Operation Wayne Grey, March 1969
Revisiting the Casualty Numbers: The Tragedy of Co A, 3/8 Infantry.
The following account is an overview of the actions of Alpha Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Infantry, from 2-4 March 1969 during the Vietnam War. It is written to provide answers to questions for the survivors and as a legacy for the families and friends of those who served. After Action Reports and Battalion Logs were used to provide time line details. Soldiers who participated are encouraged to use this accounting as a building block upon which to add their own perspectives.
The scene was reminiscent of the last act in the movie Platoon: headquarters elements of Company D were tuned into the battalion radio frequency and listened to a mixture of panic and gunfire as Company A HQ was being overrun and its company commander killed.
In March of 1969, II Corp’s 4th Infantry Division launched Operation Wayne Grey. Its purpose was to engage and neutralize the 66th NVA regiment and supporting elements, which intelligence reports said were staging for attacks against Kontum City and the Special Forces camp at Polei Kleng in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. The major force committed to the operation was the 1st Brigade, and spearheading the assault was the 3rd Battalion, 8th Infantry.
Within 48 hours after initial enemy contact, Company A ceased to exist as a fighting unit. Evidence suggests that there were approximately 40 survivors from an infantry company of 115 men. Such a major loss may have been a newsworthy event at the time, such as the 4th ID’s clashes at Dak To two years earlier, but bad news appears to have been well managed by the brigade during Operation Wayne Grey. Eyewitness testimony and declassified documents contributed to the following account of what happened to Co. A, 3rd Battalion, 8th Infantry, 3-4 March 1969:
It happened quickly. Company A had been lifted into it area of operation (AO) on 2 March and commenced a northeasterly sweep. It established a night location without incident. The company continued its offensive operation into new ground on 3 March and proceeded up a trail on the finger of a ridgeline. At 1540 it began to set up its new night location. While an ambush squad was left behind to cover the company’s rear, LT William’s third platoon was to set up along the trail in a forward position away from the main body of the company.
Williams sent two men forward to reconnoiter the trail running up the ridgeline. The team surprised an NVA soldier who ran up the hill. Upon hearing of the incident, Company A commanding officer, CPT Isom, decided to dispatch William’s platoon to investigate. The artillery forward observer, LT Flannigan, had advised Isom to prep the area with an artillery barrage first, but Isom declined. Williams moved his platoon up the trail and set up his squads in a perimeter behind a log across the trail. Then, with three others, he went forward to a point where they found the deserted location of an NVA observation post. Shortly after, the point man shot and killed one NVA as others sprang from bushes. Then a machine gun opened fire on them. They silenced it with grenades and withdrew quickly to the platoon perimeter. Soon the enemy began to engage William’s platoon from the flanks. He reported to Isom that he was in “major contact” and began receiving casualties from what he considered to be a platoon or company-sized force.
In reaction to Williams report, CPT Isom left several squads behind in the night location and began an attempt to reinforce Williams with the main body of his company. Isom’s HQ element led the way, followed by the 2nd, 4th, and 1st platoons. But as the company was strung out along the trail, it began to take serious hits from snipers firing from trees. The HQ element managed to reach the third platoon, but the balance of the company was pinned down under intense fire and remained strung out along the trail. Second platoon leader, LT Griffith, was killed while trying to advance his platoon into the third’s perimeter.
By 1635 William’s 3rd platoon, along with Isom’s HQ element, was fully engaged by a reported battalion-size force. Artillery was called in and gunships flew to their aid. Casualties mounted quickly. Among them was CPT Isom, killed while going to the aid of his radioman (RTO), who was also killed. With this loss, situation reports going to battalion HQ became sketchy. The troops holding the west side of the perimeter were either dead or wounded and the entire weapons squad of the 3rd platoon had been killed. The company’s radio transmissions on the battalion frequency were at this point being monitored by the headquarters element of Company D. Along with Company B, Company D had been sent to reinforce Alpha. But it, too, had also made serious enemy contact and withdrew into a perimeter on nearby Hill 947.
Upon CPT. Isom’s death, LT Williams assumed command of the company and withdrew his force to join the other company elements and secure a night location. Under withering gunfire as the withdrawal was underway, Williams was unable to retrieve all of the severely wounded. By 1800, however, the company’s position was consolidated and another attempt to retrieve the wounded from the old location was ordered. It was driven back by heavy fire, but not until two of the wounded were retrieved. The casualty count by this time was 50% in persons KIA, WIA, and “some missing.” At this time, there were 68 men within the company perimeter. They requested immediate re-supply of guns and ammunition and a dust-off (helicopter) for the wounded. It was not until 2300 that a dust-off would able to extract several wounded despite heavy ground fire. Later that night soldiers could hear sporadic gunfire from the third platoon’s old location. With the help of AC-47 (Spooky) gunships and artillery, the company survived the night. By this time, radio communication had become extremely weak and had to be relayed through helicopters.
The casualty toll for Alpha as reported by the log entry on 3 March at 2211 hours, which would have been sent by LT Williams with his best estimate under high-stress conditions: 35 KIA’s, 5 WIA’s, and 20 MIA’s. These numbers contrast with a 14 March AAR (After Action Report), written for the commanding general by the brigade chief of staff, as reported by the battalion CO. This “official” AAR records only 17 KIA’s and 10 WIA or MIA at this time.
