Military history

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Night Falls

If we are marked to die, we are enow

To do our country loss; and if to live,

The fewer men, the greater share of honor.

Henry V, Act IV, Scene 3

The raging battle of the afternoon had faded to sporadic firing. The landing zone was set up for night operations, and the artillery and mortars had registered all around the perimeter. In the aid station Sergeant Keeton and Sergeant Keith jury-rigged a small, blacked-out tent of ponchos so they could safely use a light while working on the wounded. They were now well stocked with morphine and bandages. “About five P.M. we ran out of morphine and Colonel Moore called back to brigade for additional supplies. By dark we had received a hundred and twenty-five or a hundred and thirty styrettes of morphine,” says Keeton. “Seems like every American unit in Vietnam heard our request and sent it to us. I had enough morphine when we got back to base camp to do us for the rest of the Vietnam War.”

UPI reporter Joe Galloway had spent the afternoon desperately trying to finagle his way into LZ X-Ray, without success. Galloway had been aboard Colonel Tim Brown’s command chopper when I waved Brown off shortly after noon. At brigade headquarters Galloway had lined up with the troopers of Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion and boarded a lift helicopter—but only briefly. Lieutenant Rick Rescorla says: “As we boarded the Hueys, a stocky journalist in a sand-colored beret with an M-16 and camera jumped on one of our choppers. Major Pete Mallet came over and pulled him off. We needed the spot for a company medic.” Galloway shifted to LZ Falcon and there spotted Matt Dillon loading up the two resupply helicopters. He pleaded for a ride. Dillon said he couldn’t make that decision but agreed to put it to me over the radio. I told Dillon that if Galloway was that crazy and there was room, he could bring him on in.

During those walks in the sun around Plei Me I had gotten acquainted with Galloway. He was different from most of the other reporters who flocked to the 1st Cavalry in those early days. He stuck with a battalion through good and bad, rolling up in a poncho on the ground and staying the night instead of scrambling on a supply Huey and heading back to a warm bunk and a hot meal in the rear. During my time in Vietnam I met only two other reporters who displayed the same grit: Bob Poos of the Associated Press and Charlie Black of the Columbus (Georgia) Ledger-Enquirer.

There was one other thing: I had concluded that the American people had a right to know what their sons were doing in this war, on the ground, in the field. I welcomed visiting reporters to my battalion and, later, to my brigade. I told them they could go anywhere they wanted with my troopers, with only two restrictions: Don’t put out any information that will endanger us, and don’t interfere with operations. I never had cause to regret that openness.

Shortly after nine P.M. Bruce Crandall came up on the Pathfinders radio.* His message to me, via Lieutenant Dick Tifft, a vigorous young Californian who had brought in a team to run the helicopter landings, was that he and Big Ed Freeman were five minutes out, two slicks escorted by two gunships, bringing in Dillon and party plus more ammo and water.

As the helicopters dropped in on the final approach, Matt Dillon looked out toward Chu Pong. Plainly visible along the mountain slopes were hundreds of small lights winking in the dark forests. He also spotted a blinking light just below the top of the mountain directly above X-Ray, and a second blinking light on the northern slope of a 1,312-foot peak one mile due south. “I am convinced that the blinking lights I saw were signal lights. From where they were located on the mountains they could not be seen in X-Ray,” Dillon says.

But it was that other light show that mesmerized Dillon, Galloway, and the others aboard the choppers: an elliptical northwest-southeast stream of tiny, twinkling lights over half a mile long and three hundred yards wide moving down the face of the massif. The moving lights were no more than half a mile from our foxholes on the perimeter facing the mountain. Galloway, sitting atop a pile of grenade and ammunition crates, was frozen by the twinkling lights. For one heart-stopping moment he thought he was seeing the muzzle flashes of rifles firing at the two helicopters.

Dillon knew better: “These lights were being used by the North Vietnamese, hundreds of them, as they moved down the mountain toward the LZ to get in position for attacks in the morning. Artillery was called in on these lights as well as the signal lights on the two mountain tops. Sometime after midnight there was a large secondary explosion on an area on the mountain right over X-Ray.”

