Military history

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Rescuing the Lost Platoon

War is fear cloaked in courage.

—GENERAL WILLIAM C. WESTMORELAND

It was now approaching noon on Monday, November 15, and the time had come to push out again, this time with three companies, and rescue the Lost Platoon. Although the men of my battalion wanted to be the ones who did the job of bringing their comrades back into the perimeter, common sense dictated that Lieutenant Colonel Bob Tully’s newly arrived 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry, guided by Captain John Herren’s Bravo Company, be given the mission. My Garry Owen troopers desperately needed this lull to reorganize their depleted squads and platoons, evacuate their wounded, resupply with water and ammo, and screen the battlefields in front of them. Two of Tully’s companies were on the south side of the clearing and could easily continue moving around the outer ring of defenses toward the trapped men. There was no time to waste pulling my companies off the line, replacing them with Tully’s, and then assembling them for the mission.

Tully and I were agreed: I would give him Captain John Herren’s Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, which knew the ground and the route, and he would leave me his Bravo Company and his Delta Company. Tully would carry out a battalion-size assault, preceded by heavy fire support, with two companies abreast on line, and one company trailing in reserve. Tully: “Hal Moore’s proposal was most logical and practical. My unit was still on the move, still mobile. Time was of the essence. My battalion used a simple two up, one back formation—A/2/5 on the left, B/l/7 on the right, C/2/5 following A/2/5. The reason for a heavy left formation was that the main enemy activity appeared to be from the mountainous area on our left. All that was required was to get Herren’s company in the act and move out. Outside of a few coordinating instructions, there was little need to tell Herren much. He knew where the isolated platoon was, and he was anxious to extricate it.”

Tully’s ninety-six-man Alpha Company, on the left, was commanded by Captain Larry Bennett. “We passed through the southern half of X-Ray under rather heavy sniper fire from the south, which made the passage rather hairy to say the least.” Behind Bennett was Captain Ed Boyt’s Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry. After the prep fires lifted, Tully and his three companies kicked off the attack at precisely 1:15 P.M.

Herren says, “We had no contact en route. We put in a very good helicopter rocket strike between us and the cut-off platoon. Shortly thereafter I saw two North Vietnamese running to the right through the woods about three hundred yards away, getting out of the area. Once we got to the platoon we got some sniper fire from the Chu Pong hill mass on the southwest.” Lieutenant Dennis Deal and his surviving troopers were on Herren’s left flank, and this time Deal was loaded for bear: “I had a lot of grenades and threw one behind every anthill we saw. We grenaded our way up to the 2nd Platoon position. All that turned out to be unnecessary. We did not meet any opposition. We used grenades extensively and radioed Savage that we were doing so. We didn’t want any live enemy between us and the platoon like the day before. I threw eight or ten grenades.”

Even so, it was not a quick trip out. Bob Tully was an experienced battlefield commander and he saw no need to make it a race against time. His operations officer was Captain Ronald W. Crooks. Crooks says, “Fire support consisted mostly of marking rounds to confirm the location if we needed artillery quickly. We were not trying to surprise the enemy. He knew where we were and I am pretty sure he knew what our mission was. We fired additional rounds as harassment and interdiction fires to the south along the mountain to help secure Alpha 2/5’s left flank, and also forward of their advance.”

There was nothing there. No snipers. No ambushes. Nothing but dead North Vietnamese soldiers and their weapons. I was puzzled but delighted at the radio reports. While Tully was advancing, I passed orders to all companies on the X-Ray perimeter to screen forward three hundred yards and police up the battlefield. Sergeant Major Plumley and I again went forward of Bob Edwards’s Charlie Company positions.

In my after-action report I described the scene as follows: “Dead PAVN, PAVN body fragments and PAVN weapons and equipment were littered in profusion around the edge and forward of the perimeter. Numerous body fragments were seen. There was massive evidence, blood trails, bandages, etc., of many other PAVN being dragged away from the area. Some of the enemy dead were found stacked behind anthills. We found some of his dead with ropes tied around the ankles and a short, running end free. I saw two of our dead with similar ropes around their ankles. Possibly they had been captured alive and were being dragged off when killed. We found some of our dead’s wallets and dog tags on dead PAVN. Artillery and Tac air was placed on all wooded areas nearby into which trails disappeared. Numerous enemy weapons were collected along with other armament. Two prisoners were taken and evacuated. Friendly dead and wounded were collected. Some friendly were killed and wounded in this screening.”

