Two recollections by Mike Baldinger - the second one, the battle of Dak To, was also the subject of a magazine article about Mike and others, and the events of that day. It is reproduced following Mike's personal stories, with permission of the author.
On Feb. 4, 1966 my unit, C/2/502 was walking through a woodline next to a rice paddy in the area of Tuy Hoa.. Company A was in the paddy, and on the opposite side of it from us in the woods. The battalion commander, Col. Emerson radioed to our commander that 2 Alpha Company guys were wounded and pinned down in the paddy, and that a medic was needed. Being the medic (and closer than the A Co. medics) I was directed to help the A Company wounded. To reach them, I crossed approx. 50 yards of open paddy. I could hear bullets passing me, but fortunately was not hit..
I reached the 2 wounded men and tended to their wounds. After being pinned down with them for an unknown amount of time I helped/carried the first one to the safety of the woodline, went back for the other, and helped him to the woodline also.
When I was relaxing afterwards, one of my C Company guys said 'Gee doc, where ya' been? You missed all the action'. With that he laughed and walked away. I guess he didn't notice the wounded's blood drying on my hands, nor the bullet holes (misses) in my fatigues.
I was awarded a Bronze Star w/V for that action.
By the way, one of those wounded men has been in contact with me via this website. Good work!
This is my recollection of the fight at Dak To in June of 1966.
June 9th started as any other day in the Central Highlands for C Co. 2/502, (minus one platoon) muggy, hot, and wet. I was a medic assigned to Hq. platoon. I had been the 1st platoon medic for 6 months but for some reason I ended up in Hq. platoon for this operation. The Co. Commander was Capt.Carpenter, the First Sgt. was Sabalauski, The Commo. Sgt was Sorenberger and the Artillery F.O. was Lt. Snowden. There were a couple of RTOs. One was named Hurley. Several other medics were in the Company; Quattrocchi, Pickens, Schuyler, and Moss.
Mike Baldinger the day before the battle of Dak To
We were en route to a S.F. camp which was in trouble. Our sister battalion (327th) was having problems also. As our lead element approached a stream, they killed an NVA doctor who was in the water. I was called to the front to see if I wanted any of his supplies. As I waded into the creek, I placed my M-16 against the bank. While I was standing next to Sabalauski I looked up at the opposite bank and saw 2 NVA staring at us and unslinging their weapons. Not having my rifle, I reached for my 45 pistol. About that time Sabalauski saw them as well. He fired. One bad guy dropped, the other ran. I chased him up the trail and found him dying a short distance away.
We then began our ascent up the mountain. We started receiving fire from small arms and machineguns. I was advised that an RTO (Hurley) was wounded. By this time the incoming fire was very heavy and was cutting the bamboo to pieces. I (and everyone else) was prone to avoid being hurt. I was able to run/crawl to Hurley. He was badly wounded in the chest. I tried to put albumin into him, and had 3 bottles shot out of my hand before I could put the needle in his arm. Shortly thereafter someone yelled ‘Doc, grenade’. I laid down on Hurley to protect him. I heard the grenade snap just before it exploded. I was wounded in the back, and Hurley got some frag in his legs. I was also bleeding from my ears, mouth, and nose. I managed to drag him into a rapidly developing perimeter where I rendered more aid. I finally succeeded in getting fluid into him after pulling a vein from his ankle and putting the needle in there.
I spotted medic Quatrocchi in a firing position so I settled in next to him. As we began shooting, his jaw disappeared from a bullet and he was also shot in the chest. I bandaged him as best I could.
Then I was advised that Sgt. Sornberger was wounded. I ran across some open ground past Carpenter and Sabalauski to Sornberger. He was shot through both ankles. I bandaged him up.
At this point it dawned on me that no matter which side of the perimeter I was on, I heard NVA voices. Not a good thing.
I took care of some of the other hurt guys as best I could. By this time I had been hit in the chest (frag), and a bullet had clipped the side of my foot in addition to the grenade wound I received while with Hurley.
