Military history

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Night Fighters

There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.

—WILLIAM TECUMSEH SHERMAN

Captain Myron F. Diduryk, commander of Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, had a strong hunch that he and his men, now occupying the old Charlie Company positions, would be attacked in strength this night, and he lost no time convincing his men that the enemy were coming and they had best get ready for a fight. In Myron Diduryk and Lieutenant Rick Rescorla, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion had two foreign-born officers whose accents and gung-ho attitudes lent a touch of Foreign Legion flair. The Ukrainian Diduryk and the Englishman Rescorla were destined, over the next seventy-two hours, to become battlefield legends in the 7th Cavalry—as much for their style as for their fearless leadership under fire.

Having spent the afternoon preparing his platoon positions, Rick Rescorla walked back to Diduryk’s command post—Bob Edwards’s old foxhole—just about dusk. “Are your men up for this?” asked Diduryk. “Do you feel they can hold?”

Rescorla replied: “We’re as ready as we’ll ever be. But if they break through us, sir, you’ll be the first to know. This CP is less than fifty yards behind us.” The Mad Cossack had no patience now for Rescorla’s usual banter. “Dammit, Hard Corps, cut the shit,” Diduryk snapped. “Stay alert. We’re counting on you.”

Diduryk, then twenty-seven, had commanded this company since May. He was eager and aggressive yet totally professional; over the next three days and nights he would emerge as the finest battlefield company commander I had ever seen, bar none. He operated on the basic principle of maximum damage with minimum loss.

Diduryk’s men had had three or four quiet hours of daylight to prepare for what was coming, and they made the most of it. His company, with the 3rd Platoon, Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cav attached, now held the same 140 yards of perimeter that Bob Edwards’s men had secured. Lieutenant William Sisson’s platoon of the same company was on the left; PFC John C. Martin, twenty-five, of Wichita, Kansas, among them.

Martin says, “We set up our perimeter and started digging our two-man fighting positions. I remember Platoon Sergeant Charles L. Eschbach came around to each position: ‘Dig it deeper and build a bigger and higher parapet. Set up fields of fire. Stay alert!’ We were all scared out of our wits, but we put being scared in the back of our minds and concentrated on what we were told. We continued to improve our positions even though the ground was hard. It was like digging through concrete. I remember, I’ll always remember, First Sergeant Frank Miller standing there, no helmet on, his bald head shining, smoking a cigar.”

Myron Diduryk and his soldiers had not yet been sorely tested, but soon they would be. During that lull Diduryk made certain that fields of fire and observation were cleared out to beyond two hundred yards; that good fighting positions were dug; that machine guns were placed in positions that assured flanking, interlocking fire; that trip flares and anti-intrusion devices were installed as far as three hundred yards out; that every man was loaded down with ammunition and that ammo-resupply points were designated; that all radios were checked and double-checked. Then Diduryk worked very carefully with the artillery forward observer registering preplanned fires all across his front. The officer, Lieutenant William Lund, had four batteries, twenty-four howitzers, registered and adjusted and on call.

Bill Lund, a twenty-three-year-old native of Edina, Minnesota, was an ROTC graduate of the University of Minnesota. He spent his first night in Landing Zone X-Ray learning the real world of close-in fire support. Artillery school solutions in those days considered four hundred yards dangerously close. Lund discovered that in X-Ray the big shells had to be brought down to within forty to fifty yards if you wanted to stay alive. Says Lund, “Myron Diduryk and I were side by side all the time, so I had an Infantryman’s knowledge of what was happening.”

Rick Rescorla, 1st Platoon leader, was six months out of OCS at the Infantry School at Fort Benning. But he had arrived there with a wealth of good training already under his belt. He had served in the British army in Cyprus and with the Colonial Police in Rhodesia, and he knew what soldiering was all about. What he did to prepare his position and his men speaks for his professionalism:

“I met with Lieutenant Bill Sisson, A/2/7, who would be on my left flank. Sisson, a personal friend from OCS class of April 1965, looked around at the dead NVA soldiers and wrinkled his nose. They were starting to get ripe. ‘Wish you were back in submarines?’ I asked. Sisson wore twin dolphins on his chest from Navy Reserve duty in Rhode Island. Convinced that the NVA would come back that night, we vowed to tie in our sectors tight as a duck’s ass. No weak links.”

