I knew wherever I was that you thought of me, and if I got in a tight place you would come—if alive.
—WILLIAM TECUMSEH SHERMAN,
in a letter to Ulysses S. Grant
Over the twenty months of airmobile training, a bond had been welded between the infantry and their rides, the Huey helicopter pilots and crewmen. Now the strength of that bond would be tested in the hottest of fires. If the air bridge failed, the embattled men of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry would certainly die in much the same way George Armstrong Custer’s cavalrymen died at the Little Bighorn—cut off, surrounded by numerically superior forces, overrun, and butchered to the last man.
I asked Bruce Crandall’s brave aircrews of Alpha Company, the 229th Aviation Battalion, for the last measure of devotion, for service far beyond the limits of duty and mission, and they came through as I knew they would. This was the first, and in the view of many of us, the toughest of many missions we would accomplish together in a long, deadly combat tour. We desperately needed ammunition and water and medical supplies—and Crandall’s Hueys brought them to us. Our wounded, screaming in pain or moaning quietly in shock, had to be evacuated, or they would die where they lay, on their ponchos behind the termite hill.
Hauling out the wounded was not the slick crews’job. Crandall’s people were assault helicopter crews, trained to carry infantrymen into battle. Hauling the wounded off the battlefield was a medical-evacuation helicopter mission. But this was early in the war, and the medevac commanders had decreed that their birds would not land in hot landing zones—or, in other words, that they would not go where they were needed, when they were needed most. Even before I asked, Bruce Crandall had already decided to begin doing everything that had to be done.
As his shot-up Huey, full of wounded, headed back east, Old Snake was thinking about the perilous situation on the ground at Landing Zone X-Ray. Crandall recalls, “Getting back to Plei Me seemed to take forever, although we were flying as fast as it would go. I made up my mind during this flight that if the 1st Battalion lost this fight it would not be because of the failure of the helicopter support. We knew the officers and men on the ground were the best in their business; now it was our time to prove that we were their equals in the air.
“Before I landed at Plei Me I had decided that Colonel Moore needed ammunition more than he needed additional manpower at this point. My plan was to change helicopters, then two of us loaded with ammo would go back to X-Ray. Get the ammo in and bring out the wounded. I felt we could reach the LZ if we came in hard at treetop level. If we couldn’t get back out, at least the ammo would be there and the Infantry would protect us if we could just reach the landing zone.”
Crandall radioed Orange 1 Lead, Captain Paul Winkel, who was sitting on the strip at Plei Me, and told him to send two of his Hueys to Camp Holloway to load with all the ammunition they could carry. Winkel dispatched his Orange 3 and Orange 4 Hueys, piloted by CWO (Chief Warrant Officer) Dallas Harper and CWO Ken Faba. Round trip plus loading: about one hour.
Crandall now dropped his Huey, loaded with casualties, onto the red dirt strip at Plei Me. “When we hit the ground at Plei Me we were met by medics and the Infantry troops still waiting to be lifted into X-Ray. They removed the dead and wounded from my bird—and this act is engraved in my mind deeper than any other experience in my two tours in Vietnam. A huge black enlisted man, clad only in shorts and boots, hands bigger than dinner plates, reached into my helicopter to pick up one of the dead white soldiers. He had tears streaming down his face and he tenderly cradled that dead soldier to his chest as he walked slowly from the aircraft to the medical station. I never knew if the man he picked up was his buddy or not. I suspect not. His grief was for a fallen comrade and for the agony that violent death brings to those who witness it.”
Crandall called his pilots together and briefly discussed the terrifying situation on the ground in X-Ray. He outlined his plan to take back into the LZ two ships loaded with ammunition and asked for volunteers. He says, “Captain Ed Freeman, my friend for a dozen years who had been leading my second flight all morning, said he was taking that flight. Big Ed misunderstood. I only wanted a volunteer crew for the second bird. I intended to lead the flight myself. I planned to leave Ed behind in charge of resuming the troop lift as soon as Colonel Moore opened the door to the LZ.”
