A Brief History of A Company, 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment
1st Brigade (Separate), 101st Airborne Division -
Republic of Vietnam
By Charles P. Otstott CO, A Company Sep-Nov 1967
Dedicated to the men of A Company who fought valiantly together through some dark times ... truly a Band of Brothers ... and to the wives and family members who have loved and supported them.
I write this as a former commander of A Company for a short time in Vietnam because several former members of the company have contacted me over the last few years wanting to put their recollections in the context of the bigger picture. I write this for them. It will be painful to recall the events, but it may help someone in the long healing process, not least ... the author.
Charley Otstott, Sep 2006
(Revised in 2008 as a result of conversations at the Atlanta Reunion of 2-502 in 2006.)
Prelude-Duties before A Company
Captain Steve Arnold commanded A Company when I arrived in Vietnam in the summer of 1967 for my second tour of duty in that country. I was a senior captain and expected to be promoted to major about the time I would DEROS in summer of 1968. I was assigned to the S-3 section of the 2nd Battalion, 502nd Inf, then commanded by LTC Ralph Puckett, a Korean war veteran and holder of the DSC. I liked him immediately, and he told me that I would get the next rifle company that came open.
I worked in the S-3 shop and was allowed to go out for 3 or 4 days at a time on two occasions to shadow the commanders of A Company and C Company as they conducted search and destroy operations on Operations Hood River and Benton. I was in the bush with one of those companies (I believe it was A Company) the night of 13 August when B Company was assaulted by a large NVA element and fought most of the night to repulse the attack. We were in position within sight of the tracers which marked the fire fight, but probably 2 or 3 kilometers from the site of the action. Dick Boyd was then in command of B Company, and I will never forget that one of his lieutenants was hit in the back of his rucksack by a B-40 Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) and died before he could get needed medical treatment. Ranger Puckett landed by helicopter within the company perimeter during the fight to rally the troops on the position and help with the fight. He remained on the scene all night and B Company controlled the battlefield when morning came.
Operation Wheeler General Situation
The 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division was OPCON to the Americal Division in September 1967. The mission assigned to the Brigade in Operation WHEELER was, " ... to conduct search and destroy operations commencing 11 September 1967 northwest of TAM KY (BT0627) to find, fix, and destroy VC/NVA forces and to neutralize VC/NVA base camps." The brigade conducted saturation patrolling and ambushes throughout the operation. Phase I (Map A) began on 11 September and closed on 25 September. Phase II (Map B) began on 26 September and closed on 8 October. I recall that we were searching for elements of an NVA division, but the official after action report does not indicate the size of enemy force thought to be in the area.
12 September 1967
On 12 September 1967, the Battalion air assaulted into Operation Wheeler in the Que Son Valley west of Tam Ky in Quang Ngai Province. I went in on an early lift with the Tac CP into Nui Hoac in grid square BT0722. As we were setting up the command post and monitoring the radios and the progress of the line companies, an explosion only a few feet away mortally wounded our operations sergeant MSG Forbes. I rushed to his assistance and began to administer CPR even as I noticed that both of his legs had been blown off. Two medics worked to staunch the flow of blood, but within 5-10 minutes, it became apparent that MSG Forbes was dead. He had been trying to pull out an engineer picket from the flat area 10 yards from our TAC CP so that we could eventually land helicopters there. That flat area had a number of engineer pickets in the ground as anti-helicopter devices and he had tried to remove one that was tied to an 82mm mortar round as a booby trap. He was our first KIA on Operation Wheeler.
Alpha Company had landed earlier a little northwest of the CP site on the same ridge line and had been engaged in a hot LZ by small elements of NVA and mines that had been placed on likely LZs. Steve Arnold was lightly wounded in the face by a mine near his helicopter as he landed. Before dark that night, LTC Puckett said that I would replace Arnold within a few days as that was the captain's second wound. In the meantime, I had taken over as HQ Commandant because the same explosion that killed MSG Forbes had lightly wounded CPT Gorski. It was my job to put in place the perimeter security positions for the CP and that took me the rest of that day to accomplish, being very wary of additional mines that might be in the area. It was scary work after seeing what the blast had done to our Operations Sergeant and noting several "four small rocks in a pyramid" signs that the VC and NVA used as warnings of mines to their friends. Shortly after the CP was firmly established, I was sent to the rear to spend two or three days in preparation for taking command of A Company.
