No Free Rides

WHEN SOME CLOSE AIR SUPPORT BECAME AVAILABLECAPTAIN Butler of Foxtrot Company, pinned down outside Dai Do, used it to support Lieutenant McAdams, who had a toehold in the hamlet itself. McAdams brought the napalm to within forty meters of his slit trench, then said, “Goddamn, it’s hot here—don’t get it any closer!”

Captain Butler was working with both USMC and USAF Phantoms, and this—his first experience with the Air Force—proved that the pilots were all brave in the face of the NVA fire but that doctrine made the Marine aviators more effective. The Marines ran their strikes down the length of the NVA entrenchments and thus parallel to the opposite Marine lines, which placed them at maximum exposure to ground fire but gave them the broadest opportunity to hit their targets. The Air Force pilots came in from behind to flash for a moment over friendly lines and then for a moment over the enemy. This minimized their exposure to ground fire but allowed them to hit only a small segment of the enemy line—and increased the risk of friendly casualties. Butler complained about this to Weise, and later commented that “the Air Force put twenty-millimeter casings right down our shirts. It was new to us and a little bit disconcerting—we didn’t know who they were shooting at.”

Captain Butler’s command group was under enough fire as it was. Lieutenant Basel, the FO, two weeks in-country and in his first action, was shot in the back of the arm. Basel refused medevac until the next morning. Once the bullet was removed by the battalion surgeon, he rushed to rejoin the still-embattled company.

Staff Sergeant Pedro P. Balignasay, the acting gunny, was another tough nut. Butler told him to move back to the amtracs and bring one forward to evacuate their wounded. When Butler later turned at the sound of an approaching amtrac, he spotted Balignasay walking in front to guide it in. The amtrac was a big target, but the gunny acted as if he were invincible.

Four hours into the assault, Lieutenant Colonel Weise called Butler to get a sitrep on how many people he had left. Butler reported that he was down to twenty-six effectives. Without a reserve platoon to renew the attack, Butler recommended that Foxtrot disengage because “with our casualties, even if we get in there, they’ll counterattack and they’ll kick our butts out of there. If I get in there, I can’t hold it.”

Weise agreed. He ordered Foxtrot to withdraw east to Dong Huan and establish a joint perimeter with Hotel Company. “If you encounter a lot of resistance,” Butler later explained, “there’s no sense in throwing good lives away just to take that position. That’s what supporting arms are for.”

It took two hours to break contact. Captain Butler used the 30-caliber machine guns on his four amtracs to cover Mc-Adams’s pickup squad in Dai Do, then he had the Phantoms go in hot while that little group pulled back. “It was so close we could feel the air drawn from us by the napalm, but it was effective and got us out of there,” recalled Tyrell, the platoon radioman. To keep the NVA down, the Phantoms also conducted dummy passes that were even closer to the Marines. Butler brought in the artillery as his platoon commanders, Lieutenants McAdams and Lanham, got their troops backpedaling across the open paddies. The men were exhausted and a little demoralized, and events began to unravel as darkness approached. “It was disorganized. There had been a melee out there,” Butler conceded. “The NVA had a good opportunity to really clean our clocks, but they didn’t seize upon it.”

Foxtrot straggled into Dong Huan, where Hotel Company had been too busy skimmer-boating its own casualties out to thoroughly clear the whole hamlet. Foxtrot was securing the section that would become its night position, when Corporal Tyrell noticed a sandaled foot under some hay in the deserted animal pen beside a hootch. He could see a human form under the hay, and imagined that a wounded NVA had crawled under there to die. Before bending down to search the body for anything of intel value, Tyrell gave the foot a good kick to ensure that the man was really dead. Before his eyes the NVA sat up amidst the hay, his right hand on the stock of his AK-47 and his left grasping the pistol grip and trigger. Tyrell shot first—one instinctive, unthinking squeeze of the trigger—and then his M16 jammed. He grabbed a .45 from a corpsman behind him, and wheeled back to empty the pistol at point-blank range.

