THE ARTILLERY PREP ON LAM XUAN EAST AND LAM XUAN West commenced at 0755 on 2 May 1968 as the 3-21st Infantry’s rifle companies moved toward their lines of departure. Colonel Gelling, the 196th LIB commander, helicoptered to Lieutenant Colonel Snyder’s Mai Xa Chanh East CP at the junction of Jones Creek and the Cua Viet River. Gelling, a hard, old-school commander, did not actually retain operational control of the Gimlets, but he was on the scene because he was concerned that the Marines might not adequately support their attached Army battalion. Gelling assured Snyder that the brigade would provide him with a command-and-control helicopter and a forward air controller “unless the brigade has contingency missions elsewhere that necessitate me pulling one or both back from you.”
Colonel Gelling, a short, feisty, hawk-nosed man, was chewing a cigar as he told Snyder, “Anything you need—if you’re not satisfied with the way things are going up here—call me.”
Gelling climbed back into his Huey. His next stop was Camp Kistler for a meeting with Colonel Hull, who was responsible for providing most of the 3-21st Infantry’s supplies and supporting fires. Gelling was, as Snyder put it, “openly lobbying to make sure that I got a fair shake in Marine resources. He was more concerned about it than I was, and I was concerned.”
The prep fires lasted twenty minutes. Because The Gimlets’ own artillery battery had yet to be slingloaded up by Chinook, the rounds were delivered by the Marines’ 4.2-inch mortars at Mai Xa Chanh West, and four artillery batteries firing out of Camp Kistler and the DHCB. Lieutenant Colonel Snyder’s plan called for an attack on two axes, with Jones Creek serving as both a guide and dividing line. Captain Corrigan’s B/3-21 was to advance north from Mai Xa Chanh West to a graveyard west of Jones Creek and immediately opposite Lam Xuan East. From the graveyard, Bravo could support by fire the attack on Lam Xuan East by Lieutenant Kohl and C/3-21, which was to move up the opposite side of Jones Creek from Mai Xa Chanh East. Following another artillery prep, Charlie would move on to seize Nhi Ha, with Captain Osborn’s A/3-21 following behind. Keeping abreast, Bravo was to simultaneously secure Lam Xuan West, which was connected to Nhi Ha by a footbridge that spanned Jones Creek. Captain Humphries was to remain in reserve with D/3-21.
The first shot of what promised to be a long day was fired by Barracuda before moving out of its night laager for the line of departure. The first shot was an accidental discharge. Captain Corrigan heard the distinct thump of an M79 going off, then saw a grenadier who was kneeling with the butt of his weapon against the ground and the barrel pointed up. The grenadier, who’d been cleaning a loaded weapon, was staring straight up. “So the whole hundred of us just kind of looked straight up, too,” Corrigan remembered. “And we looked at each other, because you really didn’t know whether you were better off just standing where you were, or running around in circles, depending on where the shell was going to come down. About twenty seconds later, the thing came down in the company area. It exploded, but luckily it didn’t hit anybody.”
The attack kicked off at 0808 with Bravo and Charlie Companies simultaneously crossing their lines of departure. Snyder’s C&C Huey dipped low to their front, reconning the flattened hamlets that were their objectives. The guerrilla-chasing Gimlets had never participated in an operation of this size before, and Lieutenant Smith of Alpha Company told his men that “this must be a battalion commander’s dream to have his whole battalion down on the ground while he’s up in a chopper maneuvering ’Em.”
Lieutenant Colonel Snyder encountered no fire and saw no enemy during his aerial reconnaissance. Thus advised, Captain Corrigan was able to move his company quickly into position. With Barracuda anchoring the left flank, Kohl’s men assaulted Lam Xuan East, a collection of blasted hootches and hedgerows halfway between Mai Xa Chanh East and Nhi Ha. The assault was a walk-through for Charlie Tiger. The grunts re-conned by fire and, drawing none in return, moved in and methodically grenaded the bunkers and spiderholes they found in the rubble.
At 1055, Lieutenant Kohl reported that Lam Xuan East had been swept and seized without contact, and the two companies resumed the attack. The prep fires were shifted onto Nhi Ha and Lam Xuan West as the assault companies covered the last two klicks in a two-up-and-one-back formation. Corrigan reached his objective at 1155 and reported it secured fifteen minutes later—again without contact. Barracuda’s march had taken it over the same ground that G BLT 2/4 had crossed in the opposite direction two nights before during its under-fire withdrawal. Along the way, some GIs had picked up Marine-issue flak jackets. The Army troops did not normally wear flak jackets, but the threat of enemy artillery fire caused them to be more cautious. Barracuda also recovered a 3.5-inch rocket launcher that the Marines had abandoned. Corrigan kept the weapon, using it to mark targets with white phosphorus shells. There were so many abandoned Marine and NVA weapons along the way that Corrigan later observed, “Back where we’d been, hell, if you found two or three rifles, you’d had a real successful day—and here you were damn near tripping over stuff. It impressed my people. It gave them the idea that this was serious.”