19 September 1967
I returned to the field on 19 September and joined up with LTC Puckett for the trip to A Company. We landed in a nearby dry rice paddy and the change of command ceremony was conducted in another rice paddy in front of the company in formation. LTC Puckett passed the guidon of A Company from CPT Arnold to me and decorated Steve Arnold with two Silver Stars and two Bronze Stars for bravery. Steve and I shook hands and he flew off to staff duty for the remainder of his tour of duty.
My tenure with A Company began as we patrolled uneventfully for 8 days before we had our first sharp contact. It was a good shakedown for me and gave me a chance to see the company in operation and to get to know the key leaders. I had 4 strong platoon leaders and a great bunch of NCOs and soldiers. 1SG Frank Creed was in the field at all times, and that is where I wanted him to be. The platoon leaders were 1st Platoon, 1LT Jerry Barnhill; 2nd Platoon, 1LT George Anderson; 3rd Platoon, 1LT Jack Rogers; and 4th Platoon, 1LT Jim Peake.
27 September 1967
On 27 September, we were moving generally west to establish a blocking position with B Co. under CPT Dick Boyd on our right (north) and C Co. under CPT Corky Godboldte on our left (south). None of the companies could see each other ... we were just moving on three parallel axes to the west in accordance with the Phase II mission. A Company moved along a well defined trail wide enough for vehicles through rolling terrain spotted by small individual bamboo homes (hootches). We moved in a column of platoons with the CP behind the lead platoon. We moved fairly cautiously, but we were not expecting contact as we had none during the previous 8 days. (See Map C for movements of A Company during this period.)
Late in the afternoon, a sharp exchange of gunfire took place with our lead element at about BT 047248. I moved forward to assess what we were up against as I received the initial report from the lead platoon leader that he had been engaged by several automatic weapons and had seen soldiers in green fatigues to his front. The next hour or so was a very confusing time as I found one of our troops dead in the road, but was unable to establish visual contact with the rest of the lead platoon. I expected to find them off the trail to the north in a fairly open area about 150-200 meters from the finger which ran northeast to southwest at our immediate front from where we appeared to be receiving most of the fire. Where ever they were, they reported being pinned down and unable to move. [Note: In 2006, I had occasion to talk with Jack Rogers at the Atlanta reunion of the 1st Brigade. He told me that his 3rd Platoon had been in the lead that day and had been the first unit engaged that afternoon. He stated that most of his platoon had gotten off the trail on the south side, rather than the north side. They had returned fire on the finger to our front from a hasty position just about 30 meters west of my position on the west side of a small tree line which obscured my view of them.]
I brought the second platoon in column up on the south side of the trail to positions that had some concealment and limited cover to bring the apparent enemy position under fire. I ordered the trailing platoon by radio to maneuver to the right (north) along the trail and attempt to get closer to the enemy finger from above on the north end of the finger. They were immediately engaged by two enemy soldiers firing from an outcropping of boulders that stood between 5-8 feet tall, probably an early warning OP for the main position. Our lead element had passed them before the firing broke out. They were less than 100 meters off the trail to the north side. The maneuvering element came in close proximity to the outpost and had it under fire, but was unable to dislodge the enemy soldiers.
As the fire fight raged, I tried to help reduce the outpost which I could clearly see just north of my position. I brought up an M60 gunner and told him to watch my tracers. I then marked the boulders with tracers and tried to get machine gun fire into the rock outcropping without injuring our own troops who were maneuvering very close by to reduce the position. I talked constantly on the radio with the platoon leader to make sure ricochets were not falling amongst his troops. I also called for and employed helicopter gunships with miniguns on the enemy held finger to our front. Artillery was called and adjusted over a period of more than an hour to get the rounds on the target as we best understood its layout to our front (west). Light rain began to fall and at some point someone shouted that we were being mortared. I had not heard the mortar rounds explode and was about to question that call. Suddenly I heard a "splock" sound and looked down between my legs to see the tail fin of a mortar round buried in the mud no more than 12 inches from my feet. I never bothered to try to find out if it was a dud round or the tail fin from a round that exploded nearby. I just counted myself exceptionally lucky either way, and I went on with the fight. I believe we succeeded in killing the two NVA in the rock outcropping that evening, but darkness fell as we made our medevacs. I decided that we would move into a defensive perimeter and continue the attack in the morning.
