“After a year I felt so plugged in to all the stories and the images and the fear that even the dead started telling me stories, you’d hear them out of a remote but accessible space where there were no ideas, no emotions, no facts, no proper language, only clean information. However many times it happened, whether I’d known them or not, no matter what I’d felt about them or the way they’d died, their story was always there and it was always the same: it went, “Put yourself in my place.”
― Michael Herr, Dispatches
Death is something we hide from. In our society, we pay people to do the job most of us would never do. We pay handsomely for others to tend to our dead. We only look at them after they’ve been cleaned up, dressed up, made presentable – in other words, made to look as if they’re still alive and sleeping peacefully. And if that’s not possible, we simply close the lid on them.
In war, soldiers don’t have that luxury. We who have been to war and are combat veterans were subjected to the extreme violence of the modern day battlefield. We saw firsthand what M16s, hand grenades, artillery shells, bombs, napalm and other means of killing we’ve invented can do to a healthy, young body. In addition to creating the mess in a firefight, we had to clean it up as well – all while dealing with the grief of losing good friends and fellow soldiers – men killed in unspeakable and grotesque ways. It was hard – physically, psychologically and spiritually.
Many of us were unable to cope with it, were not able to get through it and return to anything like a normal life. Thousands of Vietnam veterans ended their own lives rather than live with the memory of it. Others tried whatever they could to forget – alcohol and drugs usually, but in the long run that only messed them up worse. Still others simply went insane and parted ways with reality. War in many ways is the “gift” that keeps on giving. It continues to claim victims years after the bullets have stopped flying and the bombs have stopped dropping. Many men die in war, but don’t drop until years later. They are not remembered or honored on monuments, not mentioned in Memorial Day speeches, but they are war casualties nonetheless – the same as if they’d gotten a bullet through the head.
The hell that was served to the youth of my generation was that we were brought up in the era shortly after World War II. Our country was basking in the glory of a war well fought and won. A war fought with rectitude, for righteous reasons. We were weaned on John Wayne and Audi Murphy movies, given a glossed over history of our country in school (and on television) and were totally convinced that we Americans were always the good guys and our leaders in government were patriots and therefore would never lie to us. Vietnam made us question all that. We began to rethink everything we learned when we were growing up and in my case anyway, it was bitterly heartbreaking. I, like the majority of Vietnam Vets was a volunteer. There were other reasons why I joined the army, but one of the main ones was to serve my country. Then I discovered my country wasn’t what I thought it was.
That our leaders would send us into an unwinnable war without a viable exit strategy and without any (or damn little) indoctrination as to why we were being sent I feel was part of the reason we lost. We weren’t motivated. We were simply told that communism was bad and we had to draw the line in Vietnam, domino theory, all of Asia will fall, etc., etc. Turns out the domino theory was dead wrong – after the war, Vietnam went into Cambodia, overthrew Pol Pot’s murderous, communist regime and reinstalled the monarchy, which is to this day still in power – the exact opposite of domino theory doctrine.
Regardless of what you thought about the Vietnam war, the fact is 2,709,918 Americans served in Vietnam, representing almost 10% of their (very large) generation. 40% to 60% of those were either in combat, provided close support or were regularly exposed to enemy attack. 58,318 names of American men and women who died in the war are etched on the black granite slabs of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. 11,465 of those on the wall were not yet 20 years old, still teenagers – 5 of them were just 16 years old. Kids.
It is fitting and important on this Memorial Day, that we take time out from our burgers and beer to remember the people who gave their lives for this country. To remember their deaths in all it’s raw ugliness. To remember that for every name on the wall there was a family back home – wives, girlfriends, children and friends affected by their death. To remember that it could have been you or someone in your family. To remember that our leaders sent tens of thousands of young men and women to their death in the prime of their lives. To remember that it can and will happen again – indeed, still is happening. To remember that unless we put an end to war, it will surely put an end to us all.
A few minutes after 1 a.m., a thunderous roar of incoming mortar, rocket and small arms fire blows me out of my slumber as Charlie hits us with everything he has. From the opening salvo, it’s obvious we are vastly outnumbered.
The following is an account of the battle at LZ Bird. It happened in the early morning hours of December 27, 1966, Near Thôn Xuân Sơn, Vietnam. Though it was a relatively short battle, it was by far the most intense fighting I saw during my tour. Some analysts have speculated it may have been one of the most intense battles of the war, if not the most.
I was a member of the weapons platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Bn. 12th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division. This is how I remember the battle that changed me forever.
There’s a sandbag pit about 20 feet in diameter and three feet high. My head is near the outer face of it and I’m doing what passes for sleep in Vietnam. The pit I’m sleeping next to holds a 155 MM Howitzer that’s out of service; it needs a new barrel, so it sits idle. The gun pits of 105 MM and 155 MM howitzers are spaced irregularly on a low‑lying, oval hilltop about a hundred meters from a bend in the meandering Kim Son River. My bunker is very close to the landing zone for the supply choppers and there’s a 500 gallon bladder of jet fuel out in front of us. (It occurred to me later that if rocket or mortar fire had hit that bladder, things could have gone very badly for us.) The rains which soaked us to the bone on Christmas day have given us this night off.
It’s after midnight and pitch black. A dense, tropical cloud cover is blotting out the moon and stars. Out in the darkness, just beyond our perimeter, hundreds of small, wiry, underfed bodies are slithering through elephant grass, closing in on us with uncanny stealth. They are two battalions of the NVA’s 22nd Regiment – well trained, well disciplined and motivated, reinforced by local VC insurgents. The total attack force is estimated at 1,000 men. Our combined field strength of infantry and artillery on LZ Bird that night is 170 men.
