Alpha Annihilated

AT 0655 ON SUNDAY, 5 MAY 1968, TWO USAF FACs ARrived on station to coordinate the preparatory air strikes for the 3-21st Infantry’s fourth assault on Nhi Ha. This time, two-thousand-pound bombs were to be used. The suggestion to employ such heavy ordnance had come the previous evening when Lieutenant Colonel Snyder had spoken by radio with a frustrated FAC who said, “Let me lay on a couple of sorties tomorrow with two-thousand-pound fuse-delays. They’ll penetrate the ground before they explode. The ground shock is tremendous. If there’s anybody left in those dugouts then, it’ll do ’Em in.”

Lieutenant Colonel Snyder had been enthusiastic about the idea. He had not suggested it himself because he had been unaware that such munitions were available. The FAC went on to advise him that if they used the two-thousand-pounders the men closest to the enemy positions would have to pull back as a safety precaution.

By 0715, Captain Corrigan’s B/3-21, the company closest to Nhi Ha, had withdrawn approximately five hundred meters south of Lam Xuan West. Captain Leach and his three-company task force remained in their well-entrenched laager six hundred meters east of Nhi Ha. Snyder went airborne in his C&C Huey. When the two-thousand-pounders plunged into the hamlet, he had a ringside view of the spectacular subsurface explosions that erupted mushroomlike with much smoke and dirt. The effect was most dramatic at ground level. Even at a safe distance, it was like being in an earthquake. Foxholes seemed to sway and move as the shock wave rolled through, and metal fragments rained down to bounce off a helmet or two. The last bomb fell at 0930, and the ground assault commenced ten minutes later with Captain Leach and Charlie Company advancing toward Nhi Ha behind the artillery prep. Captain Osborn and Alpha moved out behind Charlie Tiger. It took twenty minutes to reach Nhi Ha, then ten more minutes to cautiously cross the first hundred meters inside the ville. At that point, Charlie halted and Alpha leapfrogged past to continue the assault up to the clearing that was the hamlet’s no-man’s-land. Despite the obvious destruction caused by the blockbusters, one lieutenant said later that “no one was optimistic that this was going to be a picnic.”

By 1040, two of Alpha’s platoons, expending ammunition freely as they reconned by fire, had low-crawled across the clearing without contact. Joined shortly by Charlie, both companies proceeded to sweep the western half of Nhi Ha. The troops were alert and cautious as they walked through the rubble. When an NVA soldier in a spiderhole tried to raise his AK-47 through his overhead cover, a sergeant in Charlie Tiger reached down and jerked the weapon out of the man’s hands before dispatching him with a burst from his M16. There were no other live NVA visible. At 1132, after a lot of grenades had been wasted on a lot of empty entrenchments, Leach reported to Snyder that Nhi Ha had been secured. Along the way, the three bodies that Charlie Tiger had left behind three days earlier were recovered. “They were totally destroyed,” recalled Lieutenant Smith of Alpha Annihilator. “It was one of those times that you swallow real hard because if you don’t you’re going to throw up. Some people did.” The bodies had swollen and turned black, and the stench was terrible. Their bloated faces were unrecognizable. Their mouths were frozen open in death. Flies covered them, and their wounds were alive with maggots. “God, I hate fucking maggots,” said Private Harp, who helped to gingerly place the torn-up remains into body bags. “Somebody grabbed one by his pistol belt, and the body broke in half. The bones in his rib cage popped out. I didn’t know whether to puke, cry, or hide, so instead I just went back to work. You just kind of disconnect and do what you have to do. It wasn’t really me picking up that mangled mess, it was me watching me. I was just an observer to someone else’s nightmare.”

Thanks to tac air and the blockbusters, Nhi Ha looked like Hiroshima. Lieutenant Colonel Snyder instructed Captain Leach to hold the village with Charlie Tiger and Captain Os-born’s Alpha Annihilator, which would remain in his task force and under his command. Captain Humphries’s Delta Company was detached and ordered to occupy Lam Xuan East as the battalion reserve. Captain Corrigan’s Bravo Company, never part of the task force, reoccupied Lam Xuan West. Sections of 81mm mortars from HHC/3-21 were attached to both Leach and Corrigan, and resupply was carried out during the afternoon. Water, always in short supply, was obtained from bomb craters. Nhi Ha smelled of death, and there were plenty of small, stiff enemy corpses to be seen as the troops began selecting their positions and digging in. There were NVA who’d been burned black by napalm, and NVA whose heads had been removed standing up in caved-in, chest-deep trenches. A grunt described one of the more memorable corpses, which was found “down in a bomb crater about thirty feet deep. He was floating in the water and had turned the same putrid green color as the water. The body was swollen to about twice normal size. Looked like something from a Hollywood horror movie—I mean the guy did not look real.”

The official body count was forty-four. To celebrate the victory, Major Yurchak, the S3, had the bell removed from the village’s Catholic church in the western half of Nhi Ha. “That’ll be our war booty—whenever the Third of the Twenty-first has a reunion, we’ll ring the bell!”

The bell, which bore the raised inscription NHI-HA-1925, made it back to FSB Center but was subsequently donated to an orphanage in Tarn Ky. Meanwhile, Captain Leach christened his patrol base in Nhi Ha “Force Tiger.” Leach set Charlie Company in along the northern half of the perimeter and gave Alpha the southern half. As the men dug in they were subjected to sniper fire, which slowed the process as GIs knelt to use their E-tools instead of standing up to dig. Although many of the NVA entrenchments were still intact, the GIs did not use them because, as one grunt put it, “the little man would have known exactly where to put his incoming.” Because of the threat of enemy artillery fire, timber and masonry from the hamlet’s blown-down buildings were used to reinforce foxholes and provide overhead cover. One trooper joked to the new guys in his platoon, who were taking turns digging in, “No shift for me—give me that shovel! I’ve been here longer than some of you guys, and I know enough that I like my hole in the ground real well. One of my favorite things when I’m getting shot at is a hole!”

The NVA did not shell Nhi Ha during Force Tiger’s first night there, but it was a long, hairy night nonetheless—especially for the fire-team-sized listening posts that the two companies established after dark for early warning. The LPs were set up in bomb craters. Each had a starlight scope, as well as a sack of hand grenades and an M79 to cover their withdrawal if detected by the NVA. At 2205 on 5 May, the first sighting was made east of Nhi Ha: seventeen NVA moving south across the paddies and sand dunes two klicks away. Artillery fire was worked along their route. Thirty minutes later, a company of NVA, two hundred strong, was spotted two klicks to the west on the other side of Jones Creek, and another fire mission was initiated.

Artillery fire echoed through the pitch-black night.

At 0050 on 6 May, a Charlie Tiger LP spotted five NVA moving toward Force Tiger in a slow, cautious fashion. An hour later, two more NVA with AK-47s were seen walking right at the LP. The GI with the M79 waited until they were within fifteen feet before he fired them up with a canister round. One NVA was blown away, and the grunts in the LP returned to the perimeter. There was an uneasy lull punctuated by an enemy soldier with a captured M79 who fired on Charlie Tiger.

