnants of the platoon fought off swarms of attackers often times calling artillery strikes directly on their position to keep from being overrun.
A bigger tragedy was to follow at the LZ as the North Vietnamese swarmed down the mountain in waves smashing headlong into the main American positions. Despite taking heavy casualties and being outnumbered ten to one the infantrymen held their ground. Throughout the 15th the cavalrymen fought off multiple attacks with the help of artillery which often times was all that kept the hard fighting cavalrymen from being overrun. Time and again the North Vietnamese were repulsed and again they came back with added determination only to be repulsed again. Despite suffering serious casualties the cavalrymen had inflicted far more casualties on the North Vietnamese. The battle at LZ X-Ray would turn out to be the worst communist loss in a single engagement of the war.
By the morning of November 16th, following two days of bloody fighting around LZ X-Ray the North Vietnamese body count was at 900 and with another 1,500 perishing in artillery strikes around the LZ. Not only did the artillery play a major role but also the Air Force as well as they flew 260 sorties over the battlefield in support of the hard fighting infantrymen. The battle at LZ X-Ray turned out to be one of the costliest to American forces at the time with 79 infantrymen losing their lives and 120 wounded.
FRYING PAN INTO THE FIRE
“It doesn’t take a hero to order men into battle. It
takes a hero to be one of those men who goes
~~Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf
It Doesn’t Take A Hero (1992)
On the morning of November 16, brigade headquarters in the nearby provincial capital in Pleiku decided to begin withdrawing the 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry which had born the brunt of the fighting since landing at LZ X-Ray on the morning of the 14th. Alpha and Bravo companies of the 2nd battalion 7th Cavalry, my unit, were dropped in on the 15th to reinforce the depleted 1st battalion which had many casualties and was suffering from battle fatigue. The continuous fighting had taken a toll on the infantrymen.
While the fighting was raging at LZ X-Ray the remainder of the 2nd Battalion 7th Cavalry, my battalion, was at Pleiku readying itself to move out if and when it was needed. At the time we didn’t understand the seriousness of the situation at LZ X-Ray, some 30 miles away. We were told we would be flying in along with the 2nd Battalion 5th Cav to replace the battle worn 1st Battalion which was to be returned to Pleiku.
The fighting in the Ia Drang Valley, dubbed operation “Silver Bayonet,” began in mid October and was the first combat for the 2nd Battalion. Until then the extent of the battalion’s combat was Viet Cong lobbing mortar rounds into the battalion bivouac area at Anh Khe. The attacks never lasted long with maybe a half dozen rounds coming in. Never the less, it was still unsettling to endure mortar rounds exploding nearby, never knowing if one might land by you. By not seeing the faces of the enemy it makes combat a little less personal, much like a fighter pilot strafing the enemy or releasing napalm on enemy ground troops. By confronting your opponent on the ground, face to face, it puts a more personal perspective on war and it isn’t so easy to rationalize or make it into an honorable and noble effort. Within the next twenty four hours I would learn the meaning of combat first hand with a very determined foe.
As we prepared to depart I checked my radio to make sure it was working properly. Not sure of the availability of water I made sure my canteen was full as it’s easy to become dehydrated in 90 degree heat and an unmerciful sun beating down on you. The ammo, aid pack, smoke grenades, extra battery, regular grenades, and rations along with the PRC 25 radio made for a heavy load.
Prior to lifting off we were informed we would be relieving the 1st battalion which was involved in heavy fighting the last two days with North Vietnamese regulars at a small clearing thirty miles away. The fighting had been fierce with both sides suffering heavy casualties. The last few days we had been getting information regarding the 1st battalion’s battle but didn’t realize the gravity of the situation until the briefing before departure. We were told to prepare for the worse.
Not long after the briefing we could see the Huey’s off in the distance as the “whup, whup” sound of the blades grew louder as they made there approach. There was eight, the maximum that could land at one time in the small clearing at X-Ray. As we climbed aboard and fastened our belts we knew the moment of truth had arrived as it wouldn’t take long to cover the 30 miles to L Z X-Ray. Our stomachs were knotted in anticipation of not knowing what lay ahead.
As the Huey’s lifted off and headed west we saw how desolate this area of Vietnam really was. As I looked over my shoulder the provincial capitol of Pleiku slowly disappeared behind us. Below us lay a remote area devoid of any roads and totally inaccessible. It is easy to understand how it had long been a communist stronghold as it looked impenetrable from the air, covered with scrubby trees and ravines with a few small clearings here and there. A very beautiful but inhospitable area that was home to the native Montagnards whose tiny villages were scattered throughout the area, linked by primitive trails and surrounded by dense brush. These proud people allied themselves with the South Vietnamese government but would pay a price when the war ended.
We could see the Chu Pong massif off in the distance as we neared our destination. Its 1000 foot elevation was clearly the highest peak in the area as it straddled the border of Vietnam and Cambodia. As we were to learn later it was a major communist stronghold during the war and an entry point of troops coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail and entering the Central Highlands.
As we approached the LZ the pilots descended to treetop level, not wanting to offer the North Vietnamese an opportunity to fire on us. Traveling at 100 mph at treetop level it would leave them little time to react. I think my heart was pounding just as fast as we roared over the treetops, now just a blur and the Huey’s runners just barely above the treetops. The excitement of the approach and not knowing what lay ahead had the adrenalin flowing.
I learned to have the greatest respect for the pilots and crew who flew the Huey’s in support of the infantry. The pilots who flew the gunships that prepped the LZ’s with rocket and machine gun fire prior to an assault as well as the pilots who flew the “slicks,” the Huey’s that ferried the infantrymen, or “grunts” as they were known to the far flung battlefields from Khe Sanh to the Delta. When we were in trouble they flew in, often times under intense fire to retrieve our dead and seriously wounded under the most trying of conditions. They would re-supply us with ammo when it was nearly expended and water when our throats were parched from the heat and smoke of battle. These were some of the bravest helicopter pilots in the world and I will forever be indebted to them and what they did for us on the ground in Vietnam.
As we drew closer to Chu Pong Mountain I was able to see the small clearing designated LZ X-Ray at its base where the 1st battalion had fought so valiantly the last two days. I wondered how reconnaissance had even located this tiny clearing in the forest near the Cambodian border. The forest seemed to stretch for as far as the eye could see in all directions with no discernible break or clearing. With it’s remoteness it is easy to understand how Chu Pong Mountain became a North Vietnamese stronghold and a major gateway into the South.