This place has about as much cover as a fucking parking lot, thought Private Harp of Charlie One, which was moving with twenty meters between each man. The flat terrain between Lam Xuan East and Nhi Ha was nothing like the jungle-busting, ridge-running Charlie Tiger troopers had ever operated in. The fields of fire seemed to go on forever, broken only by dunes and low-lying hedgerows and tree lines. Spent LAWs lay on the ground, along with expended M16 brass and the shell casings and links from M60 machine guns. There were also Marine steel pots lying around, along with Russian-issue helmets and NVA footgear. Harp didn’t notice one boot until he’d stepped on it; flies exploded from it. Harp looked down as he passed by and saw a black, rotten, maggoty foot encased in the mangled canvas and leather.
Heat waves radiated off the ground as if off asphalt.
Charlie One, having gone into Lam Xuan East on point, was in the drag position on the way to Nhi Ha. Lieutenant Hieb, the platoon leader, had gotten the call from Lieutenant Kohl, the acting company commander, to hold up as they had begun to move out of Lam Xuan East so that Charlie Two, under 1st Lt. Edward F. Guthrie, could take their place up front. The platoons were always rotated on a share-the-risk principle. What was unusual was that when Charlie Two humped past, Lieutenant Guthrie was the lead man, helmet and pack on, his CAR 15 Colt Commando slung around his neck and held ready at the waist. “Hey, Ed, what the hell are you doing walking point?” Hieb called to him. “You’re not supposed to be walking point!”
“These guys are draggin’ ass, and I’m going to show ’Em how to do it,” answered Lieutenant Guthrie with an Oklahoma twang.
The problem was not only the foreign, forbidding terrain, but the fact that Captain Leach, who was nearly a living legend in Charlie Tiger, had departed two days earlier on R and R. Lieutenant Kohl, the company exec, had taken command in his absence. Although Kohl had been awarded both the Silver Star and the Bronze Star Medal for Valor (BSMv) while a platoon leader in Black Death, the grunts still didn’t think he had the savvy to replace Leach.
Jones Creek, on the company’s left flank, was generally oriented from the southeast to the northwest, but it curved due west above Lam Xuan East so that Nhi Ha actually sat on the northern bank. Lam Xuan West was due south across the bend. Charlie Tiger, having approached from the southeast, had to swing around to assault the brushy island of Nhi Ha from the east. Again there was no enemy fire, and the two platoons up front did not waste ammunition reconning by fire.
The company stepped up about three feet from the paddies onto the slight high ground of Nhi Ha proper with Lieutenant Guthrie’s Charlie Two on the right and Charlie Three, under the acting command of a sergeant first class, moving abreast on the left. Lieutenant Kohl followed with his command group. The assault line, with a point team forward of each platoon, closed up to about five meters between men as they pushed through the first thicket of bamboo and brush at the hamlet’s edge. The terrain opened up on the other side, and by the time Lieutenant Hieb and Charlie One, bringing up the rear, were inside, the rest of Charlie Tiger had already swept nearly halfway through Nhi Ha. The hamlet, defined by an outer wall of vegetation, was narrow in width but long on its east-west axis. The sweep was from east to west. There were two-walled and three-walled hootches, which were checked as they were passed, and hootches so badly shot up that only the cement foundations remained. There were also old entrenchments, both friendly and enemy, but the village appeared to be deserted.
As the two platoons drew to within fifty meters of the brush line that cut the hamlet in half at its narrow waist, Sgt. Paul L. Yost and Sp4 William J. Morse, now on point, stopped to alert Lieutenant Guthrie that there was movement ahead. They could see at least one man wearing a helmet. Guthrie, concerned about an intramural firelight, shouted a warning down the assault line that there were still Marines in position. But the men they’d seen were not Marines. They were NVA regulars with helmets, fatigues, and web gear, and they opened fire at that moment from their entrenchments in the heavy brush, killing the entire point team before the GIs knew what hit them. Guthrie caught a round in the back of the head that blew open his forehead on the way out. Yost took at least three rounds through his chest, and Morse was shot above the bridge of the nose. The bullet mushroomed and splattered out the back of his skull.
Private Harp of Charlie One was a small, wiry GI. Jolted by the sudden firing, he fell into a low spot of sand, ending up like a turtle on its back because of his rucksack. The ruck weighed almost as much as he did. The fire seemed to be coming from everywhere at once, and when he moved, bullets chewed up the sand beside him. Harp finally slipped free of the rucksack and rolled it over to get the machine-gun ammo off, along with a couple of hand grenades and his spare bandolier of M16 ammunition. He noticed then that the two-quart water bladder that he kept secured on the ruck had taken a round through it and was deflated.
The ambush, which was initiated at 1250, included rocket-propelled grenades. As Sgt. Jimmie Lee “Red” Coulthard, a machine-gun team leader in Charlie Three, dropped toward the mound to his front, he was eye to eye with an RPG that seemed hell-bent on taking his head off. The projectile was slow enough to see, and it whooshed over him just as he slid prone behind the mound. It exploded somewhere behind him. The air above him seemed electrified with death.
Over the cacophony of explosions and automatic fire, the pinned-down grunts tried to make sense of what was happening.
“Get some return fire going!”
“Who’s been hit?”
