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The following history is based solely on my memory of events that occurred almost 30 years ago. I have referred to no notes or checked any of the details with any other source. If it is inaccurate in any respect, the fault lies solely with my imperfect memory. More importantly, there are many, many fine American men who participated in the events described in this history whose names do not appear. To any of them who read this, I mean no disrespect – much the contrary, I am well aware that I owe my professional success and my very life to their valiant and faithful service. I humbly ask their understanding of and forgiveness for my poor memory.
I took command of C/2-5 Cav in September 1971, after serving for a year in the 1st Cavalry Division. I had volunteered for a 6-month extension to my combat tour, took my month’s leave, and returned renewed and ready to take command.
The battalion commander was LTC Leon Bieri, West Point graduate of the class of 1957 and a combat veteran who had won the DSC on his first tour with the 7th Cav. He was enthusiastic, as was indicated by his motto, “Balls to the Wall.” He was also very supportive of his men. An example of his concern for their welfare was the fact that meals sent to the field in 2-5 Cav during his tenure in command were always steak. He was also a very fine mentor to young company commanders like me (23-years old on my assumption of command).
I took command from a friend of mine named Vic Aliffi. Vic was one of the most colorful officers I have ever met in the Army. Formerly he had been a staff sergeant in the 3-4th Cav (25th Infantry Division) who had received a direct commission on the battlefield. We knew each other from Ft. Benning, where we had been classmates in the Infantry Officer’s Basic Course.
The battalion was very fortunate to have other very fine officers – in fact, I doubt that any battalion in Vietnam had a finer leadership cadre. Every company commander was a West Pointer, including one of my classmates and best friends, Jeff Donaldson, who commanded A Company. B Company was commanded by another classmate, John Bacot. The commander of D Company was class of 1965 graduate who also became a good friend of mine, Sonny Ray. Likewise, the Recon Platoon leader was a West Pointer, class of 1970, named Greg Vuksich, who also became a very good friend of mine.
Vic Aliffi had left me a fine, well trained leadership cadre within the company. The First Sergeant was 1SG Howe, who commanded respect and took no crap from anyone, and who was always reliable in making sure that the troops were fed and resupplied on time, and always got their mail. I also remember the supply sergeant, SSG Murphy, who had been a Marine during a former enlistment and called me “Skipper,” which I took as a great compliment. The platoon leaders were 1LTs Tom Thomas, Jim Ratliff, and John McCorkle, three brave and capable young Americans.
The day I took command of the company, it was deployed in three locations, providing security for the main battalion firebase MACE (near Gia Ray), and two other locations. LTC Bieri took me in his command and control (C&C) helicopter to each location, where I had the chance to introduce myself to these soldiers. I have always believed that the impact of these change-of-command speeches is much overrated – the real impression that a new commander makes occurs once the unit is in the field. Fortunately, soon after taking command we left these firebases to begin fifteen days of patrolling, which was the real opportunity for the soldiers of C Company and myself to get to know one another. From the outset it was very evident that this was a well trained company. The soldiers were very security conscious, with excellent noise and light discipline. They had developed good habits in terms of cloverleaf patrolling to secure their flanks when they were moving. When they went into a night defensive position, all was business like, with weapons, claymore mines, and trip flares the first order of business before eating, boiling coffee, or reading letters. They used first- and last-light patrols and preplanned artillery defensive fires. On log days the resupply was orderly, and the company left no food or material behind for the enemy to use or to track us. I was very much in Vic Aliffi’s debt for the condition in which he left this company to me.
We had patrolled uneventfully for a few days when on a log day LTC Bieri flew in to our LZ in his C&C helicopter. He gave me a mission, which was to search out and destroy a suspected enemy headquarters location identified through a “URS” (which to some meant “usually reliable source” and to others “unidentified radio signal”). Basically, the scheme of maneuver called for us to maneuver against a six-digit grid coordinate. It was located in an area we called “The Elbow,” because it was near a bend in the the old colonial route 333 where it turned from a north-south to a northwesterly direction.