It wasn’t long after spotting the LZ the pilots brought the Huey’s down in the clearing that was no larger then a football field. We scrambled out and it wasn’t long before troopers of the 1st battalion climbed aboard for their return trip to Pleiku and a much needed rest. They had done their part in the two day battle. Now the responsibility of operations fell on the 2nd Battalion 7th Cav and the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Cav.
Throughout the afternoon there was a constant shuttling of troops until my battalion and the 5th Cav were the sole tenants of X-Ray. The temperature soared into the upper 90s as we sweltered in the noon day sun unloading rations and ammunition which were promptly distributed among the troops. It didn’t take long for canteens to empty in the heat so water consumption was vital. As we prepared to spend the night at the LZ we felt the North Vietnamese were observing our every movement from observation points atop Chu Pong Mountain It was important we readied ourselves for the night as we were certain he would test our will to fight as he did the 1st battalion. Hopefully we would give a good accounting of ourselves too.
As we prepared for the night we felt comfortable occupying X-Ray with two battalions whereas Hal Moore had one under strength battalion at his disposal. Companies were assigned different sectors of the perimeter and quickly made improvements to the existing 1st battalion’s foxholes. Fields of fire were laid out so any one approaching the perimeter would come under an intense crossfire. Claymore mines were set up in front of the foxholes to wreak havoc on enemy troops as they advanced on our positions during the night. It was going to be a long night with little rest for anyone as we were in “Charley’s” backyard and we felt certain he would hit us hard as he did the 1st Battalion. We wanted to be ready for whatever he threw at us.
Landing Zone X-Ray occupied an area about the size of a football field at the base of Chu Pong Mountain. The east side of the mountain was heavily forested, dark and foreboding as it climbed steeply to the summit. The lower areas of the mountain were laced with gullies, ravines and fingers of land as they approached a dry creek bed that ran along the west side of our perimeter. This lower area was covered with green foliage, underbrush and waist high elephant grass that also occupied areas of the LZ. In the center of the LZ was a clump of trees where the battalion command post was located.
The line companies of the two battalions occupied the outer ring of foxholes facing Chu Pong Mountain while several were held in reserve on the east side to be committed if there was a penetration in any sector. Headquarters Company was part of the reserve to be committed where needed.
As darkness approached the platoon sergeants of each company visited the two man foxholes to ensure the men were prepared for the night. Based on what happened to the 1st Battalion the previous two nights, we expected a long and harrowing night with light probes to find a weak spot followed by company sized attacks. So it was important everyone knew his fields of fire, set out his claymores. and were prepared for what lay ahead.
Sleeping was done in shifts in each foxhole, two hours on, two hours off. If the on duty riflemen saw anything suspicious he alerted his sleeping partner. Often times it was only a breeze moving through the trees but your imagination could run wild and you perceived “Charley” behind every bush and rock to your front. In daylight hours we cleared the area in front of the foxholes so “Charley” would have little cover to conceal his movements. Once this was accomplished it was a deadly waiting game with the advent of nightfall.
Once ammunition and water was distributed I set about improving my foxhole with Guenther Schirmer, a fellow radioman whom I would be sharing my foxhole with on the night of November 16, 1965. Guenther and I were best friends going back to our days at Fort Benning, Georgia, prior to shipping out to Vietnam. While assigned to Fort Benning we spent many an evening at the enlisted men’s club at Sand Hill drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon with our buddies. Sadly, 17 of them would not be with us tomorrow in what would be the costliest engagement of the entire Vietnam War for an American battalion.
Since Guenther and I were in reserve our foxhole was located to the rear of the front lines and we were not concerned with fields of fire. Our foxhole was located near the copse of trees where battalion headquarters was located. If the North Vietnamese were to penetrate the perimeter then we would be called upon to fill the gap.
The foxhole we occupied had been used previously by the 1st battalion so all we did was make improvements. We decided to dig it a little deeper so we could stand rather then squat in it. Guenther also suggested digging a grenade sump in a corner if by chance a grenade were be lobbed into our hole. I’m not sure how well it would have worked but it sounded good at the time.
This would be our only night at LZ X-Ray as we learned we would be departing by foot in the morning to LZ Albany around four miles away and be lifted out. B52 bombers based in Guam would then carpet bomb the Chu Pong massif with 500 pound bombs once we were clear of the area. It would be the first time these heavy bombers would be used in close support of ground troops in the war. That brought a cheer from everyone as no one relished the idea of going up the mountain into “Charley’s” domain and rooting him out. Casualties would have been enormous in such an endeavor. Our job was to make sure we were clear of the area before the bombers arrived the next morning.
“One cannot answer for his courage when he has
never been in danger.”
~~Francios, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, Maximes
As the sun slowly set and darkness engulfed the landing zone I wondered how the guys on the perimeter could see anything to their front. Our eyes eventually adjusted to the darkness but we still had difficulty seeing. Guenther and I we’re both aware we had to make it through the night since we were being lifted out to Pleiku in the morning and we felt Operation Silver Bayonet was in its final stages. We were looking forward to hitting the showers in base camp and getting out of our sweaty fatigues we’d been wearing for the past week. A cold beer at the enlisted men’s club sounded good too.
It wasn’t long before there was sporadic shooting as someone on line must have seen movement to their front. It started out as light fire but broke into a crescendo as it moved down the line and grew heavier. At that point, Guenther and I decided neither of us would get any sleep tonight. We took turns getting a few winks but every time the shooting began we were both up and looking to our front. With the LZ fortified with two battalions we felt the North Vietnamese would have a difficult time penetrating our lines even with mass assaults.
A few hours later, battalion ordered flares dropped from aircraft circling high above to illuminate the perimeter. Once this began it would prove to be difficult for anyone to surprise us as these flares did a marvelous job illuminating the landing zone and perimeter. I will admit, it was quite eerie as they flickered in their slow downward descent. They certainly accomplished what they were intended to do and that was to illuminate the perimeter and warn us of advancing enemy infantry. That didn’t prevent them from trying as there were several minor attacks on the line that night and were easily repulsed with no casualties. Still, it was a very unnerving night and both Guenther and I were happy to see the sun come up the following morning. We had survived our night at LZ X-Ray and lived to see the dawn of a new day.