Rescorla walked the terrain and tried to see it from the enemy’s point of view. Scrub trees, elephant grass, anthills, and some ground cover stretched to the front. The ground was not as flat as it first appeared, but had seams and thick ruts stretching off to the south, with a slight incline away from his positions. The hasty prone shelters dug by Charlie Company, 1st Battalion had been dug after nightfall under enemy pressure. Rescorla moved his men back fifty yards, which not only shortened the sector but meant the enemy would now have to leave the trees and cross forty yards of mostly open area to reach the Bravo Company foxholes.

Rescorla recalls, “Because of our shortened lines, I decreased the number of foxholes. Three-man holes were constructed. The M-60 machine guns were set on principal directions of fire from which they could switch to final protective grazing fire, interlocking with each other and with the machine guns on our flanks. Foxholes and parapets were built in detail. I tested the holes. Some were so deep the occupants could not even see over the parapet. In these cases firing steps were built back up. Two hours before dusk Sergeant Eschbach, A/2/7, and Sergeant Thompson organized a booby-trap detail. Carefully they rigged grenades and trip flares far out on the main avenues of approach. Claymore mines would have iced the cake, but somewhere they had been lost. A screwup, but I felt we were ready to tangle with the best of the North Vietnamese.”

Then, after talking with Captain Diduryk about defensive air, artillery, and mortar fires, Rescorla made a final walk of the line, visiting the neighboring 2nd Platoon. He says, “The gap-toothed James Lamonthe was part of the group on our right flank. He was the loudest mouth in the company, but a hard worker and good for morale. I asked: ‘When the firing starts are you guys going to stick around? If you are going to bug out, let me know’ By this time they understood my gallows humor. ‘Sir, we’ll still be here in the morning. Just make sure the Hard Corps [Res-corla’s platoon] doesn’t cut and run.’ The troops let their macho humor run wild.

“Sergeant Eschbach, a slightly built, hard-bitten forty-three-year-old NCO out of Detroit, walked over from Lieutenant Sis-son’s platoon and joined in. ‘I’m selling tickets on the next chopper to Pleiku,’ I told him. ‘Shit, sir, I wouldn’t miss this one,’ Eschbach said, then looked down at the Randall knife on my belt and added: ‘But if I decide to bug out, I’ll come over and pick up that knife from you.’ This kind of spirit showed the confidence I was looking for. Men scribbling forget-me-not letters to their next of kin were worthless. But these were men who believed they could win. I left them with some last words of advice: ‘They will come at us fast and low. No neat targets. Keep your fire at the height of a crawling man. Make them pass through a wall of steel. That’s the only thing that will keep them out of your foxholes.’”

PFC Richard Karjer, a native of Los Angeles who, at nineteen, was one of the youngest soldiers in the outfit, asked Lieutenant Rescorla: “What if they break through?” Rescorla’s response: “If they break through and overrun us, put grenades around your hole. Lay them on the parapet and get your head below ground. Lie on your back in your hole. Spray bullets into their faces. If we do our job, they won’t get that far.” The troops walked back to their holes and Rescorla moved off to his platoon command post, a small termite hill that had been used by Lieutenant Jack Geoghegan the night before. Geoghegan’s body had been found there. It was only twenty yards behind the line of new, deep foxholes.

Back at the battalion command post I made my own final checks. We were in excellent shape and morale was high. The perimeter was beefed up; we had plenty of ammo and medical supplies; all our casualties had been evacuated; air and artillery had us precisely fixed and ranged in. Continuous, close-in H and I (harassment and interdiction) fire would begin at dusk and continue throughout the night. Instructions were passed demanding tight fire-and-light discipline. No mortar fires would be permitted without my personal approval, and especially no mortar illuminating rounds. I wanted the mortars to hold back their illumination rounds for our last light in the sky in case the air and artillery folks used up all their flares.

