Operation Wayne Grey, March 1969
Ambushed and Overrun: Survivors of Company A Tell their Stories
Edited and Commentary by John F. Bauer
Note: These accounts provided the basis for a feature story in VFW Magazine’s February 2008 edition, entitled Ambush in the Plei Trap Valley.
In early March 1969, the US Army’s Fourth Infantry Division launched Operation Wayne Grey. Its mission was to engage the 66th North Vietnamese Army Regiment and prevent its movements against the vulnerable mid-section of South Vietnam anchored by the cities of Kontum and Pleiku. The 66th was known for its toughness, having proven itself successful against Americans by overrunning a Special Forces camp at Ben Het and causing high casualties among the Fourth Infantry ranks in and around nearby Dak To late 1967. The lead element for the operation was the third battalion, 8th Infantry, comprised of Companies A, B, C, and D. They were deployed by helicopter assault into the Plei Trap Valley, an area northwest of Pleiku and Kontum. The battalion was commanded by LTC Pennel J. Hickey, whose After Action Report of 14 March provided resource material.
Contrary to sound infantry tactics, the four companies of the battalion were deployed in such a way as to be non-supporting of each other. Further, some elements were out of the supporting range of friendly artillery. When limited air support was provided during daylight engagements, it was of little use in the thick jungle canopy of the Central. Helicopter gun ships support was often requested but not provided..
Company A fared the worst. Undermanned at the outset, in just 24 hours of fighting the company had lost two of its three line officers, 19 men, and ceased to exist as a fighting unit. It was forced from its fighting position after three hours of fierce combat when a far superior NVA element broke through its perimeter defense. A hasty withdrawal to an extraction point led by Lt. Buddy Williams was all that saved the rest of the company.
The following accounts are eye-witness recollections from survivors of Company A. Because of the nature in which Company A survivors were quickly dispersed immediately after the engagement, no coherent overall picture was ever painted about the debacle. Specifically, there are no records of the company strength on March 3, 1969. As the reader will note, there is speculation by the survivors that casualties were much higher than reported, since the number of men who were extracted is such a low figure. If there were 52 wounded survivors, as the Hickey report states, and 21 KIAs, the company strength would have been just 73. History will infer that 1) it was not sound military strategy to send such a small company in search of a vastly superior force, the 66th NVA, or 2) the commanding officer had no knowledge of the strength of Company A before deploying it.
The purpose of report is to pay tribute to the valiant soldiers of Alpha Company, who suffered so dearly and whose families were never told of their fate. These are the stories of
1) Buddy Williams, 2) Myron Gwin, 3) Sam Jones, 4) Al Jacquez, and 5) Julio Leon.
I. The Buddy Williams Story
Felix “Buddy” Williams was a first lieutenant and 3d platoon leader with Company A. He assumed command of the company when its commanding officer was killed on the first day of contact, March 3, 1969. Against orders, he led the remains of his beaten company on a hasty, arduous escape and evasion effort to a helicopter extraction point.
From almost court martial to almost Medal of Honor. As I look back on events after some 35 years, those words pretty much sum up the way my soldiering went in those two frantic days of March 1969. It wasn’t pretty. My company started on its mission with about 85 men and ended with about 55. The figures of survivors aren’t exact because the battalion headquarters, S-3 they call it, didn’t see fit to count us when we went out on 3 March or when we arrived, beaten, stumbling from the chopper onto the base camp landing zone late the next day. I know, because I was the commanding officer that led them out.
It’s understandable that the battalion folks were in a hurry to ship us out to aid stations and hospitals, as shot to pieces as we were. But, then again, it’s fairly standard infantry policy to keep track of troops, to list them, as they say, “All present or accounted for.” And I suppose one reason I am writing this account is to say that the official record of 23 killed in action from Alpha is sheer baloney. The number of dead or missing was closer to. It was a major military defeat for U.S. troops in the Vietnam War. But no one ever heard about it, least of all the families of those fallen. They deserve some details, not just the bad news from a uniform knocking at the door. So I have emerged from the woodwork late in life, like so many other Vietnam Vets, to tell the story, to set the record straight.
Let’s begin with some background. Alpha Company was part of the 3rd Battalion of the 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division. The 4th ID, as it is called, had gained national recognition the year before in major combat operations in the highlands region of Dak To, and the history books list Dak To as a major battle, preceding as it did the famous enemy Tet Offensive of 1968 that swayed public support against the war. The 4th ID has had a noteworthy history in military annals dating to WW I. In WW II the Ivymen landed at Utah Beach on D-Day, and the division was more recently lauded for capturing Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
My orders to report to the 4th ID came about a year after graduation from Infantry Officer Candidate School, dubbed The Benning School for Boys. This length of time meant I was a first lieutenant by the time I became a rifle platoon leader with Alpha Company. No surprises here. All of us infantry OCS grads expected to end up in Vietnam. And to get more Vietnam-like training most of us opted for a two-week session at Jungle Operations Training Center in Panama.
But no lieutenant ever feels really prepared to take over a combat platoon that’s already in place. Your troops have been there, done that. You’re a new platoon leader. No experience. The bottom feeder. That’s not good. But again you knew going in where you stood and were content feeling that, hey, Patton, Eisenhower, and Westmoreland all started this way. Little did I know that I would gain command of a company in such a short time.
Experience came quickly in Nam for grunts, as infantrymen were called. Your platoon was your family. There was this code that new guys were always outside the loop for a period of time until the shine wore off their boots. Everyone went through this ritual. Guys that had been in country the longest enjoyed the top of the heap regardless of rank. And it was the same among officers. Platoon leaders (often called LTs) with more Nam time commanded the most respect. A firefight was the best equalizer all around. When the platoon got into the shit, as combat was termed, anyone who survived to lick wounds had pretty much gained equal footing. Combat brought out the camaraderie that soldiers are noted for. “I’ve got your back,” is a saying no grunt forgets, and to this day Vietnam vets still often call each other brother.
Platoon leaders were always eyed closely by their troops. The term fragging emerged from this war as an unfortunate means by which troops told officers what they thought of their leadership. A friend of mine from our sister company, Delta, confided that men from another platoon were plotting to frag their LT because he was constantly volunteering them for patrol missions. The code said that platoons took turns while patrolling out of base. This, the troops could live with. But being volunteered out all the time because some “hot shot” lieutenant wanted combat time was hateful to the troops in Nam. It didn’t take much, so fearful were the patrols onto the boonies. From the leadership standpoint, I guess I was okay. At least on that last day we were a unit, the company followed me without question.
The end of Alpha as a fighting unit came quickly, in only a couple of days. It started out looking like a routine chopper assault, where the company gathered on a landing zone, in this case at a Green Beret camp called Polei Kleng. The only thing we noticed was that there were a lot more choppers than usual, and a lot more troops. It seemed like the whole battalion was going out, which it darn near did. But for some reason, none of the officers, including the company commanders, were briefed that they were likely to run into such a formidable unit as the 66th NVA. We’d all been on patrol missions, and this was one of them. We had a new, or green as we’d say, company commander, and only two lieutenants as platoon leaders. There were few experienced NCOs in the company. So we were undermanned and ill-prepared to enter a meat grinder.