As we maneuvered toward the planned platoon release point, LTC Bieri’s C&C appeared overhead, informing me that the direct-support artillery battery supporting our battalion was going to fire CS (tear gas) rounds into the area to force the enemy out of their entrenchments. Since we were not equipped with gas masks, I was skeptical of this measure, but the events that unfolded were almost disastrous. Due to an error in the firing table for 105mm CS artillery ammunition, the rounds did not land in the enemy’s location but rather directly over our heads, soon disseminating the CS gas. I recall that I had 118 men in the field that day, and they went in 118 different directions. Had we really been in the vicinity of an enemy headquarters, we would have really been in trouble. Fortunately, the NCOs of the company responded like the champions they were, and after establishing a rallying point upwind from the point of impact, they got the company reassembled prior to dark.
Given this opportunity to regroup, I called the platoon leaders together to develop a new plan. We decided to move out early in the morning, between first light and sunrise. We would leave one platoon in our night defensive position, and position the other two platoons at 500-meter intervals on line from east to west. Then we would maneuver to the north to locate and destroy the headquarters assigned as our objective.
The next morning began with a steady rain, which worked to our advantage because it masked the noise of our movement. Not having had the opportunity to judge how skillful the platoon leaders were at land navigation, I positioned myself with the lead platoon leader, just behind the point team. This team consisted of a point man, a “drag” man, a compass man, and a two-man machine gun crew. After moving about 450 meters, we broke into a clearing, where an unforgettable scene presented itself to us. Sitting at a picnic-like table made of bamboo we saw five or six NVA soldiers doing some sort of administrative work. The rain and our silent early movement had allowed us to get past their security.
At the precise moment that these men looked up toward us, the machine gunner with the point team, whose name I remember as Tadaodao (from Guam, I believe), opened fire shooting from the hip. His fire killed one of the men sitting at the table, which put the others into what must have been a state of shock. C Company maneuvered through their position, killing all the NVA we saw and capturing a quantity of equipment. After the shooting ended, one of the company’s Kit Carson Scouts snatched a rubber-coated bag from a pile of equipment. I took it from him and found it full of 500-piastre notes – a total of about 1.3 million Vietnamese piastres. I believe to this day that it was a payroll, but we were told that it was a sum of “taxes” extorted from local South Vietnamese peasants.
At any rate, we turned in all of our trophies, and morale in the company was high. We had destroyed an enemy headquarters, captured a quantity of equipment and money, and had not suffered a single friendly casualty. I was very grateful to the soldiers of C Company for the way they had performed during this engagement.
At this point, the beginning of October, I experienced a personal tragedy. My younger sister, who was a lieutenant in the Women’s Army Corps at Ft. McClellan, was critically injured in an accident involving a drunk driver. LTC Bieri notified me of this while I was in the field. He evacuated me in his C&C helicopter, and in short order I was on a plane going to Alabama. My mother was already there. She was hoping against hope that my sister would recover, but it was not to be. She died with the two of us at her bedside. This was a terrible blow to my mother (who was a widow), and to be honest, it was pretty tough on me as well. I spent the next two weeks attending to my mother, torn between my obligations to her and my duties in Vietnam. When I thought that she had recovered adequately to be left to the care of her friends and family, I returned to Vietnam. I believed that in my absence another officer would have been appointed to command C Company, but when I returned LTC Bieri told me that the company was mine to command if I still wanted it. This was a marvelous tonic for me. It showed a tremendous amount of confidence in me and served as an outlet for me to take my mind off of the tragic and senseless circumstances of my sister’s death.
The months of November and December were relatively quiet. We were involved in the usual routine of ground reconnaissance and firebase security. One of my more vivid noncombat memories was Thanksgiving, when LTC Bieri ensured that each trooper in the field received the full treatment of turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, all followed up with a dessert of ice cream. He also visited all the units in the field to personally extend to them his Thanksgiving greetings.
