I did not mean to be killed today.
—dying words of the VICOMTE DE TURENNE, at the Battle of Salzbach, 1675
The North Vietnamese commander on the battlefield, Nguyen Huu An, has a keen memory of that bloody afternoon of November 17, 1965, on the trail to Landing Zone Albany: “My commanders and soldiers reported there was very vicious fighting. I tell you frankly, your soldiers fought valiantly. They had no choice. You are dead or not. It was hand-to-hand fighting. Afterward, when we policed the battlefield, when we picked up our wounded, the bodies of your men and our men were neck to neck, lying alongside each other. It was most fierce.” That it was, and nowhere more fierce than along that strung-out American column where the cavalry rifle companies had been cut into small groups.
Lieutenant John Howard was with Headquarters Company near the tail of the column. “At some point early in the battle I was situated next to a large anthill. A sergeant not far from me had received a nasty wound to his foot and he was screaming in pain. I crawled over next to him and started to bandage his foot. No sooner had I told him to try to quit screaming than I was hit by a bullet which spun me completely around on the ground. It had hit me on the right side of my stomach. I pulled up my shirt to see how bad it was and, luckily, it had cut through my flesh but had not gone into my stomach. I had a flesh wound about five inches long.”
Bullets continued to hit all around Howard. He grabbed the sergeant and told him they needed to move around to the other side of the anthill. “On the other side we joined up with four other soldiers who were grouped together in the grass. We continued to fire at North Vietnamese soldiers behind trees and anthills and tried to figure out what we should do next.”
Although they were now out of sight of each other, Lieutenant Bud Alley, the 2nd Battalion communications officer and Howard’s friend, was not far away. “It was consternation,” says Alley. “Men on either side of me were being shot. At that point I had not seen any of the enemy. All I could see was the trees and our guys. I tried to move up to my right. I moved into a hail of bullets. Everyone was trying to keep moving up toward the landing zone. I was at a big anthill, pinned down by a machine gun. Fellow on my right, a Puerto Rican, was wounded. I traded the Puerto Rican PFC my .45 pistol for his machine gun.
“I took the machine gun and moved around left of the anthill and tried to move forward, firing to my front. I crawled up on a man behind a little tree; then two enemy automatic weapons opened up, cutting that little tree down. He screamed and hit me in the back. I rolled over on top of him and he had both hands over his face. He told me: ‘Don’t worry about me; I’m dead.’ He opened his hands and he had a bullet hole right in the center of his forehead. He pulled two grenades and threw those grenades. I started crawling back to the big anthill where I had come from. I knew we weren’t going forward. By the time I got back to the anthill, the wounded guy, a dead guy or two, another wounded guy, and my radio repairman were there all huddled behind that anthill. Which way do we go?”
William Shucart, the battalion surgeon, was also in that section of the column. “I got up and started looking for somebody, anybody. I ran on, and encountered a couple of enemy soldiers. This meeting scared the shit out of me and them both. I got the M-16 up and fired before they did. That was the end of that. Then I looked over and saw this sergeant leaning against a tree. He said, ‘Can I give you a hand, Captain?’ Calm as could be. That was Sergeant Fred Kluge of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cav. We went back to a larger group at the rear of the column, maybe fifteen or twenty guys, with several wounded. We were in an area with a lot of wounded and no supplies, only a few styrettes of morphine and some bandages.”
Just forward of the headquarters section of the column, Charlie Company was beginning to die. Specialist 4 Jack Smith was with the lead elements in the Charlie Company formation, near Lieutenant Don Cornett, the acting company commander, when the company charged into the teeth of the enemy machine guns. In the first seconds Smith saw one of the radio operators fall dead with a bullet through the chest, his eyes and tongue bulging out. The men of Charlie Company were firing in all directions.
Suddenly, Smith says, he heard a low moan from Lieutenant Don Cornett. He tore off the officer’s green fatigue shirt and saw a bullet wound in his back, to the right of his spine. He and another soldier began bandaging the lieutenant’s wound. Smith thought how dependent they all were on this one man, now badly hurt, who was the only leader in reach. Then a man beside Smith was shot in the arm and a torn artery began spurting blood. Then a round tore through one of Cornett’s boots, tearing away all the toes on his foot.
Now a North Vietnamese with a Maxim heavy machine gun appeared just three feet in front of Smith. The young soldier flicked the selector switch on his M-16 to full automatic and fired a long burst into the face of the enemy machine gunner. An exploding grenade took down another American close by.
Only a few minutes had passed, but Jack Smith’s world was being shot to death all around him. Then, he says, something happened that convinced him to keep fighting. Lieutenant Don Cornett, in agony from his wounds, told Smith he was going to do something to try to get his troops organized. Cornett crawled away into the high grass. A brave young lieutenant died doing his duty somewhere out there in hand-to-hand fighting.