Suddenly the world turned into an orange flame. Napalm had been dropped on our position. The firing diminished greatly and we consolidated our position. Several of us received burns including myself. Mine was minor, just a ‘splotch’ on my thigh.
At some point during the lull I realized that water was in short supply. I knew there was a dead NVA not far from our lines. Figuring he had canteens (and rightly so), I crawled out to him and retrieved his water supply.
We spent the next 1 or 2 days and nights there trying to avoid being killed and waiting for help. A/2/502 reached us I believe the next night. They had suffered casualties getting to us. Also a provisional element from Phan Rang arrived.
At one point a chopper came over to assist, but as far as I recall it was shot up, and left. The artillery F.O. (Lt. Snowden) kept a steady barrage going around our perimeter which kept the bad guys at bay. We were receiving incoming mortar rounds but they were mostly ineffective.
Finally, after a couple days we got out of there. To my knowledge all the medics were wounded, and one (Schuyler) was killed. What a great bunch of guys.
I spent several weeks in the hosp., and returned to the O’Deuce in July. There was much controversy as to whether calling in the napalm strike was the right thing to do. In my opinion it was the ONLY thing to do.
I was told that I was ‘put in’ for a DSC. I did receive a Silver Star. Actually, I was just glad that I survived.
This story was first published in the Allegheny College of Maryland's Expressions Magazine. The entire 2005 issue, in which this article appears, may be downloaded from http://www.ac.cc.md.us/expressions/expressions2005.pdf in PDF form. In response to the request to reproduce the article on this web site, the author made these comments:
Its content is my gift to the men of Charlie Company, of whose bravery and dedicated service I remain in awe. Please convey my deepest apologies for any inaccuracies regarding the description of events--battlefield histories are difficult endeavors, especially four decades after the fact! Nonetheless, I would be honored to have any portion of the article appear on the site. Note as well, that the work itself would not have been possible without the assistance of Baldinger, Marcus Hurley, Generals Carpenter and Emerson, who all so graciously gave of their time, and shared their thoughts with me.
The very nature of the American experience is such that on any given day, any one of us might find ourselves in the company of heroes. Conversely, it is the nature of heroes that more often than not, they are content to move anonymously among us. They harbor a tendency to view their own deeds as belonging to another time and place, slightly beyond the reach of everyday dialogue. Moreover, it is within that "other time and place," stripped of politics and grand ideals that men have acted not for the praise of heroics, but on beh(alf of their brothers)
In the summer of 1966, a nineteenyear- old Army paratrooper and medic from New Haven, Connecticut, named Michael Baldinger found himself in one of the darkest corners of Vietnam, where he would rendezvous with fire and life. Baldinger, like most young medics, operated on a day-to-day basis with little regard for his own safety, and even less use for personal adulation. He had a single purpose-to stop the bleeding. All else was secondary, and the power to sustain life hinged on his ability to stop the bleeding when confronted by a river of blood. Combat medics don't choose moments of bravery; the moment chooses them. Often, such moments occur under murderous fire, when limited knowledge must be converted into improvised miracles. Brave young healers are the angels in the valley of death.
For those that have known fear in its embrace, the jungle is a haunting place, offering no quarter to those who underestimate its severity. Kontum Province, located in Vietnam's Central Highlands, is home to what is arguably the most discouraging terrain known to man. Thickets of dense bamboo lie in the twilight of triple-canopy jungle, which stretches for miles over the rugged mountain landscape in a manner that is both beautiful and sinister. In June, 1966, among a series of blanketed draws and ridge lines of Kontum Province, Operation Hawthorne got underway, involving two battalions of the 101st Airborne Division's First Brigade. Among the brigade's medics was Specialist 4th Class Mike Baldinger.
The objective of Hawthorne was to provide relief for South Vietnamese CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group) troops and their Special Forces advisors from the besieged camp at Tou Morong, 33 kilometers northeast of Dak To. Included in the First Brigade, and responsible for the initial effort, was the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry, commanded by legendary Major David H. Hackworth. In reserve was the 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry, known affectionately as "the O' Deuce".
