One cannot answer for his courage when he has never been in danger.
—FRANÇOIS, DUE DE LA ROCHEFOUCAULD,
In the confusion of a battle as fast-paced, fluid, and disorganized as this one along the trail to the Albany clearing—with leaders killed, wounded, or separated from their men, and unit integrity disintegrating in the tall grass and the storm of enemy fire—soldiers drift away or are forced to move away. This is, perhaps, the ultimate terror: to be lost and alone in a hostile land where the next man you meet wants only to kill you.
The Army solution to the problem calls for the soldier to conceal himself until sure of his ground, and then move as stealthily as possible toward friendly lines. The Army term for this difficult and dangerous pursuit is “escape and evasion” or “E and E.” Getting back inside friendly lines in the middle of a firefight is problematic: You are just as likely to be shot and killed by your friends as you are by the enemy.
Late in the afternoon of November 17, E and E was definitely on the minds of many American survivors crawling through the elephant grass in the killing zone along the route of march toward the Albany clearing. Most of them would not make it back alive into the American perimeters at the head and tail of the column. But, against all odds, at least a dozen American officers and soldiers, all of them wounded, stumbled through circuitous routes that took them back to Landing Zone Columbus. Their stories, especially those of James Young and Toby Brave-boy, stand as testimony to courage, tenacity, and a tremendous will to live.
Although Lieutenant Colonel Bob McDade and his executive officer, Major Frank Henry, tried to bring in the air strikes close to the head of the column, some strikes hit as far down the line of march as Headquarters Company, where Lieutenant John Howard, a wounded sergeant, and four other Americans were fighting off the enemy from behind an anthill. Howard says, “The A-lEs made a pass and dropped napalm approximately fifty yards to our left. Although they killed some of the NVA, I’m sure they also hit some of our own troops because we were all mixed together, friendly and enemy, at that point. It was utter chaos. The A-1Es made a wide sweep and started to come back around for a second pass.”
Lieutenant Howard quickly saw that this next pass might come directly over them, and they had to get out of the way of the napalm. “We decided that we would run down a hill toward a dry streambed to get away from the path of the next strike. The six of us jumped up and ran, crossing the streambed about a hundred yards away, and jumped into a large hole about fifteen feet across that looked like an artillery crater. As we were running down the hill the A-1Es were making their second pass and the North Vietnamese were firing at the planes above, not paying any attention to us.
“After getting into the hole we realized that we were now in no-man’s-land on the outside of the enemy and far away from any friendly troops. Intense firefights were still going on a few hundred yards away, but after staying there for maybe an hour, we did not see any more enemy in that area.”
Not far away, another desperate little band of Americans was forming and trying to find a way out of the death trap. That group was led by Lieutenant Howard’s friend Lieutenant Bud Alley, the communications-platoon leader. Alley had collected five other wounded men, including his platoon sergeant; the assistant operations sergeant, James Gooden; and one soldier from Captain George Forrest’s Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry.
Alley says, “One of the clerks was pretty bad shot up and he was panicked. We tried to carry him but he was too big; we couldn’t handle him. One other guy with me had one of his eyes shot out; had it patched but said he could see. A young enlisted man. We made our way to a ditch. There were other guys in that ditch when I got there.
“I remember one of them said: ‘Lieutenant, how about saying a prayer?’ We did; then we took off up the ditch to the left, again trying to find a senior person, somebody who could tell us what to do. There was the guy with the eye shot out; Gooden shot in the chest; another guy shot in the arm and leg. We continued to crawl and we realized that we can’t go back into that shit; the best thing we can do is go to the artillery if we can make it back.”
On the other side was a wide field of elephant grass. “We could see that someone had walked down fields of fire across that field. We skirted around that area real carefully. Somewhere we hit a mud puddle or two and drank the water. It was right at dark when we got outside the American artillery impact area. All of the guys who started out were still with me. It was dark and the flares were out.”
Alley and his group crawled, walked, and ran more than two miles through the darkness to the artillery base at Landing Zone Columbus. They knew there was no safe way to approach an American perimeter that was on hundred-percent alert. Alley says, “We were exhausted. We tried to move out of the way of any line of attack. There had been sounds behind us all the way. We got into some real thick elephant grass, made a little burrow right in the middle, and crashed at that point. The sky was lighted with flares and it seemed to us like the Air Force was dropping everything but the atom bomb around Albany. I really thought we were the only survivors from the whole battalion. We had no water, no first aid, no bandages. I took my shirt off and gave it to one of the guys for his wounds.”