Smith recalls: “Within a span of perhaps twenty minutes everyone around me was dead or wounded, except me. You have to understand that in our area the elephant grass was chest-high; once you hit the dirt your world was about as big as a dining-room table. Your world was completely confined to that area and the six or seven men around you. At that point, we were isolated. Alpha Company was in the same shape. Then the North Vietnamese swept through. I believe they came between Alpha and our company and began to shoot people. We didn’t know if the noise from five feet away, as they began to shoot people, was friendly or enemy.”
Smith saw soldiers take machine guns, lie flat on the ground, and begin firing into the grass. “Often they were firing right into the muzzles of other American machine guns. People were screaming to stop the shooting. It began to have all the elements of a massacre. Nobody was in control because all the officers were to the front and our radio operators had fallen dead on their radio sets.”
Just forward of Charlie Company, with the Delta Company mortars, PFC James Shadden was in agony from his two severe wounds. “By this time, some of the NVA were coming through the area killing all who were screaming and calling for medics. Snyder Bembry was killed in this manner by an English-speaking North Vietnamese, probably an officer. He shot Bembry, as Bembry screamed, with a full automatic weapon, and then spoke these words in English: ‘Wait a minute. Who are we shooting?’ I almost blurted out ‘Americans’ in answer before I realized what was happening. He had an accent.” PFC Snyder P. Bembry of Unadilla, Georgia, was twenty-one years old when he died.
Unable to fight back or do anything to save his buddies from the Vietnamese executioners, James Shadden took the last course left to him: He booby-trapped his own body. “The shot in the arm left me with nothing but a grenade, which I couldn’t throw left-handed, so I refrained from trying,” Shadden recalls. “And more of the enemy were coming my way from the other side. So I slid the grenade under my armpit, pin pulled. I figured if they got me I might get them.”
Specialist 4 Bob Towles of the Delta Company antitank platoon had run into a grassy clearing, leading the way for a dozen of his buddies, several of them badly wounded. He stopped and looked back through the woods toward the column: “I peered through the grass and managed to locate our previous position. There were the North Vietnamese, rummaging what we had left behind. Then they fired bursts from their AKs into the ground. Now I realized what else we had left behind. All of us hadn’t made it out of there. I considered shooting at them. Then I thought better about it. It would only attract their attention and we were in no condition to fight.”
Most of the people with Towles were wounded, sprawling on the ground and lying on top of each other. “We couldn’t function as a combat unit from this pile. At that moment, Sergeant Baker ordered me to move out again. I got up and headed for the wood line on the far side of the clearing. After covering about fifty yards, I noticed movement in the trees off to my right. Americans! I cut to the right and entered the clump of trees. Ten or fifteen yards into the trees two shots rang out. I heard them whiz by behind me. Sergeant Baker lurched and fell. One bullet struck his chest, the other his back. He was a half-step behind and to the left of me. I stopped, knelt, and scanned the trees. Nothing. Sergeant Baker clutched his chest and ordered me to keep going. Just then someone else reached him and helped him to get up.”
Towles rose and turned in the direction he had been heading before Baker went down. “I saw Sergeant [Miguel] Baeza kneeling behind a tree and got to him. It took a few moments to catch my breath and compose myself. Then I asked him for information about this sector. He wasn’t sure. I informed him the enemy had wiped out the mortar platoon, then overran Charlie Company. Baeza pulled out his bayonet, slit my shirt sleeve, and bandaged my right arm. My hand had frozen to the pistol grip of my M-16, but my trigger finger still worked. No pain; my arm was numb.
“I looked around our position. It seemed pretty good. Trees large enough to give some protection formed an arc facing a clearing opposite the one we had just traversed. The other men formed up, facing the direction we just came from. A few men guarded off west and north. I noticed PFC Lester Becker off by himself facing east. His large tree could easily be occupied by two men. I told Sergeant Baeza I’d go over with Becker and help cover that area. I ran the ten yards to the tree and took position on the right side of it.”
From behind that tree Bob Towles and Lester Becker heard moaning nearby in the tall grass of the clearing and decided to investigate. Towles remembers, “I went around the right side of the tree, Becker the left. Instantly two shots. I heard the chilling sound of the bullets’ thump as they both hit soft tissue. I stared paralyzed with disbelief as Becker slumped to the ground grasping his stomach. I couldn’t move. Others ran across and dragged him to the shelter of the tree. At that moment, Captain Hank Thorpe [the Delta Company commander] appeared behind us. He shouted for us to fall back to his position. We obeyed and carried Becker on a poncho. Once there, we left Becker with the medics. He survived to be medevac’d, but died later.” Becker, twenty-five, was from Harvard, Illinois.
