Now we have a problem in making our power credible, and Vietnam is the place. — President John F. Kennedy, June 1961.
An hour before sunset, 20 March 1967, near village of Tan An, Bong Son Plain, Bind Dinh Province, Central Highlands, South Vietnam.
I shielded my eyes as the late afternoon sun sank toward the horizon directly in front of us, but it was still plenty hot. Soon I would realize the true meaning of heat. Swarms of insects harassed and hovered overhead as I cautiously maneuvered around anthills, and grave mounds.
Today I’d already choppered from Bong Son on my first aerial sortie, and marched about five kilometers through enemy territory with an infantry squad. We had finally caught-up with the platoon we’d been searching for; it was down to half-strength, leaving just 20 men.
Some of the soldiers sat on their steel pots field stripping their weapons, with both hands busy, smokers squinted as their cigarettes burned short. Others stirred about on the sandy field, complaining about, and trading C-rations. A few, wearing sleeveless flack jackets, were posted around the perimeter, M-16s at the ready.
No salutes were exchanged when our squad leader reported to the tall-slim, 2nd lieutenant, who was commander of 1st Platoon. His weathered face belied his age of 23. An army issue Benrus™ hack-capable-watch, hung from the left pocket of his jungle fatigues. On his right hip, a shiny-black leather holster encased his standard issue M-1911A1 .45 caliber pistol. He held a folded-up map.
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 other troopers thought to be close by. We would proceed forthwith, toward the village of Troung Son on our way to assist the Cav Company.
In the group of soldiers, unknown and unnoticed to me at the time, was the platoon’s medic, a young man from the Midwest, the youngest of four children and the only boy. His mother struggled to take care of the family of five after his father died, when he was just four. After a year at the University of Nebraska, he ran out of funds, and was working at a warehouse in his hometown of Lincoln, when the local draft board took an interest in him. Soon Uncle Sam came calling, welcomed him into the fold of the US Army.
The medic would not remain anonymous. Soon, there would be a calamity that gave cause for me to remember him — forever.
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 pleasant and serene 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.
Shadows grew longer on the mostly open field ahead as the late afternoon sun dipped closer to the horizon. A row of tall palm trees, just to our right, stood about thirty feet apart, head-high vegetation grew between them. We moved out around waist high grave mounds and anthills in a column formation.
We had advanced less three-hundred meters, 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, .51 caliber bullets from Soviet PKM machine guns and 57-mm projectiles from recoilless rifles flashed from concealed, dug-in concrete bunkers, ripping and tearing into the men — spitting out death at twice the speed of sound.
Snipers in trees aimed their K-44s with deadly accuracy, thumping bullets into the heads and necks of the platoon’s leadership. Eighty-one-mm mortars with the force of small artillery rained from above, shock waves from Russian RGD 5 fragmentation grenades, unleashed shards of white-hot metal in a ruthless ring of fire.
Deadly salvos of flaming steel thundered down on us faster than the speed of sound, like the entire war was being fought right here, that all the NVA in Vietnam was out for us, and not relenting until no American invader remained. We would be overrun, our throats cut, our weapons seized, our body’s desecrated, and our blood used 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 the pink mist of pulverized brain matter sprayed from heads — 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 — separating me from my M-16, tape recorder and helmet — 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 flesh 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. I rolled toward them, hugging the earth, 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.
I was lucid enough to observe the tangerine tint of the late afternoon sky, but drawn to the carnage that surrounded me. I was overcome with the emotional rupture of death.
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. 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.
The quickness of the bullet is 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; and 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.
I raised my chin toward the heavens, observed the darkening sky, tried to take in more oxygen, only to inhale more acrid smoke.
With smoke dissipating, movement toward any cover, or remaining still, seemed hopeless. 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. He was tall and slim, with a handsome-oval face and dark closely cropped hair, and he was our medic. The Sec 4 reacted instantly by grabbing an M-16 from a severely wounded comrade.
Without hesitation, 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, 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, again and again, refusing cover. Bullets struck his poncho; streaking lead cracked all around him.
Finding his Platoon Leader with a gunshot wound to the head, he gave him a shot of morphine while lying atop the officer for his protection. When he saw who was firing at them, he pivoted, took aim and eliminated the shooter, then found his lieutenant — dead.
One of his two machine gunners was KIA, and his Platoon Sergeant, like many others, badly wounded.
The Spe. 4 was now platoon leader!
Finding his RTO wounded, he pulled him to a safer spot, 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. His face showed fierce determination.
Our medic dropped the handset, wiped blood on his fatigues, took a breath, rolled his neck, pulled his hands down his face, flexed his jaw muscles, 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, he secured his medical satchel over his shoulder, shoved a fresh clip of 5.56 ammo in his M-16, and high crawled with it cradled in his arms. The medic pulled himself up on one knee, secured a foothold, covered his advance with suppressing fire, ran a distance weathering a storm of bullets, and returned with men from third platoon to help us repel the ambush.
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. When I saw reinforcements from our sister platoon coming from the north, I believed our western flank might be in jeopardy. With the additional infantrymen on site, there seemed to be adequate firepower to defeat the enemy emplacements to our right. If the NVA encircled us, from the left, we would surely be overrun. Perhaps I could delay any such intent. I switched to auto, aimed my M-16 to the west, and gently squeezed the trigger; recoil pounded my shoulder, and 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 loaded another clip, disgorged 18 more rounds of 5.56, popped a 40-mm grenade in my M-79 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 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.
Of the 27 soldiers in our platoon who were targeted in the initial ambush, six were killed outright. Just seven escaped death or serious injury. I was one of those. As the battle continued late 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 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 so much fire in my life.” Then he 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.
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.
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 227th, 228th 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 bolted 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 targets, 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; 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. We had scarcely enough troops to maintain adequate listening posts, and just three claymores available for our tight permiter defense. With one soldier always on alert in each foxhole, the occasional AK-47 fire in the distance, and ominous sounds we couldn’t identify, sleep was sporadic. 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.
Another unit was later tasked with the cleanup operation. After such devastation, it was impossible to precisely verify enemy deaths; 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, 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 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 dead ones are out of war, the survivors never leave it.
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 — his oval shaped finally relaxed — 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! 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 was 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 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 worst 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 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, 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 instructor (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 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.
Official records indicate that 2nd Battalion, 20th Aerial Artillery and 1st Battalion 77th Artillery also assisted after the Ambush. With my book classified a work of fiction, I have taken a few liberties in the sequencing of some events, 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.)