Commanding the 2/502 was one of the Army's most charismatic and beloved field commanders, Lieutenant Colonel (later General) Henry E. "Gunfighter" Emerson. Talented, flamboyant, and outspoken, Emerson had reservations about conducting operations in Kontum Province given the obvious disadvantages presented by the terrain.
"I thought that the Dak To region was a hell of a dumb place to search for the enemy," recalls Emerson. "Why would you want to engage the enemy on terrain that neutralized all of your advantages in maneuver and mobility?"
Emerson's philosophy was simple - bring the maximum amount of firepower possible to bear on the enemy, and more importantly, do so on the ground of your choosing, not theirs. Though the Gunfighter remained vocal about his concerns, Brigadier General Willard Pearson, in command of the1st Brigade, read the situation differently. Pearson made it clear that an increase in NVA (North Vietnamese Army) infiltration near Dak To directly threatened the city of Kontum, which in turn put the city of Pleiku at risk.
Pearson's assertions only reinforced Emerson's point of view. "Great!" he told Pearson. "They've (the NVA) got nothing but impossible terrain. If they want to come down and get Kontum and Pleiku, they've got to come out into the open. That's where we should go after them! That's where we have the mobility of helicopters and the advantage in firepower."
Despite Emerson's solid arguments, his superiors decided to reinforce the camp at Tou Morong and hunt the NVA along the Laotian border in Kontum Province. This would require the 1st Brigade to conduct a series of dangerous patrols throughout the dense array of enemy-held draws and ridges. The patrols would prove every bit as difficult as Emerson had predicted.
Shortly after daybreak on June 9th, 1966, Charlie Company, 2/502, under the command of Captain William S. Carpenter, filed into the jungle north of Dak To. Fabled in his own right as West Point football's "Lonesome End" in 1959, Carpenter, who had previously spent time in Vietnam as an advisor, was new to Charlie Company. The young Captain led his company southward into Mother Nature's own miracle of evolution, not expecting that the hours ahead would be marked by any notable action.
The brunt of the fighting prior to June 9th had involved Major Hackworth's battalion, the 1/327, several kilometers to the southeast of Charlie Company. From his position beyond a network of ridge lines, Hackworth had reported continuous contact with what he believed to be a sizeable, well-disciplined force. General Pearson, concerned that the 327's ability to maneuver had been compromised by the high degree of resistance, had looked to Emerson's 2/502 for what amounted to "spare parts." Rather than move the entire battalion southeast to augment Hackworth's force, Pearson ordered Emerson to transfer his nearest company over to the 327, where they would establish a "blocking position." This required that Charlie Company, which was closest to Hackworth, move through the dense landscape on foot, as there was no ground suitable for helicopter insertion.
"It was fairly commonplace for higher command to screw around moving rifle companies from one battalion to another," explained Emerson somewhat bitterly. "I always objected to that. If there was contact with a large enough force to hold Hackworth up, what sense did it make to send one rifle company in behind it?"
Making matters worse, Charlie Company was undermanned, having had a platoon removed to secure an artillery position. The remaining three platoons, First, Third, and Fourth (Weapons Platoon), were already exhausted as they snaked into the face-high elephant grass in three serpentine columns. The previous night had been spent in an ambush position, and most of the young soldiers were functioning on little sleep.
Throughout the morning, the sun beat down hard on Charlie Company as they hacked their way, a few agonizing meters at a time, through the dense riverbed. For an infantryman carrying a full equipment load (approximately 60 lbs.), moving just a short distance between two points could be excruciating in that type of terrain, particularly in the damp, scorching heat. After several hours, blood struggling to move through the veins begins to feel like acid. Straps from the standard issue rucksack cut deeper and deeper into shoulder blades. A constant reservoir of sweat stings the eyes and distorts the senses. For individuals operating in this environment, there is a fine line between remaining functional and falling prey to heat exhaustion.