The hilltop position is about the size of a football field and relatively level – like a small plateau. The higher ridges nearby are used by the enemy to great effect by raining rocket and mortar rounds down on us once the battle begins. Strategically the position is questionable and many of us feel we are being used as bait.
A few minutes after 1 a.m., a thunderous roar of incoming mortar, rocket and small arms fire blows me out of my slumber as Charlie hits us with everything he has. From the opening salvo, it’s obvious we are vastly outnumbered. In the few seconds it takes me to reach my bunker, the two men on watch have already been wounded. One is hit in the arm, the other in the back of the head. Both are bleeding and calling out for help. I check them out in the glow of the incoming fire; the injuries appear to be superficial shrapnel wounds. I assure them they will be okay.
The deafening roar continues for what seems an eternity. Individual blasts meld into one continuous maelstrom, sounding bizarrely like a monstrous engine revving up. Charlie means to kill us all tonight and he’s off to a great start.
During the first minutes of the battle I try to get my bearings and figure out what to do. The main attack is not coming directly at us so I have time to think. The two guys on my position are down in the bunker, and there is no room for me. The M‑60 machine gun which is assigned to me earlier that day sits on top of the bunker, resting on the overhead cover; I grab it and fire in the direction of the assault. After a few short bursts, the M-60 jams, it’s rendered useless and leaves me in the battle of my life with an Army issue Colt .45 automatic and a few clips of ammo.
To the right of our bunker is my squad leader’s position and midway between a stack of hand grenades still in the cartons brought out by chopper too late to distribute. My squad leader, Sgt. Delbert Jennings and two other men in the bunker to our right (the direction of the attack) are under such heavy fire they have to pull back – they come running toward our position. Jennings yells frantically for us to open the grenade boxes. We quickly set up an assembly line of sorts and three of us start doing this as fast as we can. The cases are about the size and shape of a case of 12 oz. beer cans and each grenade is wrapped in its own cardboard tube with tape around it. Thanks to Jenning’s quick thinking, within seconds we are flipping the unwrapped grenades to him, with pins straightened, so he just pulls the pins and lets them fly. The steady stream of grenades we put out are highly effective. In the morning at first light, we find a dozen enemy dead and it’s anyone’s guess how many we wounded.
As the mortar and rocket fire subsides, the small arms fire grows heavier. The enemy is breaching our perimeter. They are coming in waves, and it isn’t long before we see them behind us inside the perimeter. Sappers run in alongside the riflemen with satchel charges of TNT in small ruck‑sacks strapped to their backs. They are attempting to blow up the artillery guns with them. Some blow, some don’t. It’s likely their detonators and fuses are wet and therefore not working. We find many of their crude-looking hand grenades unexploded the next day, looking like World War II-era potato mashers, with long wooden handles.
Eventually the onslaught is too much – it’s down to hand-to-hand combat now inside the perimeter near the artillery pits and we start pulling back. On Jenning’s order, we retreat toward our left flank, away from the brunt of the attack, skirt around the far side of the hill from where the attack is coming and along the way come across several of our wounded. One of them lies in the bottom of a bunker, unable to get up. He screams for help out of the pitch black darkness – there is nothing we can do for him. We tell him he will be OK, and we’ll be back for him as soon as possible. We try to calm him, but he’s insane with fear and crying out in pain, pleading mournfully for help, but any attempt to get him up out of the bunker in the heat of battle, will most likely mean death for us all. I feel sick having to leave him there.
We make our way to the farthest point from where the attack originated and are not alone. It seems everyone not dead, wounded or playing dead, has instinctively made their way to the same spot. We form a tight perimeter around the one gun emplacement still in our possession, one of the smaller, 105 MM Howitzers. The fire base has been over‑run except for this small foothold. We are terrified and expect to momentarily be annihilated.
We do, however, have a plan for this type of situation. It calls for a green signal flare to be sent up. Any of our men still alive out front, upon seeing the flare, are to get their heads down and stay down. Then we level one of the Howitzer barrels and let fly with a canister or “bee‑hive” round (a shell about two feet long and about 4.5 inches in diameter that blasts out 8,000 red hot “flechettes” of metal). The plan works. The bee-hive rounds have blunted the onslaught and Charlie begins to retreat. After the canister rounds are fired, the small arms fire diminishes and there is only sporadic firing, which continues through the night. This will turn out to be the first actual combat use of canister rounds.
At some point during Charlie’s retreat, Chinook gun ships show up and begin strafing the area where the attack originated. As the first chopper makes its pass the sky lights up like the Fourth of July with tracers. For every round going from the chopper to the ground, some thousand rounds seem to be going from the ground up. It’s an awesome and frightful sight. Against all odds, the chopper makes it through.
Dawn is a long time coming. Sometime during the night, elements from the 1st Bn., 5th Cav. show up to reinforce us. We’ve taken a terrible beating—especially my company and especially my platoon. Out of 26 men in my platoon, only six emerge without a scratch. I am one of them. We count about 15 dead and five wounded. The hilltop smolders and dead bodies sprawl everywhere. A strange silence envelopes the hill (though I’m half deaf from the battle) and the scene is surreally like living in a Bosch painting. Demolition experts arrive to disarm the satchel charges that failed to explode. We carefully reconnoiter our old positions, wary of booby traps, searching for wounded and assessing the damage in human terms.
Once back in our platoon area the enormity of what happened hits us. We find Gary Peasley, a tall lanky kid from Detroit, has taken a direct hit from a 57 MM rocket, there isn’t much left of him. Peasley and I were ordered to switch positions late the previous afternoon. He was due to rotate in a few months and I recall just the day before, as we ended a poker game, he stood up, stretched and with a boastful air said, “Yeah, I always said if Charlie didn’t get me by Christmas, I’d be home free.” No such luck.
