The Firefight at Đại Đồng
by Richard Dieterle
DECEMBER 7, 1967 — When we got up in the morning, we were greeted with a singular piece of bad news. "Bravo Company hit the shit!" This had actually happened later the day before. The First of the Ninth, a helicopter recon unit, had been flying over a village not too far from LZ English, when they noticed what appeared to be antennae sticking out of the thatched roofs of the hooches in a village called Đại Đồng. The procedure was for them to drop a "blue team" (infantry) to check it out from the ground, but no sooner had they landed, than they came under fire. Having satisfied themselves that the observations had not been an optical illusion, the blue team quickly withdrew, and plans were put afoot to bring in a regular infantry unit to, as the odd euphemism had it, make "contact" with the enemy. In the late afternoon, Bravo Company landed, and formed a line to "sweep" the village. They had been placed some distance out so that they could form up without coming under fire. They advanced in this line across a number of rice paddies, at that time dry. When they were midway through another of these open fields, all of a sudden, all hell broke loose. Having been caught in the middle of an open field, they beat a hasty retreat back to the dyke at the back of this paddy where they could gain some cover. However, when they regained their equilibrium, they saw that a body lay face up in the middle of the field. It was Lt. Walter R. Boettcher. He had been shot squarely in the forehead. He was a very popular officer, known even to us, so his loss was keenly felt. Just then, one of the enemy rushed out from concealment, leapt on top of Boettcher's body, grabbed him by the throat and tried to strangle him with his bare hands. Sgt. Gulley, carrying his trusty shotgun, leveled it and almost literally blew him away. This display of fanatic hatred must have been a bit unnerving. Eventually, they were able to get the body, and fall back to a suitable staging area, as it had become obvious that they had made contact with a very large and zealous enemy force, and reinforcements were in order. That's where we came in.
|Lt. Boettcher (Center)|
As we formed up to board the helicopters soon expected from over the horizon, we all had that strange visceral sense of foreboding that the icy grip of fate was about to close over us. Everything would change. Who would we lose? I wondered if these were the closing hours of my own life. While mulling over these unpleasant thoughts, the hum of distant choppers could be heard somewhere beyond our view. Soon a majestic flight of Hueys in perfect formation floated over the tree tops, then glided downward right towards us. We were in groups of five, and each lead man raised his rifle crosswise above his head. With a loud roar the air swirled with dust and twisting winds as he guided the lead chopper into its position. No sooner had the skids touched the ground, than we rushed headlong towards the chopper, piling in as if our lives depended on it. In that prolonged instant we had scrambled aboard, and without a moment's hesitation, the whole flight of Hueys gracefully eased off and forward, and we were airborne. They didn't have far to go. We could see the usual aerial bombardment by the ARA choppers, as they fired their rockets in the area ahead of where we were to disembark. We came down swiftly, and even before we completely touched down, those of us who were inside the bird's belly, suddenly exploded out the open doors. We moved in an exaggerated crouch in order to avoid the rotor blades. The Hueys wasted no time in getting up and away, as they were a good deal more vulnerable when they were landing than at any other time. The loud crashing of our rockets was still to be heard as we tried to form up. This is always an awkward part of the operation, since the Hueys generally have to land in a field, and such open terrain makes everyone vulnerable, so there is usually a mad dash for whatever local cover there might be. Since there was no enemy fire, and the LZ had not been hot, we stood around waiting for instructions on how we were going to proceed. While we were more or less milling around, two or three young Vietnamese men surrendered. They didn't have regular uniforms, so we took them to be Viet Cong. Their shirts were white or bluish white. Our guys gave them some cigarettes, grateful that they had surrendered at all. They were then blindfolded and put on helicopters for the rear to be interrogated.
Things were now beginning to happen. Bravo Company formed up on a line as they had the day before. We extended our line so that the two joined. Bravo's flank was not too far from me. We moved slowly forward until we came to a tree line. We halted there, and the word was passed that there were going to be air strikes on the area directly to our front. It is always nice to be below ground during an air strike, but we were standing upright. Fortunately, the average coconut tree was wide enough to shield a single man, so each of us got behind a tree, and I turned sideways just to make sure. The jets came in and the ground shook as their bombs hit. A large piece of bomb shrapnel hit the tree that I was behind about midway up, causing it to shudder in an odd fashion. Nunn was to my right, and a few guys down was the last man in Bravo Company. Alcala was on slightly elevated ground behind Nunn and I. He suddenly opened up. I turned slightly to look at him, and oddly enough he apologized, saying, "There was a gook. It was either him or us." That I understood almost a priori. The Law of the Jungle, in a land full of jungle. Having felt satisfied that the Air Force had done what it could for us, we began to advance. Some rifle fire was heard up the line to my right. Soon the whisper of words being passed down could be heard well in advance of the arrival of the news it carried. Finally, Nunn said, "Bravo Company took a KIA." I passed this on in turn. Yet more firing. "Bravo Company took another KIA." We made it through this area with coconut trees and shrubs without ourselves losing anyone, but Bravo Company had not been so lucky. We were now coming to a cleared area closer to the outskirts of this large village. At this point, a Mechanized Infantry unit joined us. I felt much relieved, since this multiplied both our firepower and our cover.