Charlie Company's path would take them directly south, spreading Emerson's battalion ever thinner, then northeast between two foreboding ridge lines. Just beyond the ridges to the east, Major Hackworth and the 327 were hunkered down and awaiting assistance. When Carpenter changed direction to the northeast, the company was essentially isolated and alone.
By late morning the point element, made up of a single squad 200 meters to the front of the three columns, moved down into a shallow creek bed. As the team neared the far side of the depression, an NVA soldier, unaware of the Americans, emerged from the tree line. In an instant, the jungle came alive with the staccato of sharp cracks. Seconds later, the body of the NVA soldier floated lifeless in the creek.
Within minutes, Captain Carpenter's headquarters element and most of the Fourth Platoon were gathered along one side of the creek, inspecting the dead man. Mike Baldinger, who was catching his breath a few hundred meters back, was suddenly ordered to move up to the creek bed. It was discovered that the dead NVA had been a medical technician, and was loaded down with a full complement of aid supplies and other useful wares.
"I was told that they had killed a North Vietnamese doctor of some kind," recalls Baldinger. "They wanted me to go up there and check out the body to see if he'd been carrying any medical supplies that I might need."
As ordered, Baldinger headed through the elephant grass and up to the creek bed, though without much enthusiasm. "I had enough (supplies), I was definitely carrying my share. But they ordered me up, so I went."
When Baldinger arrived at the creek, most of the platoon leaders were gathered around the dead NVA medic, whose body had been dragged from the water. Also on hand was the renowned company First Sergeant, Walter J. Sabalauski, who to this day remains a mythical figure for many infantrymen. As Baldinger, Sabalauski, and the others stood conversing over the body, Captain Carpenter's RTO (Radio Operator), Private Marcus Hurley, standing only a few feet away, began to sense their concern. "The fact that this guy was in khaki, not black pajamas, and the quality of the equipment he was carrying, the chemicals and drugs, indicated there was probably a sizeable force nearby. The guy was just so well equipped."
Baldinger, moving in to get a closer look at the body, laid his M16 down against the bank of the stream. As he stood with Sabalauski and Nick Sorenburger, the company's Communications Sergeant, he happened to glance up towards the opposite bank. There, not twenty yards away, stood two NVA soldiers, who were clearly as surprised to see Baldinger as he was to see them. He immediately glanced over at his rifle, which was still lying on the bank several feet away. "It might as well of been in Hackensack, New Jersey, at that point because it sure wasn't doing me any good," said Baldinger, who instantly grasped at his fatigues, struggling to locate his .45 sidearm. Sabalauski, senses razor-sharp, glanced momentarily at Baldinger, then wheeled his rifle around towards the two men. "Sabbo (Sabalauski) just opened up on 'em, and knocked them both down," said Baldinger.
The two NVA lay tangled on the far bank of the creek. One of the men was dead. The second man struggled to his feet and staggered off into the thickets. Baldinger, along with a few others, leaped into the creek and scurried up the other side in pursuit. Just beyond the bank, the young medic located the man, who now lay dying on a trail cut through the elephant grass.
It was becoming rapidly clear to the men of Charlie Company that their situation was about to get interesting. Though it is by no means the case that soldiers in general yearn for a fight, most soldiers do abhor painfully slogging through miles of unrelenting terrain to no measurable accomplishment. All other motivations aside, the men of Charlie Company, and indeed the 101st Airborne as a whole, considered themselves to be the best. Their legacy was rich with heroics, springing from the time of their fathers. Baldinger's own father had served as a medic with the "Screaming Eagles" during the Second World War. Now the legacy had spread, as it had with so many others, from the frozen sieges at Bastogne to the jungles of Southeast Asia.
As the remainder of the company made their way across the creek, Captain Carpenter called his Platoon Leaders together. Marcus Hurley, never far from Carpenter, listened intently as Charlie Company's officers and senior NCO's debated the potential severity of the situation. "They spent a considerable amount of time talking over our course of action before coming to a decision," remembers Hurley. "The Captain's decision wasn't a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing."