Alpha Company was dropped into an area of operation (AO), on the morning of 3 March. Our sister company, Delta, landed in the same zone, but it went elsewhere. It was the usual hump through the forest with one exception. We had a helicopter drop of supplies of radio equipment, signal SOIs and SSIs I think they are called. I didn’t think about it at the time, but it must have tripped our location and would account for what happened a little later.
Anyway, by 1540 we began setting up our night location after gaining some high ground on a fairly high-speed trail up a ridgeline. Our CO, Captain Isom, directed my third platoon to deploy farther up the trail. We weren’t too far along when my point man surprised an enemy soldier who dashed up the hill. What we then found was an NVA observation post (OP) with a cooking pot and a sleeping site prepared in the vegetation. Cpt. Isom was notified of the events and made the decision to dispatch my platoon, 23 of us, in pursuit. The artillery forward observer (FO), Lt. Flannigan, advised that the area to our front be prepped with an artillery barrage first. The CO declined and we went ahead. What we did not know then was that we were out of artillery range. Maybe the CO knew that.
Having seen one enemy soldier, we inched carefully up the trail and soon made contact. We came upon two NVA and quickly took them out. Then it started. A machine gun and other small arms opened fire at close range on our left, nailing one soldier, and wounding another. We took cover as best we could and returned fire. This included our own 60mm machine gun. At this point, another NVA machine gun and B-40 rocket fire cam from our right. We were smack in a deadly crossfire, and guys began to drop all over. I radioed Isom that we were in major contact, and I began trying to urge the platoon out of the killing zone. My third platoon was up against what I figure was at least a platoon or company size force of NVA regulars. Isom said he would proceed to my location.
My radioman (RTO) and another guy were able to drag the first wounded guy to the right side of the action behind a big log. We were firing and trying to patch him up at the same time. He had been hit four or five times and had a sucking chest wound. A young medic was trying to give him first aid and CPR and was killed while doing so. Believe in miracles, the wounded guy survived. I saw him in the hospital a few days later.
From my vantage point behind the log, which saved my ass, I could see a bunker with a machine gun that was raking the place. I only had to crawl a few yards and had it flanked. But I couldn’t hit the machine gunner or another NVA who popped up with the rocket launcher with my M16, so I took it out with grenades. It didn’t seem to make much of a difference, though. Meantime, the NVA had been locating in the trees and doing a good job taking us out. I took some shrapnel from a grenade, but not enough to take me out of action.
About this time, Cpt. Isom had arrived with his lead headquarters element but stopped right in the middle of the killing zone. Within moments his RTO, Robbie something, was hit and his left arm and hand were almost blown off. As he screamed, I’ll never forget his cries for God and his mother. Isom himself was killed trying to help Robbie. By now I had learned that he had split the company and had left part of it behind in our night location, with the rest following the lead of his headquarters element but strung out along the trail behind and unable to concentrate fire in any one location. The second platoon arrived next in the hot zone, but its platoon leader, Lt. Griffith, was killed right away.
I could see yet another machine gun bunker and made my move again. Gunfire and rockets were going off all over, but I managed to crawl in range and knock out this second gun with grenades. I also think we were getting incoming mortar fire by now because rounds were going off in trees and the explosions sounded louder. It was sheer chaos!
Dead and wounded were everywhere. I had lost over half of my platoon by now. I knew Isom and Griffith were dead. That meant that there were just two officers left, me and Flanagan, the artillery forward observer. And I had lost track of him because Santos, the artillery RTO was dead along with his radio. At that point I was in command of the company, but I stayed focused on the remaining members of my platoon—about seven or eight of us left. Whole squads had gone down in minutes. The air was boiling with gunfire. It was deafening, not to mention terrifying. We were simply being outgunned in a very short time.
Darkness was setting in and we had dead and wounded and were disorganized to the point of being critical. There was no first sergeant, no senior NCOs to help organize a defensive position. We needed ammo, a medevac, reinforcements, anything. I made the call to pull back to the night location. High-tail it was more like it. We managed to take the walking wounded but had to leave others in the fight zone.
At our night location, battalion HQ wanted us to use explosives to blow a chopper LZ. We were to get a re-supply, a medevac dust-off, and a new CO, a Cpt. Royston. This came from the battalion CO, Lt. Col. Hickey, who was flying overhead in an effort to direct action on the ground. This was not going to work. We were in triple canopy jungle, and they could hardly make us out. He said ammo was on the way, but by the time it was dropped the choppers had pretty much lost our location. We ended up with about 20% of the ammunition re-supply. Guess who got most of it.
As for the much-needed medevac, intense fire caused the chopper pilot to delay an attempt until after dark. As it happened, a miracle I’d say, the heroic pilot hovered high overhead, taking hits all the while, and with the help of our strobe light on the end of M79s managed to extract three of our most serious with its penetrator. The guys just barely managed to hang on to the cable, bleeding as they were. But they made it. That was the only good thing to happen.
During the night, and no one slept, there were bursts of gunfire and explosions the entire time, but no attack. They were wearing us down for the morning. For support, we called in a snoopy gunship, but only on a limited basis. And no artillery. We were mainly afraid that they would hit our wounded still lying up at the old site, and our orders from Hickey were to search there for dead and wounded at first light. That’s right! Ordered to go back up with the NVA consolidating their position the whole night.
Well, we gave it a shot. I asked for volunteers to recover our people. Sgt. Sam Jones came forth and recruited about half of our remaining strength, about 25 men, to probe the area and make the recoveries. Jones’ patrol did not get a hundred meters before they got hit by a wall of fire. They bolted back into the perimeter after just minutes. Then we just waited. We had no more options.
The NVA were canny. They knew from radio messages that Bravo Company was trying to do a chopper assault to reinforce us. So some of there guys yelled, “Don’t shoot. It’s Bravo Company!” Kinda like the movies, I guess. And our guys fell for it. We relaxed, some stood up cheering, and they attacked in force. The right side began to collapse, and I saw we were about to get overrun. That is the worst thing imaginable. The last battalion order was to get all the dead and wounded collected, but that was out of the question. I knew what we had to do.
I met with key troops and we all agreed that we had to make a run for it. If we didn’t, we’d all be killed, an entire company up in smoke. I gave the word to pull back down the finger of the hill toward a dry creek bed. It would be tricky because we had to help as many of the wounded as possible. Everyone grabbed whatever and whoever they could and moved out. All the while we were under attack.
We had split into two basic groups as we moved off the hill and managed to assemble in the streambed. I recalled my training at that time and figured that by following a blue line that your chances of getting somewhere and going downhill were lots better than trying to hump through the jungle. We took off as fast as possible. Radio contact was nil due to low batteries, so we didn’t know if anyone from battalion was tracking us.
