My experience in Viet Nam has marked me for life. I feel tht I am a part of a very small, elite group of mostly young men, who experienced combat. There are parts of my war that seem wiped form my memories. Other areas of my conflict are vague and are simple images that flash into my consciousness and away again. Some images though, will stay with me for a day, or days, and can become a part of my normal routine. I'll focus on these memories...the particular details of a firefight, or of a death from a mine explosion, or of my tunnel rat experiences. Since Viet Nam, I dreamm of combat...seveeral times a month I see death, I feel terror and horror, I kill people in my dreams. As I age, I seem to become more and more experienced, I am the leader, the combat vet. I teach, direct, warn, console others less ecperienced than I. I sometimes will awaken wiht sadness and dread. I have to admit that dreams and memories sometimes blur, and I try to be vigilant in separating fact from dream fiction.
The Battle of Ong Thanh, though, is one of several recollections of which I am clear. To paraphrase my Black Lion foxhole buddy's quote years after Viet Nam, "...I remember the details, in color; but ask me what I saw on TV yeaterday...it is so pressed into my brain I can't get it out..." So, my opportunity here is to "get it out" and add to others recollections of the Battle of Ong Thanh.
I was a Black Lion with B Company from Dec '66 into late August '67. My company commander was Captain Turner and the platoon leader Lt. Adams, who later became our C.O. Sgt. Benny Benitez was my squad leader. Harry Siewert was my best friend, and foxhole buddy; he later became squad leader. They all deserve the medals they received. I feel lucky that I was a replacement in an experienced line outfit. I am alive today because of Benny and Harry.
I always wanted to fly in helicopters as a door gunner. I interviewed, and I was transferred to the "Long Horns," the chopper company that provided airmobile exclusively for generals and colonels of the 1st Inf. Div. I flew from Aug '67, until Nov. 24th, 1967. I generally flew as a gunner for Colonel Newman, 3rd Brigade commander. When Col. Newman left the ship and inspected the troops or conferred with the grunt officers, I was his RTO - but I was assigned to the aricraft as a gunner.
Our company was part of the 1st Aviationi Brigade, and was stationed at Phu Loi. We would be up by 5:00 AM and flying by 6 or 6:30 AM. We would return after dark, although sometimes we bivouacked overnight at say, Lai Khe.
I have letters to my father written preceeding the battle and after the battle, which I am willing to share. Please recognize that I was a hot head, and extremely loyal to my old unit, 2/28th. It was a helpless feeling to listen in, only several thousand feet away, and be unable to help my buddies.
On the 17th, the crew chief an dI prepared the ship as always. I checked over the M60s, loaded 2000 roiunds for each, and made sure we had plenty of smoke aboard. Of course, we never carried red smoke. We expected to take off early as the Lions were going back into an area where they had had ocntact the day before. We knew that. For some reason the AC (aircraft commander) was delayed and it seemed we took off 20 minutes later than usual. The co-pilot, "Sparky," did most of the flying that day. We flew on over to Lai Khe and picked up Col. Newman; his XO, Major Holleder, the brigade Sergeant Major; and the brigade artillery Captain.
It seems we flew 20 minutes or so, to the Black Lion NDP. The NDP appeared to be partially in jungle and in the open. We dropped off Col. Newman and his staff and waited with engine turning. As RTO, I would have gone with him; however, I do not recall doing so. While on hte ground, all hell broke loose deep in the jungle. My letter home states, "There was a heck of a lot of firing, machine guns, claymore mines, being blown and small arms fire." The Colonel and is stff immediately returned to the chopper and we lifted off and circled near the action. I recall seeing open areas and very thick jungle, where I could not see the ground. I was thinking, "This is bad news," as the combination of open area and canopied jungle gave a lot of cover and free movements to the VC.
Very quickly we discovered the Battalion Headquarters group was wiped out, and many wounded and killed in the companies. Col Newman had us drop him and hte Sergeant Major off at the battalion perimeter so he dould take over command on the ground. the artillery Captain and Major Holleder stayed with the ship. Once again we orbited nearby at 1500 to 2000 feet. I could switch radio frequencies and listen in on a chaotic situation. It was painful to say the least. People were screaming for medevacs and support. They were trying to get artillery in. When it came in, it was big and seemed too far away. The fast movers were on their way, but still i ttook a long time for things to develop. When the jets were nearby, artillery was called off, and there was a gap of 20 minutes between artillery and the F-100s.
The XO was becoming agitated in communication with the ground. I think he was feeling as frustrated as we all were. He directed tghe AC to land him in an open field so that he could hook up with a small ocntingent of troops and take more smoke grenades to the battle. We landed in kneww high grass in a long, narrow open area with jungle on both sides. Four, five, or six men were there, and the crew chief and I passed as many smoke grenades as we had to them. The Major grabbed the PRC-25, looked at me and said, "Gunner, you are coming wiht me." I told the aircraft commander, and he said, "No way!" Thank God, as the last I saw as we lifted off, the Major was on the radio, leading teh men up hte open area, skirting the jungle on hte right side. As my letter to my dad states, "...about two inutes after we were up again, the Major was killed." My recollection is five minutes, plus or minus.
We flew off and on all day, refueled, and later set down wihtin the perimeter, and shut down. As we flew in, I could see what looked like dozens of dead, wrapped in ponchos. I walked over to scores of wounded, andtalked to several that I knew who had transferred from Bravo to Delta. Enough said about that -- except that it was really hard to watch some of the grunts bleed out.
I do not remember if Col. Newman stayed or if we took him back to Lai Khe. I do recall us flying him into the Black Lion NDP the next day or so. NBC cameras were there, I was his RTO while he was interviewed. Afterwards, he turnded back toward the chopper with tears in his eyes.
Oct. 23, 2000