Lieutenant William Jordan, leading the First Platoon, asked Carpenter if he still wished to stick to the original plan and establish a "blocking position," or would he prefer to "hunt Charlie?" The young Captain's answer was both simple and abrupt - "Let's hunt Charlie."
Carpenter's decision to pursue the NVA was not unorthodox by any measure. When commanding a rifle company in a combat situation, the Company Commander must always be prepared to re-evaluate his course of action as events dictate. An effective commander must be able to use his "mind's eye" to develop a picture of what he cannot see. He must identify his options and weigh them against his perception of the unknown. Most importantly, he must do it fast.
Carpenter had acted fast, and he had done so in the best interests of his company and its objectives. He knew that Major Hackworth and his men needed assistance. When the opportunity presented itself, he reacted. It was not to be the last quick decision that Captain Carpenter would be forced to make that day. He couldn't have known that he had just aroused a terrible beast.
As Baldinger fell in line with the company's headquarters element, the First Platoon began edging up the first of three steep fingers of bamboo-covered earth that shot out from the nearest ridge. The higher the men inched, the thicker the foliage became. The jungle canopy shadowed the sloping ground, out of which bamboo speared at every possible trajectory, as if planted there by angry Gods.
The ascent up the ridge finger was brutal, even for those in the best shape of their lives. The heat was unrelenting, and the endless sea of overgrowth impeded the simplest move-ments. In light of the agony his men were experiencing, Captain Carpenter began to rethink his angle of advance up the ridge. To completely exhaust a rifle company on its way into a fight is an excellent way to lose it, and Carpenter anticipated a fight. When he finally reached the crest of the first finger, he saw that his men were almost entirely used up.
Concerned that he was disabling his soldiers at an inopportune time, Carpenter rested the company for about twenty minutes while he sought out an easier route by which to cross the next ridge finger. To an extent, a commander has to rely on instinct when attempting to navigate through terrain of such severity. Because of the low visibility, it becomes extremely difficult to pinpoint one?s exact location on a map in relation to the surrounding features. Carpenter decided to change direction to the southeast, which would take Charlie Company over a lower elevation and reduce the risk of fatigue. But what lay in their path would prove far more hazardous than fatigue.
First Platoon descended the ridge finger with Third Platoon, led by Lieutenant James Baker, abreast of them. On approaching the next creek bed, the point element was startled by the Vietnamese language echoing throughout the still air. The thickets suddenly parted, revealing several leisurely NVA soldiers. The men of First Platoon wasted no time in unleashing a fusillade of M16 fire, dropping the majority of NVA on the spot. As had happened earlier that morning, a couple of wounded stragglers escaped into the thickets and disappeared. This time, however, the men did not pursue. They waited for their Captain.
Carpenter, as if he'd received the sign he was waiting for, immediately put his platoons in motion. He made a call to Lieutenant Baker and Third Platoon, whom he deployed to the left of First Platoon to cover their flank. He then warned Baker to "get ready for a fight." With that, the columns started pushing their way up through the bamboo.
Mike Baldinger, towards the rear of the formation, struggled up the ridge along with Carpenter, Sabalauski, and the rest of the headquarters element. "The higher we went, the thicker it got," recalls Baldinger.
Approximately thirty meters forward, and without warning, all hell broke loose. The jungle surrounding the First and Third Platoons exploded in a deafening cacophony of fire. The young soldiers who moments earlier were attempting to avoid the dense vegetation now clawed their way into it, for it was suddenly the only barrier between themselves and oblivion. The wild undergrowth swallowed them up while the bamboo overhead cracked and popped, riddled by automatic weapons fire. The shock was immediate and disorienting. A soldier only five or six meters from his best friend was eerily alone.