Lieutenant Howard and the other five men, all wounded, decided after dark that the best way to reach safety was to retrace their steps, first to Landing Zone X-Ray and then to the artillery base at Columbus. Columbus was only about two miles away as the crow flies, but crows don’t fly at night. Even though it would add perhaps four extra miles to their route, Howard believed he could locate X-Ray, and once he got there he could then retrace the original route of march back to Columbus.
As they moved, Howard’s group could hear Vietnamese voices and the clanking of weapons. They took a sharp turn, and thought they had lost the enemy behind them, but after another hour they heard more enemy voices.
Now, instead of trying to turn away again, Howard and his group just kept moving toward the sounds of distant artillery and helicopters landing and taking off. They reached Columbus before daybreak.
Lieutenant Alley and his group bedded down in their clump of grass waiting for the sun. Alley says, “Once dawn came, the most dangerous thing was trying to get in that perimeter. I moved fifty or a hundred yards away from the rest of them, so if the guys on guard fired on me the others with me wouldn’t get hit.”
Alley crawled up as close as he could to the perimeter. “I could hear Americans talking in their foxholes. I yelled and asked them to get an officer over right quick. When he came I told him who I was, that I was wearing no shirt and I was going to stand up. I stood with my hands raised. Told him I had a group of people to bring in, please hold your fire. I went back and got them and we came in.”
Alley and his group had been inside the Columbus perimeter just a minute or two when Lieutenant Howard and his group came in behind them, no more than twenty-five or thirty yards to the left of where Alley had crossed the line. Howard and his group had also hidden in the grass outside Columbus. At daybreak they spotted two Americans sitting outside a foxhole eating C-rations. Howard stepped into the open and yelled, “Garry Owen!” and “Friendly troops.” The reply was “Come on in.”
Their ordeal, at least, was over. A helicopter came in and took the seriously wounded out. Alley recalls a medic giving him a shot—“I was shaking like a leaf.” John Howard and Bud Alley later rode a helicopter back to Holloway. They discussed how both groups had heard North Vietnamese units moving behind them and in the same direction, toward the American artillery positions at LZ Columbus.
Alley says, “We thought we should tell someone about this. So we hitched a chopper ride to 3rd Brigade headquarters at Catecka and reported our stories to the S-2, intelligence officer. There was so much confusion they seemed not to care. We returned to Holloway, and next day we rejoined what was left of our outfit.”
A few hours later, on the afternoon of November 18, a North Vietnamese battalion of the 33rd Regiment attacked the perimeter at LZ Columbus.
An even more remarkable escape-and-evasion saga was that of Specialist 4 James Young of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cav, the attached unit on the end of the column. It may be remembered that Young had volunteered for a dangerous mission to find an American machine gun that was shooting up the Alpha Company position. Out in the tall grass Young was shot in the head and badly wounded before he discovered that the American machine gun was manned by North Vietnamese. The Missouri country boy looked back to find that enemy troops had cut him off from the American lines.
Says Young, “They were shooting at our men, but hadn’t spotted me yet. I had two or three frag grenades, a smoke grenade, three hundred to four hundred rounds of ammo, my M-16, two canteens, a notebook, and a little mirror. That was it. Bullets were striking around me. I saw the grass out to my front start moving and suddenly I saw a North Vietnamese. I let him get close, fired on full automatic, hit him in the stomach and chest. I could see more coming. I threw a frag and a smoke grenade and got out of there.”
Young was being forced to move away from his company. “Those guys in the grass had cut me off. I began moving in hopes of getting to that artillery base we had passed. I sprayed the treetops as I went, hoping to get those snipers, or at least keep their heads down. I was running and dodging, zigzagging so they couldn’t get an easy shot. I ran five hundred to six hundred yards and stopped to rest. I could hear the enemy shooting and coming in my direction. I had killed one of them and put a grenade in their position so I figured they weren’t too happy with me.”
Jim Young’s skills, learned while deer hunting in the Missouri backwoods at an early age, now began to pay off for him. He hit a stream and waded up it for a hundred yards, filling his canteens and drinking all the water he could hold. He left the water at a rocky place where he would leave no trail, moved to an open valley where he would have a clear view of his backtrail, crossed, and took a break, concealed in the brush. It was a game of foxes and hounds, and Jim Young was the fox. He set out again, moving down the valley, hearing the sound of the battle receding to his rear.