Captain Ed Freeman, thirty-six, fought on Pork Chop Hill in Korea as an enlisted man and won a battlefield commission there. At six feet six inches, Freeman was four inches taller than the maximum height limit for Army pilots at the time he went to flight school, hence his nickname: “Too Tall to Fly.” Crandall and Freeman had been a close team for years, sharing flying duties over some of the world’s toughest terrain. Together they had flown the Arctic, the deserts of the Middle East and North Africa, and the jungles of Central and South America on mapping missions for the Army. The only thing the two of them were ever known to argue about was which of them was the second-best helicopter pilot in the world. Pop Jekel describes the Too Tall Ed of that era as “a good old shit-kicker whose poker winnings could pay off half the national debt.”
Crandall understood how determined Freeman could be. “Big Ed and I discussed the mission for a few seconds, and knowing that arguing with him was a waste of time, I decided we both would fly the mission.”
Until the LZ went hot, Matt Dillon and Mickey Parrish had controlled all flights into X-Ray from the command chopper overhead. No more. I took control because only I knew where my men were, where the enemy ground fire was coming from, and where the safest spot to land was at any given moment. From this point forward, every helicopter coming into X-Ray would radio me for landing instructions.
The Huey crews performed magnificently, running a gauntlet of enemy fire time and time again. They never refused to come when called. In turn, we did our best to call them in only when fire was lightest, and we tried to have teams standing by to unloadsupplies and load the wounded in record time, to reduce the aircraft’s exposure on the ground.
Back on the dirt strip at Plei Me, Crandall and his copilot, Jon Mills, shifted their gear from their crippled bird to another helicopter; the new ship and Freeman’s were soon filled with ammunition from the remaining 7th Cavalry stocks at the strip. Crandall then assigned one of his section leaders to take command of the eight-ship flight that had been waved off at X-Ray. He told them to stand by to bring in the rest of Delta Company when I gave the word.
Crandall says, “Big Ed and I took off and headed for the LZ. We picked up the radio traffic and knew things hadn’t improved. About five minutes out I contacted Colonel Moore, explained what I had on board, and he acknowledged they needed the ammo. That made it mandatory for us to go in, no matter the consequences. Moore knew the problem and gave us instructions on the approach and where to land. We started receiving heavy fire on our approach. I notified Big Ed and he calmly came back with: ‘Roger. What do you want me to do about it, Snake? I kind of thought this might happen.’
“Moore’s people laid down covering fire for us, and as we broke over the trees into the clearing I could see Hal Moore standing up at the far end of the LZ, exposing himself to enemy fire in order to get us into the safest position possible in the LZ. I landed where he directed and our crews and his people began pitching the ammo boxes off the aircraft as fast as they could. At the same time, the wounded were moved up and loaded aboard.”
Some of the wounded being loaded aboard, including Captain Lefebvre and Lieutenant Taboada, were men of Ray Lefebvre’s Delta Company, which Crandall had brought into X-Ray on his last trip. One of the walking wounded, standing by to board, was the battalion intelligence officer, Captain Tom Metsker, who had been shot in the shoulder earlier in the creekbed fight with Alpha Company. Lefebvre recalls, “We were standing by the helicopter. I remember Metsker helping me. Metsker helped shove me in. And about that time he said: ‘I’m hit.’ He was pulled aboard the chopper by the crew chief.”
Crandall remembers, “My bird carried out eight of the seriously wounded. While we were in there a wounded captain helping another officer onto my Huey was shot and killed. We took him out, too. Ed was able to get five wounded out on his ship.” Captain Tom Metsker, married and the father of a seventeen-month-old daughter, was dead on arrival at Plei Me.
Busy fighting the battle, I did not see the shooting of Captain Metsker in the clearing beside Crandall’s Huey, but it was an ominous development. It meant there were North Vietnamese on the eastern side of the clearing, knocking at our unprotected back door.
Crandall now powered his overloaded Huey out of X-Ray, hitting some treetops with his main rotor blades on the way. He recalls, “We almost didn’t make it. In training sometimes we would deliberately hit the treetops with our skids, just to scare the shit out of the infantry, especially if they were new guys. But hitting trees with the rotor blades scared the shit out of me. Once we cleared the trees we again received fire. When we got back to Plei Me I switched back to my first ship, which had been checked out and refueled.”