To the far left of the ridge, Third Platoon was sinking fast. As if having kicked in a hornet's nest, they were now totally enveloped by a whirlwind of flying steel. For the young soldiers pinned down by the firestorm, every few inches presented them with a new way to die. Grenades began sailing in from all directions, thundering against the jungle floor and splattering the men with razor sharp fragments. Lieutenant Baker, attempting to hold his platoon together, was killed instantly by a machine-gun burst to the head. Seconds later, as Baker's Platoon Sergeant Robert Hanna moved for the radio to inform Carpenter of their leaderless status, two grenades exploded on either side, cutting him in half.
Just a short distance back and to the right of First and Third Platoons, Carpenter and Sabalauski worked the radios, desperately trying to determine what was happening to their men a few meters beyond the natural wall of knotted shoots and hanging vines. The First Platoon radio broke open with the shaken voice of Lieutenant Jordan. "I'm pinned down. I can't move!" Moments later, Captain Carpenter listened in horror as an unknown voice crackled over the Third Platoon frequency. "We're all dead!- The Platoon Leader's dead, I'm the only one left- we're all dead!" Before Carpenter could reply, the voice broke off.
Though he was then unaware of it, Captain Carpenter and the ninety or so men of Charlie Company had slammed head-on into the entire 24th NVA Regiment. The Fourth Platoon, which was ordered forward in an attempt to relieve some of the pressure from the other elements, were themselves flat on their stomachs after pressing out a few meters.
Marcus Hurley was charging forward, following close behind the Artillery Forward Observer (FO), when the thickets to his front burst open with rifle and machine-gun fire. "I was about ten feet behind the FO, when the ground kicked up and his ankle immediately collapsed inward," remembers Hurley. "The whole thing happened in about a hundredth of a second."
The headquarters position was now being raked with a crisscross of machine-gun fire, and with it came the calls of men being wounded in every direction. Mike Baldinger, bearing a medic's burden, as his father had nearly twenty years before him, sprang selflessly into action and began darting around the rapidly shrinking perimeter, trying to locate his downed comrades. The bullets hissed and whined as they sliced at the air around the young medic, who without regard for his own life searched from one thicket to another for the wounded. As he did so, a terrifying reality set in. "Everywhere I went, I could hear the enemy."
At every point on the perimeter, the NVA swirled like ghosts in the bamboo. "I knew we were surrounded. They were running right past me in the trees," Baldinger recalls. Marcus Hurley was still forward with the wounded FO when Baldinger came diving in to his aid. "Mike hit him up with some morphine and started dragging him back," said Hurley.
Hurley began relaying calls to Carpenter from the FO's radio, the only one that remained undamaged. This required him to crawl fifteen to twenty feet between the radio and Carpenter's position. "It was so loud, he (Carpenter) couldn't hear me, so I just went back and forth until finally, he had me bring the radio to him."
Baldinger, continuing his search for the wounded, was startled when he heard his friend's name called out. "Doc, Hurley's hit!" Hurley, who had been returning to help hold the edge of the perimeter after dragging the radio back to Carpenter, was downed by a bullet to his shoulder. Baldinger crawled forward and located his rapidly bleeding friend in a small gully. He immediately went to work, trying to stop the bleeding and replace the loss with a blood substitute. "I was lying beside him (Hurley) trying to get a bottle of albumin into his arm through an IV," recalls Baldinger, who had to hold the bottle high in his hand in order to control the flow. "The first two bottles I tried were shot right out of my hand." With no safe way to move Hurley under the murderous volume of fire, Baldinger had little choice but to keep trying, and was finally successful in administering the third bottle of albumin. As he drained the last of the bottle into Hurley's arm, he heard someone shout from behind him, "Look out Doc, grenade!"
Baldinger looked up in time to see the grenade bouncing towards him, and as if by some healer's instinct, threw his own body over Hurley's. A half-second later, the grenade exploded, driving fragments into the young medic's back and raking Hurley's exposed legs. The two wounded men lay huddled together in the underbrush while the NVA soldiers ran past them in every direction. Baldinger, disregarding his own wounds, turned his attention back to Hurley, who now had a whole new set of problems. The blast had shattered one of his legs in two places and driven shrapnel into his feet, calves and knees. With his legs bent before him in shreds, another bullet ripped through one of his boots.