We met up with the APCs in a large area that once probably served as a rice paddy, but now was dry. The earth there was more yellowish and the grass was more like crabgrass. We were taking up position right on the edge of a wooded area. We lined up in columns of two behind each APC, about six of us each. The APCs were spaced at about a distance of 10 yards from each other. Then suddenly we plunged right into the wood walking very quickly behind our APC, which opened up with all its guns simultaneously. It was as if we were going in behind a shield of lead and steel, and we were going in fast. The noise was unbelievable, but despite the volume of our fire, we could still hear some of the peculiar popping sounds of enemy carbines. We roared over the first shallow entrenchment like a giant wave flooding across a beach. It was narrow ditch only about three feet deep, but extending the entire width of our front. The APCs simply flew over it, while we cleared it with a single easy jump. Nobody paused long enough to clear it in detail, as we were now practically moving at a run. The ground over which we were passing was covered with scrub brush, but we suddenly broke out into a different landscape: a large potato field with coconut palms about every 5 yards. Under other circumstances it would have been a very pretty place, as the reddish earth was not covered by grass or brush at all. The furrows in which the potato plants were placed formed little ridges about two feet tall, with the fragile looking potato plants having grown well above them. This potato garden was well to our front. Right at that moment we were moving quickly over the flat red earth and taking some fire from the unseen enemy beyond. Without any warning the air filled with the strange hissing sounds of bullets passing nearby. They were being fired in groups of three, and at first passed overhead. Then they started to come down where you could hear a higher pitched hiss followed by the trailing hiss in a lower tone, just as cars seem to change pitch as they whiz by on the freeway. However, the noise was deafening, so only the bullets that passed nearby could be heard in this way, the sound of enemy firing was simply drowned out in the cacophony of sustained automatic weapons fire. I was in the right column behind our APC, with two men ahead of me. I just happened to be looking in the direction of the right arm of the man ahead of me (Tewkesbury) when all of a sudden a red stripe instantly appeared across the right side of his arm. He reacted with a bit of a start as it he had been stung by a bee. At the same time I heard the strange Doppler pitch of bullets hissing by on my right and left. The bullet that grazed Tewkesbury's arm must have gone under my own left arm just to the left of my trunk, missing me by only a few inches. It had been shot at an angle from our front, from somewhere a little to the right.
|"Bullet" Bouchard||Robert W. Tewksbury|
|Photo by Lt. Church||Vietnam Wall of Faces|
We were still moving at a good clip, when all of a sudden the noise level doubled. A B-40 rocket blew up about 5 yards to my right just when I happened to be looking in that direction. One of the men of the 4th Platoon dropped with shrapnel in his ankle. While they were helping him to his feet, the men on the APCs began to get hit right and left. The assault completely stalled. Suddenly it seemed as if the world had slowed down and I was high on some unheard of drug. The whole world moved in slow motion. At the time, I thought I must be the only person in history to have this odd neural reaction, but otherwise, I felt perfectly self-possessed. I snapped out of it like the pop of a bubble. The APCs had come to a grinding halt. We edged up to ours to increase our cover. By now every gunner on the APC to our right had been hit and had gotten off their track. The APC on our right was now only about 5 yards away. One of the Brothers courageously mounted the right rear machine gun, despite the fate of its previous owner. I then swung my head slightly to the left and, as my eyes swept over the APC to our right, I could see Tewksbury, a member of the 4th platoon, jump up on the side of the APC. He was trying to get up there so that he could man the .50 caliber machine gun. He was short and heavy for his size, and when he got himself atop the beast, he stood facing the enemy with his back to the gun. As I stood there watching him I saw the cloth of his shirt ripple twice in rapid succession as two bullets punctured his heart. He leaned forward almost 90°, then with a slow clockwise motion dropped over the side of the APC like a bag of flour. "Bullet" Bouchard yelled at me, "Tewkesbury's been hit!" as if he couldn't believe it. The distress in his voice was evident, as Tewksbury was one of his best friends. He recklessly ran over and dragged him back behind the other APC. How he avoided getting shot is one of those vagaries of luck that no one can explain. Since he ran out there unarmed, it may be that the "enemy" simply chose to spare his life. Just the same, it was all too obvious that Tewkesbury was stone dead. The flood of incoming bullets made strange clacking sounds as they hit the armor of the APC in front of us. As I shifted my eyes more to the front I chanced to see the helmet of the driver on the next APC bounce twice, hit by a two-bullet shot group. I considered that he had been struck twice in the head which should have been instantly fatal. Then the back ramp of the APC that we were behind slammed down like a gang plank and they dragged out their driver with a bullet to his abdomen. Such a wound is extremely painful, but he bore it well and did not go into shock. The "black beret," or "black hat" as he was called, was standing to my right. He would ordinarily be responsible for calling in helicopter support, but now he was reduced to being just an infantryman like the rest of us. Then a lieutenant piled out of the APC and tried to talk to me by shouting over the din. I couldn't hear him even though his face was about 18 inches from mine. But I could read his lips: he was saying, "Somebody's got to get up there and pull that driver out!" in reference to the APC to the right. There are things I could image dying for, but not to pull a dead body out of a cockpit. So I just kept saying, "What?!" Then Black Hat stepped up and said, "I'll do it!" I thought this was ill conceived in the extreme, so I suddenly recovered my hearing and said, "Can't you push his body out from inside?" "No," said the lieutenant, "they can't get him out that way, and we can't move the APC with him wedged in there!" I couldn't conceive of how this was possible. Black Hat, without a weapon, made a dash for the APC, so even though I am left handed, I stepped out to the right and fired bursts of three on automatic. This, of course, exposed me completely. The fighting had dulled my wits sufficiently that it had not occurred to me that I might actually fire the rifle from my right shoulder while largely concealed behind the APC. While he was on top of the APC, quite unexpectedly, the body was pushed out from inside, so Black Hat jump back off. How he avoided being shot, I don't know. The "body" landed in a sitting position, and I could see him groan and sort of roll his head. His face was covered with blood, but he was alive. I pointed at him and yelled over to the next APC, "He's still alive!" A group of 4 or 5 guys rushed right to him under the heavy fire and snatched him up, and just as quickly were back behind their APC. I stepped out to cover them, but I couldn't see where the enemy was, so I just fired straight ahead. By now the fire had died down somewhat, as most of our gunners were out of action, and the infantry was wasting its ammo by shooting wildly all over the place. I remember Gunsaulas running up to me and excitedly asking me for ammo: "If you're not going to use it, let me fire it!" I gave him only one clip. I didn't see any reason to fire unless we actually had a target; but the enemy were concealed in the trench in front of us, about 15 yards away. Now we could clearly hear the distinctive popping noise of carbines. They were coming from our rear! It was now obvious that we had overrun this entrenchment and left a number of its occupants alive. It was not really defended — it was a kind of forward position very largely abandoned in favor of the entrenchments in front of us. Nevertheless, they had put forward observers and something like a skirmish line there, and now the survivors were taking pop shots at us from behind. In the midst of the chaos, a small bubble-domed scout chopper swooped in. Its gunner was trying to shoot into the opening of a bunker to our front. They had come down so low that they were hardly more than 15 feet off the ground. The gunner suddenly jerked back, apparently hit but not killed. The pilot beat a hasty retreat.
In the meantime, Bullet had somehow gotten hold of a WP grenade. When this kind of grenade blew up, it showered particles of white phosphorus over a wide area, so one had to throw it and run back in order to avoid being hit by the superheated particles of white-hot phosphorus. Bullet went a little ways forward, then heaved the grenade. We kind of trotted back and the grenade went off with more of a muffled sound than the HE grenades. A white cloud mushroomed into the air, and bits of glowing phosphorus could be heard clattering as they fell through the canopy of palm leaves. We really hadn't run back far enough, and the stuff began to fall around us. One hit Bouchard on the arm, but just as it hit, it burned itself out. He showed me his arm, which had a little speck of black on it where the nearly spent chunk of phosphorus had landed.
The lieutenant said we were going to pull back, but someone needed to stay outside the APC to protect them as they fell back. Apparently the feeling was that without infantry escort, the enemy could simply run up and toss a grenade into the tracks. Seeing how Black Hat had had such good luck, I felt charmed myself and stupidly volunteered for this insane position. At this point, the APC to my right had no driver. It had no gunners either, since casualties had been so steep. The next thing that I knew, there Bullet was, his head popped out of the driver portal. "What the hell?!" I thought. I had been with him once when he drove a "mule," which is a motorized flatbed. It was one of the most hair-raising rides I had ever taken. I thought, "If he doesn't know how to drive a mule, what the hell is he going to do with this massive, multi-ton, quasi-tank?" Much to my amazement, instead of turning the vehicle around and pulling back in the general retreat, he roared forward straight at the enemy. There was a large oval bunker straight in front of him, the kind made of coconut logs covered over with mud which later hardens into something akin to stone. With bullets whizzing everywhere, he charged at this with his head sticking out like a big round target. The APC slammed into it, crushing it under tread. Then Bullet wheeled the cumbersome vehicle around like it was a jeep, and headed back to join the rest of us. Twenty-two years later, reflecting on these amazing events, Bullet said,
I was just a kid. I didn't plan anything, I just acted, reacted, just like a lot of other guys. There just happened to be other people around to write down what I did. One thing I do remember: Afterwards, an officer asked me how I knew how to operate an APC (armored personnel carrier). I didn't. If it had been a stick shift instead of an automatic, I'd still be out there.
The other APCs wheeled around as I ran behind mine. Quite a number of people had started back ahead of me, and I now became concerned that I could be shot by one of my own people as I suddenly came rushing back over the shallow enemy trench that we had overrun earlier. I figured that I couldn't walk across it, since some of the enemy were still there and would find me an easy shot. So I tore across it, all the while yelling, "Red Dog! Red Dog!" This is our universal password, which indicates to an American soldier that your are a "friendly." I got across without incident and the APCs did as well. The firing had completely stopped, as the enemy was not well supplied with ammunition and could ill afford to waste it. Now the infantry was walking back very slowly in a kind of ragged formation. It reminded me of the reenactments of the retreat after Pickett's Charge. I still remember House with his head hanging down and his rifle lying loosely over his shoulder like a tired farmhand carry his hoe home after a hard day's work. We leisurely strolled back to our original staging point.
|Curelli||Larry Winslow||House Behind an APC|
When we had gotten back to our original kicking off point, we learned that we had taken a KIA. It was Larry Winslow, who was something of a comedian and the most popular guy in the platoon. The other machine gunner, Curelli, who would go on to be wounded three times before he was even halfway through his tour, told us what had happened. When they had been going through the scrub brush area to our left, they had come upon a typical oval bunker. Winslow had been somewhat forward and must have thought the bunker was empty. Its occupant waited until he got right up to him before he opened fire. Winslow collapsed face down. They could see him take one long breath, struggling to live, but then he expired, laying there motionless. However, Doc Ferguson gives a fuller account (6/2/2014). At considerable risk to himself, he made it to where Winslow lay, and took cover in a furrow, probably one of the many that sculpted the scattered potato fields. Winslow was in the furrow in front of him. Fergie had to keep down, as the fire was very intense, and the soldier in the bunker in front of him was still a factor. He reached over to treat Winslow's wounds and saw that bubbles of blood were coming out a hole in his chest and in his back (he had apparently been shot clean through). He tried to reach over the rise between furrows to treat the double sucking lung wound. However, in time, the bubbles stopped coming out the holes, and he could detect no pulse. While this was going on, Curelli opened up on the entrance of the bunker, while another guy approached it obliquely, tossing in a grenade. Once having knocked out the bunker, the squad moved on. Doc had to go with them, but before leaving, he placed a poncho over the body. When our first assault had been repulsed, the APCs swung around and headed back to our starting point. In the process, one APC, either not seeing Winslow or thinking him to be just a poncho left on the ground, ran over the body. To this day, Doc reproaches himself for not having gotten the body off the field in time, but in fact nothing more could have been done under the circumstances. We also learned that Top, who was a very decent guy, had been injured seriously in a highly unusual way. As the APCs advanced, they swept .50 caliber machine gun fire across their front. One coconut tree had been perforated with a line of these bullets. The fibrous tree is generally immune to bullets, but the .50 is a large slug that travels at supersonic speeds, and it cut clean through the tree. As Top was standing near this tree, it suddenly collapsed, striking him in the back. Somehow they extracted him, but his back was broken. Many people had been injured, but we felt lucky that we had taken only one KIA considering the intensity of the fighting.
|© 1968 Don Ferguson|
|Doc Don Ferguson|
The APCs repositioned themselves as they were originally, but now they were seriously short of personnel. They had only a few gunners, but at least one or two to an APC. Now the battalion commander "Wild Bill Elliott" Jenkins was on the scene carrying his M-1. He was talking to the CO and a number of other officers. We were now beginning to form up for another assault, but first we were going to bomb the hell out of the place. "Wild Bill" had apparently figured out what we stupefied ground pounders had not: the enemy's fire was so effective because they were shooting from the palm trees. By now I had figured it out for myself. The Air Force came in with bombs laid in close, and a respectable artillery barrage followed. I can hardly remember it, as at the time we were beginning to realize that our much vaunted artillery and air just might be completely irrelevant. To knock out an enemy who is entrenched properly with zig zag trenches and partitions inserted here and there, you would have to have the ordnance land pretty much in his lap, and that was a very remote possibility.
|Lt. Jerome Church
with an AK-47
Once again we arranged ourselves behind a track, but this time many of the guns were unmanned. The losses to the mechanized unit were substantial. We came again to the shallow trench. This time the remaining gunners fired into the tree tops as we went along. Not far beyond the trench was the body of a dead enemy soldier. He looked quite young, a teenager. A round, probably a .50 caliber, had punched through his right cheek, cutting a swath so wide that some of his remaining teeth could be seen. The exit wound was the size of a silver dollar, just slightly to the right from the top of his head. "Well, he won't kill anybody," I thought to myself. We moved on at a medium pace, and still no enemy fire. Our gunners were spraying everything in front of us with lead almost like firemen spraying down a wall of flames. We approached the potato field, and once again the whole world erupted in a roar of gunfire. The APCs stopped in their tracks. This time we knew to stay close behind them, and I had the good sense to shoot at the tree tops, at least those that still remained after the air strikes. As I looked to my right for the first time, I could see much to my chagrin that the next APC in line was a staggering 25 to 30 yards away! That segment formed a line of about 4 or 5 APCs that had become slightly en echelon by accident. As I was surveying the unfortunate situation, I was shocked to see a brief flash and a big pall of black smoke usher from the top and left side of that distant APC. Men were jumping off it any way they could. I could see down there Lt. Church and a small number of men from our platoon. From my reading of the Civil War, I knew that our "center was in the air," as they used to say. If the enemy had been thinking in terms of offense, they could have counterattacked right through this huge gap in our line. By now the APC had been all but depopulated. It was up to us alone to advance. We moved as best we could forward. As we got into the potato field, the fire intensified. Nunn had taken off his web gear at one point, probably to shift his ammo around. It now lay about three feet away from him, and about two feet away from me, but it was on a little rise of earth. Bullets were flying everywhere. We were totally pinned down. Nunn said, "Deacon, get my web gear for me, would you?" "Hell no," I replied, "Get it your own damn self!" Nobody wanted to stick their head up even for a moment. After awhile, the barrage of small arms fire slackened off. Gunsaulas moved up, and Nunn got his gear back. I could see House over where the Second Platoon was to our left. There the fire had not been as intense. He moved forward standing up, with his sunglasses on, and as he approached a depression in the ground where the enemy had taken cover, he did a soft-shoe step and fired his rifle on automatic. I had never seen anything like that. We kept inching forward. I had the good sense for a change, to shoot at the tree tops. I fired at one tree, then another. When I looked back at the first tree, I saw a long piece of cloth about two feet wide, floating in the air with one end attached to the tree. It was the very same shade of blue as our infantry colors. Apparently it had been wrapped around a sniper in the tree, and when he fell out, it unraveled. The Guamanian guy, from the Second Platoon, who was a Korean War veteran, jumped up and rushed another depression to his front, firing down into it, then jumping in. I thought, "Now that's the way to do this!" To my front was a little ridge of earth where the dirt had been thrown up by a shell. Behind it, of course, would be a depression which I could not see. So I got up and made a mad dash for it, and as I came over the rim, I squeezed the trigger while on automatic, so that I could rush in behind a wall of lead. Only the fact was that my selector switch was indeed turned all the way, but the wrong way, so that it was in the "off" position. So when I pulled the trigger, nothing