Towles’s small group of Delta Company survivors had reached the Albany clearing. They joined the thin line of defenders in the cluster of trees where the battalion command post was located.
At the other end of the column, Captain George Forrest was now herding his men of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry off the trail and into a defensive posture.
Alpha Company rifleman James Young remembers Forrest ordering their withdrawal across a grassy clearing that was under enemy fire and then asking for a volunteer for a dangerous mission. Alpha Company was taking incoming fire from a machine gun that, by the sound of it, was an American M-60. Forrest wanted someone to crawl out into the tall grass, locate the machine gun, and tell the gunners that they were shooting fellow Americans.
Young, who had grown up in the Missouri backwoods and knew something about stalking, said he would go. “Another rifleman, a PFC from Chicago, Ronald Fortune, said he would go with me. We started crawling with that machine gun firing over our heads. It was an M-60 and we all assumed it was Americans. When we got close, fifty or sixty yards away, we started yelling at them. Then I realized that they were enemy. It was as though someone told me: ‘These are not our men. They are not responding to our calls.’”
Young told Fortune to stop yelling. “I continued to crawl in their direction, trying to locate their exact position. I intended to take them out. Then a bullet struck me in the head. I knew I was hit in the head, and I thought I was going to die. It dazed me good but didn’t knock me out. I had my chin strap on so it didn’t knock my helmet off. I asked Fortune if he would get in touch with my parents and tell them that my last concern was for them. I thought it was over for me. I asked him to bandage me. He took the bandage off my belt and he patched me up. He was telling me it wasn’t too bad, that I was going to be all right.
“Then I tried to crawl in the direction of the machine gun again. Fortune thought I was out of my head and tried to stop me. We were both down low. Every time I would move he would grab me by my legs and hold me. After struggling with me for a while, he said, ‘I’m going back,’ and he left. I told him I was going to get that machine gun. What it was, I really was afraid to turn my back on that machine gun.”
The machine-gun bullet had pierced Young’s helmet and crushed his skull on one side of his head. But he was still determined to take out that gun. “As I moved I heard the Vietnamese calling out something. After that I never heard the gun fire again. What I heard were orders for them to pack it up and move. I moved to where I thought it was, still afraid to raise my head on account of snipers. There was lots of shooting. I never found the gun. They were gone.”
Lieutenant Enrique Pujals—a Pennsylvania Military College classmate of Lieutenant Jack Geoghegan of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Cav, who was killed at LZ X-Ray—was leading the twenty-four-man 3rd Platoon of Captain Skip Fesmire’s Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion. His platoon, bringing up the rear of the company, was just ahead of the headquarters detachment. Pujals says he had his men in column formation, but not in single file, when the shooting erupted.
“Then I got the order on the radio: Deploy your platoon and maneuver right. I used hand and arm signals to get the platoon on line. When I looked back, I was several yards ahead, on my own, and the platoon was still in their positions. I went back, giving verbal commands to get on line and follow me, and to pass the word. Some were getting together when the radio operator called me and said the Company Commander had a message for me: ‘Hold where you are. Stop the maneuver and fire only at a target.’ I tried to get information on what the hell was going on, but he said, ‘Out.’
“The firing was still going on up to my right front. Then bullets started to come our way. I thought they were from the lead American elements. Not many, but they caused me concern. I tried to raise anyone on the radio to get them to watch where they fired and to give me a situation report. Still nothing. I tried to form a perimeter of sorts. Meanwhile, up front, the screams kept on as part of the weird symphony of battle sounds.”
Pujals couldn’t believe that the entire battalion was firing everything it had just because of a couple of snipers. “I told my radio operator that I was moving up to find the weapons platoon leader. The vegetation changed as I moved. Where my platoon was there were trees and shrubs 10-15 feet apart and waist-high grass (for me, 5 foot 6 inches tall, sometimes it was nearly neck high). But the weapons platoon had entered a very thick spot with thick grass, and very, very tall clumps of bushes. We were moving in column. The weapons platoon was in file.”
Pujals asked a couple of the men he met where their platoon leader was, and was told: Up ahead. Very few men were prone; very few were facing out toward the firing. Most were leaning on something or other, resting. Nobody seemed to know what was going on. “I moved ahead. I was on the outskirts of the thicket when I felt a stabbing shock on my left heel. I thought I had stepped on one of those infamous punji stakes. I grabbed my left leg to pull it off, when I felt like I’d been struck with a sledgehammer on my right thigh. I saw it out of the corner of my eye—a little puff of dust and the trouser leg split and I knew I was hit.