Private First Class Kachmar saw one of the new guys urinating into the open mouth of a dead NVA. Kachmar shoved the man away from the corpse and shouted, “You fucking asshole, what’re ya doin’ that for?” The new guy just looked at him blankly.

Continuing on, Kachmar and the two Marines left in his fire team were passing an NVA entrenchment when Kachmar suddenly saw something white move inside it. The white was the bandage on a wounded enemy soldier who was going for his weapon, and in that millisecond of recognition Kachmar, with his M16 still at his waist, fired two or three rounds into the man from ten feet away. Kachmar and his two stunned buddies pulled away the overhead cover of sandbags and-grass and discovered both an AK-47 and a Czech first-aid kit beside the body. “I don’t think he could have actually even fired the weapon,” Kachmar reflected, “but I didn’t know that at the time. I just shot. I just fired. It was pure combat instinct. I probably wouldn’t have done it if I had thought about it, but to think about it would have been foolish.”

Bravo Company finally secured the embattled beachhead at An Lac, despite the loss of their company commander, thanks to a handful of Marines such as SSgt. Robert G. Robinson, a deep-voiced black platoon sergeant who was subsequently awarded the Silver Star for his actions there. When his radioman took an AK-47 round in his PRC-25, Robinson cut the shoulder straps and took the radio himself as he told the Marine to find cover. Robinson pulled down the telltale antenna and was calling for fire support when an AK-47 round hit his left shoulder and lodged in his flak jacket. He scooped up a handful of mud to cover the bloody rip. With sand-encrusted M16s jamming up, he collected what clean weapons and ammo he could find among their casualties, then distributed what he had gathered. By that time he could see puffs of smoke from where RPGs were being launched about two hundred meters away, and he could discern that most of the AK-47 fire on his platoon was coming from entrenchments beneath a small archway and gate in the hamlet. The fire support he was able to bring to bear silenced those positions.

Bravo Company also managed to seize part of An Lac about an hour before dark. At this point, Weise later wrote that he “ordered the company (now confused, disorganized, and with only one officer left) to halt, reorganize, form a defensive perimeter in the western half of the hamlet, evacuate casualties, and carry out resupply.”

The only remaining officer was 2d Lt. Thomas R. Keppen, who was brand-new and floundering. Weise, trying to get the young lieutenant calmed down over the radio, sent Muter’s eighteen-man reconnaissance platoon down to reinforce Bravo Company.

Lieutenant Muter organized the evacuation of the wounded, and face-shot, tooth-shattered Gunny Doucette, weak from loss of blood but thanking the Lord, was finally loaded in an amtrac leaving the beachhead. When the ramp went down at Mai Xa Chanh West, Doucette, who didn’t know where he was, was helped onto a Sea Horse. Medevacked to the DHCB, he ended up lying on a stretcher in a hallway at the base aid station. His turn for medical attention did not come; there were too many emergencies ahead of him. So his litter was carried to the airfield for a helo ride farther down the medevac chain to Da Nang. He was by then an unmoving form on his stretcher, with a haphazardly bandaged, ripped-open face. He overheard one of the crewmen remark that he must be dead. Doucette looked up bitterly at the man and gave him the finger.

Lieutenant Colonel Weise was furious. He had ordered Foxtrot to break contact in Dai Do based on Captain Butler’s report that his two-platoon company had taken heavy casualties and was down to twenty-six effectives. At least that was what Butler believed after radio conversations with his two pinned-down platoon commanders. After getting reorganized and counting heads in Dong Huan, Butler had to call Weise to report that his casualties were less than reported. He actually had fifty-five effectives. It was a big difference, and Weise later said, “It was then that I realized Butler had lost control of his troops. He was fairly calm, but I got the impression he was kind of lost. He just didn’t have a handle on things, just didn’t know what he was supposed to be doing.”

