Battle On Hill 65
(Operation HUMP 5 to 9 November 1965)
by Lowell D. Bittrich
Bravo 1/503d Infantry
This paper was prepared in May 1966 following my turning over of command of Company B, lst Battalion 503d Infantry and preparing to return to the United States and Fort Benning, Georgia. While studying the history of our Nations Civil War I was often struck by how quickly memories of key participants in battles fade or become distorted over time. Rather than meeting the same fate I've prepared this paper knowing that it may still suffer errors caused by recounting experience solely from my perspective. At Fort Benning I was invited to prepare a monograph on the battle. I declined. This paper would have more than met that request. However, I had three serious reservations in providing it to anyone: First, at several points I am critical of someone or some unit. I see no good purpose in making that a matter of record. Secondly, I found myself using "I" all too often. Put differently, many owed credit for their bravery are not recognized because I fail to recall their names or the particulars. And third, with all the anxiety amongst Americans on the merits of this War (a situation I attribute solely to our lack of political leadership) I don't wish to provide anyone any basis to question the valor of our soldiers or their leadership. The 173d Airborne Brigade enjoyed the finest leaders our Army had to offer; our paratroopers were the best our government has ever put on any battlefield.
Early on Friday, November 5, 1965 the 173d Airborne Brigade (Separate) entered War Zone "D" in the Republic of Vietnam to conduct Operation HUMP (OPORD 28-65). Somewhat auspiciously the name of the operation signified the halfway point of our year in Vietnam. The search operation began with the 1/RAR (Royal Australian Regiment) deployed south of the Dong Nai River and paratroopers of the lst Battalion (Airborne), 503d Infantry being lifted by helicopters from the "snake pit" around noon to conduct a helicopter assault on a LZ northwest of the Dong Nai and Song Be Rivers. Leaving my rear detachment under the control of my Executive Officer, First Lieutenant Charles E. Johnson, Jr., B Company deployed with five officers, 195 enlisted men and one ARVN interpreter.
The scene of the battle for hill 65 is best captured by SP4 Joseph M. Kenny, the B Company, lst Battalion 503d Infantry artillery team radio operator (RTO) from Battery C, 3d Battalion, 319th Artillery, 173d Airborne Brigade in his poem "D Zone":
Beneath the canopy of green,
Flitting shadows make their way,
In silent files they furtively steal,
Looking, searching for their prey,
Muffled footfalls barely heard above
other muted sounds,
Of an armed band moving, through the
heart of "Cong's" home grounds.
Back again in the D Zone and it's been
said and heard,
"Charlie" shares exclusive rights with
Of course it's hotly contested,
And real estate's on a rising cost,
With payment made on either side,
In blood and sweat long lost.
But now it's push on and on,
Through swamp and tough terrain,
With salty sweat searing your eyes,
And a roaring in your brain,
A burning feeling in your chest,
And each breath a gasp of air.
But it's move and push and drive,
Until you've found "Charlie's" lair.
Maybe soon they'll call a halt,
And you'll slip to the mucky ground,
Grateful to pick the leeches off,
And pass the smokes around.
But now it's bamboo thicket,
And lurking, snagging vine,
While up ahead the point man,
Searching for some sign
Of elusive, wily "Charlie,"
The guy we're looking for.
And back in line some joker quips,
"Hell of a way to fight a war."
A rifle shot cracks out.
Like the rap of a conductor's baton
That start's an overture,
And willing or not it's on.
Fire is answered with fire,
A crescendo quickly reached,
And "Charlie" breaks and runs,
As his line of defense is breached.
The ensuing silence is unearthly,
Still there's ringing in your ears,
And guys are tending the wounded,
Soothing their unspoken fears.
Here and there's a still, still shape,
Who'll never walk D Zone again.
Their names to be struck from the rolls,
With one stroke of a shaking pen.
The call comes down to saddle up,
We'll soon be on our way,
For we've a goodly stretch to cover,
Before the end of day.
The guys no longer look tired,
They've a determined look of eye
As they scan the shrouded flanks
And treetops that hide the sky.
Now as I write I feel pride,
Proud that I have served
With the "Sky Soldiers" of Company B,
First of the Five-O-Third.