The Pathfinders momentarily switched on their small, shielded landing lights in the little clearing while Tifft talked Crandall and Freeman down through the thick curtain of dust and smoke hanging over X-Ray. Old Snake and Big Ed powered down into the darkness, clipping the tops of some trees, and within seconds Dillon, Galloway, and party bailed out and heaved the ammo boxes and five-gallon plastic water jugs into the tall grass; then the two choppers were outbound. Galloway recalls, “We crouched there in the darkness, tried to get our bearings, and waited for someone to come get us. Out of the darkness came a voice: ‘Follow me and watch where you step. There’s lots of dead people on the ground and they’re all ours.’ The voice, which belonged to Sergeant Major Plumley, led us to the command post.”

I welcomed Galloway with a quick handshake and then briefed Dillon, Whiteside, and Charlie Hastings, the Air Force forward air controller (FAC) while Joe listened. The first order of business was to bring artillery and air down on the locations where the lights had been seen. The second was to make sure that Sergeant Savage and the cut-off platoon were getting all the artillery they needed. Dillon and I discussed how to get to Savage’s platoon. Galloway found a tree, leaned back against his pack, and waited.

It was a restless night. All the units were on hundred-percent alert. Herren and his Bravo Company troops were into their second straight night without sleep. The enemy commander had at least a rough idea of our strength if he had counted the helicopters coming in during the day, and he knew for a fact that he had whittled us down. A full moon rose at around eleven P.M., giving the enemy commander on Chu Pong a better look at the perimeter. Dillon and I, although grateful that the enemy had not brought any of their anti-aircraft machine guns into play, still feared that they would do so, and soon. We had to keep artillery and air pounding the slopes to suppress those weapons before they could be brought to bear.

Thirty-seven miles to the northeast, Bruce Crandall and Big Ed Freeman finally shut down their Hueys at a huge helicopter pad, nicknamed the Turkey Farm, outside the wire at Camp Hol-loway, near Pleiku. They had been flying nonstop since six A.M.; it was after ten P.M. when Crandall shut down and tried to get out of the aircraft. “That is when the day’s activities caught up with me. My legs gave out as I stepped on the skid, and I fell to the ground. For the next few minutes I vomited. I was very embarrassed and it took some time to regain my composure. Someone slipped a bottle of cognac into my hand and I took a big slug. It was a waste of good booze. It came up as fast as it went down.

“I finally quit shaking and made it to the operations tent to recap the day and plan the next. The aviation unit had quite a day. We had not suffered a single fatality and we had not left a mission undone. When our infantry brothers called, we hauled. The standard for combat assaults with helicopters had been set on this day. I wondered about tomorrow. Would it be worse? I wasn’t sure I could handle another day like today. Then I thought again about the troops in X-Ray. The choice was not mine to make.”

Bruce Crandall was still steaming over the refusal of the medevac pilots to return to X-Ray to haul out the wounded. “The officer commanding the medevacs looked me up to chew me out for having led his people into a hot LZ, and warned me never to do it again. I couldn’t understand how he had the balls to face me when he was so reluctant to face the enemy. If several of my pilots had not restrained me, that officer would have earned a righteous Purple Heart that night. From that day forward, I planned every mission in such a manner that the infantry would never have to rely on anyone but my unit for evacuation of their wounded.”

All of our wounded flown out of X-Ray by Crandall’s Hueys ended up at Charlie Company, 15th Medical Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division, which was temporarily set up in tents at Camp Holloway. The executive officer of “Charlie Med” was Captain George H. Kelling, twenty-eight, from St. Louis, Missouri. Charlie Med’s five surgeons tried to stabilize the soldiers coming off the helicopters. “The treatment we provided,” says Kelling, “was designed to keep blood flowing through the patient’s system until he could be gotten to a hospital which had the personnel and equipment to perform definitive surgery.” Charlie Med’s doctors tied off perforated blood vessels to stop the hemorrhaging, and then pumped in whole blood.

Kelling recalls that many of the casualties were rapidly bleeding to death, so it was a race against time to get blood into the soldier faster than he was losing it, even while the surgeons were trying to tie off the bleeders. “We threw caution to the winds and often gave a patient four cut-downs [intravenous tubes tied into blood vessels] with four corpsmen squeezing the blood bags as hard as they could. It was not unusual for the patient to shiver and quake and lose body temperature from the rapid transfusion of so much cold blood—but the alternative was to let him die.”

Army Caribou transport planes from the 17th Aviation Company were standing by ready to evacuate the stabilized patients from Pleiku to Army hospitals at Qui Nhon and Nha Trang. After additional surgical repairs there, the most serious cases were flown to Clark Field in the Philippines, and then on to the United States. Those who were expected to recover within two or three months were evacuated to Army hospitals in Japan—and found themselves back in South Vietnam and back in the field in due course.