By 7:30 P.M. it was dead dark. We looked forward to the moon rising, it was so black. But in those first four hours of night, except for light probing fire here and there on the perimeter, the North Vietnamese made no moves against us. Before midnight we got a transmission from brigade headquarters: My battalion would be pulled out of X-Ray the next day and sent back to Camp Holloway. The word came down to Dillon through the operations channel.

A bright, near-full moon was out by 11:20 P.M. Around midnight, Lieutenant Colonel Edward C. (Shy) Meyer, 3rd Brigade executive officer, passed me an astonishing message: General William Westmoreland’s headquarters wanted me to “leave X-Ray early the next morning for Saigon to brief him and his staff on the battle.” I could not believe I was being ordered out before the battle was over! I was also perplexed that division or brigade HQ had not squelched such an incomprehensible order before it reached me. My place was clearly with my men.

Even as that message arrived, North Vietnamese automatic-weapons fire opened up forward of Rick Rescorla’s platoon, and a stream of green tracer fire hooked over his command post at a height of fifteen feet. Rescorla and his radio operator crawled forward and rolled into a hole, joining PFC Curtis Gordon, from Detroit. Rescorla, estimating that the enemy guns were at least five hundreds yards out, suspected that the enemy was just testing the perimeter, and ordered his men to cease firing.

Then, at about one A.M., a five-man enemy probe was launched against the center of John Herren’s Bravo Company, 1st Battalion lines forty yards due west of the battalion command post. Some enemy rounds snapped over our heads. Two of the five enemy were killed; the others slipped back into the jungle shadows. That probe, added to the firing forward of Rescorla’s lines, was ominously similar to the enemy actions of the previous night and a clear-cut warning that the North Vietnamese hadn’t given up on X-Ray yet.

Tied up with these actions, I had not had time to respond to the order for me to leave for Saigon. Finally, around 1:30 A.M., I got Shy Meyer on the radio and registered my objections to the order in no uncertain terms. I made it very clear that this battle was not over and that my place was with my men—that I was the first man of my battalion to set foot in this terrible killing ground and I damned well intended to be the last man to leave. That ended that. I heard no more on the matter.

Out on the line it was quiet but tense. Myron Diduryk says, “During the hours after midnight I received reports from my platoon leaders of strange sounds forward of our lines. In addition, a high-pitched sound of some type could be heard during the stillness between firing of artillery H and I fires. Whistles later found on dead enemy soldiers provided the answer. The enemy apparently used the whistles and a prearranged number of long and short blasts to control the assembly and movement of troops as they massed for attack.”

Rick Rescorla says that during the periods of silence he encouraged talk between the foxholes to ease the tension. When all else failed, Rescorla sang “Wild Colonial Boy” and a Cornish favorite, “Going Up Camborne Hill”—slow and steady tunes, which were answered by shouts of “Hard Corps!” and “Garry Owen!” that told him his men were standing firm.

Just before four A.M. Captain Diduryk saw and heard indisputable evidence that the enemy was moving against his lines. “At approximately 0400 warning devices—trip flares and anti-intrusion devices—indicated quite a bit of movement in front of the 3rd platoon A/2/7 and my 1st and 3rd platoons. Some devices were as far forward as 300 yards. It appeared that the enemy was spreading out along a probable line of attack. It also appeared that they were executing a non-supported night attack since supporting weapons other than the 40mm rockets were not used by the enemy.”

Although the hand-grenade booby traps and trip flares were exploding, no enemy could yet be seen. That rapidly changed. At 4:22 A.M., Lieutenant Sisson radioed Diduryk: “I see them coming. Can I shoot at them?” (The platoons were under strict fire discipline to conserve ammo.) Lieutenant Lund recalls Captain Diduryk asking Sisson, “How close are they?” When Sisson replied, “I can almost touch them!” Myron’s immediate response was “Go! Kill them!”