At the end of December, we had a firebase security mission. Towering over Firebase Mace was a steep mountain called Nui Chau Chan. It was a rugged, forbidding place, very difficult to navigate. On the upper slopes of the mountain was a relic of a former war, the wreckage of a single-engine Japanese warplane. At the peak was a small LZ with a radio relay station. The mountain itself was like a tall steep pile of rocks, and was honeycombed with caves, nooks, and crannies in which people could possibly hide.
Over the Christmas holiday LTC Bieri gave me the mission of exploring these caves to investigate rumors that they were havens for NVA troops. For about a week we patrolled the steep slopes of the mountain, going into the caves and looking into (literally) every nook and cranny. My conclusion was that there was no compelling evidence of enemy activity, which seemed to make sense because the area truly was in the shadow of a constantly occupied US position. Nonetheless, it was decided to play it safe and “deny” this area to the enemy. Accordingly, we received a load of explosive materials to make these caves uninhabitable. We got eleven 40-pound cratering charges, which we rigged into a big “ring main” made out of detonation cord. To each cratering charge we used detonation cord to “daisy chain” a white phosphorous grenade and a “blurb” of persistent CS (tear) gas. The whole rig was the most powerful explosive charge that I have ever been in charge of – 440 pounds of composition “B”, 11 “blurbs” of CS and 11 white phosphorous grenades. The problem, however, was detonation – to set this monstrosity off we only had a thirty-second length of time fuse.
My solution was to tape together a priming charge of five or six blasting caps while the platoon leaders moved the company to a sheltered area as far away as practical. Then I prepared to ignite the time fuse accompanied by one man acting as a radio/telephone operator. That soldier was one of the most memorable individuals I have ever met. His name was SGT David Sprinkle, but everyone called him “Drops.” Drops was not the kind of soldier who served in honor guards, but he and his type were the strength of the US Army in those days and today. Drops never complained, never questioned orders, always held up his end of things, always was willing to help, and cared very deeply about the men who were his buddies.
Drops, with an AN/PRC 77 radio on his back, and I, wearing my “light to fight,” ignited our thirty-second time fuse and began to run in a predetermined direction, counting off the seconds as we ran. When we counted “25-thousand” I shouted for both of us to go down, and soon thereafter we heard a tremendous explosion. Huge boulders flew up into the air. Over Drops’ radio I could hear the normally calm voice of a Cobra pilot saying, “Jesus Christ! What the hell was that?” (We had neglected to inform the aviation units in the area that we were about to blow up those caves.)
This explosion seemed to satisfy everyone that the area around the peak of Nui Chau Chan was secure, and so on New Years Eve we fired off some hand held flares and then awaited a new mission.
That mission came to us on New Year’s Day, 1972. LTC Bieri briefed me on a URS indicating an enemy headquarters once again near The Elbow. Our mission was to conduct an airmobile combat assault the next day, search the area until we found the headquarters, and then destroy it. We spent the rest of New Year’s Day getting ready for this mission, expecting to begin the assault early the next morning.
The morning of 2 January 1972 was frustrating for all of us. For some unknown reason the helicopter support was not available until late in the afternoon, and then we had the even more frustrating experience of sitting on the helicopters waiting for some unexplained reason for delay to resolve itself. I recall listening to AFVN radio, which was broadcasting a speech from President Nixon that included the line: “Now that the Vietnam War is behind us ….” It was an ironic thing to hear considering what was going to happen the next day.
We finally began the combat assault early in the evening. Two platoons of the company (Jim Ratliff’s and John McCorkle’s) closed in a landing zone cleared from an area in which exploding ordnance had removed the overhead canopy (I was ordered to leave Tom Thomas’ platoon behind for firebase security). Once the first troops were on the ground I ordered security patrols to go out. Immediately they reported fresh signs of a large number of enemy troops. I went out to see for myself, and saw grass trails many yards in width, so fresh that the grass was still bent down. At the edge of these grass trails I saw little snares set to catch animals. I had seen these before – they were made with thread taken from clothes. This time, however, I saw the color still in the thread – it had not bleached out as was the case for snares that were only a few days old. Obviously the enemy had set these snares within the last day or so.
