The Lost Platoon: the Tragedy of March 25th
by Richard Dieterle
MARCH 25, 1968 — My letters contain only a passing reference to this firefight, unsurprising, since this engagement was a disaster for my platoon and not anything that would put the minds of my people at home at ease. We were taking a break from the field on LZ Sharon just outside the city of Quảng Trị in the province of that name. Usually we had a lot of details to perform: filling sandbags, burning shit (as it was called), stringing barb wire, etc.; but here we seemed to be relatively unemployed just taking it easy after a long time in the field. However, one of our platoons would be pulled off for a search-and-destroy mission that lasted part of the day, then would return and enjoy some further time off. The monsoon season was coming to an end, with little or no rainfall, but the skies were heavily clouded all day long on the 25th of March, 1968. Each platoon had a large canvass tent under which to set up and to sleep at night. For minimum protection, the tent was surrounded with a row of sandbags about 3 or 4 high. However, this was the rear, and danger was at a minimum.
Once this LZ was attacked by a force of NVA regulars who were easily beaten back. This was their first attempt on the LZ, since the Cav was new to the I Corps, and they may have thought they stood some chance of penetrating our perimeter. They were mistaken. The 75 bodies were laid out several yards apart along the adjacent highway, where the grisly object lesson could be seen for miles. Therefore, we had not the slightest worry, and spent our leisure time smoking "grass" and conversing about the World.
That March 25th day was overcast and not at all hot by Vietnam standards.1 On that day it was the chore of the Second Platoon to go on a search and destroy mission to a very large village [Thôn Xuân Dương] not too far distant.2 They took the sergeant FO (2/7 Mike) with them, leaving early in the morning. The day was cloudy, and we were relaxed, not expecting that such a mission might turn up anything, since they rarely did. I went out to a pleasant vista at an obscure place on the perimeter with one of my friends and we shared a "joint" and conversation. I repeated this process several times over, until I came back with "Truck" Schmidt, one of my friends who happened to hail from Minnesota. We were lounging around with some of the guys back in the tent, when I had the bold indiscretion to light up another joint. Our Lieutenant and the Lieutenant FO came by and saw me so engaged. They were both very young and very "straight" and the FO in particular was outraged, though I don't recollect either of them saying anything directly to me. I could hear the FO saying how he would see to it that I was reported, and my Lieutenant seconding his indignation in like terms. Since virtually everyone in the First Platoon smoked grass, I wondered if these naïfs knew just how big an auto de fé would be required to solve their "problem." This was at least a minor worry, as a witch-hunt seemed to be looming on the horizon.
While ruminating over the latest political development arising from the sin of sloth that overtook us in the rear, our tranquility was interrupted. Gray walked into the tent with an indescribably grave expression on his face, as if he were about to tell someone that their entire family had been killed in an accident. This seemed to command everyone's attention. After walking in and pausing for about a second, he announced, "Second Platoon just hit the shit!" It was quite a shock, and there was a moment of stunned silence. ("Ask not for whom the bell tolls ...") One by one we began to quiz him about what he knew. It transpired that one of the gunners in the Second Platoon had been shot, and that the platoon was in some difficulty. Gray had apparently picked this up over the radio, as we had as yet gotten no official word. We began getting our gear ready, hoping the while that the enemy might break contact and flee, leaving us nothing grave to do. The Medevac pad was not far away from our tent, and a helicopter was just coming in. Someone mentioned that the gunner from Second Platoon was on it. We stepped outside in time to see him carried off on a stretcher. They had removed his shirt and his arm hung off the edge of the stretcher, barely held onto the rest of his body by a small wad of flesh. The bullet had struck him almost exactly in the upper end of the humerus joint nearly removing the arm altogether. It hung twisted at an impossible angle for a normal arm, and the red color of the exposed flesh could been seen where the bullet had crudely severed it from its socket. He tossed his head to and fro as those in shock are always wont to do. The noise of the helicopter masked the moans that escaped his lips, so that he passed by us about 10 yards distant in a paradoxical silence. This is the price we paid to have glory in our old age. At the moment, glory was remote from our consciousness, for the gunner who passed in review posed the silent question: "Who's next?" For those of us who had already endured a firefight, we knew the answer was, "Someone you know well, perhaps yourself." A firefight took about one man in 11 to the grave and put almost exactly half the remainder in the hospital, some with wounds that would leave them permanently disabled. This was the first casualty, and we knew many others were to follow. We reëntered the tent, and not long afterwards someone in authority came by and ordered us to "saddle up."