According to Lieutenant Colonel Hoang Phuong, the 7th Battalion, 66th Regiment had come back with reinforcements and was again knocking on the southern and southeastern door to Landing Zone X-Ray. The H-15 Viet Cong Battalion was assisting in the attack as well as carrying ammunition and collecting the wounded.

In his diary, Diduryk described the scene. “My left and center platoons were under heavy attack by a North Vietnamese battalion. You could see those bastards come in waves, human waves. We greeted them with a wall of steel. I called for illumination. Lieutenant Lund called for direct support from four 105mm Howitzer batteries. These batteries gave us continuous fires using point detonating and air burst explosions. The foliage and trees to the front favored use of both fuses. We fired some white phosphorous[sic] also.”

For Bill Lund it was a forward observer’s wildest dream of a target come true. “Enemy in the open!” he radioed back to the gunners. Masses of the enemy swarmed toward Diduryk’s lines, clearly illuminated in the eerie light of swinging parachute flares fired by the howitzers.

Diduryk and Lund were in the foxhole command post together, with Diduryk firmly in control. Diduryk wrote: “The artillery was not fired on the same targets continuously. Lieutenant Lund had each of the four batteries fire a different defensive concentration and shifted their fires laterally and in depth in 100-yard adjustments. Later inspection of the battlefield revealed that this type of fire inflicted quite a punishment on the enemy.”

The initial enemy ground attack came against Lieutenant Sisson, then slanted toward Rescorla’s platoon as well. Rick Rescorla recalls, “M-16s jammed and every third man was down in the bottom of the holes with a cleaning rod, clearing the rifles. Hot brass showered down the neck of the luckless reloader. The NVA came forward in short rushes, dropping, firing, pushing nearer. Whistles. Shrill fierce voices of NVA noncoms kicking their men forward. A rocket-propelled grenade passed by with a rush of air. The spare rifles from Geoghegan’s dead platoon kept us up and firing while our own were being cleared of jams.”

The first rush, by at least three hundred North Vietnamese, was beaten off in less than ten minutes by small-arms, machine-gun, and artillery fire from the alert and well-prepared Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion troops. At 4:31 A.M., twenty minutes later, they came back. Diduryk: “The intensity of their attack increased and I was under assault aimed at my three left platoon sectors.”

Screams, shouts, and whistles split the night as the NVA swept down the mountain, straight into the smoke-clouded killing ground. Now all the mortars of my battalion and Tully’s were turned loose, adding their 81mm high-explosive shells to the general mayhem. Rifleman John Martin, who was in Diduryk’s lines, says: “We kept pouring rifle and machine gun fire and artillery on them and then they broke and ran. I don’t think we had any casualties but they were catching hell.”

By now the Air Force C-123 flare ship Smoky the Bear was overhead and its crew was kicking out parachute flares nonstop. We halted artillery illumination to conserve it for later use, if needed. Myron Diduryk wrote: “The illumination proved to be of great value. It gave us the ability to see and place effective small arms fire on the enemy. I could see the enemy formations as they assaulted in my sector. My forward observer was able to see the targets and place effective artillery fire on the enemy. The enemy would wait until the flares burned out before attempting to rush our positions. While the flares were illuminating the battlefield, the enemy would seek cover in the grass, behind trees and anthills, or crawl forward. Low grazing fire prevented the enemy from penetrating, but some managed to get within 5 or 10 yards of the foxholes. They were eliminated with small arms and hand grenades.”

In the midst of this bedlam a blazing flare under an unopened parachute streaked across the sky and plunged into the ammunition dump near the battalion command post. It lodged in a box of hand grenades, burning fiercely. Without hesitation, Sergeant Major Plumley ran to the stacks and with his bare hands reached into the grenade boxes and grabbed the flare. Plumley jerked the flare free, reared back, and heaved it out into the open clearing. He then stomped out the grass fires touched off by the flare, in and around the ammo crates.