After establishing the perimeter, I assembled the platoon leaders in the bunker beneath the hootch we were using as a CP. We devised a plan for a deliberate attack of the enemy finger at first light the next morning. 4th Platoon would move to the prominent knoll about 200 meters to our southwest at BT043245 to provide a base of fire. Two platoons with Jerry Barnhill in charge would move via the higher ground north of the trail to flank the enemy and try to get above them to attack down the finger from the north. The last platoon would remain in reserve with the Company CP. I elected to remain at the CP where I could see the action and direct the fire support. We laid on artillery support to "fire for effect" at 0600 on the enemy finger; and in addition, close air support and gunships with battalion.
28 September 1967
In the early morning light, the base of fire platoon moved to its position without incident as did the two platoons that would make the assault. When the prep fires by the artillery battery were to begin, I learned that the data from the previous day's lengthy adjustment mission had been lost and the fires would have to be adjusted once more from scratch. I was furious at this incompetence but had little choice other than to restart the fire adjustment. I had hoped for a devastating battery 3 or 6 on the target as our opening move. Instead we had round after round fired singly to adjust on the target while the enemy took cover against the coming barrage. We finally got a good fire for effect and the maneuver force began to move down the finger sometime around noon, if memory serves. LT Barnhill made some progress but reported that he was being sniped at from positions that he had passed as people popped up from apparent spider holes in his rear. I told him to pull back a safe distance and we would put more air and artillery on the target. He did so and we employed 5 or 6 CAS missions against the finger and much more artillery and helicopter gunships. He tried to advance again late in the day, but the results were the same. The enemy was obviously well hidden and well protected to have withstood the pounding we had given them. I called off the attack and ordered the company to reassemble in the Night Defensive Position. We would try something different the next day.
During the withdrawal of 4th Platoon from its base of fire support position, 1LT Peake was wounded by an enemy 7.62 round. He made the march back to the CP unassisted and told me he had been wounded, but requested to stay with his platoon. I directed him to get on the Medevac we had called to take out the 2 or 3 wounded we had sustained. The medevac came in on the road just east of our NDP as the last light was fading.
During the day, I had employed numerous CAS missions through the airborne FAC. Most of the ordnance had been "snakes and nape" which were 250 lb high drag bombs and napalm canisters. A pair of Marine planes delivered 5 inch Zuni rockets on one occasion. One pair of F-100s gave late warning that they were low on fuel and would have to drop all their ordnance on one pass. I knew that our guys were down and ready for the 250 lb bombs, but as the aircraft rolled in the FAC told me each plane was armed with two 750 lb bombs! I barely had time to get a warning to LT Barnhill when the bombs exploded! Fortunately for our troops, they landed on the west side of the finger and our troops were all on the east side. It was a very close call! Another close call for me personally occurred when I was sitting up on a large flat boulder so that I could see the target area and the rest of the battlespace. During a lull in the action, I looked off to the south and realized that I was exposed to any enemy that might be in that generally open area to our south. I got off the rock and positioned myself on the north side of it so that the rock provided cover from the south. The very next CAS mission that came in dropped 250 lb high drag bombs and I heard a very loud metallic sound as something bounced off the rock I had just been sitting on. I soon realized from the sound that it must have been one of the tail fins from a bomb that had just struck where I had been sitting minutes before!
29 September 1967
During the night, a plan was devised at battalion HQ to reinforce A Company with the Recon Platoon and to employ more artillery on the next attempt to take the finger. We essentially ran the same attack plan again only we had the Recon Platoon air assault well above the enemy on the ridgeline and attack downhill along the finger in conjunction with our two platoons. The Battalion S3 was over the battlefield early in the morning controlling the insertion of the Recon Platoon and then directing the fires of two or three artillery batteries from the command and control helicopter. As our units were moving into their attack positions, an artillery liaison officer aboard the helicopter gave an erroneous correction to a 105mm battery and the result was a volley of six 105 rounds landing amongst our troops and wounding several, including 1LT Jerry Barnhill the platoon leader of 1st Platoon who was wounded by shrapnel in the hand. (He was very angry, and justifiably so, when he returned to the CP as a "walking wounded.")