Over on the right flank of the Charlie Company sector, Sergeant John Setelin had so far survived the carnage. “We were ordered to sweep out two hundred yards. We had gone maybe fifty yards on line when we could see the enemy right out in front of us. We fired. They returned it. Then we heard somebody on the right flank: ‘They’re coming down the mountain!’ Sergeant Charlie McManus, PFC Larry Stacey, Lamonthe, and I went west toward a creekbed. Then we saw these people behind us like they were trying to encircle us. The rest of the platoon came through and about that time Sergeant McManus shoved Stacey and myself out of the way. Then we heard an explosion and looked down and there was Charlie McManus laying there, dead. He had jumped on a grenade to save our lives. The grenade had come from the creekbed. The enemy had evidently tunneled into the side of it. It didn’t take Stacey long to put some M-79 rounds into the hole and eliminate him.” Staff Sergeant Charles V. McManus of Woodland, Alabama, was thirty-one years old when he gave his own life to save those of his friends.

Over on the northern side of the perimeter, Specialist Jon Wallenius was about to solve the mystery of the Y-shaped tree trunk and the pop-up shooting-range target: “A sweep was made forward from our positions by a unit who reported that they found seven dead North Vietnamese behind the tree, all shot in the head. I didn’t go look.”

During this lull the saddest, most painful, and hardest duty to endure was collecting our dead and loading them aboard the helicopters. There were so many that the brigade ordered in the big choppers, the CH-47 Chinooks. One such helicopter lifted out all forty-two of the dead from Charlie Company. They came in together, died together, and now they left together, wrapped in their green rubber ponchos.

Specialist 4 Vincent Cantu says: “We were picking up our dead and placing them in the choppers. Some of these guys I had known for two years, yet I could recognize them only by their name tags. Their faces were blown off. It was hard not to get sick. We would look at each other and without saying a word just continue putting our dead on the choppers.”

Mid-morning, before Tully arrived, Colonel Tim Brown flew in for a visit. Plumley recalls: “Lieutenant Colonel Moore saluted Brown and said, ‘I told you not to come in here. It’s not safe.’ Brown picked up his right collar lapel and waggled his full colonel’s eagle at Moore and said, ‘Sorry about that!’” Dillon and I gave him a situation report. Brown asked whether he should stay in X-Ray, establish a small brigade command post, and run the show. We recommended against that. I knew the area, and Bob Tully and I got along just fine. Brown agreed. Lieutenant Dick Merchant says: “Colonel Brown had trust and confidence in his commanders. I’m aware that some felt he should have landed in X-Ray and established a command post. I’ve never accepted that. The 1st Battalion 7th Cavalry was probably the finest battalion in Vietnam, well trained, superbly led, with outstanding officers and NCOs throughout the unit. Brown would have been out of place in X-Ray. Besides there was no room for a Brigade CR I recall it being rather crowded behind that anthill.”

Just before he departed, Colonel Brown told us that we had done a great job but now that Tully’s fresh battalion was coming in, along with two rifle companies of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cav, he would likely pull us out of X-Ray the following day. As we walked past the growing heaps of North Vietnamese equipment, Brown turned and asked if I would bring him a North Vietnamese pith helmet when I came out. He got his helmet.

As the lull lengthened and Tully continued to report no opposition to his movements, Dillon and I tried to puzzle out what the North Vietnamese were up to. Where were the survivors of those enemy battalions? Where had they taken their wounded? They had to have water for drinking, cooking, and taking care of those wounded. There may have been streams and springs in the ravines on the Chu Pong above us, but to carry wounded up those steep slopes would be a slow, difficult process. The nearest flowing stream on our map was the Ia Drang two miles north. To us that seemed a more likely field-hospital site than the slopes of the mountain. Add to that the fact that shortly after noon on November 15 the Air Force’s high-flying B-52 bombers out of Guam placed the first of six days of “ARC LIGHT” strikes on the Chu Pong massif. For the first time ever, the B-52 strategic bombers were being employed in a tactical role in support of American ground troops.

The personality of this battle was changing dramatically, and the enemy commander cannot have been a happy man this noon. Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Huu An was standing in one of the communications trenches up on the slopes of the Chu Pong massif. He remembers seeing and counting, high above him, eighteen B-52 bombers before he dove back in his deep bunker. Minutes later, the first of the five-hundred-pound bombs struck no more than six hundred yards from his bunker, but the huge explosions walked away from Colonel An, not toward him. He would live to fight on, but always with an appreciation of just how close a call he had on Chu Pong this day.