Weise was also upset because a dead Marine had been left behind in the confusion of Foxtrot’s withdrawal. He wondered if the best option would be to relieve Butler in the morning. “Foxtrot didn’t withdraw in a good tactical group,” Weise observed. “There was a lack of control and organization, and Butler’s troops pulled back individually. We found some of them straggling along the river bank during the night. In fact, the Navy thought they were enemy and asked for permission to fire. I wanted to be sure they were NVA. I looked through the starlight scope and saw that they were clearly Marines. Some Marines actually forded that little stream and walked all the way back to Mai Xa Chanh West.”

In the end, Weise decided to give Butler another chance. It was, after all, his first engagement as a company commander after two months of staff duty with the battalion. Weise instead chewed Butler out over the radio for reporting too many casualties. He told him to get his act together and know where his troops were, and to make sure they were resupplied with ammo and ready to go. “We need you tomorrow,” Weise told Butler. “I want you to be ready to fight. I don’t want you straggling around.”

Captain Butler’s performance during the remainder of the Battle of Dai Do continued to be unsatisfactory, in Weise’s opinion. Afterward, he zeroed out the young academy graduate’s career with a negative fitness report. Most of Butler’s peers in BLT 2/4 considered that best for all concerned. “Butler was in way over his head,” remarked a fellow captain. “He wasn’t stupid, but to lead Marines in combat you better have the balls of a pissed-off gorilla. He was too nice a guy. There’s a time to pat somebody on the back and a time to kick some butt. I don’t think he ever figured out when was the time to do which. You have leaders, followers, and managers, and Butler was a manager.”

Another company commander said that Captain Butler was “just a nice, decent, mild-mannered Clark Kent who never turned into Superman. Even at the point of life or death, he never had that particular spark.”

Nevertheless, Foxtrot Company’s Marines generally thought well of their urbane and amiable skipper. An acting platoon sergeant on his second tour called Butler a “helluva guy and one of the best officers I ever had.” The Marine who served as the captain’s radioman after Dai Do spoke of Butler’s “intelligence, courage, and quiet confidence.” Considering that Foxtrot was required to attack Dai Do with no reserve platoon, no mortar section, and no prep fires (“It was clear that we couldn’t generate the combat power to get into the village,” wrote the company’s artillery FO), one officer commented that Weise’s rebuke of the inexperienced Butler at the end of day one revealed “a lack of empathy, a failure to realize what he really asked that company to do when he threw it into the heart of the enemy position early in the fight.”

With the sun hanging on the horizon, Foxtrot and Hotel Companies registered artillery and mortar concentrations around their freshly dug fighting positions in Dong Huan, as did B/1/3 and Muter’s recon platoon in half-secured An Lac. Lieutenant Colonel Weise, still coordinating from the Monitor on the Bo Dieu, did not anticipate that taking the rest of An Lac would be a problem. The NVA had broken contact entirely with Bravo Company, and would presumably use the cover of darkness to get out of the hamlet. Dai Do was now the main concern. To secure the position, Weise planned to use the only uncommitted company available to him, Vargas’s Golf, which was presently in its patrol base at Lam Xuan West. Helicopters were being organized to lift the company to the BLT CP at Mai Xa Chanh West. Weise wrote that from there he “hoped to move Golf Company to An Lac by Navy LCM-8 landing craft during darkness, to land at night behind Bravo Company, and launch a predawn attack on Dai Do.”

Captain Vargas was a combat leader in whom Weise placed absolute confidence. Vargas had originally commanded Golf Company through the Tet Offensive and the beginning of the Cua Viet campaign. He had been automatically reassigned to battalion after his second wound at Vinh Quan Thuong, but had bent the rules as soon as he’d learned about his replacement’s medevac two days earlier:

Colonel Weise was listening to the radio also. He didn’t even have a chance to say, “You want your company back?” I was already packing my gear and moving out. Weise knew where I was going. He said, “Go on, go back,” and I left the CP in about five minutes in one of those recon speed boats. It was a quick run up Jones Creek to Lam Xuan West. When the boat engine went off, hell, I already had a bunch of young troopers coming over to greet me, saying, “We’re glad to have you back.”