The morning of November 17 dawned beautifully, much like most days in ‘Nam other than during the monsoon season when there was always a lot of rain On this particular morning the sky was clear with only a trace of clouds as the sun slowly made its ascent. We knew we would be facing another hot day as we climbed out of our cramped foxhole and stretched our weary legs. Despite some probes during the night neither battalion had suffered any casualties. We survived the night and would be leaving this place that had the smell of death everywhere.
After a long and weary night with little sleep we were ready to leave this God-forsaken place. We felt Operation Silver Bayonet was drawing to a close and we were looking forward to leaving this wilderness to the North Vietnamese if they wanted it. Following “Charley’s” ordeal with the 1st battalion the previous two days I think he had his fill of the 1st Cav. Now all either side wanted was to lick his wounds and call it a day. Both sides gave a good account of themselves, fought bravely, and had nothing to be ashamed of.
Because the North Vietnamese still controlled Chu Pong Mountain, the massive 1,000 foot peak towering over the landing zone, we were given orders to march out rather then being flown. If we were lifted out it would have been perilous to the last few units remaining on the ground as they could easily have been overwhelmed by the presence of the large numbers of North Vietnamese still in control of the mountain. Rather then flying out we were given orders like our counterparts in World War II and Korea and that was to march from point A to point B.
The 5th Cav had orders to depart first on a route to a clearing designated L Z Columbus and be lifted out followed by the 2/7th. At one point in our march we would veer to the left to a small clearing near the Ia Drang River designated L Z Albany where we would be lifted out. Under the old plan nobody wanted to be the last company waiting to be lifted out at X-Ray with the area crawling with North Vietnamese. So this plan seemed plausible. At least the area we were moving into didn’t have high ground and no North Vietnamese were thought to be in the area in any numbers. After a tense and sleepless night all we wanted was to return to Pleiku and out of this wilderness.
Despite getting little sleep that night due to enemy probes, the flares eerily illuminating the perimeter, and the uncertainty of it all I felt rather good as the new day dawned. I had survived the night and we would soon be leaving these grounds where so much killing and dying had taken place the last three nights.
Guenther and I enjoyed cold c-rations for breakfast as we sat on the parapet of our foxhole. The foxhole was nothing fancy, just a hole scooped from the earth but would be a home for me on many occasions during my year in Vietnam. I can understand why infantrymen are nineteen and twenty-year-old as older men would have found it difficult to live under such trying conditions for a year.
Following breakfast we policed the area gathering up equipment. We didn’t want to leave anything behind that “charley” might be able to use as he was adept at salvaging discarded equipment and using them against us later. Once we departed he would come down from the mountain to bury his dead and salvage what he could.
By late morning we were putting on our packs and equipment as we prepared to leave X-Ray. The 5th Cav had departed earlier for LZ Columbus and were being lifted out as we prepared for our journey to L Z Albany. They were fortunate as it got progressively hotter as the morning wore on. It would be in the mid 90s and sweltering when we finally left for Albany on that fateful day.
A WALK IN THE SUN
“I will tell you one thing that sticks in my mind: This
was the least airmobile operation that occurred
probably in the entire Vietnam War. It was right back
to 1950 Korea or 1944 Europe. All we got were verbal
orders: Go here. Finger on a map. And we just marched
off like we were in Korea.”
~~Colonel Robert A. McDade, Battalion commander,
Alpha Company was at the head of the column as we departed X-Ray followed by Delta, Charley, Headquarters (my company) and bringing up the rear, Alpha Company of the 5th Cav. Bravo Company of my battalion had reinforced the 1st battalion during the heavy fighting on the 14th and 15th and were lifted out with the 1st battalion on the 16th when we landed at X-Ray.
Our march out of X-Ray was thought to be a “Walk in the Sun“ and soon we would be in Pleiku to begin our journey back to base camp. It was also important that we cleared the LZ as B-52 bombers were already airborne from Guam to unload 500 pound bombs on the slopes of Chu Pong Mountain. We needed to be at least two miles away from the LZ once they released the bombs.
I do recall some grumbling in the ranks as we put on our packs to leave X-Ray. With over 300 helicopters in the division, some troopers were questioning why we were walking out into no man’s land when we had an ideal LZ right here at X-Ray. However, with three North Vietnamese regiments still located on mountain it was still a precarious position to be in, especially if they observed us lifting companies out from their observation points atop the mountain. Whatever the reason, brigade headquarters chose Columbus and Albany as the departing points for the 5th and 7th Cav that morning. One thing I learned in the army, you follow orders. They may not make sense but orders are meant to be obeyed beginning at the top down through the ranks and that’s what we did the morning of November 16th. We prepared to move out to Albany.
Alpha company was at the head of the column as we headed east for our rendezvous with history that fateful day in 1965. I made some final adjustments to the radio and made sure I was on the right frequency as we prepared to fall in behind Charley Company. Headquarters Company was the third in the column of march with Alpha Company of the 5th Cav bringing up the rear. I somehow felt more at ease in the middle of the column rather than at the rear or the front. I would later learn it wouldn’t have made much difference as a slaughter was about to take place the entire length of the 500-yard column.
As we departed that hot and sunny morning I gazed up at Chu Pong Mountain and a feeling of relief came over me. I never felt comfortable at X-Ray despite our strong presence as I always had the feeling the North Vietnamese were watching our every move. The mountain was very imposing as it rose almost straight up and had a commanding view of the LZ below. I breathed a little easier as I gazed at Chu Pong Mountain for the last time as we headed into the unknown.
As we left the LZ and crossed the perimeter I could see the carnage of three days of bloody fighting between the 1st Cavalry Division and the North Vietnamese. The bodies of dead North Vietnamese soldiers lay outside the ring of foxholes, cut down by deadly small arms and machine gun fire during those three days of desperate fighting.
The heat had begun to take a toll on the corpses. Laying there for three days in 90 degree temperatures the heat caused discoloration and bloating not to mention the stench emitted from the rotting and fly covered bodies. The odor of nearly one thousand rotting bodies on the slopes and around landing zone will forever be embedded in my mind as we departed LZ X-Ray that morning. Never again in my tour would I encounter so much carnage.