Platoon mate Joe Willis, a farm boy from central Illinois and a guy everyone liked, is lying face up, eyes wide open staring at the sky in a shallow garbage pit – his M16 still cradled in his arms. Six enemy bodies surround him. Willis was a soft spoken, self effacing type – never said a bad word about anyone. He was one hell of a soldier too.
Our platoon leader, Lt. Jerry Walace, whom we nicknamed John Wayne, because of his gung ho attitude, is found out in front of his bunker, face down, with his cherished pearl handled revolver in his hand. Apparently he ran straight out to meet the attack head on. The man had guts.
One of the long-timers, Donald Woods and one of the new recruits, who was spending his first night in the field are dug out after having spent the night in the bottom of their foxhole, buried alive by the overhead cover which had collapsed on them. After they are fished out, they tell us they heard Vietnamese voices all around them for hours and felt bayonets probing at the sandbags on top of them. They also report hearing women’s voices and babies crying during the height of the battle. The long-timer Woods, is half-crazed and still shaking hours after the ordeal. He has shrapnel in his back and knows he will be flown out soon. He says his goodbyes to those of us left and vows he won’t be back. He’d rather spend the rest of his life in Leavenworth at hard labor than go through another night like this. We never see him again.
Our XO has a sucking chest wound and is medevac’d out. I’ll never know if he makes it. Our Company has been cut to ribbons and the artillerymen also have taken heavy losses. I’ve heard varying numbers on dead and wounded, but having been there I tend to agree with S.L.A. Marshall who states in his book “Bird,” we took 58 KIA and 71 wounded. I’m not sure how many died later of their wounds.
My buddy Andy had been out on a long-range patrol that night and from where they were, could hear the fierce fighting and monitored radio transmissions until they stopped abruptly. Communications are out for several hours during the attack. He’s been worried sick for my safety and we have an awkward reunion in the morning when he’s choppered in. It’s hard to look at each other. We make feeble attempts to talk about what happened, who was killed, who was wounded. We’re both glad to be alive, glad each other is alive, but we are torn up. We hem and haw, look at our boots, or up at the sky. We are ashamed to be alive.
I spend the morning dragging the lifeless bodies of our comrades to a makeshift morgue and cleaning them up for transport to graves registration in Saigon. We pull cigarette filters out of artillerymen’s ears (improvised ear‑plugs). We close eyes and do what we can to wipe the mud and blood off their faces and clothing. We put them on ponchos and lay them in rows where they wait for the choppers to spirit them away.
After our dead are gone, we drag the enemy dead to a mass grave dug by a bulldozer flown in that morning. None of us wants to touch them, especially the NVA dead. Rigor mortis has set in and it’s spooky. Death feels contagious; we don’t want to catch it. We use rope or wire, whatever we can find, looping it around a wrist or an ankle, and drag the ridged bodies along in the muddy, red clay.
I think the day after is worse than the battle itself. In the heat of battle, there’s no time to think. But when you’re exposed to the aftermath of a fierce firefight like this the experience becomes nightmarish. Still reeling from it all, we struggle to make sense of the horrific carnage, little knowing what we are experiencing will effect us for the remainder of our days. The battle was only an hour or two, but the clean up and body count go on for a few days.
Patrols follow the clean up. Patrols count the enemy dead and examine Charlies’ escape routes. Bodies and parts of bodies are found—bodies blown apart by direct artillery hits. Twisted, grotesquely mangled limbs, body parts of all kinds hanging from bushes and trees – everywhere the smell of blood and death and rotting flesh. I am so immersed in horror and death that I become psychically numb, going about my business with a vacuous, zombie-like feeling. I shut it out and feel nothing, which is all I can do to keep from going mad.
Not many people outside the military know what happened that night, although it did make the headlines of the major papers the next day. It was just another battle, fairly early in the war and soon forgotten by all but those who were there. Personally, it has never been far from my consciousness. When I got back from Vietnam and left the army, I found people didn’t want to be reminded of the war, so I clammed up. I went for many years without talking about it. It wasn’t until the 1990s that I started to talk openly about it, and have since tried to put some of my experiences in writing. I’ve also been in touch with other veterans and shared my experiences with them.
They say time heals all wounds and in my case I think it has, or at least it has scabbed over nicely and doesn’t hurt so much any more. I have been back to Vietnam twice since the war and instead of it being the cathartic, emotional experience I thought it might be, I found I could look back at my war experience with objectivity and equanimity and without a flood of anger or sorrow. I still, on occasion, do get choked up though, when I think about the terrible waste of life and the brothers I lost that night. I made a trip back in 2014 and visited the location where this battle took place, Xuan An Hill and in the process of finding it, ran across a little old man ambling down the road. Through my interpreter/guide, we questioned him and asked him if he remembered the battle. He answered: “Yes, I remember it, I was there.” He was one of the many local VC insurgents who had helped the NVA that night. We shook hands and buried the hatchet so to speak.
Truth is the first casualty of war. Humans are strange creatures and each has his own version of the truth based on their point of view. Governments have their versions of truth too – they’re called lies. The number of dead and wounded at Bird vary widely, depending upon whom you ask. My experience at Bird I’m sure was quite different from the experience of an artilleryman that night. The experience of an officer was quite different from the experience of an enlisted man. (In Vietnam, most of the officers I saw led from behind, not out front, like in previous wars.) What I’m getting at here, is that this story is my truth. I’ve been criticized in the past for things I’ve written about Bird. Perhaps for not making my American comrades sound brave or courageous enough. I’m not writing history though, I’m just writing what happened to me as best I can remember it. The war still divides us vets. We bonded as brothers over there, but like brothers everywhere, we don’t always agree.