Having been the battalion S2 prior to taking command of B Company, I had studied the area and was well aware of reports of an enemy build-up in the area. While there were signs of activity in and around the LZ on which we landed, the first three days of the operation turned out to be relatively uneventful with the exception of an enemy contact in the Australian sector. Late in the day on Sunday, November 7, 1965 the battalion had established a base camp. With some time left before dark Lieutenant Colonel John Tyler (Battalion Commander, lst Battalion 503d Infantry) ordered each of us to search forward of our company positions. Again we found nothing. However, our C Company Commander, Captain Henry B. Tucker (just "Tuck" or "Big Tuck" to most of us) reported hearing chickens cackling to his north. I chuckled, having never seen a chicken in the jungles, and didn't pay much attention to the report. On day four of the search (Monday, November 8, 1965) Colonel Tyler, ordered his rifle companies to continue the search of the area some 35 miles northeast of Saigon and about 15 miles north of our Bien Hoa base camp. C Company was to conduct its search northwest of the battalion base in the direction of hill 65. B Company was to move approximately two kilometers north northeast, fan out its three platoons and search an additional one-thousand meters in a northerly direction.
At approximately 0610 hours on the morning of November 8, 1965 B Company left the battalion base, which was located at approximate grid coordinates 111303. The company had recently been issued the PRC 25 radio and had insufficient radios to operate below the company level, thus all platoons were on the company frequency. The third platoon was in the lead followed by my headquarters and a small element of the weapons platoon, the first platoon and then the second platoon. Our plan was to move approximately two kilometers north northeast, establish a company base, and to fan-out the three rifle platoons an additional kilometer with the intent to look at hill 78 in the vicinity of -122323 and the road/trail in the vicinity of -115329 and -110328.
As the battalion had secured and spent the night of November 7 together I cautioned my third platoon leader, 2nd Lieutenant Clair H. Thurston Jr., to move cautiously out of the battalion perimeter and to take his time searching forward. The movement to the planned company base was uneventful with no sign of activity in the area. The company closed on the new company base at approximately 0715 hours. Having reported the establishment of our base at approximately _117319, I ordered Clair to begin moving in the direction of the trail in the vicinity of _110328. Approximately twenty minutes later the first platoon moved in the direction of the trail at 115329 and following their move, ten minutes later, the second platoon headed in the direction of a hill marked on my map as hill 78.
At approximately 0750 hours, alerted by sporadic small arms and automatic weapons fire coming from the southwest of our position, we listened intently to the battalion command net. Subsequently we learned that C Company had deployed its second platoon, led by First Lieutenant Ben Waller, north of the battalion base in direction of hill 65 and was in contact with an enemy force of about platoon size. Moments later the report was updated with information that contact was lost with their lead platoon. Then we began to hear artillery fire. I alerted all three platoons of the situation and cautioned them to move slowly as planned. About five minutes later C Company deployed a second platoon and shortly thereafter reported it was in contact with an enemy force considerably larger than a platoon. The firing had noticeably increased and was no longer sporadic.
Shortly after 0815 hours I took three actions; first, ordering all platoons to halt their movements and to hold their current positions; second, to get prepared to move in the direction of the firing; and third, notified the battalion we had stopped our search pending any instructions to continue, return to the battalion base or to move in the general direction of hill 65. The battalion RTO acknowledged my call and ordered me to "wait-out." On the company net I informed my platoon leaders that I anticipated we would be moving shortly and if so ordered we would reorganize on the march rather than returning to the company base. My instructions were to the effect that the third platoon would move on the most direct route toward hill 65 or the battalion base as the lead platoon, my headquarters element would intercept the first platoon as it moved to catch the third platoon and the second platoon would follow and secure the companies rear.
No sooner had I issued those instructions when Colonel Tyler, on the battalion command net, asked how long it would take to reassemble my unit. I responded that we were prepared to move now and felt we could reorganize safely on the move rather than having my platoons close on my position. Colonel Tyler acknowledged my response and ordered me to "wait out. 11 Having learned that Captain Tucker had joined and committed his remaining platoon to the fight, I told my platoon leaders we would most likely be going directly to the assistance of C Company and if that were the case we must be prepared to move on a moments notice. Colonel Tyler ordered me to move and assist C Company at approximately 0845 hours. He further informed me that the situation was not clear on hill 65, and that while speed was of the essence, I was not to take any undo risks. I informed Colonel Tyler that we were up to it, we had a plan and we were ready to execute.
On order my third and first platoons moved quickly! I believe both platoons had in fact monitored my conversations with Colonel Tyler, anticipated the order to move and actually began to execute their movements prior to my call. My final instructions were to move to the sound of the firing in the general direction of hill 65. Unless we made enemy contact earlier, the third platoon was to hold up just short of the creek at approximately grid coordinate- 108309, a creek bed just east of hill 65, at which time I intended for both the third and first platoons to go on line with the first platoon moving to the left of the third platoon and the second platoon following the third platoon onto hill 65.