Up on the Lost Platoon’s little knoll, Sergeant Ernie Savage had passed the news that help was on the way. That raised the men’s spirits but it did not lessen their vulnerability. Savage says, “We got some firing right after daylight. We stayed down. Any time they saw us they’d fire on us.” It’s not clear what the North Vietnamese had in mind for the surrounded Americans. Wait them out? Starve them out? Pick them off one by one with sniper fire?

Whatever they had planned, just before three P.M. Herren’s and Bennett’s companies reached the shallow ditch and immediately came under enemy rifle fire. It was rapidly suppressed by long bursts of machine-gun fire. Savage was following the rescuers’ progress: “There was some fighting just before the relief got to us. They ran into something, not much. I could hear talk on the radio about killing some snipers.”

The rescuers crossed the ditch, just as Lieutenant Henry Toro Herrick’s men had the day before. From the ditch westward, visibility was good as the ground rose to the small knoll on the far northwest side of the clearing. For the rescue to be carried out, the clearing had to be secured. Says Bob Tully: “We secured the platoon by simply surrounding them after we reached their position.” Captain Bennett says: “On arrival at the clearing I was told to secure the eastern half of it. It was egg-shaped, maybe two hundred and fifty yards by seventy-five yards, with high grass and tree stumps throughout.”

John Herren recalls: “We picked our way through blown-down trees, anthills, and scrub brush until we reached the platoon.” By then some of Bennett’s troopers had seen the small band of surviving Americans and hollered to them. Sergeant Zallen, up on the knoll with Savage, knew that the long ordeal was coming to a close, but his heart was heavy: “I couldn’t bear to look at Sergeant Palmer.”

Now the lead elements of John Herren’s company approached the clearing, with Herren well forward and anxious to be reunited with what was left of his missing 2nd Platoon. Herren says, “It was a scene I will never forget. First we found the remains of Sergeant Hurdle and his weapons squad, who had been overrun. There were dead North Vietnamese sprawled nearby. Next, the small groups of Savage’s and McHenry’s men, some heavily bandaged, all of them covered with dirt and tired, but excited at seeing us.” Sergeant William Roland of Bravo Company’s 1st Platoon says the distance between where Hurdle and his machine gunners fought and died and the rest of Herrick’s platoon, sixty to seventy yards, made it plain that the brave machine-gun crews had given their lives buying time so their buddies could withdraw to higher ground.

In that tiny perimeter every man who could fire a weapon still had ammunition left, even after twenty-six hours of combat. There were twenty-nine men in the 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry when the fight started. Twenty-nine men were brought out: Nine dead, thirteen wounded, and seven unscratched. All the casualties had been suffered in the first ninety minutes of combat.

Captain Herren said it was a miracle that more of the wounded did not die, and that miracle was named Doc Lose. Herren says, “I am convinced that one of the major reasons that the platoon came through as well as it did was due to the actions of Specialist 5 Charles Lose, the medic. Every man I talked with in the platoon unanimously credited Doc Lose with saving the men who were badly wounded.”

Lieutenant Dennis Deal was one of the first to reach the platoon. “We couldn’t see each other. I yelled: ‘Are you guys still there?’ The answer came back: ‘Yes, we’re here!’ I walked over to where my friend Henry Herrick was laying dead and I stood looking down at him. It was so hot, so horribly hot that his body had already begun to smell. I did not want to remember him that way, so I turned away and occupied myself with other duties. But I have.” Sergeant Savage says the first men who walked into his perimeter couldn’t see him or his men. “All that artillery had blown dirt and dust on us and we looked like part of the ground,” Savage says.

“It was curious,” Deal says. “The men who had survived didn’t stand up. They just lay there in the shallow body holes they had scratched in the ground. They were still in a state of shock because of what they had been through.” Specialist Galen Bungum: “The first man I saw was Lieutenant [Ken] Duncan, the B Company executive officer. I hollered at him to get down. He said, ‘It’s OK, come on, let’s go!’ Then he threw me one of his canteens. More troops were standing around and I thought they were nuts. We couldn’t believe it. None of us would get up. After some coaxing, we got up slow.”

Lieutenant Deal saw a lot of dead North Vietnamese soldiers literally within feet of the Americans and one still alive. “One North Vietnamese was sitting against a tree, shot up terribly. But he continued to try to pull a grenade from his pouch. He still wanted, before he died, to get that grenade off. I was very impressed by that total dedication. He tried, until he finally died, to get that grenade out of his pouch, and we stood there and watched him. He couldn’t lift it more than a couple of inches and then it would fall back and he would start trying all over again.”