What has been written [in this book] about the brave fight at LZ Bird must … stand on its own. No American or foreign correspondents got up to the position. None visited Camp Radcliff to do interviews about the operation. The Pentagon and MAC-V (Military Assistance Command – Vietnam) headquarters, though interested, still have not anything more than the foggiest notion of what happened.
The fight won headlines on the following day in the national press. The stories were based on what hard-pressed bureau chiefs in Saigon had to assume out of the scant information fed them by telephone from the field. As reported, the fight at Bird was a defeat for the United States, no simple reverse, and barely short of disaster. A solidly placed and defended landing zone had been overrun. The enemy had had his way, Our losses, compared to theirs, were mournful. Within 24 hours thereafter the fight at LZ Bird had passed from the public consciousness as the press ran on to other sensations.
NOTE: I want to thank Sally Saville Hodge at Hodge Media Strategies for taking the time to edit this story. It is infinitely better thanks to her.
It was late June, 1966. I had been in country for a little over a month and in the field for only three or four weeks when my company was split up into platoon-sized units and sent down Highway 19 to guard the many bridges between our base camp at An Khe and the city of Pleiku to the west. Most of the bridges had already been blown up by the VC, but our army engineers had repaired them by laying down large corrugated steel drainage pipes and simply bulldozing dirt over them. We were there to see the VC didn’t blow those up too. During the day, there was a lot of U.S. military traffic between the two points, but the night belonged to Charlie and no one, friend nor foe travelled the road at night.
Highway 19 stretches from the coastal city of Qui Nhon in the east to the Cambodian border at Pak Nhai in the west. Our main military interest was Pleiku though and it was important from a logistical standpoint to keep the road open at least that far.
A week or so earlier I had been in my first firefight just outside our base camp and was still shaken by it. It was just two small patrols butting heads in the night, but the result was two enemy dead, one of whom was shot by me. Because the platoon I was assigned to had been horribly mauled in early May, about half of my platoon-mates were replacements, or as we were labled: FNGs (fuckin’ new guys), so we didn’t know the ropes and it showed. Since we were a small unit (only about 25 men) we were spread very thin around our perimeter; we only had two men per position. On our first night out guarding our “bridge”, a couple of old timer dickheads thought it would be cute to mess with the new guys, so in the middle of the night, they started lobbing rocks and dirt from their foxhole out in front of ours. My partner and I opened up with our M-16s and because it was a false alarm, we got a royal ass-chewing for it in the morning.
A few days later in the middle of the night, one of our other platoons at the next bridge down the road erupted in automatic weapons fire, M-79 grenade launchers, Claymore mines – we thought they were in a fight for their lives with the enemy. In just a few minutes however, all was quiet again.
Early the next morning, the company CO came down the road with what looked like a Bengal tiger draped over a jeep. The windshield was folded forward and the tiger’s paws were almost touching the ground in front, while the tail dragged behind the jeep. I found out later, it was a different species called the Indochinese Tiger – which are so few in number today, they are considered functionally extinct.
This is a story I’ve told to friends and family over the years. It’s one of those things that happen in life that you’re just never going to forget. The interesting thing for me, is that I recently spotted the photo above on a Facebook page for 1st Cavalry veterans. Miles Cantrall, the son of the man who took the photo, posted it along with the following text:
25 June 1966. “LTC Rutland Beard, Commander 1-12th CAV, 1st Cav Div Air Mobile and CPT Don Warren, Commander C Company, with tiger skin. Tiger was shot when it wandered into a C Company position on Highway 19.” Comments in quotes are my father’s notes accompanying the Kodachrome slide. Photo taken by Otto L. Cantrall Jr., my father, who was XO, 1-12 CAV. He didn’t talk about his time in Vietnam or Korea but did tell me once that a tiger was shot. He said the Soldiers heard something/someone walking quietly through the jungle in front of one of their positions and they fired at it. In the morning the Soldiers went forward of their positions to check and found the dead tiger. This is a photo from my dad’s last album (Roll 22) taken in Vietnam that I’m working on.
For years I wondered whatever happened to that poor tiger. Now I know.
“You’re never more alive than when you’re almost dead.”
– Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
It was late spring, 1966. I’d only been in country a few weeks and so far had yet to lose my virginity – combat-wise. My platoon was made up largely of men I went through training with. We knew each other, which made the sting of being in a war zone in our late teens a little less daunting. We were flown up to Camp Radcliff at An Khe from Saigon as a unit to replace the mortar platoon of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment which got wiped out at LZ Hereford in the Central Highlands a day or two after we arrived.
Since our platoon was almost entirely green, none of us having been under fire yet, our first few weeks were fairly easy. In retrospect, I think maybe our leaders were letting us adjust and giving the few survivors of Hereford a short break before putting us in the real thick of things. First we guarded bridges along Highway 19, then they sent us back to base camp to pull Palace Guard (or guarding division headquarters) which we discovered was much to our liking, since there was always the possibility of day passes to go to town.
Late one hot, sweaty afternoon, our platoon leader chose seven of us for a night patrol and put a young, ambitious buck sergeant in charge. Our orders were to go outside the wire a few hundred yards, directly in front of our company as a listening/observation post. We were to stay put for two hours, then move (always risky at night) and stay put for another two hours and so forth all night. Our Lieutenant told us the Captain’s orders were that if we made contact during the night, we should break it off immediately, since we were so few in number. I had the dubious honor of being the radioman that night. Which meant I got to carry a heavy PRC-25 (Prick-25) radio on my back as well as my regular gear.
