Now we have a problem in making our power credible, and Vietnam is the place. — President John F. Kennedy, June 1961.
Warning: Graphic Images of Combat and Death in this Chapter.
Just before sunset, 20 March 1967, near the village of Tan An, Bong Son Plain, Bind Dinh Province, Central Highlands, South Vietnam.
Our exhausted platoon of 27 had just saddled up and was moving out. We were literally marching into the sunset and getting into the tempo of our column advance when our point man yelled Amb–! Instantly he was face-down dead
Quicker than a bolt of lightning and louder than thunder, the entire platoon was assaulted from our right flank. Weapons on full automatic tore into the men, spitting out tounges of fire, illuminating the impending darkness at twice the speed of sound. We were caught in an L-shape ambush courtesy of the lying-in-wait 18th NVA Regiment, estimated at 300.
Men screamed and scattered as blood squirted, bones splintered, abdomens exploded, body parts disintegrated, skin burned, and the pink mist of pulverized brain matter sprayed from skulls — all in the blink of an eye.
Before I could react or grasp the melee and chaos that overwhelmed us, a concussion blast launched me into the air — separating me from my M-16 and helmet — and landed me hard, flat on my back, in a slight 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, I tasted blood, and my nostrils were overwhelmed with bitter arcid smoke and burning flesh from a blistering sting just below my neck where specks of flaming shrapnel had pitted through my jungle fatigues. I brushed off the minor wound with my right hand and patted out the smoke. So lucky to be alive, I reasoned.
Some of our men made cover behind grave mounds, small palms, anything as bullets mushroomed into muscle and flaring shrapnel cut down our men at lightening speed.
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.
KA-KA-KA, RATA-TAT-TAT, PAP-PAP rang out in a deadly rhythm as bullets from Soviet PKM machine guns, and projectiles from recoilless rifles blindsided us from concealed, dug-in concrete bunkers, ripping and tearing into the men — spitting out death at 2,350 feet per second.
KUNG, KUNG, KUNG echoed as snipers in trees aimed their K-44s with deadly accuracy, thumping and slapping bullets into the heads and necks of the platoon’s leadership.
Eighty-one-mm mortars with the force of small artillery hailed from above, ssss-WHOM, ssss-BLAMM, SPLAT.
Shock waves generated an ominous snap as Russian RGD fragmentation grenades exploded BWOOM, unleashing shards of searing metal in a ruthless ring of fire. Deafening cracks of man-made thunder tormented us.
Our senses were overpowered by the smell of sulfurous dioxide from the ordinance, the dreaded copper-metallic scent of blood, the despicable fetor of burning skin, and the sight of eviscerated organs, genitalia included.
And we were just ten seconds into the ambush.
No one in attendance will likely forget this day. Not the Smell, not the Racket, certainly not the loud, deep, slapping sound of a bullet hitting flesh and smacking into bone.
Only the dead are out of war.
I raised my chin toward the heavens, observed the darkening sky, and tried to take in more oxygen, only to inhale more acrid smoke. Then, I swept sand from my eyelashes and checked my body parts (The warm liquid running down my thighs turned out not to be blood.)
Just a few meters to my right, I spotted an M-16 and helmet near a fellow soldier who lay still – dead or dying. I low crawled, collected them as my own, clutched the weapon to my chest, and lay dead-still but observant.
For a brief moment — struck by fear — I couldn’t move. I was overcome with the emotional rupture of impending death. My heart pounded in my throat. Ricocheting bullets and whining lead snapped all around and ripped at my sanity.
Combat is nothing if not a chaotic multiplicity of impending disaster.
I was lucid enough to observe the tangerine tint of the sky as it dimmed toward darkness, but I was drawn to the carnage that surrounded me.
My mortality was in grave danger, and I thought — death was imminent. What I was seeing and hearing erased any doubt. The sound of men yelling-screaming-crying-dying and the thunder from the weapons were irrepressible.
The quickness of the bullet is sometimes slower than the quickness of thought. 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, my first ride 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. Although just nineteen, I’d already aged far beyond that. Those memories seemed to be a lifetime ago.
As the yellow haze of the late afternoon sun and smoke from the ambush floated about, movement toward any cover or remaining still seemed hopeless. There was nowhere to hide. No one was coming to our rescue. There was 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. He was tall and slim, with a handsome-oval face and dark, closely cropped hair, and he was our medic.
The Spc. 4 reacted instantly as his men were cut down. With no weapon of his own, he grabbed an M-16 from a severely wounded comrade.
Dying enemy screamed, blood squirted, and pith helmets bounced in the rubble beside AK-47s. (Our medic shooting Expert on the rifle range at Ft. Polk was no fluke.)
