Binh Dinh Province, Kim Son Valley, Central Highlands,South Vietnam, 27 December 66, 2420 (20 minutes past midnight)
It was just after midnight and pitch black. A dense tropical cloud is blotting out the moon and stars. Out in the darkness, just beyond our premier, hundreds of small, wiry, underfed bodies are slithering through elephant grass, closing in on us with uncanny stealth. They are two battalions of the NVA’s 22nd Regiment-well trained, well-disciplined, and motivated, reinforced by local VC insurgents. The total attack force is estimated at 1,000 men. Our combined field strength of infantry and artillery on LZ Bird that night is 170 men.
The hilltop position is about the size of a football field and relatively level — like a small plateau. The higher ridges nearby are used by the enemy to great effect by raining mortars rounds down on us once the battle begins. Strategically the position is questionable and many of us feel we are being used as bait.
A few minutes after 1 a.m. a thunderous roar of incoming mortar, rocket and small arms fire blows me out of my slumber and Charlie hits us with everything he has. From the opening salvo, it’s obvious we are vastly outnumbered, in the few seconds it takes me to reach my bunker, the two men on watch have already been wounded. One is hit in his arm, the other in the back of the head. Both are bleeding and calling out for help. I check them out in the glow of the incoming fire; the injuries appear to be superficial shrapnel wounds. I assure them they will be okay.
The deafening roar continues for what seems like an eternity. Individual blasts meld into one maelstrom, sounding bizarrely like a monstrous engine revving up. Charlie means to kill us all tonight and he’s off to a great start. During the first minutes of the battle, I try to get my bearings and figure out what to do. The main attack is not coming directly at us so I have time to think. The two guys on my position are down in the bunker, and there is no room for me. The M-60 machine gun which is assigned to me earlier that day sits on top of the bunker, resting on the overhead cover; I grab it and fire in the direction of the assault. After a few short bursts, the M-60 jams, it’s rendered useless and leaves me in the battle of my life with an Army issue Colt-45 automatic and a few clips of ammo.
To the right of my bunker is my squad leader’s position and midway between a stack of hand grenades still in the cartons brought it by our chopper too late to distribute. My squad leader Sgt. Delbert Jennings and two other men in the bunker to our right (the direction of the attack) and under such heavy fire they had to pull back — then come running toward our position. Jennings yells frantically for us to open the grenade boxes. We quickly set up an assembly line of sorts and three of us start doing this as fast as we can. Thanks to Jenning’s quick thinking, within seconds we are flipping the unpacked grenades to him, with pins straightened, so he just pulls the pins and let them fly. The steady stream of grenades we put out are highly effective. In the morning at first light, we find a dozen enemy dead and it’s anyone’s guess how many we wounded.
As the mortar and rocket fire subsides, the small arms fire goes heavier. The enemy is breaching our perimeter. They are coming in waves, and it isn’t long before we see them behind us in the perimeter. Sappers run in alongside the riflemen with satchel charges of TNT in small rucksacks strapped on their backs. They are attempting to blow up the artillery guns with them. Some blow, some don’t. It’s likely the detonators were wet. We find many of the crude-looking hand grenades unexploded the next day.
Eventually the onslaught is too much — it’s down to hand-to-hand combat now inside the permitter near the artillery pits and we start pulling back. On Jenning’s order, we retreat toward our left flank, away from the brunt of the attack, skirt around the far side of the hill from where the attack is coming and along the way come across several of the wounded. One of them lies at the bottom of a bunker, unable to get up. He screams for help out of the pitch-black darkness — there is nothing we can do for him. We tell him he will be OK, and we’ll be back for him as soon as possible. We try to calm him, but he’s insane with fear and crying out in pain pleading mournfully for help, but any attempt to get him out of the bunker in the heat of the battle, will most likely mean death for all of us. I feel sick for having to leave him there.
We make our way to the farthest point from where the attack originated, and we are not alone. It seems everyone not dead, wounded, or playing dead, has instinctively made their way to the same spot. We form a tight permitter around the one gun emplacement still in our possession, one of the smaller, 155-mm Howitzers. The firebase has been overrun except for this small cannon. We are terrified and expect to momentarily be annihilated.
We do, however, have a plan for this type of situation. It calls for a green signal flare to be sent up. Any of our men alive out front upon seeing the flare, are to keep their heads down and stay flat. Then we level one of the Howitzer barrels and let fly with a canister, a “Beehive” round (a shell about two feet long and about 4.5 inches in diameter that blasts out 8,000 red-hot “fléchettes” of metal). The plan works. The bee-hive rounds (so-called because of their buzz) have blunted the onslaught and Charlie begins to retreat. After the canister rounds are fired, the small arms fire diminishes and there is only sporadic firing, which continues through the night. This will turn out to be the first actual use of the bee-hive rounds [in Vietnam].
Dawn is a long time coming. Sometime during the night elements from the 1st Bn., 5th Cav shows up to reinforce us. We’ve taken a terrible beating — especially my company and especially my platoon, only six emerge without a scratch. I am one of them. We count 15 dead and five wounded. [All U. S. casualties at LZ Bird are 28 killed, 87 wounded.] The hilltop smolders and dead bodies are sprawled everywhere. A strange silence enveloped the hill (though I’m half deaf from the battle) and the scene is surreal like living in a Bosch painting. Demolition experts arrive to disarm the satchel charges that failed to explode. We carefully reconnoiter our old positions, wary of booby traps, searching for the wounded and assessing the damage in human terms.
I spent the morning dragging the lifeless bodies of our comrades to a makeshift morgue and cleaning them up for graves registration. We pulled cigarette filters out of our [dead] artillerymen’s ears (improvised earplugs.) We close our eyes and do what we can to wipe the mud and blood off their faces and clothing. We put them on ponchos and lay them in rows where they wait for the choppers to spirit them away.
After our dead are gone, we use rope or wire, whatever we can find, looping it around a waist or an ankle, and drag the dead-riddled bodies along in the muddy, red clay, and the enemy goes into a mass grave dug by a bulldozer flown in that morning. None of us wants to touch them, especially the NVA dead. Rigor mortis has set in and it’s spooky. Death feels contagious; we don’t want to catch it. [In the four-day battle at LZ Bird, and enemy pursuit, there were 266 NVA fatalities. The number of wounded is unknown].
I think the day after is worse than the battle itself. In the heat of the battle, there’s no time to think. But when you’re exposed to the aftermath of a fierce firefight like this the experience becomes nightmarish. Still reeling from it all, we struggle to make sense of the horrific carnage, little knowing what we are experiencing will affect us for the remainder of our days. The battle was only an hour or two, but the cleanup goes on for a few days.
Patrols follow the cleanup. Patrols count the enemy dead and examine Charlie’s escape routes. Bodies and parts of bodies are found — bodies blown apart by the direct hits from the bee-hive rounds. Twisted grotesquely mangled limbs, body parts of all kinds hanging them from bushes and trees — everywhere the smell of blood and death and rotting flesh. I am so immersed in horror and death that I become psychically numb, going about my business with a vacuous, zombie-like feeling. I shut it out and feel nothing, which is all I can do to keep from going mad.
My squad leader, Sgt. Delbert Jennings was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions that terrible night at LZ Bird.