The prominent geographical feature of the 1st Cav. Base camp at An Khe was Hon Cong Mountain – a small mountain on the west side of camp rising a thousand feet or so above the surrounding plane and capped by a giant, yellow and black 1st Cavalry insignia visible for miles, to make sure Charlie knew who owned this territory. Except for the peak, which was occupied by 1st Cav. Troopers, the mountain was actually just outside the camp perimeter with a low ridge running down the south side of it a half mile or so and with a few hundred meters of flat, brushy land between our outer perimeter ring and the ridge. Our company’s position that night was opposite that ridge, just south of the mountain.
In order to get out in front of our company, our patrol had to march to the front gate of the base – no small hike – then back north again. This was done as it was getting dark so by the time we reached our first stopping point of the night, it was fully dark, except for the glow of lights from the base and the search lights from the towers which panned back and forth. It made me feel like I was in one of those German prison camp movies from the 50s.
Our patrol leader led us to a spot about 50 meters from the ridge, where a hedgerow ran perpendicular down from the top of the ridge to a well worn foot path. Our order: to make camp up against the hedgerow. I was told to keep an eye out while the others bedded down.
A few minutes passed as the men chatted quietly and blew up their air mattresses. I was standing up and looking over the hedge at the foot path beyond. In the dim light, I saw some movement and a second or two later, as the search light passed, three distinct, pajama clad figures froze as the light passed. I could clearly see they were armed with AK-47s and I immediately warned the men and shushed them from making any noise.
To my left was Tommy Johnson, who picked up his M-16 and walked the few feet to the end of the hedgerow. As he rounded the corner onto to foot path, he was face to face with the lead man. With a flick of his thumb, he flipped his selector to full automatic and pulled the trigger until every last round was emptied into the VC’s torso. I was still standing looking over the hedge and in the dim light, saw movement. As I was taught in training for night firing, I put the butt of my M-16 directly under my chin, looked at where the movement was and fired a few rounds on semi-automatic. I saw a body slump and after firing those few rounds, my rifle jammed. I backed away from the bushes a bit and went to my knees, frantically trying to clear my weapon. As I did so, I could see one of the VC through a small gap in the hedge. I pointed and yelled to the other men: “He’s right there, kill the motherfucker!” The whole squad, except for Johnson and myself, opened up on the hedge on full automatic. After that, there was quiet. The patrol leader told us to grab our shit and follow him – which we gladly did. For all we knew, these few VC were just the tip of an iceberg. They could have been the point for a platoon, a company, or a battalion.
We pulled back about half way to base camp perimeter and found some bushes where we could hide in the shadows and almost immediately, the CO was on the horn asking what was going on. I gave him a brief summary of what had just happened. He said he wanted us to go back in and secure the area – exactly the opposite of what he told us before we went out! I pointed out that we had no idea what we were up against and that it would be extremely dangerous to do so. We went back a forth a bit, but he insisted. Finally, the team leader got on the radio and told him we would try to go back – if we could find it again in the dark. We stayed right where we were.
Two or three minutes later, the area we had just vacated was strafed by an AK on full automatic. One of the VCs that got away climbed halfway up the ridge and emptied clip after clip, shooting back down and spraying the area with hundreds of rounds. No doubt to avenge the deaths of his buddies. Good thing we hadn’t gone back, some or all of us might have been killed.
The sarge called in fake locations for the rest of the night so the captain would think we were looking, but we stayed put.
At first light, haggard and drained, adrenaline long gone from our bodies, not one of us with any sleep, we found our way back to the area we had been. What we saw, for the first time since being in country, made the war very real for us. The VC Johnson had shot was almost torn in half, his guts spilling out on the ground beside him as he stared wide eyed at the sky. The other man, whom I had shot was laying face down and looked fairly normal from a distance, but as I got closer, I saw that his forehead was peeled open like a trap door with a good portion of his brains tumbling out of the opening – a small, dime-sized hole in the back of his head. The one that was on the other side of the hedge from where the squad opened up must have been the luckiest man alive. There was no body, no blood and apparently he was the one who climbed the ridge and strafed the area right after we left. Definitely one lucky son of a bitch!
This was probably the first time most of us had ever seen a dead body outside of a funeral home wake. It shocked us. The corpses weren’t dressed up. No make-up hid death’s pallor. The cause of death was blatantly apparent. In the coming days, weeks and months I saw much more death and dying and all the other unspeakable horrors of war. The shock factor wore off, but I never really got used to it. Every time I saw some poor bastard lying on the ground dead, I would think to myself – damn, that could have been me.
Once again I want to thank Sally Saville Hodge at Hodge Media Strategies for taking the time to edit this story. She makes me a better writer than I am.
The light green sea of waist high elephant grass blew in waves. From a distance, the grass covered terrain looked soft and inviting, but like a lot of things in Vietnam, looks could be deceiving. Its serrated edges sliced our bare arms as we humped the rolling hills. The long blades also gave up their dry leeches, which stuck to any exposed skin like so many wormy little vampires. It was early morning, but the low, morning layer of cloud cover had burned off and the sun rising over the South China Sea warmed and dried our dew-dampened fatigues as we marched up, over, down and up again. Despite the unpleasant drawbacks, I didn’t mind it much. I always felt relatively safe in elephant grass. It wouldn’t stop bullets, but it did provide cover. All you had to do was drop to the ground. And it wasn’t any where near as bad as hacking through the jungle.
This morning, like every other, we marched single file, spread out 10 to 15 feet apart, because as god and every non-com in the army knew – if we clustered together “one round would get us all” (one mortar, or artillery round that is). When it comes to mornings in Vietnam though, this one was was pretty damn good – almost pleasant.