At Plei Me, Captain Paul P. Winkel, thirty-four, of Cicero, Indiana, West Point class of 1956, was waiting for his two Orange Flight choppers to return from Pleiku with more ammunition. “The infantry radio channel sounded like an old war movie. Colonel Moore, Trojan 6, came across calm and commanding. [His voice] rang with courage and sound judgment. It made men of boys in X-Ray that day. ‘OK, understand your situation … keep steady … we are going to drop artillery all around you. Get your men … all of them … and walk together slowly back as the shells impact. Just walk back with the artillery and you will be OK. Hang in there.’”
CWO (Chief Warrant Officer) Leland C. Komich radioed Winkel that his ship and that of CWO Dallas W: Harper were inbound from Pleiku and asked for disposition of their cargo of ammunition. Winkel replied, “Wait one,” switched channels, contacted Bruce Crandall, who was en route to Plei Me with his shipful of casualties, and relayed the question. Old Snake’s reply was brief: “LZ X-Ray.”
Says Winkel: “I thought, good God, how am I going to get two ships heavily loaded with ammo into X-Ray, now surrounded by the enemy, with air support, ARA support and artillery direct fire all going in there, without getting hit and blowing up. I switched channels and called Komich: ‘Land at Plei Me immediately’ When the two ships dusted down, I ran to the ship, saw Lee Komich in the left seat, told his copilot to unass [get out of] his ship, go to my aircraft, and fly with my copilot, CWO Walter Schramm. I told Komich we were going to X-Ray. Lee’s eyes narrowed. I knew he was thinking what I was thinking. [We were] loaded with ammo, one hot round could turn us into a brilliant burst of sunshine followed by a dark puff of smoke over the treetops of LZ X-Ray.
“I switched channels to Moore’s frequency. ‘Trojan 6, this is Orange 1, flight of two with ammo, en route to X-Ray. Directions for landing, please, sir.’ The battalion command ship broke in. Captain Vince Panzitta’s voice came over: ‘Head generally 275 degrees for the downed A-IE, then make a sharp left turn and when you pick up fire, say 10 seconds later, swing immediately right 90 degrees. You should be heading directly to the center of the LZ.’ Moore added: ‘That’s a roger. We will have a panel waving where you should land. Do not overshoot. I say again: Do Not Overshoot. If you miss, turn directly north and bug out for another try. Stay at treetop.’
“We came to the burning A-IE. I said: ‘Now left! Hit 80 knots and clip the treetops.’ Lee’s turn was precise. Then came the pop, pop, pop and right beside us the bright flash of passing green tracers. ‘Now right, Lee, right! Watch for the [marker] panel!’ I saw it directly in front and below. There it is. Down now. Lee rolled us back just in time to flutter to the ground on top of the panel man. I looked out and saw our troopers lying prone, hugging the ground. Lee and I sat in our seats about six feet above the ground. My crew was quickly dumping the ammo. Boxes flew. I stared straight forward. Directly ahead, looming high, was the Chu Pong. I fully expected to receive a spray of bullets at any moment. All-of the color seemingly drained from my vision and it seemed that it took literally hours to unload. Fear does strange things.
“My crew chief called out, ‘OK, let’s get the hell out of here!’ Then Moore called: ‘Can you take a couple of prisoners and some wounded?’ I said yes. They boarded, Lee pulled pitch and we began translational lift,* so low we began clipping the treetops as we pointed north. Seconds later I glanced over my left shoulder to see if Dallas Harper followed. With disbelief, I saw white smoke burst forth along his engine from vents that normally are not there. I yelled: ‘Set her down, you’re on fire.’ Harper reacted immediately. He was still over the LZ and dropped into a clearing still within Moore’s perimeter. Lee began a rapid downward swing, then flared to land next to Harper’s crippled bird. Moore called out: ‘What are your intentions?’ I replied: ‘I am returning to drop off these prisoners, pick up my downed crew and pick up your additional wounded. Out.’ Moore rogered.”
