Sergeant Washburn and Lieutenant Moore
by Richard Dieterle
I first met Sgt. Michael Washburn in late May, 1967, when I was new to the company. Almost every new man when he first shows up in the field is a bit bewildered. The mission is both mentally and physically demanding. I was carrying machine gun ammunition even though I wasn't really in good physical condition, since I had let myself go during my 30 days leave just before heading out for Vietnam. This was not helped by the inability to get a full night's sleep, loss of sleep being the collateral damage of pulling guard duty. What was most taxing to the mind, though, was the prospect of a gory and painful death. I was about to crawl out of our small poncho tent in the morning, when Washburn dropped down into the foxhole to speak to me. He told me that he understood how the new guys felt, but not to worry. He pointed out that we had major contact only on average every three months, and "most guys make it through and so will you." Although I didn't consider my survival guaranteed, nevertheless, I really appreciated the pep talk, and felt much better about my chances as well as my ability to adjust and adapt.
LATE DECEMBER, 1967 - JANUARY, 1968 — Sgt. Washburn, like almost everyone of his rank, had started out as a Private and had worked his way up to Buck Sergeant. For most of us, this ascent from Dwarf to Titan was the product of skill, luck, and sheer attrition. In the case of Michael Washburn, it was clearly skill. He was highly respected by the CO, as well as by the men. A new idea had been promulgated from the higher levels of command, and had worked its way down to our company in particular. One day Washburn was summoned to the CP, where he held a mysterious meeting with not only the Brass from Battalion, but perhaps also with those from Brigade. Their new idea involved a daring experiment. They asked Washburn if he might volunteer to go out alone into the nearby An Lão Mountains, and be a one man ambush. It was known that the NVA were traveling in small groups to avoid detection, and they were also confining their movement primarily to the hours of darkness. Intelligence, through interviews with prisoners, had learned that individuals were descending down the draws that extended from the mountains into the Bồng Sơn Plain. By making this maneuver of dispersal-reconcentration a very risky business for the enemy, it was anticipated that they might then have to move not as individuals, but in more sizable units simply in order to protect themselves. These larger units were easier to detect, and when firepower was concentrated on them, their casualty rates would skyrocket. So one day Washburn headed out, traveling light with a map, his M-16, a radio, and enough ammunition to get the job done. He was gone for a little less than a week. While he was out there, in broad daylight, he encountered an enemy soldier coming down the draw. He walked right near Washburn and paid the price. Washburn collected the dead man's AK-47, and headed back. Battalion, and presumably Brigade as well, were extremely pleased. As far as the Brass were concerned, Washburn had become a Titan among NCOs. Not too long afterwards, when the Cav uprooted and headed to I Corps, small teams called "Hunter-Killer Squads," were revived with much the same mission so ably done by Washburn. Their mission was to go out as a small sized ambush of about five guys and see what they could intercept. Only the best soldiers of the company were considered for this mission. The guy from Venezuela was one, and Gunsaulas from our platoon was another. These little Hunter-Killer teams were sent out by many units, and were often times successful. After a time, however, the success-to-danger ratio seemed to make them a less desirable instrument of strategy, and they were discontinued; nor was there ever again a one man scouting-ambush. This left Sgt. Washburn's feat a singular achievement, elevating him to the status of a minor celebrity.
The other half of our story involves Lt. Wesley Rice Moore, jr. Sometime after the firefight of Dec. 7-9, 1967 at Đại Đồng, Lt. Jerome Church completed his tour in the field, and was reassigned to duties at Battalion. His replacement was First Lieutenant Moore. Lt. Moore was easy to get along with, rather like Lt. Church in that respect. You could talk to him without having the feeling that he expected unusual deference. He also seemed to pay no attention to pot smoking, which we liked to do as an evening's entertainment. Lt. Moore had a civilian background that would seem to make him well suited to be a leader in an infantry unit. He had been a police officer, and therefore was not new to danger and potential gun violence. Nevertheless, police procedures and infantry procedures are sometimes a world apart. Police don't usually come up against a group of individuals armed with rifles, grenades, and rockets. This is a fact of which Washburn was keenly aware. This seemed to be the focal point of their personal differences. The two didn't get along well at all. Washburn once complained to me that Moore was not a good officer, and that his ways of doing things might put the men in jeopardy. I personally didn't think that Moore was any worse than any other lieutenant, and that in combat, most of the time we would end up following the lead of our Sergeants anyway.