Hurley began hollering to Baldinger, who having been deafened by the explosion was now bleeding from the ears, and could barely hear him. "It's not enough the bastards shoot me once and try to kill me, now they shoot me again!" screamed Hurley. "Well, shut up and put your legs down," Baldinger yelled back, "and they'll think you are dead!"
Not missing a beat, Baldinger went to work patching up Hurley's legs as best he could under the continuous onslaught. As Hurley lay there, his spirit began to fade. "Man, if it would help you out any, I could sure pass out real easy right now," uttered Hurley.
"Don't you dare!" Baldinger shot back. "You've got to help me. If you pass out now, you're as good as dead."
Hurley still recalls gazing up at his friend, who motivated him to stay alive. "What Mike said to me was exactly what I needed to hear, because I woke right up. He saved my life."
Baldinger, himself disoriented from the grenade, dragged Marcus Hurley back towards the center of the perimeter, which was quickly closing in around them. Not far away, another medic, Billy Quattrochi, was hunkered behind a pile of logs and dead bamboo attempting to hold off a swarm of NVA that were now moving in among the men. Baldinger recognized Quattrochi and dove in beside him. Peering over the logs into the surrounding thickets, he could see people moving in on them, but the thickness of the foliage made it impossible to determine who.
"Is that them or us?" Baldinger asked Quattrochi, who was also uncertain. Quattrochi sat up and peered over the natural barrier. Almost instantly, a bullet slammed into his chest and knocked him back down next to Baldinger, who, though wounded himself, went to work on his fellow medic.
Still able to function, both men sat back up and began firing into the trees, trying desperately to slow the flood of NVA infantry. As Quattrochi, hanging on to both his life and his M16, fired wildly into the rush of determined NVA, another bullet smacked into his jaw and tore it away from his face. Again Baldinger dropped to his aid and began dressing the wounds. Wounded and exhausted, both men refused to give in and continued to return the enemy's fire.
The next call for aid came from Sergeant Sorenburger, who had been only a few feet from Carpenter and Sabalauski. He was shot through both ankles. As Baldinger made his way towards the downed Communications Sergeant, he could hear the hauntingly familiar sound of mortars popping into action from just beyond the surrounding thickets. "I could actually hear the rounds sliding down the tubes, that's how close they were." He didn't have to guess as to who was firing them. Charlie Company had no mortars that day.
Still making his way to Sorenburger, Baldinger was again forced to run a gauntlet of automatic weapons fire and grenades, one of which exploded before him and drove a fragment into his chest. Though wounded a second time, he kept moving until he located his Sergeant and tended to the wounds without any regard for his own. In the terrifying minutes that followed, Michael Baldinger, shot again in the foot, continued to move from man to man any way he could, never for a moment pausing to contemplate the growing hopelessness of the situation. Charlie Company and every man in it was now within inches of becoming one of history's obscure tragedies.
What had been a rapidly shrinking perimeter had now descended into total bedlam, and at the center of the storm were Carpenter and Sabalauski, as if composed of granite. They worked the radios relentlessly and reinforced every side of their position with a diminishing complement of able bodies. Captain Carpenter, now standing on a gridiron of far greater consequence than that of his West Point days, was coming closer by the second to redefining his own epithet, "The Lonesome End." The young Captain and his company of brave soldiers, the very finest of their generation, were now being overrun by nearly ten times their number.
What happened next would be the object of heated debate within the infantry community and indeed the U.S. Army as a whole for years to come. With his remaining body of fighting men interwoven with that of a full NVA regiment, Captain William S. Carpenter initiated the unthinkable in order to save as many of his young troopers as possible. General Emerson will likely never forget the voice of his subordinate calling over the radio to the battalion's Forward Air Controller: "We're overrun, they're right in among us. I need an air strike on my position."