America was at war and they were the enemy, but anyone with an ounce of compassion had to feel sorry for them. They were no different then any other soldier in any other war as they all had loved ones who would mourn their loss. At least our dead would be returned to their loved ones for a proper burial back home. These poor souls would be buried in mass graves in a wild and desolate place un-accessible to anyone. No mourning sweetheart, mother, or wife would ever be able to put flowers on their grave or mourn over them. There would always be that nagging question in the back of their minds. How did they die and where are they now? From that day on I had an affinity with soldiers as nothing bonds them more then the shared experience of combat. I hope that somehow these brave soldiers got the decent and honorable burial that they deserve.
As we left LZ X-Ray there was no trail other then trampled grass left by the 5th battalion en-route to Columbus and the lead companies of my battalion. The terrain consisted mostly of scrub brush, hazel-colored waist high elephant grass and trees 50 to 100 feet tall. Interspersed in the grass and trees were scatterings of 6 to 8-foot anthills that housed thousands of ferocious biting ants that swarmed all over you if disturbed. The terrain seemed to go on forever, mile after mile, with an occasional small clearing.
As we walked in column I teamed up with fellow radioman, Kenny Bolich, from Auburn, Pennsylvania. Kenny and I were good friends from our days at Fort Benning when we were both assigned to the “commo” section of Headquarters Company in the 2/7th.
Prior to shipping out he and I would enjoy warm summer evenings over a beer at the Enlisted Men’s Club at Fort Benning and discuss the inevitable. Who among us would return safely to our loved ones and who wouldn’t? There would be survivors and there would be those less fortunate who would never make it home. What category would we fall into? I think at the time we felt we would all return home safely. Either of us dying never really crossed our minds. When you’re twenty you think you will live forever, dying is for old people. If someone had to die, surely it would be “Charley” dying for his country and not us.
As we trudged through the elephant grass following the long line of troopers ahead of us it didn’t take long for the heat to begin to have an affect on us. With the temperature in the 90s and weighed down with equipment we began perspiring heavily. It was early afternoon and we had been moving through the brush for over an hour. Our greatest concern at the time was heat stroke and not the North Vietnamese left behind at X-Ray. All we talked about was getting to Albany and being lifted out.
It was around 1 o’clock when the battalion came to a halt. The break was welcomed as guys were exhausted from the heat and weight of the equipment we were carrying. I pulled out my canteen and drank some water which by then had become hot, but still tasted good going down my parched and dry throat. I did notice some trooper’s pouring water on their heads in an attempt to cool off but didn’t think it was a wise move as we didn’t know when we would be lifted out. I used my water sparingly.
When the column halted, I dropped to the ground for a rest along with the other troopers before continuing on to Albany. I could see Kenny was exhausted and I needed a break as well as the heat was beginning to take a toll on all of us. We didn’t remove our radios or packs, just eased them off our shoulders a little and dropped to the ground. The stillness of the air was stifling combined with the heat and humidity.
While lying on the ground I recall gazing up through the tree tops and how blue the sky was that day. With the sun at its zenith, its rays filtered down through the tree tops warming my face as I lay on the ground. My shoulders ached from the radio straps cutting into them and my shirt was soaked with perspiration. I welcomed just the slightest breeze but there wasn’t as much as a ripple in the air. The leaves and limbs above us were deathly still, without any movement. I found it eerily peaceful and serene, almost surreal, as if I were at home in the park. My thoughts turned to my family and what they might be doing as I longed to be with them instead of this god-forsaken place in the middle of no where.
“War is a crime. Ask the infantry and ask the dead.”
AGONY AT ALBANY
As Kenny and I were talking we heard a few shots at the head of the column. We grabbed our M16’s and turned in that direction. We didn’t think much of it as it was only a few rounds. The firing soon intensified and moved in our direction. We knew something was wrong, especially when we began receiving fire in our rear as well. The entire battalion seemed to be under attack.
All of a sudden rounds were cracking over our heads snapping limbs off trees. Off in the distance I heard the sound of incoming mortar rounds as the crescendo of small arms fire, machine gun fire, and mortar rounds exploding became deafening. It was so loud I couldn’t hear what anyone was saying all around me. Looking to my right I saw four guys crumple to the ground cut down by enemy fire. In the distance I could see North Vietnamese soldiers in their khaki uniforms advancing in the elephant grass with their AK47’s blazing. From the first few rounds cracking over our heads to the North Vietnamese advancing on us in the grass it seemed like an eternity when in reality it was only a matter of seconds or minutes. Soon there was the cry “medic” from the lips of the wounded. What started out as a “Walk in the Sun” had suddenly turned into a hellish nightmare as friends of mine were dropping everywhere.
Up until this moment I had spent the previous two months in base camp performing a variety of mundane duties and had not seen any combat. I was beginning to wonder if I would ever see any. I was now facing combat for the first time in what was to be one of the deadliest days for an American unit in the entire Vietnam War.
That day I learned the true meaning of fear in the waist high elephant grass of the Ia Drang Valley and that there is more to combat then what’s portrayed in glamorized Hollywood movies. To understand combat you need to experience it first hand to know the true horror of it. Hollywood movies have never been able to portray war with its deafening sound of rifle, machine gun and mortar fire, the screams of the wounded and dying as you face a determined foe trying to take your life. This is what I encountered in my first combat in Vietnam.
Nothing quite brings you to your senses until you see the enemy coming at you, his weapon blazing and the sound of rounds cracking all around you. In training we fired at stationary pop-up targets on the rifle range and never had to worry about return fire. Now I found myself confronted by a relentless foe determined to take my life. I learned quickly if I didn’t get him first he would get me.
I can recall flipping the safety off on my M16 and firing quick bursts at the North Vietnamese soldiers advancing on our make shift position. One, two, three dropped yet they still continued to come, drawing closer and closer as my heart pounded and my hands trembled. I fumbled with another magazine and had trouble slipping it in my rifle as both my hands were shaking. I could see the sun glistening off their bayonets as the khaki clad North Vietnamese soldiers continued to push forward. I had never been confronted with a life or death situation in my life till that afternoon in the deep grass of the Ia Drang. It was to change my life forever.
After suffering a number of casualties the North Vietnamese fell back into the tree line. Despite the withdrawal the firing continued to the front and rear of the fragmented battalion column with no abate in the thunderous roar of small arms fire interspersed with the sound of exploding mortar rounds. I still couldn’t come to grips with what was happening all around me. It was like the worst nightmare I could ever have. This couldn’t be happening to me.