The Recondo Platoon air assaulted into an LZ about half a mile north and on higher ground from the enemy finger around noon. We reorganized, linked up with the Recondo element and pressed the attack again, only to find that the enemy had withdrawn during the night and left the position unoccupied. I moved the rest of the company to the finger where we reconsolidated and investigated the enemy complex. The NVA left some very new and very clean equipment behind. We found a bunker and tunnel complex which used brick kilns as fighting positions as they afforded excellent cover and concealment to the enemy force. Also discovered was a tunnel large enough for 200 people and containing 200 pounds of marijuana. We decided to remain on the position long enough to destroy the complex with explosives so it could not be used again after our departure from the area.
During the movement from the NDP to the abandoned enemy position, we passed the outpost that had engaged us on the first day of the fire fight. One dead NVA soldier lay beside the trail in green fatigues and new web gear.
30 September 1967
We spent the entire day of 30 September destroying the enemy complex, resupplying with ammo and planning the next move to a nearby prominent hill mass where the Recondo Platoon would be extracted. The route to the next hill took us into low ground that paralled the trail we had been on when the engagement of 27 September began. The route then took us up a fairly gentle hill over what appeared to be open ground. We planned and registered fire support by the 4.2 inch mortar platoon at the fire base to walk rounds ahead of us during the move. We also ran local patrols to try to ascertain the direction the enemy had gone when they left the bunker/tunnel complex. We assumed they had departed to the west, but we found nothing to confirm or deny that premise.
1 October 1967
We cautiously moved from the vicinity of the destroyed enemy bunker complex toward the southwest and the hill at BT 035233 about 1500 meters away. We employed mortars and airstrikes on suspected enemy positions as we approached. We passed through a small hamlet consisting of 3 or 4 hootches which we searched. There were no military aged males in sight, only the usual women and children. We arrived on the hill around mid afternoon without having enemy contact. The hill turned out to be a well used piece of terrain. It was virtually bare of trees and covered in grass with lots of fairly large boulders in outcroppings here and there. The visibility of the surrounding terrain was magnificent from the hilltop. One could see easily two to five kilometers in several directions from the position. To the west was a large hill mass that we suspected the enemy was occupying. We prepared to occupy the hill as our NDP while we also prepared for the helicopter extraction of the Recondo Platoon.
Sometime in the late afternoon, UH-1s arrived in our air space to lift the Recondos out. I had recommended they approach from the east due to the unknown enemy situation to the west. But the wind was out of the east and the helicopters arrived in trail formation from the east and made a wide U-turn to make their final approach to our position from the west. This maneuver took them over the jungle terrain about 2 kilometers west of our position. As the choppers straightened out of their turn and began their descent to our hill, the jungle erupted with automatic weapons fire directed at the helicopters ... perhaps as many as 15 to 20 automatic weapons. Tracers were visible reaching up toward the choppers, but no hits were taken. We immediately called for artillery on the source area and we adjusted the fires of 155mm and 105 mm batteries into the area for about an hour, moving it all around the area from which the gunfire had come. We also employed CAS sorties against the area from which the fire came. I will always remember one pass made by the fast movers which came directly over our position flying east to west and shooting 20mm gatling guns at the enemy. I was showered with the shell casings and at least one live round that fell inside our position, but did not explode. It had not been fired, but was just ejected whole from the weapon as it passed over head. The Recondo Platoon flew away and A Company was once again on its own.
About 1645 or so, the Battalion Commander LTC Danford called me on the radio and asked if I was ready to go down and attack the area where the fire had come from! I told him that I felt the enemy was in great strength from the volume of fire put up at the helicopters and that the area should be the objective for a battalion attack, not just my company. I suggested we hold our position for the night and plan a deliberate multi-company attack for the next day. He agreed and we stayed the night on the hill. The plan was for us to move toward the area in the morning with C Company pressing toward it on our south and B Company doing the same to our northwest.
2 October 1967
Our plan was to leave one platoon in temporary overwatch from the NDP and conduct a movement to contact with the company (-) north and west to the stream that ran north-south at the base of the NDP. We would cross the stream to the west side about 800 meters north of where we had seen the heavy concentration of automatic weapons the day before. We would bring the overwatch platoon to the crossing site before moving south along the stream to find and attack the enemy.