At 0425, contact was made where Sergeant Stone, a squad leader in Alpha Three, had established an LP in a big crater in the dark, unfamiliar lunarscape. The LP was within a hundred meters of their line. Stone had been instructed to go out farther, but as he told his grunts, “No way, you know, we’ll never make it back.” Stone, awakened by Private King, whom he was to replace on watch, had just edged up to the lip of their crater when he saw two NVA with AK-47s and khaki fatigues coming in their direction. One had halted, and the other was catching up with him. They were only twenty meters away. Stone could see them clearly in the eerie white light of the latest illumination round, but he had not asked King where the detonators were for the two claymore mines they had set up in front of the crater.

Sergeant Stone woke his four men one at a time, whispering to each as he began to stir, “Be quiet—don’t move—we got gooks right in front of us.” He bent over King and asked, “Where’re the detonators?” King said they were by the tree limb lying in front of their crater. Stone, feeling around with one hand while he kept his head down, could not find them. Jesus, they’re gonna be in the hole with us pretty quick, Stone thought as he broke squelch on his radio handset to indicate that they were in trouble. He tried to whisper in response to the CP’s questions about how many NVA there were, how far away they were, et cetera, but he finally signed off with a hushed, “They’re too close, I can’t talk,” and placed the handset aside as he went back up with a fragmentation grenade. He lobbed the grenade toward the two NVA he had seen—he could sense others out there—then opened fire with his M16 on automatic. He slid back down, ejected the empty magazine, and fumbled for a fresh one in his bandolier. He was so scared that he put the magazine in upside down. He finally thumped it in correctly, then realized that his four charges—all new replacements—were still lying where he had awakened them, doing nothing more than looking up at him. He had told them not to move, and they were following orders. Stone screamed at them, “Get up and shoot, get up and shoot!”

Specialist Four Allan G. Barnes did most of the shooting as he lobbed M79 rounds toward a muzzle flash behind a tree stump. Reloading, Barnes turned to Stone, “How’s that?”

“Closer, Barnes, closerl” Stone answered.

Each time Stone rose up to fire his M16, the NVA behind the stump would also pop up with his AK-47 on full auto. They were firing right at each other, but they kept missing. Barnes found the claymore detonators and blew one of the mines, but it had no visible effect. Stone decided they’d better pull back before it was too late. Wasting no time with a radio call to the CP to request permission to withdraw, Stone simply shouted at his team, “Okay, you guys take off. Go for the perimeter. Me and Barnes will cover for you, then we’re comin’!”

Sergeant Stone squeezed off another M16 magazine and Barnes another M79 round as the three replacements clambered over the back side of the crater, then they dropped, reloaded, and started after them. They were scared and moving fast, and they left their radio and grenades. Clearing the crater, they were stunned to see the three greenseeds lying prone on the other side. Stone shouted at them to get moving. Running for the perimeter, they hollered their catchall password—“ALPHA GIMLETS!”—and screamed at the men on the line not to open fire. This was a real concern as RPGs had begun flashing past them. No one was hurt, though, and no one fired. As soon as the men from the LP were safely inside the perimeter, their platoon leader, Lieutenant Kimball, hustled over to Stone and asked, “What’s out there, what’s out there?”

“There’s gooks all over out there!”

Referring to Captain Osborn by his call sign, Lieutenant Kimball said, “Cherokee says he might send you back out, so keep your squad together.”

“Shit, we ain’t going back out,” exclaimed Stone. “There is gooks all over out there!”

“Oh, no problem, no problem—”

“Well, don’t tell me to go back out. We ain’t going back out. We’re a listening post, and I already toldja: They’re out there!”

The LP was not reestablished. Later, when it was light, a patrol sent out to retrieve the radio from the LP’s crater discovered a slit trench behind the tree stump. The three badly wounded, barely moving NVA in the trench were finished off at point-blank range, and two AK-47s and an RPG launcher were recovered, along with a blood-spattered machine gun found in the open paddy behind the trench.

Meanwhile, at about 0500 on Charlie Tiger’s side of the perimeter, Private Harp of Charlie One, occupying the center of the line, spotted several NVA on the left flank directly ahead of Charlie Two, which at that moment was reporting movement somewhere to the front. The NVA were close, and Harp could see their silhouettes—they were wearing Russian steel helmets—as they started to set up a machine gun at the lip of a crater. Harp’s squad leader, Specialist Burns, was in position with him but could make out nothing where Harp pointed. Burns whispered to Harp that he was “full of shit, as usual,” but Harp pressed his squad leader to let him “fire a ’79 round on their position to pinpoint them for the other platoon.”

Burns considered Harp a punk and a screwup, and his response was, “You stupid shit, if you fire the ’79 it’ll give our position away.”

“They’re pointing a machine gun at us, Burns—they have some idea where we are. Besides, a ’79 gives away a lot less than a ’16 would, and I can’t reach them with a frag.” Somebody in the dugout suggested that Burns call the CP to advise them of the situation and let them decide. When Burns did, Captain Leach told him to recon by fire with an M79. Before letting Harp shoot the grenade launcher, Burns barked in a low, angry whisper, “If the captain wants to use a ’79, it’s smart. If you do, it’s stupid. Fuck you, Harp.”

The M79 round exploded within ten meters of the NVA machine gun, which opened fire in response. Charlie Two actually had about twenty-five NVA to its front, as did Charlie Three on the right flank. As illum and HE were delivered by artillery—the NVA could be heard screaming as the shells exploded—individual GIs engaged individual NVA with M16s, M60s, and M79s. Hey, we can finally see the sons of bitches, thought Sgt. Roger Starr of Charlie Three, who was too excited to be scared as he pumped M16 bursts at NVA maneuvering forward from burial mound to burial mound. They were fully exposed in the flarelight. Starr saw several bareheaded NVA, who were swinging AK-47s and wearing shorts, go down in his rifle sights, and when he couldn’t make out any live ones, he shot the dead ones again. Some were less than fifty meters away. There were, however, a lot of muzzle flashes and RPG sparks in return. Sergeant Starr’s shooting gallery ended abruptly when a small, buckshot-sized piece of metal from an explosion he wasn’t even aware of pierced his right eye like a hot needle. The pain was sudden and intense, and it immediately rendered him completely blind as his uninjured left eye watered up, too. Starr, clutching his face, dropped to the bottom of his machine-gun team’s dugout and screamed for a medic. There was little bleeding as the medic taped pads over both of Starr’s eyes. Starr, who had been in the company for ten months, figured that his right eye would heal up fine—he was wrong, the eye was permanently blind—and as he was led back to the company CP all he could think was, This is the trip back home!