We didn’t have time to think as we once again began taking fire from the North Vietnamese as they began to advance from the tree line again. Someone said to fall back as the position we held was untenable since we were out in the open and vulnerable to fire from all directions. Not far behind us was a large ant hill that would allow us to form a defensive position and offer protection from the withering fire.
As soon as we got up from our crouching positions to make a dash for the ant hill several troopers near me were immediately hit. They didn’t make a sound as they dropped and lay motionless in the grass where they fell. The ground all around us was becoming littered with dead and dying from both sides but you couldn’t see them because of the tall grass. With guys getting hit all around me I knew it was only a matter of time before I would become a casualty too. Panic was beginning to set in.
As we fell back to the ant hill we dragged the wounded but there were some we undoubtedly missed as we came under intense fire. Some were suffering from small wounds while a few had more serious wounds and were in a lot of pain. There was little we could do for the wounded except dress their wounds and make them as comfortable as possible. We had no medic among us and only our own individual aid packs to use on ourselves if it came to that.
Our only chance to halt the North Vietnamese onslaught it seemed was to form a defensive position around the ant hill until help arrived the next day. We knew we wouldn’t be getting any reinforcements or be able to have the wounded lifted out until tomorrow at best. I honestly thought none of us would survive the slaughter that was taking place all around us.
It didn’t take long before the North Vietnamese located our position as their small arms fire became intense and mortar rounds began landing near our position. Their mortar crews weren’t able to locate our exact position as the rounds fell a short distance away. Had they been able to zero in on us we wouldn’t have had a chance. What little luck we had was with us for the moment. All the while we could hear heavy firing all around us.
It was at this time we began taking heavy casualties as the firing became very intense. It was also difficult to see the North Vietnamese because of the tall grass throughout the area. Anyone who stood up to return fire was immediately hit in the upper body or head. I saw one trooper to my front get hit by a three round burst in the back as he stood up to return fire. He was probably dead before he hit the ground and was motionless. My only hope was to somehow keep from getting hit but that seemed less and less likely with all the dying all around me. I was resigned to the fact that sooner or later I would suffer a serious wound or take a fatal hit.
I was still wearing my radio but with all the firing it was impossible to hear anything. I decided to take it off as the two foot whip antenna on top was a dead give away to my position. I didn’t want to make myself anymore of a target then I already was. Once the radio was on the ground I could see why I wasn’t able to hear any transmissions. In the heat of battle a round had gone through the radio and I never knew it. Whether the radio prevented me from getting struck I’ll never know.
Following the withdrawal to the ant hill, there were some fifteen to twenty troopers, including some from the company to our rear. The numbers soon began to dwindle after repulsing numerous attacks by the North Vietnamese. Due the tall grass and only able to see a few feet to our front, we were often times reduced to firing blindly into the grass at ground level if we thought they were close. Not only were the North Vietnamese on the ground but some had climbed into trees and were firing down on us as well. James Holden lost his life to one.
James and I were lying on the ground, I was on his left, and another soldier was on his right. We were using a fallen log as a buffer between us and North Vietnamese fire. As we were lying there I heard a moan out of James and looked over to see where he had been hit in the back. A round had struck him in his upper back below the shoulders. I knew right away it wasn’t good. I pulled out his aid pack and applied it to his wound as he lay there. He just stared at me, not saying a word. I think he knew he wasn’t going to make it. Moments later he was hit by another round and he closed his eyes.
James and I were friends from our early days at Fort Benning, Georgia when assigned to the “commo” section of Headquarters Company. We had dinner together at the mess hall, and pulled guard duty and KP together. After learning the Division was going to Vietnam we knew some of us wouldn’t make it home. James was one of seventeen from my company that didn’t survive the deadly fighting that day at LZ Albany.
To this day I never will understand how I survived the vicious fighting at LZ Albany. Out of 375 who entered the fray that day, 155 would die and 135 were wounded. Seventy percent of the battalion was either killed or wounded and I walked away without so much as a scratch. I’ve asked myself that question a thousand times and still can’t come up with an answer. Why did I live while and so many died all around me.
Call it fate, fortune, bad luck, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. When the three of us hit the ground that afternoon James had the misfortune of falling in the wrong place. The sniper in the tree could see James, but neither I or the soldier to his right. How easily it could have been me in that snipers line of fire but fate had it differently. Instead of James’ name inscribed on the Wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington it could easily have been mine and he could be writing this narrative. Death strikes so randomly on the battlefield with seemingly no rhyme or reason. For reasons which I will never understand, through all the death and carnage that day, I survived while so many died.
As the afternoon wore on the North Vietnamese came at us relentlessly but always with the same results. We were able to repulse each new attack but we were losing men and our ammunition was becoming low. All afternoon there was smoke, exploding mortar rounds, small arms fire, moans of the dying, bullets flying everywhere and yet the North Vietnamese continued their assaults. I felt in the end they would simply overwhelm us as we had no more than a handful of men now defending the small perimeter and two were wounded. As the late afternoon sun began to settle behind the treetops realization set in that this might be the last day of my life. The sad part was I didn’t even know what day of the week it was or the date.
When I wrote this account of the assault on my battalion it was from a very narrow perspective. At the time I knew little of what was taking place along the battalion column during fighting. This account has dealt primarily with my own personal experience in the tall grass at Albany, much of it with a small group of soldiers as we formed a defensive position at an ant hill to ward off enemy attacks. With much of the battlefield covered in tall grass my perspective was limited to an area of only several square yards. Considering the battalion column stretched for over 500 yards my perspective of the overall picture was narrow and limited. Every soldier who survived the fighting at Albany has his own story to tell. Unless recorded, these stories will be lost forever.
I don’t think the battalion would have survived that day without the help of some very brave fighter pilots. Time and again pilots would swoop down in the nick of time with their cannons blazing to break up assaults I can recall one sortie when an A1E Skyraider swept in very low, barely above the tree tops with his cannons blazing, snapping big tree limbs like they were small sticks of kindling as he successfully broke up an assault.
These brave pilots were flying the antiquated single-engine propeller planes of World War II vintage, the A-1E Skyraiders. Out of all the aircraft the Air Force had these were the best suited for the close support of ground troops. They were slow and cumbersome but carried a big payload and were very accurate in their delivery. Anyone on the ground that day certainly appreciated what they did.