In Landing Zone X-Ray this first night, the enemy harassed and probed forward of all the companies, except for Delta on the east and southeast quadrant of the perimeter. In each case they were answered by artillery fire or M-79 grenades. Our M-60 machine gunners were under strict orders not to fire unless ordered to do so; we didn’t want to give their locations away.

Captain Bob Edwards and his Charlie Company troopers, reinforced by one of Myron Diduryk’s platoons, occupied the longest section of the perimeter, which now stretched across 140 yards on the south and southeast sides, tied in with Alpha Company on their right and Delta Company on their left.

Says Edwards: “The enemy probes occurred mainly in the vicinity of Lieutenant Lane’s position on my right. Small probes of about five to ten enemy. I think they were just trying to feel us out for automatic-weapons locations. The troops fired back with M-16 and M-79 fire. I really did not know what the enemy’s capabilities were that night, but I expected anything and told my platoon leaders to keep everyone on hundred-percent alert and to expect an attack.”

The fact that Charlie Company began fighting right after its arrival had kept the troops on the southern perimeter from digging good foxholes or clearing good fields of fire through the tall grass. The men had hastily dug shallow holes that protected them only if they were prone. Now they had time to dig better holes, but were prevented from doing so by the strict noise discipline ordered at nightfall by Captain Edwards, who didn’t want the sounds of digging to give away the American positions or to muffle the noise of enemy movements.

Bob Edwards’s reinforcements, Lieutenant Lane’s 2nd Platoon detached from Myron Diduryk’s company, held down Charlie Company’s right flank and tied in on their right with Captain Tony Nadal’s Alpha Company at the creekbed. They had done what they could to dig in but it was hard going because of the tangle of tree roots and rocks just beneath the surface of the hard, dry ground. Sergeant John Setelin, having seen to it that his gravely wounded buddy Willard was being taken care of at the aid station, returned to his squad’s position before nightfall.

Setelin got back, regained his composure, and told Lamonthe to watch the trees. “I didn’t move my men anymore. I kept everybody down until I could find out where this one sniper was, and sure enough in about five minutes he made the fatal mistake of swinging out from his tree. He was in a harness and roped very high in a tree. He swung around that tree like an aerial artist in a circus and sprayed fire indiscriminately when he came around. We waited him out and he came by one more time. When he did, we were ready. We eventually shot the cord holding him and he fell to the ground, dead. We were pretty well satisfied he was the one who had shot Willard.

“They probed us all night long. We had a few men wounded. I had never been in a situation like that. When they would come at us, they would come screaming and we could hear bugles.”

Delta Company, now commanded by Lieutenant Larry Litton, held down a shorter section of the line, immediately to the left of Bob Edwards’s Charlie Company. Delta was covering the east-southeast sector. The first sergeant of Delta, SFC Warren E. Adams, was in an L-shaped foxhole with Litton and two radio operators. Adams was a veteran of World War II and Korea and had run his company throughout a long succession of company and platoon commanders.

Sergeant Adams had placed the six M-60 machine guns of the company next to and tied in with Charlie Company’s leftmost unit, Lieutenant Geoghegan’s 2nd Platoon. Those machine guns had flat fields of fire to the south across Geoghegan’s left-flank positions to the southeast and directly east. These six guns constituted a most formidable position, capable of laying down a wall of grazing, interlocking fire. The guns and the gunners behind them would play a key role in defending X-Ray over the next forty-eight hours.

To the left of the six M-60 machine guns was the position where the battalion’s eight 81mm mortars, now resupplied with hundreds of rounds of ammo, had consolidated. From this position, the mortars could support any section of the perimeter with their high-explosive rounds. The mortar crews were not only responsible for their big tubes but also had to function as riflemen, helping Delta Company defend that side of the perimeter. To their left, with three more M-60 machine guns, was Lieutenant Jim Rackstraw’s recon platoon. They were securing the two crippled Huey helicopters sitting on the edge of the perimeter.

Specialist 4 Vincent Cantu, who had been appointed a mortar-squad leader that afternoon to replace a casualty, was alert and alive, and had every intention of staying that way. He recalls, “That night was just like day, thanks to the guys from the artillery that supported us. By that time we were all dug in. I had dug me a custom foxhole with space where I could sit, and places for all my ammo and grenades and weapons. I had a .45-caliber pistol, an AR-15 rifle, [an] M-79 grenade launcher and a 15-inch bowie knife plus my 81mm mortar and ammo for that. Also fifty feet of nylon rope for river crossings.”

