Willie Bridge Firefight
by Jerry Prater
with Capt. Tom McAndrews, Lt. Jerome Church and William Bruce Thomas
SEPTEMBER 24, 1967 — The 1st Platoon of Company A 1/8 Cav was working out of a small forward fire base, LZ Willie, during the latter part of September 1967. We would go out on search and destroy missions during the day and most of the platoon would set up in the bunkers and guard the fire base each night. One of the machine gun crews and another six members of the platoon, along with a duster and their crew of four, would travel south-southwest for a little more than half a klick to guard the Willie Bridge. The security was actually for two bridges, the original cement type bridge that was old and deteriorating and the new wooden bridge that was under construction by army engineers. Since we were in the dry season, the river bed was mostly dry.
On the evening of Sunday, September 24, 1967 the machine gun team of Heath, Jerry Prater and Joe Washington, plus Joseph Archuleta, Richard Yelland, Phil Gibson, Daryel Stamper, Robert Cerny and William Thomas were assigned the Willie Bridge security. Thomas had arrived in Vietnam on September 20, and had just completed his three day orientation in An Khê. Earlier in the day, he had boarded a plane and flew from Camp Radcliff to LZ English, where he was put on a chopper with the resupply and arrived at LZ Willie at about 2:00 p.m. Since it was his first day with the platoon, Lt. Church welcomed Thomas to the unit, and told him that he could go as long as three months before he would see any action.
A total of thirteen guys, including the crew for the duster, were assigned to the security mission that evening. At approximately 1900 (7:00 p.m.), the nine members of the platoon climbed onto the duster so we could ride instead of walk. Just before the duster left, Ed House came up and yelled to me in a very kidding manner, “I hope ya’ll get hit tonight!” We traveled about ¼ klick southeast on highway 514, then the road changed directions and we headed northeast for approximately 2 klicks until we arrived at Willie Bridge, which was located at coordinates 803969.
|Willie Bridge||Prater, Heath, and Washington||William Thomas (Center)|
We arrived at the bridge location at 1914 and the duster stopped on the east side of the river and set up between the two bridges. The M-60 machine gun crew of Heath, Prater and Washington, plus Cerny set up on the new bridge, while Yelland, with the second M-60, Archuleta, who was the RTO for the night, Stamper, Gibson, and Thomas set up on the old bridge. Heath set up his claymore mine on the west side bank between the two bridges. Yelland told Thomas that, since this was his first day with the unit, he would pull guard duty with him.
As it began to get dark I told Heath that I would like to take the first watch so I wouldn’t have to get up after sleeping one hour to pull my first guard duty. Since he was the squad leader, Heath told me that he would take the first watch, I would take the second and Washington would take the third and Cerny would take the fourth. When it got dark, I laid down and went to sleep.
All of a sudden, I woke up at 2215 (10:15 p.m.) to the sound of Heath yelling “CLAYMORE!”, and about one second later I heard the claymore mine explode. Then I heard the sound of Heath firing the machine gun and the sound of a very high volume of enemy gunfire coming from beneath the other bridge. I was startled because I woke up from a sound sleep and was wondering, “What’s going on?” I couldn’t see what was happening because it was very dark and the flashes of the gun barrels as they were being fired was the only light. Less than ten seconds after that, grenades began exploding on the other bridge because NVA soldiers had worked their way up the south side of, and were directly beneath, the old bridge without being detected and they were lobbing grenades onto that bridge. The duster then fired two or three rounds, and simultaneously a recoilless rifle fired a B-40 rocket and I saw an explosion on the duster. Richard Yelland made his way to the duster to check on the crew and determined that all were injured, but none were killed. He then made his way back to the old bridge.
|The Duster Firing from LZ Willie, 18 July 1967|
Since the first NVA soldier was killed on the west bank bank between the two bridges instead of in the river bed, I crawled to the east end of the bridge where the duster had been hit to see if any NVA was coming from that side. I saw no indication of any enemy soldiers on that bank, or in the river bed underneath and to the south side of our bridge. I crawled back to the west side of the bridge to see if any enemy soldiers were flanking the west end of the bridge. Since I saw no other indication of enemy activity, and because the gun fire coming from the ravine beneath the old bridge was extremely heavy, and I began firing my M-16 in that direction. After firing one magazine and part of another, my M-16 jammed and I had a very hard time getting the spent cartridge case from the chamber.