We were told that Second Platoon had been moving through the village checking it out, when they suddenly came under fire, and in the fray one of the machine gunners had been shot in the arm. They had hit a force many times their size and one that was heavily armed. It was believed that it was a weapons battalion, so they were equipped with mortars and rockets. Second Platoon was now holed up in a single concrete house and was fending off the enemy by skillful use of artillery. They had tried to break out, but could not for the intensity of the fire. As we later learned, the Lieutenant of the Second Platoon had become somewhat ineffective, and the platoon for all practical purposes was being led by a sergeant. The sergeant FO was calling in artillery every time he heard the sound of the enemy assembling their mortars. He was so skilled that he could adjust fire in midair just by hearing the sound of the incoming rounds. The Infantry sergeant had ordered an attempt to break out across a large open area consisting of several adjacent rice paddies, now fallow and covered with that peculiar short grass that made them seem almost like putting greens. He led by example, yelling at his men to move forward. The fire intensified to incredible proportions. The sergeant got up to move and a bullet knocked the flash-suppresser off the muzzle of his M-16. He then attempted to get up again in the classic fashion, by first assuming a front-lean-and-rest position, then thrusting up his feet under him to dash off. But he got no further than the pushup position when a tracer round went underneath him, and as he lowered himself down again, another round went over his back. Then a round nearly shattered the stock of his M-16. They clearly could not make it to the tree line about 60 yards distant where the enemy lay concealed, and so beat a retreat back to the house, whose solid construction at least afforded them protection from small arms fire.
We were told that Second Platoon was in a difficult position, though they were holding their own. They were now completely cut off and were something of a Lost Platoon. The problem was how to get them out without blasting them with our own ordnance. The trick would be to penetrate the enemy lines to link up with Second Platoon but without directing fire in their direction. Since they were surrounded, this seemed pretty much impossible. Yet we were given the order that we were not to fire in their direction. With this in mind, we went off to the helicopter pad not far away. We stood in our segregated groups, each bunched together for its own individual "slick." The Hueys were coming from another LZ, and would land in their usual V formation, although the pad seemed unusually small. While waiting there under the gray sky, I could not help but reflect that this would be the last time I would see some of my friends, indeed, perhaps the last time I would see the gray sky itself. This was our last moment together, and afterwards things would never be the same again. In our strangely compressed lives, where 9 months in country made you an old man, it seemed like the end of an era. While we were standing there contemplating Fate, I noticed that Thomas had turned a strange yellow color and was shivering. Gunsaulas went over to him and they talked, then Gunsaulas came over to me and asked me if I would like to carry the gun for Thomas. This was, of course, a highly undesirable position to occupy during a firefight, and we had just seen why not long before when the wounded gunner from the other platoon had been brought back in a state of semi-dismemberment. Yet it was an honor, and no one else would be any more anxious than I to assume it, so I agreed. I went over to Thomas and patted him on the shoulder and said, "It'll be all right." I thought that he had come down with an inexplicable case of disabling fear — "green fear" as the Iliad calls it — and so had to be removed. Indeed, his lips had turned a sickening shade of violet, and I felt sorry for him, thinking as I did. Yet fate did smile on someone, and could not have picked a better time for a favor: in fact Thomas had come down with malaria at that very moment! The timing was exquisite, and Thomas was the happy "victim" of this disease. Thomas had no sooner moved off when we could hear the strange hum of the approaching Hueys. We could now see them, advancing like Fate itself. They came on in a magnificent and even stately formation, not too much in haste, their hum gradually coming to a crescendo, the unmusical transposition of the executioner's drum roll. We formed up. The soldier calling in the whole flight gripped the stock with one hand and the barrel with the other and raised his weapon over his head with both arms extended. And each of us who shared this small honor, as if in ritual, followed by raising our guns in like fashion above our heads. It was a grand gesture, and a certain feeling accompanied it, as if one had some priestly command over the forces of the Air and could bring their supernatural power to earth. We held our guns above our heads as if summoning some pagan God of War. The hum now became a roar, and the wind gathered around us, and the dust swept up in clouds from the ground: Ares himself could have effected no more striking a descent. As the chopper landed in front of me, the members of my new squad rushed into the belly of the creature, and I at last joined them just as the helicopter began to lift off. We droned off into the gray sky: too much noise to talk.
