I will tell you one thing that sticks in my mind: This was the least airmobile operation that occurred probably in the entire Vietnam War. It was right back to 1950 Korea or 1944 Europe. All we got were verbal orders: Go here. Finger on map. And we just marched off like we were in Korea.
—COLONEL ROBERT A. MCDADE
Call it fate. Call it Custer’s luck. Whatever it was, it sure as hell had nothing to do with airmobility. The two battalions that had inherited Landing Zone X-Ray were about to abandon it, and they were leaving the same way they had arrived: on foot. Whatever the 1st Cavalry Division’s 435 helicopters were doing this sunny Wednesday morning, November 17, 1965, they were not available to move Lieutenant Colonel Bob Tully’s 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry to LZ Columbus or Lieutenant Colonel Robert McDade’s 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry to the spot on the map that was designated LZ Albany. Grumbling and groaning, the men of both battalions loaded their packs. The word had come down: The big Air Force B-52 bombers were already airborne out of Guam, and their target was the near slopes of Chu Pong mountain. Friendly forces had to be well outside a two-mile safety zone by midmorning when upward of two hundred tons of five-hundred-pound bombs would begin raining down from thirty-six thousand feet. At nine A.M. Bob Tully’s men moved out, heading northeast.
Says Tully: “We spent the night there with McDade’s battalion. I was told to go to Columbus. We were the lead out of LZ X-Ray and moved out the same way we came in—two companies up, one back. We used artillery to plunk a round out four hundred yards or so every half-hour so we could have a concentration plotted. That way, if we ran into problems we could immediately call for fire.”
Ten minutes later Bob McDade’s soldiers moved out. The 3rd Brigade’s commanding officer, Tim Brown, was on the ground in X-Ray at the time, watching the movement. Brown’s instructions to McDade were to follow Tully’s battalion. A little more than halfway to LZ Columbus, McDade’s battalion would head northwest for LZ Albany. This clearing, at map coordinates YA 945043, was 625 yards south of the Ia Drang.
Chief Warrant Officer Hank Ainsworth, a twenty-eight-year-old native of Weatherford, Oklahoma, had ten years in the Army, the last year and a half as a Huey pilot in the 11th Air Assault Division and the 1st Cavalry Division. Hank was pilot of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry command helicopter this day: “I was assigned the mission to take the 2/7 command chopper on a recon flight. We flew an area north of X-Ray the morning of 17 November. People on board were looking at two or three different LZs for potential use. They picked Albany, the smallest of those we overflew, really a one-ship LZ. We flew low-level, three or four hundred feet above the trees, checking the route they would take going in there. I saw absolutely nothing to indicate there was enemy on the ground. We drew no fire.”
As 2nd Battalion, 7th Cav headed out of X-Ray that morning, what was its mission? The operations journals of the 3rd Brigade and the 1st and 2nd battalions, 7th Cavalry are not available in the National Archives and have not been located despite an ongoing search by the Center for Military History that dates back to September 1967. Why these crucial documents disappeared remains a mystery. The division after-action report of March 1966 states that the 2nd Battalion “was to sweep to the west and northwest toward a map location that appeared it would make a possible landing zone. The map location YA 945043 was named ALBANY.”
Colonel Tim Brown, the 3rd Brigade’s commander, remembers: “My intentions were that Albany was just an intermediate thing, that McDade was to go on through to LZ Crooks. I wanted to move 2/7 on to Crooks rather than have them all (2/5 and 2/7 and 1/5) congregate on Columbus. We had to support the South Vietnamese who were coming up, so I was going to just swing on out west. The mission hadn’t changed; we were still out there to try to find the enemy. So I had them move out by foot. I could move them out by air later if I had to. Albany was just a spot on the route; just pass through and on to Crooks.”
The clearing that was called Landing Zone Crooks was 8.1 miles northwest of X-Ray, at map coordinates YA 872126. Across those miles, as the crow flies, lay the Ia Drang Valley. LZ Albany was two miles northeast of X-Ray and 6.8 miles southeast of Crooks.