Captain Myron Diduryk’s Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, minus Lieutenant Lane’s platoon, was on the left of Delta Company and the battalion’s mortar pits, protecting the north-northeast sector and helping cover the mortar crews and the small landing zone. “Colonel Moore directed me to occupy the sector extending from the Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, right flank at the stream bed to Delta Company left flank. The 1st Platoon led by Lieutenant Cyril R. (Rick) Rescorla was on the left, and the 3rd Platoon led by Lieutenant Ed Vernon was on the right.”

Diduryk’s troops dug in, cleared fields of fire, and prepared for the night. Lieutenant William Lund, the artillery forward observer, had the artillery fire marking rounds and pre-plotted the coordinates for instant barrages. During the night Diduryk’s men were harassed by sniper fire and a few minor probes of the perimeter.

To the left of Diduryk’s Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion were the lines of Captain John Herren’s Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, defending north and northwest. Herren recalls his men digging in the best they could: “I told the troops to at least dig prone shelters. A big ditch [the dry creek] provided natural cover. I put my command post in it. The fighting positions were forward of that, however. I put my machine guns in a position to cover my direct front. My perimeter had good grazing fire to the front. Diduryk had more of a problem because his terrain was not as open as mine. There were covered approaches leading into his defense line. The enemy could have come up our side, but I wasn’t apprehensive because we had fired in some real good defensive concentrations which were so close when we registered them that they blew me around in the ditch.”

On John Herren’s left, defending along the dry creekbed on the western perimeter, was Captain Tony Nadal’s Alpha Company. The bulk of Alpha’s men were employed holding the crucial creekbed, but a small section of the line now bent sharply south to tie in with Bob Edwards’s right flank twenty yards east of the creekbed. Captain Nadal says, “We repulsed short attacks, primarily on my left flank, where the 3rd Platoon was, and on the 1st Platoon in the center of my line. That attack came between one and two A.M.Artillery support increased, and I mistakenly believed that the crisis was past.”

Nadal’s new radio operator, Specialist Ray Tanner, said that with the arrival of reinforcements everyone began feeling a little better about the situation. “While things were quiet we had lots of time to think about what had taken place during the day. I think we all became men that day. After that afternoon, I don’t remember feeling real fear again. We were going to live and we knew we would win. I remember seeing lights come down the mountain. I got no sleep. There was artillery and mortar rounds going off all night, and small arms fire would flare up every once in a while. It was a very long night.”

On the Alpha Company perimeter that night, Specialist Bill Beck remembers “flares, bugles, fear, talk, thoughts of home, shadows, NVA silhouettes, green enemy tracers. We were still out in the open, flat on the ground, and the flares would whistle and burn bright and light us up as well. This worried the hell out of me; I lay very still and held my fire.”

Two other troopers in Nadal’s Alpha Company were not so conscientious about maintaining fire discipline. Every few minutes we would hear a “plunk” as an M-79 fired, then the explosion of the 40mm grenade out in front of Alpha Company. Every time this happened I told Dillon to call Nadal and find out what’s happening. Finally, Dillon told Nadal: “If you don’t stop that M-79 firing, Charlie [the enemy] is going to hit you over the head with a sack of shit.” Nadal investigated and reported back: Two of his men were short-timers, men who had only a few days left in the Army. They were determined to survive to catch their plane home, and were shooting up the bushes with the grenade launcher just in case anyone was out there. They wanted no North Vietnamese sneaking up on them and ruining their travel plans.

Out in the bomb-blasted scrub, 125 yards due west of the dry creekbed and our perimeter, the Lost Platoon had drained the last drops of water from their canteens and the juice from C-ration tins, and the riflemen, wounded and unwounded, faced the long night with thirst, courage, and trepidation. The men were spread out in two groups inside an oblong east-west perimeter. Ranger Mac McHenry controlled a group of about six men in the western part. Sergeant Savage had a dozen other survivors with him in the eastern part.

It was purely by chance that Savage, a three-stripe buck sergeant and junior to Sergeant First Class McHenry, ended up controlling the fight to save Herrick’s platoon: He had been closest to the radio when Sergeant Stokes was killed. Although he was only thirty yards away, Savage’s boss, SFC McHenry, was completely out of reach.