We shifted positions so that I was in the middle of the chopper: the gunner was to be the last to get off. I kept looking for signs of the battle before us, but never did see it before hand. We suddenly came upon the scene. The choppers lowered, but not quite to the ground: they were anxious to get out of there in no uncertain haste. The chopper emptied out slower than usual, all the while ascending. By the time that I got to the door and looked down, we must have been 30 feet up. The man in charge of Infantry in the chopper had just recently been given the power to order the pilot to lower the craft if he was too high up, so I yelled to the pilot, "Get it down!" The pilot looked back with an expression of sheer panic on his face. I realized immediately that this was a lost cause. I recalled my personal Army slogan: "Don't think about it, do it!" So I simply ran out the door and fell 30 feet to the soggy, fallow rice paddy below. I had not thought about how I was holding the gun, and had it in my right hand by its handle. When I landed I hit with such an impact that my legs slammed into the muck half way up my calf, and my body pitched forward so that the gun rammed itself completely into the mud. I was taken by surprise: the paddy had been covered with the usual putting green grass, yet it had been a façade and gave way under the impact of the human missile from above. Indeed, was it even a rice paddy? I pulled myself and my gun out of the muck, and saw before me the platoon set up behind a series of very small mounds, each a little bigger than a seated man. The blanket of grass had carpeted the mounds as completely as it had the fields. I struggled over to the knolls and got behind one of them with my assistant gunner, Martini. The mud had completely engulfed the gun, which had to be totally disassembled and cleaned, which he and I did with the greatest dispatch. I now realized that I was cleaning the gun atop a grave. Each of the knolls contained a body buried upright, in a seated position. They made excellent cover, the only defect being that they were separated from each other by about 6 feet or so. One of my ammo bearers was two graves back, and I motioned him forwards. He had a frightened look on his face, so I effected great calm like some English aristocratic officer, and told him to take a running start behind the grave and he would clear the space too quickly to be picked up in anyone's rifle sight. An attempt was made by another squad to form a column on the path in front of us. It ran at a right angle, passing in front of our graveyard positions. The column was assembled to our left and began moving up the trail. They got opposite us, when they all suddenly leapt off the elevated path and hit the ground. Someone had thrown a grenade at them from the hedge row alongside the path and they had narrowly escaped its blast. They then moved back to the graves to our left, since proceeding along the path was impossible without first securing the hedge row.
|John Patrick Giddings||Westenberger and Orwig|
We were still engaged in frantically cleaning the mud off the gun, when some machine-gun fire erupted from our other gun about three graves up. There was some shooting, but I could not see what was going on, or what was being shot at. This went on for some time. By now I had the gun completely cleaned and ready for action. Just then, Waller and someone else dragged a man behind us and down several graves back. I couldn't see who it was, and asked Waller if he was all right. This received an annoyed look as if it were an impertinence. It happened that Giddings, a rather short and impetuous guy from Detroit, had attempted to advance beyond the graves to the corner of the hedge row that set off the cemetery. This hedge row began somewhat in front and forward of the last grave in the series, the graves forming roughly a line, and it terminated in a right angle to the elevated path from which our column had been driven. Giddings had advanced several yards in front of the graves when an enemy soldier in a bunker right at the juncture of the path and the hedge row opened fire. The round struck him in the arm and knocked him to the ground. He had apparently been stunned, but in a gesture of arrogant fearlessness, he stood fully up with his back to the enemy and began strolling back with his rifle laid over his shoulder as if he were in the rear. Was he stunned? Was he in shock? Or was he just being Giddings? The NVA in the bunker then opened up with an automatic burst: three rounds went up Giddings' spine, and three into the back of his head. He fell forward in a heap. Orwig was a good friend of Giddings, and was pained at his death. So he attempted to crawl forward and grab Giddings and pull his body back, but the NVA fired a single shot that hit him in the heart, bent over though he was. Thus Orwig was killed instantly by this sharp-shooter. Orwig's body was within easy reach, and Waller retrieved it. It was him that they had dragged past behind my position. Something had to be done to root out this NVA in his strategically placed bunker. We simply could not get by him, so it was determined that a scout chopper would try him from the air. The small chopper, which consisted of nothing more than a plexiglas dome attached to struts and motors, came up from the left about 15 feet off the ground. It contained only a pilot and a gunner. The gunner was armed with an M-60 machine gun, just like my own, which he held on his lap. He now seemed to step part way out of his chopper and fired the machine gun down on the NVA soldier. This went on for a while, but the NVA suddenly shot back with good effect: I rather suspect that he grazed the gunner and he certainly punctured the dome of the chopper, so that they left post haste to our right. I was now falling into a psychological state in which I could seem to perceive an emotional tenor on the field of battle as if it were a tangible quality. I could sense an ether of courage that penetrated the atmosphere of the field, especially on the enemy side, expressed in the determination of this sharp-shooter, rooted in place, immovable. It was now clear that our position, from an offensive point of view, was completely untenable. As I later discovered for myself, the best way to have dealt with this situation was to have used a LAW anti-tank rocket on his bunker. It was the only thing that could penetrate its log-and-mud hardened shell. However, we had no such weapon with us, and were oddly check-mated by just one guy in a strategic position.
