This Battle of Anh Ninh (sometimes spelled An Ninh and An Ninh 1) Personal History is Chapter 11 from my book When You Hear The Bugle Call. The first half of the book is about my time in the Army and Alpha Company, 2/502nd and the other half is about dealing with Combat Stress issues after discharge from the military. The link to my books page is http://www.angelfire.com/nc2/vietnamvet/newbook.html
Peter S. Griffin
Also see The Battle of Anh Ninh - A Poem by Peter Griffin.
Since the end of the war in Viet Nam I have heard, literally, hundreds of times that the first large battle between “two major units” where helicopters were employed was the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley. It is true that this battle, involving the First Cavalry Division depicted in the movie, “We Were Soldiers” was the first large battle involving an American unit and units of the North Vietnamese Army. Still, the fact remains that the very first large battle between two major units, employing helicopters was actually fought by the First Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division and the 95th Battalion, 2nd Viet Cong Regiment, a main force unit. The battle occurred near the village of An Ninh #1 and was officially designated “Operation Gibraltar.”
The Battle of the Ia Drang started on November 14, 1965. I remember the date clearly as that day was my 19th birthday. The battle at An Ninh began nearly two months earlier on September 18, 1965. Ironically, this savage battle evolved while the Screaming Eagles protected the First Cavalry Division, ensuring their safe arrival in South Vietnam.
At that time, our First Brigade Assistant Intelligence Officer was Captain Thomas Taylor. His father was General (Ret) Maxwell D. Taylor, the immediate past U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of South Vietnam. Captain Taylor later took over as the CO of “B” Company, 2/502 Infantry and led his unit gallantly in several operations. His official report after the battle lists 226 Viet Cong killed in action. He believed a like number of enemy soldiers received serious wounds and most probably, died later. Our casualties were also high, with scores killed and wounded. This was definitely no small action. My recollections of this battle are as follows:
Intelligence reported a battalion sized enemy force operating in an area near the village of An Ninh #1. Assigned the mission of searching out and destroying this threat, part of our force, consisting of, or about, twenty-six helicopters, heavily laden with men and arms, swooped down on a predetermined landing zone (LZ). Unknown to us, in the tree line adjacent to the LZ, was the enemy base camp. The enemy permitted the first lift to land without opposition. The second was not so fortunate. All hell broke loose! The enemy opened up with a roar from the tree lines. Other VC were lying on their backs on the LZ, their guns blazing. It was a dry rice paddy with tall grass, which hid them from view. Aircraft started falling from the sky.
There was a command vehicle parked near my chalk line with the volume of its radio turned on high. As I was waiting for the choppers to return, I could hear the battle raging. I could hear gunfire, explosions and the voices of enemy soldiers in the background. Our battalion executive officer, Major Herbert Dexter, stated they had “the tiger by the tail” as he and his men engaged the enemy. After a short while, the Major started calling for re- enforcements. He desperately shouted, “The tiger has us by the tail, if we don't get more men and ammunition in here soon we will all be dead! I repeat… we will all be dead!”
As my lift waited for the returning choppers we could actually see some of them spiraling down to the earth as they were blasted from the skies. The airhead was not that far away from our assembly area. As the chaos reigned, most, if not all, of the waiting paratroopers had the overpowering need to urinate. My nerves did not spare me of this necessity either and I joined the others in relieving myself. I never saw this behavior before or after this operation. It must have been a result of nervous anticipation and the impending threat of possible death or serious injury.
The helicopters still flying limped back to the staging area riddled with bullet holes, bearing many dead and wounded soldiers. Dead door gunners were slumped over their machineguns. We removed the casualties from the aircraft and boarded for the third lift. We flew to the LZ but were repulsed by heavy ground fire. The troopers on the ground were completely surrounded and fighting for their lives. All four Company Commanders in my battalion ended up either killed or wounded. My Company Commander, Captain Gerard Landry, received a leg wound while our lift was trying to get into the airhead. The Major, commanding the troops on the LZ, died fighting.