Shy Meyer says that because of the B-52 strikes the two battalions on X-Ray had to be moved: “The proposal was for 2/7 to move over north and find a suitable LZ. I don’t think there was even an Albany plotted on the map. Later, when I had to brief the press, it was clear to me that this thing could not have been a classic ambush, since the enemy did not know where we were going. Hell, nobody knew where this battalion was going.”
Lieutenant Colonel Bob McDade, the 2nd Battalion’s commander, was in the dark, too. “We really didn’t know a goddamned thing, had no intelligence, when Tully and I left X-Ray. We had no idea what to expect out there. They told me to go to a place called Albany and establish an LZ; nobody said we would have to fight our way to that LZ, just go and establish it. There are other things that follow from this. There is the time pressure. They say, Get there and organize the LZ. So you plow through; you don’t feel your way or creep along. So I just blundered ahead. ‘That is my objective, so let’s go.’ We were on foot going toward Albany all morning. We had word we were to stop and hold for an hour or so while the B-52 strikes went in. We sat on our asses, then started again.”
Captain James W Spires, McDade’s battalion S-3, or operations officer, recalls that their mission was to stop any NVA movement along the Ia Drang. “It was thought they were coming in along that route from Cambodia to attack our fire bases. It was thought that eventually we would be extracted out of that LZ or from another in that vicinity.” Asked about intelligence information or any alert of danger, Spires says: “Nothing specific that I was aware of; no reports of anything in there.”
Sergeant Major Scott: “On 17 November, early that morning, I heard we would move to another landing zone. I asked Sergeant Charles Bass, ‘What’s our mission?’ He said: ‘One of three possibilities: Engage the enemy; evacuate the area for the B-52s; or be picked up and transported back to An Khe.’”
Captain Dudley Tademy, Colonel Tim Brown’s 3rd Brigade fire support coordinator (FSC), was to coordinate all the supporting fires: tactical air, artillery, aerial rocket artillery. “My place of duty was wherever Tim Brown was. The FSC stays in the hip pocket of the commander, immediately available to respond to any developing situation. We habitually took off early in the morning and stayed out all day in the command chopper.
“We did have B-52s scheduled to come in on the massif, and we had to get off that LZ. They were moving toward another location, unnamed, just another circle on the map. We needed to get those folks out of that hole they were in, LZ X-Ray. We had had troopers sitting there for four days.”
Sergeant Major Scott was with the battalion command group as the battalion left X-Ray: “We started moving out in formation, in company column. We had medical people, the chaplain’s assistant, the personnel section, some of the cooks and bakers. The first sergeant and commander of Headquarters Company were with us, too. Captain [William] Shucart was the battalion surgeon. He and the medical-platoon leader [Lieutenant John Howard] and [the assistant medical-platoon sergeant, ] Staff Sergeant [Charles W.] Storey, were with the column, too.”
Just before Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion moved out, its commander, Captain Joel Sugdinis, put out an unusual order. His executive officer, Lieutenant Larry Gwin, remembers it well: “The company had been on hundred-percent alert for over fifty-two hours. We were in such a state of exhaustion that Captain Sugdinis directed that each man take two APC tablets, aspirin with caffeine, a move designed to increase the mental alertness of the troops. The recon platoon under Lieutenant Pat Payne was attached to us and was designated as the point because they’d led the battalion overland into LZ X-Ray the previous day over some of the same terrain. Sugdinis said: ‘The enemy situation is unclear, but there are NVA in the area. We proceed to Albany, secure an LZ for possible return to Pleiku.’ We were tactically deployed and expecting to run into somebody. We had been told by Sugdinis to stay alert.”
Before taking over Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, Sugdinis had served in the 1st Battalion. When Colonel Brown asked for an officer to take over Alpha Company, Sugdinis was immediately nominated. Joel, twenty-eight and a West Point graduate, had a wealth of troop duty behind him, including two years in the 11th Air Assault Test and 1st Cavalry. He also had seen a year of combat—1962-1963—as an adviser to a Vietnamese infantry battalion. Sugdinis says: “When I requested artillery support to precede our movement to Albany, battalion informed me that we would not recon by fire because it would reveal our presence, or something like that. I was not told that 2nd of the 5th Cav would recon by fire as they moved.