It was getting late. Young moved up the mountain, took out his notebook, and started a diary. “I wrote the date and what had happened to me. I figured it was a good chance I wasn’t going to make it back and maybe they will find this and at least my mama and daddy would know what happened to me. Artillery started coming in on the mountain. I got between two large trees; had not seen or heard any sign of the enemy. I started looking for a place to hide for the night. I stumbled around those slopes in the dark, falling over rocks, cussing and raising hell but I did some praying too. I found me a good place to hide from the enemy and the artillery if they fired again. A low place by a tree with grass so thick I could crawl in and no one would see me.
“Late in the night I did go to sleep. I was cold and tired and trying to keep ants and bugs out of my head wound. I had a real bad headache. When I would take a drink of water I would throw up. Next morning when I woke up I lay there quite a time just listening. Didn’t hear anything except helicopters landing and taking off. I could hear gunfire between me and the ambush site and I wasn’t about to try to get through there. If friendly fire didn’t get me, the VC would. My next diary entry was: ‘18 November: I’m on a very large hill with artillery coming in on it along with mortars, but I can’t spot them.’”
From the map it is clear that Young had climbed one of the three six-hundred- to seven-hundred-foot-high hills east of LZ Albany. Now he decided to head in the direction he thought was south. He walked a long way, then got off the trail he had been on because it became too narrow. He grew concerned that he was either near or across the Cambodian border, because he had not seen or heard any helicopters or aircraft and he knew they avoided the border. Young then reversed course.
“Later, choppers flew over me. I tried to signal them with my small mirror but had no luck. Late in the day I got close enough to again hear choppers landing and taking off. I estimated I was less than a mile from a landing zone [Columbus]. The enemy made an attack on the troops there in late afternoon or early evening. They had attacked from my side of the perimeter. Friend-lies were shooting at the enemy, and their bullets were hitting all around me. There wasn’t much cover in the valley so I went to the top of the hill, found a large log, and got behind it. Then the Americans started dropping artillery and mortars. Then the jets and choppers came in bombing and strafing and shooting rockets.
“It was close enough that I was real scared. They were hitting the valley and my hill to cut off the enemy and I was right in the middle. By the time the battle was over it was dark and I knew better than to try to walk in then. Any sound of movement would bring immediate fire. Artillery and mortar fire landed around me all night. There were flares lighting up the area and I didn’t dare move. I covered myself with brush and leaves so no one could see me. Another miserable night. I was wet and cold. Ants all over me again and I had a real bad headache. Ants got inside my clothes. If I didn’t move around much they were OK, but if I moved they bit me. Had to keep them out of my eyes and ears and my head wound. Shooting off and on all night long. The guys were pretty trigger-happy.”
The Americans inside Columbus greeted daybreak of November 19 with a Mad Minute of shooting that sprayed all around Jim Young, hiding up on the slope. When that quieted down he began moving cautiously toward salvation, crossing a wide, shallow creek and finally finding an opening where he could approach the perimeter and be seen for who and what he was. He made it into the Columbus perimeter only a few hours before the Americans pulled out and abandoned it.
Young talked to some of the men. “They told me where my company was. I had walked in a huge circle, lost, and somehow came back to my own unit on a different landing zone. I walked across the perimeter to my unit. They were as happy to see me as I was to see them. They told me I had been listed [as] missing in action. My family had been sent a telegram saying that and it was a big shock to them. Then they got a telegram saying I was wounded, not missing.
“One of the men from Headquarters Company of the battalion took all my gear. I wanted to keep my helmet with the bullet hole in it. He said I couldn’t do that so I asked him to hold it for me, that I wanted it back. Then they took me to the first-aid station. They cleaned my head wound, put me on a stretcher, asked me what I had seen and where I had been. I was bothered by the fact that I had not tried to fight my way back in on the day we were ambushed. One of the officers told me I had done the right thing, that I would never have made it back that day. Finally they flew me out to Holloway and on to Qui Nhon.”
Jim Young adds, “The bullet had knocked a place the size of a quarter out of my skull. Both the bullet and shrapnel from my helmet did damage, pressed pieces of skull down into my brain. At Qui Nhon they had to take the bone frags out of my brain, and whatever it was they did medically, it was the first time that had been done in Vietnam, so they wrote me up in the medical journals.”
At Qui Nhon a nurse came in and cut off Young’s clothes. “When she took my boots off you should have seen her face. It had been five days since I had my clothes off. I had dropped from a hundred and ninety pounds to a hundred and fifty. They sent me to Denver Fitzsimmons Army Hospital because of the type of wound I had. I wanted to go to a hospital in St. Louis near my home. Continued treatment and tests. In mid-December they let me start clearing from the hospital. Release papers were given to me the twenty-second of December but they said I couldn’t get a new uniform and my back pay till after Christmas. They were going to have their Christmas, but I could, by God, sit and wait. Hell with that. I borrowed some money and some clothes from one of the guys, told the pay office where to send my money, and I took off. I arrived home Christmas Eve, sneaked in, and surprised the family.”