After this attempt, all of our helicopters were either shot down or disabled. We had none that were fit to transport us. As hastily as possible, choppers were “borrowed” from the First Cavalry and an alternate LZ, not so hot, was chosen to receive us. After securing this position, we advanced toward the surrounded airhead, several clicks (kilometers) away. Next to me, a radiotelephone operator's (RTO) grenade launcher (M-79) snagged a bush and discharged. The grenade did not travel far enough or make the required revolutions to explode. However, it struck a soldier's face with great force. The projectile broke the soldier's jaw, knocking out several of his teeth. The wounded man bled profusely and suffered great pain. Medics bandaged him under the chin, around both sides of his face and knotted on the top of his head to hold his jaw closed and administered morphine, but it was not enough to stop his agony. Night settled in, black as pitch, I could not see my hand in front of my face. There was no way we could evacuate our casualty. He had to move with the rest of us. It was an urgent situation and we could not stop for the night. I could hear him moaning and groaning throughout the long and anxious night. Everyone felt terrible that we could not do anything more to help him.
Heavy fighting continued as the enemy started to withdraw. We killed or captured several of these VC as they ran into us as we made our approach. At dawn, we linked up with the surrounded troopers.
We pushed on, entering the LZ, and I saw two dead enemy soldiers lying on their backs with gaping holes in their chests. The tall grass was standing up through the gory holes. They looked like waxed mannequins lying there. Perhaps, in my unconscious mind I was trying to dehumanize them in order that I might be able to kill others like them. It was a sight I will never forget.
Enemy fire still poured in at an alarming rate. I came to a stream and there was an M-16 rifle lying alongside the water. It had a first sergeant's name, Bodine, of Co. B, 2/502nd, if I remember correctly, written on it but no one was in the immediate area. There was a bullet hole through the stock. I found Top and told him what I discovered. He ordered me to get in the creek and search for the man's body, but all I found was his helmet. I learned later that he had been medivaced because of his wound but he was going to be okay.
We reinforced the hard fought soldiers manning the perimeter. We started policing up the dead on the LZ. We stacked enemy bodies in a large pile, in preparation for mass burial, I presumed. Sniper fire was still incoming and we had to be extremely careful.
We lined the dead Americans in a long row. They represented every race… death offered no discrimination. Their jaws were hanging open and flies were going in their mouths and coming out their nostrils. We tried covering the bodies with ponchos but the wind kept blowing them off and the insects kept feeding.
In Vietnam, the communists did not honor the Geneva accords. Medivacs started coming in to evacuate the dead and wounded. An enemy soldier, high in a tree, fired a grenade launcher at the helicopters although they were clearly marked with a red cross. One of our men shot him dead, and the VC fell to the ground. We assaulted the base camp inside the tree line and killed several more enemy soldiers. Ordered to go through their packs and other belongings to look for documents, I found that these people were much like us. They carried shaving gear, food, ammo, photos of loved ones, personal mail, cigarettes, religious items, goodies and so on. I looked at the pictures of their girlfriends, parents, wives, and children. It saddened me when I realized these soldiers too, had loved ones who missed them and many hearts would now be broken forever.
I also thought of our dead and wounded, and how tragic this event was to everyone involved. I realized the enemy also thought that they were doing what they believed to be right by fighting us. I was brought back to reality when one of our men was severely wounded moving an enemy body that the VC booby-trapped before they fled!
We also found documents of military value. We found a classroom with charts and training guides explaining how to attack the Americans arriving on a landing zone by helicopter. They had actually trained and rehearsed for such an event on this very ground and adjacent LZ!
My sympathies further eroded when I realized they “rigged” the captured American grenades they left behind to kill us. They knew we would be low on supplies and ammo and might use what we found. They replaced the standard four-second delay fuses from fragmentation grenades with those of smoke grenades by snipping them down to the size of “frag” fuses, which changed the delay time to zero! They would explode as soon as someone released the handle, maiming or killing the user! How very cunning these people were!
Our cadre called in air strikes and the jets blasted and napalmed all avenues of escape the enemy might try to use. It was an awesome spectacle! I imagined what it would be like to be in the midst of that holocaust. It seemed impossible for any living thing to survive; it appeared to be certain death by incineration!
Before night fell, we set up perimeters around the several downed helicopters. By this time, we were extremely low on food and ammunition. All through the dark, eerie night Smokey the Bear, a C-130 Hercules aircraft dropped flares that permitted us to see. The enemy probed our lines several times and we exchanged fire with them. A large crane type helicopter flew in and its crew connected a large cable to one of the disabled choppers and lifted it into the air. The crippled chopper dangled precariously beneath the larger airship as they extracted it from the contested area.