It turned out that while Charlie Two’s point team was being shot to pieces on the right flank, the point man for Charlie Three on the left—a private named Adams, who was to pick up three superficial wounds during the battle—had been able to clamber to cover in a gully. Specialist Derryl D. Odom, the backup man, was cut down, but the third man in line, Sp4 Eugene J. McDonald, was also able to find safety behind a brushy mound. Odom lay facedown and unmoving nearby. McDonald thought he was dead, but Odom, out in the open with a bullet-shattered arm, was playing ’possum where he had fallen. He knew that the enemy still had him in their sights, even if he couldn’t see them through the brush.
The fourth man in the point team was Sp4 Johnny Miller, who made a dash around McDonald’s mound to reach Odom. Miller made it two or three steps before he was hit in the head. McDonald heard him moan, and could see him sprawled out just beyond the mound. McDonald saw a second bullet thump into his back.
Johnny Miller was dead. Private First Class George L. Cruse, who had gone for the same mound as Sergeant Coulthard, let out an anguished cry—“They got Johnny!”—then shrugged off his rucksack and, acting on impulse and without coordinating covering fire, leapt up to make a run for Miller. It was the bravest, most stupid thing Coulthard ever saw. Cruse was blown away as soon as he exposed himself. The twenty-year-old Cruse had been a shy, quiet, kind of clumsy country boy from Liberal, Kansas. He was white. The man he sought to save was black. Both of them had been drafted. Miller, older than most grunts at age twenty-five, had been appalled by the poverty in the villages they usually operated in, and had written to his mother in North Carolina, asking that her church group send clothes over for the children. “They were just good, simple guys,” said Coulthard.
Charlie Tiger was spread across the open ground in scattered bunches wherever the men could find cover. Staff Sergeant James M. Goad, the acting platoon sergeant—and the most respected career NCO in Charlie Three—earned the Silver Star for taking control of the fight in the absence of their platoon sergeant and acting platoon leader, who they assumed had been killed. “When the going got really tough, Goad was a good man,” recalled the company’s artillery lieutenant. “He had innate leadership abilities. When he said something, he said it with such a positive attitude that the men were willing to do it.”
Staff Sergeant Goad wormed his way up to Coulthard’s mound, and they returned M16 fire over it on full automatic.
“Get the machine gun up here!” Goad shouted.
Sergeant Roger W. Starr, the platoon’s machine-gun squad leader, was behind a berm about forty meters to the rear of Goad and Coulthard. He got a BSMv for his response to their shouts. Starr, an amiable, twenty-one-year-old draftee from a dairy farm outside Sand Lake, Michigan, gave his M16 to one of his gunners, and, taking the man’s M60 machine gun in return, rushed forward and clattered in unscathed beside Goad and Coulthard. The mound was too narrow for all of them, so Coulthard slid back into the shallow depression behind it to make way for Starr and his M60. They had to come up to their knees to fire over the shallow slope of the mound, so they took turns, Goad with his M16 and Starr with the machine gun. Starr directed most of his quick, jack-in-the-box bursts at an NVA machine-gun position that he could hear but not see in the hedgerow. Trying to keep low, he ended up shooting the top of their own mound with each burst before getting the weapon all the way up in the enemy’s direction. Return fire also kicked up dirt across the mound, and at one point Stan-felt something strike hot and sharp across the upper part of his left arm. He immediately dropped back down and saw that his sleeve had been torn and was bloody. He didn’t know if the graze had been caused by a bullet or a shard from a bullet-shattered rock.
Staff Sergeant Goad and Roger Starr were about the only men in the platoon seriously engaging the enemy. While Coulthard crawled back to Charlie One to get more ammo for them, Starr and his impromptu assistant gunner, Sp4 Ray Elsworth—having no time to wait—yelled to Charlie Two on their right that they needed ammunition right away! In response, Sp4 Pierre L. Sullivan, a grunt from the other platoon, ran to their mound and began firing his M16 from a prone position several meters to their right. The position around the edge of the mound was so vulnerable that Coulthard had avoided it when he’d been up there. Sullivan had always been willing to take chances—a trait that earned the nineteen year old the nickname Tunnel Rat because he frequently climbed head first into enemy tunnels with only a .45 and a flashlight. One of his buddies suggested that Sullivan was always going first because he was self-conscious about his small stature. Sullivan was not a draftee; he had enlisted. He wanted to prove himself. He was, however, a short-timer, and some weeks earlier, during a mountain-climbing patrol in the highlands, he had tried to sham his way out of the field by claiming that his eyes were bad. Captain Leach, who was death on malingering, ordered Sullivan to walk point. When he successfully navigated the dangerous crevices of the jungled mountain, the captain, who had been behind him the whole time, grabbed him and barked, “Don’t you ever pull that shit again!”
Specialist Sullivan had been acting like his old self when he made his dash to join Starr and Elsworth. When Sullivan’s M16 jammed, he sat up with his back to the enemy, began disassembling the weapon—and was shot in the head within seconds. He slumped forward and shook for several minutes before he died.
Starr, unable to reach Sullivan because of the fire, muttered, “I’m going to get sick.”
Elsworth swallowed hard and answered, “So am I.”