As dusk slowly settled in and the shadows lengthened across the battlefield I had only one thought and that was to somehow survive. I feared the worst, that for all we endured, all the hardships we suffered, it would all be in vain and I would die as so many of my brothers had done earlier. To survive the initial onslaught, to bear the brunt of the attack, and then be cheated out of life at the last moment just didn’t seem fair. But then wars have never been fair, so why should Vietnam be any different.
“There is always inequity in life. Some men are killed
in a war, and some men are wounded, and some men
are stationed in the Antarctic and some are stationed
in San Francisco. It’s very hard in military or personal
life to assure complete equality. Life is unfair.”
~~PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY
Press conference, speaking of calling up
Reservists for the “Berlin Wall Crisis” (1962)
While lying on the ground my thoughts turned to home and my family. What were they doing? Was mom in the kitchen washing the evening dishes following one of her wonderful dinners? The house was always filled with a pleasant aroma when ever she was cooking or baking. How I would love to see all those smiling faces just one more time. I thought about my sister Sharon and brother Jimmy, two and six respectively and how they would grow up never knowing their big brother. Their only remembrance of me would be through a collection of yellowed photographs in the family album.
If only I had listened to my father and stayed in college I wouldn’t be in this dilemma. Like most 18 and 19 year olds I thought I knew what was best and dropped out of college to enlist in the army and see some of the world. I told my dad I could always return once I got out of the army. Unfortunately, a war in southeast Asia wasn’t what I had in mind when I said I wanted to see a little of the world.
Not only was my heart aching to think I would never see them again, I probably wouldn’t live to see my 21st birthday. When you’re 20 you never give dying much thought as it’s for old people in there 60s and 70s, not someone 20. There was so much I wanted to experience in life, places to see, things to do, and now all those hopes, dreams and aspirations would never be realized. My young life was just beginning and it was about to end in some distant place in Southeast Asia in a country I had not even heard of only a few years ago. How could this be happening to me? It seemed so unfair.
I thought about my mom and how difficult it would be for her to learn her son would not be coming home. In World War II she dealt with the loss of her brother Walter who died in the European Theater. Now she faced the prospect of losing a son in a war in southeast Asia twenty years later. How heart breaking it would be for her.
The battle at LZ Albany was a little ironic in that up until then I had never fired my M16 since arriving in Vietnam. I was beginning to think I never would. How mistaken I was as it suddenly came to an end in this wild melee in the tall grass in the Ia Drang Valley. This was my initial baptism of fire and it looked like it might be my last.
My thoughts of home were soon shattered by a burst from an AK-47 and the chatter of North Vietnamese soldiers in the tall grass. Reality once again set in. This was no nightmare.
“None of us was a hero. We would not return to
cheering crowds, parades, and the pealing of
great cathedral bells. We had done nothing more
than endure. We had survived, and that was our
~~Philip Caputo, A RUMOR OF WAR (1977)
On his experiences as a Marine infantry
Officer in Vietnam, 1965-66
ESCAPE AND EVASION
As I lay there in the grass my throat was dry from the heat of the day and the smoke of battle that had commenced since early that afternoon. I reached for my canteen and took a drink to quench my parched lips and throat. By then our numbers had dwindled to a half dozen. We all agreed if we remained at the ant hill we would probably not survive the night. We were low on ammunition and the prospects of linking up with any of our fellow troopers, especially now that darkness was almost upon us seemed remote given the fact the North Vietnamese were all around us.
After a brief discussion it was decided our best chance for survival was to clear the killing zone. Once we cleared the area we would make our way to a distant artillery LZ by listening to the sound of the guns. It was a long shot but spending the night at the ant hill wasn’t really an option, especially with the North Vietnamese all around us. I truly felt few in the battalion had survived the fury of today’s fighting and that most of my buddies were dead or would be by dawn. We were nearly out of ammunition so any assault on our position would have expended what little we had left. I think we all felt it would have been suicidal to remain at the ant hill that night.
It was nearly dark when we departed the ant hill we had defended for the better part of the day from constant assaults by the North Vietnamese. All that remained from the original group of defenders was six. Everyone else was dead.
Leaving the ant hill would by no means ensure our survival as we were all low on ammunition. Were we to encounter any North Vietnamese that night it would have been a very brief and one sided affair and probably would have ended our break for freedom. We had expended most of our ammunition in our defense of the ant hill.
Upon leaving the ant hill we went to the left as the fiercest fighting seemed to be taking place to the right of the battalion column. Once the shooting began, those who drifted to the right found themselves in the middle of the maelstrom. Those who went to the left had a better chance of survival. I think many of our casualties came in the initial hour or two and it involved those who went right and unknowingly walked into the heart of the ambush. By going left at the outset to seek cover I feel my chance of survival were greatly improved. Not that it was due to anything special I did or intuition, it was nothing more than “dumb luck” on my part.
Once we decided on the direction we left in single file crawling on our stomachs. By then it was almost dark and coupled with the tall grass it was difficult to see much beyond our outstretched hands as we tried to get as much distance as possible from the killing zone. There was still firing coming from the head of the column as well as the rear when we departed. The shooting had abated somewhat, but out there troopers were still fighting for their lives in the tall grass. Days later we learned that when darkness fell the North Vietnamese roamed the battlefield killing our wounded and overwhelming isolated pockets of troopers. I think our decision to depart the battlefield saved our lives. Had we remained, we would have met the same fate as our brothers.
As we made our way blindly through the darkness and tall grass I was in front of the last man in our small party. After traveling just a short distance at a slow crawl I heard the crack of a rifle immediately behind me. I just knew the man behind me had been hit and expected the same fate at any moment. After all I had gone through today, is this how it would end? The trooper behind me in a whisper apologized as he accidentally discharged his rifle. I couldn’t believe it. I’m nearly killed by an accidental discharge by one of our own men. After all I had endured today maybe I was destined to survive the killing and mayhem.
In what seemed like an eternity of low crawling we decided we had sufficiently distanced ourselves from the ambush site to enable us to continue on foot. We soon put even more distance between us and the ambush site before stopping to rest in a clump of trees on a small hill. The terrain we were in consisted mostly of tall grass, small hillocks and endless scatterings of small trees that seemed to go on forever. Fortunately, there were no dense woods to navigate as we made our way to LZ Columbus. We had little difficulty, even with the wounded, moving through the grass and sparsely scattered trees that dotted the landscape. We were thankful for that.