We were forced to play dodge and run with the NVA. We soon drew fire from the hillside. I needed to get out of the clearing, so I moved us onto a small hill. But there was movement in the undergrowth. So that wasn’t a good idea, so we pushed on toward another creek bed. It was then that we reestablished radio contact with battalion. This enabled their location to be mapped for a rescue attempt. A gunship was dispatched to cover us and kept the NVA at bay. The pilot said he could see “about 100 gooks” following us as we stumbled along the creek bed.
The chopper located a clearing. If we could get to it, there was a chance for an extraction. The rescue helos were on their way. But we had to fight a delaying action until they got there. As it happened, the pilot that spotted us was in a redbird armed with miniguns. We popped smoke at our rear, and between the rear-guard action that we set up and his firepower, we blew a big hole in the enemy ranks. It stopped their advance. The pilot then led us to the clearing and continued to cover us until the Hueys arrived to get us out. Which they did. Guys with uniforms half gone, some without weapons, clambered aboard with wounded buddies, and couple died en route. I was the last man out.
4: Ordeal at Base Camp
I was definitely not ready for what happened next. We were flown to the battalion base camp, LZ something or other. Little did I know it was a hornet’s nest of friendly fire, so to speak, and I was about to get stung. The battalion CO, Hickey, greeted me with some verbal daggers I wasn’t expecting. Here I was, wounded by lots of shrapnel, no sleep for two days, physically and mentally exhausted. I was spent. I was first told that I would get a dust off to a forward hospital aide station. Then, out of the blue, I had to answer some logic-defying questions from Hickey. I remember him demanding to know what happened to the X-mode radio and code key, a company commanders secret code book. I told him I didn’t know. As he got in my face and pressed the issue, I kept thinking I didn’t need this. Not now. I lost control.
It all came out. Here I was yelling at the battalion CO, a lieutenant colonel, that we had just been bait and they just let us die. They sent us in with a green captain and no experienced NCOs, no platoon sergeants or first sergeants. We were short a platoon leader, got no re-supply or reinforcements. Then he fired back about his order to bring back the dead and wounded and how he would have me court-martialed. That was it. I went after him. I wanted to beat the crap out of him. Someone grabbed me. It took very little force to stop me because all I remember after that was waking up in a hospital. All else was blank.
So, yes, I was almost court-martialed. My troops got wind of it and put up such a fuss that they dropped it. But there might have been more it, now that I think about it. The battalion and brigade brass definitely did not want out in the open all the ways they screwed the company. As for the Medal of Honor, it was my troops again who put me if for it. It didn’t get past the folks at the division level, but I received the next medal down, the Distinguished Service Cross.
After my hospital stay, I was reassigned to head up the recon platoon. For 35 years, I never again saw anyone from Company A or the battalion. If the Lord grants my prayers, I will visit each grave of the men who died in my third platoon. Even after all these years I cannot forget what happened on 3-4 March 1969. I believe there is no man who can possibly justify the loss of life those two fateful days.
Buddy Williams stayed in the Army and retired a lieutenant colonel after twenty years. He has recently retired from his second career with a sheriff’s department near Columbia, SC, where he lives with his wife. He was awarded the nation’s second highest combat decoration, The Distinguished Service Cross.
What the official records state: “At noon on 4 March, all contact with one group of Company A was lost. At 1500 hours Company D linked up with elements of Company A and extracted 59 personnel.”
---Annual Historical Summary, 1 January – 31 December 1969. Prepared by the Military History Office, Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-3, United States Army, Pacific, 1970.
“We were too late to save Company A. We didn’t link up with anybody until 8 March, and that was with a company from a different battalion.”
---Captain Milton C. Daugherty, Commanding Officer, Company D.
“Company A sustained 20 infantry KIA, one artilleryman KIA, and one engineer KIA. . . Casualty reporting was complicated by the loss of the Company headquarters element. No one else in the Company had a knowledge of the unit field strength or the whereabouts of the missing personnel. Consequently, Lieutenant Williams was unable to make an accurate account of his losses.”
---After Action Report filed 14 March 1969, LTC Pennel Hickey reporting officer.
“We did a head count as best we could that night. About 72 of us were left in the company. We called it in.”
---Lt. Buddy Williams
“I helped with a head count the night of the third. There were about 72 of us. Lt. Williams called it in.”
--Sgt. Sam Jones
“KIA—35, WIA—5, MIA—20. A Co. initially started with 115 men.”
---Entry in the battalion log, 2200 hours, 3 March 1969
II. The Myron Gwin Story
Emmett Myron Gwin was a Specialist E-4 and squad leader with ILT Williams’ 3rd platoon at age 19. Only two others in his squad survived the action on 3-4 March 1969.
I was living kind of a charmed life right after high school in 1967. I had received a partial scholarship for football and basketball with the help of one of the assistant coaches, to a college in Mississippi. I was to start college that fall. That summer, I had gotten a job with the Ga. Department of Transportation. I was working with a location survey crew. It was a dream job working outside staking new roads and highway locations. To complete the picture, I met a girl who lived in Rome, Ga., a neighboring city to Adairsville, that summer. She was a junior at Pepperell High School. Later that fall, we had gotten engaged. Everything was going great. I had decided not to go to college that fall, so I turned down my scholarship. A few months later, I received a letter congratulating me. I had been drafted by Uncle Sam.
I soon found myself at Fort Benning, Ga. in basic training, being told by my drill sergeant that we needed to get it together or we would die in Vietnam. I knew from the news on TV that there was a war going on, but I had not dreamed that I would be involved in it. After graduating from basic training, I found myself on the way to Fort McClellan, Alabama, for advanced infantry training. I had been in good shape and had excelled in physical training due to having played sports in school. I even received an extra stripe on my sleeve and was appointed as a section leader in my barracks. Now, all we heard is “Boy, you are going to die in Vietnam.” After advanced infantry training, I got a leave to go home and orders to report to Seattle, Washington to be shipped out to Vietnam. So, there I was, 19-years-old, drafted and in Vietnam. It got rough for me right away, when my squad leader got killed right next to me, with the result that Lt. Williams gave the squad to me. To top it off, my girlfriend sent me a Dear John letter.
As long as it has been since we saw action against the NVA, I have vivid recollections of those two days, March 3-4, 1969. After our insertion, we humped from early morning till mid afternoon and reached our supposed night location on a ridgeline up from the Plei Trap Valley. We weren’t too far from the Cambodian border, maybe a few kilometers.
Lieutenant Williams was the leader of our 3rd platoon, the company’s point platoon that day, and was told by our company commander, Captain Isom, to send out a two-man patrol to check the trail ahead. After a short distance, the patrol made contact with a lone NVA soldier who ran up the hill. No action took place at this time, and the incident was reported to Lt. Williams.
Cpt. Isom then sent Lt. Williams to recon the trail with the whole platoon. Williams moved his platoon some distance from the rest of the company and stopped his platoon at a clearing behind a log across the trail where they set up a perimeter. Then Williams took three men and moved farther ahead and found evidence that the NVA had been in the area recently. As they looked around, an NVA soldier sprang up and was shot dead by the point man. At this point, a machine gun behind another log opened fire at close range, but they were able to take it out with grenades. The patrol then pulled back to the platoon location.
