SERGEANT JIMMIE LEE COULTHARD, C/3-21ST INFANTRY, 196th LIB, Americal Division: “There sure wasn’t any glory in being in Charlie Company other than it was a regular line company which would do what the hell they were told. We didn’t do as good a job as we could have if we’d had better training and more experience, but they were a good bunch of guys and I was real proud to be in the company.”
Opcon to the 3d Marines, the mission of Lieutenant Colonel Snyder’s 3-21st Infantry was to seize and hold Nhi Ha and Lam Xuan West in order to check NVA infiltration down Jones Creek and prevent NVA action against logistical traffic on the Cua Viet River. Lam Xuan West had been easy to secure. Nhi Ha had not. Forced back with heavy casualties on 2 May 1968, the attack resumed the next day, although Lieutenant Colonel Snyder anticipated that the NVA had retired during the night. They had not. Elements of the 4th Battalion, 270th Independent NVA Regiment, had entrenched themselves in Nhi Ha and intended to fight it out. Lieutenant Colonel Snyder obliged them, though with a prudent, cautious approach that would have seemed heresy to the Marines and with a smothering abundance of firepower that had not been available in the first overtaxed days of the enemy offensive.
Private First Class Gregory B. Harp, C/3-21st Infantry, 196th LIB, Americal Division: “All my observations of the battle were through the peepsight of a rifle, and that is an extremely narrow view. I never saw a map. I was confused the whole time, and half-crazed from thirst and fatigue. My world consisted of a fire team, squad, platoon, and, once in a while, the whole company.”
THE NVA ATTEMPTED TO REINFORCE THEIR POSITIONS IN nhi ha. At 0028 on Friday, 3 May 1968, the personnel at Alpha 1 spotted the NVA through their night observation devices. Having marched south from the DMZ, the NVA were, when detected, in the vicinity of Nhi Trung—less than a kilometer south of Alpha 1 and two klicks above Nhi Ha. The firepower brought to bear on these NVA was locked, cocked, and ready to go in part because of an argument that 1st Lt. Travis P. Kirkland, an adviser with the ARVN battalion at Alpha 1, had had the night before with a major from the 40th Field Artillery at the DHCB. Kirkland had been calling in fire missions on smaller groups of NVA when the major, short of ammo from the afternoon battles, challenged the priority of these particular missions: “Lieutenant, you’re lying—you don’t have that many targets.”
“Well, bounce your butt up here if you think I’m a liar, and I’ll show you all the dinks you can handle,” replied Kirkland.
The major arrived the following afternoon by helicopter, and Kirkland suggested he sack out because he probably wouldn’t get any sleep that night. The NVA heading for Nhi Ha proved Kirkland right. A Marine with the naval gunfire liaison team at Alpha 1 was the first to alert Kirkland, who was in his own bunker. “Hey, LT, we’ve got people out here in the open.” Kirkland asked how many there were. The answer was sixty-seven, but the doubting major grabbed the field phone and asked the Marine how he knew. “I counted the motherfuckers,” the young Marine shot back.
At that point the major zipped up to the bunker line and looked through a night scope of his own. Suitably impressed, he told the FO lieutenant who was present from his own 40th Field Artillery to “get these people everything that’s in range.”
Additional artillery was fired into Nhi Ha itself. Lieutenant Colonel Snyder, located at Mai Xa Chanh East, planned to resume the attack with Captain Osborn’s A/3-21 and Captain Humphries’s D/3-21, which were in a night defensive position in the rice paddies six hundred meters east of Nhi Ha with Lieutenant Kohl’s C/3-21. South of Nhi Ha on the other side of Jones Creek, Captain Corrigan’s B/3-21 was dug in near Lam Xuan West, where it could support the attack by fire. The attack was to come in from the east and sweep west down the length of Nhi Ha, with Alpha Company on the north flank and Delta Company to the south. This was the same approach taken the day before by Charlie Company.
Lieutenant Colonel Snyder had available to him a forward air controller in an O-IE Birddog from the Air Force’s 20th Tactical Air Support Squadron (call sign Helix). At 0815 on 3 May, Helix 1-5 came on station and established contact with Black Death 6—Captain Humphries of D/3-21—who was the most experienced company commander the Gimlets had on the ground. Humphries briefed the FAC, who had Marine and Air Force fighter-bombers plaster Nhi Ha at 0910, 0945, and 1040. There was a mishap during the second air strike, however. The FAC warned the company commanders to make sure that all their people were down each time he brought in a strike. Captain Corrigan and the Bravo Company FO, who were the closest to Nhi Ha in Lam Xuan West, could get only so far down as they helped adjust the strikes. The two were kneeling behind several banana trees at the edge of the hill that served as the company command post while watching an Air Force Phantom drop 250-pound high-drag bombs. “It was amazing,” Corrigan recalled. “The bombs went off, and then right where the cloud of smoke was there was something small that got bigger and bigger and bigger—and then, wham, my forward observer got hit right beside me. It looked like it was coming in slow motion at us, but the whole thing couldn’t have taken more than half a second. My brain couldn’t have told my body to duck in time.”
The white-hot chunk of metal was the size of a golf ball. It hit Pfc. Rod “Rocky” Bublitz, the Barracuda FO, in the shoulder with such force as to almost rip off his arm. While Captain Corrigan requested an emergency medevac for Bublitz and another injured GI, the FAC came up on the battalion net and shouted, “I told you guys to stay down!”
Lieutenant Colonel Snyder also had available to him a command-and-control UH-1D Huey from the 174th Assault Helicopter Company (the Dolphins) of the 14th Combat Aviation Battalion, 1st Aviation Brigade. Since Snyder commanded by radio from Mai Xa Chanh East, his C&C Huey was used for resupply and medevac missions. The wounded were quickly lifted out of Lam Xuan West, but within two hours the C&C bird had to conduct another medevac when Barracuda was again on the receiving end of friendly fire. This time three men were hit by the artillery propping Nhi Ha as the assault companies began moving in. One soldier’s kneecap was shattered. He sat upright on the floor of the Huey and smoked a cigaret that one of the crewmen had given him. He stared at his mangled leg in numb, painless shock—the morphine was hitting him—and although he appeared to realize that his leg would have to be amputated, he had a relieved, I’m-on-the-helicopter-I’m-outta-here expression. He didn’t say a word during the entire flight back to the DHCB. When they landed, a Navy corpsman who didn’t realize the severity of the man’s wounds grabbed him to put him on a stretcher. “Hold on, goddamnit—take it easy,” the GI shouted. “I want to keep my goddamn leg as long as I can!”
