Now we have a problem in making our power credible, and Vietnam is the place. —President John F. Kennedy, June 1961.
The platoon was down to half strength, leaving just twenty. Some of the soldiers sat on their steel pots cleaning their weapons, smokers squinted as their cigarettes burned short, both hands busy with the task at hand. Others rested on the sandy field, unzipped flack jackets on, M-16s at the ready. A few were posted around the perimeter.
There was no saluting when our squad leader reported to the tall-slim, 2nd lieutenant, who was commander of 1st Platoon. His weathered face belied his age of twenty-three. The OD strap of an army issue Benrus™ hack-capable-watch, hung from the left pocket of his jungle fatigues. On his right hip, a shiny leather holster encased his standard issue M-1911A1 .45cal pistol.
The Lieutenant (who had just minutes to live) met with his Platoon Sergeant and squad leaders. The plan was simple; his depleted platoon would move out and consolidate with troopers from other platoons, thought to be close by, near the village of Tan An, here in the Soui Ca Valley.
We would proceed forthwith, toward our objective of reinforcing the stranded Cav Company. The NVA also had a plan. It was about an hour before dark. The temperature had dropped to about 85; but soon, the heat would rise immensely.
In our society today, there are many who are wont to describe natural disasters and murder scenes as war zones — looking like war zones. I will concede living in California as I do, fires sometimes leave devastation that looks similar to Hiroshima, and some scenes at mass shootings are akin to remnants of a small-scale battle.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like for those (not in a war zone, not expecting terror) who were in the line of fire, gunned down by the coward they couldn’t see, shooting from an elevated position in Las Vegas.
But don’t ever say: “It was like being in a war zone,” unless you have. A well-executed ambush from an entrenched enemy, in my experience, is the worst. It is pure Terror. The Noise: unimaginable, impossible to overstate. The Speed, the Shock, the Carnage, the Pandemonium, again impossible to delineate. Then there’s the Smell: cordite, burning flesh and hair, and the copper scent of blood.
And in store for us this day, this tranquil and pleasant Monday afternoon, were two companies of NVA, estimated at 300, lying in wait for our undermanned platoon, now all of 27 men compliments of our arrival.
As the rays of the late afternoon sun grew longer, and shadows extended on the flat sandy field ahead, we moved out around anthills and waist-high grave mounds. A row of Palm trees to or right stood about thirty feet apart, head-high vegetation grew between them.
We had advanced about three-hundred meters, in a column formation, when our point man yelled, “Ambush!” In a split second, he was face down — dead.
Hell was instantly unleashed on the entire platoon from our right flank.
At close range, 7.62-mm bullets from Soviet PKM machine guns flashed from concealed, dug-in concrete bunkers, ripping and tearing into the men — spitting out death at twice the speed of sound.
Deadly snipers in trees aimed their K-44s with deadly accuracy, thumping bullets into the heads and necks of the platoon’s leadership. Sixty-mm Mortars with the force of small artillery rained from above, a shock wave of burning steel with shards of white-hot metal propelled 360 degrees in hyper-velocity from Russian RGD 5 fragmentation grenades.
Deadly salvos thundered down on us faster than the speed of sound, like all the NVA in Vietnam was out for us, and not relenting until no American invader remained. We would be overrun, survivors would be shot in the head; they would seize our weapons, desecrate our bodies, and use our blood to enrich the red on their NVA flag.
We were in the cross-hairs of an L-shape ambush, the most efficient and deadly. The speed and sound was overwhelming.
Some of our soldiers made cover behind grave mounds, small palms — anything. The not so fortunate screamed and scattered as blood squirted, bones splintered, abdomens exploded, body parts disintegrated, skin burned, and brain matter spilled from heads like corned beef — all in the blink of an eye.
Before I could react or grasp the melee and chaos that overwhelmed us, a concussion blast threw me into the air and landed me hard, flat on my back, in a small depression on the sandy field. The upper part of my chest was stinging like a nest of pissed-off hornets was trapped under my fatigue jacket.
My ears rang incessantly, smoke overwhelmed my nostrils, and I smelled burning skin from a blistering sting just below my neck where hot metal had pitted through my jungle fatigues. I brushed and patted out the smoke, lucky to be alive, I reasoned.