My headquarters element quickly made contact with the first platoon and discovered that we were paralleling the line of march of the third platoon. I ordered the first platoon leader, First Lieutenant Michael P. DeFrancisco, to move his platoon even further to the left or south of the third platoon in order to have two platoons abreast and ready to rapidly move on line once we reached the objective. The second platoon quickly closed-up on us and secured the company rear. While on the move we vainly attempted to establish radio contact with Company C. After numerous attempts to make radio contact, I became concerned we might have problems running into C Companies fires. I alerted my platoons that if they suspected they were receiving friendly fires they were to hold their position until I could work it out. At this point there was artillery fire north of hill 65. My artillery team was monitoring that situation to preclude our walking into fires.
Moving rapidly, at approximately 0925 hours, Lt. Thurston reported enemy movement forward of the third platoon on the far side of the creek just short of hill 65. Clair further reported that he believed the enemy was not aware of his presence; however, he suspected he was beginning to take fire from C Company. With one more attempt I raised C Company on the radio. I learned that C Company did not have radio contact with all of its forward elements but that they would make every attempt to cease its fires. We agreed that they only needed to halt the fires on the east side of hill 65 as we would be attacking from the east side of the creek to get to them. While I attempted to get further information as to their situation they were having great difficulty even talking to me. I would learn why latter.
We deployed the company as planned, began to move to the creek, totally surprising the enemy force to our front. As we began to move we opened up, firing everything we had in our third and first platoons. We had no difficulty crossing the creek and began to climb the hill having stacked enemy bodies as we went. We had caught the enemy from the rear. I believe that C Company had successfully pushed the enemy off the hill and generally to the north of the hill. Our contact appeared to have closed on the enemies left flank and with the element of surprise we were virtually unopposed in getting on the hill.
Moving initially with the first platoon my headquarters element crossed the creek and began climbing hill 65. As we climbed the hill we spotted a series of well dug in and covered enemy positions. None of the positions were occupied and a number of the enemy lay dead close to the positions. In a rush to reach C Company, I moved my headquarters element quickly to the left and ahead of the first platoon. Halfway up the hill one of my radio operators appeared to fall. With the sound of firing coming from many directions, my initial reaction was that he was hit. I grabbed his harness and continued my climb. Finally I heard him yelling to let go. He had slipped and not been hit. The hill was shaped like an egg, running generally north and south. Across its northern crest it is approximately four hundred meters wide and from north to south some 600 meters deep. From the creek to the crest of the hill is about 300 meters. The hill was heavily vegetated with teakwood trees and what is generally referred to as triple canopy jungle. With the sun not penetrating the treetops, the jungle floor was generally clear. There were well traveled trails leading off the north and south sides of the hill.
Upon reaching the top of the hill I spotted Tucker. Bullets were flying. He was in a well dug enemy position with a RTO and his second platoon leader. - As I approached them they all yelled for me to get down. My immediate concern was for what I saw just forward of their position. Less than one hundred feet in front of them was a M60 machine gun being dragged backwards. The weapon was pointed to the north and I was anxious to get it moving back that direction. once we got the machine gun forward on the crest of the hill I returned to Tucker's position. On a closer look I found Lt. Waller had been hit in one shoulder and his opposite hand. A radio operator was holding the company radio and keying the hand mike for him. Trying to determine the situation, the best I could get from them was that they had approximately twenty-one effective soldiers left on the hill. They weren't sure about the rest of the company. My stomach hurt, there had to be more.
My early assessment was that we had a mess on our hands and must initially try to secure a position on the hill. Until I had a better feel for the C Company situation I would be defending. The firing was intense from the north; and I had no idea what was between us and the firing. If we could find the remainder of C Company we could consolidate the position and hold under almost any condition. I ordered the third platoon to attempt to make contact with any C Company personnel by extending their position to the north of the hill while continuing to maintain their tie with the first platoon on their right. The second platoon, led by First Lieutenant Robert A. Frakes, would extend to the right of the first platoon further winding around the hill.
Shortly following that order the first platoon reported the enemy had moved behind them and they were taking fire from the east. I received a similar report from my third platoon. Occupying an abandoned enemy position, I began to wonder if the enemy had deliberately let us in and was in the process of closing off all escape routes. Lt. Thurston reported he was taking fifty caliber fire from two directions. Listening, I could make out the distinct sound of three fifty caliber machine guns. They were pounding from three very different directions. I reported to the battalion that I had a very confusing situation on my hands, that while I was on the hill and had contact with a small element of C Company, it was difficult to determine exactly where all elements of the company were located. I then estimated that we could be up against as many as three Viet Cong battalions. It was my belief that at this time in the war one would only find enemy fifty caliber machine guns at the regimental level. The fact that we were getting fire from those guns from three distinct and well dispersed directions caused me to believe we were in contact with a much larger enemy force then previously reported. A second alternative was that we were fighting a main line PAVN unit. I am not sure which alternative I reported to Colonel Tyler. Finally, I reported that I believe C Company had taken severe casualties, maybe as high as a third of the company. There was a long pause before the conversation was acknowledged and terminated.
My next, and last, conversation with Lt. Thurston had the makings of a disaster. He reported that he had spotted an enemy machine gun and was going to take it. Little did I know he had decided to do it on his own. I knew I should have stopped him, we weren't ready to move to the attack. He moved well forward of his platoon and was killed. When I received that report my heart sank, and even worse I learned, he was so far forward that we could not get to him. In a brief conversation with Platoon Sergeant Walter G. Power I learned the facts and assured myself that he had the situation back under control. Once I accepted .the reality and reported to Colonel Tyler, my headquarters and I became very angry. Up to this point in the fight we were not able to put a name to any of the dead. Now this wasn't just a fight to help C Company, we lost one of our best and they were going to pay. It was time to take calculated risks. Without really understanding the entire Situation on the ground I began calling for as much artillery as I could get. My excellent artillery team, from the 319th Artillery Battalion, brought a curtain of steel forward of us. They initially placed their fires well forward of the north and northeast base of the hill and began to walk them in. The fires were devastating but the enemy would soon tactically adjust to lower their effect.
The artillery fire temporarily turned the tide by buying us much needed time to locate all elements of C Company with the exception of seventeen paratroopers. We would not locate those remaining seventeen until the following day. We now had formed a crescent around the hill that extended from the southeast to the northwest. The south side of the hill was not covered and so I ordered my second platoon to extend as far to the south as possible without jeopardizing their current position. At that time I made an estimate of C Companies casualties. While they were severe, we had found many more than twenty-one effective paratroopers at the top of the hill with which to make a fight. While the firing continued, we quickly began the task of consolidating the position and recovering the dead and wounded. our medics were pushed to their limits but accomplished the seemingly impossible. I ordered everyone to "dig in," we were going to hold this position. The worst was yet to come.
The adjustment the enemy made, as a result of our effective artillery, was to move closer to us in order to avoid the devastating fires. Their reaction clearly demonstrated that we were up against a highly trained and disciplined force. I reported to Colonel Tyler that I believed we were surrounded and, while we would hold the position, we were going to need help. Colonel Tyler provided encouragement and said he was working on it. Then, out of seemingly nowhere, came the sounds of three bugles. My operations sergeant, Staff Sergeant Ernest J. Sundborg, turned to me and asked if I had heard them. I said I didn't, but I had. My mind just didn't want to accept it. After what seemed a lifetime, I realized we had to move fast to overcome a major assault. I called for more artillery and again reported that we needed help if we were to hold. My platoons reacted quickly, almost without direction, repositioning machine guns and troopers to meet the blunt of the attack. Leaders seemed to appear everywhere knowing what was about to happen. I tried to be everywhere. We were ready for the worst. The enemy came at us shoulder-to-shoulder. It was unreal, like something out of films from the civil war. They made it about halfway up the hill when we finally broke them and they backed down off the hill slowly. They made a second attempt, seemingly more desperate than the first, but it met with the same fate. This time they were in retreat, but it wasn't over yet.
Prior to the first assault, in an effort to collect, treat, and protect the wounded, I had begun to established a position for them on the south side of hill 65. I thought this to be the safest place on the battlefield. I was wrong and would learn it shortly. To protect them I ordered the second platoon to assign two squads (eighteen paratroopers) to secure the area. The position was no sooner establish then it was hit by yet another terrible assault. The remainder of the second platoon attempted to come to their rescue. However, the position was cut off from the rest of the company and they were fighting hand-to-hand. Over a short fifteen minute period, three desperate reports came from three different non-commissioned officers over the company net. Each of them died shortly following their request for help. Finally, Specialist 4th Class Jerry W. Langston took over the radio, making one more effort to report. We only had his name when all radio contact was lost. When the second platoon was unable to get to them, I ordered the first platoon to move to that area. Some hours later, after reporting they had busted their way through a wall of the enemy, the first platoon reported they had retaken the position, found fifteen dead, two severely wounded paratroopers and Langston, unconscious with a large hole in his helmet, but still alive. While we exacted a heavy toll on the enemy, we paid a terrible price for not adequately covering our rear.
During a lull in the fighting I began to move among the wounded, meeting for the first time our Protestant Chaplain James "Jim" M. Hutchens. He was new to the battalion and had moved with C Company on this operation. He had been hit in one leg attempting to get to some of our wounded. He was in pain but he smiled. Somehow that smile made me feel better (that smile was a gift he shared with our battalion throughout the rest of our tour). I watched as Specialist 5th Class Lawrence Joel, a medic from C Company, hit several times in one leg, treated several of our wounded. Some of those wounded he had dragged out of the firing. He was in great pain but kept on helping. My eyes began to blur, we had paid a dear price. Reaching for the radio, I readied for my toughest report. When Colonel Tyler came on the net it took everything I had to report I estimated our two companies had more than forty dead, approximately seventy wounded, and were missing up to another twenty. For the second time I experienced a long pause on the radio followed by a pained "out".
By now we had received over 900 artillery rounds in support of our fight on the hill. Fighting continued throughout the day with some indications that the enemy was trying to disengage. By now the battalion had added air power to the fray hitting targets well out from our position and along the-trail we had planned to take a look at prior to this fight. Approximately thirty five air strikes supported this effort. I reported that we were loosing contact and felt that the enemy was trying to escape. My estimate up the point of the three major enemy attacks was that they had well over 110 killed with no idea of the number of their wounded. With the action just completed my new estimate was twice that previously reported.
I then learned that the battalion headquarters had been hit earlier by a mortar round. That came as a surprise as we had not experienced any mortar fire on the hill. It also caused me to wonder as to their situation. With triple canopy jungle we were experiencing difficulty firing grenade launchers and thus had ruled out the use of mortars early in the fight. Earlier I became aware that A Company was tasked to attempt to get to us. As their lead platoon left the battalion base it was hit hard by an enemy force. In that contact A Company lost a platoon leader, Second Lieutenant David L. Ugland, a classmate of Lt. Thurston. Their effort to get to us was called off. Subsequently I received a report that my second platoon had spotted an element of A Company and may have taken fire from that element. Trying to confirm that report I became convinced it was highly improbable because the A Company enemy contact occurred within about two hundred and fifty meters of the battalion base. At about the same time I received two disturbing reports, one from my second platoon and one from Captain Tucker, of the enemy in differing types of uniforms and some wearing helmets. The same report came from the only survivor of the seventeen missing from C Company on the following day.
Having learned of the details of the failed A Company effort and the mortar attack on the battalion, a third even greater disappointment was yet to come. The lst Infantry Division had been requested to deploy a battalion in support of the battle and the reported response was "We are still training and not ready to fight!" Upon receiving that message I made a number of crude comments and even thought worse. I doubted that I would ever forget that message. That historic division deserved better! Fortunately, they were to get a new and great Division Commander shortly after this battle and many of those commanders who believed they had come to Vietnam to train lost their commands.
Ever so gradually fires were falling off. At around 1600 hours, one of my rifle squad leaders, Staff Sergeant Billie R.
Wear, from the third platoon approached me and asked if we would make an attempt to recover Lt. Thurston from the battlefield. I told him we had to get him but I would need help. SSgt Wear said he knew where Lt. Thurston had fallen and he was willing to lead a recovery effort. I approved the effort but stated I was going with him. After some brief exchange we moved out and at approximately 1625 hours an improvised squad of the third platoon, made up mostly of non-commissioned officers, lead by SSgt Wear, recovered the remains of their fallen leader. While not probably the wisest decision on my part, I felt compelled to follow the squad in this recovery and I understood the unusual composition of that squad. Later, some would claim I lead the effort. That was not the case. I had become a rifleman because we had lost one of my lieutenants and I wanted him back under any circumstance. With the recovery of Lt. Thurston, we had accounted for all members of my command. We had yet to find seventeen missing from C Company. We all knew we would not leave this battlefield without them.
With contact apparently broken, I set about the task of trying to get our critically wounded out, get more ammunition in, and to prepare to secure the position for the night. We continued our attempt to clear an area to get 'helicopters in to carry our wounded out. It didn't take us much longer to realize we couldn't get it done prior to dark with what we had to work with. With a lot of effort from the battalion, the Air Force came to our rescue. From the Bien Hoa Air Base they sent a fire-fighting helicopter to hover above us while lowering a basket. Five times, over five trips we put a critically wounded paratrooper in a basket they lowered through the canopy, and five times the Air Force winched our troopers through that triple canopy jungle in an attempt to save each of them. They succeeded and were willing to continue to try and save more as it began to get dark. It was a painful decision but I called them off. It was getting dark and not only could we not hear the battlefield with the aircraft hovering above us, we now could not see to our front. The risk was becoming too great to go on with it. I knew we would lose more wounded through the night. Because of their efforts all five survived. In between the Air Force flights, we were resupplied by an Army helicopter dropping their bundles through the jungle canopy with but one mishap. In coding a resupply message I mistakenly called for one hundred trip flares when I had intended to order one hundred claymore mines. Nonetheless, we made good use of the trip flares and fortunately none of them went off during the night.
Early in the evening I had many of the dead and wounded moved to the rear of my position on top of the hill. It was crowded and their suffering at times made it noisy. I felt we could better protect them from this position rather than place them at any further risk from another onslaught from the bottom of the hill. Through the night we lost one of our wounded. That they were able to hold that number to one was a tribute to the extraordinary efforts of our medics. Later, several days following the operation, I was indirectly criticized by medical personnel (none of which were with us on hill 65) in a battalion staff meeting not for my decision to call off the rescue helicopter but for having placed the dead and wounded so close to each other and so close to my command post. They gave me a lecture on "morale in combat." Frankly, I wasn't impressed and I told them so. In fact, they had a point. However, giving their timing and the alternatives we faced, I wasn't inclined to acknowledge their well reasoned arguments as I was troubled in my decision to call off the Air Force rescue helicopter. Colonel Tyler kindly intervened in the heated discussion and brought it to a halt.
Early that evening we received a torrential rain, the last of the rainy season. Thankfully it didn't last long. We needed to be able to hear what might be going on around us. Throughout the night I paced the area, tried several times to rest on an enemy crafted log table, and listened, and listened. Above it all I wanted to hear the sound of the battlefield. It was deadly quiet even with the suffering of our wounded. My mind now centered on how we were going to get our remaining wounded and dead out of this place. We couldn't walk and carry them out except at great risk to them. Some of the wounded just couldn't make that trip. I had no idea as to the situation at the battalion base. I realized we weren't going to get any outside help, no one was coming to us. The Air Force had done a great job penetrating the jungle with their basket but we had too many wounded to count on that again. We hadn't made much progress on a landing zone. We had to do better and we were going to have to do it on our own. How? I talked with Captain Tucker and we came up with a plan. We would call for chain saws and explosives. We would open a hole in this jungle and get helicopters on the ground to get them out. By first light we were ready.
As light broke through the jungle on Tuesday, November 9, 1965 all our leaders knew what to do and were moving. Medical evacuation helicopters, gun ships, and Brigadier General Ellis W. Williamson, Commander 173d Airborne Brigade, in his command helicopter were above us. I cautioned them to keep the helicopters clear of us so we could hear . Just having them near was a help to us. We had three tasks -to accomplish: First, we had to probe forward of the perimeter and determine if the enemy was there. Second, we had to find the missing soldiers from c Company. And third, we had to create a hole in the jungle. How the first task played out would determine how difficult this day would be. The answer to the first task came quickly. The enemy had fled leaving many of their dead (some reportedly stripped of their uniforms). The second task was left to C Company and they soon found their missing in a number of locations. Amongst the last of the seventeen missing they found one alive. He had spent a day on the battlefield playing dead surrounded by the enemy. Cutting a hole in the jungle, our third task, turned out to be a lot tougher than we had imagined. The Air Force dropped us the saws but they were impossible against teakwood trees. Dynamite did the job but created a hell of a mess that had to be cleared. Everyone helped, some to the point of exhaustion. When we thought we had finally got the job done we called for a medical evacuation helicopter (Dust Off). From the air our cutout in the jungle must have looked like a pin hole. They needed an opening twice as large if they were to get on the ground. We went back to work, blew out more trees. Still not good enough; they began dropping smoke grenades trying to mark areas that had to be taken out. The troops kept at it taking turns working on a landing zone and guarding the perimeter. It was still not good enough.
Finally, General Williamson radioed he was coming in. He stripped his aircraft and started the decent. Some of us knew his pilot, WO Charles Smith, and believed if there ever was someone to take on this task he was the guy. It was slow, we could feel the helicopter vibrate, we watched WO Smith thread the needle, descending some 200 to 250 feet with little room to clear the blades, he put the helicopter on the ground. General Williamson jumped out of the aircraft and told me to load it up. The General spotted our dead, all covered in ponchos, stopped, looked at them, and seemingly paused to say a prayer. I moved away. We put as many wounded on the aircraft as we could and WO Smith started his vertical climb out of the jungle. We held our breath. This was even slower than when he came in. He cleared the trees and we began to breathe again. Now we knew the "Dust Off" would be coming in. They came and left as fast as we could load them. On each decent and as each lifted off we prayed. I marveled at those pilots. In about two hours all the wounded were on their way to the Third Surgical Hospital and our dead were beginning their long journey home to their loved ones. We would say our last goodbye at a memorial service on November 15.
I expected one more helicopter to come in and get the General out. He said no, he was walking out with us. I hadn't anticipated this and quickly became concerned as did the troops around me. We didn't know the situation between our position and the battalion base. He had done enough getting our dead and wounded out. We needed him, but others need him more. How in the hell were we going to protect him, why take the chance? I called Colonel Tyler and asked him to intervene. He had never failed me before but this time he would. The General stood firm. Colonel Tyler ordered me to take it very slow and get him back to his location. I got the message. We weren't going to lose this guy.
The General, knowing of my concern, simply smiled at me and with confidence said "Let me know when you're ready." With that I said that B Company would take the lead, left him with Captain Tucker, and began to organize the march to the battalion base. I made sure everyone knew we had the General with us, we would move slowly and we would not be taking any chances. The troops shared my concern and seemed to get a very determined look in their eyes. They knew they had another job to do and they were ready. Once organized, I asked General Williamson to follow my command element. With that I grabbed the radio and ordered the company to "move out." While very tired, the troops were superb, and just as in the poem by SP4 Kenny:
"The guys no longer look tired,
They've a determined look of eye
As they scan the shrouded flanks
And treetops that hide the sky."
We moved slowly, well spread out, followed by C Company. Within an hour we closed on the battalion base. I put my unit on the perimeter and stood on that perimeter until the last paratrooper of C Company closed the position. That last man straightened up and said, "All the Way, Sir." I responded proudly, "Airborne." B Company had done its job, we had C Company back; we were dirty, tired and proud!
From the battalion base, C Company was the first to liftoff for the return flight to our base camp at Bien Hoa. C Company was followed by the extraction of A Company, and then my company. Generally I would lift out with my headquarters following my company. In this case we stayed on the ground until the battalion headquarters flew out. Just prior to the liftoff of the headquarters we heard small arms fire coming from the jungle. Gunships were returning fire as we extracted.
Upon closing at our Bien Hoa base camp I reported all my personnel and weapons accounted for and headed for the hospital. Having a bit of a phobia on being in a hospital, usually getting sick to my stomach if there more than about fifteen minutes, it became my habit to get there as quickly as possible to avoid any excuses. More importantly, I wanted our wounded to know they were uppermost in our minds and we wanted them back as quickly as possible. This time I had a change of heart. While on the chopper returning to Bien Hoa I recalled the number of my soldiers wounded and killed on this operation that had been wounded on prior operations. While their'-'were more, three stuck in my mind and two of those were dead. The dead were Lt. Thurston and Specialist 4th Class Wayne W. Humphries. Both had been wounded in action in early October near Ben Cat as we penetrated the "Iron Triangle." The third was seriously wounded and I wondered if he would even live. In the past we allowed our wounded to choose if they would return to the unit or go home. I could not recall a case where they chose to go home. It was time to say "enough" even to one tough paratrooper.
When I found my third man at the hospital I said "you're going home." Angered he put on quit a scene. I had to chase away some medical personnel that wanted to restrain him. He pleaded to return to the unit. I held fast. Finally, telling him I would be back to see him, went outside to get some air. He was hurt too much to return anyway, they had to evacuate him. With that feisty spirit I knew he would make it. I saw him again in a military hospital on my way to Fort Benning. He was still recovering in a ward with one of our great leaders, Platoon Sergeant Adam A. Bernosky of the first platoon. Bernosky was seriously wounded on March 16, 1966 during an operation near Phuoc Vinh where B Company was the lead company of the First Battalion 503d Infantry going to the aid of another unit, this time the Second Battalion 503d Infantry.
I then visited the other wounded. Here my notes on the wounded are mixed with wounded from another fight. On New Years Day 1966, during Operation Marauder on the "Plain of Reeds" west of the Oriental River near Kien Tuong, B Company again had to go to the aid of C Company. My recall of those wounded on hill 65 may include some wounded from the New Years Day fight. In any case, from the second platoon I talked with PFC John C. "Dutch" Holland, PFC Larry Anderson, PFC Ronald G. Apodaca, Specialist 4th Class Wallace S. Tao and Sgt. Theodore Shamblin. Sgt. Shamblin was hurt so badly that he would be evacuated and subsequently die on November llth. From-the first and third platoons I talked with several of my soldiers recalling only PFC Manual Garza, SSG Wallace A. Warden and Sgt. Hector Membreno. This group was doing very well; but were anxious to find out more on the fight. I could not see several soldiers as they were still being worked on or were in recovery. I spoke briefly with Chaplain Hutchens, he still had that rare smile, looked good and was collecting visitors to the point that some wanted us out of there. General William C. Westmoreland visited our wounded the following morning, November 10th. Late in the day I got called away from the hospital with an urgent message to return to my unit. General Westmoreland would also be visiting my company.