It wasn’t long before the NVA increased their firepower on the platoon, and Williams reported to CO Isom that they were engaging a platoon or company-sized force that was hitting them from both sides and from the trees. The platoon was quickly pinned down and casualties mounted up.
Cpt. Isom said he was on his way with reinforcements. He had left one squad from each platoon at the night location and proceeded up the trail. By now the men of the 3rd platoon were fighting for their lives. Specialist-4 Barry Horton of the 3rd platoon weapons squad was one of the early casualties that day. He was a machine gunner up front with Lt. Williams and laid down a heavy field of fire that gave some of the men a chance to take some cover. When it looked like the NVA were about to overtake the front of the perimeter, Barry stood up and blasted them point-blank with his M60, tearing through their ranks. But with only one other man providing cover for him by now, he was taken down in a hail of enemy rounds. The other guy, Dennis Cole, was able to pull back with the rest of the squad.
Another M60 machine gunner was Ray Sowa. He was also laying down heavy fire with a guy we called Amigo. Amigo was a grenadier, armed with an M-79 grenade launcher. He also carried extra machine gun ammo. I was not too far from them, engaging the NVA on the right side with two of my squad members, PFC Michael England and PFC David Sieber. First Ray got hit, then Amigo took an AK47 round in the right side of his chest but was able to fall back behind a large tree to the right of Lt. Williams position.
Doc, the third platoon medic, had witnessed Amigo going down and ran up to treat him. Turns out that Amigo had a sucking chest wound. Doc asked me to help him with the bandages. And just when we finished, Doc saw that William’s RTO had been hit and wanted to help him. I advised him not to go because he would be wounded or killed himself, that Williams was pinned down into the NVA’s field of fire. Doc looked at me and said he had to go because that was his job. He made a dash toward the downed radio man, PFC Dusty. Just as he got by his side and reached down to help Dusty, Doc was hit by a blast and died instantly. As I looked on, I can recall now that I knew him only as Doc. Yet we were the best of friends. But I do know that Doc was a hero and died doing his job.
Lt. Williams and the rest of us continued to take increasing fire, with much of it from the treetops. The NVA were dropping grenades into our ranks. There was immense pressure on our flanks and there wasn’t much left of the platoon. But we continued to hold our position and waited for Cpt. Isom and reinforcements.
Anchoring a diminishing perimeter to the left of Lt. Williams were SPC-4 Buczolich, Willie Hudson, and Eugene Lail, Jr., whom we called “Junior.” They were taking heavy fire from a build up of NVA in front in an area of dense foliage, and it looked like all three had been hit but were still fighting the onslaught.
At this point, I was on Williams’ right with England and Sieber. We had fairly good cover due to a large tree trunk that shielded us from the fire from the trees. And from there we were able to spot the NVA building up for an advance on our position. But we had an advantage in that we had the high ground and they had to come up a slope. I gave the order to load up on ammo, have a full magazine locked and wait for the enemy to advance. Our tactic worked for the moment. When the NVA were about twenty meters from us, we opened up and cut down 10-15 and the rest scattered.
The rest of the third platoon was not as lucky. With fire coming from the front and sides, and raining down from the trees, most were killed or wounded. Buczolich, Hudson, and Lail looked all dead now, leaving the left side of the perimeter ripe for a breakthrough by the NVA. Lt. Williams himself took grenade shrapnel to his head and left side, but he was still active.
All of this took place very quickly, within 20-30 minutes I guess. Finally, Cpt Isom arrived with his headquarters element and proceeded toward Williams location. Strung out down the hill behind him were the 2nd, 4th, and 1st platoons in that order. The second platoon leader, Lt. Griffith was shot through the neck and died trying to reach Isom and Williams. Isom was on the radio calling the battalion commander and yelling that they were being overrun and needing air support asap.
Apparently Isom had gotten word that air support was near and was told to pop smoke to show our location. He gave that order to the second platoon, which by now had moved into position on the left side of the perimeter where most of the third was killed or wounded. At this time, Isom’s RTO got hit trying to dash for cover, and when Captain Isom went to his aid, he was killed instantly by a burst of machine gun fire across the chest.
So second platoon had popped some smoke in their location to air support. But as the smoke drifted, it also obscured the movements of the NVA. The NVA took advantage of the cover, advanced into the ranks of the second platoon and fired point blank into them.
Meantime, gun ships had arrived and began strafing the left side near the second platoon. But they were too close to our own troops. It looked like the ground jumped and shuddered from the high caliber weapons of the gunships. Lt. Williams immediately got on the horn and called off the choppers and yelled at the second platoon not to pop any more smoke. Upon Isom’s death, he knew to take charge of the company.
The first thing Williams did was order the survivors of the company to withdraw from the fight. The first and fourth platoons had not advanced to the battle line of the second and third platoon because they were pinned down back along the trail by sniper fire and grenades coming from the trees.
PFCs England and Seiber and myself were the last to pull back from the clearing. As we did so, we looked around to see if there were any men remaining. That’s when we spotted SP-4 Amigo, who had gotten the chest wound earlier, crawling across the clearing toward us. He had been separated from us during our attempts to keep the NVA off the right side slope during earlier fighting.
We also saw that SP-4 Coll was still firing at the enemy toward the front of the clearing. We yelled at him to pull back because we had gotten the order to withdraw. But when we yelled out, we started taking fire from the NVA. Coll had only joined the third platoon a few weeks earlier after being out with malaria. He refused to withdraw and yelled at everyone to come back. “Come back, you cowards. Come back, you cowards,” he cried out.
Providing fire cover, we yelled at Amigo to keep coming. Then Amigo was hit with a blast of enemy fire. At the same time, the three of us began taking AK47 fire from our right. I got shot in my right buttocks. I remember yelling, “I’m hit!” The round had gone through my wallet, which was wrapped in a plastic bag. No doubt it kept it from being all that serious. I was able to keep the pace.
Then Seiber yelled that he was hit, too. When I looked at Seiber and then at England, I could tell England was hit bad from the look on his face. Then something strange happened. I looked over my right shoulder into a tree. I spotted a V.C. dressed only in a loincloth, reloading his AK47. I took aim and fired. I got off one round but then my M16 jammed. I stood up and tried to unjam the thing, all the while keeping an eye on the V.C. As a little bit of panic started to set in, I then saw him sway back and forth in the branches. There was a hole in his chest and he fell head first from the tree.
I looked again at England and Seiber and told them we had to pull back as I worked on my jammed rifle. Then I was hit again. And lucky again. This time it was in my helmet, but the round wasn’t straight on. It grazed my forehead, passed through the patrol maps stashed in the liner, and exited out the top back of the pot.
So I started to move back down the trail, thinking England and Seiber were right behind. They weren’t. I got about 10 meters, turned around and saw they weren’t moving. I started back when I heard a different troop yell out, “Help me, I’m hit!” I impulsively replied, “Hell, I’m hit, too!” By this time I finally got my rifle freed up, chambered a round, and reached down to help the wounded guy. His right ankle was all bloody and almost blown off. And he tried walking using his rifle as a crutch. About that time, another grunt appeared and helped me with the wounded man. I asked the new guy if he could handle the wounded by himself and he said he could.