At 1737, Major Warren radioed Captain Vargas to prepare to helilift back to Mai Xa Chanh West. Within two hours, twin-bladed CH-46 Sea Knights, which could carry a platoon apiece, were approaching Lam Xuan West. A clearing in the rubbled hamlet served as the landing zone, and Lieutenant Morgan of Golf Two, along with his radioman and one squad, went up the lowered back ramp of the first Sea Knight that landed. Before anyone else could board, the helicopter abruptly began to lift off. Morgan could hear nothing over the engines, but he was stunned to see enemy tracers passing by the porthole windows of the ascending helicopter.

The NVA also began shelling the landing zone. Captain Vargas aborted the mission, then turned to Staff Sergeant Del Rio, his acting gunny, to say, “No free ride today. We have to walk back.” Following the contours of Jones Creek, it was a three-kilometer hump from Lam Xuan West to Mai Xa Chanh West. Golf Company ran out of daylight very quickly. With the artillery and mortar fire continuing to crash in, the hot night air was heavy with smoke and the smell of gunpowder as the Marines began moving out. Although the men had discarded everything but their fighting gear, Del Rio had not gone far when he suddenly doubled back to the LZ—where he had left the waterproof olive-drab bag in which he kept his personal gear. He removed from it a small, framed photograph of his wife and three children, then started back up the column to rejoin the captain. He would keep that photograph forever.

The enemy had strategically placed their forward observers. The NVA artillery, having already fired more than a hundred rounds into Lam Xuan West, presently shifted onto Lieutenant Ferland and Golf Three as the platoon led the company down the western bank of Jones Creek. Between the shouting, commotion, and explosions, the Marines could no longer hear the boom of the guns in North Vietnam. They could not anticipate the next volley. Staff Sergeant Del Rio, along with Sgt. Robert J. Colasanti, the platoon sergeant, had to haul more than one flattened, shook-up Marine back to his feet and shout at him to keep moving, keep moving, keep moving. The artillery fire, accurate and nerve-shaking though it was, was not lethal because the shells burrowed several feet into the soft, wet earth along the creek before exploding.

“The troops were on the verge of panic,” said Lieutenant Ferland, “but Captain Vargas kept good control of the situation.”

Vargas and Del Rio spent most of their time with Golf Three on point, and Golf Two, which came next in the column. Lieutenant Deichman, the exec, had positioned himself at the tail end with Golf One to ensure that no one was left behind. Their artillery spotter, Lieutenant Acly, had been overlooked, however, and apparently was the last Marine to straggle out of Lam Xuan West. Acly had rolled behind an earthen berm near the LZ when the patrol base first came under fire. In the confusion, he missed the order to move out. All he knew was that when he looked back over his shoulder to check up on his FO team, it was gone. Everyone was gone. There was a moment of hard-breathing, sweat-soaked panic before Acly got his senses back, then he crawled south through the smoke-shrouded brush, under mortar fire the whole time. No one answered his shouts. Finally, after two hundred meters or so, he heard whispers and saw four equally lost Marines crouched in the dark. Acly called out to identify himself. He took a long drink from his canteen, then the five of them moved out to rejoin the column. Running and diving and shoving off again in the loose, sandy soil, they crossed hundreds of lonely meters before finally catching up with the bunched-up tail of the column.

“People seemed to be operating on their own,” Acly said later. “Nothing seemed to be very organized.” Massive amounts of illumination went up at intervals over the Dai Do battlefield some six klicks to the southwest. Not understanding the circumstances over there, the Golf Company Marines were infuriated that their own artillery was making them a better target. “It was like broad daylight,” said Acly. “It freaked everybody out because we were totally illuminated.”