“As point or lead element in the 2/7, I put my company into a ‘V’ formation. I put the recon platoon, now attached, in the lead or center, and each of my two remaining rifle platoons in echelon to the right and to the left. I placed my own command group in the center on the heels of the recon platoon. We were to initially follow the 2/5 Battalion, which we did.”
Captain Henry (Hank) Thorpe, a North Carolinian, was a mustang—that is, he had won a direct commission from the ranks in the early 1960s. He was in command of Delta Company, which followed behind Sugdinis’s men in the column. Says Thorpe: “We were just told to follow the outfit in front. It was a walk in the sun; nobody knew what was going on.”
Following Delta were Captain John A. (Skip) Fesmire’s Charlie Company troopers, who also began the move in a wedge formation. “During the first halt in the movement, it became immediately apparent that controlling this type [of] formation in the tall grass would be difficult if a firefight were to break out,” Fesmire recalls. “Charlie Company platoon and squad leaders had PRC 6’s [Korean War-vintage walkie-talkies], but they were unreliable. Furthermore, once a soldier was down in the tall grass, squad leaders had a tough time locating them. Therefore, after the first halt, I put the company in a column formation with platoons in column. We were not the lead element, nor the trail element. We were following D Company, which was the combat support company.”
Second Lieutenant Enrique V. Pujals, of Hato Rey, Puerto Rico, had led the 3rd Platoon of Captain Fesmire’s Charlie Company for about one month. “My impression was that it was simply a get out as fast as you can thing, because of the B-52 strike. Our company was to move in company column with platoons in column. It sounded like one of those ‘admin marches’ at Benning right after an exercise ended.”
Specialist 4 Jack P. Smith, twenty, Washington, D.C., who had joined the Army to do some growing up after he flunked out of college, was assigned to Fesmire’s company: “The order came for us to move out. I guess our commanders felt the battle was over. The three battalions of PAVN were destroyed. There must have been about 1,000 rotting bodies out there. As we left the perimeter, we walked by them. Some of them had been out there for four days.”
The next unit of the 2nd Battalion in the line of march was the battalion Headquarters Company of logistics and admin clerks; the battalion aid station medics; supply people; the chaplain’s assistant; communications officer and his radio repairmen; and the like.
Second Lieutenant John Howard, a native Pennsylvanian, was a Medical Service Corps officer and administrative assistant to the battalion surgeon. He recalls spending the night of November 16 in X-Ray beside Staff Sergeant Storey. “Charlie Storey came over to me before we moved out of X-Ray that morning and asked me to help him light his cigarette, because he was too nervous to hold the match. I tried to calm him down with casual conversation but he remained very nervous. I think he was having some kind of premonition,” Howard says.
Lieutenant Alley, the battalion communications officer, was also with Headquarters Company. “We were told that this would be a tactical move. There was still a lot of stuff on the battlefield: equipment, supplies, captured stuff that had to be policed up and blown up. All in a hurry-up situation. I was personally carrying an RC-292 antenna, in addition to my regular combat load. I weighed about a hundred and forty pounds; my normal combat load was forty or fifty pounds; the 292 antenna weighed sixty pounds. The temperature must have been ninety-six, and the humidity was the same. We were moving as fast as we could through the elephant grass and scrub oaks, some high canopy. We were humping, everyone tired as could be.”
At heart almost as much an infantry officer as a medical doctor, Captain William Shucart marched in the column toward Albany. Doc Shucart was one of the most highly regarded officers in the battalion. He went to school at the University of Missouri, then to Washington University Medical School. “I was a resident at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston when I got drafted. Initially I had a medical deferment, but I lost it when I switched to a surgical residency. I was assigned to the burn unit at Brooke Army Hospital in San Antonio. I got involved in sports with a bunch of great enlisted men in the afternoons. When the Vietnam thing came up, the Tonkin Gulf, a lot of those guys were sent over. I was single and thought it was an important thing to do. So I volunteered to go to Vietnam. I flew to Long Beach and caught up with a troopship that had left the East Coast earlier.”