Our platoon had just acquired a newly minted 2nd Lieutenant fresh out of OCS. Still wet behind the ears and scared shitless, as were we all our first weeks in country. Unsure of himself and struggling to take command of an already battle-hardened platoon, he was trying his best to fit in and gain the respect of his men. On this particular morning, I happened to be directly in front of him. One of the drawbacks of elephant grass is that it can hide danger as easily as it can provide cover and safety. So as we descended a gently sloping hillside there was a disturbance in the grass 30 or 40 feet to our left. Everyone immediately went into hyper alert mode as we tried to discern what it was. Because the grass was tall, we didn’t know if it was human or an animal. What we could tell was that it was coming toward us. When it got to about 10 feet away, we could see that it was one pissed off looking wart hog and it was running balls out on a path directly between myself and the Lieutenant. Our quick thinking OCS grad flipped his M-16 on full automatic and began to spray the area with a full clip following the animal as it ran right between us. Before I could get the words “What the fuck are you doing?” out, it was all over.
The Lieutenant realized immediately what he had done. Not only could he have wounded or killed me, but the 20 or 30 guys in front of me as well. He tried to gather himself as best he could in spite of the loud muttering coming from the men. In the best command voice he could muster he said: “Okay it’s over, let’s move it out.” I looked him square in the face and said, “After you sir…. I insist.” He didn’t argue, and with a red face, he walked on by. For the rest of the day I had him right where I wanted him – where I could see his every move.
I could have lost my life that day – or I could have come home missing a foot or a leg. The Vietnam War, like all wars, had a million ways to kill us. My main motivation during my tour in Vietnam was simply to stay alive and make it home in one piece. I’m happy to say this particular lieutenant learned his lesson and eventually became a decent leader. The sad fact though is that during the Vietnam War, many men lost their lives due to accidents and friendly fire. During my tour, I witnessed two Huey Helicopter crashes, one of which burned three men to death. I witnessed a 155mm howitzer blow up when the loaded round in the chamber exploded prematurely, killing another three men. I saw two men get swept away and drown in a flood swollen river and I witnessed a man shoot his own trigger finger off with a side arm to get out of serving. I heard of many other crashes, accidental deaths, fraggings and suicides while there as well. It’s impossible to know for sure, but some people believe more Vietnam Vets committed suicide after the war than died during the war.
War can be a nasty, nasty business, even when you’re not in actual combat. Those most enthusiastic about going to war are the ones who have never been there. But there are other aspects of war and they are the reasons I believe that war seems to be a permanent part of the human experience. Tim O’Brien said it best in The Things They Carried:
“War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.”
So on this memorial day, if you want to remember and honor the war dead, you might also think about all the ones that died in the war, but were not killed in action. And the ones who died in the war but didn’t drop until years later. Only about 2/3 of the war dead were killed in action.
There was so much to love and so much to hate about Vietnam. The coastal plains the 1st Cavalry was sweeping through, just north of Qui Nhon, were enchanting. Beautiful white sand beaches, then, a bit further inland, emerald green rice paddies and quaint looking hamlets of mud and straw huts, or as we called them, hooches. Small, circular fishing boats made of straw and barely big enough for a man dotted the beaches with tiny, grass huts scattered among them. To the west, beyond the beaches and paddies, deep green jungle covered the Mieu Mountains, a perfect backdrop for the idyllic scene. You could be excused for forgetting this was a very dangerous place. Dangerous for us, dangerous for the enemy and even more dangerous for the hapless villagers caught in the middle.
It was early October, 1966 and our endless search for Charlie was frustrating. Both the VC and the NVA were elusive and contact was sporadic. When we did make contact, it was usually small numbers of VC and they would break it off after a short firefight. Charlie liked to pick the time and place of his battles, so if he didn’t feel it was to his advantage, he would simply cut and run.
On October 2nd, A Troop 1st Bn., 9th Cavalry was sent to the small village of Hoa Hoi which was located closer to the Mieu Mountains than the sea. The villagers were mostly rice farmers, but some of them also mined the South China Sea for salt. A Troop was sent in to mop up the remnants of a platoon, or so they thought. When they got to the village, they discovered they were up against two battalions of mixed VC and NVA forces. To their great relief, they were ordered out and my battalion, the 1st Bn. 12th Cav. was ordered in to replace them and surround the village.
The village was boxed off by a trench system which the enemy had dug for defensive purposes. This time Charlie got caught with his pants down however and before he knew it, we had him surrounded, one of our companies on each side of the village with nearby fire bases for artillery support.
Huey choppers by the dozen came roaring into the rice paddies, dropping us six or eight at a time, far enough from the village to be out of small arms range. They would come in and hover with the skids three or four feet off the ground and we would jump to the ground under the sound and downdraft of the rotor blades. There we took cover behind the paddy dikes and waited for the rest of our troops to come in.
There was no fire coming from the village until we got about 50 meters away – even then, the gunfire coming at us was only light sniper fire. We ran toward the village through the paddies in a crouched position keeping our heads down and were able to reach the trenches without taking any casualties. The trenches, which should have been full of VC and NVA troops, were only partly filled. My theory is that they were desperately trying to escape the village before they got surrounded and just left a rear guard to hold us off and buy themselves some time, but it was too little, too late.
My platoon was one of the first to get to the trench on our side of the village. Our platoon Sargent, Paul Jackson, a lanky southerner and army lifer, led the way and was the first to get to the trench. He crept up slowly, not knowing what to expect and when he peered over the edge he was face to face with a squad of VC laying in the trench. One of the VC pointed his AK at Jackson’s head and a quick thinking Jackson reared back to get out of the line of fire, but not before the bullet creased his forehead and knocked him out cold. SP-4 Joe Willis, a soft spoken country boy from Illinois and the best soldier our platoon had to offer was right behind him and dragged him a few feet away, where Jackson quickly recovered. With Jackson back on his feet, the two of them went back to the trench and opened up on full automatic with their M-16s, taking out the entire squad of eight VC. For the remainder of the afternoon we consolidated our position by clearing out the trenches of enemy troops and trying to get the unarmed civilians out of the village. The trenches, meant to be their line of defense, became our line and we used it to great advantage.