Dallas Harper, his crew, and the wounded from their smoking Huey now loaded aboard Paul Winkel’s bird. Says Winkel: “I watched one wounded man hop, limp, and stumble toward the trees. I saw his entire back drenched from neck to waist with red, red, blood. I yelled to my gunner: ‘That man there! That wounded! Get somebody to get his ass back here. We are not leaving until we get every one we were taking out of here. Go get him!’ Two crewmen ran for him. The pop-pop continued. Lee kept the ship running full speed ready for takeoff.
“We loaded 15 or 16 total on board. I hoped we had burned enough fuel to let us lift off. Lee pulled pitch and the Huey lifted, the instrument gauges wobbling a little before steadying. The second ship smoldered over on our left. Our maintenance officer later said that the hydraulics and oil lines of that aircraft had been shot up so badly that had it flown for five more minutes the engine would have frozen and it would have crashed into the jungle at 120 knots. We would have lost a brave crew of four, seven of Moore’s wounded plus a passenger, an Infantry captain. Who the hell was that guy? A quarter-century later I learned that he was Captain Gordon P. Rozanski, the battalion supply officer, who rode in and out of X-Ray all day helping unload ammo and load the wounded.
“Our Huey skimmed the trees and headed north out of harm’s way. I lit up a cigarette, turned to my left and over my shoulder saw a very bloody trooper laid out with his head in another trooper’s lap. I passed the cigarette back, lit another and stuck it in the bloody trooper’s mouth. At that moment the trooper with the bloody back looked me squarely in the eyes and gave me one of the most cherished thank you’s I have ever received. My windshield was now collecting splats of blood blown by the wind whistling through the open doors. Roughly 30 minutes later we called Pleiku tower: ‘Orange 1 inbound with 7 wounded. Need immediate assistance.’ I told them to inform the medical unit there would be a lot more ships inbound this afternoon, perhaps 100 wounded. Call for additional medical support now. We have got a bad fight out there. Do you read?
“We landed, off-loaded the wounded, then refueled with our engine still turning. Harper and his copilot ran off to find another aircraft. We hovered for takeoff and Lee said: ‘As long as we’re going back we can carry some more ammo.’ I said, ‘Roger, hover over there where the battalion has its stores.’ We sat down in the middle of the ammo dump and our crew piled the boxes onto our ship. A captain ran up yelling: ‘You can’t do that. This belongs to the 3rd Brigade and it must be accounted for on paper.’ I didn’t have time to give this yo-yo an explanation, just said: ‘Lee, get us the hell out of here.’ We left the captain ranting in a cloud of red dirt.”
Major Bruce Crandall and Big Ed Freeman made two more trips into X-Ray with more ammunition. Crandall recalls, “I lost track of time. Somewhere in the early afternoon I decided to try to get a pair of the division medevac aircraft to go into the LZ. To show them the safest way in and out, my two birds went in at low level, aided by Colonel Moore. Although we were fired on in both directions, we got in and out OK. The medevacs didn’t like the setup and particularly didn’t like the treetop-level approach. They decided to come in one at a time from fifteen hundred feet in a normal approach. This, of course, gave them a much greater exposure to enemy ground fire, but I didn’t care if they flew in backward as long as they got there. One aircraft actually touched the ground and two wounded were loaded before the second aircraft reported being hit and both of them aborted the rescue.
“From then on, instead of flying all the way back to Pleiku, I flew to LZ Falcon, the artillery base supporting X-Ray. This location was much closer and we could transfer the wounded from our aircraft to the medevac helicopters for the flight on to Camp Holloway. We made several more flights between Falcon and X-Ray, carrying ammo and water in and wounded out. By the time we completed the third run, the rest of my company volunteered to go in, so we set up a shuttle. They pitched right in and carried the ball.”
On the ground, the battle had detonated into a series of deafening explosions of firing, now here, now there, as the enemy commander furiously probed for our weak spot, the opening that would permit him to drive a wedge through the thin line of men defending the landing zone. It was a fast-moving bedlam of activity. They were eager to kill us; they hungered for our deaths. Now they were slamming into us at four different locations.
