Military history

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The Sergeant and the Ghost

We have good corporals and good sergeants and some good lieutenants and captains, and those are far more important than good generals.

—WILLIAM TECUMSEH SHERMAN

Every battle has its unsung heroes, and the desperate fight that raged up and down the column of Americans scattered along the trail to the Albany clearing is no exception. Two of them met after midnight, November 18, when Platoon Sergeant Fred J. Kluge, thirty-two years old, 1st Platoon, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry, led a patrol into the heart of the killing zone in search of the voice on the radio calling himself Ghost 4-6. Kluge eased into a small cluster of wounded and desperate Americans and quietly asked: “Who’s in charge here?” There was a long silence and then the faint reply: “Over here.” Second Lieutenant Robert J. Jeanette, who had been wounded at least four times that afternoon but had held on to his radio and called deadly barrages of artillery down on groups of North Vietnamese circling the Albany clearing, thought he had been saved. So he had, but not just yet.

Ghost 4-6 and Sergeant Kluge are the stuff of legend, and various versions of their sagas have circulated for years among the survivors of Albany. Literally dozens of men reckon they owe their lives to either the sergeant or the Ghost. Both insist that they only did their jobs, that the real heroes were among all the others who fought in Albany that day and night.

Sergeant Fred J. Kluge was a seventeen-year-old high school dropout when he enlisted in the Army in 1950. He fought in the Korean War with the 187th Regimental Combat Team. Between the wars, Korea and Vietnam, he taught map reading and small-unit infantry tactics in Army schools. In 1965 Kluge was on his way to the Special Forces but ended up in the 1st Cavalry Division, assigned as a platoon sergeant in Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry, Captain George Forrest commanding.

When the fighting broke out on the march to Albany clearing, Sergeant Kluge helped establish the perimeter at the rear of the column, and then single-handedly began finding and guiding to safety the Americans staggering out of the chopped-up column. Sergeant Kluge’s account:

“We started getting more and more wounded in from the column up ahead. I would go out and collect them. They were staggering out of the kill zone, dazed, badly wounded, shot up. I just moved off in that direction a good ways so I could guide them back. The column up forward of us was gone; it had disintegrated. There was just independent little skirmishes going on, little pockets of men fighting back. I moved on up to where I could see into the kill zone and pick up those people coming out. Some of them were running, some crawling. Almost all of them were wounded.

“I could see the enemy up in the trees—and I could see them on the ground, moving along in groups of three or four, bent over low. They were moving like they had a destination to reach. Some of them shot at me, but mostly they were just moving along. What it looked like to me was their flanking units moving into the ambush zone.

“I picked up the surgeon of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cav, Doc Shucart, about this time. I told him what we had going and he started dealing with the wounded. By now I started getting some choppers in. The medic, Specialist 5 Daniel Torrez, told me that one of my squad-leader sergeants had put a bandage on his leg but Torrez didn’t think he was really wounded. I went over and he was laying down, his pants leg slit up the side and a bandage wrapped around his leg. I asked him: ‘How bad are you hit?’ He said, ‘Oh, not too bad, just a flesh wound.’ I said: ‘Well, how about Torrez and me take a look?’ He said no, he didn’t want anybody messing with it. I tore that bandage off and there was no wound at all. Right then and there I beat the shit out of him. I ripped his stripes off his arms and demoted him on the spot. I didn’t have that authority, of course, but I sure relieved him of his job. I got his assistant squad leader and put him in charge. All this time the doctor had gone on treating the wounded.

“Another captain, I believe an Air Force captain, came in our perimeter around then and asked what he could do. I put him with the doctor. The evac choppers were landing about fifty yards from where I had set up—about two hundred yards from the kill zone. We had three or four choppers come in, one at a time, and I got all my wounded out, but more were coming out of the kill zone all the time, more than I was getting evacuated.

“A pilot called me over and told me there was a clearing two hundred yards further back that was much bigger, where they could bring in two or three choppers at a time. I had my platoon pick up the wounded, and I sent a squad on ahead to recon that clearing, and we moved on back. It was a nice big clearing, with a big anthill in the center. We set up a perimeter around that clearing and I went forward again to guide the people coming out of the ambush.

“Lieutenant Adams and Captain Forrest both came back to us about then. Forrest was really upset; he had lost some friends in this. I was getting reports on who was dead from our company: One lieutenant killed and two lieutenants wounded. One platoon sergeant killed, one wounded. The executive officer wounded.