Enemy fire had let up a lot. I went back up toward the clearing. Seiber and England were dead. I saw nothing else moving, only heard what sounded like an M16 rifle firing off a few rounds and the dreaded sound of a crackling AK47. I knew it had to be Specialist Coll still at it. Then the M16 firing stopped. I know now that by disobeying orders to withdraw, Coll had helped save lives by buying us time in the rear to regroup. I returned to our company perimeter and reported to Lt. Williams. I told him I was the last man back and explained about Coll covering for us.
After reporting to Lt. Williams, I found the few guys left in my squad. We dug in for an expected attack. The NVA were obviously regrouping. Lieutenant Flannigan, the artillery forward observer for Company A, was the only other officer left. He called for artillery and gunship support. We did not get artillery support at this time, but the gunships came and helped secure the area. Meantime, Lt. Williams called battalion for emergency re-supply. It took forever for the re-supply choppers to find us due to poor visibility. The jungle canopy was so dense it prevented the ships’ pilots from pinpointing our location. One supply helicopter did locate us finally. Sgt Sam Jones, acting as fourth platoon leader, was on the radio and helped guide the pilot in by listening to the sound of the chopper blades. It managed to drop claymores, ammo, and trip flares to help secure our night location perimeter. But about half the re-supply fell outside of our perimeter and rolled down the steep incline to be recovered by the NVA we later realized.
A short time later before it got dark, a radio call came in on the company frequency. It was SP4 Ray Sowa, the machine gunner who was hit early on. He was lying wounded in the forward contact area and needed help. Lt. Williams organized a patrol and they went back into the contact area. Sowa was located without incident and the patrol began its return. Then they heard a groan from another wounded man. Unbelievably, it was Amigo. He had been shot twice more, in the neck and hand, this to go with his bandaged sucking chest wound. Williams’ patrol now had two survivors from the initial contact.
Back inside the night location perimeter, Williams called for a dust-off medical evacuation for the three most badly wounded, Sowa, Amigo, and the man with the shredded ankle I had helped earlier. It took a long time for the chopper to maneuver into position. The wounded had to go out by litter baskets extended by cables, since there was nowhere to land. In the process, the pilot took small arms fire and dodged two B40 rockets.
After the dust off, it got quiet for quite a while. Then “Spooky,” the AC47 fixed-wing gunships were sent out to spray its red string of fire through the night sky around the contact area and our tight company perimeter. This lasted all night, and the sound of artillery could be heard in the distance.
When darkness fell, Lt. Williams came around the perimeter and told the remaining squad leaders that were left, to have a couple of their men to try and get some sleep and switch with each other every couple of hours. But I don’t think that anyone slept at all that night. I sat back against a tree by a newly dug foxhole and though about what Ray Sowa had told me before he was medevacked out:
He said that after we pulled back from the contact area, the NVA walked around checking for any grunts who were still alive. They had spotted Junior (That would have been Lail, who I thought was dead) lying with his chest heaving up and down. He was still alive and breathing. Then the NVA killed him with a burst across the chest with an AK. Then two NVA walked over to Sowa, who was playing dead, doing his best not to move a muscle. One of them fired two rounds into the ground by the right side of his head before moving onto other grunts and firing into them. Sowa said the NVA stacked the grunts’ bodies in a pile and some of them began passing out medals to the others. He said it looked like they were having a ceremony to celebrate their victory.
That’s what I was thinking at that moment that night. At least Sowa made it out. Then I thought about Junior’s fate. I recalled another time when Junior saved an entire patrol by having an urgent call of nature. We had set up an ambush, and then Junior says he has to go bad, grabs an entrenching tool and goes right out in front of our ambush location and proceeds to take his pants down. Just then about twenty VC come down this trail we’d been watching all night long. Junior freezes in place, looking right at the gooks. They see him, turn tail and take off running back the way they came. Funniest damn thing. I guess they saw us too, but I counted twenty or more of them, and we were saved a hell of a fight. Junior took a lot of ribbing on how his white backside had run the VC off and saved our tail.
It had been a long, drawn out night for the remaining survivors of Alpha Company, waiting for an attack that did not materialize. Early morning had finally arrived. Lieutenant Williams had been directed by higher-up to have a landing zone cleared at first light and to send out a patrol to secure the bodies of the killed and to search for survivors in the previous day contact area. Sergeant Jones, the acting 4th platoon leader, had organized a platoon-sized force to move up the trail. No sooner than the patrol cleared the perimeter, when the NVA opened up on the point element. While Jones and a few others returned fire, the rest of them came hustling back inside, diving for cover. Jones and a few others were able to return fire before all of them returned safely.
Then all hell broke loose. The NVA began to lay down heavy machine gun fire to the front and sides of our location. They had either disconnected or turned around our claymore mines. When we tried to set them off, they either did not work or blasted toward us. Then they threw satchel charges into the perimeter. And besides using their AKs, I could tell they had our M16 rifles, M79 grenade launchers, and M60 machine guns captured the day before. It also confirmed that they found the ammo dropped by chopper that rolled down the hill the day before.
At this time Lt. Flannigan tried to call in artillery, but it did not reach us. The NVA would have been too close for them to fire for effect anyway without hitting us grunts in the process. We were then able to set off a second round of claymores that put a temporary lull in the enemy fire, but it soon came roaring back. And this time it was heavier, and they were again in the trees firing and dropping grenades on us. I could see the NVA almost in the perimeter.
All of a sudden it quieted down and we heard yelling in English from the right side of the perimeter, “Don’t shoot, it’s Bravo Company! Don’t shoot, it’s Bravo Company!” We had been told by higher-up the day before that Company B had been dropped off close by and were in route humping to reinforce us. As soon as we heard them holler, we jumped up and yelled “Come on! Come on!” But when we saw gooks coming straight at us into the perimeter, we knew quickly that Charlie had fooled us.
I saw 3rd platoon members fighting hand-to-hand with the NVA on the north side. I was on the backside with Daley and Paul, two of the brothers in my squad. We were firing up into the trees at the NVA on the front side of the perimeter. All at once I heard a blood-curdling scream come from the middle of the perimeter. Then a grunt, I think he was from the first platoon, came running by me and off the backside of the hill. Then more Alpha Company members started off the hill after him.
This was when a grenade was thrown at us from the trees, and I tried to dive back into my foxhole. When the grenade went off, I felt shrapnel hit my forearms but managed to resume firing into the trees along with Daley and Paul. I could see Lt. Williams on the left front of the perimeter. He had seen the men run off the backside of the hill. I guess that’s when he decided to have the company to pull back, because they all were headed our way. We were getting low on ammo now, having fought for 30-40 minutes straight. The grunts began to help wounded as we began our withdrawal. Some of the wounded were being carried. I still had my M16 and a bandoleer of ammo around my neck, but a lot of the guys were without weapons or ammo as we fled down the trail.