Shucart adds: “The guys who taught me most about the Army were Lieutenant Rick Rescorla, an Englishman, and Sergeant John Driver, who was an Irishman. Driver did tunnel-rat work; he would drop down in there and yell: ‘Anybody home?’ He didn’t throw smoke in first, like everyone else. After his tour, he went back and did OCS, then returned to Vietnam as a lieutenant and got killed. Driver had his own rules of war, and he tried to teach them to me. You know, when you clean a weapon the first rule is always clear the chamber. Not Driver. His first rule was always check to make sure it’s your weapon, so you don’t end up cleaning somebody else’s weapon. He and Rick taught me a lot about being in the infantry. I would march with them to see what life was like. You know, the battalion surgeon thing was a total waste of time. They don’t need a medical doctor in that job. I figured the major thing I did was just to provide moral support, not real medical support. There just isn’t a hell of a lot you can do in field conditions. I went out on the operations because I liked it.”
One of the people Shucart really liked was Myron Diduryk. “He was wonderful. He loved military strategy. He got me reading S.L.A. Marshall, Men Against Fire, all that. We would talk about what makes men in combat do what they do. He liked to talk like a tough guy off the New Jersey streets, but he was a very thoughtful, very clever guy. I was proud of the people I knew in the officer corps, very impressed with them.”
Captain George Forrest, twenty-seven, of Leonardtown, Maryland, commanded Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry. He was bringing up the rear, following McDade’s admin and support people. Forrest, who earned an ROTC commission at Morgan State University in Baltimore, had commanded his company for three months. He recalls, “McDade said we’d be the last company out. I knew we were getting the tough job because we were reinforcements. McDade’s instructions were very vague. At the time I thought it was because he didn’t have a whole lot of information himself. We only had one map, and I had my weapons guy take an overlay and make himself a makeshift map. I told him to plot some fire support for us along this route so if something happens we can support ourselves. I put my company in a wedge formation, sent out some flankers, and moved out.”
Although the evacuation of Landing Zone X-Ray had been observed by the North Vietnamese from the ridge line on the Chu Pong massif high above, once the American troopers were deep in the trees and elephant grass they were concealed from overhead observation. People’s Army Lieutenant Colonel Hoang Phuong says: “We had many small reconnaissance groups to watch over the area. We had a position on top of the mountain watching your movements, but it was hard to see from there into the jungle. So we left people behind to watch the landing areas, the clearings. We organized one platoon which attached men to each landing area to cause trouble for the helicopters.”
Colonel Phuong’s remarks are corroborated in part by Staff Sergeant Donald J. Slovak. Slovak was the leader of the point squad of the recon platoon—at the very front of the men leading this march. “We saw Ho Chi Minh sandal foot markings, which we called ‘tire tracks’ because the sandals were made from old auto tires. We saw bamboo arrows on the ground pointing north, matted grass and grains of rice. I reported all this to Lieutenant Payne.”
After an hour on the march, Sergeant Major Scott checked on things. “I moved up and down the column, visiting A and D companies and the medical platoon. I noticed some of the men getting rid of some of their gear—like ponchos or C-rations. They were exhausted. They’d been up two or three nights. I went back to Sergeant Bass and told him we needed a break.”
The battalion after-action report, written by Captain Spires, says that after marching “about 2,000 meters the battalion turned northwest.” Lieutenant Larry Gwin says that Alpha Company, in the lead, angled left after crossing a small ridge line. Colonel Tully’s battalion continued straight ahead toward the artillery base at Columbus clearing.
Lieutenant Gwin describes the battalion’s march toward Albany: “The terrain was fairly open, knee-high grass, with visibility about twenty-five yards through the trees. We hit a small ridge line, crossed it, and angled left. The terrain and vegetation became more difficult. Lots of felled trees and higher grass. Loads were becoming excruciatingly heavy. We drove on, saw some hooches on the left, and Captain Sugdinis held up the company while Lieutenant [Gordon] Grove’s men searched them, finding some Montagnard crossbows. Grove was directed to burn the hooches. We continued west. After about four hundred yards we crossed a stream where each man filled his canteens. Now the elephant grass was chest high, the vegetation greener and thicker, and the trees higher. We were getting really tired. We went another three hundred yards when the word came down stopping the battalion column so that elements to our rear could fill their canteens at the stream.”