Over on the perimeter Rescorla’s men fought on. “Our M-79s switched to direct fire [fire delivered to a visible target] and lobbed rounds out between seventy-five and a hundred yards. Still the shadowy clumps moved closer. RPGs and machine guns crackled and they blasted at us from the dark line of ground cover. Across the open field they came in a ragged line, the first groups cut down after a few yards. A few surged right on, sliding down behind their dead comrades for cover. An amazing, highly disciplined enemy. A trooper cursed and pleaded in a high-pitched voice: ‘Goddammit, stop the bastards!’”

For the next thirty minutes the field artillery, four batteries of twenty-four 105mm howitzers firing from LZ Falcon just over five miles away and from LZ Columbus just three miles distant, dominated this field. Lieutenant Bill Lund, with his imaginative in-depth, lateral, and preemptive close-in adjustments of fire from the big guns, was the maestro of the salvos. The North Vietnamese could be seen dragging off their dead and wounded. On their last attempt, against Bob Edwards’s Charlie Company less than twenty-four hours before, they had quickly gotten inside the artillery ring and grabbed Edwards’s men in a deadly bear hug. This night they were stopped cold.

At 4:40 A.M. Diduryk called for more ammunition, and under fire the recon platoon of my battalion made the first of two resupply runs, hauling boxes of rifle and machine-gun ammo and M-79 grenades from the termite-hill command-post dump to the foxholes.

The enemy commander had no doubt assumed that the left side of Diduryk’s sector would be lightly held by the battered survivors of Charlie Company. When he found the going anything but easy he shifted the weight of his attack, launching against Diduryk’s two platoons on the right. At 5:03 A.M. the third attack came, against Lieutenant Lane’s platoon. Sergeant John Setelin recalls, “In the afternoon we had set out trip flares and anti-intrusion devices. That device was the size of a cigarette package with a timing wire in it, and compressed air. The wire would break easily and a small alarm and light would go off telling you something was out there. We strung a lot of them. Sometime after four A.M., I saw the little light blink on an anti-intrusion device and heard the tone. I figured something was coming. Lamonthe motioned to me to stay down and quiet, and was pointing at his box going off.”

Setelin whispered orders to his squad, telling men on either side of him to hold their fire, not to shoot until the enemy stepped out into that open space right in front. “Suddenly a flare and a booby trap went off and they were there in the grass shooting at us. I took a round just above the elbow, nothing really, just a stitch or two and a piece of tape after the fight. Nobody shot back. Then they stepped into that open area. The flares were burning, they were lit up, and it was easy. We opened up and picked ’em off. It was a light attack. Then they hit us harder thirty minutes later, blowing bugles, blowing whistles. We killed them all. Then some white phosphorus came in about fifteen feet in front of my foxhole and I lost most of my web gear and my shirt. Had about eight burns on one arm.” John Setelin sat there under the light of the flares and used the point of his bayonet to quickly dig the still-burning WP fragments out of his flesh.

Within half an hour the attack on Diduryk’s right was violently repulsed. Lieutenant Rackstraw’s 1st Battalion recon platoon now made a second ammo-resupply run out to Diduryk’s lines. At 5:50 A.M., forty minutes before daybreak, Smoky, the flare ship, ran dry. No more light from the sky. I ordered immediate resumption of artillery illumination and lifted the restriction on use of mortar illumination rounds.

At 6:27 A.M. the North Vietnamese commander launched another heavy attack, this time directly at Myron Diduryk’s command post. Again the men of Sisson’s and Rescorla’s platoons bore the brunt. PFC Martin: “About 6:30 A.M., they hit us again with an ‘All or Nothing’ attitude. It was like a shooting gallery; waves of NVA were coming in a straight line down off Chu Pong Mountain.” Specialist 4 Pat Selleck of the recon platoon was hauling more ammo to the line: “I heard bugles blowing. I saw in the light of the flares waves of the enemy coming down at us off the mountain in a straight line. One had a white hat or helmet on and it was like he was directing the line of march. His weapon was slung over his shoulder. They just kept coming down like they didn’t care. The line company was shooting them like ducks in a pond.”