The fighting continued throughout the afternoon and into the early evening. When darkness fell, the firing died down and silence fell over the village, broken by the occasional pop of an illumination round and the periodic sound of a Vietnamese voice yelling. The illumination rounds floating down on their tiny parachutes caused the village to take on a surrealistic aspect as the light from them, along with the palm fronds above created a thousand moving shadows. When you’re looking for enemy movement, it can be pretty unnerving.
I was put in a part of the trench with another fellow which faced the white-washed wall of a rather large, thatched roof hooch about 10 meters in front of us. To our left, Jim Windham, AKA “The Jew” – a moniker he wore with pride – had climbed a tree and was taking pot shots into the hamlet throughout the night. He was our self-appointed sniper. Windham was a nice guy from New York City, but somewhere along the line, after seeing too much carnage perhaps, he snapped and became a self-styled Rambo, long before Rambo was created by a screen writer. When talk turned to Charlie, he would get a strange, crazed look in his eyes which frankly would startle some of us. He would volunteer for any and every dangerous duty that came along. He was particularly fond of walking point, which most of us dreaded. Ironically, it was while walking point on a small patrol soon after Hoa Hoi that he himself was shot and killed by a sniper.
There was sporadic firing through the night as the enemy probed the perimeter trying to find a way out. At about two in the morning, I spotted movement to the right of the hooch. I nudged my partner in the trench and we both got our heads down and waited. A few minutes later, a figure in black silk pajamas emerged from behind the corner of the hooch, crawling on hands and knees straight toward us. When the figure was ten or fifteen feet from us, we both fired two or three rounds each. The body dropped to the ground, silent and still. For the rest of the night our eyes were riveted on the body. Dead, or playing dead? We didn’t want to take any chances, so we watched and waited.
At first light, we left the trench and approached our kill from the night before. There on the ground lay a beautiful, young Vietnamese girl, with shiny, jet black hair, to match her black silk pajamas. She was about my own age, 18 or 19 and had an American M-16 strapped across her back. There were no signs of bullet wounds or blood. She just lay there like she was sleeping in the early morning sun, serene and resting in peace. I felt like shit about it. I hated being in a kill or be killed position. I hated the whole stinking war. And at the same time, I knew if things were reversed, she would have done the same to me. Would she have felt bad about killing me? I don’t think so. I think our enemy truly hated us and for good reasons, whereas I feared more than hated them.
I didn’t have long to think about it though as our Charlie Company was chosen to be the hammer in a classic hammer and anvil maneuver. We swept through the village from north to south encountering heavy resistance and then, when we thought it was over for us, they made us do an about face and sweep back through from south to north. The second time through was just mopping up, but we were relieved and glad when it was over.
I’m not sure what the total casualties were for this multi-day operation, but I do know that it was considered a great victory by the Cavalry and I found out many years later that our battalion was presented a Presidential Unit Citation for the battle.
I went back to Vietnam in 2014, and spent 2 ½ months traveling the country. I hired a guide named Song in Da Nang, who took me back to several of the places I fought and Hoa Hoi was one of them. While there, we talked to a villager, a man named Tran Cong Thanh, who was a baby at the time of the battle. He was obviously too young to remember, but he said his mother had told him the story. His uncle was a VC fighter and was killed there. He pointed to a spot in the corner of his yard and he said that his grand parents and his parents had built a bomb shelter in that corner because the ARVNs or the Americans would occasionally shell the village, since it was suspected to be a VC village (which, of course it was). He said when he was just a baby, the shelling started one day and that his grand father, his aunt and her daughter (his cousin, who was also just an infant) went to the shelter. The shelter took a direct artillery hit and all three were killed. His mother had picked him up and started running away from the village and that’s what saved both of their lives. His mother is still alive today. He pointed to a large tree and said that during one of the shellings they had rounded up the village livestock and put them all in that area thinking they would be protected, but another direct hit killed virtually every animal in the village.
Due to the so-called Fog of War, it was not often we knew for certain when we had killed someone in battle – there were only a few instances during my tour in Vietnam when I could say for sure I had and this was one of them. The young girl we killed that night has haunted me ever since and it’s just one of a thousand memories I wish I didn’t have.
Just wanted you to know that of all the brothers I lost in Vietnam, your death was the hardest for me. We went through training together and I always felt a kinship with you, since we were both Illinois boys. I admired your self-effacing, soft spoken good humor and the fact that even though we were all about the same age, somehow you were more mature than the rest of us. You were the small town country boy and I was the city slicker from Chicago. You were broad shouldered and stocky and I was thin as a rail and wiry. You were easy going and relaxed and I was excitable and wrapped too tight. But even though we were very different, I felt an affinity for you from the start – maybe one of those “opposites attract” things.
I remember the time on a weekend pass from Ft. Gordon we went into glorious downtown Augusta – at that time a shit-hole of an army town, with the usual mix of pawn shops, dive bars, Go Go Clubs and street hookers all looking to separate GIs from their money. All of us were up for raising hell, but not you Joe, you opted to stay in the motel room with a bottle of whiskey and a good book. Sometime during the night a couple of thugs came knocking and thinking it was us returning, you opened the door. Turns out they were just looking for an easy robbery. When we got back about midnight, you were lying passed out on the floor, covered in blood (mostly theirs) with the neck of the broken whiskey bottle still clenched in your hand. The two assholes that barged in that night got more than they bargained for. I knew right then you’d be a good man to have by my side in Vietnam.
