[This battle is Chapter One in Yasutsune “Tony” Hirashiki’s book, “On the Frontlines of the Television War.” Tony’s version doesn’t link up exactly with the soldiers who fought on May 12 through 14, 1967 but I think that’s expected in the “fog of war” and Tony’s lack of English.]
“At CARENTAN on the morning of May 11, 1967, the men of the 1st Battalion each weighed down by their individual combat load, waddled to and mounted up the 176th Helicopter Assault Company slick-ships to kick-off the beginning phase of Operation MALHEUR. Air-lifted in a matter of minutes and deposited at their arty-prepped and gunship-saturated LZ at the bottom of Song Ve Valley river basin, the companies began to spread-out like groping fingers to locate their designated search-and-destroy coordinates. Accompanied by a three-man ABC reporter and camera crew, Alpha was further augmented by a scout dog handler from 42nd Infantry Platoon and a 320th Artillery forward observer (FO) team. Operating well within the arc of the artillery fan, the 2nd BN (ABN), 320th Artillery employed in a direct support role for the entire brigade, was prepared to deliver 105mm fire upon immediate request.
Although only 10 kilometers from the coast, the targeted vicinity still touched upon the Central Highlands mountainous terrain of steeply plunging and rolling hills covered by a dense jungle canopy and heavy vegetation. Both the Song Ve and Song Tra Cau Valleys featured a hostile local populace and a deeply embedded VC infrastructure. According to brigade S-2 intelligence, the enemy facing the ABU troopers during this opening phase of the operation was the 2nd VC Regiment. Characterized by one participant as ‘hard-core Viet-Cong’, all three VC battalions were active in Base Area 124, Alpha’s operating sector. Both valleys, a major food source for the local Viet Cong forces had several of its rice fields under defoliation consideration once the indigenous population was evacuated and resettled at the nearby detainee and relocation center during Phase-II. The gradual absence of local inhabitants also had the additional effect of permitting large four by six mile area swathes declared as free-fire zones throughout the lower valley regions. Daytime highs in the blistering upper 90’s with a punishing relative humidity pushing 60 to 90%, this was the malevolent slice of Vietnam Michael Peterson and the men of Alpha Company entered.
Mother’s Day in 1967 Vietnam fell on May 14th. The bone-weary men pulled themselves off the jungle floor and reluctantly greeted the morning with a palpable tingling of doom and danger. They tried to shake off the nervous stiffness by focusing their mental effort and energy on readying themselves and their gear for the day’s final push. The men popped malaria pills, policed the immediate area, readjusted rucksack loads, locked and loaded weapons, and shared a last cigarette or swig of precious water with their squad-mates. While the captain reviewed plans for the day’s track with his inner command circle, both the acting 4th platoon leader, a senior NCO, and the 2nd platoon lieutenant vociferously ‘suggested’ to the Old Man the inadvisability of continuing the route’s direction. The NCO, a seasoned infantryman with plenty of ‘field-time’, realized they could only walk into an inevitable ‘world of hurt’ the closer the hilltop. Ignoring the advice, the Captain’s only concern was meeting the projected supply drop as he once again set the order of the march. The 4th platoon point squad with anxiety and tension clearly etched on their faces, started-off the column into the thick jungle gloom.
It was not even mid-morning when a fork in the trail was reached. After being advised of this, the Captain split the column ordering 2nd platoon to take the right branch while keeping his command element intact with 4th platoon, veered off to the left angle. It was perhaps within a few minutes as both platoons moving somewhat abreast entered the kill zone. The point squad of 2nd platoon had stumbled onto a bunker complex off the side of their trail and while the platoon LT was radioing the Captain of this new development, the jaws of ambush snapped shut.