Captain Thorpe and his Delta Company troops were trailing the Alpha Company troops. “As we were moving along there was a small grass hut, and somebody up the column had set it on fire. Anyone in the valley would know we were coming now,” Thorpe says. “We crossed a little stream; beyond that they stopped the column. I told my guys to eat, take a break, smoke ’em if you got ’em. Everyone just crashed right there. We hadn’t slept in two days and all were pretty tired.”
PFC James H. Shadden, twenty-three, of Etowah, Tennessee, was in Thorpe’s mortar platoon: “My squad leader, Sergeant Os-valdo Amodias from Miami, asked me to carry the base plate for the 81mm mortar. He said for me to carry it as far as I could; he would then trade me the sights and carry the base plate. We were in three columns spaced twenty to thirty yards apart, which varied as we advanced. The farther we went the greater the weight we were carrying seemed to feel. If anyone fell they had to be helped up. I had the base plate, three 81mm rounds, plus all the items men in the rifle platoon carried. It was awesome. AH the men in the mortar platoon were loaded this way. We came to a branch, stopped long enough to fill our canteens, then moved on.”
Specialist 4 Robert L. Towles, an Ohioan, was also in Thorpe’s Delta Company, assigned to the antitank platoon. These platoons shipped over with jeep-mounted 106mm recoilless rifles and .50-caliber machine guns. Since there were no enemy tanks in Vietnam in 1965, most of these platoons had changed over to machine-gun platoons. But Delta Company’s antitank platoon had not. They were carrying their M-16s plus two or three LAWs each. Towles says his platoon had flankers out thirty to fifty yards on either side. Thorpe’s headquarters group was in front of him. Shadden and the mortarmen were behind Towles, more with Charlie Company than with Delta Company, as the troopers moved through the jungle.
Towles says: “After we crossed a low hill the jungle closed in, double, then triple canopy. The trees towered above us. It became hard to maneuver across the downed trees and ruts. We took a short break and ate our C-rations in the semidark, not yet noon. We gathered our gear and moved slowly on and the jungle opened up. Visibility greatly improved and we approached a streambed. The water was welcome. As we moved on through trees standing several feet apart, two deer broke out of the heavy wood line about thirty yards off to our right. At that time I thought the flankers had spooked them.”
The division forward command post at Pleiku logged Bob Tully’s battalion into its objective, Landing Zone Columbus, at 11:38 A.M. “We got into Columbus; somebody there had a good hot meal for us. Hamburgers, mashed potatoes, and string beans,” Tully says. “Sitting there eating, I heard McDade trying to get hold of somebody on the radio; he couldn’t reach them, so I answered and offered to relay anything he had. We relayed his information to Tim Brown. After a while, I think McDade was able to get through directly.”
While Bob Tully and his 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry troopers were digging into platters of hot chow in the security of LZ Columbus, Bob McDade and his 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry troopers were humping and sweating through the tall grass straight into an area saturated with enemy soldiers from the 8th Battalion, 66th Regiment; the 1st Battalion, 33rd Regiment; and the headquarters of the 3rd Battalion, 33rd Regiment. According to General An, while the 33rd Regiment’s battalions were severely understrength because of the casualties they had suffered around Plei Me camp and during their retreat west into the valley, the 8th Battalion, 66th Regiment was his reserve battalion, newly arrived off the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The 8th Battalion’s only exposure to combat thus far had been the ambush of its heavy-weapons company by Lieutenant Colonel John B. Stockton’s 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry troopers just after the 8th crossed into Vietnam two weeks earlier. They were fresh, rested, and spoiling for a fight with the Americans.