“My thoughts were silly, a little phrase we had used back in the world to signify something was amiss: ‘There goes the weekend.’ My right leg just twisted all out of shape and began to crumple under me. I tried to shove myself as far back as I could to avoid having it fold under me as I fell. I made it. My leg was stretched in front in a more or less normal position. My thigh was broken. No doubt about it. I was now flat on my back and useless and helpless. What could I do? Yes, call for the medic. But what if they killed my medic as he came to help me? I was bleeding and if I kept this up I’d bleed to death so I chanced it and called.
“He came over with one of my fire-team leaders. They patched me up. I had them splint my M-16 to my right leg, up high. Then the medic took out a morphine ampule. I refused, protested, tried to avoid it, but I still got stuck. They pulled me up to a tree and helped me take off my pack. I had 15 loaded magazines in it and 800 rounds extra I’d picked up at Chu Pong. The guys from the 1st Battalion 7th Cav had said to take as much ammo as you could carry, and then more. I asked for my two canteens and they got them for me.”
Pujals called to his platoon sergeant and told him to take command, and as he did the firing shifted. “My platoon began to get it. The blades of grass were cut at the level of my chest and fell on me. Now the screams were from my men. I did not see them die, but I certainly heard them. One of them screamed, ‘Oh my God, forgive me!’ I still believed we were under fire by our own troops. I was extremely angry. My men were dying around me and I could do nothing. Those were my thoughts. Later I learned the truth and was ashamed.”
At the head of the column, the small group of men and officers with Lieutenant Colonel McDade was locked in a heavy firefight with an enemy determined to overrun them. Captain Joel Sugdinis of Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, still worried about his missing 2nd Platoon, had shifted to the southeastern side of the grove of trees to watch the area across the clearing where his men had disappeared.
Sugdinis recalls, “I could see movement, but I couldn’t tell whether they were our people or the enemy. I saw one soldier stand up and start helping a wounded soldier hobble away from the battle. I picked up binoculars. When I focused in on the two, they were North Vietnamese and the more healthy one was firing his AK-47 from his hip at what appeared to be objects close to his feet. My thought was that he was executing our wounded. I fired one shot and they both went down. After the battle we removed many of our 2nd Platoon dead from that area and several had been shot in the head.
“Someone from the vicinity of the command group yelled that the North Vietnamese were crawling up on us from the south. There was an open area on the south side with knee- to waist-high grass. Those of us who were standing turned and began firing into the grass. Several North Vietnamese attempted to flee. One North Vietnamese stood up and continued to advance directly toward us firing his AK-47 from his hip, John Wayne style. I think everyone who saw him fired directly into him. I’m sure it was only a second or two, but it seemed he would never go down.”
Lieutenant Pat Payne and his recon platoon had been in the thick of the fight around the Albany clearing since the beginning. “During the first hour, at least, we did not have any artillery coverage at all. We were learning a bitter lesson. The second thing is we had no helicopter coverage. We had no gunships overhead. For that first hour or two, it was belly-to-belly and man-to-man. It didn’t make any difference if you were a major, captain, sergeant, or private; we were all standing shoulder to shoulder, shooting it out with the NVA. I can hear the cry ‘Here they come!’ and we would all rise up and cut loose. There was fear in the air, but I never sensed panic, at least not after the first ten or twenty minutes.”
Payne thought the North Vietnamese had done a much better job of anticipating and preparing for the attack, “but the Americans who survived the initial onslaught began to rally. In one respect, you could think of it as the Little Bighorn; we were surrounded, with our packs in front of us, shooting it out. During the course of that long afternoon I never saw a soldier not do his duty. I never saw anyone who cowered in the face of the enemy. Our backs were against the wall and it was a matter of survival. Every person I saw rose to the occasion. Somewhere during the afternoon we started to get some sort of artillery support. However, since we were so spread out I don’t recall us being able to use it effectively for close fire support.”
The fighting had been under way for well over an hour when Lieutenant Larry Gwin, the Alpha Company executive officer, looked to the northwest, where Alpha Company’s 1st Platoon had disappeared in the first assault. He was stunned by what he saw: “Two men were staggering over to our position! They were Staff Sergeant Walter T. Caple, acting platoon sergeant, and Staff Sergeant [Rother A.] Temple, a squad leader. They had fought their way out of the trap. They were exhausted and they indicated they were probably the only ones left alive. They did say that some of the company mortar platoon were in position with the Delta Company people and were OK. But we had still lost our command.”
Now came the event that would turn the course of the battle at the head of the column in the Americans’ favor. Lieutenant Gwin describes what happened: “Captain Jim Spires, the battalion S-3, comes dodging into our position. He tells us that tactical air is on the way and wants to know where our people are. What’s our situation? He asks if any men are still out there. We said nothing. Spires said: ‘You mean everybody out there is either dead or captured?’ The silence was eloquent. Spires said: ‘You sure?’ He was satisfied we were. He ran back to the battalion anthill. The air was on the way, but I don’t remember any artillery or ARA. Nobody knew where anybody was.”