|Westenberger, Washburn, and Wilcox||A Hedge Row Similar to that Mentioned in the Text|
|Photo: Wayne Westenberger||Tim Vo, Patterns of Nature (by Permission)|
JANUARY 3, 1967 — We did have an incident that illustrated this very point of contention. From our position not too far from the coast on the Bồng Sơn Plain, about 3 klicks northeast of Tam Quan, we were airlifted on a long 20 minute flight to a remote locale about a klick northeast of LZ Willie. From there we moved northwest gently ascending to a flat area in the foothills of the An Lão Mountains. There were a number of dry rice paddies there that serviced the village of Phước Binh (3) a little over a klick away on the An Lão River. One of the hedge rows in this area contained a concealed bunker. The Fourth Platoon chanced to encounter some VC around this bunker. A skirmish resulted, and five of the VC made a dash to escape, covering their flight with a grenade. Four of them were gunned down, but according to the official records, one made good his escape, although it may be that he was actually captured. Three more VC had remained behind in the bunker.1 A stalemate ensued, so some ARVNs, some of whom I recognized from my time at Language School, were flown in to see if they could not persuade the holdouts to give up. They had with them a single individual dressed in what we called "black pajamas," the typical attire of the Vietnamese in the countryside. The VC in the bunker were wearing clothes that were slightly bluish white. He appeared to know them and made every attempt to persuade them to surrender. The ARVNs also joined in trying to persuade the other three to Chiêu Hồi. In so many words, they answered back with "Go to Hell!" They had taken up the standard of the suicide squad, and no pleas by anyone could sway them. I learned of this standoff over the radio. I was some ways off, and had to walk around to a good position. I had developed what is a very sensible technique for dispatching bunkers. The typical bunker resembles an American Indian oval lodge, except that it is lined in its interior with cut logs of palm, whose fibrous structure makes them rather like steel. The outside was packed in wet mud, which when dried, forms a hard earthen shell. These were proof against almost anything except a .50 caliber round. It was also obvious that they were not immune to the anti-tank rocket, the LAW. One shot from a LAW would cut through all these hardened layers and blow up with immense force inside, not only killing its occupants, but turning them into mincemeat. Since the enemy did not have tanks in Bồng Sơn, the reasonable thing to do with LAWs was to use them to dispatch enemy troops holed up in bunkers. This is why I always carried a LAW despite the inconvenience of having to hump it everywhere for use only on rare occasions. This, however, was such an occasion. So I took a long circuitous route so that I was on the opposite side of a large dry rice paddy, 50 yards from the target. The rocket could travel for about 100 yards before gravity began to overcome its aerodynamic lift. However, I never got the shot. Instead, Lt. Moore and one of our guys, had approached the bunker somewhat obliquely. It should be noted here that this was not the ordinary, oval bunkers previously described. This was dug into a hedge row made primarily of bamboo, very similar to the thick clump of bamboo seen in the photo. It was as much designed to be a hiding place as a fortified fighting position. The opening was well concealed behind thick stalks of bamboo, and Lt. Moore approached this like a police officer would approach a building in which a man with a gun was holed up. His intention was to throw in a grenade, but as he approached, one of the enemy soldiers inside threw a grenade out. Since Moore and his man were standing in an open and flat dry rice paddy, when the grenade landed it could have been expected to kill both of them. However, as luck would have it, the bamboo stalks were so thick that the grenade bounced off one of them, and popped right back into the bunker. As a result, this suicide squad accidentally committed suicide. Except for this stroke of good luck, it would have been Moore who had committed suicide while taking one of his own men down with him. After this rebounded grenade exploded, Moore threw in another one for good measure. I walked across the field to see the result. There were now a number of us there, and the ARVNs had also come up. They brought the man in black pjs and ordered him to pull out the bodies of his comrades. He pulled the first one out by his arm. I say "arm" because he had only one. His right arm and left leg were missing. His head had been blown off except for a long strand of scalp which extended like a hirsute ribbon from the stump of his neck. Then the survivor dragged the next one out. He was missing an arm and his head had been completely blown off with no remainder, rather like the victim in Goya's famous painting of Saturn. The third person was in so many pieces that there was no point in dragging any part of him out of this belly of earth. It was as if Saturn, the god of time who devours his own flesh and blood, had condemned them as untimely self immolations. The Americans chuckled, as though it was all a good joke. It was something of a joke that the grenade turned out to be a pinball, but what made it delightful was the fact that it had happened to them and not to us. The ARVNs all had the most grave expressions. After all, they had been talking to these men in their own language at some length, so it was hard to see them as so many "gooks." Had I used the LAW, there would have been nothing left to retrieve, as what remained of the bunker would have been lined with roasted human meat. This game of Russian Roulette with grenades had ended in our favor only by chance. This did nothing to refute Washburn's opinion of Lt. Moore.