Platoon Sergeant Larry Gilreath says, “The thing I remember most was the peaceful way that Sergeant Palmer looked, laying on his back with his hands folded on his chest. We had gotten pretty close, and I almost lost it when I saw him. Then there was the way that each of them asked for water. And here I was with only about half a canteen to give them. That went fast. I was helping one of them, Sergeant Thompson I think. He was wounded, could hardly walk, and he asked me for a drink of water. I don’t think at that time there was a gallon of water in the whole battalion. Such a small thing like that, and I couldn’t give him a drink of water.”

One of the troopers called Lieutenant Deal’s attention to something lying on the ground. “The man said, ‘Look, there’s something red and I don’t know what it is.’ It was a book that a North Vietnamese soldier had dropped. It was filled with beautiful writing, beautiful script.” It was the jottings of a homesick young soldier—poetry, notes, letters. A sample: “Oh, my dear. My young wife. When the troops come home after the victory, and you do not see me, please look at the proud colors. You will see me there, and you will feel warm under the shadow of the bamboo tree.”

As Dennis Deal helped prepare the men and weapons for evacuation, he vividly remembers one other scene: “It was the final act of a North Vietnamese soldier who was killed. Before he died he took a hand grenade and held it against the stock of his weapon. Then he had gotten on his knees and bent over double. If anybody tried to get his weapon they were going to activate that hand grenade. When I saw the dedication of those two Vietnamese with their hand grenades, I said to myself: We are up against an enemy who is going to make this a very long year.”

Although the relief force had gotten in without major incident, they now began taking more small-arms fire from unseen marksmen. Captain Bennett, securing the eastern half of the clearing, got new orders to spread his platoons out and cover the entire perimeter. In the process of doing that Bennett and two of his men were shot by snipers.

The sudden outbreak of enemy firing lent new urgency to the mission. Bob Tully and I had agreed that the priority task was to collect Savage and his men and their weapons. No body counting; no searching for enemy equipment. No hanging around. Just get the hell out of there. We didn’t want to press our luck. It was now 3:30 P.M. and there was plenty of work to be done before dark: Evacuation of our dead and wounded. Resupply flights of ammo and water. Patrols out of the perimeter. Integrating Tully’s battalion into the American lines. Clearing fields of fire. Registering defensive fires. Setting out trip flares—flares set off by trip wires close to the ground.

Says Tully: “Our next concern was the actual movement of the personnel of the isolated platoon back to X-Ray. Many of them needed to be carried. Strange as it may seem, evacuating their casualties, plus a few of our own, took the greater part of two companies. Carrying wounded and dead men in the jungle in makeshift litters is no easy job when you have some distance to travel. And trying to maintain a good tactical posture under those circumstances is difficult. Troops are milling around; litter bearers become tired and need to be replaced. I concentrated on moving the casualties out as quickly as possible and securing the movement back to X-Ray in an organized fashion.”

Up on the knoll final preparations for the move were under way. Says Sergeant Larry Gilreath: “After we policed up the area, making sure that everyone was accounted for and that all their weapons were picked up, I asked Sergeant Savage if I could help carry Sergeant Palmer. He told me that would be fine.”

Lieutenant Deal says, “I remember somebody saying, ‘Now we have them all.’ I turned around. Just at that point the litter bearers who were carrying Henry Herrick’s body set his litter down and I looked back and saw Henry’s face in the red dirt. His head was hanging over the end of that litter. I don’t know why those kind of memories remain with you so long after the event. It seemed so unnatural for my friend to be laying stomach-down with his face in that red dirt. I recalled as I was looking at him that Colonel Moore had permitted a small number of troops to leave the ship when it docked in Long Beach, California, on the way to Vietnam. Lieutenant Herrick was one of the few people who had family in that area and was given a pass to go visit his mother and father. As I looked at him I remembered that and I was glad he had that last chance to see them. I have since been to Henry Herrick’s grave in Arlington. It’s right near the Tomb of the Unknowns on a beautiful hillside. A tree grows above it shading the headstone. On the other side of the Tomb of the Unknowns is Captain Tom Metsker’s grave.”

Lieutenant Colonel Bob Tully took one last look around, then gave the order to head east for X-Ray. Specialist Galen Bungum, his ordeal nearly at an end, had one last unsettling experience as he staggered down toward X-Ray: “I remember stumbling and falling down, ending up face to face with a dead enemy with his eyes wide open. I will never forget that.”