We had with us a rather charming Chiêu Hồi with whom we had spent time on the LZ. He couldn't speak any English, but it was thought that he might come in handy if we pinned someone in a bunker and wanted to induce his surrender. We thought that he could say the right things and might save us all mutual bloodshed. He and I were once alone back on the LZ and had a mutually unintelligible conversation, which he concluded with the statement, "You boucou den kai dau," which he delivered adagio, intoning his language with exaggerated emphasis, since he was, after all, talking to an idiot. I had reached such a state of degeneracy that my being declared "dinky-dau" sounded rather like a compliment. At any rate, I liked the guy. It certainly seemed like a good idea to have him along. Speaking of which ... where the hell was he? I distinctly remembered seeing him about two or three graves down to my left. Now he had vanished! He had quietly and boldly slipped away across the vast open fields behind us while we were all deeply absorbed in the action going on to our front. Very brave of him — had anyone noticed, he would have been chopped to pieces by a hail of lead. So apparently he had been a spy all along, for what good it did our opponents. All the knowledge in the world would not enable them to take our Festung.
Meanwhile, D Company was at a right angle to us in a strip of woods that separated large fields. Word had come through the lines that they had also taken KIA's. We were now pulled out of position. We could not get Giddings' body, and we were certainly not going to have another man die trying to retrieve it, so we left it behind. We would get him when we had cleared the battlefield. We set up in front of the strip of woods whence we had a clear view of the cemetery. The Brass got the idea that they could perhaps flush the enemy out, then chop them down with machine gun fire. So a vast cloud of CS gas was discharged, and soon everything was enveloped in an opaque white cloud. Lieutenant Skinner told me to open up with the gun, so I fired what seemed like thousands of rounds into the cloud wrapped landscape. I image the enemy was made very uncomfortable, as they generally did not have gas masks; but I doubt much else was done them.
We now leapfrogged D Company, and took up a position on their left flank in the strip of woods. First Platoon was on the extreme left. There the strip of jungle ended, and another great expanse of flat land stretched out for several hundred yards, clothed in the ubiquitous putting green grass. We felt secure in this position, since no one could attack our left flank. It was now clear that the enemy had created well thought out positions which they held with fanatical zeal. It had been made known that they were very well armed with mortars and rockets. Our artillery, which normally represented a decisive advantage, was doing no good at all, and on top of that, on our end we were clearly engaged in some kind of SNAFU. It was not that our morale was bad, it was just that we had no confidence in the Plan. The death inflicted on us put us in a state of tension. Waller tried to light up, but his hand had a tremor in it that made it hard for him to connect with the end of his cigarette. He was perfectly calm, but after rescuing Orwig's body, his brain had comprehended the true extremity debarred from his conscious mind. Being an introvert, I habituated and felt reasonably calm and didn't experience any of the strange psychological states that I endured in the last firefight.