Captain Vargas had an artillery shell explode ten feet from him. It was another subsurface, lifesaving explosion, but the concussion knocked Vargas into the shallows of Jones Creek. Several young Marines helped him up. Although he saw that his right trouser leg was torn—he had shell fragments in his knee and calf—he felt no pain through the adrenaline rush. Likewise, Staff Sergeant Del Rio, who had been knocked down, splattered with mud, and otherwise scared to death by several near misses, didn’t realize he’d taken a piece of metal in his right leg until after they reached Mai Xa Chanh West. Lieutenant Ferland had several fragment wounds in his right arm and lower right leg, and his platoon sergeant, Colasanti, was also stung but unfazed. More than twenty Marines had such superficial wounds, and another six had been hit badly enough to require medical evacuation after they finally secured inside the battalion perimeter. The worst of these was a black Marine whose right arm was blown off below the shoulder. The man was probably in shock, because he made no sound as a corpsman applied a tourniquet to the stump. Two Marines helped him walk back between them.

Golf Company took about three hundred rounds in the first kilometer of its march. The fire petered out then, and the Marines continued the last two klicks to Mai Xa Chanh West, where they arrived “exhausted and literally dropping in our tracks,” as one grunt put it. It had been a three-hour march.

Captain Vargas climbed aboard a Mechanical Mule for the drive to Warren’s command amtrac beside the Buddhist temple. The driver was Corporal Schlesiona, one of Golf’s light-duty personnel at the BLT CP, who later recounted:

One thing that stands out in my mind is driving around in a rather permanent state of panic. The weather had, for some time, been dry, hot, and sunny, baking the dirt “streets” of Mai Xa Chanh West. In daylight, you couldn’t drive around without goggles and something over your nose and mouth. It was a blinding, choking struggle. That night, with all the activity in the compound, it was like a duststorm and, with no headlights, it was white knuckles on the steering wheel just to stay on the path and still find your way to some specific place.

Before hopping aboard the Mechanical Mule for this death-defying ride, Captain Vargas had one of his corpsmen pluck the fragments out of his leg and bandage the wound. Vargas traded his tatterdemalion trousers for a fresh, wound-concealing pair and swore the young corpsman to secrecy: “Boy, don’t say a damn thing to anybody, ’cause this means I have to go!”

At the CP, Major Warren briefed Vargas from his map board in the light and shadows of a kerosene lantern. He explained that two Navy LCM-8 landing craft, better known as Mike boats, would arrive shortly to transport Golf Company upriver to B/1/3’s pos in An Lac by about 0300. They would be accompanied on the Mike boats by the battalion’s two tanks, which had previously bogged down at Bac Vong and returned to the CP. The assault on Dai Do was to be launched at about 0400 so as to utilize the cover of the predawn darkness. Warren outlined the plan, then told Vargas, “You’ll get your five-paragraph order from Colonel Weise, who’s on a gunboat in the middle of this river. You will have to brief your troops as to what to do while you are afloat.”

But the plan was never executed. Major Murphy, the regir mental S3, radioed Warren and informed him that the two Mike boats were not en route. The TF Clearwater commander would not release the craft from Camp Kistler because he considered a nighttime run too risky. Warren was incredulous. There had been no enemy activity on the Cua Viet River between Camp Kistler and the BLT CP, and the NVA positions in Dong Huan and An Lac that had fired on river traffic during the day had since been silenced. Warren later said that “knowing my nature, I’m sure I must have expressed concern and disappointment in the fact that the battalion commander, who wanted to use the cover of darkness in order to protect the lives of his people when he got his operation started, could not do so.”

Warren told Vargas that he would have until daylight to get fitted up for the attack, then radioed Weise with the bad news. Dixie Diner 6 (who was getting his sleep in five- and ten-minute snatches aboard the Monitor) was angry; but as Warren put it, “Once he realized that there was nothing he could do, he had so many other things going on in his area that he didn’t worry about it.”