|Richard Yelland||Joe Archuleta|
During the early part of the firefight, several grenades were tossed from the bottom of the dry river bed onto the old bridge and I heard screams as they exploded. I yelled out and asked if anybody was hurt, and the response was that Thomas and Stamper had shrapnel wounds, but the bad news was that the PRC-25 radio was destroyed. The NVA soldiers were almost directly beneath the old bridge and Yelland told the guys to drop grenades into the river bed. Everyone on the bridge, including Thomas and Stamper, began dropping grenades into the ravine. Then, Yelland got on his knees so he could throw grenades directly beneath the bridge. Just as he leaned forward, I saw a tracer round go into his head, and he was also hit in the chest with one or two rounds and died almost immediately. Thomas had to grab Yelland and pull him back on the bridge to keep him from falling into the ravine. Since we had no communication and it was still very dark, shortly after that I saw Joe Archuleta get up and start running toward the duster to see if their radio was operational. However, I saw another tracer round go through Archuleta’s back and he dropped just before he reached the end of the bridge and died almost immediately.
I’m not certain of the time span, but I believe all of this happened in less than ten minutes of when Heath fired the claymore. At this point, Yelland and Archuleta were dead, Stamper and Thomas had shrapnel wounds, and Gipson had been shot in the buttocks. So, everybody on the old bridge had been killed or were too seriously wounded to fight, and the duster had been taken out of commission and all the crew were badly wounded. As a result, only the four of us on the wooden bridge were physically able to continue fighting. At 2235 hrs., artillery from LZ Willie started firing flares so we could see what was happening. We could see that the enemy was wearing NVA uniforms, so this was not a random attack from the VC.
Back at LZ Willie, Lt. Church could hear the gunfire and explosions and tried to get Archuleta on the radio, but no one responded. After several attempts with no response, he realized that our radio had been knocked out. He knew that we had not been overrun because of the continuing heavy volume of gunfire. Lt. Church told the remaining twelve members of the platoon to saddle up and be prepared to go to the river bed so they could make their way to the bridge. He then contacted Captain Henderson, our Company Commander who was on LZ Mustang, and advised him of the activity. Lt. Col. Wilbur Jenkins, our Battalion Commander who was on LZ English, was advised of the situation. Lt. Col. Jenkins was very upset with himself and made the comment to Captain Tom McAndrews, his S-2, “How many times do I make the same mistake before I learn my lesson. With all the avenues for attack, the bridge should be protected by at least a full platoon instead of a reinforced squad.” Lt. Church was contacted and told to stay on the LZ and not to send reinforcements from “A” Company or the platoon because they would be walking into an ambush. Col. Jenkins then told “C” Company, which was also located at LZ English, to be prepared to assist or replace the reinforced squad on Willie Bridge. He then got a radio and boarded a chopper so he could make his way to the bridge.
At a later time, I heard Heath yell to me that he was hit. I crawled to his location at the west end of the bridge and noticed that he had been shot in the right arm. He and I had a standing joke about which one of us would be shot and the other would have to use his bandage to treat the wound. As I took my bandage from my harness, I said to Heath “See, I told you I was going to have to use my bandage on you!” He then told me there was a round in the M-60, so I picked it up and tried to fire. Then I realized that Heath meant that a round had been fired into the machine gun with the same burst from an AK-47 that hit him in the arm. Since it was now unusable, I put the M-60 down and began firing my M-16 again. There were now only three of us that were able to fight, and it was up to us to repel the attack. Washington, myself and Cerny, continued firing very heavily, and we finally got to the point that only a very few NVA soldiers remained that were not wounded or dead. At one point, I had fired all 20 rounds in my magazine and I laid down so I could reload my M-16 with a new magazine. The instant I put my head down, two bursts of about 5 rounds each came within an inch of my head.
I had made a comment a couple of times that we needed a medevac to come in and get the wounded before they bled to death. At 2255 hrs. we heard and then saw a chopper coming in and landing west of the bridge, the side opposite from the duster. We were hoping it would be some replacements to help us, but it turned out to be the Lt. Col. Jenkins bringing the radio so we could gain contact with our platoon and other companies in the battalion. The chopper took off immediately when he got on the ground. He came to our bridge and began asking what had happened and to be apprised of the current situation.