The NVA, crawling in the shadows, pulled back at 0530 but, apparently reinforced, they came back for more thirty minutes later. The final cost was two Americans and one Kit Carson scout wounded; the NVA lost thirty-four soldiers and sixteen weapons. Trapped behind burial mounds, the last NVA were killed after the sun came up. “It was a goddamn turkey shoot,” said Captain Leach, who moved elements of Charlie Two out into the paddies on the flanks to keep the NVA pinned down while Charlie One and Three picked them off from the front. “We were just killin’ ’Em—we were Marines’ the shit out of ’Em—but they fought to the last man. That took a lot of guts.” The fight finally boiled down to one NVA behind a burial mound, and two more in a bomb crater. At that point, Specialist Burns earned the Silver Star when he muttered something to the effect of “Fuck this shit,” and launched an impatient charge on the NVA in the crater. “Burns ran straight at them,” said Private Harp. “He caught the first NVA with a single shot from his M16. Apparently he thought the other one was already dead, because he just started walking toward their crater.” A Chicom came flying out of the hole and Burns backpedaled a few steps before falling backward into another crater. “Now Burns was really pissed. He jumped in the hole with the dink and shot him or stuck him, or both. I’m not sure. Burns was so pissed off by then he was liable to have ate him.”1

Captain Leach shouted at everyone to cease firing on the sole survivor behind the burial mound, and he had his Kit Carson scout attempt to talk the man into surrendering. Meanwhile, Sergeant Coulthard of Charlie Three was joined in his position by Specialist Green, a machine gunner. Green borrowed his M16 and sighted in on the last-stand position. Green was a tough, stocky GI from Alabama described by Coulthard as “a good old boy who enjoyed gettin’ it on with the NVA.” When the enemy soldier answered the calls to surrender by rearing up with his arm back to fling another Chicom, Green squeezed off a single round. The NVA had a rag of a bandage around his head. The bandage went flying as Green’s shot blew off the top of his head. “Who the hell shot him?” Leach exploded. Green theatrically blew smoke away from the rifle barrel, and answered, “I did. I’m not going to fuck around and get somebody killed up here.”

On Monday, 6 May, Lieutenant Colonel Snyder instructed Captain Osborn to conduct a reconnaissance in force along the enemy’s route of withdrawal. The immediate target of the sweep was Xom Phuong, twelve hundred meters northwest of Nhi Ha on the eastern bank of Jones Creek. A raised footpath connected Nhi Ha with the southern tip of Xom Phuong. The terrain in between was wide open, and Captain Leach, who was to remain in position at Force Tiger, was convinced that the order to cross such vulnerable terrain was “very poorly conceived.” Noting that he “didn’t want to bad-mouth Snyder,” whom he respected, Leach added that “we never had the combat support wired before Osborn went out. We had no tac air on call, and we didn’t even have a good target list for our artillery fire support plan. I talked with Snyder about this, saying, ‘Our mission is to defend, so let’s do our reconnaissance, let’s start patrolling at night and setting up ambushes along the hedgerows and along the creek bed because we know that’s the way they’re coming down.’ Instead, Osborn was going right across the open, and my question was, ‘Why in the hell are we doing this?’”

The mood in Alpha Annihilator was extremely uptight as the men saddled up. The squad leaders in Alpha Two had a heated debate about whose turn it was to be on point. Specialist Four Sydney W. Klemmer, who was in the squad that lost the argument, told his good friend Sergeant Bulte, who was in a different squad, “I don’t like this. I don’t like this at all. We know they’re out there.”

Bulte was angry. He was also very concerned for Klemmer. “Just keep your head down,” he replied.

The sweep commenced at 1330 with Lieutenant Smith’s Alpha Two on the left flank and Lieutenant Kimball’s Alpha Three on the right. Captain Osborn moved in their trace, keeping his newest platoon leader, Lieutenant Simpson, in reserve with Alpha One. The well-spoken Osborn was a handsome Texan who had been awarded a Silver Star for the body count his company had run up when attached to the division cavalry squadron in the Que Son Valley. Despite such accolades from above, there were grave doubts about the captain in the rank and file. “Osborn blundered into stuff,” was how the battalion operations officer put it. Osborn was, in fact, a quartermaster officer involuntarily detailed to the infantry. He had not asked to command a grunt company in combat, and young, inexperienced, and unsure of himself, his command style was harried and overbearing. He never listened, and he never seemed to learn from his mistakes. His troops hated him. His lieutenants resisted him. Lieutenant Smith had frequent shouting matches with Osborn over the radio and would “wind up doing the normal tricks,” such as pretending that transmissions were garbled or giving short answers that failed to provide a clear picture of what was happening. In a letter to his wife, Smith wrote that Osborn “is not too swift. He gives me a case of the ass just about every day. It’s bad enough fighting the elements without putting up with an Old Man that doesn’t really know what he’s doing.”

“Alpha Company had a reputation in the battalion for always being on its ass, which was a goddamn shame because Osborn’s soldiers were good kids,” said Captain Leach. “They were just under bad leadership.”

As the sweep kicked off across the paddies between Nhi Ha and Xom Phuong, Lieutenant Smith shared a grimace with Lieutenant Kimball. “This is going to be fun,” Smith said disgustedly. “This is going to be crazy.’” The day was hot and bright, and their assault line was well spaced because of the openness of the terrain. Smith’s left flank was bounded by Jones Creek and was relatively secure (Barracuda had moved a platoon up on the other side), but Kimball was extremely concerned about the tree line that paralleled their line of advance on the right. Both lieutenants were concerned about the tree line that ran across the far end of the paddy, shielding Xom Phuong, which lay some two hundred meters on the other side. The village cemetery was on the near side of the tree line. The paddies were dry and hard, full of golden, thigh-high rice that was ready for harvest.

Alpha Annihilator was still more than a hundred meters from the cemetery when someone spotted an NVA sprinting rearward from an individual burial mound ahead of the rest. The GIs blazed away at the man as Smith and Kimball, convinced that an ambush force was waiting in the tree line, quickened their pace toward the cover of the mounds. The running soldier had been a lure, however. As the assault line approached the mounds, an enemy machine gun opened fire on Alpha Three from an inconspicuous hole dug in the forward slope of one of them. The enemy gun crew was inside the earthen hump. Sergeant Stone’s squad, deployed across Alpha Three’s front, dropped along a paddy dike while the other two squads in column behind it found cover of their own. The platoon sergeant, Staff Sergeant Dale, was lying behind the dike to Stone’s right. Dale shouted instructions to Specialist Henry, their machine gunner, who engaged the NVA bunker with his M60 while his assistant gunner, Private Melindez, fired two LAWs at the mound. Each time Melindez rose up to fire, Stone and his squad increased the volume of their covering fire.

Melindez put both LAWs right into the hole. The enemy fire ceased, then an NVA appeared, staggering toward the tree line behind the burial mounds. Everyone blasted away at him as Staff Sergeant Dale, just off the radio, shouted at Stone to assault the bunker with his squad. “Jesus Christ, this is looking right into the gun,” Stone yelled back. He was very concerned that the bunker might still be occupied. “Call Cherokee back and tell him to send a squad from Second Platoon up to the bunker on the left flank! They’re already over to that side!”