Golf Company’s Marines crashed where they could amid the demolished hootches around the BLT CP. Most found a piece of bare earth on which to unroll their ponchos and that was it. It was, however, better than what Captain Vargas got. “I remember closing my eyes for maybe thirty minutes,” he said later. Vargas briefed his platoon commanders at one in the morning, then woke his gunny up at about three to help him make sure everything had been lashed down. “I went around to check that everybody had plenty of ammo and to ensure that everybody was carrying two mortar rounds in their packs, including myself. I wanted to double-check the weapons, I wanted to double-check that everybody understood how and when and where we were going, and what we were going to be faced with—and before I knew it the sun was coming up.”

Inside Dong Huan, cutoff NVA who had lain low until dark tried to slip through Hotel Three’s side of the line. The Marines opened fire on the shadows, and at dawn they found two extra enemy bodies in front of their positions among the hedgerows.

Meanwhile, in An Lac, Lieutenant Keppen, the new, green commander of B/1/3, was getting shook up again. One of the problems was that the NVA had begun jamming his radio net with a high-pitched electronic tone that effectively shut down his communications with Lieutenant Colonel Weise on the Monitor. The jamming wasn’t perfect, but Weise couldn’t make Keppen understand through the constant buzz that he should switch to the BLT’s alternate frequency. Weise finally felt compelled to put ashore aboard a skimmer with his sergeant major and radiomen.

Weise spoke with Lieutenant Keppen, who was very relieved to see the colonel, and made sure they were straightened out on a new frequency; then Weise and his little group worked down Bravo Company’s line in the predawn darkness. Weise wanted to ensure that the troops had enough ammunition and that there was a leader assigned to each group, and to let the Marines in the shot-up company know that someone up the chain knew they were there and was concerned about them.

The grunts were keyed up. “We had to be very careful that the Marines didn’t shoot us,” Weise remembered. But by and large, “they were in pretty good shape considering that they had taken heavy casualties. They had gotten all of their wounded out. They had even gotten their dead out. We adjusted the lines somewhat, but they were in reasonably good positions. Had they been hit real hard, I think that new lieutenant would have been able to handle himself.”

Lieutenant Colonel Weise and Big John Malnar were still working their way through Bravo’s position when there was an explosion about ten meters in front of their command group. It was probably an enemy mortar round. Weise was wounded superficially in his right thigh. He had the wound bandaged but did not report it. He had been wounded before—taking shell fragments in his left thigh and shoulder during Operation Task Force Kilo—and that injury had likewise not been reported outside battalion channels. Weise knew that battalion commanders with two Purple Hearts had to give up their commands, so he reckoned that what division didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them.

Weise spent the rest of the night with Bravo Company. An hour before sunrise, he instructed Keppen to send a patrol into the eastern side of half-secured An Lac. The patrol reported that the NVA had withdrawn. Bravo Company reoccupied the remainder of the hamlet at first light, amid enemy artillery and recoilless rifle fire that killed one Marine and wounded four. Bravo Company got its payback two and a half hours later when thirty to forty NVA, including many wearing Soviet-style helmets, were caught in the open fields between An Lac and Dong Huan. Hotel Company in Dong Huan, the first to spot them and take them under fire, thought the NVA had slipped out of Dai Do in order to hit An Lac. Weise suspected that the NVA were what remained of the force that had held An Lac and had retired into the fields on order. It was unclear whether they planned to continue their retreat or await reinforcements and then double back and assault.

Whatever the case, the Marines excitedly tried to line up the small, bobbing figures in their rifle sights. “Look at all them comin’ gooks,” shouted one Bravo Company Marine. “Let’s kill ’Em!” The NVA pulled back toward Dai Do, hounded by mortar and artillery fire. It was a real turkey shoot. “We caught them in the open before they could get their act together,” said Weise later. “Some of them were moving and some of them were just standing or sitting there like they were waiting to do something before we opened up. We put a lot of fire on them. Some of them began running, some of them hit the ground—and, of course, you could see some of them drop.”

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