The one thing we all agreed on, we didn’t need any encounters with any North Vietnamese as we made our way to the artillery LZ. With two wounded, very little ammunition between us and weary from our day long battle we wouldn’t have been much of a match for any North Vietnamese we might have encountered. So we moved slowly and cautiously, always staying alert for any signs of North Vietnamese.
As we made our way towards the artillery LZ we had little trouble seeing with a full moon out. By then our eyes had become adjusted to the darkness and silently, like ghostly shadows moved through the tall grass ever vigil for any sounds that might alert us to danger. We had survived the ordeal at LZ Albany and were probably no more then five or six miles from the safety of our own lines. Occasionally we would stop and rest, usually on a small hill huddling around some trees to listen for any sounds of impending danger. We had gotten little or no sleep in the last forty eight hours and we were all just going on adrenalin by then. To a man we were totally exhausted but knew we couldn’t let our guard down and get careless, not this late in this deadly game we were involved in.
Throughout the night we could hear the thunder of the artillery off in the distance. It not only made it easy for us to hone in on but it was a sign there were survivors back at Albany. Some one at Albany was calling in defensive fire around their position and that was good news.
We were exhausted from our day long ordeal but we were also aware the gun crews at the artillery LZ were just as tired from their all night support for our beleaguered comrades at Albany. To those at Albany the artillery must have been music to their ears as it helped thwart North Vietnamese attacks throughout the night. Had the guns been silent it would have meant there were probably no survivors at Albany and would have made it difficult for us to get a bearing on the artillery LZ in our quest to link up with friendly forces. If not for those brave gunners I doubt if I would be alive today or any of those who remained at Albany. I regret never having had the opportunity to personally thank them for what they did that night.
We were cautious as we stopped periodically to rest and keep a watchful eye towards any North Vietnamese that might be in the area. At one point, while resting on a small hill we could hear the artillery rounds sailing over our heads! It was an eerie and unsettling feeling as we thought for a moment they might land on us. We all breathed easier when we realized we were under the trajectory of the rounds as they headed towards Albany.
In the heat of the day most of us had consumed what little water we had. When we happened upon a small stream we welcomed the opportunity to fill our canteens and to refresh ourselves. We cautiously slid down the eight or nine foot embankment to the waters edge and filled our canteens. After filling my canteen I cupped my hands and drank from the stream, quenching my parched lips and dry throat. After enduring a day full of hardships and deprivation it’s amazing how something as simple as drinking water from a stream could bring so much joy. Unfortunately, that feeling of euphoria wouldn’t last long.
While resting at the waters edge we suddenly heard in the sound of Vietnamese. We froze, not daring to make a sound as our hearts pounded with anxiety and the fear of being detected when we were so close to rejoining our lines. We all knew if we were spotted it would be over quickly in a hail of grenades and automatic weapons fire as we would be outnumbered and out gunned. Many thoughts raced through my mind as I lay there in silence watching the North Vietnamese slowly approach along the embankment above us. How could this be happening? After all we’ve been through how many more obstacles would be thrown in our path in our bid to get to the safety of our own lines? All it would take was the rustle of a few leaves, the snapping of a twig or the slightest movement on someone’s part to give us away. Could we somehow survive one more hurdle?
My heart pounded so hard I thought it would burst as I watched them slowly approach our position. A sneeze or the slightest movement on anyone’s part and we would all be dead. That’s all it would take to end this odyssey that began at Albany in what seemed like an eternity ago. It couldn’t end like this, not after all we’ve been through.
I counted the North Vietnamese as they slowly made their way along the embankment but quit counting after around forty. I don’t think they expected to find any Americans in the area as they made no attempt at being silent. They probably numbered around 50 or 60, were heavily armed, and appeared to be fresh as they headed in the direction of LZ Albany. Nobody breathed, nobody moved, we just laid there in total silence as they slowly disappeared from view. We somehow managed to survive this encounter with the North Vietnamese and would see no more the remainder of the night.
It was still dark when we arrived at the artillery LZ. We breathed a sigh of relief as we were now within shouting distance of our own lines. The infantry protecting the artillery were aware of the slaughter taking place at Albany so they were probably at a high state of alert and would fire at anything that moved in front of them. It would have been foolhardy to try and approach the LZ in the dark. After all we had been through we didn’t want to die at the hands of our own troops. We decided to just lie in the grass and wait for the sun to come up before making contact with the infantrymen to our front.
As I lay there on the ground I was flushed with the elation that I had somehow beaten the odds and survived the ordeal at Albany. It was an overwhelming feeling of joy I had never experienced before. Only twelve hours earlier I was at Albany and had little hope of seeing the next day. With the odds heavily stacked against me I some how survived that titanic struggle at Albany while so many died and were wounded all around me. It will always remain a mystery to me as long as I live. Why was I spared while so many died all around me.
When the sun finally came up one member of our party called out to the infantrymen in the foxholes, “We’re Americans, request permission to enter the perimeter, don’t fire.” We then heard the response, “Come forward.” Upon entering the lines we were heartily greeted by our fellow infantrymen manning the foxholes. The elation of being greeted by fellow “grunts” when all seemed so bleak not long ago brought tears to our eyes. Although survivors had been trickling in during the morning they thought the 2/7th had been annihilated in the fighting at Albany. We learned later it very nearly was, sustaining a 70 percent casualties in the day long battle.
“Don’t go back to visit the old front. If you have pictures
in your head of something that happened in the night in
the mud at Paschendaele or the first wave working up the
slope of Vimy, do not try and go back to verify them. It is
no good . . . . it is like going into the empty gloom of a
theater where the char-women are scrubbing.”
~~Ernest Hemingway, “A Veteran Visits the Old Front,”
Toronto Daily Star (1922)
REFLECTIONS AND MUSINGS
With the passage of time, hardly a day goes by when I do not think of my friends who lost their lives on that bloody battlefield so long ago. I was fortunate in that I was able to live a rich and full life while theirs were cut short in their prime. I have a wonderful family, great friends, and in recent years two beautiful grandchildren. Soon we will be entering retirement to enjoy our “golden years.” Because their lives were cut short they were never able to experience the joy of raising a family, spoiling a grandchild, the beauty of a winter snowfall, and all the little things in life I have been able to enjoy all these years. But most of all my heart goes out to the families who lost loved ones on that battlefield in 1965. Their pain and grief remains even after all those years.