At 0940 on 4 March, Company A was in contact again, mostly from tree snipers. LT Williams received orders to return to the old location to secure the bodies left in the previous contact area. A 26-man team was sent on this mission, but it met with such heavy fire it had to withdraw back into the company perimeter. The perimeter then came alive with fire from all sides, much of it coming from captured American weapons: small arms, M79 grenade launchers, M60 machine guns, and grenades tossed from trees. B-40 rockets were also launched at them. Then, from the north side, the Americans heard yells in English, “Hey, Joe, don’t shoot. It’s Bravo.” But the voices were not from Americans. Alpha had been radioed that Company B had been sent to reinforce them, but this transmission had apparently been picked up by the NVA from captured American radios. The NVA responded with an old trick. They had lured the Americans out of their foxholes. An entire NVA platoon charged into their ranks.
The company was under enormous pressure, so Williams gave the order to withdraw down the hill. One man bolted out of the perimeter and was not seen until two days later after stumbling into an artillery base. The last to leave the area was a SGT Jones, who had temporarily lost his hearing and was separated from the company. He spent ten days evading before he, too, appeared at a firebase. In addition, one Alpha soldier, PFC Guffy, had become an NVA POW but was rescued in a Company D ambush the next day.
Adding to the confusion, communication with Alpha was lost by 1030 on 4 March, and so was its location. During this time, Williams was forced to play dodge and run with the NVA. His first attempt to consolidate his troop was in a creek bed. But he soon drew fire from the hillside. He then established the company on a small hill, but he could hear movement in the undergrowth. This prompted them to abandon this position and pushed on toward another creek bed. It was then that the company reestablished radio contact with battalion. This enabled their location to be mapped for a rescue attempt. Meantime, the NVA were in pursuit, kept at bay by marauding gunships, which reported seeing “100 gooks.” During this whole time, Company B was twice sent in the relieve A, but each time was driven back from “hot” LZs. An “urgent D/O (dust off)” was called in for Alpha at 1440 with airship support.
Finally, a small LOH (Loach) helicopter was able to guide them to a creek-bed clearing where choppers, in a valiant effort, could hover close enough for them to scramble aboard. The final extraction of the remains of Company A took place at 1535 hours on 4 March 1969. Their ordeal had ended. As one of the helicopter crew recalls, “My ship was the first one in the extraction point. I would say that 35 was the number of troops which were still alive. They had carried another 10-15 of their dead with them. Of the 35 still alive I would say 20-25 were wounded. I know that out of the seven guys we pulled out on the first sortie, 4 were dead and three were in really bad shape.”
What gets called into question 35 years later is the integrity of the numbers along with the integrity of the reporting officers. The log said 36 men escaped. This would appear to be a correct number. One survivor of the company says “about 35” got out on the choppers. According to the official AAR as reported by the battalion commander written 14 March, just 10 days after the engagement, “Company A sustained 20 infantry KIA, one artilleryman KIA, and one engineer KIA. 52 men were wounded.” No MIAs. As a rule, a report by the battalion commander would form the basis of official Army records. In fact, a log entry dated 6 March mentions Company A has having 24 MIAs. In any event, the number of Company A KIAs appears woefully inaccurate.
Still, if the log says that only 36 men of Company A were extracted, what happened to the others? What is known is that Williams made every effort to retrieve the dead and wounded before he ordered the withdrawal. But each time the effort was repulsed by heavy fire and was unsuccessful. Facing a far superior force, Williams had no choice but to try to get out with as many as he could, knowing he would have to leave the severely wounded, as well as the dead, to their fate. Bluntly put, the company was running for its life, and only those who could move would make the trip home. As one survivor put it, the situation was like “every man for himself.”
As to the fate of any wounded left behind by Company A, there is indication that they were killed on the spot by the NVA. This information came during a Company D HQ debriefing of PFC Guffy, the afore-mentioned Company A POW recovered late on 4 March and who witnessed some executions. Of the known dead, 18 were recovered on 7 March at the old Company A location when the battalion finally seized the upper hand in the operation. This firm number may have been the basis for the 20 KIAs of the AAR. The rest would have been listed as MIA. Nonetheless, in all probability, at least 50 men of Company A were killed in the operation. This, of course, added up to a disaster for the company and the battalion.
Not so for the 1st Brigade, however. Operation Wayne Grey, which ended on 14 April, was regarded as a success. The 66th NVA had indeed been neutralized with heavy losses in men and equipment, thanks in large part to ill-fated Company A. It had stumbled almost on top of the NVA HQ and revealed its position. Company D almost suffered the same fate, but it was able to dig in on Hill 947 and survive a two-day siege. It fought its way out using gunship support and effective artillery barrages to inflict heavy enemy casualties. At that, the brigade was able to put a successful spin on Company D’s near-disaster even though it sustained over 50% casualties.
As for the efforts of LT Williams to save his company by leading a hasty withdrawal in the face of obvious disaster, he was threatened with court martial for not policing the dead and wounded. Loud protests from his troops thwarted the court martial attempt.
The Company A debacle should have been prevented. The major blunder by the brigade was made at the time of the insertion of 3rd Battalion Companies A, B, C, and D. Too far spread apart, they could not support each other. It was a blunder that may have cost far more lives than brigade officers were willing to document during those two fateful March days of 1969 when their valiant Company A went down. The time has come for the story to be set straight.
John F. Bauer was a platoon leader with Company D during Operation Wayne Grey. He wishes to thank the following for their contribution to this report: Albert Jacquez, Company A survivor; Ron Carey, crewchief with the 119th Assault Helicopter Company; Mike Daugherty, Company D commanding officer; and Byron Adams, Company D archivist. Logs and AARs from the operation can be found online: