Military history

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Hell in a Very Small Place

War is a crime. Ask the infantry and ask the dead.

      —ERNEST HEMINGWAY

The North Vietnamese battlefield commander, then-Senior Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Huu An, had watched the Americans leaving the clearing they called X-Ray. He and his principal subordinate, 66th Regimental commander Lieutenant Colonel La Ngoc Chau, had one thought uppermost in their minds: General Vo Nguyen Giap’s dictum “You must win the first battle.” As far as Colonel An was concerned, the fight with the Americans that had begun on November 14, in Landing Zone X-Ray, wasn’t over. It was simply moving to a new location a short distance away.

An says: “I think this fight of November seventeenth was the most important of the entire campaign. I gave the order to my battalions: When you meet the Americans divide yourself into many groups and attack the column from all directions and divide the column into many pieces. Move inside the column, grab them by the belt, and thus avoid casualties from the artillery and air. We had some advantages: We attacked your column from the sides and, at the moment of the attack, we were waiting for you. This was our reserve battalion and they were just waiting for their turn. The 8th Battalion had not been used in the fighting in this campaign. They were fresh.”

Viewed from the American side, the firefight began at the head of the 2nd Battalion column and swiftly spread down the right, or east, side of the American line of march in a full-fledged roar.

Specialist 4 Dick Ackerman was the right-flank point man in the recon platoon, which was itself the point of the battalion. Says Ackerman: “We were going to the left to a clearing. We had gone about 100 feet when we heard some shots, then more shots and finally all hell broke loose. The main brunt of the attack was right where we had been standing just a few minutes before. We hit the dirt. I was laying in the middle of a clearing and bullets were kicking dirt in my eyes and breaking off the grass.”

Some of the platoon gathered at a row of trees in front of Ackerman. “I wasn’t going to run over there with the bulky pack, so I unhooked it and took off for the trees. We saw NVA sneaking up. We started picking them off and I don’t think any of them ever realized we were there. After a while we could hear someone calling us from a circle of trees. We started running back across the field. I fell behind a small tree. I was on my side with my shoulder against the tree when I heard a big thump and felt the tree shake. It had taken a bullet just opposite my shoulder. I decided to lay down flat.”

Ackerman’s first sergeant was standing, shouting and giving directions. “His shirt was off and he was in his tee-shirt. He lifted his left arm to point and I could see where a bullet had ripped open the inside of his arm and part of the side of his chest. He was still giving orders. We were then ordered to another part of the circle that was weak. It was facing the main area of attack. There were people running everywhere. We couldn’t just open fire in that direction because our guys were there. We were on semi-automatic and picking off whoever we could be sure of as a target.”

Ackerman’s recon-platoon leader, Lieutenant Payne, had moved most of his men across the second and larger clearing and into the trees on the western or far side of Albany. Alpha Company had split and sent one platoon around the northeast edge and another around the southwest edge of the clearing. Pat Payne was headed across the clearing to join his platoon when, he says, “all hell broke loose up along the north side of the LZ. I turned to my right and observed some American soldiers moving to the northwest to set up positions and they went down in a hail of bullets. Within minutes we were all under heavy attack and my radio operator and I were pinned down in the middle of the LZ with most of the fire coming from the north and northwest.”

Lieutenant Payne’s radio came alive as the Alpha Company platoon leaders reported heavy fighting. Payne says, “Mortar rounds began falling, which was a new experience for everyone, since we had never had any kind of mortar fire against us. The noise level was unbelievable. I remember pressing my body flatter against the ground than I had ever been in my life and thinking that certainly the highest things sticking up were my heels. Mortars continued to fall and small-arms and machine-gun fire continued at a hectic pace. Finally my mind seemed to adjust and I once again began to think about the situation we were in and what we were going to do.”

Payne raised his head and saw that the North Vietnamese weren’t actually ambushing Alpha Company so much as they were attacking it. “I told my radio operator to stay put and I jumped up and ran the twenty-five yards back to the command post in the trees between the two clearings, where I found the battalion S-3, Jim Spires. I explained the situation and recommended that I pull the recon platoon back across the LZ and set up positions so that we could have an adequate field of fire. In LZ X-Ray I had seen the advantages of the fields of fire that the 1st Battalion had set up and how they had successfully repelled heavy attacks. The S-3 agreed and I returned to the middle of the LZ to link up with my radio operator.”

Payne was able to get all his squad leaders on the radio, “explained to them what we were going to do, and then we coordinated our movement. I counted down to jump-off; then all of us raced back across the open LZ. Miraculously, we had only one man killed: a new recruit who froze. Just as we reached the tree line, we set up a perimeter and turned to face the first of two or three North Vietnamese attacks across the clearing from the west, where we had just come from. I clearly remember that first attack; we stopped them. They were surprised by the amount of firepower we put across the landing zone.”

The recon-platoon leader adds: “As they regrouped I saw what must have been a company commander, North Vietnamese, running back and forth along his line of men encouraging them and rallying them. He then led a second attack. I admired his courage, because there were at least twenty of us all trying to stop him. After a third attempt, the NVA didn’t try to come across the landing zone again. Rather, they started coming around to the north side.”

Alpha Company’s commander, Captain Sugdinis, was in the trees, headed to where he had seen the battalion command group disappear. “Just as I noticed a small clearing up ahead I heard one or two shots to my rear, back where my 1st and 2nd Platoons were. I looked back. There was a pause of several seconds and then slowly all hell began to break loose. Since I was somewhat forward of the remainder of my Company and did not draw fire in the initial exchange, I continued to move forward toward Albany. I knew I had to establish a perimeter that would accommodate helicopters, provide fields of fire, and be a distinctive piece of terrain for people to maneuver toward.”

Albany was not a typical landing zone—the usual single clearing surrounded by trees. In fact, the small clearing that Captain Sugdinis believed to be Albany was actually only the first of two clearings. A lightly wooded island separated it from a larger clearing up ahead. Within that grove of trees there were at least three giant termite hills: one at the edge of the trees, on the north side; another on the western end; and a third in the middle. The copse was not completely surrounded by open area; the east and west ends were connected to the forest by a few trees about twenty feet or so apart.

Captain Sugdinis says, “Larry Gwin and I hit the edge of Albany on the northeast side of the clearing as the column began to receive intense fire. We began to receive sporadic sniper fire. Part of the Recon Platoon had already reached the island. I yelled across the opening for someone to cover us. We ran to the island. At this point I called my 1st and 2nd Platoons on the radio. Almost immediately I lost communication with the 1st Platoon. The platoon sergeant for the 2nd Platoon came on the radio. That was SFC William A. Ferrell, 38, from Stanton, Tennessee. He was a veteran of World War II and Korea, had been a prisoner of war in Korea, and could have chosen to remain in the States. He did not have to deploy to Vietnam with us. Everyone called him Pappy.”

Ferrell kept asking Captain Sugdinis where he was, telling him they were mixed up with the North Vietnamese and had several wounded and killed. “I couldn’t pinpoint his location. I knew where he should have been—directly east of our island. Pappy then radioed that he was hit; that there were three or four men with him, all hit. I could hear the firing at his location over the radio. I never heard from Pappy again. He did not survive.

“The survivors of my 1st Platoon, with the Recon Platoon, were the initial defenses at Albany. The battalion command group made it safely into the perimeter. Bob McDade and Frank Henry probably owe their lives to those North Vietnamese prisoners. If they hadn’t come forward when they did, and stayed forward, they would have been further back in the column and probably would not have survived. At some point at Albany I asked what had become of the North Vietnamese prisoners and was told that they had attempted to escape when the shooting started and had been shot.”

Lieutenant Colonel McDade himself recalls, “When things began happening I got in with Alpha Company. I know I was trying to figure out what was going on. I moved very fast—let’s get over here in these trees and let’s all get together. The enemy seemed to be all over the woods. We had good tight control in the immediate area and were trying to figure out where everybody else was. One of the things I was very concerned with was people being trigger-happy and just shooting up the grass. I was telling them: ‘Make sure you know what you are shooting at because we are scattered!’”

Sergeant Jim Gooden, the battalion’s assistant operations sergeant, was with the headquarters detachment, toward the rear of the column. “We were getting fire from three sides. We were getting it from up in the trees, and from both sides. A guy got hit next to me and I grabbed his machine gun. I braced myself against an anthill. Then we got hit by mortars. It was zeroed in right on us. I looked around and everybody was dead. The commo sergeant, SFC Melvin Gunter, fell over hit in the face, dead. The same mortar round that killed Gunter put shrapnel in my back and shoulder. They were closing in for the final assault. I was shooting, trying to break a hole through them, but didn’t know which way to go. I went the wrong way, right into the killing zone. I found stacks of GIs.” Gunter, thirty-eight, was from Vincent, Alabama.

The battalion operations officer, Captain Spires, believes that the fact that the commanders were absent from their companies when the fight started contributed to the confusion. “It had the most effect, I think, on Charlie Company. Their commander, Captain Skip Fesmire, was up with us and Don Cornett, the Charlie Company executive officer, was killed early on, so they had no commander and they just disintegrated.”

Spires also remembers that the shooting began “at the head of the column; then it moved back down the column. I think the enemy battalion ran head on into the recon and Alpha Company troops, withdrew, hooked around, and ran straight into Charlie Company. They also hit part of Delta Company. The battalion command group was just ahead of Delta Company. I had four men back there, including my operations sergeant, and three of them were killed.”

Specialist 4 Jim Epperson, McDade’s radio operator, says: “We set our radios down behind an anthill. The artillery guys were on their own radio calling in. We honestly did not know much about the situation in the rest of the column. Some of the radio operators were already killed. We were cut off from everyone. Colonel McDade wasn’t getting anything from his people down the line. Charlie, Delta, and Headquarters Company weren’t reporting because they were either dead or, in the case of Headquarters, didn’t have any radios.”

By now it was 1:26 P.M. The recon platoon; the Alpha Company commander, Sugdinis, and his executive officer, Gwin; and Colonel McDade’s command group were in the small wooded area between the two clearings. Sugdinis and Gwin were near one of the termite hills, Payne’s recon platoon was near another, and McDade and his group were behind the third hill.

Lieutenant Larry Gwin looked back south at the point where he and Captain Sugdinis had emerged from the jungle just minutes before; the entire area was now alive with North Vietnamese soldiers who had obviously cut through the battalion’s line of march, severing the head of the battalion from the body. Gwin saw three GIs coming through the high grass, running from the area swarming with the enemy. “I jumped up and screamed to them, waving my arm. They saw me and headed directly to our position. The first man was a captain, our Air Force forward air controller, who was completely spent. I pointed out the battalion command group, which was huddled to our rear at another anthill, and he crawled toward them. He was followed by the battalion sergeant major, Jim Scott, who dropped down next to me. And Scott was followed by a young, very small PFC who was delirious and holding his guts in with his hands. He kept asking, ‘Are the helicopters coming?’ I said, ‘Yes, hang on.’

“The battalion commander initially thought that the incoming rounds were all friendly fire. He had been hollering for all of us to cease fire and the word went out over the command net but to no avail, as the troops on the perimeter could see North Vietnamese. The sergeant major and I were looking to the rear when I heard a loud blast. The sergeant major yelled: ‘I’m hit, sir!’ He had taken a round in the back under his armpit and there was a large hole underneath his right arm. I told him he would be OK, to bandage it himself. This he did, ripping off his shirt. Then he picked up his M-16 and headed back to one of the anthills. I saw the sergeant major a few times after that and he was fighting like a demon.”

Sergeant Major Scott says, “I took a bullet through my chest, not more than fifteen or twenty minutes into the battle. I could see enemy soldiers to our left, right and front in platoon- and company-size elements. They were up in the trees, up on top of the anthills, and in the high grass. We weren’t exactly organized. We didn’t have time. Everything happened at once. I did not see a hole being dug prior to eight P.M. that night. We did use the trees and anthills for cover. Within half an hour there was an attempt to organize groups into a defensive position in a company area. Individuals did this, no one in particular. I think that is what saved us.”

Lieutenant Gwin rejoined the Alpha Company command group on the western edge of the copse of trees. “Joel Sugdinis told me that our 1st Platoon, on our right, was gone, and that the 2nd Platoon, to our rear, was cut off and all wounded or dead. I stood up to get a better view of the woods on the other side of the clearing to the north and saw about twenty North Vietnamese bent over, charging toward our position and only about sixty yards away. I screamed ‘Here they come!’ and jumped forward firing. I heard the battalion commander yell ‘Withdraw!’ and I thought that was odd because there didn’t seem like anywhere to go.

“Almost everyone jumped up and ran back to the third anthill. First Sergeant Frank Miller; Joel Sugdinis; the artillery FO, Hank Dunn; and PFC Dennis Wilson, the radio operator; and I stayed and killed all the North Vietnamese. I shot about three with my first burst, and then remember sighting in on the lead enemy, who was carrying an AK-47. I got him with my first round, saw him drop to the ground and start to crawl forward. I was afraid he would throw a grenade. I sighted very carefully and squeezed again, and saw him jolted by my second round, but he continued to move and I stepped out from cover and emptied my remaining rounds into him. He was about twenty yards from our anthill. The rush had been stopped, but we could still see many, many Vietnamese milling around on the other side of the clearing.”

The Alpha Company command group now returned to their original position, facing the area where they had first emerged from the forest, to the southwest. Lieutenant Gwin says, “Joel Sugdinis and I had pretty much decided we would make our stand right here. No point in moving. The North Vietnamese were between us and the rest of the battalion column, and that jungle was crawling with bad guys. They were fighting, moving on down the column.”

Sugdinis and Gwin agree that it was not long after this that the commander of Alpha Company’s missing 2nd Platoon, Lieutenant Gordon Grove, staggered into the American position from the east. Larry Gwin: “I saw Gordy Grove coming across the field along with two wounded men. They were the only ones left of his platoon who could move. Grove was distraught. We got him and his two men in with us, and got our medics working on the wounded. Then Gordy asked for men to go back with him and get his people. Joel Sugdinis said: ‘Gordy, I can’t send anybody back out there.’ It was clear that to leave this perimeter was death. Everywhere you looked you could see North Vietnamese. Gordy asked permission to go talk to the battalion commander. Sugdinis said go ahead. He jogged over, asked McDade for help to go get his men, got a negative response, so he came back to our anthill.”

Gwin adds, “There was a tremendous battle going on in the vicinity of where we had come into the clearing and beyond there in the jungle. It was Charlie Company, caught in the killing zone of the ambush, fighting for its life. The mortar fire had ceased—the enemy tubes apparently had been overrun by Charlie Company, because we found them all the next day—but there still were hundreds of North Vietnamese calmly walking around the area we were observing. Now began the sniping phase of our battle. I call it that because for a long period of time all we did was pick off enemy wandering around our perimeter, and this lasted until we started getting air support. Everything that had happened to this point had probably taken less than thirty minutes.”

Gwin saw Major Frank Henry, the battalion executive officer, lying on his back using the radio, trying desperately to get some tactical air support and succeeding. “The air was on the way, but there was no artillery or aerial rocket artillery yet. Jim Spires, the S-3, ran over to us and queried Gordy Grove as to the situation outside the perimeter where he had just come from. Grove told him there were still men out there, tightened into a small perimeter, but they were all wounded and dying and the radios had all been knocked out. Captain Spires asked a second time if he thought anyone was still alive and none of us said anything.”

Gwin climbed atop the termite hill and began sniping at the North Vietnamese clearly visible across the clearing in the trees to the south with his M-16 rifle. “There were plenty of targets and I remember picking off ten or fifteen NVA from my position. My memories revolve around the way in which each enemy soldier that I hit fell. Some would slump limply to the ground; some reacted as if they had been hit by a truck. Some that I missed on the first and second shots kept on milling around until I finally hit them. What we did not know at the time was that they were wandering around the elephant grass looking for Americans who were still alive, and killing them off one by one.”

After an incoming round snapped past his head, Gwin surrendered his vantage point to Lieutenant Grove, who was eager to settle some scores for his lost platoon. Gwin and his boss, Captain Sugdinis, eased behind the hill, leaned back, and smoked their first cigarettes. Gwin says, “That cigarette brought us back to our senses, and we talked the situation over while those around us poured out fire. We knew we had lost our two Alpha Company rifle platoons, about fifty men, during the first half-hour. Joel was despondent.”

The survivors in that thinly held grove of trees at the head of the battalion column could hear the noise of a terrible battle continuing in the forest where the rest of the column was caught. Having hit the head of the 2nd Battalion column hard and stopped it, killing most of Sugdinis’s two rifle platoons, the North Vietnamese soldiers immediately raced down the side of the American column, with small groups peeling off and attacking.

As the attack began, all of McDade’s company commanders were forward, separated from their men. They had brought their radio operators and, in some cases, their first sergeants and artillery forward observers with them. All of them but one would remain in McDade’s perimeter for the rest of the battle.

In answer to the radioed summons from Colonel McDade, Captain George Forrest, a high school and college athlete who was in excellent physical condition, had hiked more than five hundred yards from his Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry position, at the tail of the American column, to the head. His two radio operators accompanied him.

Just about the time McDade started to talk to them, a couple of mortar rounds came in. Forrest immediately turned and dashed back toward his company. “I didn’t wait for him to dismiss us. I just took off. Both of my radio operators were hit and killed during that run. I didn’t get a scratch. When I got back to the company I found my executive officer was down, hit in the back with mortar shrapnel. I wasn’t sure about the situation, so I pushed my guys off the trail to the east and put them in a perimeter. It appeared for a time that fire was coming from every direction. So we circled the wagons. I think that firing lasted thirty-five or forty minutes. All my platoon leaders were functioning except Second Lieutenant Larry L. Hess. [Hess, age twenty, from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was killed in the first minutes.] My weapons sergeant was wounded.”

George Forrest’s run down that six-hundred-yard-long gauntlet of fire, miraculously unscathed, and the forming of his men into a defensive perimeter, helped keep Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry from sharing the fate of Charlie, Delta, and Headquarters companies of the 2nd Battalion in the middle of the column.

North Vietnamese soldiers climbed into the trees and on top of those brush-covered termite hills, and poured fire down on the cavalry troopers trapped in the tall grass below them in the main body of the column. There was furious firing, including mortar fire, from both sides. The strike at the head of the column was followed so quickly by the enemy encircling assaults that the whole business seemed to erupt almost simultaneously.

Without doubt some platoons of McDade’s battalion were alert and in as secure a formation as they could achieve in the elephant grass, brush, and thick scrub trees. But the visibility problem made it difficult to maintain formation, and one result was that the American troops were closer to one another than was tactically sound, providing juicy targets for a grenade, a mortar round, or a burst from an AK-47 rifle. All down the column, platoon leaders, sergeants, radio operators, and riflemen by the dozens were killed or wounded in the first ten minutes, rapidly degrading communication, cohesion, and control.

Captain Skip Fesmire was near the Albany clearing when the shooting started. He believed his Charlie Company rifle platoons were close enough to the landing zone to maneuver against the enemy and reach the clearing if he moved them quickly and if he was lucky. Fesmire radioed Jim Spires, the battalion operations officer, reported his location, and told Spires he was returning to his men. He never made it.

Fesmire remembers: “The firing became quite intense. My artillery forward observer [Lieutenant Sidney C. M. Smith, twenty-three, of Manhasset, New York] was hit in the head and killed. I was in radio contact with Lieutenant Cornett [Fesmire’s executive officer]. He told me that the fire was very intense, particularly incoming mortar fire that was impacting directly on the company. I instructed him to get the company moving forward along the right flank of Delta Company. This was the direction from which the attack was coming. I felt it was necessary to try to consolidate the battalion; to help protect the flank of Delta Company, and to get Charlie Company out of the mortar killing zone.”

Captain Fesmire adds, “As I moved back southeast toward my company, I could see the North Vietnamese in the tree line on the other side of a clearing. They were moving generally in the same direction that I was moving, toward Charlie Company. By this time Lieutenant Cornett had Charlie Company moving; they met the elements of the 66th Regiment’s battalion head on and were outnumbered. The result was very intense, individual hand-to-hand combat. In the confusion, I had no idea exactly where the company was located. When Lieutenant Cornett died, it was virtually impossible for me to talk to anyone in my company. The battle had clearly become an individual struggle for life. First Sergeant [Franklin] Hance, my two radio operators, and I found our return to the company blocked. We were on the edge of an open area and all we could see were enemy.”

Specialist 4 Jack P. Smith, who was in Charlie Company, had been a radio operator until a week or so before this operation, when he was shifted to a supply clerk’s job. The events of November 17 are etched on his mind. Smith’s company commander, Captain Fesmire, had, like the others, been called to the front by Lieutenant Colonel McDade. “Subsequently, many people pointed to this as a major error, and in light of what happened, it was. The firing began to roll all around us. The executive officer of my company, a man called Don Cornett, a very fine officer, jumped up and in the best style of the Infantry School yelled: ‘Follow me!’

“Elements of our 1st and 2nd platoons ran right toward a series of anthills. Within ten feet of them we saw there were machine gunners behind them firing point-blank at us. Men all around me began to fall like mown grass. I had never seen people killed before. They began to drop like flies and die right in front of me. These were the only friends I had, and they were dying all around me.”

Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry would suffer the heaviest casualties of any unit that fought at LZ Albany. Before its violent collision with the North Vietnamese, the company had some 112 men in its ranks. By sunrise the next day, November 18, forty-five of those men would be dead and more than fifty wounded; only a dozen would answer “present” at the next roll call.

Captain Henry Thorpe, the Delta Company commander, was a hundred yards forward of his company when the fighting began. He and his first sergeant and radio operator sprinted ahead into the island of trees in the Albany clearing to join the battalion command group and helped organize and control a defensive perimeter. The radio operator, Specialist 4 John C. Bratland, was shot in the leg. They were lucky to be where they were. Delta Company, back down the column, was being torn apart. This day it would lose twenty-six men killed and many others severely wounded.

PFC James H. Shadden was in Thorpe’s Delta Company mortar platoon. Shadden says the heavily laden mortarmen, exhausted from the march, had dropped in the trail for a short rest and a smoke. He recalls, “I had carried the base plate a long ways. Sergeant Amodias, true to his word, took the base plate, gave me the sights, and went in front of me. When the enemy sprung the ambush, Amodias was killed instantly. The ones who were not killed in the first volley hit the dirt, with the exception of our radio operator, Duncan Krueger. I saw him still standing a few seconds later, until he was shot down. I have no idea why he didn’t get down.” PFC Duncan Krueger, eighteen, of West Allis, Wisconsin, was killed where he stood.

The intensity of the fire rapidly increased to the point where Shadden couldn’t hear anything but weapons firing. “Tone Johnson came crawling by me, hit in the cheek and back of the hand. The trees were full of North Vietnamese, but spotting one was almost impossible. They blended in so well. I kept raising up to try to detect a good target. Matthews Shelton, who was lying next to me, kept jerking me down. As I raised up again a bullet pierced my helmet straight through, front to back. I went down again and as I came back up a bullet struck the tree beside my head from behind.

“I don’t know if we were surrounded or it was our own men. They were firing wild—anything that moved, somebody shot at it. One trooper crawled up next to me, shooting through the grass a few inches off the ground toward where our own people lay, never thinking what he was doing. I told him to be sure he knew what he was shooting.”

The firing eventually began to slack off. Shadden has no idea how much time elapsed. There was no way to keep track of time in a fight like this. “Men were wounded and dead all in the area. Six were alive that I know of: Sergeant [Earthell] Tyler, [PFC A. C] Carter, [PFC Tone] Johnson, [PFC Matthews] Shelton, [PFC Lawrence] Cohens, and myself. Tyler gave the only order I heard during the entire fight: ‘Try to pull back before they finish us off.’ Shelton froze to the ground and would not move. [PFC Matthews Shelton, age twenty, of Cincinnati, Ohio, was killed later that afternoon.] The five of us proceeded to try to pull back, but the snipers were still in the trees. Soon I was hit in the right shoulder, which for a time rendered it useless. Tyler was hit in the neck about the same time; he died an arm’s length of me, begging for the medic, Specialist 4 William Pleasant, who was already dead. [Pleasant was twenty-three years old and a native of Jersey City, New Jersey.] The last words Tyler ever spoke were ‘I’m dying.’” Sergeant Earthell Tyler, thirty-five, was from Columbia, South Carolina.

The soft-spoken Shadden says, “The helplessness I felt is beyond description. Within a few minutes I was hit again, in the left knee. The pain was unbearable. Cohens was hit in the feet and ankle. We were wounded and trapped. I could see we were getting wiped out. A buddy helped me bandage my leg. He got the bandage off a dead Vietnamese. I got behind a log and there was a Vietnamese there, busted up and dead. This was behind us, so I knew we were surrounded.”

Specialist 4 Bob Towles, who was with Delta Company’s antitank platoon, heard the firing and mortar blasts forward and could see where the trail disappeared into the brush ahead of him. But he saw no one at all up there. As the front came alive with intense firing, and no information came back to him, Towles’s concern redoubled:

“The sound of firing on our right flank got our attention in a hurry. We all faced in that direction. A couple of senior NCOs moved forward and joined the line of enlisted men. We formed a solid battle line about twenty yards long; twelve of us. Bullets whizzed overhead. Still we could see nothing. We waited, expecting to see our men out on flank security break cover and enter the safety of our perimeter. They never did. The sound came closer. Within seconds the wood line changed.

“North Vietnamese troops shattered the foliage and headed straight for us, AK-47 rifles blazing, on the dead run. I selected the closest one and fired twice. I hit him but he refused to go down; he kept coming and shooting. I turned my M-16 on full automatic, fired, and he crumpled. I shifted to another target and squeezed the trigger. Nothing happened. The fear I felt turned to terror. I saw a cartridge jammed in the chamber. I removed it, reloaded, and began firing again. They kept pouring out of the wood line; we kept firing; then finally they stopped coming. On the ground in front of me lay the three magazines I taped together to carry in my rifle plus one other magazine. I had fired eighty rounds.”