“A little later Bravo Company 1/5 came in overland from Columbus, led by Captain Tully. He and Captain Forrest conferred, and they wanted my platoon to gather up all the wounded, maybe thirty-five or so, and prepare to move. Bravo Company would lead off. Tully wanted to go forward to the Albany clearing, through the ambush site. I told Tully: ‘You won’t make it even a hundred yards up that trail.’ He didn’t. They took real intense fire, lost one killed and several wounded. He decided that wasn’t such a good idea after all, and pulled back.

“Tully and Forrest then decided to set up a joint, two-company perimeter in the big clearing. At that point we were holding the perimeter. Now Tully’s people took over three-quarters of it, and we kept the rest. Tully’s people took the portion facing the ambush site. By now we had gotten in most of the wounded from the ambush. Only a few straggled in later. I had piles of wounded men, and now the choppers told me they were going to quit flying. It was getting on to dark and they said they wouldn’t land after dark.

“I pleaded with them to at least bring us some ammunition. Most of the people coming in from the ambush didn’t have weapons or ammo. They had dropped their harness and butt packs when they got hit. Some of my people carrying wounded had dropped their gear, too. I told that pilot I wanted grenades, trip flares and ammo for the 16s and 60s. The pilot said OK, he would do that one last trip. He must have just gone over to Columbus because he was back soon after. He didn’t land, just made a low pass over the perimeter and kicked out crates of ammo.

“Captain Forrest had no radio, so we set up my platoon’s radio over at the anthill; that’s where Forrest set up his CP. I was expecting us to get hit; we were really vulnerable with so many wounded that couldn’t move. I kept checking with the doctor and we tried to select an area where the wounded and the medics would be protected.

“Around ten or eleven at night Captain Forrest was fiddling around with the radio when he picked up a plea for help from Ghost 4-6. This was a 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry lieutenant. I spoke to him both that night and again, briefly, in the morning. He was telling us over the radio that he was all shot up, that he was going to die, that the enemy were moving around, crawling around in the grass, killing off the American wounded. He said he could hear them shooting and talking out there around him. He said there were a bunch of other American wounded in the area.

“Captain Forrest wanted to take a patrol out to rescue them. I told him it wasn’t all that good an idea. We discussed the pros and cons of it. The whole area was lit with flares. I told him there were a lot of arguments against it: Those people are closer to the Albany clearing than to us and we have no contact with Albany. What if Albany has sent out a patrol and we stumble into them and shoot each other up? The wounded Americans out in that grass are scared to death; they may shoot us up as well. Then there’s the enemy, and if they don’t shoot us, it’s damned near guaranteed the Bravo Company guys on this perimeter will shoot us when we come back in.

“He insisted: ‘Sergeant, get your people saddled up.’ I said: ‘OK, but there’s no point in both of us going. They are my people, I’ll take them out.’ It was arranged that Ghost 4-6 would fire his .45-caliber pistol and I would guide in on the sound.

“The medevac guys had kicked out four or five folding-type litters. We got those and an M-60 machine gun and I took the whole bunch of us, twenty-two or twenty-three guys, I think. Captain Forrest stayed back. We traveled as light as we could. I told the guys to leave their steel pots, packs, all that stuff. Just carry rifles, ammo, and grenades. We went out through Tully’s lines and I retraced the route back to this ridge I had been on earlier, collecting the stragglers. Then we moved ahead real slow, with Ghost 4-6 firing his pistol. I didn’t take a straight line up that column, but kind of looped around.

“We started finding dead everywhere—mostly Americans at that point, on the outskirts of the kill zone, where they had run after they got shot. It was just thick with dead. Then we began to find some enemy dead among them. We picked up three or four American wounded on our way up to Ghost 4-6. If they could walk we helped them along. We were already getting bogged down; we had no real capacity to react quickly if the enemy were to hit us.

“Well, we got to Ghost 4-6, and he was bad shot up, had been hit in the chest and hit in the knees. But of all the wounded we encountered, he was probably the most mentally alert and competent. I really admired him. That guy had a super attitude and spirit. We put up a little perimeter and started policing up the wounded and bringing them in. There were twenty-five or thirty or more that we brought in there.

“I had to make a decision. We could not take them all. There were too many of them. And I knew we would not be able to get back out there that night. There wasn’t time enough before daylight. I asked Daniel Torrez the medic to pick out those who were in the worst shape, who didn’t look like making it through the night, for us to carry back. Plus those who could walk on their own or with a little help. The rest we gathered close around Ghost 4-6.