As darkness fell, Savage was on the radio with Lieutenant Bill Riddle, Herren’s artillery forward observer, walking the high-explosive barrages all around the cut-off platoon. “All of us were lifted off the ground by the impact and covered with dirt and branches,” Galen Bungum recalls. “Savage told them on the radio: ‘That’s right where we want them.’ We hollered that was too close. But I looked back where those first rounds hit and saw three men running toward us. We opened up. They must have been crawling up on our position when that artillery came in. They would sneak in as close as ten yards or less, and many times just stand up and laugh at us. We would mow them down. It begins to work on your mind: What are they laughing at? I couldn’t believe it.”

Any time Savage heard the enemy moving in the brush he brought artillery down on them, and often had the satisfaction of hearing their shouts and screams after the explosions. The sniper fire faded away at sunset and the enemy attacks lessened once the artillery ring was drawn around the platoon. John Herren, Matt Dillon, Sergeant Larry Gilreath, and others kept in close radio contact with Savage throughout the night. “I took my turn talking with him,” says Gilreath. “We both got pretty choked up, but I told him to hang on and we would see him tomorrow.” Dillon had previously commanded Bravo Company for eighteen months and he knew most of the men in Herrick’s platoon personally. He talked with Savage often during the night.

More than five miles northeast of X-Ray, at Landing Zone Falcon, my battalion’s rear-area headquarters detachment monitored and logged every radio transmission on the battalion net. My executive officer, Major Herman L. Wirth, a Pennsylvanian, commanded there. It was standard operating procedure for a battalion in the field to set up a small rear-area headquarters, commanded by the battalion executive officer. This rear headquarters was responsible for keeping the battalion supplied with everything it needed and for keeping track of communications, casualties evacuated, and the hundred other little, but very important, details that an infantry battalion commander has no time to deal with during a Shootout.

In the operations tent, Lieutenant Richard Merchant of Pontiac, Michigan, was in charge, assisted by Master Sergeant Raymond L. Wills of the intelligence section, and Master Sergeant Noel Blackwell of the operations section. Merchant had spent more than a year with Bravo Company under both Dillon and Herren. “My emotions welled high. I had been leader of 2nd Platoon, B Company, during the entire airmobile test phase and knew all but the very new replacements. The sergeants in the cut-off platoon were like family to me. We had soldiered together. Major Wirth, sensing my distress, suggested that I take a break from the radio.”

The North Vietnamese launched three separate attacks to keep the pressure on the trapped 2nd Platoon during that long night, each time sending about fifty men against the Americans and each time being beaten back by artillery and rifle fire. Savage had seven men unhurt and thirteen wounded. Nine others were dead. Some of the Lost Platoon’s wounded continued to fight, including Sergeant Ruben Thompson, who had been shot through the chest.

“Savage would call us and say: ‘I hear them forming up below me and I am sure they are going to attack in a matter of minutes.’ The men in the platoon later told me they were sure the enemy had run all the way through their positions during the night attacks,” says Captain Herren. “They were such a small group, it was dark, and the enemy had to contend with so much artillery, I don’t think they were sure of the platoon’s exact location.”

The first attack, before midnight, came just as Savage’s men heard troops heading for the landing zone on two large trails, one to the Americans’ south and one to their north. This attack was beaten off by the riflemen and by Savage’s employment of the artillery barrages.

At around 3:15 A.M. a series of bugle calls sounded, first faintly, then loudly, up on the mountain and around Savage’s platoon. The forward air controller, Charlie Hastings, immediately called for Air Force flare illumination and called down air strikes on the slopes above Savage. The flares and air strikes all arrived within twenty minutes, just before and during the second attack on the Lost Platoon, and helped break up the attack. Savage, though grateful for the assistance, asked John Herren to call off the flares because the trapped men were afraid the bright light would expose their precariously held positions. But in the light of the last flares dropped that night they saw North Vietnamese scurrying around the rough clearing, dragging their dead and wounded into the trees.

The platoon later heard still another large enemy force noisily moving down the northern trail toward X-Ray, and once again brought artillery fire down on them. This was followed by a flurry of hand grenades back and forth at about 4:30 A.M. Within an hour the first light in the eastern sky revealed dozens of khaki-clad enemy dead scattered all around the little knoll. The trapped platoon had survived the longest night any of them would ever know. They checked their ammunition and prepared to receive a dawn attack.

* Pathfinders served as combat air-traffic controllers.

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