Lieutenant Larry Gwin of Alpha Company says: “The jungle around us got heavier and heavier. That’s when things got a little scary. There was a sudden absence of any air cover, the guys were silent, and I wondered where our helos, our aerial rocket artillery ships, were. We had not changed our formation tactically, but physically we had to move in much tighter to maintain visual contact because of the undergrowth. The terrain forced our flankers in.”
Having turned the head of the column north northwest, Captain Joel Sugdinis suddenly heard the rolling sound of distant explosions to his left rear: The B-52s were making their run on the Chu Pong. At the same time he also felt a twinge of concern that he still had not seen the Albany clearing, which ought to have been close now. Some 150 yards to Sugdinis’s front was Lieutenant D. P. (Pat) Payne, the new leader of the recon platoon. A native of Waco, Texas, and an ROTC graduate of Texas A&M College, Pat had served for fourteen months in the 2nd Battalion. “I was at the very front edge of the platoon,” says Payne. “As we were walking around these six-foot-tall termite hills, all of a sudden right by my side was a North Vietnamese soldier, laying down resting. I jumped on top of him, grabbed him, and shouted an alarm. My radio operator grabbed one of his arms. Simultaneously, about ten yards to my left, the platoon sergeant found a second enemy soldier and jumped on him as well. There was quite a bit of shouting and commotion.”
Payne reported the capture back down the line, and Captain Sugdinis was quickly on the scene. He says: “I immediately directed Lieutenant Payne to put out observation posts. I remember that one of our men in the immediate vicinity of the North Vietnamese called out that he saw movement on the high ground to our north. I looked and thought I saw something, too, but was not sure.”
The men had seen something—and what they had seen was another member of the North Vietnamese reconnaissance team escaping to sound a warning of the Americans’ approach. Says then-Lieutenant Colonel Hoang Phuong: “Another recon soldier came back to the headquarters of 1st Battalion, 33rd Regiment, reported to the commander, and we organized the battle here.”
Gwin says Alpha Company’s column order and integrity had been good until the two prisoners were captured and everything came to a sudden halt. “When I arrived Sugdinis was interrogating the two. They were in mint condition: new weapons, grenades, new gear, but both were feverish, terrified, and shaking. None of us in company headquarters had seen a live North Vietnamese up close. These were not the last we would see this day. We gave them water and advised battalion headquarters.” Joel Sugdinis looked at one of the POWs, who seemed to be quaking with malaria. He offered the prisoner one of his malaria tablets, but the frightened North Vietnamese refused it. Sugdinis popped one in his mouth and drank it down with a slug from his canteen. Then the prisoner accepted a pill, and the water, gratefully.
Gwin adds that Lieutenant Colonel McDade radioed orders to hold in place and advised that he was coming forward to interrogate the prisoners personally. “The colonel and his S-2 and their radio operators, an interpreter, and the entourage all arrived at the point of our unit. I was getting nervous standing around with all that brass. I backed off to have a cigarette and make sure Alpha Company was OK. It was very still. While the interrogation went on, Alpha Company rested in place. I was surprised to see [that] Lieutenant Don Cornett, the executive officer of Charlie Company and my best friend, had come forward to see what was going on. He was tired but in good spirits, and we commented on how disorganized the march had become. We told each other where our troops were. We parted. It was the last time I spoke to him.”
The Charlie Company commander, Skip Fesmire, says, “I sent Cornett up to find out what was happening, why we’d been stopped for so long. Also, I felt that Delta Company was spread out too far and I wanted to know how much.”
At 11:57 A.M. the report on the capture of the two enemy prisoners reached division forward at Pleiku and was relayed on to the division headquarters at An Khe, where it was logged into the division journal at 12:40 P.M. The message said that the POWs were policed up at map coordinates YA 943043, a hundred yards from the southwestern edge of the clearing designated Albany.
Captain Jim Spires had come forward with Colonel McDade. The NVA prisoners tried to tell them that they were deserters, Spires says, “but I noticed they had rifles and equipment. We halted there for about half an hour while we questioned these two. They gave the impression they were scared half to death. Our interpreter’s English wasn’t very good so it was hard to make sense of what they were saying. I spoke a little Vietnamese and I tried to ask some questions myself,” Spires says.