He grabbed an M-60 from a dead gunner, gave it to a rifleman for more firepower, and lobbed hand grenades into enemy positions.
To aid his wounded comrades — every move drawing enemy fire — he dashed, sometimes crawled, totally exposed through the withering enemy fire, repeatedly refusing cover. Bullets struck the rolled-up poncho in he small of his back; streaking lead cracked all around him.
Finding his Platoon Leader with a gunshot wound to the head, he was giving him a shot of morphine when chunks of debris landed on them with the crack of another bullet. He pivoted, took aim, and eliminated the shooter, returned his attention to his lieutenant, and tried to comfort him as he took his last breath.
One of his two machine gunners was KIA, and his Platoon Sergeant, like many others, was badly wounded.
The Spc. 4 was now platoon leader!
Near where his lieutenant lay dead, he found his RTO wounded. After pulling him to a safer spot, he provided aid, then grabbed the PRC-25 handset and succeeded in reaching his Company Commander. Our medic informed the Captain of his platoon leader’s death and the grave injuries to his NCOs and that he’d assumed command.
Although they were in the shit too, the Captain said when he heard the din 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!?” Astounded, Hagemeister shouted, “I’ll find them!” His face showed fierce determination.
Our medic dropped the handset, wiped blood on his fatigues, took a breath, flexed his jaw muscles, 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.
Hot, scared, and thirsty, I was nevertheless encouraged by our superhero. I had slithered a few feet from the fallen, hugging the earth, steel pot on, M-16 at the ready.
I had no advanced infantry training or a squad leader anymore; what could I do? Lie still, keep my head down. No!
Trained Killer: Swan dispatches his M-16 somewhere in the Binh Dinh Province, similar to the action at Ambush on 20 March 67. (U.S. Army PIO photo)
With the additional infantrymen on site, there seemed to be adequate firepower on the enemy emplacements to our right, which left our eastern flank unprotected. If the NVA encircled us from that direction, we would surely be overrun. Perhaps I could delay any such intent.
After quickly getting the go-ahead from a rifleman (who was none too happy to be interrupted), I chambered a round, switched to auto, aimed my M-16 to the east, and gently squeezed the trigger. Recoil pounded my shoulder, and a reverberating BRRRRRT, BRRRRRT, BRRRRRT rumbled as I unleashed three 5-round bursts of suppressing fire.
With the ejection port on the right and me shooting left-handed hot brass flew into my face like confetti but stung like Mississippi fire ants.
I loaded another clip and disgorged 18 more rounds of 5.56. Fortunately, the M-16 I’d found was an over-and-under with an attached grenade launcher (XM-203); I cocked and popped a 40-mm grenade into the blooper. Shss-Dook-Thump echoed as I triggered it. I continued firing both. It felt good.
Combat is utterly Astonishing, Terrifying, and Intoxicating.
In a piercing but comforting clatter, an M-60 pig just a few meters to my right sprayed 600 rounds per minute into the swarming NVA. Another on full-automatic blasted 7.62 cartridge’s from its red hot barrel into enemy redoubts.. Reinforcements brought from other platoons were blasting M-79s, thumping in quick succession — wreaking havoc on everything within 60 meters — and employing lethal crew-served weapons. Could the cataclysm be turning in our favor?
Then I heard that beautiful sound: Huey’s in the distance, Dustoffs hopefully, gunships maybe.
Most of the dead and seriously 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.
Six of the 27 soldiers targeted in the initial ambush were killed right away. Just seven escaped death or serious injury. I was one of those.
As the intermittent battle continued into the evening, reinforcements from other platoons, brought in by Hagemeister, also suffered casualties.
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 courage 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 so much fire in my life.” Then he added that the ambush had really pissed him off.
Few things are more lethal than an 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.
Hagemeister was not about to let his guard down after the incredible feats he’d mustered to save so many of us. He assumed the NVA would hit us again. Artillery support would be an effective deterrent to keep them distracted had we not been too close to the enemy. But we were the Air Cavalry, and he was bound to get us some air support.
Despite others units requesting assistance, Hagemeister, nevertheless, contacted air support and convinced them to provide all available gunships to rendezvous near us and prepare for an assault on our ambush site.
Not so far away, the sing-song of g**ks, was louder than usual, if that were possible, and in a panicked timbre I’d never heard. I may have been hearing something that wasn’t real; it had been a rough day.
Soon, a beautiful noise sounded from the east, a sound I was sure of, as seven gunships from the Air Cav Armada, led by the faster ACH-47, bolted toward us just above the palms at 130 knots on one of the first helicopter only, night-assault mission of the Vietnam War.