Sergeant Coulthard snaked his way forward again, having gone from man to man back to Charlie One, imploring each for grenades and ammunition. Tall, chunky Red Coulthard—a hard-drinking but level-headed and likeable farm boy from Mount Ayr, Iowa—left the ammo he had gathered with Goad and Starr, then moved to the left with another NCO toward an NVA machine-gun position. Coulthard had been in the Army since enlisting six years earlier at age seventeen. Coulthard and his buddy slid into a gully about fifty meters away from the enemy gun. After heaving grenades at it without effect, Coulthard decided to use a LAW on the bunker, which they could just see at an angle through the vegetation. The other NCO covered him with his M16. On cue, they both popped up, but the instant Coulthard fired the LAW an enemy grenade exploded between them in a shower of debris. They knew that more grenades would be coming, and they almost climbed over each other as they hustled down the ditch. There were no more explosions. They realized then that the first explosion had actually been the LAW’s backblast hitting the back of the gully, which was higher than the edge they were shooting over. They started laughing like crazy.
Pinned down on the left flank, Specialist McDonald of Charlie Three squeezed off single shots into the hedgerow ahead. He couldn’t see anything, but the point man, Adams, was still down in his gully directing fire. Adams kept shouting for him to aim higher. Adams also hollered at McDonald to toss him some grenades since he was closer to the enemy. McDonald never had the chance. As he rose up to fire his M16 again, a round caught him in his left arm and flipped him over onto his back. His glasses and M16 were gone. Shocked and in pain, he did not look for either. A small bit of his thumb was missing, and blood bubbled up from where the round had lodged in his arm. McDonald yelled that he was hit, and a GI crawled up to pull the bandage from his medical pouch, wrap the wound, and then start back with him. They were eventually able to move in a running crouch, and McDonald joined a number of other walking wounded near the village well, where the company command group was in position.
The initial eruption of fire that killed Lieutenant Guthrie of Charlie Two also dropped his platoon sergeant, Sfc. Eugene Franklin, with a round in the thigh. Pinned down, the thirty-year-old Franklin—a black career soldier—bled to death. Nearby, Pfc. Thomas M. Walker, age eighteen, also lay dead in the brush. Another man in Charlie Two hit right off the bat was Sp4 Larry C. Schwebke. He was shot in the stomach just as he reached a little stucco-type hootch that the rest of his fire team had already passed, all of them moving upright in those last seconds before the ambush was sprung.
Schwebke cried out, “Oh, my guts!” as he fell.
Under fire, Pfc. John C. Fulcher spun around and dragged Schwebke up to the cover of the hootch, then pulled him as far down as he could into a small crater in the floor. Fulcher’s best friend and fellow team member, Pfc. Douglas D. Fletcher, joined them inside. The roof of the little, twelve-by-twelve structure had long since been blown off, and the wall to the left was also missing. Fulcher and Fletcher, pressed against the inside of the hootch’s front wall, slid to its left edge to return M16 fire—then ducked back as AK-47 rounds thudded into the stucco on the other side of the wall. Their buddy Schwebke held his bloody stomach, but apparently because of damage to his spine he moaned that it was his legs that hurt. Lying in an awkward position in the crater, he asked the other two to drag him back out and lay him in such a way that his legs would not hurt so much.
“Larry, they’re Marines’ at us,” Fulcher answered. “They’re goin’ to shoot you again if I move ya.”
Schwebke mumbled, “Okay, okay …”
Their squad leader, Sgt. Donald G. Pozil, made it to the rear wall of the hootch. A draftee, he had taken command of the platoon in the absence of Guthrie and Franklin—for which he would receive the Silver Star. His concern was to get his casualties to the rear. There was no door or window to pass Schwebke through, and moving him around the exposed edge of the wall seemed suicidal. Pozil had the GIs with him use their E-tools to chop a hole through the stucco. When the hole was big enough, Schwebke stretched out his arms so that the men on the other side could reach him and pull him through. He cried out in pain as he extended his arms. It seemed an eternity since he’d been shot.
Larry Schwebke, a farmer’s son with a young wife in Iowa, died sometime between being dragged back by Sergeant Pozil’s group and finally being lifted onto a medevac Huey. He was twenty-two years old and a draftee. Meanwhile, Fulcher and Fletcher, feeling very much alone, resumed their fire—until Fletcher’s M16 jammed. Fletcher did not get shook. He simply sat back against the hootch wall and methodically disassembled the weapon, cleaned it, and slapped it back together. He thumped in another magazine, recharged the weapon, and rolled back into his firing position in the rubble.
Charlie Tiger received neither tac air nor gunship support—nor any direction from the company command group. Lieutenant Kohl, who was near the village well when the ambush began, stayed there for the duration of the fight. Crawling forward under heavy fire, Lieutenant Jaquez, the artillery spotter, found Kohl sitting up against the cement well on the side opposite the enemy. He had his helmet and flak jacket on, and both of his radios were on the ground beside him. No one else was there, and Jaquez realized that Lieutenant Kohl was physically shaking. Kohl was not giving orders on the radio. He was simply listening to the company net with a handset held to one ear, numbly relaying to battalion on his other radio that they were pinned down and needed help.