“I told Ghost 4-61 wasn’t bringing him back on this trip, that I was putting him in charge of the others and I would be back in the morning. He didn’t like it but he accepted it. Then I asked Torrez if he would stay with them. He was the best soldier in my platoon, came from El Paso, Texas, and I thought the world of him. He didn’t like the idea of staying out there either, but he said he would.

“I left Torrez the M-60 machine gun. We were gathering up ammo and weapons off the dead and putting those weapons beside the wounded so they could help defend themselves, if it came to that. When we told them we were only taking the worst-wounded plus the walking wounded, some guys said, ‘I can walk,’ and got up. Some of them fell right back down, too. When I made the decision to carry out the worst cases, I was hoping that the choppers would come back in and collect those men. Turned out they wouldn’t, and that’s something that really pissed me off.

“Anyway, we started back in a straggling column; we had to stop every few minutes to let the walking wounded catch up. There were only three of us who were not carrying wounded: myself on point, and my radio operator and another guy riding shotgun at the rear. I was so apprehensive that the enemy would hit us now, when there was no way we could defend ourselves. Those carrying the wounded had their rifles slung on their backs.

“I was even more apprehensive about getting back inside our perimeter; that had worried me from the first minute. When we finally got close I stopped everyone and we clustered in the shadows. I knew we were real close, less than two hundred yards out from our lines. I was talking to Captain Forrest on the radio, and telling him we were afraid to come in; we were afraid they were gonna shoot us. Forrest came out to the line and shined a flashlight on his face. He was telling me: ‘We got everyone alerted—everyone has got the word—nobody’s going to shoot.’ I kept saying we are afraid to move. So Forrest came out another fifty yards toward us, still shining that light on his face.

“Finally, I said, ‘OK, we’re coming in.’ We got everyone on their feet and we started in. We had got within a few feet of where Forrest was standing and, sure enough, somebody opened up on us from the Bravo Company 1/5 lines. It was a private in a foxhole and he fired a whole magazine at us. He was firing low, got one guy in the hip and two others in their legs. When he finally emptied his magazine we screamed at him and got it stopped, and we came on in. Turned out that guy had been asleep in his hole when they put the word out and nobody woke him up to tell him. When he woke up and saw that column approaching he figured we were NVA and he opened fire. There’s always the one guy who don’t get the word and that’s the guy who shoots you up coming home. Always.

“And that was that. It was around four A.M., and for the rest of the night we stayed in the perimeter and racked out. I fell asleep. Somebody woke me up before daybreak. The choppers were starting to come in for the wounded. Then Bravo Company 1/5 saddled up. We waited till all the wounded were evacuated and moved off behind Bravo through the ambush site. We never did get inside the Albany clearing. I could see it, maybe a hundred and fifty yards away. We identified our dead and brought them out.

“We went on up, like we promised, and got Ghost 4-6 and Daniel Torrez the medic and that group of wounded. I spoke briefly with Ghost 4-6: ‘I told you I would come back for you, didn’t I?’ He still had a great attitude. I don’t know if he lived or died, but if anyone had the will to get through, it was certainly that man.

“They brought in Hueys and Chinooks to pick up the dead. There were bodies everywhere, many of them messed up by the air strikes, bomb strikes, artillery, ARA. I never saw anything in Korea that bad. Captain Forrest sent me out with a roster of the names of the men in our company and a man from each of the other two platoons and we walked the battlefield looking at all the American dead. Then our men and the men from Bravo Company 2/7 got the duty of bringing them all in for evacuation. It was terrible, terrible. Some of them were in pieces from the air and artillery. We had to use entrenching tools to put them on the ponchos to carry them in. We ran out of ponchos so we had to reuse the same ones over and over and they became slippery with blood. When I would see the carrying parties drop one I would go over and use Colonel Hal Moore’s words to me at X-Ray: ‘Show a little respect. He’s one of ours.’

“A week after we got back to base camp I came down with malaria and spent three months in Japan recuperating. When I came back to Alpha Company, Captain Forrest had moved on to some other job. One night I was sitting in the NCO Club at An Khe drinking a beer with some other sergeants. There was a sergeant from Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cav there and he said, ‘You know, we won that battle.’ Someone else said, ‘How do you reckon that?’ And the Bravo Company sergeant said: ‘I know because I counted the dead and there were a hundred and two American bodies and a hundred and four gooks.’”