Surprisingly, Captain Osborn agreed. He instructed Lieutenant Smith to conduct the flanking maneuver in support of Alpha Three. Smith, who had halted Alpha Two when Alpha Three was engaged, was behind a dike with his RTO and the left flank squad. He moved up to Sgt. Thomas F. Crews’s squad, which was deployed across their front, to lead the rush into the cluster of mounds ahead. At twenty-five, Terry Smith was known for such up-front leadership. He was a big, strong country boy from Galena, Illinois, who had grown up toting hay bales. He enlisted for OCS after graduating from college because he figured that the draft was bound to get him. He had been in Vietnam for three months. “As Smith would say, he’d rather be back home with his wife, seeing his baby son for the first time,” a fellow lieutenant observed. “But he also said that he was paying his debt back to the country, and when the shit hit the wall he was right up there, front and center.”

It was about a hundred feet to the next burial mound, and Lieutenant Smith sprinted toward it by himself. He wanted to see what kind of position and view the mounds would offer to their flanking maneuver.

Smith was shot before he could reach the mound. The round, which came from the right, caught Smith in the right thigh about two inches above the knee, and exited with a hot, painless flash that spun him around and knocked him down. The bullet hole was small, but the exit wound on his inner thigh was massive.

Lieutenant Smith lost his helmet but kept a grip on his CAR 15 as he crawled past the mound to his left and sought cover behind the mound directly ahead of him. Smith was still trying to figure out what had happened to him when an NVA gun crew in the mound to his left, undetected until that moment, opened fire across his platoon’s front. The firing hole was concealed by a big, battered rice pan that lay halfway up the slope of the mound. The NVA were firing right through the thatch pan.

Lieutenant Smith, stunned that the NVA would so desecrate a grave, was twenty feet from the bunker’s blind side. Before Smith could do anything, Sp5 Terrance W. Allen, the gung-ho machine-gun team leader in Alpha Three, suddenly ran toward him from the right flank, shouting, “I’ll get it, Lieutenant—I’ll get it!”

Specialist Allen had a grenade in his hand. Smith, screaming, “Get down, get down, you idiot!” watched Allen, who was either overly excited or confused about where the firing hole was. He jumped right in front of the rice pan and was immediately blown backward by a burst across his stomach.

“No, no, no!” Smith roared.

Allen was moaning terribly as Lieutenant Smith, enraged, pulled a fragmentation grenade from his web gear, crawled to the side of the burial mound, reached around, and threw it in. He quickly rolled away. The grenade went off with a muffled boom. Smith always carried four grenades—two frags and two smokes—and he pulled the pin on his second frag, rolled over to the mound again, and tossed it inside. The bunker fell silent. Smith wanted Sergeant Crews’s squad to take advantage of the situation and move up to his position so they could start their flanking maneuver. Smith urgently motioned to Crews.

“I wanted him to crawl, but damnit—damnit—they got up and did an assault, which totally blew my mind,” recalled Smith. “Crews came across that damn killing zone with his squad, and they were firing every time their left foot hit the ground—just like they were taught in basic training. I couldn’t believe they did that.” Short, stocky Sergeant Crews, age twenty-five, who spoke with a slow Alabama drawl, was one of the platoon’s old-timers and a good squad leader. “He misunderstood what I wanted him to do. I didn’t have my radioman at that moment, and Crews didn’t have a radio. It was mostly hand signals and shouting, and shouting was useless because of the noise.”

Sergeant Crews was mortally wounded in the sudden eruption of fire from the other camouflaged, previously silent positions among the burial mounds. The rest of the squad members rushing forward with him over the cover of their dike were also dropped by the sudden wall of fire. Most were wounded, but Bulte’s worried buddy Klemmer, along with Sp4s John A. Johnson and Richard F. Turpin, were either killed outright or mortally wounded. They went down right before Smith’s eyes, even as he frantically screamed at them to get down and crawl. “If they had crawled forward we could have gotten in among the burial mounds and beaten those goddamn dinks,” Smith recalled. “It was terrible. It was defeat. I felt like a failure. Before, I had really felt that I could go through the whole damn war and not get hurt. I was gung-ho and confident. I didn’t take unusual chances. I used my head, I thought. I can’t believe I let my men get in that position. I got them killed in a way that should never have happened.”

Although Lieutenant Smith was awarded a BSMv for his bravery, he would never forgive himself for his perceived failure. Smith was alone among the enemy positions, except for the gut-shot, mortally wounded Allen, who was screaming, “Put a bandage on me, put a bandage on me!”

“Shut up, we’ll get one on you,” Smith answered. “Just shut up.”

The NVA fire had grown in intensity from the right flank—Smith had no idea what was going on over there—and, in response, he could see one of his GIs behind a dike prepare to fire a LAW. The LAW malfunctioned. It would not fire. “Shit, this is useless,” Smith muttered. He grabbed hold of the dying Allen and, pushing with his good leg, started back across the clearing on his belly. “We were in that field of fire. If you stuck your head up, you were dead.” The NVA were lobbing in mortar rounds, 82mm stuff, and Smith took a fragment in his left leg. It was red-hot. He could feel it. His bladder was bursting, and he pissed in his pants. He didn’t care. Someone crawled up to him, grabbed Allen by the shoulder straps of his web gear, and said he would take over. Smith kept crawling rearward by himself. “I absolutely went into shock. I thought I was stronger than that. I muttered to myself what a bad soldier I was—ineffective—I got too many people killed. I muttered all kinds of things. I totally lost control.”

Staff Sergeant Dale of Alpha Three, a stunned witness to the massacre of Alpha Two on the left, kept Sergeant Stone and his men firing forward from the prone positions they had assumed along their paddy dike. Dale, a stocky, confident, twenty-six-year-old career NCO, was on his second tour, but he had been with Alpha Annihilator for only about two weeks. Dale’s RTO, Specialist Woodward, kept shouting at him about the tree line that ran down the length of their exposed right flank. “Don’t you think we need to put out some security? We need to put out some security.…You better put out some security!”

Specialist Woodward suddenly began shouting, “They’re comin’ up on the right! They’re comin’ up on the right!”

It was 1444. The figures coming out of the trees wore web gear and green fatigues, and some had steel helmets. They advanced at a trot in a loose, well-spaced skirmish line.

“Are those ARVN?” someone shouted.

The distinctive cracking of AK-47s was heard above the general roar. “Those are goddamn NVA!” someone else bellowed.

The result was pandemonium. Staff Sergeant Dale, given his orders by radio from Osborn—who was retreating with his command group at that moment—shouted for everyone to pull back and jumped up to run with most of the troopers along the dike. Sergeant Stone was not one of them. Half his squad had taken off with Dale, but Stone and one of his team leaders, Sp4 Ron Nahrstadt, ended up scurrying over a dike to their left that offered some protection from the overwhelming fire on the right. Moving low to the ground, they had yet to see any enemy soldiers. There was a lull in the fire. Stone rose up slightly to look back over the dike—and there was an NVA standing less than ten meters in front of him. The enemy soldier, who had an AK-47, wore a bush hat that sported a red star. He was looking down at one of Stone’s men, Sp4 Allen A. Straus, who lay facedown and unmoving in one of the furrows of what had been a garden. Stone hadn’t even known that Straus had been hit. He appeared to be dead. He was. His body was later recovered from that spot.

Lying prone behind the dike, Sergeant Stone quickly sighted his M16 on the NVA’s chest and dropped him with a single shot.