The assault got rolling at 1100. Captain Osborn had Lieutenant Smith’s Alpha Two on the right flank, and Alpha One, under 2d Lt. James Simpson, abreast on the left flank alongside D/3-21. Lieutenant Kimball and Alpha Three followed in reserve. The assault line was closing on the first hedgerow at the eastern edge of Nhi Ha when Sgt. Bernard J. Bulte, a squad leader in Alpha Two, saw three NVA pop up to his front and dash toward that wall of brush. Two of them were carrying AK-47s, and the third had an SKS. The hedgerow slowed them down, and they bunched up as they pushed through it, almost scrambling over each other’s backs. Bulte put his entire Ml6 magazine into them. All three enemy soldiers went down as other troopers to his left and right began blasting away into the brush. They moved cautiously to the hedgerow then, and Bulte saw that he’d hit one of the NVA in the head. The man had pitched forward and the top of his head lay inside his pith helmet like a chunk of melon.
The squad deployed along the hedgerow and the bodies were checked. One of the dead soldiers carried medical gear, and one had what appeared to be the insignia of an NVA lieutenant pinned to his gray fatigue shirt. One of the new men was unsettled by the scene, so to toughen him up, a team leader told him to search the body with the head blown open. As the replacement removed the pistol belt and then turned out the dead soldier’s pockets as instructed, he kept his face half-turned from the body.
“They got scared and they panicked,” Sergeant Bulte later said, explaining why the three NVA had been such easy targets in his rifle sights. Bulte had been in Vietnam for more than five months, but this was the first time he’d had a clear target. As he realized that he had just killed the three, he was numb for a moment, then he had a sense of absolute power. It felt good—but it lasted only a few moments. Bulte did not hate the enemy. He could not. He had seen them suffer too much. He had seen Kit Carson scouts, who seemed to be the most brutal soldiers on either side, use their boots on the faces of prisoners who had already talked, as well as place an M16 muzzle in the mouth of a man whose arms were tied. Once, while their Kit Carson worked over another prisoner, Bulte had searched the NVA’s wallet and found a photograph of the soldier back home with his children. “You know, that guy was just like the rest of us,” Bulte said. “We were all there because we had to be. It’s one thing to fight a faceless enemy, but to see them as individuals—to see their faces and the fear in their eyes—that’s a different thing. Killing them was part of the game, and you really had to detach yourself to remain effective and do your job.”
The assault continued. Captain Humphries moved forward with Delta Two, under 2d Lt. Erich J. Weidner, on the right flank, and Lieutenant Skrzysowski’s Delta One on the left. Delta Three, whose lieutenant had been killed four days before, was being led by its platoon sergeant, SSgt. Robert E. Gruber, and brought up the rear of the company’s two-up-one-back formation. The assault platoons, operating slowly and cautiously in the blown-away, wide-open hamlet, used hand grenades on the entrenchments they passed over—all were empty—as they worked their way through Nhi Ha hedgerow by hedgerow. The NVA—in the tree line that divided the village—waited until the assault line was within fifty meters before their mortar crews began pumping out rounds. On hearing that signal, the foot soldiers in the spiderholes commenced firing with automatic weapons, light machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades.
The first casualty was Pfc. Paul L. Barker, an ammo bearer with the machine-gun squad in Delta Three, who fell in the blast of a mortar explosion before he had time to take cover.
Barker, hit badly in the chest, had been in-country just three weeks. He was a twenty-year-old draftee, and he hated the Army. A funny, well-built farm boy, he had run with some small-town toughs before dropping out of high school in South Paris, Maine. He became a father at sixteen, and finally married the mother of his daughter three years later between Basic and AIT. Barker had been befriended by an M79 man in another squad during his short time in Vietnam, and his buddy crawled to him to give him mouth-to-mouth, while shouting at the top of his lungs for a medic. The platoon medic got to them, but Barker was already dead. His buddy, crying freely and nearly hysterical, refused to listen and kept trying to breathe life into Barker as fire snapped overhead.
The contact began at 1222. The NVA were entrenched across the narrow waist of Nhi Ha, in the tree line along the western edge of the rice paddies in the middle of the hamlet. Lieutenants Skrzysowski and Weidner deployed their platoons in the irrigation ditch that ran behind the hedgerow on the eastern side, and—earning Silver Stars in the process—they moved along the ditch firing themselves as they made sure their men kept their heads up and fired in the right direction. The NVA were impossible to see. Whenever smoke or dust rose from one of their positions, though, the target was engaged by M60s and M79s, as well as with LAWs.
Artillery worked the enemy side of the clearing and, between fire missions, the FAC in the Birddog rolled in to punch off WP marking rockets. The FAC brought the jets in one at a time. The Phantoms and Crusaders came in low and slow with wings tilting left, right, left, right, as each pilot lined up on the target in turn. The jets came in from behind the grunts, and the pilots released their 250-pound high drags just as they flashed over the row of upturned faces in the irrigation ditch. Fins popped from each bomb to retard the rate of descent as it dove toward the target, giving the pilot time to escape the blast radius. It was an incredible show. The bombs seemed to float as they went over the heads of the grunts in the same instant that the pilot hit the afterburners and pulled straight up. The multiple explosions were thunderous, with smoke mushrooming up thick and charcoal black above the flames. Smoking hot bomb fragments thudded down on both sides of the battlefield.
The napalm canisters burst like fireballs in the tree line. The NVA kept firing. Captain Humphries, a small-statured Texan who packed a CAR 15 and a 9mm Browning in a shoulder holster, had his trademark corncob pipe clenched sideways in his mouth as he lay behind a berm with his FO and RTOs and helped adjust the air and arty. He was a former enlisted man—an OCS graduate—and he was Airborne and Ranger qualified. He was also a natural leader and a veteran of more than six months with the Gimlets. Black Death 6, as he was best known, used his reserve platoon, Delta Three, to establish an LZ in the eastern end of Nhi Ha—into which the C&C Huey landed to kick out ammo resupply and take aboard the four men wounded in the opening moments of the engagement. Humphries’s company suffered few additional casualties during the prolonged fight. He was an aggressive commander, but he never took reckless chances with the lives of his troops. He loved them too much. Humphries, exacting and hard-nosed, was also a personable, gregarious man who ruled with an informal hand. He knew his troops by name and would talk with each man as a patrol moved out. He joked easily with them, but he made it clear that each was an important part of the team. He told them that they were his family and mat he was going to write a book about them when he got home.
Delta Company was knocked for a serious loop when Black Death 6 was hit the following month after a tough, two-day action to secure an NVA hill in the FSB Center TAOR. Humphries was not wounded by enemy fire but by a “dud” U.S. hand grenade that sat unnoticed in the battle litter until a new man accidentally stepped on it. The explosion killed the GI. Humphries’s shoulder was torn up, and he lost his right eye. With a black eye patch in place, he soldiered through the rest of his career—including a 1970-71 Vietnam tour as operations officer of his old 3-21st Infantry.