JANUARY 22, 1967 — The whole Air Cav picked up and moved to I Corps in order to relieve the besieged Marine stronghold of Khê Sanh. The process of picking up and moving en masse was so routine that I actually have no memory of this momentous event. We were for a time at Camp Evans, a very large LZ used as the First Cav Headquarters, and later at LZ Sharon.
|Lt. Wesley Moore and
Capt. Thomas McAndrews
|The Titan Saturn Devouring
One of His Own Children
|Photo: Lt. Patrick Skinner||A War Allegory by Francisco Goya, 1823|
FEBRUARY 1, 1968 — After a working tour on LZ Anne, we were again back out in the field of Quảng Trị Provence. The day was overcast, but expected to clear.2 At 0907 hrs., First Platoon left LZ Anne by itself for a patrol. Charlie Company's First Platoon also went out with us nearby but returned to the LZ at 1352 hrs.3 We had scout choppers from 1/9 sweeping the area ahead of us. At 1130 hrs., they ran across a new trail with human footprints accompanied by those of elephants.4 We were traversing flat lands, dry rice paddies, and an occasional hamlet. We were happy to find no opposition, as we expected that being so close to North Vietnam, I Corps would be heavily populated with regular NVA units. So far, so good. Then we called in a flight of Hueys to take us from our present location (297406), to a place a quick 5 minutes away. We were joined by our other platoons by 1540 hrs.5 We then split up, Second and Third Platoons heading north, while we set up at a nice unpopulated place where it wasn't too hard to dig in.6 It did require a bit of clearing at places so that we could have a proper field of fire in front of our foxholes. Having done this without too much trouble, the sun began to set on us, and it started to look just a little dusky. Our CO, Capt. Thomas McAndrews, and our Platoon Leader, Lt. Moore, decided to step out and check the field of fire that had just been chopped out of the grass and brush. While they were out meandering around, I was putting the finishing touches on our foxhole. Suddenly shots rang out. This didn't alarm me at that stage of my evolution, since I heard no telltale hiss that would suggest that I was the target. However, when I looked in the direction of the noise, there I saw lying on the ground about 15 meters distant what appeared to be Capt. McAndrews. Whoever he was, he was doubtless in considerable pain, yet not a murmur came from him. Lying nearby was another indistinct form. It soon came down by word of mouth that it was indeed the CO who had been hit, and that Lt. Moore had been shot dead.7 It had not been enemy fire. This was amazing. In fact it was a case of what is awkwardly termed "friendly fire." Not long afterwards, someone who had seen it all unfold came down to talk to me. At 1946 hrs.,8 the CO and Lt. Moore had walked out of the perimeter without any kind of announcement. The usual way of indicating this intention was to say in a loud voice, "Going out front!" If it is dark, this information is passed down the line. Since a field of fire had just been cut, and it was not strictly dark, this was a twilight zone both literally and metaphorically. They no doubt thought that because they could be seen, no one would fire at them. I was informed that it was Sgt. Washburn who opened up on the two officers as they strolled out in front of his position unannounced. My interlocutor then declared, "If you ask me, he killed the wrong guy!" Some of the people that I talked to expressed the cynical opinion that it was no accident. It is the universal opinion of those still alive today who knew Sgt. Wallace that he would never "frag" anyone, and the suggestion to the contrary expressed by disaffected people at the time, and by me in an earlier version of this essay, is a scurrilous imputation upon his character. I am now inclined to the view of my critics who were much nearer to the principals of this unfortunate affair than was I.9
1 The details above for this date come from 3690201003, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Division Association Collection, Daily Staff Journals, 1965-1969; Virtual Vietnam Archives, Texas Tech University, Collection 369, Daily Staff Journals 1965-1969, for 3 Jan.1968, items 9-11, 30. This last item is an entry for 1500 hrs., which states, "A 46 [Fourth Platoon under Lt. Skinner] vic 782980 obs 8 VC in bunker — 5 VC tried to evade — 1 escaped. A VC gren was thrown w/neg casualties. The 46 ele returned fire resulting in 4 VC KIA outside bunker — other three refused to come out — grenades were thrown resulting in 3 more VC KIA dressed in grey uniforms and blk pj's. Also fd US gren in bunker." For further context from the DSJs, see "The Odyssey of A Co., Chronology," for 3 January 1968.