By the time the air assault was complete, the sun was already down. From the soldiers of the company I began to hear grumblings about our situation, and talk about “circling up” to spend the night in a defensive position at the edge of the landing zone. Candor compels me to reveal that this was a course of action that appealed to me. Like everyone else, I was a bit shaken by the signs we had seen, and did not relish the thought of a night movement into terrain that we had not reconnoitered and where the risk of ambush was clearly significant. But weighing the risks I reasoned that the more dangerous thing to do would have been to remain where we were. After all, for most of the afternoon there had been a steady stream of helicopter traffic in and out of that landing zone, and the idea that the enemy might not have noticed the insertion of an American rifle company seemed pretty remote to me. So I ordered the company to move out on a compass heading for about a kilometer and a half. Nobody liked this order, and a lot of guys complained, but no one refused to do it – they were too good soldiers for that. We finally were in our night defensive positions and settled down for the night about 10 pm.
About midnight we heard heavy automatic weapons fire, AK-47s and machine guns, together with mortar fire at the landing zone we had left earlier. Had we remained in that location there is no doubt that most, if not all, of us would have been killed. I breathed a sigh of relief that we had escaped harm, but at the same time I was apprehensive about what we would encounter when dawn broke.
At first light the next day, 3 January, we sent out security patrols. The reports from these patrols reflected overwhelming indications of fresh enemy activities. Fresh grass trails, yards wide, crisscrossed through the area. We found more fresh snares, indicating that a unit had just moved in to that vicinity and was trying to catch animals for food. We concluded that we were very near to a significant enemy troop presence, but were unsure where to find it. Not wanting to blunder into an overwhelming ambush, I decided to send platoon-sized patrols to trace these signs to determine where these enemy troops were located.
We began by moving from our night defensive position to establish a patrol base. In the course of this movement, we encountered one of those odd things that we occasionally found in the Vietnamese jungle, a wooden straight-backed chair with a fresh North Vietnamese uniform shirt careless draped over the back – like it was in someone’s bedroom. At this point, it was unclear whether the main trail continued on our northern azimuth or broke off to the west. Accordingly, I requested the support of a “pink team” (a reconnaissance helicopter teamed up with a gunship). These helicopters reconnoitered the area extensively, without discovering any fresh signs. This was not reassuring to us. It only indicated that the enemy in this area had been there long enough to establish well- camouflaged positions.
By this time it was midday. Since the pink team had not shed any light on the location of the enemy, I decided to send a platoon-sized patrol (under John McCorkle) to the north to reconnoiter. This patrol returned to report that the signs petered out in that direction. I then decided to send a platoon-sized patrol (under Jim Ratliff) to the west. As they saddled up and prepared to leave our perimeter, Drops, who was the company “log penny,” came to me and said that as a former member of that platoon he wanted to go on patrol with them so that he could help the new guys. Without really thinking about it, I told him it was ok, which was a decision I have regretted for many years because of what happened to him.
I was waiting for this platoon to report and return with other platoon when we heard the noise of a heavy contact from the west. We knew that Jim’s platoon was in a heavy fire-fight. On the radio I talked to SSG Roy Baxley, who told me that Jim and another man were seriously wounded and that the platoon was pinned down. We had no choice – we had to reinforce this platoon or it stood in great danger of being wiped out. I stood up and ordered the rest of the company to move out toward the sound of the contact, leaving a small detail behind to secure the rucksacks. The troops all got up and put on their “light-to-fight” combat gear – no questions, not a murmur of complaint or hesitation. This was the proudest I have ever been to be associated with a group of men. Their brave reaction to this situation has been an inspiration to me ever since.
Firing as we went, we proceeded until we linked up with Jim’s platoon. Along the way, SSG Baxley reported to me that the soldier who had been wounded had died. When we linked up I saw this soldier, SGT Bedford Drinnon, one of the finest junior NCOs I have ever served with.