We moved cautiously without incident through a small hamlet near the stream and arrived at the stream in mid morning. The stream was about 10 to 20 meters across and waist to chest deep. We crossed it like a classic "danger area", putting M60 machine guns on both flanks of the near side to provide covering fire if needed. We sent the lead platoon across to clover leaf the far side and make sure there were no enemy in the vicinity before we crossed the main body. As I was crossing, I noted that two or three helicopters hovered over the stream about a mile to the north. At the time, I suspected they were from a unit to our north and may have been slightly out of their authorized area. I worried that they might see us, mistake us for NVA, and fire us up; but nothing happened. [Much later I learned that B Company was in heavy contact just north and a little west of us and these were probably gun ships supporting B Company. The battalion journal indicates that they may have been elements of the 1st Cavalry Division's 1/9 Cav which had been called to support B Company.]
We had 3rd Platoon in the lead moving south, then the CP, 4th Platoon, 2nd Platoon, and 1st Platoon which had been in overwatch most of the morning. The lead platoon was soon in contact and deployed to maneuver against the enemy force on slightly higher ground. They reported rough going against automatic weapons and an occasional RPG. I moved forward to get a view of the action but could not get a clear picture. I sent 4th Platoon under SFC McDaniels to the right to try to flank the enemy engaging 3rd Platoon. 4th moved a short distance before being engaged and reporting that they were pinned down. I moved to 4th's position and found them at the base of a small hill from where they had received fire that had killed one man with a bullet through the forehead. I told McDaniels to see if he could get moving by employing fire and maneuver and then went back to my CP location.
Meantime, we were firing artillery to support our attack as close as we dared. 3rd Platoon began to maneuver forward employing hand grenades against NVA in spider holes. By late afternoon we had made some progress by employing gunships, artillery and fire and maneuver with 3rd Platoon doing most of the work. It began to rain and we had only about two hours of daylight left. At about that same time the battalion fire base came under attack and we lost our gunships to support the fire base defense. A short time later, 3rd Platoon called for resupply of hand grenades and I ordered 2nd Platoon forward to hand over their grenades to 3rd and reinforce the attack. While the two units were engaged in the handover and bunched up somewhat at a trail junction, the enemy fired two 82 mm mortar rounds which landed in the midst of our troops with devastating results. We had 6 immediate KIAs and at least a dozen wounded, some critically. Concerned about a counter attack by the NVA and with casualties to evacuate in waning daylight, I decided to consolidate our position on the most defensible terrain in the area and call off the attack while we tended to our dead and wounded.
We consolidated on the small knoll beside the stream where I had established my CP. To our north about 25 meters was a rice paddy which had been almost dry before the rain started. We collected our wounded and our dead there as it was the best obvious LZ to use for evacuation of both. Medevac was near impossible due to the heavy rain and the enemy fire, but we were lucky to get a Dustoff pilot who was instrument qualified and had nerves of steel. B Company had been in heavy contact also about a mile to our north west, and they had several critically wounded troopers also. We had 4 critical WIA and several walking wounded. The Battalion TAC CP had been hit with mortars and small arms fire and they had several critically wounded to evacuate. The Dustoff went to B Company around midnight in the driving rain and made a trip back to Chu Lai. He returned to B Company for more critical WIAs and then announced that he would come to us and could take two of our critical WIAs. We lit the LZ with white light flashlights and he was able to drop in from the east, but took fire from our west during his descent. He took out two of our most critical cases and said he would return for the rest. He tried hard to get back in on his third trip, but the weather had gotten worse and he could not land. Regretfully he had to return to base and we had to keep our casualties with us all night. They were laid out on the edge of the rice paddy and the medics tended them throughout that long night. In the morning a grim sight greeted me as the rice paddy had filled with water and some of our dead and wounded were partially submerged in the shallow water.
It rained very hard most of the night. We formed a tight perimeter in heavy brush and I circulated early to encourage the men and to caution everyone to be alert. Some of our wounded were moaning and calling out in the early evening, but that dissipated as they fell asleep. I had asked for a "Spooky" flare ship to keep us illuminated all night and aid in our defense. It was pitch black without the flares due to the rain and clouds. I talked to the flare ship all night long on the radio to keep him over us and putting the flares out at the right place. Sleep overwhelmed me several times and the flare ship strayed out of our area once. We were not attacked that night, but it was a very tense period, one of the longest nights of my life.
3 October 1967
Early in the morning, another Dustoff came and took the rest of our wounded. The Battalion Commander came in to assess the situation and took some of the dead troopers out in his ship. We received an ammunition resupply slick which took the remainder of our dead troops out. We had about 18 rucksacks from the dead and wounded to dispose of, so we stacked them in a line beside the rice paddy on the trail. When we left the area, we hoped to return and recover the gear. But if that were not possible, we intended to have an airstrike come in and napalm the stack to prevent the enemy from salvaging anything from the rucksacks.