Sergeant Stone, twenty-one, was a farmer’s son from Kearney, Nebraska, who had been in Vietnam for more than seven months. He was an excellent squad leader. As soon as the first NVA went down, Stone saw a bareheaded NVA rise up from a position about twenty meters away and to the right of the first one. The enemy soldier was trying to spot him, but after Stone squeezed off another carefully aimed shot, the head went down and stayed down. A third NVA suddenly stood up. He was farther away, perhaps forty meters, and was in the open, looking around with his AK at the ready. Stone dropped him with a body shot. The NVA were too close for him to miss.

Specialist Nahrstadt’s rifle jammed, and he shouted urgently, “Should I throw a grenade? Should I throw a grenade?”

“Yeah, throw a grenade, throw a grenade!”

Nahrstadt pitched one over the dike—and was spotted by two NVA who launched a running, shouting charge right at Stone and Nahrstadt. Dirt sprayed across Stone’s face from rounds striking the dike, but he stayed calm, remained prone, and increased his rate of fire. One of the NVA went down. The other disappeared in the furrows that ran up to the dike in neat rows. Stone couldn’t see any other GIs around them, and he shouted to Nahrstadt, “We gotta get outta here!”

“What about Alderson?” Nahrstadt asked.

“Where is he?” asked Stone, looking around anxiously.

Stone spotted Alderson—the twenty-five-year-old team leader in his squad who’d frozen up the first day in Nhi Ha because he was so uptight about his pregnant wife back in Texas. He was lying along their dike, just on the other side of Nahrstadt. Alderson, seriously wounded and unconscious, was barely breathing. Stone told Nahrstadt to take his M16. Nahrstadt answered, “It’s jammed, too!”

“We gotta get outta here,” Stone said again to Nahrstadt, indicating that they had no choice but to leave Alderson.

Alderson died there amid the rice stalks.

“You go—I’ll cover ya!” Stone shouted, and Nahrstadt took off, the NVA firing at him as if in a shooting gallery. Nahrstadt hit the dirt, then it was Stone’s turn. He made it the twenty or so meters to Nahrstadt before he too dropped down, losing his helmet in the process. Nahrstadt took off again. Stone retrieved his steel pot and ran up to where Nahrstadt had flung himself down. He lost his helmet again. He scooped it back up—he wasn’t going to let go of it. This might just be the time it saves me, he thought. He was so shook, though, that he never thought to buckle the chin strap. Continuing to leapfrog toward the rear, Stone was firing cover for Nahrstadt’s next move when he glimpsed his greenseed grenadier, Specialist Barnes, running in the same direction as they were. Barnes was closer to the NVA on the right, and he was yelling like crazy as he ran. Barnes suddenly went down as though he’d been hit. Stone, not seeing him reemerge from the rice, ran to where he thought Nahrstadt had ducked. Nahrstadt was not there. God, where’s he at? Stone wondered. Well, I’m on my own now.

Nahrstadt made it to safety.

Barnes, unseen in the rice, was dying or already dead. Sergeant Stone, meanwhile, could see a machine gun atop a burial mound toward the rear, but not the face of the gunner. “Who are you?” he bellowed. “Who are you?” If there was an answer, he could not hear it over the roar of fire. All he could see was the gunner waving at him to come on in. Fearing that it was a trap, Stone cautiously worked his way closer. When he saw that the soldier behind the M60 was black, he let out a sigh. Well, that ain’t no NVA, he thought. Moving past the M60 gunner, who was from Alpha Two, Stone found the CP group flattened behind the raised footpath on the left flank. Captain Osborn immediately asked him, “Where’s Lieutenant Kimball—where is everybody?”

“I don’t know,” answered Sergeant Stone. “For all I know, they’re all dead. They give the word to pull back, and when they said pull back, Sergeant Dale and them up and took off!”2

Captain Osborn was finally able to get Lieutenant Kimball on the radio. Kimball was still up on the right flank. He was trying to call for artillery when his transmission was cut off. Lieutenant Kimball and his RTO, Sp4 Curtis E. Bandy, had just been killed. Bill Kimball, a tall, handsome blond, had been in Vietnam for three months and had been wounded in the Que Son action. He was another OCS citizen-soldier—he had a wife waiting for him back in New Jersey—and a fun-loving extrovert who had been well thought of in his platoon. He had learned fast. He always listened to his grunts. Posthumous awards, especially for officers, seem to take on a life of their own, so Kimball’s Silver Star citation may or may not be an accurate reconstruction of his last moments: “… Lieutenant Kimball courageously charged an enemy bunker, killing five enemy soldiers. He then proceeded to another position when he became wounded in the right arm.…While his men were maneuvering back, he courageously remained in an exposed position, placing accurate devastating fire on the enemy.… While performing this unselfish act, Lieutenant Kimball was mortally wounded…”

Alpha Three, completely disorganized, still had men pinned down on the right flank, including Sp4 Bill Eakins, who, al though wounded in the back, had tackled a panicked soldier and calmed him down in a crater. Also stranded was Sp4 Thomas E. Hemphill, a grenadier who had jumped in another crater with one of the replacements. The enemy fire was ringing right over their heads. The new man, who was petrified, kept asking what he should do. Hemphill, a country boy with a Georgia accent, told him to keep his head down, adding, “but if anybody comes over that hole, you shoot the sorry thang!” Hemphill, keeping his own head down, lobbed about fifteen M79 rounds toward the tree line on the right. There was a lull then, and he heard movement in the next crater over. He hollered to ask who it was. Luckily, it was some of his buddies, so Hemphill and his greenseed scrambled into the position with them. One of Hemphill’s best friends, David Betebenner, was among those in the crater. His steel pot had a hole in it. He’d been shot in the head and was unconscious and barely breathing. Betebenner, a soft-spoken, deeply religious man, had been up firing his M16 when he’d been hit. “It upset me real bad,” Hemphill remembered. “I cried for a minute—I did. He was a good friend of mine. He was a good old fella. He had a little girl.…”

No one knew what had happened to the rest of the platoon. They decided they had to pull back to the left. After throwing a smoke grenade in that direction, they ran through the colored smoke as cover and made it back to the black machine gunner on the mound. David Betebenner was dead when they moved out. They left his body in the crater. “I closed myself out to any new people that come in then,” said Hemphill. “You were friendly to ’Em and helped ’Em out, but I never got close to ’Em. You didn’t want to get close to somebody who could get killed. It was like losing a brother.”

Staff Sergeant Dale was shot in the back during the retreat. He went down with a gaping exit wound in his chest, and two grunts dragged him to safety. The NVA swarming through Alpha Three came on toward Sergeant Bulte and his squad on Alpha Two’s right flank. The enemy soldiers screamed and popped up to fire AK-47 bursts to cover one another as they advanced from crater to crater. Bulte’s squad was not returning fire. The grunts were as low as they could get behind their own paddy dike. The air was electric with enemy fire. They didn’t know what to do. Bulte shouted at his men to pull back to the raised footpath on the left flank, and by the time he himself made it to the safer side of the footpath he had lost touch with everyone in his squad except his radioman and one of his riflemen.

“My guys were absolutely scared to death,” Bulte recalled. “They were just running for their lives. It was complete havoc. It was out of control.”