The next morning we cleared the area, pushing the remaining enemy far from the battlefield. We spent another night at the battle site. During this period, the CH-54 “Skycrane” helicopter recovered all the downed airships. The enemy, if there were any remaining nearby, offered no resistance. It was a nervous time, nevertheless.
After daylight, we were re-supplied with food and ammo and we ate ravenously as we walked out of the area. As we pursued the fleeing enemy, I could not help but wonder if eating was going to be a waste of the food. It was the first time I experienced a sense of foreshortened future. My unconscious mind was telling me I might die before this day ended, so what was the sense in having a full belly? We searched the surrounding area without making significant contact with the fleeing Viet Cong.
“Operation Gibraltar”, as designated, thus concluded. This action was truly the first major battle of the war involving a large enemy force and a major American unit, utilizing helicopters. The 2/502nd Infantry Battalion earned the Presidential Unit Citation for their courageous performance.
After things quieted down, the survivors of the battle related many “war stories” of the fierce fighting that occurred as they were surrounded. One such “story” was that of a NVA advisor, a sergeant, who was standing directly in front of a tree, guiding his Viet Cong counterparts in their attack. One of our troopers shot him with his M16 rifle. The NVA sergeant took six rounds in the chest that blew a large hole in his upper torso. He slumped against the tree as his body slowly slid down to the ground. The enemy sergeant ended up in a sitting position, leaning back on the tree, very much dead. A second later the corpse stood up, walked a few steps and then, finally, fell for the last time!
I heard the story of one of our grenadiers who fired his M79 grenade launcher at three VC who were charging him from across an open, dry rice paddy. The trooper fired his “thumper” and caught the center soldier in the chest, a direct hit. There was a puff of smoke and all three enemy soldiers simply disappeared!
There was another story about a grenadier who took cover with his squad behind a rice paddy dike. They were engaged in a firefight, shooting across a somewhat clear area at enemy positions scattered along the tree line at the base of the hill where the main VC camp was located. There was a lull in the shooting and most of the squad was taking a breather as the grenadier kept watch. As he was scanning the field, he swore he saw a bush move and he told the other guys about it but they did not pay any attention to him. It wasn't long before he told them that he saw another bush move. This time one of the guys told him that he had been in the sun too long and it must have fried his brain! Needless-to-say, a short time later the grenadier shouted, “The fucking bush is moving!” This time he got the other guys attention and one of them told him, “If the Goddamn thing is moving… shoot it!” With that, the grenadier fired his M 79 and hit the bush square in the middle, which happened to conceal a gook that was trying to sneak up on them! Seeing that, the rest of the squad opened up, shooting every bush in sight! After things quieted down the squad went out and checked the bush that the M 79 gunner had shot initially. There lay a dead VC who had suffered a massive chest and abdomen wound. The force of the round had completely emptied his innards out, there was absolutely nothing left in the body cavity!
One soldier related that another paratrooper was rifle shot across the width of his stomach. The bullet opened him up with the precision of a surgeon's scalpel! Some of his intestines protruded and upon seeing this, the soldier immediately panicked. He ran wildly into the nearby bushes and his intestines snagged on the branches, pulling them out completely. The young man apparently died of shock and loss of blood. Had he been able to calm himself, he might have survived. I actually saw this man's body on the LZ. His was one of the bodies I tried to cover with a poncho that the wind kept blowing off.
There were stories of our troopers and Viet Cong soldiers caught in deadly firefights where neither side could see each other because of the tall, standing grass that obstructed their view. Both sides fired blindly at any sound or movement. Some actually winning their personal, deadly contest because their opponent “moaned and groaned” louder than they did as they wounded each other several times before inflicting the fatal wound!
Another story was that of a mysterious and lucky enemy “mobile” machinegun crew that rendered accurate and deadly fire into our surrounded troopers. The gun would move from location to location, as needed, by means of a water buffalo pulling the oxcart that it was mounted on! Somehow, the gun managed to survive the fight and was seen escaping the airhead as it slowly rolled away and melted into the surrounding jungle.
Still another story was that of one of our ARVN advisors who experienced his first combat action at An Ninh. Someone claimed that the South Vietnamese soldier ran out of ammunition and pulled a submachine gun from the grasp of a dead Viet Cong. He immediately put the gun into action, firing several rounds at attacking enemy soldiers. When a lull in the fighting occurred, he relaxed the weapon from his firing stance. Only then did he discover that blood, gore, and brains covered the weapon from the deceased soldier who originally processed it! The advisor immediately “threw up' in horror and revulsion!