As I was lying on the battlefield that fateful day watching the sun slowly set I made a vow. If I were given a second chance, a new lease on life, I promise I would make the most of it and be ever appreciative of the fact that I lived while so many others didn’t. I know there have been times I forgot that long ago vow, but it remains with me, more so in recent years as I have grown older.
For all the mayhem and death that day maybe there was a reason I was spared while so many others died all around me. In living, I hope in some way I have had a positive affect on family and friends and just maybe helped make this world just a little bit better place. If I’ve done all that, then I have kept that vow I made at Albany on November 17, 1965, and I will be forever grateful for receiving a second chance on life.
“I did not mean to be killed today.”
~~Dying words of the Vicomte
de Turenne, at the Battle of
Not long after arriving at the artillery LZ we were flown to Pleiku where we rejoined what remained of my battalion. A few days later we boarded four two and a half ton trucks for our return to our base camp at An Khe. When we departed the base camp at the start of the campaign there were 375 men in the battalion. At the conclusion of the campaign all that remained could be transported back in four trucks.
As we pulled into An Khe and approached the 2nd Battalion area we were greeted by the Division band that played “Garry Owen,” the 7th Cavalry marching song since Col. George Custer commanded the outfit during the Indian Wars.
I think it’s difficult to say who the victors were at Albany as each side was really battered. The remnants of my battalion did occupy the field after the battle but at a tremendous cost of life. A yard stick for measuring success in a battle is how many enemy weapons were captured. The 2nd Battalion gathered up 33 light machine guns, 112 rifles, 4 mortar tubes, 2 rocket launchers and 3 heavy machine guns from the field. It also reported 403 enemy killed and 150 wounded.
Landing Zone X-Ray and Albany was the first major confrontation between North Vietnamese regulars and American troops in the war. The military billed it as an American victory despite sustaining heavy losses. Likened to baseball’s World Series when you always like to win the first game, this was considered the first victory in a major confrontation with the enemy. This is how the military viewed it despite the heavy losses. Time will tell who the victors were that day. As for myself, the fact I survived the ordeal was a personal victory for me regardless of the total picture.
A TRIUMPHANT RETURN
FOR BATTLE WEARY GI’S
By the Associated Press
November 23, 1965
This article was obtained from the New York Times by my sister Judy while in college and saved for me. It describes the return of my battalion to An Khe following the battle at Albany. I can vividly recall the occasion as if it had happened only yesterday.
The 2nd battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division’s 7th Regiment, which bore the brunt of the fighting and suffered the heaviest casualties in the Ia Drang fighting returned in triumph yesterday through a hail of cheers in the muddy streets of the division’s tent city. The battle-weary cavalrymen waved their rifles and shouted boisterous victory oaths as their truck convoy proceeded to the little grassy parade ground, where the division band and the entire 3rd brigade waited to welcome them back.
The band played “Garry Owen” which has been the 7th regiment marching song since Col. George Custer commanded the outfit in the Indian Wars.
The color guard dipped the division flag in salute to Lt. Col. Robert A. McDade, of Brooklyn, who took over the battalion two weeks ago and led it into some of the worst fighting so far for U S troops in Vietnam.
“Your country is proud of you. The 1st Cavalry is proud of you,” said Brig. Gen. John M. Wright on behalf of Division commander Maj. General Harry W. O. Kinnard who was still in the operational area.
“You met tough, professional, capable enemy troops, and you gave them a mauling they will never forget.”
Darkness had already fallen in the An Khe Valley, and the end of the ceremony had to be held by the light of jeep headlights.
Their faces still muddy and etched with the strain of battle, the men of the 2nd battalion stood ramrod straight, their packs at there feet, throughout the general’s emotional speech.
When it was over, someone shouted, “Where’s the bugle?” The whole battalion took up the cry. It was an old French army bugle, found in a crater on the battlefield. It was a reminder that men had been fighting and dying in the same region near the Cambodian border only a little more than a decade ago.
The bugle was battered and rusted, and the sergeant who played it would never have rated a musicians union card, but to the men sweeter music never sounded through the mist shrouded valley.
“File by the ammunition container and turn in your explosives,” someone ordered.
Then came from a more popular decree from on high: “Free beer for everyone on the mess sergeant.”
But then there were the tears . . . . tears for buddies left behind in the high elephant grass at the Ia Drang Valley. Tears for comrades wrapped up in rubber body bags and already on the first stage of their long journey home.
But there were no empty tents for the battalion. Fresh replacements arrived on Saturday and have been assigned to the cots of the fallen.
“Try not to wake them up,” a captain said half halfheartedly, “They just got here, and they are tired.”
The men of the 2nd battalion laughed the derisive laugh of the battle hardened veterans for rookies.
In Flanders field the poppies grow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below
We are the dead, short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
John McRae (1872-1918)
“In Flanders Fields”
KILLED IN ACTION
NOVEMBER 17, 1965
Thomas E Burlile………………..London, Ohio
Harold D. McCarn……………….Lexington, North Carolina
Charles W. Bass………………….Winterset, Ohio
Melvin W. Gunter………………..Vincent, Alabama
Charles W. Story…………………Birmingham, Alabama
Fred H. Jenkins……………………Frogmore, South Carolina
Charles T. Moore, Jr………………Columbus, Ohio
Donald C. Peterson……………….Chicago, Illinois
Charlie Anders……………………Leckie, West Virginia
Charles A. Collins…………………Holly Springs, North Carolina
Gerald A. Kosakowski……………Lincoln Park, Michigan
David L. Mendoza………………..Cleveland, Ohio
William A. Pleasant………………Jersey City, New Jersey
Elwood W. Davis, Jr………………Salineville, Ohio
James H Holden…………………..Millsboro, Delaware
Alpha R. Jackson…………………Houston, Texas
Kenneth C. Bolich………………….Auburn, Pennsylvania
“I offer neither pay, nor quarters, nor food; I offer
only hunger, thirst, forced marches, battles and
death. Let him who loves his country with his heart,
and not merely with his lips, follow me.”
Giuseppe Garibaldi (1849)
Italian patriot and soldier