Lieutenant Kohl had seen a lot of action as a platoon leader, and had breathed a sigh of relief when his six months were up and he got a rear-echelon assignment. Now he was back in action and it was proving to be one firefight too many for him.
Jaquez screamed at Kohl to “get up and lead!”
Kohl yelled back incoherently, and Jaquez, with his radioman in tow, finally crawled forward and away from the immobilized company commander. Operating on his belly, Lieutenant Jaquez—a Mexican-American from Los Angeles—got Charlie Tiger some artillery support from three Marine artillery batteries. He worked their fires in as close as he dared in coordination with grunts up front who answered his radio calls, then he and his RTO crawled forward themselves to the point where they could hear enemy soldiers yelling back and forth in Vietnamese. Jaquez could see some of them hustling past several hootches on the left flank. After adjusting fire onto that area, he shouldered his own M16 in the excitement. Between radio transmissions, he used the ammo magazine already in the weapon and the six others in the bandolier hanging down from his shoulder.
Lieutenant Jaquez was awarded the BSMv. So was Charlie One’s Lieutenant Hieb, a slim, bespectacled draftee commissioned from officer candidate school (OCS), and a twenty-four-year-old native of Twin Falls, Idaho. Hieb, holding open Nhi Ha’s back door with his platoon, also moved from position to position under fire to organize individual and fire-team efforts to drag the casualties back from up front. His RTO was right behind him. When Hieb got up to run, his RTO got up to run. The RTO was such an obvious target that Hieb finally took the radio from him, slipped his arms through the shoulder straps, and told the GI to grab some cover. One of Hieb’s better squad leaders, Sp4 John H. Burns, anchored their right flank with his troops behind an earthen berm that was some three feet high. Along with Burns, there was Brooks, Hobi, Harp, and a guy named Meister. When the NVA tried to move in on that side, their M16 fire was overwhelming. Their machine gunner, Pope, who had set up beside Burns, burned out his barrel with sustained fire. The NVA went to the ground. Burns’s people kept pouring out rounds, and Harp ended up making three trips back to get ammo from the other squads. He got lost each time on his way back. The situation was that confusing.
The GIs in Charlie One could not fire to their front for fear of hitting Charlie Two and Three. Most of the survivors in Charlie Two had made it to a large crater and were pinned at the bottom of it. One soldier near the crater began digging a shallow trench toward it. When he got close enough, he heaved another E-tool to the men inside so they could dig from their direction, link up, and get out under cover. The digging seemed to take forever.
During the wait, Specialist Burns asked for a volunteer to help him drag back Sergeant Yost’s body. Harp said he’d go. Their maneuver required them to crawl past a certain NVA position, and although high grass offered some concealment and the NVA appeared to be firing in a different direction, it was a risky prospect. The medic said to be careful, adding that he didn’t want to lose anyone “trying to recover guys who are already dead.”
“There’s gotta be a better way to do this,” Harp chimed in.
Burns exploded. “Harp, you chickenshit!”
Harp was always in trouble with Burns, mostly because he was so afraid he would screw up that he usually did. Burns tagged him as the squad dud, and in this instance he took Brooks with him to drag Yost’s body back. There was a hole in Yost’s chest and back that a fist could pass through, and he was blue around his lips and eyes and fingernails. It was a devastating, infuriating sight, and when an NVA on the right kicked up dirt around them with a sudden burst, Harp had to shoot back. He had seen the smoke rise from where the NVA had fired on full automatic, and he ran over to Pope, whose machine-gun position afforded a clear line of fire.
Harp jumped down beside Pope and shouldered his M16, exclaiming, “This little motherfucker is mine!”
Harp pumped two magazines into the spot—silencing the NVA, maybe temporarily, maybe for good—then rushed back to where Burns and the medic were getting Yost’s body on a stretcher. Burns cranked up again, “Goddamnit, Harp, if I need you to shoot, I’ll tell you to shoot. Right now I need you to lift, so get on the goddamn stretcher and leave the Marines’ to Pope!” A Marine Otter had moved up behind the village well to evacuate casualties. With Burns and Brooks up front and Harp and the medic in back, they moved out with Yost’s stretcher in a running crouch, only to get hung up on a tree stump. By then they were all moving sluggishly, but in the heat of the moment Burns snapped around to scream at Harp again, “Harp, pick your fucking end up …”
At the same time that Charlie Tiger was ambushed, Captain Corrigan and Barracuda, across the stream in Lam Xuan West, also began taking AK-47 and M79 fire from Nhi Ha. Corrigan remained in position to provide suppressive fires into the left flank of Kohl’s fight. It was Corrigan’s second big action. The son of a West Pointer, twenty-six-year-old Corrigan was an ROTC Distinguished Military Graduate. He was a low-key, highly intelligent man and he ran a good company, although Snyder did not think he had the battlefield instincts of Leach or Humphries. Nevertheless, the battalion commander noted that Barracuda 6, however green, was a cool customer on the radio despite the bullets snapping over his head. Corrigan, lying prone, had called several of his lieutenants and platoon sergeants to his position beside the stream. There were no trees or bushes there, but the crown of the bank, which was three feet above the creek, provided some cover. The Barracuda GIs deployed along the southern bank could not see the NVA blasting away from the other side. The brush in Nhi Ha was too thick. Nor could they see Charlie Tiger. Until they determined who was where in the vegetation, Corrigan instructed them to return fire only with M16s, adding, “Don’t use your machine guns, and no LAWs or M79s. We don’t want to be killing our own people over there.”