happen. I made some guttural sound like one of the Three Stooges when he gets unexpectedly hit. I wheeled around and threw myself on the ground. However, I had caught a glimpse of the depression, and it seemed empty. So I got up with my selector switch corrected, and rushed in. Gunsaulas and the other guys had also been moving up. Enemy fire started to pick up again, when they realized that we had not retreated. Bravo Company down the way had stopped completely, and had actually dug in. They were awaiting mechanized reinforcements. Gunsaulas told me to see if I could get the other half of our platoon, way down where Bravo Company was, to join us. They looked to me like they were a mile away, although it was only about 30 yards or so. I started in their direction, moving from tree to tree as bullets whizzed about. I could now make out Lt. Church and Thomas with the machine gun. There was a big gap without trees, so I didn't see how I could get there without getting shot. So I waved them in our direction. I could see them respond, so I worked my way back. When I got back, I told them that they were coming. Not long afterwards, Thomas and his assistant gunner, having crossed over the great open space with no real cover, something I myself was reluctant to do, rushed right up just feet from the enemy entrenchments, then opened up a sweeping fire with his machine gun. I knew this was the right moment, so I said, "Let's go!" All four of us — Gunsaulas, Bullet, Nunn, and I — jumped up and rushed forward. I angled off to the left slightly, the other three a little more towards the machine gun. When they crested the top of the entrenchment, they met the enemy eyeball to eyeball. They had their rifles on automatic, and opened up at point blank range, killing the four men concealed in the trench. I jumped in slightly to their left. Where I was standing, the trench bent to my left so that you could not see around the corner. I expected the enemy would be there too, so with my M-16 on automatic I quickly swung around the corner to blast anyone there. Much to my surprise, the whole trench was filled with the Second and Third Platoons, who were completely oblivious to the presence of the four NVA soldiers who were just around the corner from them. Lt. Church had come up and joined us in the trench, as well as a couple of other guys. The dead men had diamond shaped red patches pinned to them with black lettering inscribed on the patches. I later translated this as, "We are resolved to die for the reunification of the Fatherland." That made me think that these men were a suicide squad who had no intention of either surrendering or retreating. They belonged to the 22nd NVA Regiment.
|Wayne Westenberger (right) with Squad Leader Larry Douglas||The red badge worn by the entrenched NVA troops. It reads, Quyết tử đễ tỗ quốc quyết sinh, "With this oath we resolve to be a sacrifice for the country."|
We had now taken our objective, and no enemy was in sight to our front as we stood in his trench. Where we were standing, the trench had a divide that segmented it. Just like Second Platoon, it never seems to have occurred to us to check out what was to our immediate right. Before we could contemplate any other move, suddenly new armor came up to where Bravo Company had stalled out. They moved forward at a deliberate pace, guns blazing. They had a flame thrower mounted on one track, and it shot forth its sheet of flame as it advanced. Still, there was a big gap between us and the steadily advancing right wing. Westenberger and another guy thought they heard talking. They climbed back over the trench and edged up pass the divide. They motioned with pointing fingers to the other side of the divide. One crawled back and whispered, "Gooks!" Wayne Westenberger pulled a grenade, let the spoon pop, then flipped it a couple of feet into the neighboring segment of trench. That did the trick, as the soldiers there had taken shelter under the overhead cover whose left wall formed the divide. The grenade killed both of them. The rest of the trench seemed to be unoccupied, as most men had shifted over to the Bravo side to add their firepower to repelling the attack, not knowing that we had overrun their right flank. Finally, the irresistible armor and infantry combination rolled like a tide over that part of the entrenchments, and Bravo Company had finally caught up to us.
Later in the day, as we came to learn, they had called Charlie Company in as reinforcements. They were landed a little ways off, but not long after they had touched down, Guns à Go-Go came by, and not having been informed of this shift in forces, they mistook them for the enemy and opened fire. One man was killed and 14 injured. They were lucky that it wasn't even worse.
Before nightfall, we pulled back about 15 yards and dug individual foxholes for the night, as the trench didn't seem suitable. We put an OP forward to keep an eye on the trench so that the enemy did not reoccupy it. Flares were fired continuously all night long. Just the same, we had reasonably good sleep, and didn't think that there would be much of the enemy left to engage the next day.
DECEMBER 8, 1967 — The next day we remained where we had set up the night before, about 15 yards behind the enemy entrenchments. The APCs were in a line about 5 yards behind us. We were told that there was going to be a massive barrage, a TOT which they were going to "walk" from left to right, bringing it in from a distance right up to where the entrenchments were. There were a lot of shell holes about which could be used as foxholes. The same Brother who had manned the APC machine gun and I found a wide, shallow depressed spot of ground and laid face down inside. The dirt had been piled up fairly high in front, but the base of the depression was flat, so our legs stuck out on level ground. We considered that this was good enough. I had placed my M-16 in front of me on the ridge of dirt that protected our heads. It was mounted on a bipod and turned sideways. Then the massive bombardment began. It was everything that it was advertised to be. At some point in the fireworks, I noticed a "clinking" sound as bits of shrapnel hit my bipod. "Jesus," I said to myself, "they're bringing this stuff in really close." I hunkered down as best I could. I could hear the odd humming sound of shrapnel flying overhead, and it began to occur to me that someone might have miscalculated. Our shallow hole allowed me to look to my left, and to my horror, I saw the barrage coming right towards us in a straight line! I watched as one shell after another moved in our direction — boom, Boom, BOOM! With a shock of emotion, I realized that the next shell was going to kill us. I slammed my hand down on the back of my companion and yelled, "HEY!!" That was my incoherent way of letting him know that we were dead. I yelled so loud that it could be heard over the bombardment. But as the reader may surmise, the last round that I saw was the very last round of the whole bombardment. There were, as I later learned, 4,000 rounds fired in the TOT, and the round that had our number on it, round 4,001, was never fired. When I realized that I had not been torn to pieces and scattered over the landscape, I stood up grinning from ear to ear with the emotional relief of someone whose death penalty had been reprieved by the governor. Someone ran forward from his APC and said, "Are you alright?" I told him that I was. At that point, I paced out the distance form our "hole" to the last crater. Eight paces. Then I paced out the distance from the last shell crater to the one just before it. Eight paces. No doubt about it — this was the luckiest day of my life. It wasn't the luckiest for everybody. The instrument that controlled the whole bombardment had apparently dropped a mill, causing the shells to land right on our perimeter. One guy had a shell land on the edge of his hole, blowing out his intestines.