Never before had the Vietnamese enemy carried the fight to an American Army unit with such tenacity. None of the common wisdom born of the American experience in Vietnam to date applied to this enemy. We were locked into a savage battle of fire and maneuver, a battle for survival, which only one side would be permitted to win. A commander in battle has three means of influencing the action: Fire support, now pouring down in torrents; his personal presence on the battlefield; and the use of his reserve.
My reserve had come down to Sergeant Major Plumley, radio operator Bob Ouellette, and myself. I decided that if it became necessary we would join Tony Nadal’s Alpha Company in the fight at the creekbed. In preparation for that contingency, I went to the pile of gear taken from the wounded and filled my ammo pouches and pockets, grabbed up some extra grenades, and jacked a fresh magazine into my M-16.
Although the eastern part of the clearing was still under enemy fire, the shooting there had slacked off some thanks to Charlie Company, the actions of Captain Ray Lefebvre and his few men, and the heavy air and artillery bombardment working that area. Charlie Company’s commander, Bob Edwards, was doing a great job. Edwards says, “My platoons were holding their own and, aside from ensuring [that] their resupply needs were met and coordinating fire support, I was able to concentrate on other issues. My exposed left flank worried me.”
Edwards, knowing that Ray Lefebvre had turned over command of Delta Company to Sergeant Gonzales, found Gonzales and with my approval directed the Delta Company men to his open left flank, tying them in tightly around the southeastern edge of the landing zone. Then Edwards, whose men had just stopped a North Vietnamese battalion in its tracks, showed up at my command post looking for more work. He asked if he could help get the mortars organized.
Edwards had discovered that the mortars attached to each of the three rifle companies, which should have been consolidated under Delta Company control, were still operating independently because of the wounding of both Delta Company officers. He rounded up the rifle-company mortars in the area east of the command post: “I brought them into the perimeter, told my mortar-section leader, Staff Sergeant [Harold] Matos-Diaz, to assume control until a Delta Company officer arrived. Matos-Diaz got them set up and organized, and by the time I got back to Charlie Company he had them on the company radio frequency and ready to fire. We tried to get them registered, but because of the great amount of dust, smoke, confusion of battle, heavy undergrowth, and no prominent observation points, we could not do this effectively.”
Now Tim Brown, the brigade commander, was back on the radio asking for a situation report. I told him we were heavily engaged, outnumbered, and taking casualties; we had a hot landing zone and had one platoon cut off, and I still did not have all my troops in. I told Colonel Brown that this fight was going to go down to the wire and that we could use another rifle company for reinforcements. He said he would send one, but we both knew it would be two or three hours before the reinforcements reached X-Ray. Brown had already alerted Bravo Company of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, and it was assembling at pickup points.
It was now near three P.M. Charlie Company’s defeat of the North Vietnamese assault stopped the enemy efforts to flank us on our left and opened up an opportunity for me to bring in the rest of the troopers. If we brought the Hueys in one or two at a time, and if the pilots followed our directions, we stood a good chance of getting those men in, and I needed them badly.
Still waiting back at Plei Me were a few more Charlie Company troopers; the rest of Delta Company, including its acting commander, First Lieutenant James L. (Larry) Litton, and its first sergeant, Warren E. Adams; and the battalion reconnaissance platoon. I radioed Dillon in the Charlie-Charlie [command-and-control] ship and told him to get them moving.
The last battalion troop lifts began arriving around 3:20 P.M. It was during this period that the second of the helicopters we lost in X-Ray was shot down. The incident stands out in my mind: A pilot came up on my frequency asking for landing instructions. I told him to come in at treetop level from the east and land on the eastern side of the clearing. He came in through the smoke and I saw that he was flying too fast and too high and would overshoot the eastern side into the hotter western side toward the mountain. I told him to drop lower and land on the eastern side. He flew right at me and obviously was not going where he was directed. I yelled at him on the radio: “You’re gonna get hit! You’re gonna get hit!”