Barracuda began taking casualties at that point. The first to be hit was SSgt. William F. Ochs, a twenty-year-old career soldier assigned as the platoon sergeant of Bravo One. Ochs, who had been with the platoon for almost nine months and was a highly respected NCO, should have crawled when he returned from Corrigan’s meeting and started passing the word. Instead, he ran along the bank in a crouch, shouting at his men not to fire their M60s and LAWs. Almost immediately he was blown off his feet by a round that caught him high up on his right leg. The bullet tore a four-inch-long gash where it went in, shattered the bone, and then exited just below his buttocks, taking a grapefruit-sized chunk of muscle and flesh with it. Ochs, in excruciating pain, screamed obscenities until a medic crawled over and thumped a morphine Syrette into his leg. The whole leg went numb. Ochs was still shook up because his leg, which seemed held together by only a few strands of muscle, was bent crazily so that his foot was up by his ear. One of Ochs’s squad leaders and good friends, Bob Waite, who had also crawled to him, placed a helmet under his head to make him comfortable and spoke encouragingly to him, doing for Ochs what Ochs had done previously for so many of their casualties. Hoping to distract Ochs, Waite got a can of beer out of Ochs’s rucksack and opened it for him. Ochs managed a few sips. Meanwhile, Ochs could hear someone trying to organize a medevac on the radio: “The guy’s bleedin’ like a stuck pig. He’s not going to last long. We can’t stop the bleedin’!”
The helicopter pilot’s response came in broken over the radio: “Get him … wood line behind you … we’ll pick him up.” As gently as he could, Waite straightened Ochs’s leg so it would fit in the poncho they lifted him on, and then several other grunts carried Ochs toward the wood line. It was a hundred-meter trip. Under fire the whole way across, the litter team had to tug and drag Ochs along as they struggled on their hands and knees. They made it, though, and Ochs was medevacked within fifteen minutes of getting hit—quickly enough to save his leg.
At about the same time, approximately 1400, a rifleman in Bravo One, Pfc. Robert A. Romo, a twenty-year-old draftee from Rialto, California, caught another of the bullets snapping at them from across the creek. It hit him in the neck and killed him. Afterward, Romo’s body was escorted home by his uncle, an OCS graduate serving as a platoon leader in the Americal Division. They were the same age and had been raised as brothers. Romo’s death was a deciding factor in his uncle’s decision to join the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and to throw away his Bronze Stars during the organization’s 1971 protest on the Capitol steps. One of Romo’s Barracuda buddies wrote home that he couldn’t understand “why God would take his life. He never cussed, drinked, or smoked. The guy was twenty and never had sex with a girl… everyone else would seem like a devil compared to him.”
At 1410, Captain Corrigan requested another dust-off for another wounded man, and the C&C Huey was dispatched without the colonel. Lieutenant Colonel Snyder, coordinating the action from Mai Xa Chanh East, intended not to carry the fight into the NVA entrenchments, but to have Charlie Tiger recover its casualties and break contact so that he could obliterate Nhi Ha with massed artillery and air strikes. As such, Snyder had immediately ordered Captain Osborn and Alpha Company to cover Charlie Tiger’s exposed right flank. Leaving one platoon in Lam Xuan East, Osborn had his other two platoons rolling within ten minutes of the first shot. Knowing that any medevac attempt in Nhi Ha would result in a shot-down helicopter, Snyder also dispatched the USMC Otters attached from BLT 2/4 to resupply the engaged company with ammunition and evacuate its casualties. Each Otter had a .50-caliber machine gun manned by a Marine crewman, and Echo Recon GIs aboard to provide additional security. Captain Humphries and Delta Company, previously in reserve at the battalion command post, moved out some thirty minutes after the Otters departed Mai Xa Chanh East.
Overhead, a US AF forward air controller had arrived to help direct the Marine artillery pounding Nhi Ha. Meanwhile, at 1525, four artillery shells landed near Bravo Company in Lam Xuan West. The first one took Captain Corrigan by surprise. He was conducting a recon for a night defensive position with his FO team and one of his RTOs about a hundred meters from the main body of the company when the round exploded about thirty meters from them. They dropped down and stayed down as three more rounds slammed in. When they realized that no more were coming, they jumped up to rejoin the company. The Gimlets had never experienced NVA artillery fire. When Corrigan reported the incoming, a check was run to determine if it had been enemy or misplotted friendly fire. The NVA answered the question five minutes later by dropping several more salvos on Barracuda, thirty rounds total in a little less than thirty minutes. The incoming shells wounded four grunts, who were evacuated aboard the colonel’s helicopter. The enemy then shifted their artillery fires onto Nhi Ha.