We followed a ridgeline that led down to the bottom of the hill. Lt. Williams was regrouping what was left of Alpha Company and was trying to contact battalion. But the radio batteries were too weak to get through. So Williams headed us in a westerly direction in a single file to a small streambed. The NVA were firing at us from the top of the hill. We saw a squad of them running down the hill after us. After we had been moving a while, we began to hear movement in back of us. Lt. Williams moved the company to a small mole top and then we spotted the enemy coming up the streambed. We ambushed them and kept them busy with the lone M60 we had left and some M16s as Williams sent the wounded to the front of the company.
We moved off the mole top to another small streambed, with slow going because of the several badly wounded men. One man with a collapsed lung, and barely hanging on, looked like the walking dead. But Lt. Williams at least was able to make radio contact with an observation “loach” helicopter trying to find us. The pilot told Williams that the enemy forces were spread out in back of us in a wide line closing in. We had to give the wounded a chance to rest, so Lt. Williams led a detachment, which included me, back to ambush and stall the NVA advance. This would give the wounded a chance to gain a little ground.
At last a gunship showed up, probably guided by the loach chopper, and provided enough furious firepower to cover our withdrawal. With the smaller chopper leading the way, we made it a landing zone clear enough for larger “slick” evacuation ships to get in and out. At the extraction point, Lt. Williams set up a small perimeter with those able to fire. We waited. And waited. It seemed like an eternity before the first slick dropped into the clearing and hovered above ground level. Williams and Lt. Flannigan loaded the most severely wounded first. Meanwhile, the gunship and loach continued to circle and be our guardian angels as the extraction was nearing completion. What a sight for sore eyes. Williams and rest of the rear guard were on the last birds out. It was the end of two days of personal hell on earth.
7. End of the Line
Once in the air, the crew chief or door gunner passed out cigarettes and gave us some water. I have given up smoking now, but I can still remember how good that smoke was on the way back to LZ Pause. We had to be a pitiful looking bunch of grunts. We were all exhausted, bloody, and some almost naked from the fighting and the tracking through the thick jungle.
We were at Pause only a little while, and then it was on to Firebase Brace. The ones who did not go to the rear to be treated for wounds stayed at Brace. I had several nicks from rifle bullets and a little shrapnel, but nothing the medics there couldn’t treat. So I would stay in the field. As a small-world aside, when I mentioned my home town to the medic, it turned out that he was the first cousin of my best buddy in high school.
We heard that Lt. Williams had been called back to the rear to higher headquarters for debriefing on our action of the last two days. The rest of Alpha Company, after a few days, was used to pull security and run sweeps outside the perimeter of LZ Brace. After going on a sweep, I was sitting in my bunker when I heard a familiar voice. “Man, you’re supposed to be dead!” It was Phil, a brother from the 3rd platoon who had been on R&R during the demise of Company A. He was so excited to see me alive that he squeezed into the cramped bunker, grabbed me up and gave me a huge bear hug. It did something to me, I guess, for I started to cry for the first time since the battle. I had felt like crying before them, but the tears never came. From that moment on, I felt better.
A few weeks later we found out that Lt. Williams was going to be court-martialed. The charges were that he did not follow orders by abandoning the hill on the 4th and failing to recover the dead from the fight of the 3rd. We, the survivors of Alpha Company, were mad as hell when we found out they were going to court martial Lt. Williams! We got together and wrote a letter to division headquarters, signed by all, and the charges were dropped. Not only that, but we contacted the company medal clerk and filed paper work that put Lt. Williams in for the Congressional Medal of Honor. We knew that Lt. Williams was the one who had saved our lives on March 3-4. He was the one who got us out alive.
We stayed on Firebase Brace for three or four more weeks while replacements came into the ranks of Alpha. Then we were sent right back up to the same place we were wiped out before. I didn’t know it had a name, but it was all a part of Operation Wayne Grey. While most of the original survivors got new orders, I got sergeant stripes, got a few medals, and even got to break in a new lieutenant as we prepared for a new round of action in a place called “VC Valley.”
Myron Gwin lives in Adairsville, GA, with his wife. He retired as a Construction Project Manager with the Georgia Department of Transportation. He told no one of his ordeal for 15 years: “Seldom a day goes by that I am not haunted by the memories of March 3rd and 4th, 1969 and my Vietnam experience as a whole.” He was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action.
III. The John “Sam” Jones Story
Sam Jones was a sergeant E5 and squad leader in the fourth platoon. After the company’s withdrawal from the killing zone of 3 March to its night location, plans were made for a return to retrieve dead and wounded. Volunteering to lead this rescue mission, Jones’ point element met furious resistance from the NVA and had to retreat. Severely wounded and disoriented by a hand grenade, which killed the two soldiers next to him, he lost his sense of direction when the order came to withdraw down the hill and fled in a different direction. Separated from his company and using his wits to avoid capture, he stumbled into a friendly fire base ten days later.
If anyone ever suggested that I could get lost in Vietnam for ten days and survive, I would have laughed. Soldiers always have company, lots of buddies. But barely 24 into our new mission, that’s what happened. I had been in country for about five months, so I was an old timer, and this was just another recon patrol mission. I had arrived in Nam as a sergeant and was named a squad leader with Alpha Company. I thought I’d be just a private, but after I got drafted, they sent me to NCO school to become a sergeant, E-5. We were often called, “Shake and bakes.”
Now, March 3 started off with the usual hump. We were at our night location by mid afternoon. Our CO, Cpt. Isom, sent Lt. Williams’ 3rd platoon ahead to recon up the trail while we set up the perimeter. It wasn’t long before we heard the familiar crackle of small arms fire, so we knew we had company. The firing grew in strength, and the crump sounds of frags led us to believe it was getting big. Then Isom is on the horn with the 3rd platoon and all of a sudden is off in the lead with most of the rest of the company to reinforce the third platoon. We get strung out along the trail and are soon pinned down by snipers. It was hard to tell what was happening ahead, but all I remember was that every time we tried to move, snipers opened up.
Next thing we knew is that Lt. Williams comes running down the trail telling everyone to pull back. I thought it was because they were going to call in artillery or air strikes. After falling back to the perimeter, I learn that Cpt. Isom is dead and half of HQ, and the second platoon leader is dead. We set up a hasty perimeter, dig in as best we can and expect a new attack any time. I didn’t know what size element we had run into. I figured we had run into an ambush.
After about an hour, there was a radio call from one of our guys up the hill that was still alive and calling for aid. So six men were sent back up to get him, or at least check on resistance. They didn’t make any enemy contact and discovered one more guy there still alive with a chest wound and brought them both back down. The one with the radio said he was only shot in the hand and played dead when the gooks came to mop us the area and shoot anyone still alive. But he said that when the jets started coming in the gooks left real fast. That’s why the guys were able to come back and get him and the other guy out okay. Late that night in the dark, we were able to get both of them and another wounded guy out on a chopper. Hardly anyone slept. We went around taking a head count and came up with about 72 of us left in the company.