Then we moved up to the entrenchments, where we waited for word to advance. When it was given, we went "over the top," as they used to say. The APCs were spaced between us on the same line, so we did not trail behind them. We were confident that there would not be much for us to mop up. As we slowly went along, a C-47 passed low overhead. It rolled a giant 50 gallon drum out its open cargo bay. "What the hell is that?" I asked. We soon found out, as a giant cloud of CS gas engulfed us. Half the guys had gas masks that didn't work, probably because they had crossed a stream and gotten the filters wet. I had always put my mask on top of my helmet when crossing a deep stream to make sure that it was in good working order. Half the company took off running in the direction they had come to try to avoid being gassed, but in the end, the cloud still caught up with them. I put on my mask and kept it on, since my eyes had always been sensitive to the stuff. The rest of the company came back coughing with watering eyes, but soon enough the air cleared. People kept telling me, "It's all clear," but I still kept my mask on despite the stifling heat and humidity, since I would rather see than be comfortable.
We plodded onward. Our platoon was on higher ground than our right flank, and we came up to the edge of this raised ground. There were a few trees and shrubs marking its rim. Dead ahead was another oval bunker. One of our 79'ers took a shot at it, but missed its small entrance. As this shell exploded, I felt a small sharp pain on top of my left foot. I thought that a sniper had grazed my boot, but when I sat down behind a tree and looked at my boot, I could see a small, pin head sized hole in it, with just a little blood around it. I realized that a small bit of the M-79 grenade casing had penetrated the leather and sunk a ways into my foot. Sometime in 1973, this little piece of manganese came out like a stone rising in a field. Lt. Church came up, and suggested to me that I might like to knock out this bunker. This would mean a frontal attack, which might have a very bad health outcome for me. He was hoping to gain the credit for our platoon, and it was flattering that he asked me; but fortunately, the right wing of our line had swung around over the low ground, and someone dispatched the bunker from an angle.
We continued our sweep of the area, which was not in the village proper, but in the surrounding area. As we were strolling along I found myself at the right flank of our formation as we went up a slight incline. Below and to our right was another oval bunker of the same hardened mud construction, but next to it was an odd box-like structure of wood and mud. "Well," I thought, "here's a chance to knock out a bunker just the way Lt. Church wanted." I pointed at the bunker, since no one seemed to notice it. There was about 15 yards of medium height dark green grass between me and these structures. I decided that if someone were foolish enough to pop his head out, I wanted to be prepared to act quickly. I needed to have my rifle at the ready and didn't want to tuck it to the side while I fumbled around with the grenade pin, so I decided to do up the grenade so that I could throw it John Wayne style. They told us in training that it is impossible to handle a grenade the way John Wayne did in the movies. His style was to pull the pin with his teeth. Obviously you can't do this, since the pin is bent back the way it is on fire extinguishers so that it does not accidentally slip out, the kind of thing, by the way, which sometimes happened to fools who straightened their pins out while carrying them on their web gear. Also, pulling the pin out with one's teeth, even with the pin straightened out, could be an awkward struggle, as the pin did not always slip out with ease. So I took out a grenade, straightened the pin, then I eased the pin so that the end of it was flush with the opposite side of the grenade spoon. Having gotten the pin aligned the way I wanted it, I released the slight pressure that I had put on the spoon so that it tightened against the pin. I kept my two fingers, baseball style, wrapped around the spoon and grenade, while I held my M-16 rather like a pistol in the other arm. I then went down the slope and rushed across the field as fast as I could move. When I got right up to the entrance of the bunker, I pulled the pin with my teeth, let the spoon pop off, then chucked it underhanded right through the opening. Just as I dodged right, the grenade exploded inside. I looked into the other structure, but there was nothing there. This piece of theatrics apparently created quite an impression.
DECEMBER 9, 1967 — Our firefight at Đai Đong had been part of a massive operation in which several battalions had made contact with the enemy all over the area. We had heard that 1/12th had come down from the mountains to act as a blocking force and soon found themselves in combat with the NVA. I had also heard that someone I had known in Language School had one of his testicles shot off in that engagement. Since actions were in progress here and there, we were still conducting a sweep of our area to make certain that no enemy units were maneuvering through it to attack any of our other forces presently engaged.