After the enemy had broken contact and the firing had just about stopped, Lt. Col. Jenkins and Cerny went to the east end of the bridge and started making their way to the to the old bridge so he could check on the status of those guys. One of the NVA was not dead and fired a short burst at them when they were about halfway between the bridges. One of the rounds hit Jenkins and a portion of his ear lobe was shot off. Cerny then threw a flare right beside the NVA and yelled for Washington and me to fire at the flare. I yelled back and told Cerny that neither of us would fire at the flare because we didn’t want to take a chance of shooting one of our own guys, especially the Battalion Commander! We still did not have sufficient light to see well enough to really aim at and hit a target. After spending some time on the old bridge, they came back to our bridge so Lt. Col. Jenkins could make contact with all the units in the Battalion.
At 2335 hrs., we heard more choppers coming from the north or northwest. However, the choppers landed approximately 500 meters from the bridge and took off without us seeing any sign of any replacements. Then, about 20 minutes later, I saw someone all of a sudden appear on the east side of the ravine. I took aim and almost fired before I recognized that he was one of our guys from C Company that had come to relive us. I’m really glad I wasn’t real fast on the trigger because I would have hated to have shot, and possibly killed one of our own guys. These were our replacements, but the NVA had broken contact and the bridges had been secured before they arrived. The choppers medevaced the wounded, and another chopper took Washington, myself and Cerny to LZ English for a debriefing. We spent the night at LZ English, but none of us got any sleep because we were just too keyed up.
A chopper took the three of us back to our platoon shortly after daylight on September 25. When we got off the chopper, Ed House came up to me, gave me a hug and said that he heard I had been killed during the firefight. He also told me how badly he felt for saying he hoped we would get hit. Later in the day I found out the reason I was reported as killed in action was because someone turned in my name instead of either Archuleta or Yelland. I’m glad the mistake was found quickly because I can imagine how upset my parents would have been if they were notified that I was killed in action.
A couple days later, General John J. Tolson, commanding general of the 1st Cavalry Division,, came by chopper to LZ Willie and made impact awards of Silver Star medals to Robert Cerny and Captain Dick Cunningham, an Artillery Observer from the 2/19 Artillery Battalion, who was on the chopper with Lt. Col Jenkins. Washington and I received our Bronze Star medals with “V” devise at a later date, but very unceremoniously!
I don’t know if Heath was awarded a Bronze or Silver Star for his actions, but his decisiveness saved more, and possible all of us, from being killed. He did not hesitate to act when he saw movement on the west side of the old bridge. Instead, he fired the claymore and killed the NVA soldier who was almost on the west end of the old bridge. That action also woke everybody up and alerted all of us of the NVA soldiers who had gotten beneath the old bridge without being detected. If Heath had not observed the enemy soldier and fired the Claymore, they almost certainly would have been able to get beneath the new bridge as well and attacked both bridges simultaneously. I don’t know who was on guard duty on the old bridge, nor why he didn’t hear any sounds that would have alerted him to the enemy movement.
|General John J. Tolson||The Quad .50 on LZ Willie
Just as a side note, a day or two after the fire fight, the Quad .50 machine gun was removed from LZ Willie, and our platoon was ordered to destroy some of the sand bags and bunkers on the LZ. Also, I heard, but have not been able to confirm, that the engineers destroyed Willie Bridge, which was renamed Yelland Bridge in honor of Richard Yelland who was killed during the fire fight, a short time later.
Narrative of Bridge 514-3 Attack
One infantry squad and a duster were defending the bridge (total of 13 personnel).
The new wooden bridge parallels and is immediately adjacent to the old blown concrete bridge.
The force defended the bridge by deploying to both sides of the creek with the duster located at the west end of the wooden bridge and the infantry located at the east end of both bridges.
At about 2220 hours, one member of the infantry element detected movement. As he was warning the others, the enemy started firing. The size of the enemy force is estimated at 15 - 25 personnel probably members of the 304th Sapper Co.
The enemy attacked using grenades, M-79, AK-47, Carbine and B-40 rocket fire. The US unit returned the fire using M-16, grenades, M-79, a claymore mine, two M-60 machine guns and the duster. The infantry PRC-25 radio was hit at the beginning of the engagement and the duster radio was not used as the duster was heavily engaged and soon was hit in the turret by a B-40 rocket. Thus there was no communications link between the bridge and the control Headquarters at LZ Willie.
Preplanned artillery concentrations, to include illumination, were fired around the bridge approximately ten minutes after the attack commenced and were continued until ARA and gun ships took over the fire support mission at about 2250 hours. In addition, mortar illumination rounds were fired from LZ Willie within 5 minutes of the outbreak of the firing at the bridge.
