Military history

17

image

It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over

Those who do not do battle for their country do not know with what ease they accept their citizenship in America.

—DEAN BRELIS, The Face of South Vietnam

It was a short, fast ride to Landing Zone Falcon, just five and a half miles east of X-Ray. As we landed among the artillery pieces I saw, seventy-five yards away, a group of my troopers off the northwestern edge of the LZ. They were in the dry, beaten-down elephant grass, waiting for the Chinooks to fly them back to Camp Holloway. Sergeant Major Plumley and I headed in that direction and quickly recognized them as the seventy or so men of Captain John Herren’s Bravo Company. We walked among them and I shook their hands and thanked them for all that they had done, looking into their glazed eyes. We were all so worn out, none more so than Bravo Company. John Herren and his men had been without sleep for eighty-one hours. We were all terribly saddened by the deaths of our comrades.

Dean Brelis, an NBC News correspondent, was in LZ Falcon that afternoon. He captured the scene in his 1967 book, The Face of South Vietnam.

Hal Moore was the last man to come out of the battle. It was the biggest battle he had ever fought. He was a lieutenant colonel, and he carried himself like a proud man. His sergeant major was at his side. It would need a Shakespeare to describe what happened then, but it was something that was love and manliness and pride. It was the moment of the brave. Hal Moore turned and went from group to group of his men, and only a few bothered to get up because there was no exclusivity now, no rank, and Hal Moore did not want them to stand and salute. He was saluting them. He talked with them. He thanked them. He was not solemn, and he did not bring to his greetings the salutations of a politician. There was no poverty of spirit in his handshake, and he shook every man’s hand. It was a union of the men who had met and defeated the enemy, not forever, not in a victory that ended the war, but in a victory over their uncertainty. When their hour had come they had done their job, and it was this thought, too, that Hal Moore had in his mind. And he said that if they had won no one else’s gratitude, they had his.

After forty minutes or so with Herren’s company we walked over to the artillery positions, manned by A and C batteries of the 1st Battalion, 21st Artillery, and commanded, respectively, by Captain Don Davis and Captain Bob Barker. They called themselves the Big Voice of Garry Owen at this point, but in November of 1991, a quarter-century later, Joe Galloway found one of those same artillery batteries supporting the 1st Cavalry Division in the Saudi Arabian desert. A bright young captain from Virginia who knew his history and his man saluted the reporter and told Galloway proudly: “Sir, we call ourselves the Falcons and I expect that you know why better than almost anyone else. We are the artillery that supported you in your time of need in Landing Zone X-Ray.” He insisted that Galloway inspect the battery before joining his men for Thanksgiving dinner.

I asked Barker and Davis to gather their gunners. The artillerymen, who had fired more than eighteen thousand rounds over fifty-three straight hours, were exhausted. Huge mountains of empty brass shell casings had grown beside their guns. The gunners who gathered in front of me were stripped to the waist, their skin dyed red from the dirt and sweat. I thanked them from the bottom of my heart. I told them exactly what their barrages of high-explosive shells had done for us in the heat of battle, and what they had done to the enemy. First Sergeant Warren Adams ran into an old friend who was top sergeant of one of the batteries. Says Adams, “He told me: We melted out a few tubes trying to keep you guys warm up there.”

SFC Clarence W. Blount of Pensacola, Florida, was chief of a firing section in Captain Davis’s battery. Almost twenty years later he wrote me: “I remember you and Sergeant Major Plum-ley came to our gun position and you gave our entire unit a fine speech for the great artillery support that we provided during the battle at X-Ray. That speech made a lasting impression on me. I felt that my usefulness to my country, the Army and my unit was really at its peak at that time. I have been wanting to say that to someone for a long time.”

Barker recalls: “There were numerous times during X-Ray that my battery exceeded sustained rates of fire. Recoil mechanisms failed on two howitzers early the second day. An ordnance team quickly repaired them that morning. When Lieutenant Colonel Moore’s battalion was pulled out of X-Ray he talked with all the artillerymen in Falcon. His words made the cannoneers feel they had played a very significant part in the battle.”