The lull did not last long. Towles peered beyond the anthill toward the mortar platoon. “It appeared as if the ground was opening up and swallowing the mortarmen, they fell so fast,” Shadden recalls. “A brown wave of death rolled over them and on into Charlie Company. Vietnamese intermixed with them. Then reality set in: The enemy held the ground beyond the anthill. The column was cut in half!

“Incoming gunfire drew our attention back to the tree line. The firing rapidly increased. We returned fire at muzzle flashes. I heard an explosion behind me. Turning, I saw ChiCom grenades landing. All flash and smoke, no casualties. The volume of fire became almost unendurable. Bullets peeled bark from trees. Vegetation disintegrated. I looked to Lieutenant James Lawrence for help. Saw his head violently recoil. He hit the ground.

“A second later I was spun around, then slammed into the dirt. I rose to my hands and knees and started down the line. Blood ran everywhere. The mortar-platoon sergeant’s .45 pistol had been shot from his hand. His right hand hung limp from his wrist, and blood poured to the ground. Someone tried to dress his wound. Someone raised Lieutenant Lawrence and attempted to steady him. The firing continued.”

Towles’s tight twelve-man line was shrinking fast. “I turned back toward the wood line and detected movement. I shifted in that direction and spotted North Vietnamese in the underbrush. Enemy turning our flank! Our position was no longer tenable. I turned back with the warning. Sergeant Jerry Baker took charge now; he realized we needed to pull out. He appointed the unwounded and some slightly wounded to help the severely wounded. An instant later he ordered the move.

“I led this retreat because of my position on the battle line. I rose to my feet and headed in the only direction void of enemy fire—toward our left rear—at a run. Thirty or forty yards and I broke out of the trees into a large clearing of waist-deep grass. The sunlight hurt my eyes. Twenty yards into the field I noticed the man running a half-step to my rear go down. I dove to the ground and turned to see PFC Marlin Klarenbeek struggling with a leg wound.”

Captain George Forrest was now back with his Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry soldiers at the rear of the column. “I had lost my radio operators, and when I got back and got another radio I found out McDade’s lead elements were in heavy firelights to their front and to their west. I got maybe two transmissions from McDade, then lost contact. We circled up. My parent battalion had come up on my net and I was able to contact Captain Buse Tully, commander of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cav. I have never felt such relief at hearing and recognizing a voice. I knew someone who cared about us was close at hand.”

Here’s what the Vietnam War looked like in midafternoon of November 17, through the eyes of two of Captain Forrest’s Alpha Company riflemen, PFC David A. (Purp) Lavender of Mur-physboro, Illinois, and Specialist 4 James Young of Steelville, Missouri.

Says Lavender: “My platoon was bringing up the rear. We started to maneuver and work our way up the column to help those up ahead. Every time we made a move we were hit by mortars. It was something you can’t describe. People were dropping like flies. The first blast killed a young soldier named [PFC Vincent] Locatelli. Every time we moved they dropped mortars on us. I know we must have had twelve or fifteen wounded out of our platoon, including our platoon leader.

“These were my buddies I had been in the Army with for two years. [The] majority of our whole battalion had been drafted at age twenty-one [and] had been in service for over eighteen months. All of us were near twenty-three years old. They became my brothers over time. Hearing these fellows scream, hearing them killed, stuck in my heart and mind ever since. The most critical part of this fight was the beginning. It was the surprise. They had us in a U-shaped ambush and they had us cut off with mortars.”

Rifleman Jim Young says: “I sat down and took a nap. We had flankers out a hundred yards or so on left and right, so I thought it was safe to grab some sleep. That little bit of shooting up front got a lot worse. That woke me up. Then our 1st Platoon received mortar fire. Five men wounded. I heard them calling for medics. Mortars kept coming in. Heard them order 1st Platoon to pull back out of the area where those rounds were hitting.”

Young’s platoon was ordered to get on line and move in reaction to the enemy fire. “Everyone had hit the ground when those mortars began coming in. They told us to move ahead toward the enemy. We got on line and we walked right into an enemy ambush. They were behind trees, anthills, and down on the ground. There was waist-high grass and a lot of trees around us. There were enemy soldiers in that grass. They were hard to see and we had to shoot where we thought they were. The medic had his hands full, couldn’t take care of all the wounded. One man to my right was hit in the heel. His name was Harold Smith.

“There was a grassy field to my left twenty-five or thirty yards, and a sniper off on my right. I couldn’t see him, but I saw a tracer bullet go across my hand. I felt the wind of that bullet. The same bullet passed over the back of Smith’s neck. He was lucky he had his head down. Our company commander, Captain Forrest, came running along our line. He was stopping and telling everybody where to go. He acted as though he was immune to the enemy fire. I don’t know how he kept from getting hit.”

Just ahead of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, in the hodgepodge of admin and supply staffers, medics, and communications people that constituted Headquarters Company of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry marched Doc William Shucart, the 2nd Battalion surgeon; Lieutenant John Howard of the medical platoon; and Lieutenant Bud Alley, the communications-platoon leader.

