Thirty eight years ago this week I was in the middle of my generation's war, the war in Vietnam. I have often thought, when I do think back, that if I could somehow wave a magic wand and make just one day, or one night, of my war never have happened, this one night in July would be one of three from which I would have to choose. This is a true story, or at least as true as thirty eight year old memories will let it be. I served as an army infantry lieutenant in Vietnam. In July, 1969, I was a platoon leader with Bravo Company, 2nd Bn, 14th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division. Our area of operations was near the Vietnamese city of Cu Chi. If you look at a map of Vietnam, you will find Cu Chi northwest of Saigon, about halfway up to the Cambodian border. All of the place names I use are real but I have changed the names of all of the men I mention. Become a Complete Fool
Our company had just received orders to build a new fire support base (FSB) that would be named Hunsley. Our entire 200 man company, plus a platoon on loan from Charlie Company, was helicoptered in to a barren plain. We secured the area while army engineers brought in Rome plows, threw up a circular berm for us, laid concertina wire around that berm, and then, their job completed, were gone by nightfall. That first night we were most vulnerable. Our fighting bunkers were incomplete and we had no overhead cover. That first night, cobra gunships orbited overhead non stop, ready to support us. By the second night, our fighting bunkers were complete. Picture in your mind a circular earthen berm, perhaps three meters or so high, perhaps seventy five meters or so across. Built into the berm were an even dozen fighting bunkers, three for each rifle platoon. Each bunker had firing ports facing to the front, wire mesh across the front to detonate incoming RPG's, overhead protection from mortars. We were essentially a piece of bait. Would the NVA in this desolate area be tempted to hit us hard some night, perhaps try to overrun us and destroy an entire company of Americans? We hoped they would try. We were within artillery range of FSB Patton, our permanent base, and two other fire support bases. The area around us was by now covered by dozens of designated targets on artillery maps. Artillery fire from155mm self propelled artillery could be called in quickly and accurately. Nevertheless, shortly after we arrived, my Vietnamese "Kit Carson" scout, Trang, walked over to tell me, " Beaucoup VC here, very bad". He would have known. The "Kit Carsons" were former VC who had come over to the government side and now worked with Americans. My third night at FSB Hunsley, around three in the morning local time, I sat on top of one of my platoon's three bunkers with one of my men on guard. We took turns looking out through the wire with our "starlight scope". The small portable radio between us was turned low as we listened to Armed Forces Radio out of Saigon. That's where I was when I heard Neil Armstrong take his "one small step for man". Did I hear it live or on a delayed broadcast? I just don't remember.
Was it the next day, or the day after, that Captain Reece called his platoon leaders in to his command bunker for a briefing? His first sergeant was there along with his four rifle platoon leaders, all lieutenants. Also present was Sgt. Dennis, our acting weapons platoon leader, who was in command of our company's three tube 81mm mortar section. Capt. Reece wanted two ambush patrols to go out that night. I was to take half of my platoon, our 2nd platoon, out 400 meters to the east. Lt. Foster was to take half of his platoon, our 1st platoon, out 400 meters to the west. Our primary purpose would be to spot possible enemy units moving in to hit FSB Hunsley under cover of nightfall. I could call in a fire mission from Sgt. Dennis's mortars very quickly. The remainder of our two platoons plus the two other full platoons would stay behind to secure the camp perimeter. Nightfall, and it's time to quietly move out. This part was always a little tricky, because after dark, the area between the berm and the outer wire is now part of our free fire zone. Anything that moves is presumed hostile. We followed procedure to make sure the rest of the camp knew we were headed out. With me was my platoon sergeant, Sgt. Michals, our two radio telephone operators, both of my three man M-60 machine gun teams, our platoon medic "Doc" (every platoon medic, I think, was called Doc), our Kit Carson scout, Trang, plus a reinforced rifle squad. There were perhaps twenty of us in all. The rest of my platoon stayed back and manned our three bunkers on the berm. We slipped through the wire and moved out quickly. We were really most vulnerable while on the move but I found our site and we set up quickly. I was an experienced platoon leader by now and I had under me what I thought was the best army rifle platoon in Vietnam. We had gone on many night ambush patrols together. No verbal orders were given, just a few quick hand signals, and in two minutes or less we were set up and ready. We deployed a formation we had used many times; two strong points facing out, each anchored by an M-60 machine gun team. Every man had brought out a claymore mine, some carried two. We laid thirty claymore mines in a semi circle to our front. Picture a rectangular object the size of a dinner plate stuck in the ground with prongs and with a detonation wire running back to your position. Then picture a dozen shotguns discharging forward all at once, all packed with buckshot. That is a claymore. My little platoon packed a very lethal punch. Earlier that afternoon I had met with Sgt. Dennis, our mortar platoon leader. I wanted to be absolutely sure he knew where I was going to be setting up and exactly which of those preset targets I might call in. I had learned from experience that Sgt. Dennis and his mortar men were very good. If I needed them I knew that I could quickly count on them. We were ready.
It started just after 2300 hours. From FSB Hunsley, to my rear, I heard a single M-16 rifle discharge a full magazine. Shortly after, even from 400 meters out, I heard a verbal order yelled out. The entire perimeter unleashed a "mad minute". The rounds going over our heads were high. We were directly in front of our own platoon bunkers and my men there were intentionally firing high over us and hitting well to our front. Then a cease fire was called out while at the same time, over the company band, I heard 1st platoon, Lt. Foster's platoon, calling in that they had casualties. All I could think, while maintaining verbal radio silence, was that both FSB Hunsley and Lt. Foster's ambush patrol had been engaged. Moments later, a cobra gunship team was orbiting overhead. Shortly after, the first medevac chopper dropped into FSB Hunsley, then lifted out, followed by another, which also lifted out, and then still a third medevac. It had to be very bad was all that I could think. We maintained radio silence but squelched a signal confirming we were o.k. We were signaled back to maintain position. Nothing else was said over our company band.