Later, as the Chinooks began ferrying the troops to Camp Holloway, Plumley and I stayed behind a while longer, talking with the artillerymen, before boarding the Huey for the ride back. We were not present to see what reporter Dean Brelis witnessed at Holloway and recounted in his book:

By late afternoon they were all back at Pleiku. They walked off the big Chinooks and, without anyone giving a command, they straightened up. They were not dirty, tired infantrymen anymore. Hal Moore’s battalion voluntarily dressed their lines, as if they were coming back to life. And the GI’s who had not been in the Ia Drang glanced at them with something approaching awe because these were the guys who had been in it. No cheers, but they could not conceal their admiration. A few GI’s were taking pictures as we went by—there was something dramatic in the scene all right, because Hal Moore’s men had not yet thrown off what they had been through. There was no shouting, no telling off the ones who had been lucky enough to stay back, because that was the luck of the draw. But the signal had passed through these men that they were coming back to base camp and they just couldn’t march in as if nothing had happened, because a great deal had. They marched jauntily and smartly, without making it a production. You would have, too, if you had been one of them. The GI’s with the clean faces and uniforms watched them to see what they could tell about combat from these men. It was the kind of scene that Hollywood could never produce, because the men had the dirt and gore of combat completely drenched into them. You can only get that dirty and that proud if you have been in combat and survived it. You can’t put it on.

In the cockpit of the Huey flying Plumley, Ouellette, and myself toward Pleiku was Serpent 6, Old Snake, Major Bruce Crandall. Beside Crandall was his copilot, Captain Jon Mills. Old Snake had taken us into this thing and now he was taking us out. When we landed and shut down at Camp Holloway, the sergeant major and I left to make sure that our troopers were being well taken care of. But before walking off I told Crandall that after all that had happened I sure could use a drink. Old Snake pointed out a small, gaudily painted Quonset-hut Officers Club nearby, and we agreed to meet there later.

Plumley and I found that the troops were doing all right. They had been given hot showers, clean fatigue uniforms, hot chow, cold beer, and some pup tents for shelter. After the experience of the Ia Drang this was almost wallowing in luxury. Gunner Bill Beck: “We were issued new, clean clothing. How bloody my own clothing was! Shoulders, arms, front, back, legs. Christ, that’s what I remember most about the Ia Drang—how goddamned bloody it was.” Mortar observer Jon Wallenius: “We were withdrawn back to Pleiku for some R and R. Seems to me we got back in time for a hot supper. We slept near the airstrip on the ground.” Specialist 4 Ray Tanner: “When I got back to our staging area at Pleiku we all started trying to find who was missing. I had a home boy in Charlie Company 1/7 so I went looking for him. At the same time he came to Delta Company to find me. Each of us was told that the other had been either killed or wounded. We bumped into each other moments later on the way back. It was a wonderful reunion. Never let it be said that fighting men are afraid to hug and cry. We did both. His name is Hardy Brown.”

Sergeant Steve Hansen recalls: “Got damned drunk at Camp Holloway. Also remember the first meal we got: canned B-ration hamburger patties served hot out of Marmite cans. Tasted like steak. One of the cooks apologized to every man because it was all they had. I remember feeling that I had been tested and found to be a man.”

Assured that my men were being taken care of, I rejoined Bruce Crandall and Jon Mills and we headed off for that drink. I was still wearing my grimy, frayed old World War II-style herringbone twill fatigues that I had lived in for the last five days. In Pleiku: The Dawn of Helicopter Warfare in Vietnam, J. D. Coleman tells what happened next:

When they walked up to the bar the bartender told them he couldn’t serve them because Moore was too dirty. Mills remembers how Moore patiently explained that they had just come out of the field and would really appreciate a drink. The bartender replied: “You’re in the First Cav. This Club doesn’t belong to you; you’ll have to leave.” Mills says that was when Hal started to lose his patience. He said: “Go get your club officer and we’ll settle this. But right now, I’m here and I’m going to have a drink. And I would like to have it in the next couple of minutes.” The bartender beat a hasty retreat to summon the club officer but still refused the trio service. So Moore unslung his M-16 and laid it on the bar. Mills and Crandall solemnly following suit with their .38’s. Moore then said: “You’ve got exactly thirty seconds to get some drinks on this bar or I’m going to clean house.” The bartender got smart and served the drinks. By this time, the club officer had arrived. He had heard all about the fight in the valley and knew who Moore was. And, as it turned out, so did most of the customers in the club. From then on, the trio couldn’t buy a drink. That was when they knew that the fight on LZ X-Ray was finally over.