After sweeping sand from my eyelashes, I spotted an M-16 and helmet at two or three meters to my right, rolled toward them while remaining flat, and clutched the weapon to my chest and lay dead-still, but observant.
For a brief moment — struck by fear or pain — I couldn’t move. My heart pounded in my throat.
My mortality was in grave danger, and I thought — death was imminent. What I was seeing and hearing erased any doubt. Screams from the men and sounds from the weapons were irrepressible. Soldiers were down all around me, most with obliterated viscera, that no one could survive. A blood covered pack of Pall-Mall’s lay alongside one of the men; probably the trooper who was on the chopper with me on the way in.
In a nanosecond, I recalled special memories like Momma's apple turnovers;Daddy's peanut brittle; my brother teaching me to ride on his new bike; catching my first fish; and riding in Tommie's Tri-Power GTO. Dedicating a song, on my radio show, to my girlfriend, and my first date with Marty would all melt away — disappear forever.*
I was lucid enough to observe the tangerine tint of the late afternoon sky but drawn to the carnage that surrounded me.
With the smoke dissipating, movement toward any cover, I surmised, meant certain death. There was nowhere to hide, no way out, except to shoot it out. I can describe how fear feels, but not courage; for that, I needed a hero. I didn’t have to wait long.
The Platoon’s tall-slender Spc. 4 medic reacted instantly by grabbing an M-16 from a seriously wounded comrade. He single-handedly took out an enemy sniper in a tree, a machine gun position, and three or four more NVA along the width of the seemingly endless ambush site!
He pulled an M-60 from his dead gunner and gave it to a rifleman for more firepower.
To aid his wounded comrades — every move drawing enemy fire — he dashed, sometimes crawled, totally exposed through the withering enemy fire, again and again, refusing cover. Bullets struck his poncho; streaking lead cracked all around him.
He found his Platoon Leader with a gunshot wound to the head and was treating him while lying atop the officer for his protection, when he saw who was firing at them, pivoted, took aim and eliminated the shooter, then found his lieutenant — dead.
One of his two machine gunners was killed, and his Platoon Sergeant, like many others, badly wounded.
The Spc. 4 was now Platoon Leader!
Finding his RTO wounded, he provided aid, then grabbed the PRC-25 handset and succeeded in reaching his Company Commander. Although they were in the shit too, the Captain said when he heard the cacophony of battle (the ambush) he’d sent third platoon, but they couldn’t find him. “All hell is breaking loose, the ‘ville’ is burning all around us, we have dead and wounded, we need help now, and they can’t find us?” Hagemeister shouted. Astonished, he said to himself, I’ll find them.
Our medic dropped the handset, wiped blood on his fatigues, took a breath, rolled his neck, pulled his hands down his face, then promptly got back to the business at hand. In war, death leaves no room for rest.
After reassuring his wounded radio operator that he’d be OK and help was on the way, Hagemeister rammed another clip in his M-16, high crawled with it cradled in his arms, pulled himself up on one knee, secured a foothold, and ran a distance through a fusillade of fire — found men from third platoon and returned with them to help us.
Hot, scared, and thirsty, I was nevertheless encouraged by our superhero. I had slithered a few feet from the fallen, steel pot on, head down, M-16 at the ready.
I raised my chin toward the heavens, observed the darkening sky, tried to take in more oxygen, only to inhale more acrid smoke.
Although I had no advanced infantry training or a squad leader anymore, I realized our left flank was in possible jeopardy, and just in case the NVA was trying to encircle us, I switched to auto, raised my M-16 in that direction, and gently squeezed the trigger; a reverberating brrrt brrrt brrrt rumbled as I unleashed three 5-round bursts of suppressing fire.
With the ejection port on the right and me shooting left-handed, the hot brass was flying toward my face like confetti, but stinging like Mississippi fire ants.
I racked another clip and continued firing. It felt good.
An M-60 pig just a few meters to my right, in a deafening but comforting clatter, sprayed 600 rounds per minute into one, then another, of the 50 fortified bunkers with cement casting and overhead cover. Reinforcements brought from other platoons were blasting M-79s, thumping in quick succession — splintering everything within 60 meters — and employing lethal crew-served weapons.
Could the cataclysm be turning in our favor? Then I heard that beautiful sound: Hueys in the distance, Dustoffs hopefully, gunships maybe.
Our incredible soldier, Sp. 4 Hagemeister, still too young to vote, saved at least seven of his fellow Skytroopers, killed at least 10 of the enemy, encouraged and directed his men, treated the wounded, called in the Medevacs, and supervised the evacuation!
Most of the dead and wounded fell within the first minutes. Yet, the twenty-year-old draftee from Lincoln, Nebraska held together for six more hours what was left of 1st Platoon as the darkness fell upon the fields of fire. Just seven of the 27 men escaped death or serious injury. Incredibly the lowly Sp. 4 (albeit acting platoon leader) was successful in getting us air support. Artillery was out of question, we were too close to the enemy.
I interviewed Hagemeister, as soon as there was a respite in the battle, (in case we didn’t make it through the night, my recording might be found by friendly forces who would learn of the unselfish bravery and valor of our medic).
As I questioned Hagemeister, he echoed what many brave fighting men have said after superhuman feats on the battlefield: “You take care of what you’re supposed to do. You’re there to take care of your men, I was just doing my job . . . didn’t have time to be scared, but I’ve never seen such fire in my life,” and added that the ambush had really pissed him off. Few things are more lethal than Air Cav trooper, with sufficient weaponry, who is motivated into action against an enemy who is slaughtering his fellow soldiers. Hagemeister had charged and decimated the NVA like he was possessed — possessed in a good way.
An Eagle Flight of seven heavily armed gunships, topped off with JP-4, was approaching from An Khe in a tactical formation led by the faster ACH-47 at 130 knots on the first, helicopter only, night-assault mission of the Vietnam War. Air Cav choppers from the 228th Support, 227th and 229th Attack Helicopter Battalions were about to exact some payback on the enemy that remained in and around the ambush site.**
Less than an hour after launching from An Khe, a beautiful noise from the south sounded in the distance. Directed by Hagemeister, Eagle Flight bolting toward us, just above the treetops with navigation lights defeated under a half-moon.
Suddenly two recently activated Firefly choppers broke formation, approached opposite ends of the ambush site, and flooded the fortifications with an estimated 64 million candlepower while a pair of UH-1B gunships swept in fast and low over the target, disgorging 30-mm cannons at 60 rounds per second.
Recently introduced ACH-47 Guns-A-Go-Go with 1.5 tons of armament (above & below), swooped in with other gunships, adjusted pitch attitude, decreased RPM, settled in a nose-down hover and triggered a devastating fusillade of fire; taking turns spewing four-foot-long 2.75-inch rockets from their pods, thumping M-79s from their launchers, and flashing fire and red tracers from 7.62 cal. and 20-mm cannon fire into the enemy bunkers.
Founds, knobby stems and sharp spines flew from swaying palms as we retreated a few feet from the intense heat generated by the ordinance. Explosions shook the littered field, incited hellish flames — instantaneously decimating and annihilating everything. Just golf-ball-size rocks and smoking rubble remained. During the two-minute bombardment, no enemy resistance was observed.
What remained of our platoon roared with gratitude.
Despite the havoc wreaked by the gunships, they were gone, and we would have been foolish to assume that no enemy remained, like those who may have escaped deep into tunnels or blended into what was left of the village. While we rotated watch, with barely enough troops to maintain a proper wagon-wheel defensive posture, sleep was at a premium. With occasional AK-47 fire in the distance, and discomforting sounds we couldn’t identify; It was a long night.
As the first rays of sunlight filtered through the palms, the enormity of the ambush and ensuing battle revealed a hellscape, where many of our men died before they could fire a shot.
Another unit was later tasked with the cleanup operation. After such devastation, it was impossible to verify enemy deaths; but their losses were believed to be six-times more than we suffered. This favorable ratio provided no solace for us or our dead.
Just after dawn, another helicopter came calling with Maj. Gen. (former enlisted) John Norton, the 49-year-old commander of the 1st Air Cavalry Division and Army aviator, to pay respects to the fallen. A heroic airborne trooper himself in WW II, Gen Norton was an early proponent of the air assault concept. His stood six-foot in a slender frame, with a ruggedly handsome face. He holstered a Colt Commander .45 APC on his right hip, and his customary slender cigar hung loosely between his index and middle finger of his left hand.
Our memorial was on the battlefield where it went down where our brothers in arms — our friends — had fought and fallen beside us.