Alpha Annihilator’s two reaction platoons moved cautiously toward Nhi Ha, taking individual enemy soldiers under fire along the way. Lieutenant Smith’s Alpha Two was on the right flank and Alpha Three, led by 2d Lt. William B. Kimball, was abreast on the left. Radio communications with leaderless, shot-up Charlie Tiger were minimal, and the mood was tense. When the two platoons reached Nhi Ha’s northeast corner, Smith dropped into a bomb crater and deployed his platoon to the right across the dry paddy. The men occupied old trenches or moved in behind hedgerows. The NVA were entrenched in a hedgerow in front of them.
Enemy fire became thick as more NVA ran up singly and in pairs to reinforce that position. Lieutenant Smith, very concerned about a possible counterattack, cut loose with his CAR15. The platoon’s four-man machine-gun team also opened fire from the crater, and M79 men tried to lob rounds into the enemy trench.
While Alpha Two secured the right flank, Lieutenant Kimball and Alpha Three worked their way into Nhi Ha under stray fire from Charlie Tiger’s fight to the front and from the occasional NVA artillery round that impacted amid the hootches and hedgerows. One shell slammed in beside Kimball and his platoon sergeant, SSgt. George L. Dale, but it failed to explode. The dud sat half-submerged in the sandy soil, and Kimball and Dale joked about their good luck. Moving on, the platoon halted in the cover of a tree line. There was heavy fire to the front. Kimball was lying in some bushes with Sgt. James L. Stone, the point squad leader, trying to figure out how to cross the next open area, when a GI from Charlie Tiger, the first they’d seen, made his way over to them. The trooper had a battle dressing wrapped around his head. “All of our guys are pinned down,” he told the reinforcements as he pointed across the open area. “We got a bunch of dead and wounded across that paddy there, over ’round that blown-up house.”
The wounded trooper wanted to lead them across, but Lieutenant Kimball said, “You’ve already been through it. Just stay here on this side.”
Kimball then told Sergeant Stone to take his squad across the hundred-meter-wide clearing. American artillery fire was tearing up the left flank beyond the hootch. They could see dirt and trees flying in the air. Stone, who was getting increasingly upset, said, “My God, tell ’Em to lift that fire—we can’t go into that!” Kimball got the arty shifted, and Stone got his fire teams organized. He wanted Sp4 Ron Nahrstadt’s team to go first, followed by Sp4 Terry H. Alderson’s, but Alderson chose that moment to tell Stone that he had injured his knee during their up-and-down rush across the last clearing. Stone didn’t believe him. Alderson was a good soldier and a good friend, but the fear in his eyes was obvious. Alderson’s wife was expecting a baby any day, and he’d been anxiously awaiting each mail call. Everyone in the squad was waiting to see if it would be a boy or a girl. Although angry, Stone didn’t press the issue. He told Alderson to stay back with the other two squads in the tree line, then he put someone else in charge of the team.
Christ, we’re all scared, Stone thought. There isn’t a man among us who isn’t scared as hell. Going first, Stone and Nahrstadt’s team crossed the clearing at a run, then dropped behind a dike near the edge of the tree line. Stone and Nahrstadt were checking things out when three grunts from Charlie Tiger crawled up to them from the left. When Stone explained that they were from Alpha Company, one of them exclaimed, “Oh God, are we glad to see you guys! Man, the gooks are everywhere!”
Moving on to the demolished hootch, Sergeant Stone’s squad linked up there with the only two GIs still on their feet. They looked scared. The wounded lay behind the shattered walls of the cement building. Stone got his fire teams fanned out to provide security, and Lieutenant Kimball came up with Doc Richards, the platoon medic. They worked fast. Anybody who could lend a hand helped get the wounded onto poncho litters, then they started back the way they had come. They took no enemy fire, but at one point some M79 rounds landed near the hootch courtesy of the Charlie Tiger GIs on the other side of the thick brush to the left. After some hollering back and forth the fire stopped.
Privates Fulcher and Fletcher of Charlie Two were best friends. They were redheaded country boys who could have passed for brothers. Fulcher was from Iowa, and Fletcher from Arkansas. They were both draftees, and both were awarded the BSMv for their actions at Nhi Ha. When the word was passed to pull back with their wounded, Fulcher looked at his buddy and said, “Doug, I’m not leaving Rich out there.”
Private First Class Richard M. Gallery was dead, but Fletcher knew just what his buddy was feeling. “Let’s go get him,” he replied.
Rich Gallery was lying about twenty-five meters from the cover of their three-sided hootch. He had apparently been hit in the opening moments of the ambush. He was lying on his back, propped up by his rucksack. His helmet had been knocked off and his right arm was flung across his chest. Fulcher and Fletcher squatted down to cover themselves with a couple of M16 bursts, then they rushed to Gallery. Fletcher handed his M16 to Fulcher and knelt down to unstrap Gallery’s pack so they wouldn’t have to carry that, too. Gallery had been shot right below the hollow in his throat.
