The Chaplain Wins the Silver Star
At this point, I got more control of myself and went from being a rifleman to being the LT. I scurried over to our other positions. Behind me, I heard a great deal of commotion and spotted the platoon sergeant, SFC R.C. Henry from our other engineer platoon going over the top. He was following the chaplain who had heard the infantry guys yelling and was going to help if he could. Apparently, the attack was at my platoon’s front along the road (from the north-east) and from the west at the infantry positions. Our second platoon was not hit. That was good because behind them was the one mortar tube the infantry had on the hill.
It just happened that they were set to fire a random flare round as was SOP during the night when the enemy attacked. The enemy must have been dumbfounded to be lit up like that!
The chaplain was screaming, and the sergeant was running after the chaplain. Just over the ridge, the chaplain came face to face with a North Vietnamese Army sapper. According to the sergeant, the chaplain grabbed the gook’s AK rifle and belted him with it. Then, he shot him several times. Jumping down into the infantry positions, he confronted more sappers and greased them all, using some profanities at them all the time. He was protecting “his flock” and in doing so apparently retook the infantry positions the North Vietnam Army (NVA) had overrun.
(In the morning the chaplain was awarded the Silver Star on the spot by the Division Commanding General for his action that night.
But because chaplains were non-combatants and unarmed, it was written up supposedly that he led the charge “directing suppressive fire” on enemy positions. He actually did this by shooting them. To make things kosher Sergeant First Class Henry also got the Silver Star for the actual shooting and moving with the chaplain to take back that portion of the hill.)
After this, I tried to move over the hill with one of my NCOs to find out more of what was going on. Behind us near the crest was the spot where a German Sheppard scout dog, assigned to the infantry to sniff out booby traps, and his handler were staying the night. The poor thing was barking incessantly and lunging at anyone near him, although he was restrained by a leash. His handler was down in his hole and would not come up. We shouted to “get up and take care of your dog.” He said “f*%# you.” My NCO pointed his M16 down at him and said, “Get up and take care of the dog or you’ll get it right now.” The handler got up and pulled his dog down into the hole with him.
At this point, we were firing at anything that moved and lobbing grenades into the areas we could not get direct fire on. The adrenalin rush was amazing, and I was really wide awake. The infantry commander tried to get artillery fire on the enemy but again they had attacked from a side of the hill away from our supporting FB and they were too close, but he did get the artillery to fire larger, longer lasting flares. He then called in cobra gunships (unusual at night) and we all got the word “nails.” This meant that the gun ships were making a run that would include spraying flechette rounds (little nail-like pieces) over the area of the hill from where the NVA was attacking.
We got down, but one of my squad leaders was really into it firing his squad’s M60 from the waist and standing up and apparently did not hear the warning. The rounds of “nails” hit below us and one ricocheted into his face and took out one of his eyes.
Several more of my guys had shrapnel wounds. One specialist was bleeding especially badly from the face and had lost his hearing. He had a bad case of jungle acne before this. An RPG had apparently hit the wall of his position behind him, with the majority of the blast going into the hill (these were after all shape charge rounds designed to penetrate a tank and most effects went forward). The debris had splayed back at him in the face. I remember thinking they would take care of that acne now. All in all, my platoon had eight wounded.
The enemy had apparently pulled back, but the ground was littered with unexploded charges. They had thrown mostly plastic explosive blocks with point detonators and when they bounced and did not land exactly right — they did not go off.
The infantry Captain in command called me over and said, “We have to clear the hill, but my guys are engaged.” