The Virtual Wall, memorializing Vietnam casualties since 1997
The Virtual Wall, memorializing Vietnam casualties since 1997
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The Battle of Polei Duc
Into the Valley of Tears
22 March 1967

Plei Trap Valley The Plei Trap Valley is located in Vietnam's Central Highlands, west of the Nam Sathay River and close to the Cambodian border. During the war, the Plei Trap was heavily used as an infiltration route and base area, connecting at its northwestern end with the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail. The area is a torturous place with some of the most difficult terrain imaginable - steep mountains, mist-shrouded valleys, dense jungle coverage. The low-lying areas are overshadowed by rugged mountains, and daylight temperatures soar above 105 degrees. In 1967, potable water was scarce, but insects and other pests - including the enemy - were plentiful.

The Plei Trap had a nickname - the Valley of Tears. And into the Valley of Tears came the men of the 4th Infantry Division.

The 4th's Second Brigade had arrived in Vietnam in August 1966, and the entire Division had closed by mid-September 1966. Between September and the end of the year, 4th ID engaged in heavy jungle training and operations in the coastal plain area of I Corps.

In early January 1967 the 4th Infantry Division moved into the western area of the Central Highlands, determined to engage the North Vietnamese Army's 1st and 10th Divisions. Operation Sam Houston began immediately, with US units clearing the highland plains of Pleiku and Kontum Provinces, preparatory to more substantial campaigns west of the Nam Sathay River.

Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.
Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
     Rode the six hundred.

The 2nd Brigade, 4th ID, crossed the river in mid-February, entering the Valley of Tears. Artillery and air support was difficult due to the terrain and weather conditions. Joined by the 1st Brigade, the 4th Division pushed slowly westwards, hoping to trap the NVA close to the Cambodian border. Instead, they suffered constant ambush in ideal defensive terrain. By mid-March, both brigades began pulling back to the eastern side of the Se Sanh River.

In the last major engagement of Operation Sam Houston, elements of the 1st Bn, 8th Infantry, were employed as blocking forces intended to hamper the movement of NVA forces. On 22 March 1967, near the village of Polei Duc the 85 men of Alpha Company, First of the 8th Infantry, were ambushed by a battalion or more of North Vietnamese regulars - well trained troops familiar with the terrain.

Storm'd at with shot and shell, Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death, Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

"We were supposed to be a blocking force against a small unit of NVA that had been spotted by a Recon Team and spotter plane. We choppered out to an LZ on the 21st and proceeded to march towards the NVA force. When we set up our perimeter that night I as well as others were on LP's.
Next morning we set out for the final position and were ambushed by a Battalion sized NVA outfit. The battle started around 7:30 AM and the heaviest fighting ended around 4:30 PM. Lighter fighting continued after 4:30 PM while the choppers were getting the wounded out."

John Nelson, SP4, A/1/8

Company commander Captain William D Sands and Artillery FO 2LT Thomas Shannon were killed and two of the platoon leaders were severely wounded in the initial assault. Command devolved on First Sergeant David H. McNerny (MoH). During the fight, Alpha 1/8 suffered 22 men killed in action and an additional 42 wounded - a 75 percent casualty rate. But the greatly outnumbered GIs were not routed by the NVA - they held their ground until relieved and they brought their dead and wounded out with them. Immediately after the battle 139 NVA dead were counted around the A/1/8 position. A subsequent sweep of the area identified approximately 400 NVA graves.

Medal of Honor Distinguished Service Cross Silver Star Bronze Star Purple Heart
They that had fought so well Came thro' the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of Hell, All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

The day's action brought the men of Alpha 1/8 one Medal of Honor, two Distinguished Service Crosses, seven Silver Stars, a number of Bronze Stars, too many Purple Hearts - and the pride of brotherhood and heroism that Alfred Lord Tennyson captured in the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Bravo Company, 1st of the 8th, simultaneously was engaged by a smaller NVA force several hundred meters distant from the A/1/8 position. Although pinned and unable to assist A/1/8, Bravo Company withstood the attacks on their position, sustaining much lighter casualties.

These soldiers of the Ivy Division died that day at Polei Duc

Alpha Company, 1st of the 8th Infantry
PFC Floyd Barker   PFC James A Cunningham
PFC Blair E Dennis   PFC Ralph Gray
PFC Charles F Harrison   PFC Jacob A Horn
PFC Richard D Kaminski   PFC Gary M Ladd
SP4 Raul Montes   SP4 John A Mott
SGT Timothy X Murphy   SP4 Dennis A Prentice
CPT William D Sands   SP4 Richard S Sedies
SP4 David Vasquez   PFC Ralph M Wentzel
PFC Junior Wilkerson   PFC Billy J Witzkoski
PFC John Zupan   ARVN Scout (Name unknown)
A Bty, 6th Bn, 29th Fld Arty, FO Team
PFC Jerry L Pickworth   2LT Thomas E Shannon
Bravo Company, 1st of the 8th Infantry
SP4 William T Kauffer   PFC William J O'Brien
PFC Joseph R Piambino   PFC Daniel M Taylor
PFC Robert D Jenkins   SP4 Calvin E Schwartz

When can their glory fade? All the world wonder'd.
Honor the charge they made!
Noble six hundred!


I remember Vietnam like it was yesterday
And all the soldiers I knew and miss today.
It was March 22nd 1967
when 22 brave men went to heaven.
We were ambushed by a Battalion of NVA
I'll never forget what I saw that day.
We fought for our lives, these men were great
85 Men from A Co First of the Eight
4th Infantry Division. Alpha Company
Ambushed in the Plei Trap Valley,
Forty-two wounded, twenty-two KIA
I know I will never forget that day.
One Medal of Honor, two DSC'S, seven Silver Stars - we made history.
Numerous Bronze Stars, 55 Purple Hearts
These brave men from Alpha company, Never apart
Those 22 killed - they all gave their all
Forever remembered by us and the Wall.

Johnathan Lee Nelson
A 1/8 4ID Vietnam 1966 1967
Deceased 2002

Poem Copyright 2001 Johnathan Nelson

Virtual Wall Note

As noted above, First Sergeant David H. McNerny won the Medal of Honor at Polei Duc. In Bravo 1/8, Platoon Sergeant Bruce Grandstaff won a Silver Star; he would receive a posthumous Medal of Honor for an action on 18 May 1967. Another Bravo 1/8 soldier, Staff Sergeant Frankie Molnar won a Bronze Star at Polei Duc; on 20 May, two days after P/Sgt Grandstaff's death, S/Sgt Molnar would also win a Medal of Honor at the cost of his own life.

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Last updated on 14 April 2001