Lieutenant Robert J. Jeanette, Ghost 4-6, weapons-platoon leader of Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, was a big-city boy: grew up in the Bronx, went to the City College of New York. He joined the ROTC program there and was commissioned in the Army in February of 1964. After Officer Basic and Airborne training, Jeanette was posted to Fort Benning in the late spring of 1964. He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, first as a rifle-platoon executive officer, then as platoon leader. When the battalion got to Vietnam the twenty-three-year-old Jeanette was put in command of the weapons platoon of Charlie Company. Lieutenant Jeanette tells his story:

“My weapons platoon had, I think, three 81mm mortars. We were not really equipped as a rifle platoon. Some of us carried sidearms. I had an M-16 rifle. I think there was one or two M-60 machine guns. Everything was real peaceful up to the point where we were almost at the Albany clearing, the pickup zone. Then we began hearing some small-arms fire up ahead. My platoon set up a little perimeter.

“We stayed put right there for fifteen or twenty minutes. Then the word came down for us to form a skirmish line and move on up to the north. The LZ was to our west, and they were taking small-arms fire up there pretty heavily. We did not get very far with our maneuver. The volume of fire was increasing and now it completely enveloped us.

“There was essentially not much visibility unless you were standing up, and by now nobody was standing up. We could not see the enemy maneuvering at this time. I remember trying to set up a perimeter and fire direction. I was trying to find out where the rifle platoons were. They were reporting a lot of casualties on the radio, saying their medic had gone down, and asking for an aid man. I was crawling forward through the grass trying to move up a bit and see where those other Charlie Company people were. That’s when I met my friend, the only enemy I had seen to that point. He fired at me and I fired back. I got off one round and my M-16 jammed. He was still firing at me and I scooted back fast.

“When I got back to my perimeter I picked up a .45 pistol from somebody. By now our group was taking some casualties. Until now the firing had enveloped us but it was not, seemingly, aimed directly at us. Right after I got back, they found us. We were catching automatic weapons, rifle fire, and some light mortar or rifle grenades, airbursts right over our position. I don’t remember where our mortar tubes were at this point. Our orders from Captain Fesmire, relayed by Lieutenant Don Cornett, had been to move out in a rifle skirmish line; nothing said about setting up our tubes. We may have left them when we moved out on that very brief maneuver.

“Now we were taking plenty of casualties; we were firing back as best we could, but we really had no visible targets. I tried to get the men to sweep the trees around us. My platoon was all still on our perimeter, all in the same area, spread out but still together. It was becoming very obvious we were surrounded and trapped, because now we began to take fire from all sides, every direction. Two guys volunteered to try to break through and get help. I don’t know what happened to them.

“Then I was hit the first time. That round hit me in the right knee. That afternoon I was hit two or three more times, some of it shrapnel from those airbursts. One was a rifle round that hit me square in my steel helmet, right in front. It penetrated but was deflected all the way around. I had a deep crease on my head, could feel the blood running down. Damned if I know how the next wound happened. From the time I was hit in the knee I was flat on my back on the ground. But somewhere in there I was shot in the buttocks. There was no medic, no one to bandage me. I just lay there losing blood. That went for everyone else there as well.

“There was nobody moving, nobody crawling out. There were some other Americans alongside our platoon, under better cover. It is quite possible we were taking some friendly fire, but there was no doubt we were getting enemy fire. The radio we had was on the battalion frequency. I remember hearing conversations that I would not have normally heard on the company net: directions for air support, pilots asking direction where to lay the napalm. I got on once to tell them that their napalm was a little bit hot, a little close to where I thought there were friendlies. It wasn’t that close to me but I could see where it landed. I wanted them to know maybe they were hitting friendlies. They told me to get off the net, that they didn’t want too many people talking.

“Anyway, I had a radio that was working and a good freq and I wasn’t going to give up either one. After I was hit the other channels just went right out of my head and I was afraid to start switching around for fear of losing all contact. Eventually I think they changed channels for the battalion net. I know I stopped hearing all the chatter; later I had communication with some other people.

“By now most everyone near me had been hit, too. I remember the guys who were under deep cover yelling at me: ‘Lieutenant, get your ass out of there.’ I yelled back that it was hard to move, that I was hit pretty bad. They yelled that they would help me crawl and I told them there was no way I was going to leave the radio behind. That’s when an amazing thing happened. We had a young private in the company who was constantly up on charges—a goldbrick, a sad sack. Always in trouble. He got up in all that firing, came over, and said: ‘I’ll take the radio and help you out of here, Lieutenant.’ As he bent over trying to get the radio out from under me he took one right through the heart and fell over dead. Weeks later, in the hospital, I tried to get him a posthumous medal; but I never heard back. And now I can’t remember his name.