Bruce Crandall pulled out a box of Bering cigars, the kind that come sealed in aluminum tubes. He passed them around. I fired one up, sipped a cold gin and tonic, and let my mind go blank. Lieutenant Rick Rescorla, the tough Englishman, remembers that night: “After a shower, but no fresh clothing, I joined the officers of the 1st of the 7th at the Holloway Club. We savored the cold beer but did not go overboard. There was no boisterous celebration of our victory; we had all lost close comrades. We gravitated in a tight circle around Colonel Moore. He could not have moved if he wanted to. The nearest men were jammed up against him like a Rugby scrum. Every few minutes the four or five men closest to him would be gently edged aside and the outer circle would become the inner one. The inner circle locked eyes with the commander. Unspoken mutual respect was exchanged. Now and then someone would grunt ‘Garry Owen’ or ‘shit’ with the same tone as one would say ‘Amen.’ All 12 or so sweating officers had learned something special about themselves and each other while serving with Hal Moore in the 7th Cavalry in the Ia Drang Valley.”

We were all exhausted. That and the drinks and the emotion and the feeling of security did us all in after an hour or two and we drifted off to catch some sleep. I went to the battalion operations tent, which was quiet but operating normally. Staff Sergeant Robert Brown was the NCO on duty. I stretched out, boots and all, on the bare canvas of a folding GI cot and was instantly asleep. When I awoke at daybreak on November 17, I noticed that sometime in the night Sergeant Brown had covered me with a brown wool GI blanket.

Back on Landing Zone X-Ray it had been a relatively quiet night for Bob Tully’s 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry and Bob McDade’s 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry. Quiet, but both units were on hundred-percent alert. Sporadic rifle fire, a few mortar rounds, and the continuing American H and I fire kept everyone awake. That, and the growing stench of hundreds of dead bodies ripening in the heat, prevented sleep, even if it had been permitted. Colonel Tim Brown had alerted both battalion commanders to prepare to pull out of X-Ray the next morning; B-52 strikes would be targeted on the near slopes of Chu Pong, and the American troops would have to be at least two miles away from the impact area. Departure time was set for nine A.M.

Both battalions would march northeast, with Tully in the lead, headed straight for Landing Zone Columbus. McDade’s battalion would follow Tully’s initially, then turn west and northwest toward a small clearing code-named LZ Albany. McDade’s battalion had lost Myron Diduryk’s Bravo Company and one platoon of Alpha Company, now back at Holloway for much needed rest, but Tim Brown had attached Captain George Forrest’s Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry to McDade to make up the difference.

Lieutenant Colonel Bob Tully had commanded his battalion for eighteen months. He knew his officers and men personally: He had trained them himself. By the luck of the draw, Lieutenant Colonel Bob McDade, a three-war man, had commanded his battalion less than three weeks. For the previous eighteen months he had been the division G-l, or chief of personnel, and almost ten years had passed since he had been in command of troops. Although McDade had commanded a rifle platoon in the South Pacific in World War II and a rifle company in Korea—and wore two Silver Stars and three Purple Hearts—he was feeling his way into this war and this command very carefully.

McDade had done a good job as personnel chief for the division commander, Major General Harry W O. Kinnard, and Kinnard had rewarded him with a battalion command. But not without some reservations. He assigned his own personal aide, Major Frank Henry, to go down to the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry as McDade’s executive officer “to keep things going until McDade could get his feet wet.”

The 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry was the same mix of draftees, good NCOs, green lieutenants, and good company commanders that were found in its sister 1st Battalion, 7th Cav. But it had not had the same intense airmobile training that we had gotten in the 11th Air Assault Test. When the 1st Cavalry Division got orders to Vietnam the Army handed two additional infantry battalions to General Kinnard in July of 1965 to fill up the ranks. The 2nd Battalion, 7th Cav was one of those battalions.