Late that afternoon, following an uneventful day, we assembled to fly out of the battle zone. "Wild Bill," the battalion commander, had decided to reward us for our performance by giving us a rest on LZ English. Instead of the swarm of Hueys that filled the sky to take us here, there was just one solitary Chinook. We had taken only two KIAs, but had suffered 55 wounded out of a company strength of no more than 100. After we were airborne, everyone sat there in perfect silence. Against the background noise of the rotors we could hear a distinct "Kuh-thunk!" We had been hit with an enemy round, a good-bye present from Charlie. It did no harm, and no one reacted to it. While we were flying along, I became conscious of an annoying sensation on my calf. I pulled up my trouser leg, and there was a leech almost as big as my thumb. It seemed as if everyone leaned a little bit forward to take a look at it. It must have fed all day on my blood. I did what we always did: I took a plastic jar of "bug juice" out of my helmet band, and squirted it on the mouth part of the leech. It dropped off. While everyone looked intensely, I proceeded to stomp on it with what was clearly an excess of vigor and indignation. Like a popped balloon, it exploded, sending my blood everywhere. Many of the guys had little splatter marks of blood on their faces. Still no one said anything, me included, although I felt that I had definitely made a wrong move. In the end, it was just another case of "life in the 'Nam."
DECEMBER 10, 1967 — "Wild Bill" was due to rotate, and as one of his last acts, he stopped by and shook the hand of each and every one of us in gratitude for what we had done in the recent fight. I know that I appreciated the gesture.
Combat Operations After Action Report – Battle of TAM QUAM
30 December 1967
Appendix A to Enclosure 1
(1) 6 Dec: (Tab A) At 1725 hours the 1st Brigade assumed control of the action and the 1st Bn, 8th Cav was directed to land forces and destroy the enemy forces in the area. By 1800 hours B 1-8 Cav air assaulted into the contact area at BS 897071 and was joined by one ACAV Platoon of A 1-50 Mech that had moved from LZ English. After landing, B 1-8 established their night perimeter with the ACAV Platoon. Continuous illumination was provided by flareships, Moonshine and Spooky and by 2200 hours the small arms and automatic weapons fire had ceased. Continuous artillery support pounded the area of contact throughout the night and blocking fires interdicted enemy routes of egress.
(2) 7 Dec: (Tab B) At 0725 hours, a CS prep by ARA hit the contact area, followed by an artillery TOT. By 0815 hours, all elements of A 1-8 Cav had completed their air assault to a secure LZ vicinity BS 895073 to join in the attack. Another ACAV Platoon and the 2 Duster Sections from LZ Loboy joined the forces in contact at 0853 hours. By 0915 hours, Companies B and C, 2-8 Cav had completed their air assault to BS 935065 and BS 930075, respectively, to inhibit the enemy's escape to the east. meanwhile, an ARVN force consisting of one company of the 1st Bn, 40th Regt, one Regional Force Company and one APC Troop was conducting operations north of the area of contact above the 08 E-W grid line between highway 1 and the South China Sea to inhibit enemy movement to the north. Another ARVN force, consisting of the 4th Bn (-), 40th Regt and one company of the 3d Bn, 40th Regt, was conducting operations to the south below the 06 E-W grid line. At 0915 hours the attack to the east by 1-8 Cav began. Stiff resistance from the well prepared enemy positions halted the advance and the forces were pulled back to allow more artillery, CS, SRA and the Air Strikes to hit the area. D 1-50 Mech was released from 2d Brigade OFCON to 1-8 Cav at 1230 hours. At 1406 hours, A and D Companies 1-8 Cav with flame thrower APC's again attacked the enemy positions and successfully penetrated the initial bunker and trench network. The flamethrowers were especially useful in neutralizing the bunkers and trenches. Two D-7 bulldozers were brought into the contact area to begin destruction of the bunkers and trenches and to construct a causeway across the marshy rice paddy areas for use by the APC's. To the east the two companies of 2-8 Cav had only sporadic contact throughout the day as they pushed to the west. At 1645 hours, the CP of C Company was pinned down by intense automatic weapons fire while crossing a rice paddy vicinity BS 922072. The CP was finally extracted at 1900 hours and joined the rest of the company at their night location. The ARVN force conducting screening operations to the north of the area of contact was engaged in heavy contact throughout the day with enemy forces trying to escape to the north. The ARVN force conducting the screening operation to the south had no contact. At last light all units were established in their night positions.
(3) 8 Dec: (Tab C) At 0745 hours, C 1-8 Cav air assaulted to BS 895072 to relieve B 1-8 Cav in the contact area. At 0815 hours, an artillery TOT hit the enemy positions vicinity BS 899072. The TOT was followed by an air strike and another artillery TOT. A highly effective CS attack was then used driving the enemy from their bunkers and trenches into an artillery TOT and twenty three enemy were killed as verified by aerial scouts. At 0845 hours D 1-50 Mech began a reconnaissance in force to the east edge of the village encountering light resistance. They pushed east and north to vicinity BS 904073 and then returned to the starting point. After an intensive CS and artillery preparation, D 1-50 Mech and A and C 1-8 Cav conducted a coordinated attack east and north, finding many destroyed bunkers and enemy killed by artillery and air strikes. The companies swept back through the same area, policing the battlefield, and returned to their night perimeter at 1530 hours. At 1130 hours the Hq 1-50 Mech and B, 1-50 Mech became OFCON to the 1st Brigade and were sent to LZ English North, a secure area, to prepare for employment. At 1245 hours and two ACAV platoons of A, 1-50 Mech were released from the area of contact and returned to LZ Loboy and LZ English respectively to assume their defensive postures. The two companies of the 2-8 Cav had only light resistance from snipers throughout the day and at 1520 hours, were air assaulted to vicinity BS 876114 in response to an intelligence report indicating the 9th Bn, 22d NVA Regiment was located in that area. The companies established numerous ambushes and sent out Killer Teams but had no contact. The ARVN 40th Regiment continued their screening operations north and south of the Dai Dong battlefield. The northern screening force, composed of two companies of the 4th Bn, one Regional Forces Company and one AIC Troop, had no contact with enemy forces during the day. The southern screening force, composed of one company of the 3d En engaged the 8th Bn, 22d NVA Regiment vicinity BS 905052. This engagement ended at 1500 hours. Two companies of the 4th Bn were airlifted to the contact at 1650 hours to reinforce the company in contact and an ARVN APC Troop moved into the area.