By this time we had reported this contact to battalion, and they sent out Medevac and gunships. The Medevac helicopters tried time after time to get our wounded out, but we could not secure them from ground fire, and so a number of Medevac helicopters were shot down. I then decided we would move the wounded to our earlier perimeter and evacuate them from there. That meant about 700 meters movement under enemy fire and through heavily vegetated terrain.
We moved slowly, taking advantage of what cover we could. The gunships remained overhead, firing to suppress the enemy. Those gunship crews were very brave, ignoring heavy ground fire to stay with us.
I do not know how long all of this took. Finally, as the sun was going down, we got the dead and seriously wounded out by jungle penetrator. One of the seriously wounded was Drops. The troops were shaken by the experience, so the platoon leaders took the initiative to ensure that the claymore mines and trip flares were emplaced, setting a great example of leadership. For the remainder of the night we fired defensive targets, with artillery rounds landing at about one-minute intervals.
The next morning we piled the rucksacks of the remaining wounded and set them on fire. We then marched toward a landing zone, popping smoke grenades to mark the front of the company with the bright flames of the rucksack frames marking the rear of the company. When we got to the landing zone, we evacuated the rest of the wounded and were reinforced by our remaining platoon.
We swept back through the area, which the enemy had left. We saw signs of great destruction, but were never able to say specifically how many enemy soldiers we had fought or how many we had killed. Our own casualties were one dead and 23 wounded out of a two-platoon field strength of 48.
That was the last big contact of the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam. After that mission, we were redeployed to provide security within the so-called “rocket belt,” an imaginary trace marked by the range of the 122mm rocket from the major air bases at Bien Hoa and Tan Sun Nhut. Our mission was to interdict any enemy attempt to disrupt air traffic into these two bases, which was at a high because of the redeployment of US troops marking the Nixon-ordered drawdown. We were specifically deployed to the vicinity of the confluence of the Dong Ngai and Song Be rivers. As a part of that effort, Fire Support Base Drinnon was built in honor of SGT Drinnon.
At one point during this period we held a memorial service on the firebase for SGT Drinnan. I have reflected on this frequently in the years since, because the company was able to honor one of its own in a way that could not be replicated back in the United States. I recall this as the last time the company I remember was all assembled together, something that did not happen very often in Vietnam. From this point forward, the company would gradually lose its identity through DEROS and replacement.
While we were on the firebase LTC Bieri did me the great favor of allowing me to accompany him in his C&C helicopter during a combat assault of my good friend Jeff Donaldson’s A Company. I had been on many combat assaults by this time, however, but this was the first time I was able to appreciate the complex choreography of artillery, gunships, and assault helicopters. During the assault, and interesting thing happened: the operations radio frequency suddenly had piano music on it. It didn't make any difference to us, of course, because as you know all the combat assault coordination was based on an h-hour countdown. We could do it in radio silence. (Webmaster note: See Charlie Alpha: A Helicopter-borne Combat Assault in Vietnam for a more detailed description of a heli-borne assault)
The period from February to April 1972 was a difficult time to command a rifle company in Vietnam because of the personnel policies associated with the drawdown. Up until that time, we received replacements at a rate of about two or three a week to replace those whose tours had ended. At this rate, it was relatively easy to acquaint replacements with the other soldiers and indoctrinate them into the company’s policies. Starting in February 1972, however, US Army Vietnam decided that when units deactivated in Vietnam as a part of the drawdown, all the “long-timers,” that is soldiers at the beginning of their combat tour, would be transferred to units remaining in country. As a result, we began to get replacements at a rate of a dozen or more at a time, and it was virtually impossible to get them trained, acclimated, and indoctrinated into the company’s procedures.
Fortunately, we had little contact with the enemy at this time – I remember only one brief fire-fight between February and April. This was also the only experience I had with a field refusal. A brand-new replacement, on his first day in the company, shot himself in the foot to avoid going on the helicopter that would have taken him into the field with us. This was the sole act of cowardice that I ever encountered among American soldiers during my time in Vietnam. One of my last acts in Vietnam was to testify at this soldier’s court martial in Bien Hoa.