Shortly afterward the command came over the battalion net: Throw smoke. Lieutenant Gwin moved a little way into the grass and the men in the Albany perimeter all began to throw smoke grenades. “I saw Skip Fesmire, Charlie Company commander, throwing smoke. I had no idea what the hell he was doing up here. Our perimeter was marked with all colors of smoke, delineating our positions, and shortly after, the air strikes started.
“They were A-IE Skyraiders with napalm! The first napalm canisters fell right at the point where Sugdinis and I had left the jungle and came into the clearing. We could see masses of North Vietnamese on the other side. I was very sure they were going to come across at us. I think they were cleaning up over there, shooting down at the ground, dispatching our wounded. That first strike was right on target with two napalm cans. I saw them hit the tops of the trees and jellied napalm was coming down through the tree limbs and the NVA were jumping up trying to get away and being engulfed in the flames. I saw that time and time again.”
The slow, reliable old Skyraiders worked their way around the tree line surrounding the hard-pressed defenders of the Albany clearing, first using their canisters of napalm—jellied gasoline—then their 250-pound bombs, and then employing their 20mm cannons to strafe the swarming North Vietnamese.
Lieutenant Gwin remembers, “It cleaned out swath after swath. Those fuckers would jump up and try to run. They didn’t make it. By now the Americans were cheering and laughing at each strike. The cheering stopped when they dropped two canisters directly onto the position where the remnants of the 2nd Platoon had been making their stand. It might have been me, but all I could hear was the crackling of the unexpended rounds burning in the flames that had engulfed our men. None of us know if there were any still alive at the time, but then none of us want to think about it.”
Gwin and others noticed that the enemy firing had slackened, but that as each of the Skyraiders made its bombing run the jungle all around erupted with enemy fire as the North Vietnamese aimed everything they had at the swooping aircraft. Gwin says, “I marveled at how beautiful those birds looked, flying directly at our position and letting fly with all they had.”
Then Gwin rolled over, looked up, and saw an A-IE heading his way. “It let go the canister and it was coming right at me. It passed so close overhead I could see the rivets and it struck in the middle of that field. One North Vietnamese jumped up and ran toward us and we shot him dead. I guess they dropped fifteen or twenty cans of napalm. One aircraft dropped his napalm in the field to our front. I thought he’d made a mistake bringing it in so close, but as it crashed to the ground and the flames burst, about five enemy leaped up only thirty yards from our perimeter and were cut in half by our fire. The last incident involved one particular enemy-manned anthill to our front with a heavy machine gun behind it, firing at the A-lEs. The crew never faltered in the face of imminent death and continued firing until one of the last napalm cans dropped smack dab on that gun and cremated the entire anthill.”
Lieutenant Pat Payne, the recon-platoon leader, remembers the blessed relief that the Air Force delivered. “They were a sight for sore eyes, and the cheers rang out as they made their first runs. The plane was so close that as the pilot flew by you could see his profile in the cockpit. He made repeated passes to strafe the advancing NVA; he would slow the plane, slow it down, shoot his guns, and literally chew the ground up in front of him. Other planes arrived and began to use napalm. You could see a large number of North Vietnamese, fifty or a hundred, quite a number, within fifty or seventy-five yards of us—massing to attack—when one of the Air Force planes dropped the napalm on a direct hit on them. We began to cheer.”
Major Frank Henry and Captain Joe Price, the battalion’s fire-support coordinator, not only got the Air Force on target but also, for the first time in the fight, began calling down artillery strikes around the Albany clearing on clearly visible clusters of North Vietnamese soldiers in the tree line. In those areas, at least, they were fairly confident no Americans were alive. The future of what was left of this battalion began to look a little bit better.
Although badly wounded, Sergeant Major Jim Scott remembers the moment: “After the air support arrived, the artillery started coming in. This was about two hours into the fight. They would see groups of the enemy and call down fire on them. All of this was within fifty yards of us. I could actually see from my position, on top of an anthill, the NVA attempting to charge the battalion. They would form up forty or fifty men; then Frank Henry or the artillery officer would adjust the fire on them. All of a sudden there was a lull in the battle, around four or five P.M. It got quiet. I knew the battalion would survive; up till then I didn’t believe we could. We had radio reports coming in that the other companies in the column were cut off, in bad shape, taking multiple casualties. They were fighting in isolated platoons and squads. I knew the casualties had to be heavy, but I don’t think anyone knew exactly what the situation was at that time. Everyone was scattered.”