Captain Humphries got his second Silver Star for Nhi Ha. His effect on morale was such that the recon sergeant with his FO team, Sp4 Terrance Farrand, who did not have to be in the battle, made sure he got there. Farrand, fresh from a Bangkok R and R, had rejoined the artillery liaison officer at the Mai Xa Chanh East CP only after the battle had been joined. When he asked about getting back to his company, the liaison officer said, “Listen, the situation’s hot. The only thing we’ve got going in is ammunition and radio batteries. We can try and get you in tomorrow.”
Farrand wouldn’t take no for an answer. The idea of giving Captain Humphries less than 100 percent was unfathomable, and he pressed the liaison officer. “Well, I’ve got to get there, that’s all there is to it.”
Specialist Farrand went in with the next ammo drop. The C&C Huey landed in Delta Three’s LZ, and, after helping unload the ammo under fire, Farrand ran, crawled, and ducked his way forward. He slid in beside a prone and very busy Captain Humphries, who said, “What in the hell are you doing here?” Farrand replied, “I heard you people got yourself in a mess, and I thought I’d better show up.” As he began working with the FO lieutenant, Farrand cracked one last grin and said, “Hey, Cap, can you believe that two short days ago I was lying up in a bed with sheets? And Ihad lobster!”
On Black Death’s right flank, Lieutenant Smith of Alpha Two radioed his platoon sergeant, Sfc. Alan Dickerson, who was in another crater. Smith had told Doc Fennewald to stick with Dickerson, and he asked to speak with the medic. “He’s dead,” Dickerson said.
“What? He can’t be!” exclaimed Smith.
“I never did see his body,” recalled Lieutenant Smith, who thought the world of Doc Fennewald. “I probably wouldn’t have looked at it anyway.” Fennewald had been shot in the forehead while moving in a fast crouch toward a soldier shouting for a medic. “It was a senseless death,” added Smith. “Whoever was wounded wasn’t badly hurt, but Fennewald probably perceived that he was.”
Specialist Four Daniel F. Fennewald, twenty-four, of Spanish Lake, Missouri, was awarded a posthumous BSMv and Purple Heart (as were all KJAs in the Gimlets, regardless of the circumstances of their death). Fennewald was the kind of genuine, sincere guy whom anyone would want to have as a friend for life. He was stocky and sandy-haired, with an articulate, quiet, and gentle manner. He never cursed. He never complained. He also never carried a weapon. He was a conscientious objector, and although he would hump a ton of medical gear and water for the casualties, reserving only one canteen for himself, he would not join in the killing.
Lieutenant Smith commented that Fennewald was “a wonderful doc and a prince of a fella. He knew about every sore on every man in that platoon. He was that conscientious and helpful.”
The volume of fire rose and fell as the battle dragged on. During one of the lulls, Sp4 Neil E. Hannan of Alpha Two crawled out of his squad’s big bomb crater and worked his way back to the LZ to get more ammo. Hannan, a wiry, brown-haired kid, was an intelligent, intense, and typically insecure nineteen year old from blue-collar Versailles, Ohio. He was determined to be a good soldier, and he was. He had been in Vietnam for two months. Hannan was dragging a crate of grenades in one hand and a crate of small-arms ammunition in the other on his way back to the crater when a mortar fragment caught him in the right thigh. It went through his trouser leg and left a red slash up near his groin. Hannan clambered back into the crater. The rope-handled ammo crates were cracked open. Everyone was firing like crazy. Hannan himself went through thirty magazines, and had to repeatedly use his squeeze bottle of gun oil on his smoking M16. The squad grenadier lobbed so many M79 rounds across the clearing while sitting cross-legged at the edge of the crater that he finally said in a bored voice, “Hell, give me that .45 for a while.” They fired everything they had, including LAWs, and they heaved grenades when they saw NVA advancing among the trees on their right flank. “You know, it’s not easy to stick your head up and fire at those bastards when they have machine guns firing back at you,” Hannan wrote in a letter home the next day. “Hell, I was throwing grenades like a maniac too. I was in a bomb crater digging with my damned hands and I was scared as hell. I was just hoping that a mortar wouldn’t land in my hole. And to think that I used to pity the Marines.”
In position near the LZ, Sergeant See, who ran the machine-gun squad in Delta Three, was to the rear of an earthen berm. He had unshouldered his ruck—which had fragments in it from the shell that killed his ammo bearer, Barker—and he was on his knees, alert, with his M16 in his hands. He expected the NVA to try to flank them. There was a lull in the fire up front, and See was able to hear a mortar round leaving its tube. He started shouting, “Incoming!” but he was still on his knees when the first round exploded before his eyes on the other side of the berm and knocked him down. It felt as though someone had hit him in the right shoulder with a baseball bat. He was afraid to look at his arm for fear that it had been ripped off. It felt that way. When he finally did look, he saw a chunk of metal the size of a silver dollar sticking from the shoulder. He pulled it out and flipped it away.
The grenadier attached to See’s machine-gun team, Pfc. Ronald L. Edwards, had been hit in the same explosion. He’d been leaning against his ruck on the forward side of the berm. Sprawled out now, he emitted the low moan of the seriously wounded as he called for help: “Uh-uhhh-uh-uh … Seeee … Seeee…”
Mortars were still exploding around the LZ, and no one was moving.
Edwards kept calling for help. Oh God, I can’t leave him out there, thought See, a rich kid from Beverly Hills, California, who’d gotten his draft notice immediately after earning a degree in business administration. He had instant sergeant stripes from the NCO Academy at Fort Benning. See crawled over the berm to reach Edwards, who had thick blood coming out of one ear, in addition to multiple fragment wounds in his head and legs. Man, this guy’s in bad shape, See thought, but what he said was, “Edwards, you’re okay, you’re okay. What hurts worst?”
“My legs … my legs,” Edwards mumbled.
See wrapped battle dressings around the wounds. The mortaring had ceased. See helped Edwards to his feet with one arm over his shoulder so he could get him back over the berm, where a medic took over. The medic also tied a battle dressing around See’s shoulder. As See put the bloody, ripped shirt back on, the medic asked him if he wanted to be medevacked. See declined. It was no time to leave.