The enemy’s opening salvo was a tremendous fusillade of automatic weapons fire unleashed simultaneously at both platoons. Within seconds, the air was filled with flying lead, shredding and chopping the surrounding jungle foliage into bits of green confetti. A shower of Chicom grenades soon followed, peppering the men with hot metal fragments and blowing several of the troopers back down the hill. The initial contact killed the 4th platoon point-man, SP4 Pat Phillips and the scout dog handler, CPL. Michael Bost, and wounded several others. Reacting like muscle memory, the troopers shed their rucks, unlimbered weapons and began to lay down a base of return fire adding to the incredible noise and exploding violence. Snapping small arms fire whipped inches off the ground, muzzle flashes blazed in the dark undergrowth, endless bursts of enemy machine-gun fire hosed down the area as the incoming rounds found, smacked and thudded into the bodies of the troopers desperately clawing for available cover. When the call went out for ‘guns up’, 4th platoon M-60 gunner, CPL. Benito Gonzalez, a Mexican-American from Texas, charged forward like a linebacker carrying the ‘Pig’ with its needed suppressive firepower, caught a bullet to his head killing him immediately. Without hesitation, the platoon medics along with the senior company aid-man, scuttled forward like land crabs low-crawling directly into the firestorm to retrieve and assist the wounded.
At the time we had an ABC news man and a two man crew of Koreans carrying the large film camera they used. Most of the time that group was attached to the command group, the CO, his RTO, an FO and his RTO.
After about the third day I think, we got orders to start up a high hill with the plan to rendezvous with the choppers for resupply on the other side. My squad Sgt., I can’t remember his name, but he was a great guy, was to get on the chopper to go to the rear. He was going to go to Hawaii to meet his fianc and get married. She was already there, expecting to meet him in a couple of days.
As we started up the trail leading up the hill, it was clear it would be a hard climb. The trail was very steep, windy and narrow, with heavy jungle on all sides and above. I was in the last squad in my platoon. There were two platoons, 4th and 2nd, and the command group in between.
With a total number of about 55 or so men, spaced 5 meters apart, the entire column was perhaps 250-300 meters long. Those of us in the rear were nearly the length of a foot ball field away from the lead elements. With the jungle as it was, the only people we could see were all within about 15 meters forward and back. As a consequence, those of us in the rear really had no idea what was going on at the lead, other then what we could hear.
On the 13th of May, about noon we stopped for lunch break, each one of us sitting on the trail facing in opposite directions, leaning back on our rucks and eating C’s, smoking and talking quietly. All of a sudden, the guy sitting next to me, ( can’t remember who) jumped up and opened fire into the foliage just to our right. He fired one round then his 16 jammed. (not uncommon no matter how often you cleaned it). We went into the woods where he had fired and found a VC in his black pjs with a grenade in his hand. The one shot had hit him right in the heart. We had been seeing signs of enemy emplacements, commo wire and phones, ammo bags etc. as we had been going up the hill and this made it clear that we were entering Indian territory.
My memory gets hazy here but I think our CO decided to cap up and head up the hill right then.
“For My Friend Snow”
Airborne and ABU,
Mike “Doc” Ainsworth
9/66 to 5/14/67
Early in the morning we started up the trail,
Pat was point man in this green hell of hells.
As we headed towards the ridge line everything
was quite and still…
In a few minutes men would be laying all over the hill…
Most of them wounded and some would be dead…
I can still the cries for medic and the
muzzle blast that rang in my head.
As I moved from man to man, not one did cry…
I remember Michael, Pat and Snow with death in their eyes…
We fought like hell to get out of that mess…
Now, for you in the street and behind that big desk…
In Vietnam we gave Americas best!
How many returned to face a life of ruin…?
Those of us that made it, a new life begins, dealing with bigots
and people we used to call a friend.
I’ve heard some of those people laugh…
Most of the time behind my back.
But, if they went to war today, tomorrow there would
be no last laugh.
(I first wrote this in 1968. Crawford Snow one of my very best friends
died on this day May 14, 1967, I trained in jump school with him. He
was 100% American Indian, a warrior and a brother and son.)
Mike “Doc” Ainsworth
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