We all knew, of course, that we would be a part of the drawdown eventually. I remember that there were mixed emotions in the company. Everyone wanted to see his friends and family back home, of course, but we had been through a lot together, and it was difficult to imagine life without the friendships we had developed. I recall that at one point the rumor went around that we would be a part of a separate brigade that would deploy someplace else in the world.
Eventually, however, the day came when we flew to brigade headquarters (Webmaster note: March 14, 1972) in Bien Hoa to turn in company property - which really was only the weapons. The TA-50 type gear was virtually in tatters. We had some ceremonial duties, mainly a big awards ceremony. A lot of guys had been either put in for decorations they had never received or had received decorations that were never properly presented. That was the last time the battalion was together as a team.
Then, in a remarkably short time, all the "long-timers" got transferred to someplace else. That ought not to have surprised us, because we had seen it with the other outfits that had stood down. But it still came as a shock, because even at the end we always thought of ourselves as a team, and it was sad to see the team broken up. Then all the short-timer enlisted men and NCOs were sent home. The lieutenants left soon after that, so it was the battalion and company commanders, the staff, and the sergeant major left.
For a time we had absolutely nothing to do but sit around and read, play cards, and drink beer. I was luckier than most because my aunt owned a bookstore and sent me the "printer's drafts" she got from the publishers when she was finished with them. I was more up to date on the NY Times best seller list than many people stateside.
Then we got our tropical worsted uniforms squared away for the trip home. Our little detachment, all that was left of the wartime 2-5 Cav, consisted of LTC Bieri, the company commanders, and the command sergeant major. We flew to Dallas and from there proceeded to Fort Hood. Although it was still the US Army, Ft. Hood was like another planet compared to Vietnam. The Army was in the midst of the tricap experiment, and the division was no longer an air assault division. Clearly, what we did in Vietnam was to be left there; the 1st Cavalry Division was looking to the future. Contrary to the criticisms sometimes leveled at the Army, it would not prepare for the last war.
Our counterparts in the 1-5 Cav were our hosts – mine was the commander of C/1-5 Cav. We had a brief ceremony returning the colors to the 1st Cavalry Division and then got on with our lives. In my case that meant some leave with my mother in Michigan and then an inter-theater transfer to the Berlin Brigade.
When we left Vietnam, there was a brigade of US troops in each of the three northern corps areas of South Vietnam [there were no US Army units left in the IV Corps tactical area]. We believed that this level of force, reinforced by US Air Force warplanes flying out of places like Thailand the Philippines, and US Navy airplanes flying from carriers offshore, was adequate to deter any North Vietnamese attack. The North Vietnamese Army’s failure during the Easter offensive of 1972 seemed to us to confirm that we had achieved a situation that would keep the peace and secure the independence of South Vietnam. It was not the elegant sort of victory that would be studied in war colleges, but to us it seemed like victory nonetheless. No one could have convinced us that when the real test came, we would just walk away from it.
A piece of me remained in Vietnam for some time after I moved to Berlin to assume my duties in an Infantry battalion there. I remember the morning in April of 1975 when I learned about the fall of Saigon. It was 6 o’clock in the morning and I was on my way to work. I was listening to AFN on the car radio. When I heard the news, I had to pull over and compose myself. I could not believe that after eight years of sacrifice and 55,000 dead, despite our obligations under the Paris Peace Accords, the United States was just going to walk away from Vietnam. In that sense, I suppose, the whole effort was in vain.
But for me, the Vietnam experience was not in vain. When I went to Vietnam I was not a very good or dedicated officer. That experience caused me to rededicate myself to my profession. I would spend the rest of my thirty-year Army career endeavoring to be worthy of commanders like Leon Bieri, and to deserve the privilege of commanding young American men like Bedford Drinnon, Roy Baxley, and David Sprinkle.
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Updated July 04, 2001