The night finally ended, we saddled up and radioed that we were coming in. Sgt. Bowden, one of my two squad leaders whom I had left behind, met us as we came through the wire. That was when we began to understand what had happened the night before. I mentioned earlier that our company had an additional fourth platoon on loan to us from Charlie Company. Their 2nd Platoon was op con to us and had responsibility for the north of our perimeter. At 2300 hours the night before, Sgt. Moore took over as the NCO in charge of that platoon's night guard. He did what outstanding NCOs would be expected to do. He checked and double checked his platoon's security, then walked down to check in with Lt.Foster's platoon on the western perimeter. He knew that half of that platoon, as well as their platoon leader and platoon sergeant, were out on the west ambush. The men left behind were spread a little thin; it wouldn't hurt to check in with their NCOs. What he saw as he glanced over the berm, peering into the dark, must have horrified him. A Viet Cong platoon had quietly slipped through the outer wire undetected and was now bunched up against the berm; apparently ready to launch an attack on our firebase. What Sgt. Moore did next took incredible courage. He must surely, in that split second, have known this would cost him his life but just perhaps this would buy his friends and fellow soldiers a few seconds warning. He jumped to the top of the berm, clicked his M-16 to full automatic, then fired his full magazine down the length of that Viet Cong platoon. It was only moments later, when the men he was firing into began to yell and scream and cry out in English, that he understood that something had gone terribly wrong. This is the story that was pieced together over the hours and days to follow. After that morning briefing, Lt. Foster had let his fear override his judgment. How could he avoid taking his platoon out that night on what he thought was a very dangerous ambush? The answer must have finally come to him. The men to be left behind manning his three platoon bunkers would be his own. He would, with their knowledge, simply hide his ambush patrol just on the other side of the berm from them. He would not go out through the outer perimeter wire at all. He could squelch his com checks as expected but from just on the far side of the berm. The company commander would be none the wiser. He convinced himself that actually going out on an ambush patrol would be sure death for him and his men. Two Americans died that night, five more were wounded.
Our Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army enemy still refused to take our bait. In the following weeks, as long as I was at FSB Hunsley, we never experienced a ground attack. We sent our night ambush patrols ever further out, night after night, trying to make contact. Our enemy seldom tried to move men and supplies during the day because of our air superiority. When they did move or attack, it was mostly at night. The purpose of our night ambushes was to intercept them as they tried to move. On the very dark night of August 14-15, Capt. Reece ordered me and my platoon fully two kilometers out to the east. I took my entire platoon that night, fully loaded with extra ammo and claymores. Very early in the morning, 0500 or so, three NVA walked into our ambush, only three. Those three enemy soldiers showed incredible courage against impossible odds. I always had great respect for the North Vietnamese Army. On every occasion when we engaged them, they always showed great courage and professionalism. Months later, in January 1970, I was platoon leader of Bravo Company's 3rd platoon. Under a full moon, I fought the biggest engagement of my war. Again, we were out on a night ambush. That was an incredible night that is as fresh in my mind as though it happened yesterday, but it's another story for another time. During my year in Vietnam, I was on line as a platoon leader for about six months. I never lost a single man on a night ambush. No one was ever even wounded. Most of the casualties we inflicted on our enemy were also at night. The daytime was a different story. All of my men who were killed or wounded were daytime casualties, and every one, without exception, was lost to mines and booby traps.
In October, 1969, I was serving as our company's executive officer. I was called into Cu Chi, our division headquarters, to testify at Lt. Foster's court martial. I was asked one question and one question only. What were the orders given me and Lt. Foster on the morning of that company briefing? Lt. Foster was sentenced to spend the balance of his tour of duty in Vietnam in an army detention center near Saigon, then sent home for dishonorable discharge. Over the years, when I think back about Vietnam, I always think of Lt. Foster and Sgt. Moore. The character of two men led to the actions each took that night. If Lt. Foster had taken his platoon out as ordered, the night most likely would have passed uneventfully. But then also think about Sgt. Moore. Here was an extremely professional NCO doing his best to insure that the perimeter was secure. Perhaps a less competent, less motivated NCO, would never have walked down to coordinate with the platoon on his flank, or never have glanced over that berm. His action in single handedly attacking what he though was an entire enemy platoon took great courage. One man shirked his responsibility while another man more than embraced his; both actions together resulted in terrible tragedy. Fate was very cruel that night.
The 25th Infantry Division is still an active army division. On a newscast from Iraq a few weeks back, I watched as an army officer was giving a press briefing. There in the background, on the wall, was the very distinctive division insignia of the 25th Infantry, a tropic lightning bolt emblazoned over a Hawaiian Taro leaf. I am still a member of the 25th Infantry Division Association and receive their news magazine several times a year. In peacetime, the division is still based in Hawaii.
2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment (Golden Dragons)
25th Infantry Division (Tropic Lightning)
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Thirty eight years ago this week I was in the middle of my generation's war, the war in Vietnam. I have often thought, when I do think back, that if I could somehow wave a magic wand and make just one day, or one night, of my war never have happened, this one night in July would be one of three from which I would have to choose. This is a true story, or at least as true as thirty eight year old memories will let it be. I served as an army infantry lieutenant in Vietnam. In July, 1969, I was a platoon leader with Bravo Company, 2nd Bn, 14th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division. Our area of operations was near the Vietnamese city of Cu Chi. If you look at a map of Vietnam, you will find Cu Chi northwest of Saigon, about halfway up to the Cambodian border. All of the place names I use are real but I have changed the names of all of the men I mention.