The action in Nhi Ha lasted six hours. A and D/3-21 lost two KIA and had twenty-two WIA. Officially, sixty-seven NVA were killed, but Lieutenant Colonel Snyder, unable to crack the enemy line with firepower, finally ordered his assault elements to disengage and retire to their night laager east of the hamlet. All of their seriously wounded had already been medevacked on the spot by the C&C Huey on loan from the 174th AHC Dolphins. The aircraft commander was WOl Kenneth W. Johnson, a tough former Airborne sergeant. Johnson and his copilot, WOl Martin H. Wifholm, were plugged into the fire control nets so they could get the trajectories of the arty, tac air, and naval guns firing counterbattery missions against the NVA artillery in the DMZ, and thus work up the safest flight path into the LZ in eastern Nhi Ha. It was real hairy stuff. Since the tac air got most of the enemy’s attention, they went in repeatedly right under the high-drag bombs that the Phantoms had just released.
During one low, fast approach, the door gunner spotted NVA in a bunker about seventy-five meters out on the flank. He could see one NVA’s face through the aperture, and he exclaimed, “Jesus Christ, there they are! I’m going to take ’Em under fire!”
“Don’t shoot!” Johnson shouted back on the intercom. “For some reason they ain’t Marines’ at us, so we don’t shoot at them. Let’s just do our job, get the wounded, and get out of here!”
Five more air strikes hit the western side of Nhi Ha to cover the withdrawal of the two companies. The strikes were conducted in the face of heavy ground fire. Although the NVA had not brought antiaircraft weapons to the village, they did use their AK-47s in mass, producing a screen of fire that the jets had to fly through. It was an effective tactic. During the final strike, a Marine Crusader making its third pass took hits and never pulled up. It went in about twenty-five hundred meters northwest of Nhi Ha on the other side of Jones Creek. The Crusader bounced when it hit, then turned into a ball of fire as it pitched nose first into the ground. The explosion was clearly visible to a lot of grunts, who were stunned and horrified—and incredulous at the bravery of those NVA foot soldiers who had blasted a jet out of the sky.
“Did you see a chute, did you see a chute?” battalion asked urgently on the radio.
“Shit, no, I didn’t see a chute,” answered one dumbstruck officer. “We lost that guy.”
Maybe not. Almost an hour later, the U.S. personnel at Alpha 1, who had binoculars and a commanding view of the battlefield, spotted a lone figure east of the crash site on their side of Jones Creek. They reported on the radio that “he appears to be dazed, he’s kind of wandering around.” There was hope that the pilot had managed a low-altitude ejection. When the FAC diverted to the scene and confirmed the sighting, the C&C Huey immediately contacted the FAC. “We’re comin’ in low and hot, so direct us up.” Using the orbiting Birddog as a beacon, the Huey headed north ten to fifteen feet off the deck. The chopper rose up only to hop over tree lines. Johnson, the pilot, spotted the olive-drab figure in a rice paddy, and he could see that the man was bareheaded and wore no web gear. He did not appear to have a weapon. The figure stopped and looked at the approaching helicopter, and Johnson said on the radio, “We’ve got the pilot in sight. We’re going in to pick him up.”
Approaching, Warrant Officer Johnson had his Huey in a hard deceleration with the nose high before he was close enough to see the man’s black hair and the baggy cut of his fatigues. “That’s a dink, that’s a goddamned dink!” Johnson exclaimed as he pulled up and around. “It’s not the pilot, it’s an NVA. It’s a hard-core NVA and we’re going to engage him.”
The 3d Marines’ headquarters, monitoring the 3-21st Infantry’s command net, broke in, “Don’t shoot him. We’re going to want to take him prisoner.”
“Just what in the hell do you guys expect us to do out here? We’ve got our butts hanging out. We’re going to kill him.”
The Marines responded with a direct order not to shoot the NVA on the grounds that he could have intelligence value. They planned to mount a patrol from Alpha 1 to capture the man. Johnson brought his Huey into a low, tight, clockwise orbit that put the enemy soldier on the door gunner’s side of the ship. The door gunner, Sp4 Wallace H. Nunn, sat behind a mounted M60D equipped with twin, D-handled grips and a butterfly trigger. Nunn, who thought that the NVA was probably a lure to an ambush, spoke to Johnson on the intercom, “They’ve got to be fucking crazy. I can have an accident here, you know.”
“Hold your fire,” replied Johnson.
The ARVN patrol was visible as dots about a klick away as it moved out from Alpha 1. Johnson, also concerned that the NVA was bait, did not want to wait the twenty to thirty minutes it would take the ARVN to reach the scene. That was all the time an NVA unit would need to set up in the hedgerows around the paddy. “Look him over real goddamn close for weapons,” Johnson finally said on the intercom. “We’re gonna go in and get him.”
“This is comin’ nuts!” shouted Nunn.
Specialist Nunn kept his M60 on the NVA until they landed behind the man, at which point he popped the radio cord on his flight helmet and jumped out with the M16 he usually kept behind his seat. The soldier turned to face them with his hands up, and Nunn screamed, “Get the fuck on!” He intended to kill the guy at the first sign of resistance, but the NVA, who looked terrified, obediently trotted toward him and clambered aboard the Huey.
Meanwhile, the search for the pilot of the Crusader had been aborted. Captain Stephen W. Clark of Marine All-Weather Fighter Squadron 235 had been killed in the crash, and was posthumously awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart. The man whom Johnson and his crew picked up was an NVA medic, a deserter who had simply walked south from his unit in the DMZ to find somebody to surrender to. He was in his early thirties and, when questioned in the rear, said that he had been a schoolteacher before being conscripted. He could identify his unit only as the “fourth battalion,” and he was officially passed off as having “no information of tactical value.” Nunn held a .38 against the prisoner’s head during the flight back, but it was an unnecessary precaution. The enemy soldier, squatting on the helicopter floor, was so scared to be airborne that all he could do was stare at the terrain sweeping under them. When the Huey shut down at the 3-21st Infantry CP, the NVA, who was still holding on for dear life, was jerked out roughly and led to Captain Householder, the intelligence officer, who waited beside a dwelling. The NVA pulled North Vietnamese currency from his wallet and tried to press it on Householder. To further prove his sincerity, he reached into a baggy thigh pocket and produced a stick-handled grenade. “I just held that thing up, looked at the helicopter pilot, and smiled,” Householder said later. “He had his dark visor down, so I couldn’t see his eyes, but his mouth dropped open when he realized that the prisoner had been in his chopper with a grenade.”
Captain Leach arrived at Lieutenant Colonel Snyder’s CP in Mai Xa Chanh East during the Nhi Ha engagement. Leach, who had been with Charlie Tiger for more than five months, had managed to miss his company’s first nose-to-nose encounter with the NVA because of the timing of his R and R. In his absence, Charlie Tiger had been shot to pieces. Furious and anxious to rejoin his command, Leach, who was a fiery individual, spoke urgently with Snyder. “Those are my guys. We’re gettin’ in trouble here. This is what it’s all about, and I want to be with ’Em. I trained ’Em. They know me, they work well for me, and I’m responsible for ’Em!”