"I was stunned" says Emerson, who still recalls his transmission to the seemingly doomed Company Commander after realizing that Carpenter had just called for an air strike on himself. "I told Bill that if I didn't see him again, I wanted him to know that I was putting him in for the Medal of Honor." Carpenter?s reply serves as a testament to his character- "That's bullshit!"
Only a minute or two later, the air above the men of Charlie Company turned to flames in a loud burst. Carpenter's astonishing display of courage had been answered by a Navy F-4 Phantom laden with napalm. The deadly brew burst open at treetop level and blossomed out in a freakish array of oranges and pinks. Baldinger, who was still tending the wounded, was caught completely unaware when the jungle around him became a fireball. "Everything just went orange, hot and orange."
In the afterglow of the napalm strike, the jungle went silent. What had moments earlier been a deafening symphony of incoming fire was now replaced by the subtle crackling of burning bamboo. The scene was as if the violent beast awakened earlier had been abruptly swallowed whole by the burning jungle, leaving a few stray NVA running back up the hill in flames.
By good fortune, the napalm canister had detonated on impact with the dense treetops, spilling the majority of its deadly mass into the surging advance of NVA attackers. Perhaps it was the forward inertia produced when the aircraft deployed the canister that propelled the liquid fire in just the right direction. Perhaps it was the configuration of the foliage. One could, as many surely did, argue in favor of divine intervention. Only the jungle knows for sure how fate worked its magic that day on the ridge and spared the majority of Charlie Company.
"The air strike saved us." That is the only conclusion that the men who fought on that small piece of geography are interested in conveying. It is the only conclusion that matters. Up on that small finger of land, the men of Charlie Company were finished, and yet most of them live on. Any further debate as to the wisdom of Carpenter's decision is meaningless. His men are alive, alive as only men who have survived similar circumstance know the meaning of the word.
The men of Charlie Company did not go unscathed, however. A handful, including Baldinger, were hit and badly burned when their fiery savior burst open in the treetops overhead. The medic, now four times wounded, scraped the lethal gelatin-like substance from his leg with a stick and continued to assist his fellow soldiers. While it was Carpenter's air strike that saved the company, it was Mike Baldinger who saved the dying that day. Bill Carpenter, now a retired General, holds a place in his heart for his former medic. "I think the world of him," says Carpenter. "There are at least a dozen people alive today because of what he did."
Following the air strike, it was now possible to evacuate the wounded and reinforce the perimeter. Though the worst had past, the fighting continued intermittently, and it would be another forty-eight hours before Charlie Company would walk off the ground they had held with such tenacity. This was due in no small part to the bravery of their fellow "Screaming Eagles" from A Company, 1/327, as well as A and B Companies, 2/502, many of whom gave their lives in what had become an operation to rescue Charlie Company.
Bill Carpenter, who shortly after the battle at Tou Morong became an aid to General William Westmoreland, was never awarded the Medal of Honor. Often times, when politics intervenes on the battlefield, bravery goes unrewarded. The Army, stunned by Carpenter?s actions, was simply unwilling to condone them with an award of such high merit. "I always resented the fact that he didn?t get it," says the Gunfighter bitterly. "He saved one of my rifle companies, and I'll never forget it."
But for all of the debate surrounding the actions of Charlie Company, 2/502 on June 9th, 1966, there is one undeniable certainty. There was a healer on the hill that day, and for those who owe their lives to his persistence, Mike Baldinger represents what is best in men. To this day, you would be hard pressed to find an individual with a greater heart, or a friendlier smile. Now a retired Police Officer, Baldinger lives quietly with his wife, an artist, in rural West Virginia. He is an amateur stage actor, a fact that doesn't seem to surprise his former Company Commander. More than anything, Mike Baldinger represents the anonymous hero next door, though he isn't likely to admit it. He will simply tell you how he was but a tiny component in a massive machine, and that he did his job the best he could. Be that as it may, there remains what seems a common sentiment among the men who share in common a tiny piece of ground, somewhere in the jungles of that other time and place. "The enemy was everywhere at once that day, and so was Mike." If we knew nothing more of heroes, that would be enough.