Sergeant Major Scott and Sergeant Charlie Bass shared Spires’s skepticism: “Bass and the translator were talking to those prisoners. By then their hands were bound behind their backs. Bass told me: ‘They say they are deserters and they are hungry’ We looked at each other and I said: ‘Charles, they are too well fed. They appear to be an outpost.’”
Jim Epperson, McDade’s radio operator: “We had an interpreter: Sergeant Vo Van On. On was an intellectual, college student, spoke good English compared to some of them. His father was a merchant in Saigon. He came to us when we got to Vietnam; he was our first interpreter. We sat down, took a break, while the officers did the questioning. Then McDade called the company commanders up to him.”
Specialist 4 Bob Towles of Delta Company tells what happened farther back down the column: “Everyone dropped to the ground. I unslung the LAW rockets I carried, because their weight cut deep. I sat leaning against a tree facing the rear of the column. When the command group closed up, a gap of thirty to forty yards opened in the line of march. We lounged around smoking and bullshitting, just taking it easy. Then the mortar-platoon sergeant came up. He went directly to First Lieutenant James Lawrence, Delta’s new executive officer, to learn the situation. The sergeant left his gear behind when he walked over. He wore his web belt and packed a pistol, but carried no rifle and didn’t wear his steel pot. Lawrence put out the information that the head of the column took two prisoners. Others could be in the area. We lolled around.”
PFC James Shadden, who was in Delta’s mortar platoon: “In the column to my left I noticed Sergeant [Loransia D.] Bowen and Captain Thorpe peel off, headed up front. Everyone dropped in a small swag, and lit a cigarette. I believe this to be the time the so-called deserters were captured.” Radio operator Specialist 4 John C. Bratland also went forward with Thorpe for the company commanders’ meeting called by McDade.
Captain George Forrest, commander of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry, was more than five hundred yards to the rear. “McDade asked all company commanders to come forward. Lieutenant Adams, my executive officer, had come in on a resupply bird; he was really not supposed to be in there. I told him: ‘I’m going forward; you take over and deploy the troops in a herringbone formation, and spread them out good.’ I went forward with my two radio operators. As we were going up the column, everyone was just stopped, sitting on their packs. It was just a Sunday walk, and now we’re taking a break. I went up that trail, through fairly dense jungle.”
Captain Fesmire, the Charlie Company commander, was also moving up the column toward McDade’s position. With him were his two radio operators, his artillery forward observer, Lieutenant Sidney Smith, and his radioman, as well as First Sergeant Franklin Hance. Fesmire left First Lieutenant Donald C. Cornett, twenty-four, a native of Lake Charles, Louisiana, and a graduate of McNeese State College, in charge of Charlie Company. Fesmire says that when the column first halted, he sent flank security out on both sides of his company and personally checked it.
At this precise moment, on the brink of disaster, this is what was happening: Sugdinis’s Alpha Company was moving forward toward the Albany clearing. Colonel McDade and his battalion-command group were with Alpha Company. The other company commanders had left their companies, under orders, and were moving up to join McDade for a conference. The battalion was strung out along the line of march for a distance of at least 550 yards. The men of Delta Company were lolling around on the ground. Charlie Company had flankers off to each side but most were taking a break, sitting or lying down. George Forrest’s men, at the tail of the column, were in a wedge formation and also had flank security posted. The men of the battalion were worn out after nearly sixty hours without sleep and four hours of marching through difficult terrain. Visibility in the chest-high elephant grass was very limited.
Lieutenant Larry Gwin, who was up front: “We picked up again. This time the battalion headquarters group was right with us and McDade was guiding us to a clearing. We broke into an area that looked like it might be Albany. A fairly open area, about the size of a football field, sloping up to a wooded, anthill-studded area. The grass was waist-deep. We’d made it. It was still very quiet. Just about then I was flabbergasted to see McDade and his entourage striding past me heading toward the clearing, moving very quickly.