Clambering over the footpath, Sergeant Bulte swung his M16 back the way he had come—and was horrified to see Doc Richards of Alpha Three lying out there near a group of enemy soldiers. One leg was almost completely blown off below the knee, and he was waving an arm and shrieking, “Please, please help me … save me … help me …” Sergeant Bulte, a quiet, intelligent twenty-three year old, dropped all his gear except his M16 and a bandolier of ammunition and; when there was a lull in the fire, he rushed back over the footpath, weaving his way toward Doc Richards in a low crouch. Bulte dropped beside Richards just as the NVA began firing at him. When the roar eased off, he grabbed the medic by the back of his pistol belt and carried him like a suitcase. He’d made it only ten to fifteen meters before they started taking more fire. Bulte was too tired to move Richards any farther. He needed help. He told the medic that he was going to run back and get some of the men who were covering them.

Sergeant Bulte didn’t believe he could make it back again. Doc Richards saw the doubt in his eyes. “Don’t leave me!” he pleaded. “Don’t leave me! Will you come back for me?” Bulte felt guilty as he promised Richards that, yes, he would come back. Bulte ran to the raised footpath. He didn’t know most of the GIs there—they weren’t in his squad—but when he argued, “C’mon, we can get this guy out of there,” two of them—Sp4 W. R. May and Pfc. J. W. Bell—agreed to give it a try. When there was another lull in the NVA fire, they made their move. On the way back, Bell brought up the rear, providing covering fire while Bulte and May dragged Richards by his arms and legs. They were moving fast and as the medic’s mangled leg bounced on the ground he screamed in agony. “Oh my God, it was a bloodcurdling scream,” recalled Bulte. “It was horrible.”

Doc Richards survived the ordeal.

Piling back over the footpath, Sergeant Bulte—who got the Silver Star for his part in the rescue—made radio contact with Lieutenant Stull in the command group. Stull couldn’t see the NVA from where he was, but Bulte could. He relayed adjustments so the FO could call for smoke rounds on Alpha Three’s former pos to cover their withdrawal, and HE rounds on almost the same ground to slow down the NVA. The enemy troops were forced to seek cover, but Stull and Bulte would always wonder if their fires might have hit some of their comrades stranded out there. The NVA, meanwhile, were working the area over with 82mm fire. Lieutenant Stull—who was also awarded a Silver Star for his actions that day—happened to look up and see two shells descending on the small crater his team occupied. He dropped down, and seconds later one shell hit the near edge of the crater and the other the far edge. Stull had his helmet and flak jacket on, but some metal fragments the size of shotgun pellets dinged him in the groin and under one arm. A bigger piece slashed across an ankle, ripping the canvas jungle boot and drawing blood. It felt like a sprain.

At 1540, the NVA attempted to envelop the pinned-down company on its left, where Sgt. Larry Haddock of Alpha Two had his squad deployed along Jones Creek. Haddock, a stocky, blond-haired twenty-three year old, was one of sixteen children to an Oklahoma oil-field worker. He was a taciturn, fieldwise soldier. Haddock had directed his men into the streambed, and they were returning fire over the shallow embankment when he noticed movement to their rear. Turning, Haddock saw a line of hunched-over figures approaching through the tall brush on the other side of Jones Creek. For a split second he thought they were friendlies. The point man of the column was tentatively waving to him—apparently the NVA were also confused as to who was where—when Haddock recognized the NVA-issue camouflage nets on the pith helmets the soldiers wore. Haddock shouted a warning, and his grenadier and good friend Sp4 Larry R. McFaddin—a Kentuckian who took everything in stride—wheeled around and fired his M79. The round scored a direct hit on the pith helmet of one of the enemy soldiers, blowing him away. The rest of the squad, which actually had no cover to the rear in the sandy creek bed, desperately mowed the grass across the stream with automatic-weapons fire.

The NVA disappeared.

Other enemy soldiers, meanwhile, gave a wide berth to Sergeant Haddock’s squad as they worked their way down Jones Creek to a position opposite Captain Osborn’s command group. Specialist Bill Karp, the senior medic, was sitting with his back against the raised footpath when he saw two figures coming their way across the stream. The figures, in a low-to-the-ground crouch, were moving with some purpose. Karp shouldered his M16, sighted in, and pumped off half a magazine.

The two figures fell, either hit or seeking cover.

Thinking that the Barracuda platoon securing the flank on the other side of Jones Creek was farther north than it actually was, Captain Osborn shouted at Karp, “Stop, don’t fire over there—B Company is over there!”

Awww shit, Karp thought, I just got two of our guys. He had not. As Alpha Company’s wounded straggled back, Karp, who was half-deaf and had a ringing headache from his own close encounter with a mortar shell—as well as a superficial fragment wound in his right arm—treated them with battle dressings and words of encouragement. Karp, a quiet twenty-three-year-old college dropout and draftee, was from Alice, Texas. One of the grunts he treated had lost an ear—presumably to a tracer round, because the wound was cauterized and barely bled. Karp secured a big bandage around the man’s head, and would have left it at that had the man’s buddy not said, “Doc, you think you ought to check him for anything else?” Karp had not because he had seen neither blood nor tears on the man’s fatigues. He felt pretty stupid when he lifted up the back of the casualty’s shirt and saw that the round that had removed his ear had traveled down his back just under the skin. There was a bullet hole in the muscle at the top of his shoulder, and the exit wound was down at his waist. As Karp tied more bandages and tried to maintain a conversation that would not betray to the man how badly injured he was, the one-eared, semishocked grunt kept trying to get up to see what was going on. Karp, working from his hands and knees, kept pushing the man back down and saying gently, “Just hold still now.”

While a Helix FAC helped adjust artillery to cover their move, a completely traumatized Captain Osborn—who was, ironically, awarded another Silver Star for his supposed leadership during this fiasco—instructed Alpha Annihilator to withdraw to Force Tiger. The word was passed by radio and by shouts.

With exceptions such as Specialist Karp, who moved his casualties back as a group,3 the withdrawal was a strung-out, every-man-for-himself affair. Some GIs dropped their weapons and gear to run faster, and were crying hysterically by the time they made it back. Sergeant Haddock was another exception. His squad along the streambed was the last to pull back, and Haddock sent his men rearward one, two, or three at a time while the rest provided covering fire. Haddock went with the last group, his M16 in one hand and a radio in the other. They had to jump up and down as the mortars kept crashing in, and Haddock, exhausted, finally let go of the twenty-five pound radio. One of the shells exploded within a half-dozen meters of Specialist Hannan, and although it did not even scratch him, it did bowl him over. When Hannan regained his senses, he saw Haddock kneeling beside him and firing his M16 at the burial mounds. Haddock looked at him. “You okay, kid?” he asked.

“I think so,” Hannan answered as he sat up and shook off the shock.