Colonel Tim Brown recalls: “When they joined us they were scattered all over the country, some units at Bragg, some at Fort Jackson, just scattered. I asked the battalion commander, [Lieutenant Colonel] John White, how many men he had. He said he had a hundred men for the whole battalion. So the Army started filling that battalion with people from the 101st, the 82nd Airborne, some from Fort Lewis. They were just a bunch of strangers to each other. Hell, I rounded up some helicopters and had them take the 2/7 troops up for a ride just so they would know what it was like in a helicopter. That was all the airmobile training we had time to give them at Benning.”

The battalion sergeant major, James Scott, says: “We got a lot of replacements in, filled up our battalion, prior to joining the cavalry. Airmobile training? We had precisely one helicopter ride at Fort Benning and that was our airmobile training. No more than two percent of the whole battalion had any combat experience. Frightening to think of. We were definitely new and not trained as a unit in airmobile operations.”

First Lieutenant J. L. (Bud) Alley, Jr., a native of South Carolina, had joined the 2nd Infantry Division in August 1964, directly out of ROTC at Furman University under an experimental program the Army called U2. It took a new ROTC graduate and put him directly on active duty in command of troops without first sending him through the officers’ basic infantry course. “I spent three months directly in the field in Air Assault II. I was in the 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry and we were a mech infantry unit. They were practicing air assault against us. We came back in from the field at Thanksgiving, then on 15 February 1965 I was sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, to communications officer school. That took three months. When I came back we were moved to Fort Bragg to take over training duties because the 82nd Airborne Division was in the Dominican Republic and they had a bunch of new people turning up and nobody at Bragg to deal with them. I was there at Bragg in July when President Johnson went on television and said the Air Cavalry Division would be deployed to Vietnam.

“Next day we got called back to Benning. I was immediately assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 9th Infantry, on the day that it was redesignated the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry. It was a remnants outfit, with new people turning up every day. Nobody knew anything, and nobody knew anybody. It was a blur of disposing of POVs [privately owned vehicles] and POE [preparation for overseas embarkation] and packing up. Airmobile training? Hell, I had my first helicopter ride in my life from the beach in Qui Nhon to division headquarters at An Khe in Vietnam.”

Lieutenant Alley says he thought the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cav was a pretty decent unit, no better and no worse than most of the rest. “The NCOs and staff people were good. Captain Jim Spires [battalion operations officer] was top-drawer, and I can’t say enough good about Major Frank Henry. He was a first-rate guy, a real cool head under fire. The company commanders seemed to know their jobs, especially Skip Fesmire and Myron Diduryk. We had one or two units that had a bit of light contact out in the field. Headquarters Company was a different unit than a regular line company. We were staff people—supplies, communications, and medical people. Noncombatant administrators and support people.”

Lieutenant Colonel Edward C. (Shy) Meyer, who later would become Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, was Tim Brown’s executive officer in the 3rd Brigade that fall. He recollects, “A deliberate decision was made in those first operations in Vietnam and later up in Pleiku to put 2/7 in areas where it was clear they would have the opportunity to work on the fundamentals, orchestrating their movement through jungle, so they at least had some time to work together where there were not a lot of enemy. McDade was a very new battalion commander, but I should say that he had very strong company commanders and very strong NCOs with combat experience in Korea and even World War II. I knew some of those people from Korea and they were good. Frank Henry, the executive officer, always knew what was going on; he had a good feel for getting patrols out and taking care of logistics. I thought he was a good adjunct and prop for McDade during his learning period.”

One of the strengths of the 2nd Battalion was Sergeant Major James Scott. He had made the landing at Normandy and was wounded in combat three times between June and December of 1944. He served thirteen months in combat in Korea and had been with the 2nd Infantry Division at Fort Benning for six years. “I had twenty-four years service in 1965; I could have retired, but that was no time to quit, when you know you are going to be needed and you have some experience. Colonel White, the battalion commander that summer, was a World War II veteran. We talked a lot about obtaining experienced personnel.”