The last, and most spectacular, escape-and-evasion story would not come to light until a full week after the battle at Albany. A scout helicopter flying in the vicinity of the abandoned Albany battlefield on November 24, the day before Thanksgiving, saw the figure of a man below waving a bloody rag.
The observer-copilot took aim at the man with his M-16 and was about to shoot him when the pilot noticed that the figure was too large for a Vietnamese. He swerved the chopper to get the observer’s rifle off the man and radioed a report to a Huey gun-ship in the area. The extraordinary saga of the survival of PFC Toby Braveboy, an aptly named part-Creek Indian rifleman from Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th U.S. Cavalry, would now be told.
On November 17, Braveboy—whose hometown, ironically, was Coward, South Carolina—was walking point for Captain Joel Sugdinis’s 1st Platoon, the unit that disintegrated in the hail of enemy fire on the eastern side of Albany clearing as the enemy began the battle.
That initial volley of fire shattered Braveboy’s left hand and his M-16, and bullet fragments peppered his arm and thigh. Bleeding, weaponless, and in extreme pain, Braveboy crawled into thick brush and hid. When night fell on the seventeenth he crept out and ran into three other American soldiers, all wounded.
He crawled away for help, toward the sound of the firing, and ran into more wounded Americans just as a North Vietnamese patrol moving through the area discovered them. Braveboy played dead for several hours, listening to the other wounded Americans around him being executed.
Finally, when things quieted down, Braveboy, who had lost all sense of direction, again started crawling through the tall elephant grass toward where he thought he would find his company. Bad choice. He was 180 degrees off and moving directly south past the right flank of the Charlie Company survivors.
At daybreak he went to ground on the north bank of a shallow tributary of the Ia Drang, about five hundred yards from the Albany clearing. He had no food but did have two canteens and a small bottle of GI-issue water-purification tablets. He wrapped his T-shirt around his bleeding left hand and stayed put, tortured by mosquitoes, ants, and the chilling cold of the nights. Each day he watched enemy soldiers pass his hiding place in the brush along the creek bank. He could hear American helicopters overhead.
On November 22, his fifth day alone, a North Vietnamese soldier on the tail end of a passing column looked into the hole in the brush and saw the American. Braveboy said: “Four walked by me and the last one looked me right in the eye. He stopped and pointed his rifle at me. I raised my wounded hand and shook my head no. He lowered his rifle and walked away. So young. He was just a boy, not more than sixteen or seventeen.”
The U.S. Air Force had begun targeting fighter-bomber missions on the entire Albany area. Braveboy said, “I don’t know how I survived. The bombs were landing all around me. All I could do was lay flat on the ground and pray they didn’t hit me.”
After seven days, terribly weak and sinking fast from loss of blood and lack of food, Braveboy heard and then saw a 1st Cav H-13 scout helicopter wheeling and circling at low level nearby. Desperate, Braveboy crawled to a small open area, took his bloody T-shirt off his gangrenous hand, and waved it, swung it around over his head, until Melvus Hall, the observer in Warrant Officer Marion Moore’s scout chopper, saw him and took aim with his M-16.
When pilot Moore realized the figure was an American, he radioed gunship pilot Captain Jerry Leadabrand, who circled the area, wrote “Follow me!” on a box of turkey loaf C-rations, and dropped it to Braveboy on a low pass. Only after the scout helicopter had swept the area and made certain that there were no enemy nearby did Leadabrand land and pick up Toby Braveboy.
Braveboy was flown first to Due Co Special Forces Camp for immediate treatment of his wounds. Then he was flown to Camp Holloway for surgery.
His Alpha Company commander, Captain Joel Sugdinis, says he got the report that Braveboy had been located and picked up by elements of the 1st Squadron, 9th Cav. “He was wounded, scared, and dehydrated but otherwise all right,” Sugdinis recalls.
Surgeons amputated one of Braveboy’s fingers and did the best they could to save the rest of his hand. Gangrene had set in during his seven-day ordeal in the brush, alone on the battlefield.
Back home in Coward, South Carolina, his family had been notified that Toby Braveboy was missing and presumed dead. The local newspaper had already run his obituary. After recovering from his wounds, Braveboy was discharged from the Army.