He thundered right over my head, fifty feet up, shuddered, and banked in a hard right turn to the west and north. Then the pilot, CWO Donald C. Estes, guided his dropping ship, rotor blade whapping, into the trees just across the clearing from the termite-hill command post. The chopper and crew were immediately secured by the nearest troops. Two of our sixteen helicopters were now disabled in the landing zone. Estes, thirty, from Auburn, Alabama, was later killed in action on June 24, 1966.
One of the ships brought in Larry Litton, who immediately took over command of Delta Company from the wounded Sergeant Gonzales. I told him to add the four Delta mortars to the consolidated mortar position set up by Captain Edwards and to control all seven mortars from a single fire-direction center. Principal direction of fire was toward Alpha and Bravo companies, and the mortarmen would also have the mission of defending our two-chopper landing zone from the east.
I also told Litton to spread out the recon platoon, led by Lieutenant James Rackstraw, along the north and east fringes of the clearing to the right of the mortar pits as further security for the little landing zone. The recon platoon was also designated as battalion reserve. For the first time this day, I now had a semblance of a complete perimeter, and our rear was covered.
Bob Edwards’s Charlie Company had fought off the enemy for more than an hour. They had the advantage of more open ground. They could adjust artillery and air strikes more accurately, and the pilots overhead could see the enemy swarming in the elephant grass and thus could kill more efficiently. Finally the stunned enemy fell back south and southwest, dragging some of their casualties. As they withdrew from the Charlie Company killing ground, their activity around Alpha Company also slacked off.
Curiously, the North Vietnamese forward of Deal, Devney, and Marm’s platoons did not press their advantage. During this lull, many of the Bravo and Alpha Company wounded and dead were carried back to the battalion aid station. Alpha Company’s Sergeant Hansen says: “We were carrying out one rather heavy Alpha trooper, Specialist Jerry Kirsch, in a poncho when the man on the left corner of the litter was shot in the back. He went down immediately. He was Specialist Scott Henry. The round that hit him was fired from very close. I comforted Henry; then we got Kirsch on out. Kirsch was gut-shot but survived. When I got back to Henry, he was dead. I think about him often, dying alone on that open field. He was an engineer attached to our battalion.”
Up the slope, Lieutenant Joe Marm was trying to evacuate his casualties. “My weapons-squad leader, Staff Sergeant Robert L. Parker, organized a party to get out the wounded. He came back about twenty minutes later saying he could not get out because we were surrounded. Whether we were or not is still a question to me; it may have been friendly fire. But the enemy were maneuvering to our flanks. I asked permission to withdraw with the wounded. We policed up the dead. We had quite a problem with all the wounded, but met little resistance going back. When we reached the ditch which was our forward line of departure, the wounded were evacuated back to the clearing and we were re-supplied with ammo. Water was in very short supply.”
Among the wounded flowing into the command-post aid station during this brief lull was Specialist 5 Calvin Bouknight, who was the medic with Lieutenant Dennis Deal’s 3rd Platoon. Bouknight had been assigned to the battalion aid station for over eighteen months as one of two medical assistants to the surgeon. By late October, our line companies were short a total of eight platoon medics. We checked battalion personnel records and found some soldiers who had previously served as medics. Some of them were pressed into service; others were given refresher training and were designated reserve medics. Joe Marm describes the situation in his platoon: “My platoon medic was a short-timer and did not accompany us to Chu Pong. SFC [George] McCulley, the platoon sergeant, carried the aid kit, and we planned to use Staff Sergeant Thomas Tolliver as our medic when the need arose. He had been a combat medic during the Korean War and was well qualified.”
Still, we did not have enough medics to go around, so we sent down Specialist Bouknight and Specialist 5 Charles Lose, a senior medical-aid man, as platoon medics to Bravo Company. Now Calvin Bouknight, still alive but mortally wounded, was gently laid on the ground in his blood-filled rubber poncho before the medical-platoon sergeant, SFC Keeton, his friend and comrade of the last two years: “Bouknight wasn’t dead. He was shot between the shoulders, right directly between the shoulders. He reached up and took my hand and said: ‘Sarge, I didn’t make it.’ We got an IV started on him and put a pressure bandage over his back wound. There was just no hope. We were able to get him on an evac ship, but he died.” The Scriptures say that there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends. This is what Calvin Bouknight did in that fire-filled jungle. He sheltered the wounded he was treating with his own body, his back to the enemy guns, completely vulnerable.