(4) 9 Dec: (Tab C) A & C 1-8 Cav and D 1-50 Mech began the final sweep through Dai Dong at 0845 hours after heavy artillery and CS strikes. There was little enemy resistance during the sweep and the southern edge of the village was reached at 1530 hours. The force returned to the northwestern edge of the village and established that location at 1630 hours and returned to LZ English.
THE DAILY COURIER, CONNELLSVILLE, PA. TUESDAY, DECEMBER 11, 1967
Vietnam Rifleman Describes Hot Action
By William Reilly
Bồng Sơn, Vietnam (UPI) - ... Today 259 Communists had been killed and so had 16 GIs as U.S Army 1st Air Cavalry Division troops ringed and smashed a North Vietnamese regiment 300 miles north of Saigon. "There were all kinds of heroes here,'' said Capt. Thomas McAndrews, 28, of Kaukauna, Wis., who watched the battle from his helicopter, bullets whipping by. ... The 1st Air Cavalry found about 40 such bunkers in the deserted village on Bồng Sơn plain near the South China Sea coast. They whirled in by helicopter when a chopper pilot spotted a telltale antenna sticking out of a supposedly deserted hut. Maj. Gen. John J. Tolson, the division commander, surveyed the battle scene. He saw clouds of smoke where his artillery [landed,] and the Communist people stumbling up out of their bunkers," that was the view from Daniel's chopper, more shooting. ... To McAndrews the scene of fighting "trenchline to trenchline, bunker to bunker, and hedgerow to hedgerow" looked "like World War II."
Thomas McAndrews (b. 1940 in Kaukauna, Wisconsin) was the commanding officer of our unit, A Company, 1/8 Cavalry, First Air Cavalry Division.
Thomas D. "Bullet" Bouchard
Bullet in 1990
AWARDS AND CITATIONS
Distinguished Service Cross
Awarded for actions during the Vietnam War
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918 (amended by Act of July 25, 1963), takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Private First Class Thomas D. Bouchard (ASN: RA-11482630), United States Army, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations involving conflict with an armed hostile force in the Republic of Vietnam, while serving with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division. Private First Class Bouchard distinguished himself by exceptionally valorous actions on 7 December 1967 while serving as a rifleman during combat operations near the village of Dai Dong. Upon hearing that his former company was involved in a fierce firefight with a battalion of North Vietnamese, Private Bouchard left the security of the headquarters area where he was assigned as a cook, boarded a helicopter and flew to the battle site. He joined the unit as it began an assault on heavily fortified enemy positions. In the first minutes of the attack, one of the company's armored personnel carriers was hit and the entire crew was wounded. Private Bouchard fearlessly raced twenty meters through an intense hail of bullets to the stricken vehicle. Still exposed to withering enemy fire, he placed all casualties in the area aboard the armored personnel carrier, mounted the vehicle, and took the controls. He then drove the vehicle to safety, plowing through the North Vietnamese machine gun bunker and killing its occupants as he went. A second assault was unleashed, and Private Bouchard braved savage hostile fire to personally charge several fortified enemy bunkers and destroy them with rifle fire and hand grenades. While assaulting one of the emplacements, he came face to face with three North Vietnamese and killed them at point blank range with bursts from his weapon. His dauntless courage in close combat accounted for twenty enemy dead and inspired his fellow soldiers to achieve an overwhelming victory. Private First Class Bouchard's extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.
General Orders: Headquarters, U.S. Army, Vietnam, General Orders No. 954 (March 1, 1968)
Action Date: 7-Dec-67
Rank: Private First Class
Unit: First Platoon, A Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division
The Entry on "Bullet" Bouchard in the Congressional Record of the 101st Congress (1989-1990)
A Poem by Maj. David O. Valandry
Đại Đồng — maps showing Đại Đồng: Bồng Sơn, the An Lão Valley, and Tam Quan; Đại Đồng in Relation to Tam Quan.
For the Daily Staff Journals on this firefight, see The Odyssey of “A” Company, First of the Eighth Cavalry, Across Vietnam, May 1,1967 – May 31, 1968, Chronology, 7-9 Dec. 1967.
"Lt. Boettcher" — the earlier accounts of this incident were largely informed by rumor, and had the name of the Lieutenant as "Sullivan". On 28 June 2021, I received a phone call from Mike Price of Bravo Co. Dai Dong was his first day in the field (!), and he, needless to say, had a vivid recollection of that event. The name of the officer was Second Lieutenant Walter R. Boettcher, Jr. He was a tall blond, and matched the description of the officer that had been pointed out to me, although I had the wrong name attached to him. The original account had the NVA soldier pounding him with his fists, but the actual event proved to be more dramatic still: the enemy soldier had actually grabbed the Lieutenant by the throat and tried to choke the life out of him, paying no attention to the fact that he had been shot through the forehead and was already dead.