Scott had his eye on Sergeant First Class Charles Bass, who was in a 2nd Division unit but had not been ordered to Vietnam because he had just returned from a tour there as an adviser to the South Vietnamese army. “He had plenty of experience. I met him on the street in Columbus, Georgia, and he said: ‘Promise me a promotion and I’ll volunteer to go with you.’ I told him he knew there was no way I could guarantee a promotion but I’d see that he was on top of the list. So he came to us as our operations sergeant. He and I shared a tent in Vietnam. The other senior NCOs would come and pick his brain. Charles could talk for hours about how you navigate by artillery fire; never underestimate this enemy—they have patience; be alert to their AK-47s, a good weapon. Watch those anthills. Fire into the trees and anthills when you arrive and when you depart. This Vietnamese enemy is good; he is dedicated to his cause. That was frightening to hear, but it was all truth.”

Lieutenant S. Lawrence Gwin was young, blond, six feet two inches tall; he was one of those who heard John F. Kennedy’s clarion call and answered it. He was commissioned regular army out of Yale University ROTC in June 1963. Not only was he Ranger and parachute qualified, but he also had three months’ schooling in the Vietnamese language. In September 1965 he was advising a South Vietnamese battalion in the Mekong Delta when he was suddenly transferred north and assigned to 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry as the executive officer of Alpha Company, under Captain Joel Sugdinis.

Gwin says, “McDade took over and for several weeks he quietly observed, giving only what I would call sotto voce orders. There was a clean sweep in the battalion command structure. Major Frank Henry replaced Pete Mallet. The S-3 was replaced by Captain Jim Spires, whom I liked because he had also been an adviser. The S-2 was Lieutenant Mike Kalla, fairly new at the game. So we went up to Pleiku with a fairly unfamiliar command structure. Basically this battalion was a terrific group of soldiers with solid NCOs. The shortcomings: They were from the 2nd Division, not a cavalry outfit. They were untrained in airmobile operations. Luckily, Captain Sugdinis had transferred in from Delta Company 1/7; he was a West Point graduate, well trained and an outstanding officer.”

The one person who lives in a commander’s back pocket is his radio operator, connected by that six-foot-long black plastic-covered electrical umbilical cord. Jim Epperson, then twenty-six, a native of Oakland, California, had been John White’s radio operator; now he was Bob McDade’s. “White was a leader-type person,” Epperson recalls. “Perhaps a bit more nitpicky. He ran us more like we were a stateside unit. McDade was more laid-back. He had come to us from a staff position, hadn’t been with troops for a long time. I got along with both of them, but McDade was a little more personable. I liked McDade because I used to get double C-rations, mine and his. All he would eat was pound cake and fruit. Regular C-rats tore his stomach up bad, so he just didn’t eat. He was tall [and] slender, and wore a gold bracelet.”

Lieutenant Colonel McDade has this to say about his battalion: “Until I took command of 2/7 I had no real dealings with the organization. My impression was that everybody seemed competent. I don’t think they had had much experience at the time, but then again not many other outfits had either. It was an outfit that hadn’t been tested. General Kinnard sent Major Frank Henry down to be with me because he had heavy airmobile and helicopter experience, having worked very closely with Kinnard as his aide. That was to give us the helicopter expertise Frank Henry had; my experience was purely as an infantryman.”

Back at Holloway this Wednesday, November 17, we spent the morning finishing the cleanup of men, weapons, and gear, issuing clothing, reorganizing our depleted ranks, and beginning to process the paperwork for men due to return to the United States for discharge from service within the next week or ten days. Now the men were relaxing. Some slept. Some wrote letters. Some drank beer. Some did a bit of all those things.

Rick Rescorla says, “Bravo 2/7 spent a comfortable night rolled up in poncho liners, sleeping in platoon formations alongside the road near the Holloway landing zone. Awakening on the morning of 17 November, relaxed by the promise that we would be heading back to An Khe, the mood was ‘We’ve done our bit; it’s home to beautiful An Khe. Meanwhile, hang loose and wait for the rest of 2/7 battalion, clean weapons, wolf down hot rations. No sweat.’ By midafternoon, weapons under guard, men were swilling beer at the NCO and EM [enlisted men’s] clubs or gulping candy bars and soda at the store.”

Thirty-one miles southwest of Camp Holloway, in the Ia Drang Valley, the column of American troops pulled out of X-Ray at nine A.M. as directed. The word among Bob McDade’s troopers was that it was going to be a walk in the sun, a stroll over to another landing zone, where the helicopters would come in and extract them, the first leg of the journey home to An Khe base camp. The word was wrong.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!