Without too much of a delay, the orders came down for our next maneuver. We were told to form a vast line, only one man deep, to extend for hundreds of yards in front of the strip of woods. So we formed up. We knew that somewhere not too far ahead of us was the trapped Second Platoon. We were cautioned not to fire in their direction to avoid fratricide. Directly to our front was a set of three open fields with hedge rows separating each from the other.3 Beyond that, it was unclear. I kept thinking to myself, What are we going to do if we make contact? Apparently, we weren't going to fire our weapons. So ... what then? Were we suppose to yell "Boo!"? So here we were ready to walk right into the enemy with no plan of action at all. Incredible! Those arrogant putzes from the self-proclaimed "Greatest Generation" were walking us right up to the enemy with orders not to fire. We started out with a nice slow march pace, what is paradoxically called "quick time" (as opposed to "double time"). We were a vast thin line of green, a slow wave that washed across the landscape. I looked to my right. It was an amazing sight: a string of men that stretched hundreds of yards surging forward in a perfect line. I turned to the guy on my left and said, "Welcome to the Eighteenth century." Only it wasn't the Eighteenth century. The enemy was armed with AK-47's, grenades, mortars, and B-40 rockets. Not a musket in sight. When did we abandon our tactics and go back to the Rococo? We should have sent one person scurrying to the hedgerow, checked it out, then had the rest of the unit advance to his position, and kept on doing this until the unfortunate point man was shot. A true human sacrifice for the salvation of the rest of us. Now we were all pulling point simultaneously, and we all stood to be that human sacrifice to Ares en masse, not one for the lives of many, but many for nothing whatever. I could hear the mythical Patton growl, "Let no man come back alive!"
So we crossed the first hedge row and nothing happened. Then the second. We forced our way through the brush on the little rise that made the boundary between fallow rice fields. We were now out into our third open field, and on the other side was a stretch of wood like the one from which we jumped off. This was different. It didn't feel right. We got exactly to the middle of the field, where forward and backward were equidistant. Suddenly the enemy opened up. They shot high since they were back a ways in the timber and could not see clearly. Everyone flattened to the ground, but not a shot was fired in return. I was almost dead center in the field, Third Platoon just on my right. I was the Gun, the best and favorite target of any sensible soldier. I recalled the quasi-severed arm of my counterpart from earlier in the day, but I had nowhere to go. The guys on my left slithered into a ditch that went the length of this whole field, right up to the woods. I started to edge in that direction on my belly, dragging the gun awkwardly. I began to realize that this was no place to be either. If just one of the enemy had been enterprising enough, he could have rushed over to the woods at the end of this trench and opened up on automatic, killing everyone who took refuge there. But the enemy did not seem to see clearly, and not a single round had found a victim. Suddenly, the lieutenant of Third Platoon ordered a maneuver practiced in training back in the World. One fire team opened up with everything they had, while the other fire team retreated to the cover of the last hedge row. Then they did the same, as the first retreated to a position along side them. We of the First Platoon took advantage of the opportunity to rush back to that same hedge row. So in the end, the "fire discipline" necessarily broke down anyway. It hadn't occurred to anyone that they might have advanced this way, or that we might have gone down the trench and into the flank of the woods. We had no preconceived plan at all, and our orders put us in a frame of mind that was far from aggressive. The Brass apparently hoped that the enemy, given the vast force arrayed against them, would simply flee. Sure, they could be broken, but only after heavy losses, and when your orders are not to shoot, the enemy is unlikely to be much afflicted.
We now lay behind the dyke on which grew a hedge row, wondering what we should do now. We returned to the nonsensical fire discipline, and no further shots were fired on our part. The enemy must have wondered, What are these people doing? I set up the Gun in the most dangerous spot right in the middle of the hedge row where there was a small opening. The most powerful weapon needed to have a good field of fire. If the enemy were as stupid as we were, I could mow them down all by myself; but alas, they were smart. They kept up a slow steady fire. A lot of it was directed at me. Several rounds came very close to the Gun and me behind it. When the round hit, there being a sheen of water on the field, it sent up a "rooster tail" about 6 inches tall. Several rounds struck into the hedge, clipping leaves and twigs. I slid over a bit to my right holding the Gun in place so that I would be less likely to be shot in the head. Better to give up my humerus than something more serious. It was starting to get hot, as the enemy was finding his range. The consensus was that we should fall back to the next hedge row, where we would be better secured from small arms fire. So without laying down a base of fire, we all suddenly picked up and ran back across the field to the first hedge row. There we set up again, where my field of fire was not quite as good.