We departed the area about mid-morning to link up with B Company in accordance with the plan discussed between me and the Battalion Commander during his visit. I hated to surrender the battlefield to the enemy, but we were down to about 60 effectives by this time. The enemy apparently continued to hold the higher ground to our southwest, so it was doubtful we could dislodge them. B Company had endured a rough 24 hours also. It was a good thing for both companies.
We linked up with B Company at their location by late morning and began to set up a joint defensive perimeter. CPT Dick Boyd and I were good friends and we were glad to have the other as reinforcements. We settled in to get some rest, maintain our weapons and equipment, reorganize, and prepare for future operations. The weather was not bad that day, but it was expected to get worse the next day.
The rest of that day was uneventful. The duty log shows our field strength at the close of the day as 52 assigned and 10 attached. B Company had 91 and 13.
4 October 1967
This day began with terrible weather throughout the battle zone. Some aircraft were grounded and we were told to expect little resupply and to maintain our defensive positions. We did call for and receive the airstrike on our abandoned equipment.
Toward noon, a chopper came in carrying two meals in mermites: one breakfast and one lunch. Dick Boyd and I consulted and I took the breakfast for A Company while B Company got the lunch. Very soon after we began to eat, soldiers began to get sick. The very first was my interpreter. Soon we had about 17 troops throwing up and requiring medevac. The breakfast meal had been contaminated and food poisoning had cut my strength by about 25%, even though we expected most to be back within 24-48 hours.
LTC Danford flew into our position in the afternoon to confer about our next steps. He told me that he would get immediate replacements flowing to me and we decided to pull A Company off line to a relatively safe area and receive the replacements in the field. I told him I would need a couple of days to assimilate the new troops and get them accustomed to the environment before we went "back on line". I planned to get them assigned into our existing structure and conduct at least one day's worth of short patrols to get them settled in their units and knowledgeable about our operations. It would have to be quick learning, but it was better than nothing. We determined that I would take A Company back up on the dominant high ground where we had been when the Recondo Platoon had been extracted after their choppers had been fired upon. We would make the move the next day.
When LTC Danford's chopper lifted off the LZ, it took ground fire from a few hundred meters away from our position. Dick Boyd put an air strike into that area. The day closed without additional activity.
5 October 1967
When we saddled up to begin our move back to our previous position on the hill, I was confronted by the only experienced "point man" that we had in the company. He was very frightened and did not want to walk point. I talked with him for about ten minutes and convinced him that we needed his skill that day and that we would be close by to back him up. He courageously agreed to walk point once again. We were essentially only a reinforced platoon of about 45 people. I moved forward far enough to be able to watch the point man and make sure he could see me.
We retraced our approximate route from a few days before, crossing the dangerous stream area with the same technique used going west. From the battalion duty log, I note that we had three air strikes on the hill: two in the morning and one in the late afternoon just before we ascended the hill from the north. We arrived to find no enemy and set about organizing the position. I thanked the point man for his courage and for leading us again.
After we had been on the hill for maybe an hour, there was a loud explosion within the perimeter. We had two men down. Doc Pugh rushed in to begin first aid as we called for a medevac. A booby trapped slack wire hand grenade (M26) had gone off on the trail and seriously wounded two men. Our point man had been hit hard in both legs. One of our sergeants had sustained chest wounds by at least two fragments. Doc Pugh tried valiantly to administer first aid to the stricken sergeant but could not clear his airway. The man died by the time the medevac arrived. A terrible end to what had been a fairly routine day.
6 October 1967
We received 40 or 50 replacements throughout the morning. 1st Sergeant Frank Creed handled the assignments with the platoon sergeants. My instructions to the platoon leaders were to get the troops into squads, get them into defensive fighting positions within the perimeter and then get them out on short patrols, clover leafing out from the NDP. Each platoon had an assigned sector to work in and the intent was to get the new troops as comfortable as possible with our SOPs in a relatively benign environment.
We expected to be in this position for about 48-72 hours working this way before returning to the line. I requested and received a 106 mm recoilless rifle and an M2 fifty caliber machine gun to stiffen our defenses. The 106 came with three "beehive rounds" which contained flechettes that would decimate any ground attackers. I knew about the beehive rounds from my days as a weapons platoon leader in the 101st, but had never employed them.