Lieutenant Colonel McDade was understandably concerned when contact was made with the A-lEs about where they would put down the napalm and how close. “We had to worry about the risk of hitting our other people. I had no idea where George Forrest’s A/1/5 company was. I knew they were close and had some general idea which direction, but we had to use the napalm and the question was, Could we use it safely? We decided: Let’s bring it in as close as we can to ourselves; that would mean we were backing it away from the other units. It worked.”
Back in the column, Lieutenant Bud Alley continued to search for a secure perimeter but couldn’t find one. “Lieutenant Butch Aull, Charlie Company platoon leader, and one of his guys came down a little slope; he was looking for his people. He slid right in front of me on his knees. I pulled him down. About then they opened up on us. He said: ‘Look where they shot me.’ He was wearing a .45 tanker rig holster. He had a slug in the holster and his .45 pistol, which was right over his chest. He said he was OK, ‘but they almost got me.’ I asked him what we ought to do to get out of this mess. He said we needed to move over to the left side of the column, that they had it under better control there.”
There were six or seven in the group. Butch Aull told them they should count out loud and, on the signal, jump up and run. About then the A-lEs made a strafing run right over them. Aull said, “We better go now.” Then, says Alley, “Butch took off first, in front of me. We were just going to go five paces and down. He jumped off. I jumped off. I said: ‘Butch, where are you?’ I never saw or heard him again. [Second Lieutenant Earl D. Aull, twenty-three, of New Orleans, Louisiana, was killed that day] I tried to move again. Another strafing run by the A-lEs and I jumped up under cover of that and ran again. My mindset at the time was that it was better to get hit by your own than by them.”
Forward in the Albany clearing perimeter the situation was improving by the minute. Specialist 4 Dick Ackerman, of the re-con platoon, remembers: “Our artillery was supporting us so close we would occasionally get some shrapnel. There were planes flying close support. We started digging in whenever we could. My entrenching tool was still attached to my pack left out in the clearing, so I used my bayonet, my fingers and someone else’s tool when it was available. The comfort of a trench just big enough to hold your body is unbelievable.”
No more than two hundred yards away, in that tortured column of desperate Americans, one man prayed for a miracle and the U.S. Air Force delivered it. PFC Jim Shadden, Delta Company, who had booby-trapped his own body with a hand grenade, was badly wounded and unable to move. He was directly in the path of a group of North Vietnamese soldiers methodically sweeping the ground, killing his wounded buddies. “Before the North Vietnamese got to me, half a dozen of them, a pilot came over at tree-top level, turned straight up, and dropped a canister of napalm dead center on them. I never cease to be amazed at the accuracy of that drop. The heat of the napalm rolled across my face and body like an open door on a furnace. I owe this pilot more than it is possible for a human to pay. May God bless all pilots!”
Specialist Bob Towles, also wounded, was now inside the small perimeter at the head of the column: “We learned of impending artillery fire. This helped us take heart. A minute or so later a violent explosion erupted inside the perimeter. Screams, shouts, and searing white phosphorus flew everywhere. I heard cease-fire being yelled. Finally high-explosive shells exploded in the tree line on the other side of the clearing. The entire jungle disappeared in flame, smoke, and flying dirt. No one could live through that, could they? Wrong.”
Towles had one more adventure to endure: “I heard a rushing noise behind me. Staff Sergeant Ronald Benton, the reconplatoon sergeant, charged across the interior of the line and dove for cover. A single shot cut the tree limb directly over my head. The limb fell and hit my helmet. I turned to curse Sergeant Ben-ton for drawing the fire, and saw a scorpion crawling up my leg. I forgot everything else and tried to kick it off. Then I stood up, flailed around and struck it with the barrel of my rifle and ground the thing into the dirt. I realized that what had just happened was absurd. I crawled back to my tree.”
Lieutenant Enrique Pujals, badly wounded and with his grasp of reality fuzzed by the morphine injection, did his best to follow radioed instructions to guide the Air Force planes: “At one time I was told to pop smoke; [and] tell the distance and direction of the smoke. My platoon sergeant, off to our rear, also popped smoke to mark the limits of our positions. No air strike at least where I was. The firing increased in our area, off to our rear. My platoon was holding on. The fire changed; it had become a series of intermittent but very intense firefights.”
Pujals heard the sing-song voices of the enemy soldiers getting closer. “They sounded excited, pointing out dangers or targets to one another, then short intense bursts of automatic fire. Screams, sometimes. We knew what it was and someone dared utter it: ‘They are killing our wounded!’ This was terrible. We had lost the fight, the enemy was mopping up and taking no prisoners. We were as good as dead.”
Lieutenant Pujals decided to go down with as many of the enemy as he could take. “I had two .45 pistols. One I got from my radio operator. He hadn’t cleaned it in a couple of days and I had trouble charging it, I was so weak. Someone else charged it for me. I was ready. I had already died, I figured. How many would I be able to fire off on the dirty .45? I told my radio operator that now he could see why we were always on their asses about cleaning their weapons; now his life might depend on how many rounds I could get off on his dirty .45 pistol.”