Although unknown to the battalion commander due to the lack of communications, the force on the bridge had repulsed the initial enemy attack and were still defending the bridge. The battalion commander reached the bridge area in his C and C ship at about 2255 hours and soon thereafter (2259) had the ship land at the west end of the bridge. He debarked alone and sent the ship with the S3 and Artillery LSN Officer to LZ Willie to get a radio.
After landing, LTC Jenkins took charge of the defensive force and killed one enemy with his pistol. The ship soon returned and the Artillery LSN Officer with a radio joined LTC Jenkins on the ground while the S3 stayed in the air and controlled from there. The Artillery LSN Officer killed two enemy as he was moving to join LTC Jenkins. The radio at the bridge was used to bring in a continuous stream of ARA and gun ships firing within 10 meters of the bridge.
A reinforcing platoon from LZ English was air assaulted west of the bridge at 2335H and linked up with the bridge elements about 20 minutes later.
Two members of the infantry squad were KIA. Both were hit by small arms fire — one as he was moving from one position to another and the other as he raised up to throw a grenade.
Eight others were WIA — three members of the duster crew when it was hit by the B-40 rocket, four infantrymen during the firefight and LTC Jenkins as he was moving about reorganizing the defense. None of the WIAs were serious. Four were moderate and four were light.
In Summary. The bridge was attacked by a well armed enemy force of 15-25 men. The attacking force was discovered and launched its attack prematurely (primarily from the south) but with great force. The US force successfully defended the bridge against the superior force and killed eight of the enemy by body count and captured two weapons (AK-47s) and one B-40 rocket in addition to numerous (approximately 50) AK-47 magazines, many hand grenades, and some webbing and medical supplies.
|1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Division Association Collection,
The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, Item #3690125010, p. 3.
"Narrative of Bridge 514-3 Attack," Undated, Folder 25, Box 01, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Division Association Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, Item #3690125010. Accessed 22 Aug. 2014.
The Actual Situation at Willie Bridge
As Detailed by Jerry Prater
Note bene – Contrary to the accounts of officers and the citation that follows, contact had been broken off by the time the Command and Control chopper had arrived on the scene except for the incident involving Cerny related above.
Lt. Col. Wilbur G. Jenkins , Jr. (March 07, 1924 - November 09, 1984)
Wilbur Jenkins graduated from Texas A & M University. He commanded a rifle squad of the 95th Infantry Division in World War II.
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 Lieutenant Colonel (Infantry) Wilbur G. Jenkins, Jr. (ASN: 0-65099), 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 as Commanding Officer of the 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 1st Calvary Division (Airmobile). Lieutenant Colonel Jenkins distinguished himself by exceptionally valorous actions on 24 September 1967 while leading a combat operation near Bồng Sơn. An element of his battalion defending a bridge was heavily attacked late at night by a numerically superior North Vietnamese force. Colonel Jenkins immediately secured a helicopter and flew to the battle site to assess the situation. On the first pass over the bridge, he could see no sign of any activity. He ordered the pilot to land and jumped to the ground armed only with a pistol and two grenades. Savage enemy fire erupted all around him as he touched the ground, but he completely disregarded his own safety and ordered the pilot to leave. With bullets striking all around him, he dashed to the friendly positions and braved withering fire to place his men in a tight defensive perimeter. Continually exposing himself to the enemy weapons, he encouraged and inspired his men to fight furiously and repel the fanatical hostile assaults. As the fighting began to abate, he moved forward with one of his men to count the battle casualties. An enemy soldier jumped up in front of him, and in an exchange of fire at point blank range, Colonel Jenkins was wounded. When reinforcements arrived he remained on the ground until they had secured a defensive perimeter. After assuring himself that all the wounded had been put aboard evacuation helicopters, he permitted his own evacuation. His exemplary and aggressive leadership had inspired his men to overcome staggering odds and inflict a decisive defeat on the determined enemy attackers. Lieutenant Colonel Jenkins' 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. 6337 (December 10, 1967)
Photographs of LZ Willie, 18 July 1967
An Khê — for maps of An Khê, see An Khê and Vicinity, An Khê (Camp Radcliff), Detailed.
LZ English — see the maps, Bồng Sơn, LZ English, LZ Two Bits, Bồng Sơn, the An Lão Valley, and Tam Quan.
LZ Willie — see the map, LZ Willie.
LZ Mustang — see the maps, LZ Mustang and the An Lão Valley; and LZ Sandra, LZ Mustang, and the An Lão Valley.
For a map of this action in its topographic context, see “September 24” in the "Odyssey" series. For the DSJ account of the firefight, see the Chronology for September 24.