Lieutenant Colonel Snyder, who had greeted Leach with, “My God, am I glad to see you!” briefed him then from his map. Snyder wanted Leach, who was his most experienced company commander, not only to resume command of Charlie Tiger, but also to act as a task force commander with authority over A and D/3-21 until Nhi Ha had been taken. Snyder, meanwhile, would remain at Mai Xa Chanh East to organize its defenses and ensure that no kinks developed in their lifeline with the 3d Marines. “Okay, Leach, you run that show up there. I’ve got enough problems back here,” he concluded.
Major Yurchak, the operations officer, joked with Leach as he got ready to move out. “I’m going to get out of your way ’cause you love this stuff. This is going to be fun for you!”
Captain Leach, age twenty-nine, had dark hair and intense green eyes and was muscular and animal-like. He was, in fact, the closest thing the battalion had to a war lover. Tattooed on his right shoulder was a Ranger tab over Airborne wings. He walked point on patrols, and carried death cards that congratulated enemy soldiers for having been dispatched by Charlie Tiger.
When the C&C Huey took Leach from Mai Xa Chanh East up to the laager east of Nhi Ha, it landed amid 152mm artillery fire that had begun crashing in from the DMZ. The Huey barely touched its skids to the dirt when Leach clambered out fast and flung himself prone. Everyone was relieved to see him, especially Lieutenant Jaquez, the company FO. Leach joined Jaquez after the shelling ceased and asked to be brought up to date. Jaquez, depressed by the raw brutality of the previous day’s action, was especially disenchanted with Kohl, the acting company commander, although he tried to be circumspect when he told Leach that indecision during the fight may have contributed to the disaster.
Leach got the idea. He found Lieutenant Kohl hunkered down in a bomb crater, and asked him what had happened. “We really got the shit kicked out of us,” Kohl answered.
“Hey, Gerry, listen—we’ve got to get you out of here. You’ve had enough. C’mon, we’re going to get you on a helicopter.”
“Yeah, sir, I think you’re right.”
Leach had not been sure of Kohl’s condition until he gave his defeated answer. “If Kohl had said, ‘Hey, sir, you can’t do that, I gotta stay here,’ I would have said, ‘Fine.’” Leach did not normally reward burnout cases with a chopper ride to the rear, but he knew of Kohl’s decorated service as a platoon leader. “That kid had been shot at and shot at and shot at, and demonstrated his bravery over and over—and when somebody like that looks at you like a whipped dog and doesn’t know what to say, then you get him the hell outta there.”
They didn’t do it smart, Captain Leach thought as he went over the lessons of the ambush with his remaining lieutenants. They should have reconned by fire. They should have had tac air available. The men of Charlie Tiger, who believed themselves to be in the best company in the best battalion in the best brigade (in what was generally acknowledged, however, to be the worst division in Vietnam), were convinced that Nhi Ha would not have been such a black eye had Leach been there. They had absolute faith in him. Leach was from little Fairmont, Minnesota, the son of a laborer. With no immediate interest in college, he went from high school to the U.S. Navy, where he was a boxer and earned appointments to both Annapolis and West Point. He chose the latter and graduated with the USMA Class of 1963. Following jump school and Ranger training, he served as a platoon leader at Fort Lewis before volunteering for Vietnamese language school and a combat assignment. His 1965-66 tour was split between duty as an assistant adviser to the 37th ARVN Ranger Battalion in Quang Ngai Province, and the staff of the ARVN corps headquarters in Da Nang. Assigned next as a company commander at Fort Benning, he immediately volunteered for a second Vietnam tour so he could command a rifle company in combat, which he considered the ultimate experience of any infantry officer.
Captain Leach returned to Vietnam in October 1967 as the assistant S3 of the 3-21st Infantry and took command of Charlie Tiger the following month, after the battalion moved from Chu Lai to FSB Center. He earned his reputation with the troops on one of his first patrols when Sergeant Skinner, the point squad leader, was shot in the head while crossing a footbridge in pursuit of a fleeing VC. The lone VC had been a lure. The trap was a VC squad dug in across the footbridge. Their fire pinned down the lead squad, and Skinner, who was either unconscious or dead, lay out of reach in a pool of blood. Leach’s solution, after deploying the company to provide a base of fire, was to personally run to Skinner across an open paddy, heft the man into a fireman’s carry, and sprint back with bullets kicking up all around him. Skinner was not dead. The round had hit near one ear, followed the curve of the back of his skull, and exited near his other ear. He recovered with nothing worse than hearing damage in one ear.
“From that time on, Captain Leach could do no wrong by me,” said Sergeant Coulthard. Such confidence in his abilities was more valuable to Leach than the BSMv he got for rescuing Skinner, because he intended to reshape Charlie Tiger. The grunts were mostly draftees and the product of soft, unrealistic training. Leach told them that he would be proud to lead NVA soldiers; in comparison to the average GI, they were masters of jungle fighting. “Captain Leach made you do what the dinks did as far as camouflage, stealth, things like that,” recalled Coulthard. “He liked to operate at night. We had to hump, too, and if you were moving in daytime you had to have fresh camouflage on your helmet, your pack, all over. After a couple of hours you’d put on new camouflage made of the vegetation you were in. If you didn’t, he got hot.” The grunts responded. They did not want to be in Vietnam, but they wanted to survive—and superaggressive, superprofessional Captain Leach seemed to be one of the few officers around who knew how to react in tight situations. Leach was personable enough, but he was too hard, intense, and businesslike to have been loved. He was, however, admired. “If Captain Leach told you to march to hell, you would,” said Private Harp. “First, because if he said you could, you knew you could. Secondly, he would be on point, and, finally, if you did not obey his orders he would kick your ass so hard it would make hell look like a cakewalk.”
By 1830 on 3 May, A and D/3-21 had begun to withdraw from Nhi Ha. Specialist Hannan of Alpha Two was moving back beside a machine gunner who carried his M60 across his shoulders in an exhausted pose, when the NVA said good-bye with a burst of AK-47 fire. Exasperated, the machine gunner shouted, “You sonsofbitches!” as he turned on his heel to fire back into the hamlet.
In the night laager, Charlie deployed along the perimeter from twelve to four o’clock, Delta took four to seven, and Alpha occupied seven to twelve. At 1922 and 2035, the NVA shelled the laager—again without producing casualties—with 152mm field guns located in the DMZ. Between shellings, the grunts, occupying the same holes as the night before, ate C rations, reloaded their magazines, removed the safety tape from grenades they had ready in their positions, rearranged trip flares, and wired in claymore antipersonnel mines.