Up on the line canteens had run dry. Rudyard Kipling, in his poem “Gunga Din,” writes:
But if it comes to slaughter
You will do your work on water,
An’ you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of ’im that’s got it.
Kipling had it right. The heat, dust, smoke, and fear dried the mouth of every man in Landing Zone X-Ray. The little bit of water left in our canteens went for our wounded. Says Lieutenant Deal: “By three or four P.M. we had used all our water, mostly on our wounded because they kept begging for water. We were horribly thirsty. It must have been terrible on the wounded who had lost blood. Then we went to our C-rations to drink the liquid out of them. I opened a can, and it was ham and lima beans—the saltiest of all the C-rat meals. I drank the liquid and got twice as thirsty. Incredibly dumb.”
Deal was helping in the evacuation of casualties when he was brought up short by a strange sight. “It was at this time that one of the things I regret most about that battle occurred. I saw a line, not a column, just a line of men, probably two hundred strong, moving on my right flank in the same direction as we were about to turn, the east, and move in with our casualties. I immediately lifted my weapon, had them in my sights with a clear shot. I started to call for those near me to get their weapons up because I thought they were North Vietnamese. But it was just a little bit too far to distinguish if they were Americans or North Vietnamese, so I elected not to fire.
“There was also fear of drawing attention to our depleted platoon. My men were now all killed or wounded except for the equivalent of two squads, about eighteen or so left. These two hundred troops were parallel to us, making their way to the landing zone. Marm, who had been on my right, had already withdrawn. It turned out that they were some of the North Vietnamese we had to fight later that day, who inflicted fearsome casualties on us. I only regret that we didn’t stand there and start shooting them.”
No more than a hundred yards away from Deal, the Lost Platoon clung doggedly to its tiny, tortured piece of earth. By now, Sergeant Ernie Savage and his band of survivors from Henry Herrick’s 2nd Platoon had withstood four separate enemy assaults. The enemy believed they had the Americans in a vise. Three North Vietnamese clothed in camouflage uniforms walked directly into the perimeter from the direction of X-Ray. All three were killed instantly. Galen Bungum saw several enemy, no more than ten feet away, rise to their feet, rifles slung over their shoulders, laughing “like they were out for a Sunday walk.”
From their prone positions, bodies pressed tightly to the earth, the Lost Platoon survivors banged away at a target-rich environment. Ernie Savage rose to fire on three enemy soldiers only a few feet away only to find that his rifle was empty. Savage says: “I didn’t know what to do, so I just said ‘Hi’ and smiled. All three looked at me in confusion, but by then I had slipped in a fresh magazine and sprayed them.”
Dorman recalls: “They tried to crawl up on us. We put our guns flat on the ground and laid the fire into them two and three inches high. We fired real low and we stopped them. All this time there were snipers ten to fifteen yards away. If you stuck your head up they shot at it. But we were killing them right and left. Every time they stuck a head up we shot it.”
It was now 3:45 P.M., and, except for the predicament of Sergeant Savage and the cut-off platoon, I was feeling a good deal better about the situation. We had all our men in; massive firepower had been deployed; a company of reinforcements was on the way; our two-chopper lifeline landing zone was secure; most of our wounded were either evacuated or awaiting evacuation; and we were holding tough. I was determined to make one more attempt to rescue Sergeant Savage and all his wounded and dead up on the slope. I ordered Alpha and Bravo companies to evacuate their casualties, withdraw out of close contact with the enemy under covering fires, and prepare to launch a coordinated attack, supported by heavy preparatory artillery fire, to reach the cut-off platoon. I was tortured by the fate of those men and the need to rescue them.
* An overloaded helicopter needs to reach a maximum forward speed before attempting to gain altitude; forward speed translates to lift.