As the battle weary soldiers stood at rigid attention, some choked-up as bayoneted weapons were spiked into the soil, helmets atop, boots in front. Heart in the throat raw with solicitude and emotion — a ceremony that no one in attendance would likely forget.
The commemoration continued with the 1st Cavalry Division Commander pining the Silver Star (third-highest award for valor) on the left pocket of Spc. 4 Charles C. Hagemeister’s shoddy blood-stained uniform for his heroics the previous day while serving as a medic with A Company, 1st Battalion of the 5th Cavalry Regiment (Black Knights).
After at-ease was called and just as I was feeling a bit like an intruder, a couple of the grunts approached and patted me on my back. These honorable soldiers, I would not see again nor remember their names.
After a respectful pause at the end of the ceremony, I taped a quick interview with Gen. Norton and saluted.
I approached Hagemeister once more, gestured to his Silver Star and rubbed it between my index finger and thumb. As we examined bullet holes in his rolled-up poncho in the small of his back, we laughed nervously. Hagemeister had not been wounded during the battle! A simple thank you for saving our lives didn’t seem nearly enough. But for now, that and a Silver Star was good enough for the man from Lincoln.
Thankfully I was interrupted by Gen. Norton, who shook Hagemeister’s hand once more, saluted him and said: “I’m about to rotate back to the states, and I’m gonna’ put you in for the Medal of Honor, boy.”
In cities and towns across the United States, about 14 hours behind us East coast time, a casualty officer and chaplain were getting notifications of the men who were KIA here last night.
When teams were formed, near the hometowns of the fallen, they were triple checking addresses before ringing the doorbells where next of kin Mothers, Fathers, Wives and others were about to get the worse news possible. Outside of yesterday’s ambush — these officers were tasked with the worst duty in all the U.S. Army.
It is sometimes said, military service is the least “individual” undertaking. The individual must, of necessity, always remain “expendable,” to be sacrificed, if necessary for the greater good — the mission must be accomplished for the nation to survive. Over time, that principle of supreme sacrifice by the individual has been turned on its head. The Vietnam War greatly precipitated that reversal. (Partiality from What Remains by Sarah E. Wagner.)
I bummed a ride back to An Khe in the general’s command helicopter. After the pilot twisted the throttle on the Huey to 6,500 rpm, pivoted, and lifted us from the erstwhile battlefield at 2-Gs; an olive drab poncho liner fluttered among the dust and debris, above the hallowed ground.
I kept my eyes on the men — what remained of 1st Platoon — until they shrank, then disappeared in the distance. For the brave soldiers who fought and died there; I will revere and cherish for all time.
When the battles of the Vietnam War were written, this ambush would hardly merit a mention, it had no name, no hill was conquered.
The Cav company that was in trouble received reinforcements from other units and made it out with fewer causalities than expected.
My adventure in the field with a 1st Cav infantry platoon when scores of NVA were intent on killing us all doesn’t make me a foot soldier, by a long shot. Next time though, I won’t stutter when an infantryman asks me, “You been out there, out there in the shit?” I won’t feel like an interloper; not like an intruder at all.
*There’s really no time to think, but in extreme peril, thoughts can be processed and recalled in a second. Wonder what my old drill instructor (Staff Sgt Hicks) would do or where he was for that matter, on a second tour in this shithole maybe? What had I learned in BCT at Ft. Gordon to prepare me for such a moment, the dilemma of a deadly ambush? Not a goddamned thing, is the short answer. I believe it’s more of an individual thing, a reaction no one can be sure of, until the bullets are blazing toward you. I was just hoping any training and discipline that I had retained would kick in as advertised — automatically and immediately. An argument could be made that it did because I made it out alive, without cowering in the face of death (though I may have pissed myself).
**Those who escaped into tunnels or blended back into the villages would live to fight another day, as so many did through the war.
With my book classified a work of fiction, I have taken a few liberties in the sequencing of some incidents, including their operations and movements for continuity, dramatic effect, clarity, transition, and people’s privacy. Nevertheless, My description of the episodes, in and about Vietnam, are from actual events as I remember them more than 50 years later. Every detail, exact time and place, type of weapon, or conveyance would not necessarily withstand archival scrutiny. (Not written by a lawyer).