Just before four P.M. Matt Dillon got the radio call from Tully’s operations officer advising that the relief force was now an estimated fifteen minutes away from X-Ray. Dillon told Lieutenant Tifft to start calling in the helicopters. Then Tully’s force began closing on the perimeter. It was a bittersweet moment. Happy, relieved, and grateful to get that platoon back, I walked over to Tully and thanked him and his men. I shook hands with Ernie Savage and told him that he and his men had done a great job in the worst sort of situation. Then there was the sobering, grim sight of the dead and wounded of Herrick’s platoon. The dead lay on their poncho litters. Two or three of the wounded came in on their own feet, half-walking, half-carried on the shoulders of their friends. Some of those who had survived without a scratch were so drained that they also required help.

Captain Carrara, Sergeant Keeton, and Sergeant Keith quickly set to work tending the wounded. The dead were gently laid at the edge of the clearing, their booted feet awry and unmoving and somehow so terribly sad. My eyes passed over Sergeant Carl Palmer and, like Larry Gilreath, I was stopped by the peaceful expression, that half-smile, on his face.

Sergeant Gilreath helped cover the faces of the dead with their ponchos and then walked over to Sergeant Major Plumley: “Somewhere along the way I had picked up a .45 caliber pistol and didn’t realize I had it until we got to the CP. Plumley asked me if I knew that it was fully cocked, hammer back, and fully loaded. We decided that I would sit down and safe it.”

The helicopters began coming in. Lieutenant Dick Merchant was now in charge of the landing zone: “I still remember loading Sergeant Palmer and Sergeant Hurdle. I broke away to see John Herren and Bravo Company. He described the magnificent performance by the 2nd Platoon. His first words were, ‘Dick, we almost lost your platoon.’ He was exhausted but still the same solid, thinking John Herren I had known as my company commander.”

As Savage, Bungum, and the others came into the command post, Joe Galloway talked briefly to each of them: “They were like men who had come back from the dead. We were all filthy, but they were beyond filthy. Their fatigue uniforms were ripped and torn; their eyes were bloodshot holes in the red dirt that was ground into their faces. I asked each man his name and hometown and wrote them down carefully in my notebook, along with something of what they had gone through. The headline writers dubbed them ‘The Lost Platoon’ when my story moved on the wire.”

Somehow, Galen Bungum, Joe F. Mackey, and Specialist 4 Wayne M. Anderson, who had not been wounded, were put on an outbound helicopter and ended up back at base camp in An Khe. The four other unhurt members of the 2nd Platoon were sent back to duty on the X-Ray perimeter. Says Savage: “We got back on line in the creekbed not far from the anthill. PFC Russell P. Hicks had brought the machine gun back. There was a lot of firing going on that afternoon—no major attack, but a lot of snipers to deal with.”

Within half an hour after the Tully task force had returned to X-Ray, Brigadier General Richard Knowles came up on the radio asking permission to land. He says, “We came in fast. I jumped out and my chopper departed. Morale was high and the 1st Battalion, 7th Cav was doing a great job. I gave Hal a cigar and he quickly briefed me on the situation. Lieutenant Colonel John Stoner, our Air Force liaison officer, had accompanied me. I had been riding Stoner to get the air support in close. As Hal finished his briefing an air strike hit a target adjacent to the command post. The ground trembled and a bomb fragment flew into the CP area, ten or fifteen feet away from where we were standing. John Stoner walked over and gingerly picked up the smoking shrapnel, came back, and handed it to me: ‘General, is this close enough?’”

Before leaving, General Knowles told us that he would direct Tim Brown to pull my battalion and the attached units out of X-Ray the next day and fly us back to Camp Holloway for two days of rest and rehabilitation. But for now we faced the prospect of another long night defending this perimeter.

Dillon and I worked out a way to integrate Tully’s battalion into the lines. We tightened our own lines and placed Tully’s men on the eastern and northern parts of the perimeter, generally facing away from the mountain toward the valley. I kept my own battalion plus the two attached rifle companies from 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry where they were, covering narrower segments of the line but still controlling the areas where most of the fighting had occurred. The officers and men knew that ground well by now and this was not the time to undertake major shifts in the disposition of our forces.

Tully set up his battalion command post in a grove of trees about forty yards north of mine. Ammunition, water, and rations were distributed, with the primary focus again on getting plenty of ammunition down to every rifleman, every machine gun, and every mortar tube.

The four line companies of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cav were now down to a total of eight officers and 260 men. Charlie Company this morning had lost forty-two men killed—two lieutenants, sixteen sergeants, and twenty-four troopers. They had also suffered twenty wounded—their captain, two other lieutenants, two sergeants, and fifteen troopers. Charlie Company was no longer combat-effective as a rifle company. But we had a fresh battalion plus those two rifle companies from the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cav. With only light probes of the perimeter during the afternoon, the line companies had ample time to reorganize for the night ahead.

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