These bad boys, members of the formidable 227th, 228th, and 229th Attack Helicopter Battalions, were about to exact some payback on the enemy that remained in and around the ambush site.**
Suddenly, two recently activated Firefly choppers (above, top) broke formation, approached opposite ends of the ambush site, and flooded the fortifications with an estimated 64 million candlepower. Simultaneously, a pair of UH-1B gunships swept in fast and low over the targets, disgorging 30-mm cannons at 60 rounds per second.
In formation facing the target, the gunships, including the recently introduced ACH-47 Guns-A-Go-Go with 1.5 tons of armament (shown above), adjusted pitch attitude decreased RPM and settled in a nose-down hover. Simultaneously four attack helicopters unleashed a torrent of deadly firepower, spewing four-foot-long 2.75-inch rockets from their pods, thumping 40mm grenades from their nose, and a wall of fire from the machine gun’s 7.62 projectiles. At the same time, and for good measure, the loud burp of twin miniguns fired 6,000 rounds per minute — directly into the enemy bunkers.
Founds, knobby stems, and sharp spines flew from swaying palms as we retreated a few feet from the reverberating-ear-splitting thunder and intense heat generated by the ordinance. As other gunships took turns, the ACH-47 remained, flaunting another half-ton of munitions, decimating and annihilating enemy redoubts and bunkers. Blasts raised huge chunks of earth and shook the littered field. Hellish flames triggered small fires. Finally, just small pieces of concrete and smoking rubble remained. During the two-minute bombardment, no enemy resistance was observed.
The display of firepower lighting the night and thundering the sky was a sight to behold. For those on the receiving end, it was a decidedly different kind of awe. What remained of our platoon roared with gratitude. But, as uplifting as the display had been, we hadn’t forgotten the six dead and the seriously wounded taken away earlier by the medevac choppers.
After such devastation, it was impossible to verify enemy deaths precisely; their losses were believed to be twice what we suffered. This favorable ratio provided no solace for our dead or us.
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. And unfortunately, we had scarcely enough troops to set up or maintain a proper cordon and just three claymores to position around our night defensive perimeter. As a result, sleep was sporadic, with one soldier always on full alert in each foxhole, the occasional AK-47 fire in the distance, and ominous sounds we couldn’t identify. It was a long night.
As the first rays of sunlight filtered through the tattered palms, the enormity of the ambush and ensuing battle revealed a hellscape where many of our men were cut down before they could fire a single shot.
Part II of : The Bravest Of Them All
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. He stood six-foot in a slender frame, with a ruggedly handsome face, a slightly bulbous nose, and closely cropped graying hair. He holstered a Colt Commander .45 APC on his right hip, and his customary slender cigar hung loosely between the 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 dead are out of war; the survivors never leave it.
After at-ease was called, and just as I was feeling a bit like an intruder, a couple of the foot soldiers 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 — his oval-shaped face finally relaxed — gestured to his Silver Star, and rubbed it between my index finger and thumb. We laughed nervously as we examined bullet holes in his rolled-up poncho in the small of his back. Hagemeister had not been wounded during the battle! He had danced with death and never missed a step. A simple thank you for saving our lives didn’t seem nearly enough. But for now, that and a Silver Star were good enough for the man from Lincoln.
Thankfully, I was interrupted by Gen. Norton. He 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.” Smoke ’em if you got ’em, indeed.
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 KIA 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 worst news possible. “The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deepest regrets . . .” That’s about all the next of kin would remember, once their loved ones name was uttered. 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.)
The whine of the turbine from the general’s helicopter brought me back to the reality of my job. It was time for me to move on to another story about the (quickly becoming) famous 1st Cav. So, I bummed a ride back to An Khe with the biggest scoop I’d get during my 12-month tour.
After the pilot pulled the starter switch, twisted the throttle to 6,600 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, and no hill was conquered.
We never reached the Cav company that was in trouble; however, they 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 sergeant (Staff Sgt Hicks) would do or where he was, for that matter, on a second tour in this Hellhole, 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 damned 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 I retained would kick in as advertised — automatically and immediately. Of course, 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 throughout the war.
Official records indicate that the 2nd Battalion, 20th Aerial Artillery, and 1st Battalion, 77th Artillery, also assisted after the Ambush.
With my book classified as Historical Fiction, I am allowed to and have taken, a few liberties in sequencing some events, including their operations and movements for continuity, dramatic effect, clarity, transition, and people’s privacy. Therefore, not every detail, exact time and place, type of weapon, or conveyance would necessarily withstand archival scrutiny.
However, my narrative is based on actual events as I remember them from some fifty-five years ago. All people, places, and battles are real unless otherwise noted. There will probably be troopers who won’t remember the fights as I do. It is not uncommon that soldiers’ experiences are different, especially in the heat of battle, even in the same battle. To be sure, this is not an after-action report or an official record. It is Historical Fiction. (Not written by a lawyer.)