Pujals thought he was only seconds from oblivion when a huge black cloud formed up right where the voices were coming from. “Napalm, I thought. The Air Force made it! The voices ceased and the noise of battle resumed, only now it was concentrated off to my right. An air strike with all the trimmings. We had won. It was all over. Only a matter of time before our troops could get to us; an hour or so. I drifted off to sleep. But the battle raged. Really intense firefights; my platoon in deep shit.”
Specialist Jack Smith’s ordeal with Charlie Company, on the other hand, only grew worse: “The NVA were roaming at will shooting people, hurling hand grenades, and if they weren’t doing it we were shooting each other. I moved away, napalm falling so close it was making the grass curl over my head. I went to another area and again I was the only man there who wasn’t wounded. It terrified me. I was bandaging up a sergeant when all of a sudden some NVA jumped on top of us. I pretended to be dead; it was easy to do since I was covered with those people’s blood. The North Vietnamese gunner started using me as a sandbag for his machine gun.
“The only reason he didn’t discover I was alive was that he was shaking more than I was. He couldn’t have been much older than me, nineteen at the time. He started firing into our mortar platoon; our mortar platoon started firing grenades at him and his gun. I lay there thinking, If I stand up and say, ‘Fellows, don’t shoot me,’ the NVA will shoot me. And if I lay still like this my own men will kill me. Grenades started exploding all around; I was wounded, the North Vietnamese on top of me was killed, that sergeant was killed. I moved to yet another position and this went on all afternoon. Everywhere I went I got wounded, but I didn’t get killed. All the men around me were dead.”
Although the air strikes had broken the back of the assault against the command-post perimeter, there was no shortage of North Vietnamese along the column. The 2nd Battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel McDade, was isolated in the Albany perimeter and the setting was hardly conducive to clean, clear, and factual radio reports from the embattled companies to the battalion commander, nor from McDade up the line to Colonel Tim Brown, the 3rd Brigade commander. McDade could see what was going on in his little perimeter, but he was dependent on radios for word of what was happening in the ranks of Charlie, Delta, and Headquarters companies, and there was only silence.
Help was on the way, but it would not arrive in time nor in the right place to be of much use to the Americans still trapped and alive in the column. The division journal notes that at 2:30 P.M. the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry on Landing Zone Columbus was “alerted to assist” McDade’s column. Captain Buse Tully’s Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry was assigned the mission of attacking “to relieve the pressure and attempt to link up with the beleaguered battalion.”
At 2:55 P.M., the 120 men and officers of Bravo Company began marching overland from the artillery base at LZ Columbus toward the rear of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cav column approximately two miles away. By four P.M. Captain Tully’s company was within six hundred yards of Captain George Forrest’s Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry perimeter. Tully held up there until the Air Force completed its strikes on the North Vietnamese; he then resumed the march. By 4:30 P.M. his company sighted American troops, “remnants of our Company A who had broken out of the death trap.”
In an account of the operation written for Armor magazine, an Army publication, the following year, Tully said: “Along with them were elements of Headquarters and Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion 7th Cavalry. Company A had taken many casualties and was missing one whole platoon. You cannot imagine how happy Captain George Forrest was to see friendly faces. I got a great big bear hug from him.”
Tully’s reinforcements deployed to secure a one-helicopter landing zone at the tail of the column to bring in medical evacuation helicopters. The time was five P.M. “When the majority of the wounded had been evacuated,” Tully wrote,
I gave the order to move out toward where I thought the remainder of 2nd Battalion 7th Cavalry was located. Our Company A was to follow in column as soon as the remaining wounded were evacuated. We had not moved 400 yards when the very earth seemed to erupt with mortar and small-arms fire. The company was deployed in a wedge and had just passed over a small ridge line. To our front was a densely thicketed wood line. All three platoons came under fire simultaneously.
The NVA were in the wood line. Two men were killed and three wounded in the initial volley. One of the wounded was my 3rd Platoon leader Lieutenant Emil Satkowsky. Another was PFC Martin, * who had only 14 days left in the Army and who the night before had burned his hands so badly on a trip flare that he had been evacuated. Before leaving he swore to his buddies he would be back the next day. Sure enough, on the first supply ship into Columbus on the 17th, there he was. He had talked the doctor into just bandaging his hands and letting him come back. He was the point man in the first platoon when we got hit and had his hip torn open. At this point there was no alternative except to press the attack and hope that by taking the wood line the fire could be stopped.
By now Tully’s people were beginning to spot the enemy soldiers.