Just before dark, Specialist Hannan watched a silhouette walk into their lines, kneel beside the GIs three holes down—and begin speaking in Vietnamese. The thoroughly disoriented NVA, who was wearing green fatigues and carrying an AK-47, immediately realized his mistake and made a run for it. Though stunned himself, Hannan quickly shouldered his M16 and pulled the trigger on the man at thirty paces. There was a flash of sparks as his shot hit the magazine or metal parts of the man’s weapon, but Hannan lost sight of the figure in the dark. The NVA got away.
At 2120, before the flareship arrived to give the Gimlets some illuminated security, another NVA came out of the dark where B/3-21 was positioned near Lam Xuan West. He was a deserter unconnected with the fight in Nhi Ha. Captain Corrigan, who described the NVA soldier as “young, skinny, and scared,” had the prisoner blindfolded and tied with his arms behind his back until a helicopter came to get him in the morning. He was sent on to the 3d Marines, where it was determined that he “belonged to the 126th Independent Regt, whose mission was to send elements south from the DMZ to mine the Cua Viet River. Intelligence gained from the rallier included infiltration routes, unit base areas, and mining tactics.”
“Our morale was at its lowest and not one man wanted to go back in there,” wrote nineteen-year-old Pfc. Charles C. Cox of D/3-21 in a letter home regarding the third attack on Nhi Ha. The attack commenced at 0936, Saturday, 4 May 1968, after two air strikes and the usual arty prep. “Dad, I was scared to death.…”
Captains Leach and Humphries, who were great friends, had worked up the attack plan during the night, placing Delta on the left flank and Charlie Company on the right. Moving through Nhi Ha, Black Death 6 again had Lieutenant Skrzysowski on the left with Delta One, and Lieutenant Weidner’s Delta Two on the right. Delta Three was in reserve. Something is not right, thought Skrzysowski, surprised that they had received comparatively little fire during their cautious approach to the hedgerow where the attack had bogged down the day before. Did the dinks pull out during the night, or are they going to suck us in the next time we move? Humphries instructed Skrzysowski to advance with his platoon across the clearing and into the tree line on the other side that the enemy had held the day before. Skrzysowski started out of the irrigation ditch running behind the battered hedgerow, then realized that no one else was moving. The grunts could feel that something was wrong, too, but when the lieutenant continued through the hedgerow they reluctantly came along.
The ambush began at 1020.
Lieutenant Skrzysowski was halfway across the clearing with the lead squad in a skirmish line when automatic weapons suddenly erupted from the tree line ahead. One of Skrzysowski’s sergeants was shot, and the grunt to his left, who was coming out of a crater when the shooting started, was knocked back in with a shattering shoulder wound.
Jumping into another shell crater with his radioman and a rifleman, Lieutenant Skrzysowski opened up with his M16 and threw all his grenades. To his rights his M60 gunner had also managed to find cover, and he too opened fire at targets heard but not seen. Most of the NVA seemed to be in a bomb crater at the southern end of the north-south tree line. At least one other enemy soldier was well ensconced among the burial mounds on the platoon’s left flank. The sniper was actually on the other side of the shredded east-west tree line that ran along that edge of the hamlet, and with an automatic weapon and great fields of fire he banged away at anything that moved.
The NVA also lobbed mortar fire on Delta Company.
Thirty minutes into the contact, the FAC ran in a flight of Phantoms on the NVA. Neither the air nor the arty seemed to have much effect on the entrenched enemy, however. Lieutenant Skrzysowski, his ammunition almost exhausted, finally shouted to his platoon, “We can’t sit here! We’ve got wounded! Let’s move!”
It was 1120. Leading the way, an act that earned him a BSMv, Lieutenant Skrzysowski—a blunt, patriotic, twenty-five-year-old college grad from Manchester, New Hampshire—clambered out of his crater after calling for covering fire. He planned to run to the tree line on the left flank, then work his way forward to the NVA tree line to their front. Unfortunately, as soon as Skrzysowski cleared his cover, an AK-47 opened up on him with a burst that seemed to go on forever and blew him into another bomb crater, shredding his rucksack in the process. He was by himself and in excruciating pain. He had taken a round through his upper right thigh and buttocks, and the sight of the meat hanging from his leg made him think he had lost his testicles. His other leg, although not bloody, was paralyzed and numb, and he thought he had also been shot in the spine. He felt as though he’d been hit in the chest with a sledgehammer, but that was actually the least of his injuries: A bullet had hit one of the last magazines left in his bandolier and peppered his chest with metal fragments.
Lieutenant Skrzysowski’s M16 had been hit and rendered inoperable, but he thanked God that he still had his .45-caliber pistol. Groggy with shock, he suddenly realized that his medic was in the crater with him, administering morphine and wrapping his wounds with battle dressings. “Shit, we gotta get you out of here,” the medic said urgently.
“How in the hell did you get out here?” asked Skrzysowski.
“Let’s go,” the medic answered, taking charge.
Crawling out of the crater with rounds cracking over their heads, the medic led the way. Skrzysowski was right behind him, barely able to use his legs to push but able to pull himself along with his hands. Exhausted, he made it back through the hedgerow and into the cover of his platoon’s trench, where he checked his wounds. They were bad, but not as bad as he’d first thought. His testicles were still there, and his back was not hit: The pain in his unwounded left leg was actually from a spinal disc damaged by the weight of his pack when he’d bounced into the crater.
Several men were still pinned down in the killing zone. To get them back, Lieutenant Skrzysowski, immobile in the trench, worked his radio to keep the arty on target while Sergeant First Class Mathis moved among their positions to organize suppressive fires. Under this cover, the men in the killing zone made it back one at a time. Sometime later, after Delta One’s casualties had been moved rearward to Delta Three’s LZ, several GIs from the reserve platoon dropped into the forward trench and told Skrzysowski that they had orders from Black Death 6 to get him on a medevac, too. They carried him back in a poncho, and then hefted him aboard the C&C Huey—which landed despite the latest mortar attack. Skrzysowski was the only casualty on board. It had been two hours since he’d been hit.
Smoke hung in the air from the mortar explosions, as did the smell of gunpowder. The day was scorching hot, the noise of gunfire constant. Sergeant First Class Mathis was in constant motion, checking the platoon positions with his radioman, Cox, crawling behind him on his hands and raw knees. The NVA fire over their heads sounded to Cox like angry hornets, and he made sure to keep his radio antenna pulled down. Mathis and Cox discovered three troopers who had found sanctuary in a bomb crater two or three hedgerows back. They refused to budge. Everyone else was doing his job, to include scared, sweat-soaked Cox, who at one point ended up feeding ammo belts into an M60 whose gunner blazed away like mad. When dirt started popping up behind them, Cox thought a trooper to their rear was firing wild. He suddenly realized that the NVA sniper on the left flank had zeroed in on the M60, and he and the gunner scrambled to a new position along their hedgerow. They resumed firing.