There were also stories of enemy machine gunners literally “chained” to trees, to fight to the death, to slow our advance and to protect the enemy main force retreating from the airhead!
Whether these “reports” were completely accurate or not, was irrelevant to me. I took them seriously, for the sake of personal survival for me, and the lives of my fellow soldiers. One thing I was quick to learn… anything was possible in the Nam!
I do know that my company and I pursued that phantom oxcart for three solid days. We followed the ruts it left in moist soil as it traversed the secluded jungle trails. Unfortunately, we never caught a single glimpse of it!
I remember listening to “Hanoi Hanna” a few days later on a transistor radio. She was telling her audience how the brave soldiers of the 95th Battalion, 2nd Viet Cong Regiment had annihilated the paratroopers of the First Brigade, 101st Airborne Division at An Ninh! There was no doubt the propaganda war had begun!
They evacuated Captain Landry for medical treatment, along with many other brave troopers. When the Captain returned from the hospital in Japan some two months later, he was re-assigned as the First Brigade Assistant S-3 and never returned as Company A's commander. I saw him briefly the following December as he rode by in a convoy and we managed to wave to one another. I did not see or hear from him again until thirty-five years later. In 2000, he sent me the following, very much cherished communication:
“Grif, there isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of my time in "A" Company, or that I don't recall with great pride and enduring affection the selfless and gallant men, like you, who constituted - men who, in effect, really were - that superb organization. Superb, because it was made so by you, and by all the others - troopers, NCOs and officers - who served unflichingly, and whose professionalism, relentless determination, selfless devotion, unquestioning brotherhood and boundless courage were the every-day stuff and reality of our existence.
Whenever I visit the Wall, I always make it a point to seek out the names of those who gave the rest of us - and their country - literally all they had to give: Vaczi, Youngbear, Skapinsky, Settlemire, Wallace, and so many others.... I grieve for them still - I always will - but underlying the pain and sorrow of their loss, I always feel another emotion as well, as I walk away from the Wall, something that is with me every day, as I go through all the routines of my life. That 'something' is pride...a sense of infinite, ineffable pride that lifts and buoys me, the pride that I was privileged to know, and to serve, with such men.... I wish I could thank them all...but I can begin by thanking you, personally and professionally, for standing tall, for your steadfastness, for the sacrifice of part of your youth (and perhaps part of your innocence as well...), for risking all...and for simply being there!
Captain Landry served gallantly with the Strike Force from July 1964 - July 1966. He retired as a Colonel (06), in December 1987, after 31 years, 1 month and 23 days of active commissioned service. His last duty tour was as Garrison Commander, Presidio of Monterey, California. Captain Landry always led the way and set a courageous example for all of us to emulate. It was a great honor and privilege to serve under his command. I wish him and his lovely wife, Young-Lan, the best life has to offer.
Department of the Army (DOA) policy, in Vietnam, required enlisted personnel to serve twelve months on the line, i.e. in a combat role. Officers, on the other hand, were required to serve six months in that capacity. I believe DOA implemented this standard to assure most of their officers gained combat experience, and to lessen the burdens of stress resulting from decision-making where lives were sometimes lost. Often, as new situations and demands arose, both key officers and enlisted men received new assignments to maximize the utilization and proficiency of all personnel. Shortly after Operation Gibraltar ended, several changes in our command structure occurred. Because of his wound, my Company commander, Captain Landry, turned the reigns of “A” Company over to Captain Hank Lunde. Brig. Gen. Willard Pearson replaced Colonel Timothy as Brigade Commander. Lt. Col Henry E. Emerson took command of our battalion from Lt. Col. Smith, who won the Silver Star for gallantry in action in the battle just described. Lt. Col. Emerson was a tall, lanky man whose stature and demeanor seemed to naturally emit an aura of authority and respectability. He was an impressive figure indeed, and I, and all the other members of his new command were about to find out that he would live up to his radio call sign… “Gunfighter!” Life was about to get much harder for “Victor Charlie” and us!
This Personal History is a chapter from my book When You Hear The Bugle Call.
Peter S. Griffin