“Okay,” Haddock said. “Let’s get outta here.…”

The NVA, bursting with victorious enthusiasm, were on top of their bunkers, shouting and shooting and not caring who saw them. Officially, fifty NVA had been killed, but no grunt bought that. Alpha Annihilator had twelve KIA. “I can’t believe those great guys are dead,” Specialist Hannan wrote in a letter home. “Somehow I’m still alive. I’ll never know how in God’s name I made it out. Men were left on the battlefield wounded and crying.…”4

At 1650, two fighters finally began running air strikes on the enemy positions. Meanwhile, the C&C Huey was bouncing in and out of Force Tiger to evacuate the wounded—nineteen altogether—to the 3d Medical Battalion, 3d Marine Division, at the Dong Ha Combat Base. One of the casualties was mortally wounded Staff Sergeant Dale of Alpha Three, who had a piece of plastic secured over his sucking chest wound. Lieutenant Smith and another wounded GI, loaded aboard on either side of Dale, took turns administering mouth-to-mouth during the flight. Carried off the chopper pad on stretchers, Smith and Dale ended up side by side in the triage facility, and Smith screamed frantically at the corpsmen, “Give him mouth-to-mouth, give him mouth-to-mouth!” A Navy doctor bent over Dale with his stethoscope, then quickly moved to the next casualty. Smith, in shock, thought the doctor was abandoning Dale as hopeless. He screamed bloody murder as he tried to get up from his stretcher. Corpsmen held Smith down as they used long, blunt-tipped scissors to cut off his bloody fatigues and jungle boots. “I was mad as hell,” said Smith. “I don’t know if they gave me anything to quiet me down. They probably did. Your mind is going in a million different directions at a million miles an hour. Everything’s coming to a head—it’s like a fuse blowing.”

Pinned down in a crater, Sgt. Charles F. Desmond and Sp4 Bill A. Baird of Alpha Two were among those left behind. Both were greenseeds. Baird had been wounded in the opening moments of the engagement, presumably by an enemy-issue claymore set up at the edge of the burial mounds. The explosion had shattered his tailbone—he could neither move nor feel his legs—and shredded his jungle boots, blowing off four of his toes. Both legs were bloody and mangled. Not understanding what had happened to him, Baird, who had lost his helmet, kept firing his M16 even as he faded in and out of consciousness. He expended almost all of his ammo. When his weapon finally jammed, he started pitching hand grenades, determined to survive.

Meanwhile, Sergeant Desmond was beginning to understand that the company had pulled back without them. He shouted at two GIs with steel pots and green fatigues who were half-concealed in the tall rice to his left—but when they turned toward him, he realized that they were actually NVA.

Terrified, Desmond dropped them both with his M16.

It was dusk by then, and no one else was firing. When it got completely dark, Desmond could see the silhouettes of NVA moving across the paddies, checking bodies and recovering weapons. Desmond removed all of his gear, keeping only his Ml6 and two magazines. He whispered to the semidelirious Baird that he was going to try to get some help. With that, Desmond, a black NCO, climbed out of the crater and, presumably hoping that his dark skin would cause him to be mistaken for another NVA, he started walking toward the stream he knew was on the left flank. The NVA were so close he could hear them talking, but he made it to the stream without being noticed despite the illumination rounds going up. Desmond slid into the concealing water and hugged the bank. He was so scared that he was shaking all over, rippling the water around him. He thought the shimmering movement would give him away, so he kept telling himself, “If you want to live, stop shaking.”

Sergeant Desmond had been in Vietnam all of two weeks.

Specialist Baird never forgave Desmond for leaving him, which was understandable but unfair. If Desmond had tried to carry Baird, they would have been an obvious target. The eighteen-year-old Baird was an unschooled country boy from Holmsville, Ohio, best known for his good humor and un-motivated approach to soldiering during his two months in the ’nam. Immobilized and alone, Baird groggily hoped that the shadows moving and stopping around him were friendlies looking for survivors. Then he heard their singsong Vietnamese voices, and four or five NVA almost tripped over him in the dark. The closest one let out a surprised shout as he swung his AK-47 around and squeezed off a quick shot. The round hit Baird’s left ear and exited cleanly through his neck just below the hairline. His head was ringing as he desperately screamed, “Chieu hoi!”

The NVA rushed up to Baird. When they saw that he was grievously wounded and posed no threat, one of them secured a bandage around his head while explaining in English that the reason they had shot him was because “you Americans are tricky, and we thought you might get away.” The NVA took his dog tags, web gear, and jammed M16, then lifted him onto a poncho. They worked with speed and urgency. They wanted to get out of the flarelight and back to their positions. The NVA litter team stopped in a hamlet—probably Xom Phuong—where other enemy soldiers crowded around Baird. “Jesus Christ,” he muttered to himself. “You mean all these sons of bitches was out there?” The NVA gave him a few puffs on a cigaret, a sip of hot water, and a mouthful or two of rice. He started to black out again, but they poked and prodded him, all the while jabbering, “My, my, my”—which he was later told was Vietnamese for American. A fresh team of NVA picked up his poncho litter and moved off toward the DMZ. As the NVA carried him through the night, Baird—who was destined to spend the next five years in prison camps known as the Plantation, the Portholes, and the Hanoi Hilton—found himself thinking back to his first week at the Americal Division base camp in Chu Lai. Everything had seemed so secure then. He had lain on an air mattress feeling a mellow buzz from a combination of warm beer and his first joint, and had looked at the beautiful beach and thought, Shit, there ain’t no goddamn war.…

During the night, between enemy mortar and artillery attacks, the LPs deployed by C/3-21 in Nhi Ha and D/3-21 in Lam Xuan East made at least seven sightings of squad- and platoon-sized groups of NVA. One enemy soldier wearing a gas mask darted close enough to Charlie Tiger’s perimeter to heave in a tear-gas grenade. Captain Leach called his LPs on an hourly basis, and at 0518 on Tuesday, 7 May 1968, the LP leader on the right flank rendered his sitrep in what began as a fatigued monotone, “Well, we’ve been observing maybe fifteen, twenty gooks for the past half-hour, runnin’ around in the paddies—hey, wait a minute—there’s a mothercomin’ tank!”

“A what? A what? A what?” Leach shot back.

“A mothercomin’ tank!” the LP leader answered with awe in his voice. He reported that the tank was headed southwest at a range of about two hundred meters before it disappeared behind a tree line. Then he said, “Can we come in? We want to come in. We want to come in.” Captain Leach denied permission—“Keep observing, see where he goes and what he does”—then contacted battalion, which contacted the 3d Marines to determine if any USMC tanks or amtracs were in the area. None were. Leach knew that the NVA had used Soviet PT-76 light amphibious tanks with 76mm main guns near Khe Sanh during the Tet Offensive. He was persuaded that an NVA tank really was out there, especially when the ARVN advisers at Alpha 1 reported shortly thereafter that they too could hear what might be, a tank. Artillery and air strikes were called in, although the USAF flareship and USMC aerial observer overhead never could see a definite target. Regardless, it was an unnerving episode. “We could hear the tread going clank-clank-clank,” said Sergeant Coulthard, “and everybody was panicking because we’d already fired all our LAWs.” Coulthard, however, could not hear a tank engine, and when he investigated with his M16-mounted night scope he, for one, concluded that the whole incident was the result of strained nerves and overactive imaginations. “With the starlight, we could see that the wind had come up and was dragging flare canisters across the dry paddies by their attached parachutes,” he explained. “You could hear them going clank-clank-clank. The sound really carried at night. We laughed about it—we was just kind of relieved—but other guys said, ‘No, it sure the hell ain’t flares, there’s some tanks out there,’ so who knows. But I never could see it.”