2 369EM0221, Daily Staff Journals, for 1 Feb 1968, item 8, where it is mentioned that an activity will not be conducted until "the weather clears."
3 Daily Staff Journals, 1 Feb 1968, items 9 and 13.
4 Daily Staff Journals, 1 Feb 1968, item 11. The trail was at PZ 292405.
5 Daily Staff Journals, 1 Feb 1968, items 18-23.
6 Daily Staff Journals, 1 Feb 1968, items 27-30. Two of our platoons headed north to to 279469. Our position was at 289460.
7 Daily Staff Journals, 1 Feb 1968, item 31, "A Co vic[inity of] 289460 request medevac for A Co 16 [Lt. Moore] wounded by friendly fire while checking perimeter. Also A Co CO - Cpt McAndrews, slightly wounded in leg. Medevac not required. A Co medevac cancelled - Lt Moore died fm chest wound." Capt. McAndrews tried to tough it out, but better judgment prevailed at 2115 hrs. (item 36) when medevac was requested and carried out 15 minutes later (item 37).
8 Daily Staff Journals, 1 Feb 1968, item 30 shows that Battalion was informed that we had set up at 1945 hrs., and item 31 shows that at 1950 hrs. the incident was reported.
9 I have, in my work here and elsewhere, tried to pursue the truth wherever it led and let the chips fall where they may. In this instance, however, I undoubtably made a moral error in convicting someone on the say so of the more cynically inclined hearsay at the time. Only an anti-scientific fool is inclined to dismiss coincidence, and this coincidence is too slender a thread upon which to convict anyone in the notoriously errant court of public opinion. Jerry Prater made a relevant point on this matter in a recent communication:
You referred to [an individual] being upset with you regarding your [version of] the Washburn-Moore incident. To be totally honest with you, everybody I've corresponded who has read the article is upset with it. I'm not pleased with it either because, even though I was not with the unit at the time, I knew Washburn well enough to know that he would not intentionally kill someone in the platoon. I was almost killed by friendly fire several times, not counting the time I went out one morning to retrieve the grenade and trip flare I had set out the previous night. Before I went to get them, I told the guys who had set up on both sides of me that I was going forward to get them. I yelled it to them a couple of time, and they acknowledged me. But, when I was getting the trip flare, the handle broke and set off the flare. I immediately yelled several times that it was me and for them not to shoot, but they kept yelling "gook, gook" and almost fired at me. The sun was shining brightly, so they had no trouble seeing me, but I still was about one second from getting killed by the guys in my own squad. From my own experience, I know how easily someone could be killed by friendly fire, and it did happen in our company at least twice during the 12 months we were in Vietnam.
I should, and do, apologize for this injurious act. The rest of what is said here is probably worth preserving, although given the mist cast up by the passage of time, very little can be asserted with total certainty.
An Lão Mountains — the An Lão Mountains are shown on the following maps: Bồng Sơn, the An Lão Valley, and Tam Quan; LZ Sandra, LZ Mustang, and the An Lão Valley; LZ Mustang and the An Lão Valley.
JANUARY 3, 1967 — a map in the "Odyssey" series shows where the events of this day took place: The Odyssey of A Co., January 1-5, 1968.
Camp Evans — for a map showing Camp Evans, see: Camp Evans and LZ Sharon.
LZ Sharon — see these maps: Camp Evans and LZ Sharon; Thôn Xuân Dương and Quảng Trị.
FEBRUARY 1, 1968 — a map in the "Odyssey" series shows where the events of this day took place: The Odyssey of A Co., February 1, 1968.
LZ Anne — situated atop Động Ông Do, this LZ was originally a Marine call station. It was converted into an LZ by the Cav in Jan., 1968. It is shown on the map, Camp Evans and LZ Sharon.