Says Shucart: “Before the fight I remember smelling cigarette smoke. Vietnamese cigarettes. I said: ‘I smell the enemy smoking!’ The next thing we knew mortars were dropping all around us, then a lot of small-arms fire was coming in, and then everything just dissolved into confusion. We thought that the head of the column had gotten turned and somehow we were getting shot by our own troops. Guys were dropping all around us. It seems like in a very short time I found myself all alone. We had gotten widely dispersed. I was running around with my M-16. I had a .45 pistol, which was useless, and I picked up somebody’s M-16.

“I was under direct enemy fire all this time. I got one little zinger up my back; nothing serious, just a grazing wound that left me a nice little scar. This was the most scared I’ve ever been in my life. I was wearing a St. Christopher’s medal around my neck that somebody had sent me. I thought:This is the time to make a deal. Then I thought: I’ve never been very religious. He isn’t likely to want to deal. So I got up and started looking for somebody, anybody. I found one of our radio operators, dead, and got on his radio trying to raise somebody. I remember trying to get them to throw some smoke so I could find them.”

Lieutenant John Howard remembers: “Soon after the first shots, mortars and grenades started hitting all around us. The small-arms fire then picked up to an intense level and soldiers started going down very quickly with gunshot or shrapnel wounds. There was confusion, and some thought they were being fired at by other American soldiers in the area. This confusion cleared up pretty quickly as the North Vietnamese assault wave moved in so close that we could see them and hear them talking.

“They suddenly appeared behind anthills and up in the trees, sniping at anyone who moved, and we found ourselves shooting at them in all directions. As we crawled around in the tall elephant grass it was very difficult to tell where anyone was, or whether they were friendly or enemy. One thing I caught on to very quickly was how the NVA were signaling to each other in the high grass by tapping on the wooden stocks of their AK-47 rifles.”

Lieutenant Bud Alley recalls clearly when “word came back that recon had been shot at. Then that recon had hit an ambush. Then orders to Charlie Company, just in front of us, to move on line and roll up the flank of it. John Howard and I were sitting beside each other. All of a sudden a couple of shots rang out twenty-five yards in front of us. By now we’re all standing up, scared. The call comes back: ‘Medic! Medic!’ The first group of medics in front of us takes off and John Howard takes off with them. Now the leaves begin to shake as bullets are coming in. The infantry in Charlie Company are yelling: ‘Get on line!’ I pushed my guys up on line, twenty-five yards inside the tree line, and suddenly all hell broke loose. There was lots of shooting and it was difficult to maintain the line.

“A fellow got hit and screamed. My radio operator and I ran up to him and dragged him behind a little tree. He was shot through the wrist and kept screaming. Then he got shot again. I put my M-16 on automatic and fired up high and something fell out of the tree. I crawled down to an anthill where a couple of guys were. I stayed there and found a guy who had a radio. I called in to see what the hell was happening. About then the net went dead; somebody got shot with his finger on the transmit key, or something. The last thing I heard on the net was that Ghost 5 got hit; that was Don Cornett, the Charlie Company executive officer.”

Colonel Tim Brown, the 3rd Brigade commander, the man who had the authority to order in reinforcements, was overhead in his command helicopter asking his ground commander, Lieutenant Colonel Bob McDade, for information on the seriousness of the situation. With Brown was the brigade fire-support coordinator, Captain Dudley Tademy, who was eager to unleash all the artillery, air support, and aerial rocket artillery at his command.

Brown and Tademy had just left LZ Columbus where they had been talking to Lieutenant Colonel Tully when the first shots were fired at Albany. Colonel Brown was headed back to brigade headquarters at the tea plantation.

Captain Tademy recalls, “Suddenly I heard Joe Price, the artillery forward observer with McDade’s battalion, saying ‘We have a problem! I need help!’ Price was hollering for everything he could get: air, artillery, ARA. We finally got him to slow down so we could understand what was happening. I notified Colonel Brown that something was going on down there. He tried to get on the command net and talk to McDade. I stayed on the artillery net trying to get some support for them. By then we were overflying their position and we could see puffs of smoke coming out of the woods. When Joe Price would come up on the net I could hear the loud firing over their radio.”

Major Roger Bartholomew, commander of the aerial rocket artillery helicopters, was in contact with Captain Tademy and flew a zigzag pattern over the forest trying to get a fix on the location of friendly troops so that his helicopters could support them. He had no luck. Captain Tademy had the artillery fire smoke rounds to try to register defensive fires. No luck there either. “It didn’t help because everybody was so mixed up by then on the ground. We had tactical air, ARA, and artillery and still we couldn’t do a damned thing. It was the most helpless, hopeless thing I ever witnessed.”

Colonel Tim Brown’s helicopter was running low on fuel and the chopper had to return to Catecka to refuel. Brown says, “I knew they were in contact. I did not know how severe, or anything else. While I was talking to McDade I could hear the rifle fire, but he didn’t know what was happening. I asked: ‘What happened to your lead unit?’ He didn’t know. ‘Where’s your trailing units?’ He didn’t know. And he didn’t know what had happened to any of the rest of them. Nobody knew what the hell was going on. We were not in [a] position to shoot a bunch of artillery or air strikes in there because we didn’t know where to put them.”