Fifteen minutes after Black Death ran into trouble on the left flank, Captain Leach and Charlie Tiger were engaged on the right by three NVA in an observation post on the near side of the contested clearing. Charlie Tiger GIs killed the NVA with grenades, then Leach’s popular first sergeant, forty-two-year-old Sfc. William R. Brooks, of Morriltown, Arkansas, pulled an AK-47 from the enemy trench and held it up to show the captain. At that moment, Brooks was nailed in the forehead and killed instantly as heavy fire erupted from the NVA positions on the other side of the clearing. Charlie Tiger was at the last hedgerow with Lieutenant Hieb and Charlie One on the right flank, and Staff Sergeant Goad, the acting commander of Charlie Two, on the left. Charlie Three, led by 1st Lt. Dale W. Musser, who had been on an administrative run to the rear when the battle began two days earlier, brought up the rear. Musser was an excellent platoon leader, but Leach had him in reserve for the same reason he’d earlier sent him to the rear: Musser was furious about the booby-trap death of Lieutenant Dunlap of Delta Company. Leach explained that he’d “yanked Musser’s ass out of there to give him time to cool down, but he was still smarting. He was so mad that I was afraid he’d pull a John Wayne. I didn’t want him to get killed, so I put him back in reserve.”
In the first moments of the engagement, Captain Leach, who wore a helmet and flak jacket and was swinging a CARI5, had to kick a couple of GIs in the ass for having hunkered down out of harm’s way. “Start firing your goddamn weapons!” he shouted. “And don’t fire on automatic—fire on semi or you’ll just eat up all your ammo, and we don’t know what the fuck’s in there!”
“When a firefight starts, it’s pandemonium,” recalled Captain Leach. “If you can get your guys just to return fire, you’re doing well. We had guys who never fired their weapons. When a soldier takes fire, the first thing he does is take cover. If you can get that kid to get his goddamn weapon up there and just fire in the right direction, you got it made.”
Having crawled forward to a mound, Captain Leach started pumping away with his CAR 15—until it jammed. He was enraged He was also receiving plunging fire from an NVA whose location he could not figure out. Lieutenant Hieb spotted the NVA in one of the surviving hootches and shouted, “Hey, they’re Marines’ down at you from the rafters!”
“Shoot that sonofabitch because he’s going to kill me!” screamed Leach.
The position was silenced with a LAW, but the fire continued from other entrenched, invisible enemy positions.
Charlie Tiger responded in kind. “We pounded the shit out of ’Em,” said Leach. Helix 1-5 ordered several more Skyhawk strikes, which utilized napalm and five-hundred-pound high-drag bombs. Each pass was made from a different direction so as to give the NVA less opportunity to organize the effective antiaircraft fire they had the day before. When the FAC departed to refuel and rearm with marking rockets, the arty was turned back on. “With all that shit rolling in, the sound level must have been a hundred-and-fifty decibels,” said Private Harp of Charlie One. “I mean your ears hurt.” Like every other man, Harp had found a piece of cover—in his case beside Pope, their machine gunner—and he poured fire across that clearing. They had no specific targets. Harp probably went through seventy-five magazines with his M16. “The receiver group on my rifle got so hot I could hardly hold the damn thing. The whole palm of my hand was blistered. The barrel was pouring off white smoke, and I used three bottles of LSA to keep the bolt from freezing up.” Pope’s M60 consumed ammo with equal vigor, and Harp ran back several times during the fight to get M16 bandoliers for himself and extra machine-gun ammo for Pope. “Pope’s gun literally glowed red from time to time. He burned out the barrel and had to start using his spare.” Harp was scared, hungry, and thirsty. He had run out of water the day before, and he was wobbly in the unrelenting, lip-cracking heat of the day. “All that kept me going was on one of my trips to the CP for ammo I fell in a shell hole with a little green water. I stuck my canteen down in the sandy mud and got about one-third of a canteen of something that was mostly water. Put six iodine tablets in it, shook it up, and tried to chug-a-lug the shit as fast as I could in the hopes that I wouldn’t taste it too much.”
At 1325, Lieutenant Colonel Snyder went airborne over the battle in his C&C Huey. Thirty-five minutes later, Helix 1-7 arrived on station to control the seventh air strike of the day. It lasted twenty-five minutes. Under the cover of the snake ’n’ nape and automatic cannons, Captain Leach sent Lieutenant Hieb and two squads low-crawling across the right side of the clearing, where enemy fire was minimal. If they could blast out a foothold on the other side, they might break the stalemate.
Captain Leach, meanwhile, got on the horn with Black Death 6, whose fires seemed to be straying toward Hieb’s assault. “You gotta watch your fire to your right flank. You got to keep it in front of you because we got those guys up there.” The fire was not adequately shifted. Leach, who had already secured an M16 from a medic, shrugged into the harness of one of his RTOs’ radios—he wanted to move fast without his command group in tow—and started toward Black Death 6 on his hands and knees. His pucker factor was up, but he made it into Humphries’s crater and began pointing out exactly where Delta’s troops should not fire. Leach and Humphries were still talking when a rocket-propelled grenade crashed into the crater some thirty meters to their right, wounding several noncoms who were firing from that position.
In the continuing cacophony, one of Humphries’s medics, Sp4 Rollin D. Davis, twenty, of Grand Junction, Iowa, was killed. Captain Leach radioed ahead before crawling back to the berm where he had left his command group. Lieutenant Hieb called on the company net: He had reached the enemy side of the clearing but was under a massive amount of fire and could make no headway. Leach ordered Hieb to pull back, then asked Helix 1-7 to bring in the tac air to help the two squads break contact. Hieb popped smoke as instructed. Leach, after giving the FAC an azimuth, direction of fire, et cetera, said to him, “Okay, you’re going to be dropping it twenty meters right in front of ’Em, so you got to do it right.”
It was 1604. Lieutenant Hieb, wanting to cover the withdrawal with his CAR 15, sprinted by himself toward the next hedgerow. He stepped in a hole on his way across and fell heavily with his pack, knocking the wind out of himself. He jumped into a thicket of bamboo. The first Phantom made its strafing run a safe distance away, but fhen Hieb, whose ruck was hopelessly tangled in the bamboo, looked up to see the next jet lining up for a run right at his forward location. He couldn’t pull his ruck loose, so he frantically shrugged out of it and left it suspended in the bamboo as he sprinted away. The Phantom released its napalm canisters. Expertly applied, they sucked the oxygen from the air as they drove the NVA to the bottom of their holes, allowing Hieb’s platoon to crawl back without casualties. All that was later found of the lieutenant’s rucksack were a few little melted bits of the aluminum frame.