Informed of the disaster that Alpha Annihilator had walked into, the company exec, 1st Lt. Robert V. Gibbs, helicoptered up from Chu Lai in the morning. Gibbs, a blunt, no-nonsense character, questioned Sergeant Stone, whom he knew to be one of the company’s best squad leaders. Gibbs wanted to know the status of their missing. When Stone said that the men were still out there, Gibbs shouted, “Whaddya mean they’re still out there? What the fuck are you talking about, you sonofabitch?” Stone was in tears. Gibbs stomped over to Captain Osborn’s position and barked, “How the fuck could you leave our guys out there?”

Osborn shouted back, “Look, I’m the company commander—and we had to!”

“Christ,” replied Gibbs. “Well, when the hell are we going back out to get ’Em? They could still be alive out there.”

Inexplicably, no recovery mission was launched that day. Instead, the Gimlets improved their positions at Force Tiger and prepped Xom Phuong with artillery. Two missing men who were able to stumble back did so on their own, including Sergeant Desmond of Alpha Two, who came across the rice paddies waving his arms and hollering, “Alpha Gimlets!” Grunts crowded happily around him, and Desmond, relieved beyond words, could not suppress an ear-to-ear grin. Desmond was awarded the Silver Star. The greenseed sergeant also got out of the field after his traumatic experience. The battalion surgeon said that he had combat fatigue—“He did well until he got back, then he kind of fell apart”

The enemy shelled them during the day, then in the late afternoon an NVA column of approximately two hundred soldiers was spotted moving south along Jones Creek at a point some sixteen hundred meters northwest of Force Tiger. “The dumbshits were coming down in the open in broad daylight,” said Captain Leach, who instructed the 106mm recoilless rifles and the three USMC tanks attached to his task force to open fire. The tanks cut loose with .50-caliber machine guns and 90mm main guns, and the NVA disappeared into the tree lines along Jones Creek. Four artillery batteries fired into the area while Leach made contact with one of the cruisers offshore, which then provided eight-inch fire. “Naval gunfire was blowing the shit out of that area,” remarked Leach. “They just put it right on top of ’Em, so I’m talking to the ship and I’m really gettin’ ’Em fired up. I’m saying, ‘Jesus Christ, you’re killin ’Em! Keep going, keep going!’ and they’re going crazy out there on the ship. This was right down their alley. They loved it.”

Seventy NVA were reported killed in the turkey shoot.

During the night, four more enemy tanks were reported in the area. At about 1300 on Wednesday, 8 May, following another prep by air and arty, Alpha Annihilator, reinforced by a platoon from Charlie Tiger, finally advanced on Xom Phuong to recover the casualties left behind two days before. The three Marine tanks accompanied the assault line to neutralize the tree line on the right flank, while a Barracuda platoon advanced on the other side of Jones Creek screening the left. The arty was lifted at the last possible moment, then the lead platoon, on line between the tanks, reconned by fire when they were halfway to the burial mounds.

“Still got AK-47 fire with all the firepower we dished out,” an incredulous grunt wrote in his diary.

Lieutenant Gibbs, seeing that some of the company’s uptight survivors were ready to bolt, screamed at them to hold their ground. While the rest of Alpha Annihilator provided covering fire, Alpha Two carried out the sorry task of loading the dead aboard the two USMC Otters that had come forward with them. The grunts in the platoon were nervous because they could not hear over the engine noise, and everyone worked fast so the NVA would have little time to get their range and shell them. They found their dead where they had left them, although the bodies were barely recognizable after two days in the baking sun—with the exception of one body, which was still white, indicating that the man had only recently died of his wounds. All the rest of the corpses were bloated, black, and maggot-filled. The bodies with the worst wounds were literally falling apart. The fluid under their skin made them look watery. The stench was gagging. It was unbearable work. When GIs pulled at the bodies, the skin came away in their hands like blistering paint. Sergeant Bulte found his buddy, Sydney Klemmer, lying facedown. He recognized Klemmer’s strawberry blond hair. Bulte felt that he had to be the one who brought his friend back, but he was afraid to turn him over. When he did he saw Klemmer’s distorted face—half of it was swollen and purple—and the multiple wounds. “Those casualties were so unnecessary,” Bulte said. “It was such a waste.” For Bulte, the good soldier, the war that he had always kept at an emotional distance suddenly became very personal. He lost his enthusiasm. He was just going to get through this and go home. “It was pointless—stupid—what we did. It was such a dumb move. There was a bad undercurrent in the whole company.”

When they returned to Force Tiger, Sergeant Bulte, traumatized and distraught, walked past Lieutenant Colonel Snyder, who seemed to him to be blank-faced with shock. Not because Bulte held Snyder solely to blame—he didn’t—but because he was so angry and he felt he owed it to Klemmer, Bulte looked the colonel in the eye and shouted, “We were fucking guinea pigs out there! What was the point of sending us out there? A lot of good people died for nothing!”

Lieutenant Colonel Snyder offered no response. The Otters parked outside Alpha’s side of the Force Tiger perimeter and dropped their ramps. The hot stench inside the vehicles was thick for those men who climbed in to pull out the bodies so that they could be identified and medevac tags tied to them. Two gas masks were made available. Men had to be ordered to handle the bodies. “We just flopped ’Em out,” said Specialist Hannan. He grabbed a hold of one corpse by the hair and the seat of the pants, but the maggot-eaten scalp pulled off as he lifted up. “I almost cracked,” said Hannan. Captain Leach, furious at whoever had ordered the dead to be unloaded where all the shaken survivors could see them, instructed the detail to load the bodies back aboard and told the Otter drivers to get back to battalion with their cargo. “I looked in the Otters and blood was dripping out of them, and here are these dead American kids just stacked up inside,” sighed Leach. “It was just terrible. You talk about morale going down.…”

1. Sergeant Starr was awarded the Silver Star, BSMv, and two Purple Hearts for Nhi Ha, in addition to an end-of-tour BSM.

2. Sergeant Stone received the BSMv for Nhi Ha. He also got an Army Commendation Medal for Valor (ARCOMv) for Hiep Due (January 1968), and another BSMv and the Purple Heart for the Que Sons (March 1968).

3. Specialist Karp was awarded a BSMv for the Hiep Due ambush, another BSMv and the Purple Heart for Nhi Ha, and an end-of-tour ARCOM.

4. Several of Alpha’s KIAs were not killed instantly. They died alone after dark, abandoned in the rice paddies with immobilizing wounds. “It was really a spooky, sad, terrible moment,” said Sergeant Bulte. “There were guys willing to go back out there that night to look for our missing. We had guys actually volunteer, but somebody at the company or battalion level decided it was too dangerous. Why get any more men killed to try and get maybe one or two men back? They had a point, but if that was me out there and I was begging for help and no one would come out and get me—how would I feel?”

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