The M-79 grenade launchers proved extremely effective for blowing a man out of a tree. By the time we reached the wood line we had killed enough enemy and driven the remainder far enough into the jungle that the firing subsided to an occasional sniper round. About the same time, Captain Forrest radioed that more wounded had come into the clearing from the west and requested that I hold up so he could med-evac them. This process repeated itself as stragglers continued to filter in. Battalion headquarters had been advised and at 6:25 P.M. orders were received to wrap up in a two-company perimeter and prepare to sweep north to link up with the 2nd Battalion 7th Cavalry at daybreak. At nightfall, we still had 22 wounded in our perimeter. They were made as comfortable as possible for the long wait until morning.
Reinforcements were also on the way for the battalion command perimeter at the head of the column. During the afternoon, Captain Myron Diduryk’s battle-weary veterans of the fight at Landing Zone X-Ray, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, got a warning to prepare for a night air assault into a hot landing zone. The Bravo Company troopers, delighted to have survived the hellish fighting on X-Ray and enjoying a well-deserved rest and a lot of cold beer back at Camp Holloway, were stunned when told that they were being thrown back into a desperate situation so suddenly.
Specialist Jon Wallenius, Bravo Company mortar observer, was doing some serious celebrating. He had not only survived X-Ray without a scratch, but this day, November 17, was his birthday. “I was twenty-two years old. We were fed and showered and new clothes were available. I spent the afternoon at the Enlisted Men’s Club drinking beer with the platoon, exchanging stories and celebrating my birthday. Around four P.M. Diduryk came in and told us to ‘saddle up.’ We were going to rescue the battalion.”
“At about 1600 hours,” Lieutenant Rick Rescorla recalls, “Captain Diduryk walked up. ‘Get the Company together. Battalion’s catching hell. We may have to go in. You’re the only platoon leader left in the Company. Help all the platoons get their shit together.’ Men spilled out of the Clubs and double-timed to their equipment. They worked quickly, throwing on their harnesses. No protests, but their eyes filled with disbelief. Again? Diduryk then issued the shortest frag order in Bravo Company history: ‘We’ll be landing from the southeast. Open fire at anything on your left. Run to your right.’ A hostile landing with one side of the landing zone held by the North Vietnamese. Sitrep [situation report] from the ground: Grim. Expect to be sandwiched between friendly and enemy fires.”
At about 5:45 P.M., Rescorla gathered the platoons. “They pressed in close, listening intently for the word. [SFC John A.] Uselton, the mortar platoon sergeant, [Staff Sergeant William E] Martin, [Specialist 4 Andrew] Vincent, [Specialist Jon] Wallenius, the towering [Sergeant Larry L.] Melton. Eighty or more. Young faces, old hollow eyes. ‘You know the battalion is in the shit,’ I said. ‘We have been selected to jump into that shit and pull them out. If you fight like you did at X-Ray you’ll come through it. Stay together. Come out of those choppers ready to get it on.’
“Across the field the first lift ships were sweeping in. ‘Head ’em up,’ Captain Diduryk growled. I turned and walked ahead, Fantino trailing with the PRC-25. The road stretched out past the permanent hooches of the rear echelon at Holloway. Word spread that we were on a suicide flight. Tumbling out of cozy bunks, Holloway’s finest lined the road to watch us depart. Hawaiian shirts, aviator shades, jeans, beer cans in hands. Cooks and bottle washers, the shit-burners, projectionists, club runners. Same Army, different species. The Company picked up pace, a tight, dirty brown column.”
A few of the men carried AKs, trophies from X-Ray. “No one had shaved,” noted Rescorla, “but our weapons sparkled. ‘What outfit are you?’ one spectator asked. ‘The Hard Corps of Bravo Company, 2nd of the 7th.’ ‘Where are you headed?’ ‘To kick ass,’ I yelled back. A deep rumble ran through the ranks, men yelling, cursing. Not a man among us would swap places with these lard asses. As we passed I asked Fantino: ‘How we looking back there?’ His reply: ‘No stragglers, sir. Every swinging dick is with us.’ As we made a column-right to the pickup point, I looked back at our crew. No outfit in the Army had ever rendered a route step any better than these men at this moment. We piled onto the Hueys without the usual loading instructions and skidded away into the fading gray light.”
At 6:45 P.M. the first lift ships roared into the small Albany clearing and Captain Myron Diduryk’s troopers bailed out into the tall grass. The cavalry had ridden to the rescue. But the killing and dying and terror continued unabated outside the American perimeter as the long night began.
* Two PFCs with the last name Martin served in Captain Tully’s Bravo Company—PFC Roger Martin and PFC Flemming Martin. Both were wounded in action in LZ Albany and the authors have not been able to determine which of them is the PFC Martin of Tully’s article.