Captain John Cash, in the center of the now busy Brigade Headquarters at Catecka, recalls the return of Colonel Brown: “Brown was standing there, on our radio, asking McDade what’s going on, yelling, ‘Goddammit, what is going on out there?’ McDade came back with, ‘Got a couple of KIA’s [killed in action] here and trying to get a handle on the situation. Let me get back to you later. Out.’” Captain Tademy, who was at Brown’s side in the tactical operations center [TOC], says, “I heard McDade talking. Brown kept asking him what was going on. The radio speakers were all blaring. What I was hearing was that things were not going very well in McDade’s area.”

After his command helicopter had refueled, Brown flew back into the valley. “All of a sudden I heard all kinds of firing while I was talking to McDade on the radio. He started yelling: ‘They’re running! They’re running!’ I thought for one terrible moment he meant that his battalion was running. What it was, the Air Force had dropped napalm on a company-size North Vietnamese unit and they were running, not the Americans. About then I began to figure that McDade was in real trouble.”

Only now did Colonel Brown begin rounding up reinforcements to send in to help Bob McDade’s 2nd Battalion. Brown ordered Lieutenant Colonel Frederic Ackerson to send a company from his 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry overland from LZ Columbus toward LZ Albany. Ackerson dispatched Captain Walter B. (Buse) Tully’s Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry on the two-mile march toward the tail of McDade’s embattled column. Meanwhile, Brown radioed orders warning McDade’s missing component, Captain Myron Diduryk’s Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cav, to prepare to be airlifted from Camp Holloway into Landing Zone Albany.

Brown acknowledges that it was too little, too late. “I’ve thought a good deal about this action over the years, and I believe that most of the casualties occurred in the first hour of fighting. I think the bulk of it was done right at the very first. They did not have decent security for moving through a jungle.”

Lieutenant Colonel McDade for his part confirms that he was unable to provide Colonel Brown with detailed reports of what was happening to three of the four companies in his stalled column—most of which were out of sight and out of reach. Says McDade: “In that first hour or so, the situation was so fluid that I was acting more as a platoon leader than a battalion commander. We were trying to secure a perimeter. I was trying to figure out what the hell was going on, myself. I don’t think anybody in the battalion could have told you what the situation really was at that time. I can see where I might have left Tim Brown in the dark about what was going on; I didn’t really know myself until things quieted down.”

The battalion commander adds, “I could have yelled and screamed that we were in a death trap, and all that crap. But I didn’t know it was as bad as it was. I had no way of checking visually or physically, by getting out of that perimeter, so all I could do was hope to get back in touch. I wasn’t going to scream that the sky was falling, especially in a situation where nobody could do anything about it anyway.”

Lieutenant Colonel John A. Hemphill was the operations officer at Brigadier General Knowles’s division forward command post at Pleiku. He recalls that he and Knowles flew over the Ia Drang on November 17 and watched the B-52 bombing strike on the Chu Pong massif. They then flew back to Pleiku. Says Hemphill: “When we got back to Pleiku, here came Tim Brown to see Knowles. I brought him to Knowles and he said, ‘I have not heard from or made contact with McDade and I am concerned.’ So we went piling out and flew out in late afternoon, and that’s when I think was the first time we were aware that anything was amiss.”

Although Knowles does not recall the Brown visit to his headquarters described by Hemphill, he does have a vivid memory of how he first learned that McDade’s battalion was heavily engaged with the enemy. “I had a warrant officer in the support command at Pleiku. His job was to watch the beans, bullets, fuel, and casualties. He had a direct hotline to me; I wanted to know immediately when things got off track. In the afternoon, around two or three o’clock, he called me and said: ‘I got fourteen KIA from McDade’s battalion.’ All the bells went off. I called my pilot, Wayne Knudsen, and John Stoner, my air liaison officer, and went out to see McDade. I stopped at 3rd Brigade before flying on out to Albany. Tim Brown had nothing to tell me.”

Knowles adds, “We got over Albany and McDade was in deep trouble. I wanted to land. McDade said, ‘General, I can’t handle you. I can’t even get medevac in.’ I couldn’t land. I wanted to get something moving on the ground over there. I told Stoner and Bill Becker, the division artillery commander, ‘This guy doesn’t know what he’s got; put a ring of steel around him.’ I could help him with firepower and did. I then went back to see Tim, who still had no information. I was irked. A hell of a mess; no question.”

The 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry had been reduced from a full battalion in column line of march to a small perimeter defended by a few Alpha Company survivors, the recon platoon, a handful of stragglers from Charlie and Delta Companies, and the battalion command group at the Albany landing-zone clearing—plus one other small perimeter, five hundred to seven hundred yards south, which consisted of Captain George Forrest’s Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry. In between, dead or wounded or hiding in the tall grass, was the bulk of Bob McDade’s command: the fragments of two rifle companies, a weapons company, and Headquarters Company.

Each and every man still alive on that field, American and North Vietnamese, was fighting for his life. In the tall grass it was nearly impossible for the soldiers of either side to identify friend or foe except at extremely close range. Americans in olive-drab and North Vietnamese in mustard-brown were fighting and dying side by side. It may have begun as a meeting engagement, a hasty ambush, a surprise attack, a battle of maneuver—and, in fact, it was all of those things—but within minutes the result was a wild melee, a shoot-out, with the gunfighters killing not only the enemy but sometimes their friends just a few feet away.

There would be no cheap victory here this day for either side. There would be no victory at all—just the terrible certainty of death in the tall grass.

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