The next morning I became more directly involved in the action. Lt. Williams and I were dug in right beside each other. He was now our CO, and he got word to send a unit back up to retrieve the dead and wounded. It fell naturally on me to lead the team, about 25 of us. Thing is, we didn’t get very far. They were back in force and waiting for us. We had moved only about 75 meters up the trail when they opened up with intense fire. Five of us up front covered the quick withdrawal of the others. As the enemy fire increased, I rolled behind a log and continued to return fire. But then my rifle got hit bad and jammed up. I shouted to the other four that we were to get back using the fire and maneuver technique to leap-frog back to the perimeter.
It took time, but it worked. Along the way back I picked up a machine gun and managed to empty all the available ammo at the gooks before I was forced to throw it down and catch up with the others. All five of us got back okay.
But we hardly caught our breath before the big attack came. We were getting grenades in the perimeter, shot at from two sides and from the trees. We blew off our claymores. The gooks were real close to coming through, now, and we kept firing away, picking them off and tossing frags. Then the order came to pull back down the hill, but we didn’t hear it. Guys are pulling back, leaving the flank exposed. I don’t know what goes on, but we decide to follow. But before we can get out, a B-40 rocket blows up and kills a couple guys next to me. I get stunned and my orientation goes haywire. By the time I come around, everyone is gone. I start running down the hill, but there is no one else around. I know I’m running in a different direction, but all I can think of is to get away.
2. Escape, the Friendlies, and the Tiger
I headed toward a parallel ridgeline and went down the other side. Dizzy and exhausted, I found a rotten, hollow log and hid there. It dawned on me that maybe I shouldn’t get too far away, that our troops might be coming back to the area. So I made camp in the log. I took stock of my situation and found no rifle, one grenade, a compass, a pocket knife and a Red Cross metal mirror. A plastic battery bag came in handy later on as a canteen.
No friendly forces returned that first day or the next, but I kept up hope. I stayed around for five days, never more that a click away from our point of contact sort of expecting maybe Bravo or Delta company might make an appearance. No dice. I kept alive by going down to this little stream at night to fill up with water. I mainly just drank to stay alive, but later I tried some leaves. Then I told myself that the leaves might make me sick, so I gave that idea up. The jungle animals were a temptation, too. Squirrel-like critters frittered about but the trick was to catch them. I thought that when I really became desperate I could use my boot laces for a bow string. The arrows would be easy to make.
On day three, I thought my patience had paid off. I heard the approach of gunships and grabbed my mirror. I’d try to signal the pilot. I ran to the center of a clearing and lay next to a log on my back, mirror out. I’m not sure if the chopper pilot saw the signal, but a sniper sure did. A couple of rounds fell nearby and within a minute I was off to a heavy woodline. There went my chance to get a nice lift out.
I developed a survival mentality in a few days. My hideaways were different every night. American artillery was shelling the hill, so invariably I sought resting places among rocks big enough to keep me safe from shrapnel. And I didn’t sleep on leaves. I brushed them aside so I wouldn’t roll over and give my position away with the sound of crackling.
One night, I think it was the fourth day, I awoke to very loud voices which seemed to be closing in on my location. I steeled for another evasive move. But it was a false alarm, much to my relief. It was a low flying plane with a loud speaker system doing a Chieu Hoi broadcast in Vietnamese trying to get the gooks to give up. I had my best chance on the fifth day, when I heard the familiar cry “Fire in the hole!” in English, no less, coming from our original ridgeline location. It was our troops back sweeping for Alpha bodies, including my own, and trying to blow a landing zone for the choppers. Apparently the gooks had pulled stakes since I heard no action. I was quite far away at the time and wary of a direct run--I’d had some sniper fire--so I moved on their location quickly, but under cover. Since they weren’t looking for me, I’d have to get right up within earshot to get their attention.
Using cover also put me out of sight of the LZ, even though I could now hear the choppers coming and going. I got as close as the next ridgeline to have a clear look, but by then there were no choppers or voices. The place was on fire. I still needed to find out if anyone was still around, so I got as close as about 100 meters, listening to bamboo popping in flames. I couldn’t get any closer, so I stayed put behind a tree until dark. The fire burned down, still no voices. I was about to make a final move when artillery opened up on the position, sending me skidattling back. That answered my question.
Having missed that golden opportunity, I knew it was time to move on. No more of our troops were coming back. So on the sixth day I took out my compass and drew a bead on where I thought the sound of our artillery was coming from. As long as they were shelling, I had a rough direction. I started at first light and humped all day. I tried a night movement once by moonlight, but the terrain was irregular with lots of dropoffs. Meanwhile, I noticed that at least my head wound seemed to be on the mend. So, despite my nagging hunger, it helped to have a plan and I grew more confident.
The seventh day passed without incident. Luckily, the artillery, sporadic as it was, still provided a sense of assurance. I kept telling myself I was getting closer to the base. But on the eighth day, I got a real scare. A damned tiger nearly forced me to blow my cover. I woke up with a funny feeling that someone was looking at me. Well, that someone was a big tiger in a frozen stare right at me, about 15 meters away. My mind flashed back a few months to an earlier run-in with a tiger. I was leading a short-range patrol. At night we set up in a kind of line, and a tiger grabbed the last guy and hauled him off. In the morning, we followed the trail of blood and found the body almost all gone with the skull crushed.
Needless to say, I was in no mood to suffer the same fate. I reached for my grenade very slowly. I didn’t want to use it because I knew the explosion would give away my position, but there was no way I’d let the tiger get me without a fight, either. I jumped up, ready to hurl it. So what does the cat do? Turns tail and runs! Mumbling to myself about not needing any more of this shit, I take my pocket-knife and fashion a five foot spear.
3. Those Lovely American Voices
The ninth day passed and I knew I was gaining good ground. The terrain was flattening out and I could hear the shelling more clearly. I knew I was going to make it. As it turned out, I was heading for Fire Base Mary Lou, about 25 kilometers from where we took off on the original mission. In a sense, I was coming full circle. Not to mention, I was feeling a lot safer and bold enough to move more quickly in the open.
On the tenth and last day I knew I was close enough to take it on in. I made for a stream for a last drink. God knows I was thirsty, hungry, exhausted, utterly spent. But still upbeat. I was near, very near. Then from the undergrowth I hear American voices! A few troops were on the opposite bank providing security for others bathing in the water. What a sight!
Well, I said to myself I had been through too much to be shot now, especially by Americans. So the first word out of my mouth was a loud “Friendly!” They directed me to a shallow spot where I crossed with their help. They couldn’t believe that I had been humping around in the jungle for ten days without a weapon. The took me to the first sergeant of a company with the 1st battalion of the 28th infantry who immediately notified my unit that I was alive. A medic gave me a quick check up. Aside from losing 25 pounds, I was in good shape. They fed me and gave me some new fatigues to wear, but all I could think of was to first take a cool swim in the stream.