I also recall our battle at Hoa Hoi, when our battalion had the whole VC village boxed in. As we crept up on the trenches that flanked the village, Sgt. Jackson peered over the edge and as he did, a bullet from an AK came up from the trench and creased his forehead, knocking him out cold. You dragged him to safety, went back and made short work of the enemy squad dug in there. We were all amazed at the close call Jackson had that day – another centimeter and it would have blown the top of his head off – and were equally amazed at your bravery and quick thinking under fire. We kicked ass that day and the next, virtually wiping out the enemy while taking very light casualties ourselves. Jackson survived Hoa Hoi thanks to you, but sorry to say Joe, he never make it home alive.
The times weren’t all bad though. We had some good laughs along the way. Like the time we were crossing some flooded rice fields – walking on the paddy dykes as we did. You were RTO at the time and had that heavy radio strapped to your back. When we came to a gap in the dyke which everyone was jumping across, you decided with the radio you’d be too heavy to make the leap. So being the practical guy you were, you decided to step down into the water, walk across the gap and climb up the other side. But when you stepped down, you disappeared – the only thing sticking out of the water was the radio antenna and the barrel of your M-16. We pulled you up and out before you drown, but it wasn’t easy to do doubled over in laughter as we were. The whole platoon laughed for days over your mishap, but being true to form, you took it in stride and laughed along with us.
Then came that goddamn horrible night at LZ Bird. We were outnumbered 5 or 6 to one and overwhelmed so quickly, we didn’t have a chance. I managed to survive the night – only six from our platoon made it through unscathed. The fighting was the most intense any of us had ever experienced. Ultimately we managed to fend off the attack thanks to artillery, air support and some quick thinking on the ground, but it was touch and go for a while and we just as easily could have been annihilated. Shortly after sun up, I was put on a detail to round up our dead for transport to Graves Registration in Saigon. The hilltop fire-base was blanketed with an eerie, early morning mist and still smoldering from the battle in the night. As we trudged through the blood soaked mud the sight was mournful. The dead were scattered everywhere – friend and foe alike, twisted and mangled in grotesque, unnatural positions. Rigor mortis had stiffened the bodies, making the task even more unpleasant. The thick air already smelled of death and blood. In teams of two, we carried, dragged, pushed and slid the dead to the helipad for the choppers to fetch. Eventually, we came to the shallow garbage pit our platoon had dug. Surrounding the pit were six or eight enemy dead from the NVA’s 22nd Regiment and as we moved closer you came into view. You were lying on your back staring peacefully at the sky, your M-16 still cradled in your arms. You had taken many of the enemy with you, but in the end, the odds against you were too great.
My first thought was: Fuck! Why did it have to be you? Why couldn’t it have been one of those assholes I didn’t like, or someone I didn’t know. But there’s no bargaining with death. Death stays put. It’s the only permanent thing in an otherwise impermanent world. I felt heartsick Joe and thought about your family back home and how they would take the loss. Would they ever know what a superb soldier you became? The hardships you endured without complaint? Would they ever know how much you were loved by your brothers in Charlie Company?
In some ways you were lucky Joe. You didn’t have to come home to an ungrateful country that was being torn apart by the war. You never had to go through the PTSD so many of us did. Our country was never the same after Vietnam. It ceased being the idyllic place we grew up in and through the years I’ve watched its heartbreaking, steady decline. Our country has become a police state run by multi-national corporations – a corporate plutocracy. Our constitution and freedoms have been slowly shredded over the years and no one seems to give a shit. Things like freedom of the press, free speech, freedom to peacefully protest and even the right to vote have been chipped away at to the point you’d have a hard time recognizing them. Our politics have become polarized and so corrupted by big corporate money that nothing gets done in Washington anymore. They’ve done away with the draft, so only a minuscule portion of our population has a vested interest in, or even cares about war anymore (which is endless now). We’ve become so entrenched in our consumer based economy that the values we grew up with are a thing of the past. We’ve gotten coarser as the years have passed. One of our presidents was impeached for lying about a blow job in the Oval Office and our current president apparently had an extra marital affair with a buxom, young porn star. You can’t make this shit up! Young people aren’t taught critical thinking and their attention spans have been reduced to that of a gnat’s, thanks to TV and a few new inventions since you’ve been gone like cell phones and a computer based internet, which now connects the world with information and disinformation. The Christian religious right in America, though a minority, have turned Christian principles on their head and taken over our government. They preach hatred and intolerance in the name of Jesus. Can you imagine that?
Yeah Joe, there’s a lot you’ve missed. It’s a brave new world now and truth be told, I much preferred the old one. America lost its innocence in the sixties. There was a great awakening during and after the war, but it didn’t do us much good. A lot of people now see the world for what it really is, but too many feel powerless to do anything about it – the cards are stacked against them. They either keep their mouths shut, or pretend to buy into the big lie. I’m glad you were spared all this.
Just wanted you to know Joe, that I still think about you – especially around Memorial Day. For the past 20 years or so, I’ve been going to Vietnam Vet reunions and those of us left from Charlie Company that make it to these reunions always reminisce about you. You are still well loved now as you were then.
Rest in peace brother.
Boot to Boot,
My friend SP4 Larry Joe Willis was killed in action December 27, 1966 at LZ Bird in Binh Dinh Provence, Near the village of Bon Song, Vietnam. His name is on the Wall, on panel 13E, line 88, along with Sgt. Paul Jackson and several others from Charlie Company, 1st Bn., 12th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division and the brave men of B/2/19th (105mm) and C/6/16th (155mm) Artillery units.
NOTE: Again, I want to thank Sally Saville Hodge at Hodge Media Strategies for taking the time to edit this piece. Her good advice always makes my writing better.