Just as Fletcher got the dead man’s pack off, the NVA opened fire on them. Both of the M16s in Fulcher’s hands were set on automatic and, firing them at the same time, he squeezed off both magazines. He then reached down to grab Gallery’s right arm and help Fletcher hustle him back—and was shocked to realize how stiff the arm was. It was frozen in position across Gallery’s chest. It was Fulcher’s first experience with rigor mortis, and he thought with horrified wonderment that if he’d had the strength he could carry Gallery’s body like a bucket, using the arm as a handle.
When the crater full of Charlie Two survivors finally made it to safety, it was time for everyone to pull out. The level of NVA fire had decreased, but Staff Sergeant Goad and Sergeant Starr of Charlie Three kept blasting away to cover the men around them who were moving back one at a time. Johnny Miller and George Cruse were sprawled in the open in front of the mound, and Sergeant Coulthard argued with Goad. “We can’t go—John and George are still out there!” Coulthard felt like a coward for not trying to get them. Goad said they were dead, and when Coulthard asked if he was sure, Goad glared at him and snapped, “Goddamnit, they are dead—and we’re pullin’ out! Move out!”
In case everyone had not gotten the word, Goad, the de facto platoon leader, bellowed one more time that they were pulling back. The senior NCO who was the platoon leader on paper suddenly appeared, jumping over some bushes with several other grunts. They were lucky they did not get shot in the confusion. No one at the mound had heard any fire all afternoon from the position on the left where it turned out the sergeant had gone to ground. Goad had assumed he was dead. The platoon was unexcited about his resurrection, given that the sergeant was an overweight, disagreeable, passed-over lifer who was always talking about how much tougher Korea had been than this little war. The sergeant seemed to be just going through the motions until he could retire, and the grunts never forgot that during an earlier supply shortage in the bush he had refused to share his rations.
After taking cover in the depression behind the mound, the sergeant barked at Sp4 Thomas J. Bradford, one of the men who’d come back with him, “Where the hell’s your rucksack?”
“I left it when we pulled back,” said Bradford.
“Well, goddamnit, go back and get it!”
The NVA had ceased firing, but when Bradford got up, they cut loose, hitting him in the chest. Killed instantly, he fell backward almost atop the men in the depression. “It was so sad,” recalled Coulthard. “It was so stupid, so stupid Bradford getting killed.” Coulthard was dumbstruck and enraged that the sergeant had ordered the kid on such a fool’s errand. “What the hell? He didn’t give a shit about the ruck or anything else. He just said it to act like he was in charge again, like there was some semblance of something going on.”
Private First Class Wayne Crist moved out with Bradford’s body, and Goad shouldered Pierre Sullivan’s body as they leapfrogged back toward Charlie One. Starr was the last to pull back from the mound after covering Goad with his M60. Starr got out of there at a run. Joining the tail end of the Charlie Tiger column, Lieutenant Jaquez requested max artillery fire on Nhi Ha when they cleared the ville. The FO was worried about an NY A counterattack as they straggled away. Enemy artillery was firing again, but no one was hit as they loaded the wounded and dead into the Otters that had come up behind them.
Alpha Two and Three pulled back on the right flank.
Charlie Tiger conducted a tense, under-fire retrograde through Delta One and Three, which had come up behind them, then the Otters rolled back to the battalion aid station in Mai Xa Chanh East. Medevacs landed there, their blades kicking up sandstorms. In addition to Barracuda’s one dead and six wounded, Charlie Tiger had eleven dead and eight wounded. It had been a bad day, made no better by the official claim of only fifteen enemy kills. What really hurt was that the bodies of Guthrie, Cruse, and Miller had been left behind.
Meanwhile, Delta One had secured a laager site approximately six hundred meters east of Nhi Ha in what had once been a hamlet. The site was elevated two to three feet above the surrounding rice paddies, so the fields of fire were excellent. By 1800, Alpha Annihilator and the remnants of Charlie Tiger joined up there to form a joint perimeter with Black Death. Barracuda consolidated in the vicinity of Lam Xuan West. Artillery continued to pound Nhi Ha, and Lieutenant Smith of Alpha Two commented that everyone dug deep holes because “they figured it was going to be a wild night. The guys were very much on their toes. They knew exactly where the next hole was, and they knew where their lines of fire were because we went over them three times. I strategically placed my M60 and interlocked our fires, and I paced off our positions. If I had to crawl somewhere in the pitch black I wanted to know exactly where it was.”
“We couldn’t believe what had happened,” recalled Sergeant Coulthard. “We were worn out, just flat worn out. Scared to death. I wanted Captain Leach there bad. The feeling among us was that if he had been there, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Captain Leach, on his way to Australia on R and R, was back at the battalion rear in the main Americal Division base camp at Chu Lai. He was in a transient barracks when a trooper came from the orderly room to wake him. The trooper said that Charlie Tiger had been in heavy contact at a place called Nhi Ha.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Leach exclaimed as he sprang up.
“Sir, they just got the shit kicked out of them.”
Captain Leach found the battalion’s acting sergeant major, who was his former first sergeant. “Jesus Christ, what happened?” he asked. When the former Charlie Tiger topkick told Leach about Lieutenant Guthrie, which was a real blow, the two of them went off and had four or five beers together. Then Leach got his gear organized and radioed ahead to inform the battalion commander that he was canceling his R and R and would come out on the first available helicopter in the morning.