Upon my return I found more chaos in my orderly room than I experienced during the fight. It seemed everyone from the battalion and brigade staffs wanted to help us get ready for the Generals visit. Still thinking about my soldiers in the hospital, being tired and dirty, having not slept, shaved or washed in two days, I had little patience and sent some folks packing. They got the message and I didn't get any more help, guidance or visitors until the General arrived the next day. In preparation for his visit I called my Platoon Leaders and Platoon Sergeants together and issued my instructions. They were simple and prioritized; first, get a shave and a shower, get some chow, get to sleep, and tomorrow morning we'll start our "six-hour drill." I saw a wall of smiles, we had a plan and they liked it.
Our six-hour drill originated from an earlier experience where we witnessed another company coming off an operation and a commander allowing his troops to soak up much-too-much beer. The sad result was troops feeling sorry for themselves, second guessing each other and even blaming each other for some of their casualties. The end result was a unit out of control until they sobered-up. Our drill focused minds and energy on getting ready for the next operation, highlighted by my conduct of a "stand by" 100 percent inspection of everyone and everything we owned, and to whichever platoon fared the worse the honor of pulling all major details until we moved out on the next operation. General Westmoreland would never know he was the inspector on this one.
The visit of General Westmoreland was great. Accompanying the General was Colonel Tyler and General Williamson. General Westmoreland talked with each of my soldiers. It was a "standby." I led him to each soldier in their squad tent. As he
entered each tent our troops were called to attention and then instructed to continue working on their equipment as part of the six-hour drill. As I approached their bunk the soldier came to attention, I stepped aside and the General stood toe-to-toe with each of them. He usually began by asking them if they were in the fight. He would go on to ask if they had fired their weapon. All but one of my soldiers responded they had fired their weapon. When that soldier was asked why he didn't fire his weapon, he responded, "Sir, I'm a Grenadier, I was so damn busy firing a M60 Machine Gun, a M16 Rifle and my 45, I never got to my Grenade Launcher." Then it would get more personnel with questions on where they came from, how long they has been in the Army, their assignments and the like. one of my soldiers with a speech defect felt pushed to the point that after several questions, the last of which was: "How do you know you killed the enemy?" responded without a stutter, "Because I got his blood all over me." While they talked I would look at their weapons and equipment.
Later the troops would tell me how much they appreciated getting the opportunity to stand toe-to-toe with the General. Others thanked me for not having the usual formation in the sun with someone simply talking to them. As I accompanied General Westmoreland back to his helicopter he stopped, turned toward me and asked "Captain Bittrich, you're really proud of your soldiers, aren't you?" I was and I told him so. He asked if we needed anything. I responded we didn't. Later some of my troops would say I blew that question. Finally he asked how long it would take us to be ready for another mission. I told him we were ready now! He said he always enjoyed the opportunity to talk with paratroopers and thanked me. We exchanged salutes and I left him with General Williamson and Colonel Tyler. I called my leaders together, informed them as to the General's comments, thanked them and announced a winner (that I can't recall) of the six-hour drill. Then I began the sad process of writing letters to the parents and loved ones of our dead.
On Friday, November 12, 1965 Brig Gen Williamson, Capt. Tucker, Sgt. Sylvester Bryant, SSgt. Wear and I briefed the Saigon press, derisively referred to as the five o'clock follies, on the operation. We got a lot of questions on "being ambushed" and "fallen into a Viet Cong trap." General Williamson took those head-on as nonsense. Tucker reported, "They began charging in human waves with bugles blaring." I reported, "We killed about 90 Viet Cong as we busted through one of their encirclements. To another question I responded "When we finally fought our way to the top of the hill, we counted 111 Viet Cong bodies lying there." SSgt Wear offered,"I don't know what VC unit was there, but I know the other side knows we were there and won't want to tangle with the 173d again for a long time." The most quotable quote was offered by Sgt. Bryant, "I figure the Viet Cong would have been able to hold roll call the next morning in a telephone booth." I laughed for the first time in days.
For several days the press continued to report the battle. Reporter Tom Tiede published a detailed account of Specialist 4th Class Langston and the paratroopers cut off during the battle. He published a second article covering PFC Terry Hinson, his role in the fight, and the fact that he was seventeen years old. That article caused a reaction in the states that would lead to us sending Terry and all seventeen year old soldiers home. He published a third story covering PFC Edward C. Bable and his effort to save his wounded buddies. Joseph Alsop from Washington gave an account of the battle. A UPI headline article appeared in the "Saigon Daily News" on November 9th and other headline articles appeared in the "Pacific Stars and Stripes" and "The Saigon Post" on Wednesday, November 10th. Several of their reports carried the line that the battle for hill 65 had been the biggest battle of the war up to that time. As we were honoring our dead the 1st Air Cavalry Division would lay claim to that record as they fought North Vietnam regulars from November 14 to 19 in a battle for the Ia Drang Valley.
Taken from the
Sky Soldier site