It now seemed that we were safe enough to collect our thoughts and to decide what in the hell we were doing, and perhaps what we were going to do. The small arms fire no longer troubled us. Some conversations were going on over the radio, and we were sitting passively awaiting the next idiot move. Just to my right was a tree with a long skinny trunk and little foliage, about the height of three men. As my eyes scanned up this tree, all of a sudden, "Bam!" A flash of light blinded the eye like some giant flash bulb going off, then just as suddenly, it transformed into a small cloud of pitch black smoke. A B-40 rocked had slammed into the upper reaches of the tree, creating the dreaded and lethal air burst. A ways down, Witt had been struck in the head right through his helmet. He had but little blood on him to evince it, but the shrapnel had instantly killed him. He had not been with us a long time, but we all knew him, and it was a shock to discover him snuffed out like a candle. It was decided that now we had to move to get out of B-40 range. So a group scooped up Witt's body, and we all scurried back to our starting point in the strip of forest. Also hit was the Gangster, a relatively new guy from Chicago. When the firefight started, he took off his helmet and donned his "gangster hat." He had been hit in the leg, but he hardly let on that he was in pain, and displayed a strange cheerfulness. He hobbled off supported by two other men, still wearing his trademark hat. We had gathered around Witt for the only thing that passes for a wake in the Infantry, when someone passed down to us that there was someone still at the hedge row. Some guys ran out to him only to find that "Truck" Schmidt was sitting there motionless. He too had been killed. He was short, and was well known to all of us, and his loss was strongly felt. A small fragment from the rocket had penetrated his spinal cord at the back of his neck, and without a sound, he instantly left this world. He seemed to be just sitting there, so no one realized that he was dead. He and I had just had a long talk back at the LZ, sitting together on a grassy incline near the perimeter, smoking a shared joint. He was the last person with whom I had talked before we got the news of the approaching storm. Now, yet another one of my old friends was gone. He seemed like he had been my friend for a lifetime, since life in the Nam was a long, dragged out affair, and those of us who survived felt strangely old. We were like 80 year olds in youthful bodies, waiting for the next one of us to go until none were left.
The bodies of the slain were put in their own ponchos and carried off to the chopper pad. It was now decided to move A Company back to the strip of woods that overlooked the graveyard where Giddings' body lay. Our whole company, minus the Lost Platoon, now was about the size of a single platoon. It was now dusk. Our Lost Platoon lay far away, unrescued, and quite on their own, surrounded, with unknown prospects for survival. Fortunately, they had a brilliant artillery FO who managed to keep them alive. When the enemy began to set up their mortars, they could not avoid making noise — metal clashed against metal as stands and base plates received the tubes. Whenever he heard the enemy's mobilization, he quickly and accurately called down a storm of howitzer shells, causing the enemy to disassemble their instruments of destruction with an alacrity that far outstripped the speed with which they had set them up. This kept them at bay, and prevented the shelling the small concrete house in which everyone had holed up.
At some point Charlie Company was flown in, and they assumed the position to our left, between A Company and Delta Company. The First of the Eighth, minus Bravo Company, now occupied the whole strip of woods. We began to dig in. There was an open spot right in front of my position. We dug a very wide hole, so the gunner, the assistant gunner Martini, and the ammo bearer Dickson could fit in. I had a good field of fire, but the drawback was that we did not have much concealment, and once the Gun opened up, it would be easy to direct counter-fire on our position, probably with effect. However, I had no plans to fire the Gun unless the enemy massed right in front of us. Visibility to our front was very good. The only concealment open to the enemy were the graves which we ourselves had abandoned. The next thing I knew, they brought down to my position a strange contraption. It was a huge tube about a foot in diameter, and a couple of giant rounds that belong with it. I was told that it was an anti-tank weapon, and if we saw a tank coming towards our position, we would be tasked with knocking it out. What?! They might as well have sent us a magical unicorn zapper. The fantasy world of the Brass was now intruding into possible worlds at a far remove from this, the actual world. In their wild imaginings, the enemy had MIGs and tanks, and we had better be ready for them. I'm surprised that they didn't supply us with depth charges in case we were attacked by submarines. Then the idiots sent orders down to me that just in case a tank should come crashing through the woods on our flank, the whole Gun crew should now pick up and move there and dig in anew. This would mean that the Gun would be pointing into a thick stretch of jungle, where no round could be expected to travel more than a few feet before hitting a tree. The same was true of the much vaunted, but antique looking blunderbuss of an anti-tank rocket launcher. If Fantasy Land should suddenly pop into existence on our flank, which was about 20 feet away, we could run over there with the anti-tank gun, although we couldn't shoot it until the tank was right on top of us. In the real world, the Gun was needed to cover the field in front of us, as human wave attacks were not unheard of. So I loudly yelled, "Bullshit! I'm not going anywhere!" There was no reaction to that, and all that could be heard was the "thump-thump" of entrenching tools cutting their way through dirt and roots, as everybody tried to dig in.