A dust off took me to the 71st Evac med station for a thorough physical. It was there I was able to contact my parents by phone. They had been notified that I was missing in action. It wasn’t a great connection and I was speaking with an unstable voice. They found it hard to believe what I was telling them or that it was even me. My dad even put me to a test. “Okay,” he says, “What color is our barn, son?”
“Charcoal brown, dad, charcoal brown.”
“Thank God, son.”
Sam Jones was sent back to the states within five days of the action, never to return to Vietnam. He served out his time at Fort Benning, GA, helping train officer candidates in field tactics. He retired as a manager with United Parcel Service and lives in Dadeville, Alabama, with his wife Cathy.
Editor’s Notes Regarding Artillery Support:
“We could hear some artillery in the distance, but it didn’t come close to our location all night long. All we had was gunship support. And I did not know that Bravo Company was coming to help us.”
---Sgt. Sam Jones
“I monitored the battalion frequency all night long. There was no activity on the artillery channel and Alpha Company.”
---First Lieutenant Hank Castillon, Artillery Forward Observer for Delta Company.
“Unable to employ Arty as of yet due to lack of commo. A Co. is 200 meters W of contact and Arty.”
---Brigade log entry, 1800 hours, 3 March 69.
IV. The Al Jacquez Story
Al Jacquez volunteered for the Army and was 19 in March 1969. He served in the fourth platoon, led by a staff sergeant.
I've been going over and over in my head, and my best guest is 30 made it out March 4. Just remember there weren’t that many choppers, but on the first two to leave guys were trying to jump on to the skids to get on as they were taking off. Some reports say there were up to 36 but I don't think so.
I disagree with Col. Hickey that we were assigned a safe area, even with a captain with no infantry MOS, as our leader. They sent us in because of Alpha’s history: as the command analysis states, A Co. was a well-trained, combat-hardened unit. It had participated in the action in the Dak Payou Valley and was adept at the type of warfare employed in Vietnam. With the artillery fire throughout the night it is true we pretty much we went without any sleep that night.
The following morning, Lt. Williams sent us in to secure the bodies. We were up front when the enemy engaged us. I fired about three clips and had the gunners to my right firing away, Melvin Chester and Calvin Dubose. Sgt. Jones was to my left, and the rest of the men had run back to their foxholes. Jones told everyone to pull back and I saw the gunners pull back and when I started backing up my M16 was hit and knocked me back behind the log. The M16 just like exploded and flew out of my hands. So I was on my belly caught between my company and the enemy and I thought that was it, as I was looking back at my company I was hoping they weren’t going to shoot me, I never saw Sgt Jones come back.
When I heard our men calling for a medic, Doc from NY, jumped out of his foxhole and started to work on a wounded brother. When I saw this, I crawled in his foxhole next to Sgt Clark. I had no weapon, so I was down looking straight up and could see their was an enemy in the tree above us. I could see the flash and tree shaking like crazy and told Clark about it. He was freaking out because he couldn’t see him. He handed me his weapon and said to shoot him, so I shot right into the tree and out he fell.
Clark grabbed his weapon right back. He was running low on ammo when all of sudden someone yelled out that Bravo Co. was coming and we almost jumped out with joy only to find out it was the NVA! After a few minutes they said to bail, so I scrambled out the foxhole. I saw Fields and Burton dead, still in their foxholes to my left. I had a gash on my leg but not enough to slow me down as I went head first down the hill. As I found my bearings, I caught up with our guys. Since I didn’t have a weapon, I started helping carry the guys who couldn’t move. We took turn carryings some of the guys.
Then I could see the Loch flying overhead that led us to a clearing on the creek bed. I looked at Doc when we in middle of all this, and he looks at me and just shakes his head. That Doc was a hell of a hero that day. The choppers started landing and we were throwing the guys on board and some guys were hanging on the sleds.
We finally made it to the firebase. As I got off, I saw Julian Hernandez and Felix Hernandez from Bravo Co. waiting to fly out to our area. Julian said they thought we were all dead. Lt Williams checked to see how everyone was and if anyone needed attending. Col. Hickey came around and started yelling at us to get a hold and be soldiers. You see, 11 of our guys were reported missing and they had called their families. So these 11 went immediately to the rear to call their families to say that they were okay. Some thought they didn’t have to come back out to the field because they were reported missing. Others got jobs back in the rear, and some I never saw again.
Hickey asked if anyone would press charges on Buddy for leaving men behind, and he got a rude response from us. We said like, “What, are you crazy?” If Buddy hadn’t pulled us out I’d be dead.
Back in the World, Al Jacquez finished his three years in the Army doing burial detail work. He has since retired with the USPS and lives with his wife Isabel in Los Osos, California. They have two sons and three grandchildren.
V. The Julio Leon Story
Julio Leon was a draftee and by March ’69 a Specialist E4 patrol leader in Lt. Buddy William’s third platoon.
After the fight on March 3rd, it seems like my mind went into a shut-down mode on 4 March. The body goes into a power outage. Doesn’t compute. As to how many of us were there, we never had an accurate count. We barely had 88 men to begin with. This whole thing was a failure right from the start. We never had an accurate account of the casualties. I’d say we only had 50 men that night of the 3rd. A couple guys got dusted off in the night. They played dead and managed to get to a radio and say they were alive, and we managed to get them out.
I just don’t remember the 4th that well. I only remember enemy contact in a ravine down the hill. They were behind us and on our flanks. We must have humped seven kilometers to the extraction point after getting off the hill. Seems like 15-20 were left around waiting for the birds. There weren’t a lot of guys getting lifted out of there.
We put a priority on the birds, the worst wounded got on first. We waited till our turn came. I remember flying right back over where we had our contact. The pilot made a 180 and flew us around to where we just were. Sort of more around it than right over the site where we were overrun. That night at the firebase we saw NVA trucks moving to our old location, a convoy. Our guys were firing 155s and you could see explosions as the shells penetrated the canopy.
As to when we arrived at the firebase, at least 20 of us made it back. I know for sure at least 11 us got off the choppers. That’s because for some reason battalion had reported 11 of us as MIA and sent telegrams home. That starts the whole scam. But we were all there, and they told us right away to call our parents to say we were okay. Eleven mistakes on the Westerngrams sent home to parents. That’s what seems funny about this whole thing. The numbers don’t match.
Not only that, but they reported me KIA! Here I am looking at the Army Times with my name listed KIA on March 3rd. I’m looking at the paper and I’m dead! That’s how bad the reporting was. One interesting thing about the AAR is the NVA body count. There was no way there was an enemy body count. It just didn’t happen.
Another thing was that once on the ground, Williams checked around to see if we were all okay. And then we learn Hickey, or whatever his name is, says the LT was going up on charges of cowardice in the face of the enemy. There was no way we were going to let that happen. There was even talk about fragging Hickey.
Nothing went right from the time we saw enemy movement. As far as our CO, Cpt. Isom was concerned, someone must not have liked him. They sent him up against the best fighting force. I think it was a setup.
Julio Leon is retired from the Department of Defense Logistic Agency. He divides his time between his Mexico and California residences. He has a son, a granddaughter, and a passion for sport fishing.
2008 John F. Bauer