From Lieutenant Bill Lund’s point of view, the enemy commander could not have picked a better place for this attack. In the light of the flares, clusters of enemy soldiers were clearly visible only fifty to a hundred yards out across a hundred-yard front. Lund literally shredded those units with 105mm airburst shells and a nonstop bombardment of 81mm mortar shells. With their rifles and machine guns, the troopers in the forward foxholes ripped up those who escaped the heavy stuff. After only fourteen minutes of this, the few North Vietnamese survivors broke off the attack and started back the way they had come, to the southeast, dragging some of their wounded comrades.

Forward of Rescorla’s troops, the number of moving enemy dwindled. “Suddenly only one NVA was still moving, thrusting his squat body forward in one last effort. Every rifle and machine gun was firing at him. He finally fell three paces from a foxhole on our right flank. For the next five minutes men kept firing at him, refusing to believe he was mortal. A brave and determined soldier. ‘Look, he’s carrying a pistol,’ Sergeant Mussel-white shouted. I started to crawl out through the dust to grab the souvenir, but Staff Sergeant John Leake beat me to it. Specialist 4 Robert Marks spoke up: ‘Man, I think I’ve been hit.’ That strong soldier from Baltimore had been hit in the neck long before, but chose not to report it until the battle was over.”

Rescorla adds, “A quietness settled over the field. We put more rounds into the clumps of bodies nearest our holes, making sure. Ammunition was again resupplied by the recon platoon. Two full loads had been expended. We stretched in the gray dawn. Suddenly an NVA body bucked high. His own stick grenade had exploded under him. Suicide or accident? We watched our front. Old bodies from the day before mingled with newly killed. The smell was hard to take. Forty yards away a young North Vietnamese soldier popped up from behind a tree. He started his limping run back the way he had come. I fired two rounds. He crumpled. I chewed the line out for failure to fire quickly.”

The night attack had failed; it broke against the firepower and professionalism of Myron Diduryk and his officers and men. Hundreds more North Vietnamese soldiers died bravely doing their best to break through Myron’s iron defenses. Captain Diduryk’s Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, had borne the brunt of the attack and suffered precisely six men lightly wounded. Not one was killed.

During the two and a half hours of the attack against Diduryk’s sector, the rest of the X-Ray perimeter had been quiet—too quiet. Dillon and I discussed the possibility of conducting a reconnaissance by fire to check for presence of the enemy elsewhere on the line. We had plenty of ammunition and, what the hell, the enemy knew where our lines were as well as I did by now. We passed the word on the battalion net: At precisely 6:55 A.M. every man on the perimeter would fire his individual weapon, and all machine guns, for two full minutes on full automatic. The word was to shoot up trees, anthills, bushes, and high grass forward of and above the American positions. Gunners would shoot anything that worried them. By now we had learned to our sorrow that the enemy used the night to put snipers into the trees, ready to do damage at first light. Now was the time to clean up out in front.

At the stated time our perimeter erupted in an earsplitting uproar. And immediately a force of thirty to fifty North Vietnamese rose from cover 150 yards forward of Joel Sugdinis’s Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion lines and began shooting back. The “Mad Minute” of firing triggered their attack prematurely. Artillery fire was instantly brought in on them and the attack was beaten off. When the shooting stopped one dead sniper dangled by his rope from a tree forward of Diduryk’s leftmost platoon. Another dropped dead out of a tree immediately forward of John Herren’s Bravo Company, 1st Battalion command post. A third North Vietnamese sniper was killed an hour later, when he tried to climb down his tree and run for it.

Sergeant Setelin’s arm, speckled with the white phosphorus burns, began hurting him now. “I was sent back to the aid station, where my arm was bandaged, and I was waiting to be medevac’d out. The more I sat there the more I realized that I couldn’t in good faith get on a chopper and fly out of there and leave those guys behind. So I took the sling off my arm and went on back out. Somebody asked: ‘Where are you going?’ I said: ‘Back to my foxhole.’ Nobody said anything else.”

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