“I moved forward and Joel Sugdinis was on his knee at the edge of the clearing. He said: ‘I sent the 1st Platoon around to the right, 2nd Platoon around to the left, and recon platoon forward to recon the far end of the LZ.’ McDade’s entourage had walked past us, across the grass, and into a clump of trees. It was swampy to the left, and on the right grassy. I didn’t know there was another clearing on the other side of those trees.”
The battalion after-action report states that Lieutenant Pat Payne’s recon platoon by 1:07 P.M. “had cleared through the western edge of the objective area LZ sites,” and that the other two Alpha Company platoons were to the north and south of the Albany clearing. It adds: “The remainder of the battalion was in dispersed column to the east of the objective area.”
One hour and ten minutes had passed since the two prisoners had been captured and the other NVA soldiers had fled. The company commanders had reached the clearing.
Sergeant Major James Scott: “Sergeant Bass said: ‘Let’s question these prisoners some more; I don’t believe a word they’re saying.’ At that point it was Bass and me and the prisoners and the Vietnamese translator. Then Bass said: ‘I hear Vietnamese talking.’ That interpreter really began to look afraid. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘They are the North Vietnamese Army.’ So what did we have? The company commanders were all up front, and we had NVA all around us. Right about then small-arms fire started up. Bass said: ‘They’re up in the trees.’ Charles Bass was killed in action right there. I joined Alpha Company, no more than thirty yards away. First Sergeant Frank Miller and I went back to back and started firing our rifles.”
Lieutenant Gwin: “We had been there a short time, five minutes, when I heard some rounds fired near our 1st Platoon. I thought: ‘They must have caught up with those NVA stragglers.’ Then everything opened up. The firing just crescendoed. They hadn’t found the stragglers. They had run right into the North Vietnamese! I was out in the grass away from the trees when it started. The rounds were so fast and furious overhead they were knocking bark off the trees. I ran to them. One round struck the tree I was crouched next to, about an inch over my head. I said: ‘Holy shit!’ and ran to join Joel. We all got down. Then I heard the sickening whump of mortar fire landing where I had seen our 2nd Platoon disappear.”
Back at the 3rd Brigade command post at Catecka, Captain John Cash, twenty-nine, the assistant operations officer on duty, was writing a letter to his wife. “Suddenly Sergeant Russell leaned close to the radio and said, ‘Sir, something is going on.’ He could hear radio guys calling for fire support all over, hear them saying, ‘We are surrounded!’ He had friends in the 2nd Battalion’s operations shop. We couldn’t hear them on the radio—couldn’t hear Sergeant Charlie Bass. Casualty figures kept rising, kept going up,” Cash recalls, adding: “I went and woke up Major Pete Mallet, the S-3. This was afternoon. We couldn’t get a clear picture. Major Mallet came in and he was concerned. Major Harry Crouch, the S-4 [supply officer], came in, somber look on his face. He said, ‘They got Captain McCarn [the 2nd Battalion S-4].’All these things just kept building up.”
The most savage one-day battle of the Vietnam War had just begun. The 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry had walked into a hornet’s nest: The North Vietnamese reserve force, the 550-man 8th Battalion, 66th Regiment, had been bivouacked in the woods off to the northeast of McDade’s column. The understrength 1st Battalion, 33rd Regiment, coordinating its movement and actions with the 8th Battalion, was aiming its men toward the head of the American column. And the point men of Lieutenant Payne’s re-con platoon had marched to within two hundred yards of the headquarters of the 3rd Battalion, 33rd Regiment. A senior lieutenant grabbed up the 3rd Battalion cooks and clerks and joined the attack. Lieutenant Colonel Phuong says other North Vietnamese soldiers in the vicinity on rice-carrying or outpost duty “came running to join the battle.”
While many of Colonel McDade’s troopers lay in the grass resting, North Vietnamese soldiers swarmed toward them by the hundreds. A deadly ordeal by fire was beginning in the tall elephant grass around Albany and along the column of American troops strung out through the jungle, waiting for orders to move. It was 1:15 P.M., Wednesday, November 17. By the time the battle ended, in the predawn darkness the next morning, 155 American soldiers would be dead and another 124 wounded. Those who survived would never forget the savagery, the brutality, the butchery of those sixteen hours.