The ground we were on was shaped like a pork chop. It consisted of a small knoll on the south, a slightly taller knoll in the center and a ridge running slightly downhill to the east northeast from the center knoll. (See Map D.) I organized the ground with 2nd Platoon on the southern knoll, 3rd Platoon in the center, and 1st and 4th Platoons occupying the ridge to the east. I positioned the heavy machine gun and the 106 mm RR in Jack Rogers' 3rd Platoon sector with a Principal Direction of Fire to the north and northwest where they could support B Company, if needed. I also had an alternate position prepared for the fifty which could bring fire to the south and southeast to support 2nd Platoon. We had 800 rounds of ammo for the fifty. The day proceeded uneventfully, and by nightfall we had established a strong defensive position with claymores out, defensive targets registered in 3 or 4 places, and knowledge from our short patrols that there was no enemy presence within 2 or 3 kilometers of our position. My CP position was in a small saddle between 2nd and 3rd Platoons and included an outcropping of large boulders where 1SGT Creed and the artillery FO were positioned.
Not long after dark, observers within the 1st and 4th Platoon areas reported "moving lights" at some distance from our position to the north. We cranked up a fire mission from the 105 DS Battery at the fire base and fired for effect in the general area. The lights disappeared. I made at least one tour of the perimeter before midnight to check on the troops and make sure that someone was alert on each position.
7 October 1967
What happened next is from my own personal recollections except as indicated as being from the battalion duty log. The NVA attack on our position began about 0200 according to the battalion duty log. Things happened very rapidly. Others may have their own recollections which I welcome as additions to the story.
Two or three nearby explosions woke me and sent me straight into the foxhole which was prepared for me and the two RTOs. I yelled "mortars" two or three times at the top of my lungs, thinking we were being mortared from across the stream. I was joined in the hole by Woody and La Mar, my RTOs with their radios. None of us grabbed his weapon which lay beside our sleeping areas within a few feet. We immediately heard automatic weapons fire, saw green tracers and realized we were under ground attack. What I had thought were mortar rounds were really hand grenades thrown at close quarters by the enemy assault elements as they initiated their attack. Initial fire from the enemy was heavy and the return fire from our side built up quickly as both 2nd and 3rd Platoon took up the fire at the close-in threat. I called across to the FO to get flares up and began to try to assess what we were up against. It was pitch black with no moon or stars.
Green tracers began to bounce off the ground all around my hole. Suddenly a form appeared running past us from 2nd Platoon. It was an E6 we had welcomed as a replacement just that day. He shouted as he passed, "There are a million gooks up there!" and disappeared in the direction of 3rd Platoon. Next came George Anderson who knelt beside my position and reported that his platoon had been overrun and that he did not believe there were any more of his people alive on the position. Just as he uttered those words, he was struck by a bullet which shattered his rifle and lightly wounded him with bullet fragments. I told him to seek cover with 3rd Platoon and he left on his own power. The fire was heavy from 2nd Platoon's former position into the rest of the A Company position. All three of the other platoons were firing back as I informed the leaders by radio of the fact that 2nd Platoon had been overrun and there were no more Americans alive on the knoll. I called Jack Rogers and directed him to move the fifty caliber to the alternate position and start to hose the 2nd Platoon position. We could not raise the artillery battery for 45 minutes as the RTO there was asleep and I finally had to go through the battalion TOC to get them up and firing in our support. Soon the fifty caliber machine gun opened fire and I directed the fire through 1LT Rogers. I told him to lower the fire twice until it was bouncing off the ground and the boulders among the 2nd Platoon position. I then told him to traverse continuously. At some point early in the engagement, I directed PFC Harold La Mar to get my weapon which was the closest. He bravely did so and then I told him to fire one or two shots periodically to keep the enemy's heads down. At this time they were no more than 50 meters away and I could clearly hear their voices as they talked among themselves. Our heavy machine gun fired for about 20 minutes and broke the back of the enemy attack. We continued to receive fire from the position formerly occupied by Anderson's men, but the momentum of the attack was broken by the 800 rounds that poured from the fifty caliber MG. I considered using the beehive rounds, but I was concerned that some of the 2nd Platoon soldiers might still be alive on the position. I kept the beehive rounds on hold as a last resort. At some point, CPT Dick Boyd came up on the battalion radio net and told the Bn Cdr that he heard the NVA employing a HMG against us and offered to come to our aide. I intervened to let him know the HMG was ours and that I felt we could stop the enemy without his assistance. I thanked him profusely for the offer. At some point another of our soldiers from 2nd Platoon appeared beside my foxhole and inquired where he could get more M60 machine gun ammunition. It seems he had held his position on the 2nd Platoon hill throughout the attack and had expended all his ammo in the fight at point blank range. I told him to take cover with 1SGT Creed next door and he did so.