I hopped down into our rather large hole, and pronounced myself satisfied with our set-up. Seemingly out of nowhere, a real shock — Bam-Bam! Bam-Bam! Bam-Bam! Walking right towards us were dual mortar rounds. We all slammed our bodies down into the deepest recesses of our humble hole, which suddenly didn't seem so great after all. Then immediately, Bam! Just above and to my right was a great flash in the dark. A B-40 rocket had slammed high in the tree line right over the positions to my right. It hurled Lt. Skinner through the air, knocking him senseless. From the dark came, "Uhhhh! Uhhh!" A small chorus of agony from more than one point. "Medic!" came a cry in the dark. Then I heard a truly frightening sound, one that can only be made if you press your finger against your throat hard, then try to breath. This sound dominated all the rest. It sounded like someone choking on his own blood. I realized that we had been decimated. There were wounded all over the place, more than our medic, if he was still alive, could handle all at once. So I turned to Charlie Company, and yelled, "Medic!" But the guys nearest us just sat there looking to their front in silence. I was furious and hollered at them, "What the fuck is the matter with you? Get a medic over here, we have wounded all over the place!!" Finally, they called down the line for their medic to come up. I then turned towards the carnage, when suddenly the 20 year old lieutenant walked by. He had turned into a zombie. "Lieutenant?" I intoned, but he walked on by with a thousand-yard stare, walking in a straight line through Charlie Company until he collapsed in the Landing Zone. The sound of strangulation dominated the hell-scape, mingled with the sounds of the moaning of all the other wounded. Soon he was stilled. I walked over to the adjacent foxhole. Bailey, who was really getting short, was standing, more or less, by leaning against the front of his foxhole. His pants were down. I saw the blood around his asshole. "Looks like you got hit in the asshole," I said, as if this would be news to him. "That's not the problem," he said with surprising composure, but with some strain in his voice. "It's my guts." I looked at his abdomen. He looked like a pregnant woman. It was a bit of an unnerving sight. Apparently, while he was bent over digging his foxhole, a fragment penetrated right through his asshole (a one in a million shot), and the shock wave drove his intestines forward with such force that his entire abdominal wall herniated. "We'll get you out of here," I said. I sure as hell didn't want to comment on how shocking his injuries looked, as he was doing a great job of fighting shock. Gunsaulas walked over from where the sounds of strangulation had come. I said, "Who was that?" "That was Leonard. He's dead." "Damn!" He was only 19 years old, and one of the few people known by their first names. He was one of my best friends. Normally, I would have fallen into melancholy, but the shock of this attack had put me in a state of heightened stimulation, rather like someone who has had five cups of coffee. Then word came that someone I didn't know well, Thoman, had also been killed. Alcala came by limping severely, although with complete composure of mind. A fragment had come almost straight down and sliced his right leg like the downward sweep of a sword. He was the weapons squad leader, so I now became the squad leader in his place, although I had to still carry the Gun, since so few people were left. Soul King Holcombe had escaped untouched, and I believe that he now, at least temporarily, carried the other Gun. Our platoon had now lost Giddings, Orwig, Witt, Truck, Leonard, and Thoman. We had started with somewhere around 30 men, and were now reduced to 13. I looked around and realized that it was we ourselves who were the lost platoon.
|Marciso Alcala||"Soul King" Holcombe|
Just behind the stretch of woods was an open field where the CO had set up a Command Post. Choppers were flying in and out, mainly carrying away the dead and wounded. Strauss and the guy who had come in at the same time that he had, when they heard in the rear that the company was being chewed up, jumped on a chopper and flew out. Strauss said, "Don't worry Deacon, we're here!" I wasn't especially worried, but I appreciated their divine intervention just the same. Another new guy also showed up, and said, "Deacon, if they think war is glorious, they should see this!" Apparently, they had seen the dead and wounded pile in back at the LZ, and they could refrain no longer and had to come out for fear no one was left to get us through the night.
During the night, the enemy left the field. When daylight came, a group went out and put Giddings' body in a poncho and were dragging him by. I started to come up to see, when one of the guys said, "Deacon, you don't want to see Giddings like this." So I stopped in my tracks and left it at that. We roamed over the field, and in truth saw no enemy bodies at all. This rather looked like the impossible body count of Zero. In Fantasy Land, where the Brass live, such figures are "adjusted" to match their reality. I believe the adjusted value of zero is about one hundred. We finally linked up with our Lost Platoon. They seemed pretty well intact, and had some stories to tell about their restless night. We then flew out of this disaster zone, not in the glorious flight of Hueys that brought us down from the sky, but in a single Chinook. After all this, no one had any inclination to court marshall me for smoking a joint.