“As it grew dark I was still in the same position. I was trying to maintain contact with whoever I had talking to me back at brigade. There was a lull in the battle and suddenly I am talking to an artillery outfit. The North Vietnamese were now running around the area and we could see them moving. Bunches often, twenty, more of them circling the perimeter of the landing zone. It was maybe a hundred and fifty yards to the LZ perimeter, and the enemy were between us and them.

“I don’t know how I got put on to that artillery unit. It took me a good while to convince them to bring artillery into that area. Finally they tried a white phosphorus round or two. I couldn’t see any of their rounds land and WP rounds don’t make near as much noise as high-explosive rounds. Finally I persuaded them to start using the HE [high-explosive] rounds and then I could hear it and shift that fire into the area where we could see those enemy troops moving.

“I never really knew how effective that artillery fire I directed was until two things happened. Back in the States a few months later, at St. Albans Naval Hospital in New York I met somebody who had been in that fight, a 2nd Battalion, 7th Cav guy, who came over and thanked me for that artillery fire. I was out walking the halls on my crutches for exercise and he came up on crutches, too. He had an empty trouser leg. He told me the artillery fire took his leg but it saved his life and he was grateful. I was stunned. Later on, around 1971, I had to appear as a witness at a court-martial at Fort Leavenworth and I ran into Sergeant Howard of Charlie Company. He and some of his men were together in a position up ahead of me in the fight. Howard told me that every time the enemy got close to them, the artillery would come in close too and really whack them. He said that artillery fire was the only thing that kept the enemy away and kept them alive. It felt good to know that I did some good. And I had to argue with them to give me the HE.

“Somewhere in there I really lose all sense of time. I know before dark and after dark and that’s about it. I remember I was on the radio that night talking to someone, telling them that we could hear groups of enemy walk by; we were hearing single rifle or pistol shots; that someone would scream or cry out, and then a single shot. I knew damned well what was going on. The enemy were killing our wounded.

“When the relief patrol came in it was from my south, I think. I guided them to us by firing my .45 pistol. They picked up some American wounded further south who also had a radio on my frequency. When the patrol got to us I could hear the patrol leader saying he never anticipated so many wounded; he was stupefied by the numbers. I know he asked, ‘Who’s in charge here?’ I heard him but my mind didn’t react for what seemed like a long time before finally I could say: ‘Over here.’ They brought a medic and he gave me a shot of morphine. That was the first shot I had, the first treatment I had for, I don’t know, twelve hours or more. The medic put a tourniquet on my leg.

“The patrol leader told me that he couldn’t take everyone, that he didn’t have enough people to carry everyone. He said he had to leave me and the others with the medic and only take the worst-hurt. I know the enemy came back at least once after they left. A party of twenty or thirty of them. We could see the enemy moving; it was a very clear night with a bright moon, maybe full or near full.

“After dawn the relief came for us. Somebody gave me a canteen. I was dry as bone. During the night the medic would only give me a sip or two. When the relief came I know I guzzled a whole canteen. I can remember being triaged somewhere, maybe Holloway. Next thing I know I woke up in a hospital ward at Qui Nhon. A fellow officer, Paul Bonocorsi, from Charlie Company had been shifted out to liaison duty the week before the Ia Drang and he was there checking on C Company people. He told me there had been 108 men on the fit-for-duty report the morning we left for Albany, and only eight on the duty report the day after.

“I arrived at Fort Dix, New Jersey, on Thanksgiving Day, 1965, and was ambulanced over to St. Albans Naval Hospital in the borough of Queens, the hospital closest to my home. I walked out of that hospital on Memorial Day, 1966. I was an outpatient for another three or four months, then was placed on temporary retirement that was made permanent in 1971.

“I was recalled to active duty briefly after that to testify at that court-martial at Leavenworth. That was the case of a Charlie Company enlisted man who got blind, raging drunk the week before Albany. He pointed his rifle at his sergeant and pulled the trigger. It dry-fired; either [it was] unloaded or [it] misfired. Then he went off to try to shoot the company commander. He was sitting in the brig when we were out getting shot to pieces. He was court-martialed and sent to prison but his conviction was overturned on appeal, so they retried him and there weren’t many left who could testify.”

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