At 1617, the ninth air strike plastered Nhi Ha. Meanwhile, the C&C Huey, without the colonel, conducted medevacs and ammo drops in Delta Three’s LZ. The Huey came in low and hot each time, with cover fire courtesy of the wounded Sergeant See, who still had two men left in his machine-gun squad, plus a half-dozen anonymous GIs who’d also been detailed to work the landing zone. They fired in the general direction of that invisible, dug-in sniper in the burial mounds on the left flank. The NVA was about a hundred meters away. Every time somebody moved, he fired. After one ammo drop, See, who’d run out to haul the stuff off the open LZ, ended up pinned down behind six cases of machine-gun bullets.
“Goddamnit!” he screamed at his pickup squad, which was not returning fire. “Give me some cover fire, I gotta get out of here!”
The GIs did not raise their heads from their holes. The sniper ceased fire on his own accord. Sergeant See, who was furious, got only apathetic looks from the anonymous GIs as he shouted at them about their inaction. They weren’t fools. They didn’t intend to die in this stupid war.
These GIs were not alone in their attitude. Two men were medevacked during the day with combat fatigue, including a grunt who was so hysterical that it took several men to load him yelling and screaming onto the Huey. The other man crawled back to the LZ quietly and on his own, still wearing his helmet and web gear and dragging his M16. He was crying, “I can’t take it.…I can’t take it.…” The man was a Regular Army sergeant first class. See was shocked, and then angry. “He was the type of guy who was supposed to be hard-core,” See said later. “After all the crap we’d been given by E-7s during our training about how to be a role model—here’s this guy who just became a coward. Everyone wanted to climb on a helo and say the hell with it, but we had a job to do and that’s the way it was.”
At 1830, the C&C Huey was hit by the NVA sniper while it lifted up from the LZ. The pilot lost control of the tail boom, which swung wildly from side to side as the Huey smacked back down on the ground. Sergeant See, who had rolled away from the descending chopper, was joined in a flash behind the cover of his earthen berm by the chopper crew. They were understandably shook up. The first thing they wanted to know was whether the grunts had any extra steel helmets for them. “No, we don’t,” See said with an inward smile at how uptight the airmen were. Within ten minutes, another Huey bounced in and out of the LZ to take aboard the downed crew while the grunts fired away at the burial mounds.
Although few NVA had been seen, fifty-seven were reported killed. Lieutenant Colonel Snyder had several conversations with Captain Leach about what the NVA had in Nhi Ha. Leach kept telling him that they were up against at least a full-strength company, but Snyder replied that it was “not nearly that many,” and that they seemed large in number only “because they’re so well dug in they can move back and forth.” On that they could agree. Their arty and tac air weren’t doing any good against the enemy entrenchments. Finally, at dusk, after nearly nine hours of stalemate, Leach said to Snyder, “Hey, listen, I don’t know how to attack this goddamn thing any way but going right up the center. Now, we’ll go again if you want us to go.”
Two Gimlets had already been killed that day, and thirteen more wounded. Lieutenant Colonel Snyder did not believe that a frontal assault could be successful “at any reasonable cost of casualties.” He told Leach to “pull back to the laager position. We’re going to pound it some more with artillery and air.”
A tenth and final air strike was brought in at 1920 by Helix 1-5 to help Charlie and Delta break contact. But as the two companies leap-frogged back through Nhi Ha by fire teams, the NVA pursued them to the edge of the ville. Red and green tracers crisscrossed in the smoky dusk as troops fired and ran, then fired and ran again. Pandemonium reigned. When they reached the laager, Private Cox was approached by a buddy who exclaimed, “Jesus Christ, Cox, I almost shot you! As we were giving cover fire, you ran right into my sights. Why I stopped pulling the trigger at that time I’ll never know—but you came that close to getting shot!”
It was another long night in the three-company laager. At 0352, shortly after the enemy probed the perimeter with AK-47 fire and grenades, a Charlie Tiger listening post lobbed a few grenades of their own at two NVA who were visible in the paddy around the laager. The NVA went down as if dead, and the LP pulled back on order. At 0405, two more enemy soldiers walked right into Charlie’s line. Specifically, they walked up to Sp4 Bill Dixon of Charlie Two, who was in a three-man position with Privates Fulcher and Fletcher, who were half-asleep behind a paddy dike. Dixon, awake and on watch, was sitting with his M79 when the two NVA, who must have been lost, appeared before him as silhouettes. One knelt down to start speaking to him in Vietnamese. Dixon, who had a shotgun load in his grenade launcher, shot the man in the head at point-blank range. While the other NVA spun away to run, Dixon slapped his hand on Fulcher who, startled awake, had instantly and automatically put his hand on his M16 rifle. “Stay down—there’s another gook out there yet!” shouted Dixon.
The NVA fired his AK-47 as he escaped. When Fulcher exclaimed, “What the hell’s going on?” Dixon answered urgently, “I shot one!”
“Where?” asked Fulcher.
The first illumination round went up then, and Fulcher was shocked to see a nearly decapitated NVA soldier lying within an arm’s length of them. Brains were splattered all over Fulcher’s rucksack, and he barked, “What the hell’ dja let him get that close for?”
Specialist Dixon had not been taken completely by surprise. He had heard the NVA speaking in muffled, definitely non-English tones as they’d approached, but he had assumed that it was the two Puerto Rican GIs in the position to their right who usually conversed in Spanish. The dead man wore black shorts and a gray fatigue shirt. Because he carried binoculars and a brand-new AK-47 with white parachute silk over the barrel, it was conjectured that the man had been an artillery spotter, probably a lieutenant.
Captain Leach, who had some hard words about the one that got away, took the AK-47 to replace his jammed-up CAR 15 and used it during the remainder of the DMZ operation. Afterward it was presented to the Helix FACs as a thank-you and ended up on a plaque in their Chu Lai club. Meanwhile, artillery ilium was being fired. The troops could hear the ascent of each round and then the pop, and they watched each flare sway on its parachute in its slow, smoke-trailing descent. The flares were timed so that as one hit the ground and went out, another would burst above them. If the timing was off, the plunge into darkness was instant and total. Private Fulcher, for one, would shudder at the thought of NVA rushing toward them. “But then another flare would pop and it’d still be blank out across the paddies. It was great having the lights on, as we used to say.”