We now landed at the LZ whence we had originated. Our first task was to sort out the web gear, removing those that belonged to the dead. To do this, we had to search them for clues of ownership. I knelt down by one unclaimed web gear and went through it until I found a letter.
I've sent you some socks. You mentioned that your feet were getting cold, so I sent you enough that you can wear two, so you don't get a cold.
This was all I could read. A letter to Leonard from his loving mother, who was worried about his catching a cold. I felt the blood rush into the skin on my face. I suddenly felt a profound new sense of tragic reality ... and guilt. I imagined the heart-break of his mother, for whom Leonard would always be her beloved child, now dead at age 19. All the medals, the flags, and the things that make up the glory of the Army, how can any of that measure against the grief that Leonard's mom would always feel? Truly, the reading of those words was the worse thing that ever happened to me.
The average high temperature for this town in March (2014) is 76°, the average low, 67° (AccuWeather > World > Asia > Vietnam > Quang Tri > Thon Xuan Duong).
2 The approximate pronunciation is, Tone Suahn Zuong. The word Thôn in the place name means "village." This village is variously referred to as Xuân Dương or Dương Xuân. There are two towns of this name, the other being near Haiphong. The village in Quảng Trị province has the coordinates 16° 46' 0N, 107° 15' 0E. It is only 4 meters above sea level. Today there are 15,500 people living within a 7 klt. radius of Thôn Xuân Dương, but the area in which we fought was largely devoid of hootches. This is because a great deal of open space must be devoted to rice patties in order to feed the people of the region. (Falling Rain Website > Thon Xuan Duong, Vietnam Page.)
3 This recent picture shows the Secretary of the village, Nguyen Xuan Cu, pointing to land that he hopes to use for collective graves, as the individual graves which we once used for cover have multiplied to such an extent that valuable land is being wasted. This picture is of particular interest since it shows the typical composition of the tree and shrub hedgerows that separated the drained rice patties over which we traversed. Quảng Trị Online.
For more on this action, see "The Death of Giddings," by Larry Nunn.
LZ Sharon — for this LZ, see the following maps: Camp Evans and LZ Sharon, Thôn Xuân Dương and Quảng Trị.
Thôn Xuân Dương — for maps of this village, see: Thôn Xuân Dương and Quảng Trị, Thôn Xuân Dương (Detail).
These maps have the coödinates mentioned in the Operational Report directly below.
Operational Report - Lessons Learned,
Headquarters, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile),
Period Ending 30 April 1968 (U)
By Col. Conrad L. Stansberry, Chief of Staff
p. 11, §A-2-l.
(1) At 250900H Mar 68, A/l-8 Cav assaulted two separate LZs: one on the south and one on the north of the hamlet of Thon Xuan Duong. Upon landing, both LZs were Green. At 0918H units on both LZs were receiving heavy fire from all directions. ARA and Brigade Scouts were on station and engaged the areas. The third platoon of D/1-8 Cav which had conducted a "Swooper" operation vic[inity] of YO 387558 earlier moved by foot to a position vic YO 399553. D (-)/1-8 Cav further south, attempted to move to the west to rejoin its sister units; however, intense SA [small arms], AW & B-40 rocket fire prevented this. Following the unsuccessful maneuver of D/l-8, A/l-8 and C/l-8 conducted coordinated attacks supported by A/1-9 Cav, artillery, ARA and CS to link up with the two platoons. The attempt failed because of intense enemy fire. Artillery, ARA, and gunships continued to engage the area. A/l-8 (-) and C/1-8 were resupplied by logships and established defensive positions in the center of a village. Contact remained sporadic until 1930H when it was broken. During the hours of darkness, illumination was provided by "Spooky" and by "Moonshine." The target area was engaged by artillery throughout the night. POW's captured earlier in the day indicated that the companies were in contact with the K-14 Main Force Bn minus its heavy weapons company. A search of the battle area the following morning revealed that the enemy had exfiltrated in small groups to the northeast. Results of the battle were: 276 NVA KIA, 6 small arms weapons and 1 LMG [large machine gun] captured.
When we swept the field the next day, I saw no enemy dead at all.