I am not sure when we got artillery and Spooky up and working for us, but we worked their fires to the south and southeast in areas where I felt the enemy would have reinforcement or temporary base set ups in support of his attack. The NVA were too close to employ either fire support means against the enemy in contact and I was still concerned about any other survivors of 2nd Platoon.
As the night wore on, the enemy fire diminished and I alerted everyone that we would counterattack at first light to retake the hill. I ordered 1st and 4th Platoons to "thin the line" and send half their troops in skirmish line toward the company CP on my signal. George Anderson would bring the survivors he had collected and Jack Rogers 3rd Platoon would provide a base of fire from our right flank as we moved south. I had said during the fight that if I had a grenade, I could take out the enemy that were close enough that I could hear talking. At first light, SSG Jurinski came forward from 3rd Platoon and said, "Where do you want the grenade?" It was only then that I realized the enemy fire had stopped completely.
Shortly thereafter, we formed up on line about 20 strong and walked in a skirmish line up the knoll to retake the hill. We found six of our own dead on their positions and a total of 18 dead NVA soldiers in green fatigues with new web gear and helmets. Each soldier had a weapon, mostly AK-47s but at least one RPD and one or two RPGs. One of the dead soldiers had a Russian made flame thrower on his back. He had been shot once in each of his arms and legs and the four wounds had been dressed with field bandages much like our own. We were all very thankful he had not been able to use his weapon. None of us had heard of flame throwers being employed by the NVA, so this was quite a surprise! As we consolidated the position, I continued to direct the employment of the Spooky gunship and artillery on likely avenues of withdrawal, especially in the direction where we had seen the moving lights the night before.
I soon learned for the first time that the 1st and 4th Platoons had also sustained a ground assault at the eastern end of their ridge and had beaten it off with close combat in which white phosphorous grenades had been decisive. Throughout the entire two or three hour battle, I had been unaware of that engagement. They had no troopers killed and only a couple of lightly wounded, but they had driven back a very strong attacking force at the point of contact about 75 meters from my CP.
As soon as we could get ourselves organized, we sent patrols out to the south, east and northeast to try to pick up blood trails and locate any wounded enemy that had been abandoned. One of the patrols found a dead NVA soldier on the trail that led north on the east side of our position. We assumed they had departed to the north, probably back along the way where we had seen their approach with the "moving lights" the night before.
Recondo replacements on the hill after Alpha was extracted
We spent the day reestablishing the coherence of our position and accepting more replacements and conducting short training patrols. We received ammunition resupply to include several boxes of grenades. At one point, either Iron Duke or Cottonmouth flew in for a tour and briefing about the battle. I believe it was Iron Duke (BG Matheson). We also hosted a Time Magazine reporter who intended to feature the fight in the next issue of the magazine. As I recall, his name was Don Sider. He came in the afternoon and talked with a number of troops. By the time he was to get extracted, the weather had turned bad again and he could not get a helicopter. He spent a very tense night with us on the hill in the rain. He and I sat on the edge of my foxhole for several hours talking about the war and the battle and A Company. My troops were on full alert and expecting another attack. They threw about 100 hand grenades during the night for reassurance and to prevent the enemy from crawling close as he had done the night before. With the rain, the grenades, and the blackness of the night, it was another very long night for all of us.
8 October 1967
Don Sider left early the next morning promising to tell our story in the next issue of Time Magazine. He called me a few days later to tell me that the Marines' engagement at Khe Sanh had trumped our engagement, and replaced his report about A/2/502 in the magazine. He was very apologetic.
We were extracted either this day or the next and flown to a safe area to refit and relax for a day or so. I visited our wounded at Chu Lai or Tam Ky during this period. We had several that had not yet been evacuated to Japan or the Philippines.
NOTE: the Recondos replaced Alpha Company on this hill when Alpha was extracted. Numerous craters and hastily dug NVA graves gave silent testimony to the recent events. The photo at right was taken on that hill the next day -- Richard Cobb, Recondo '67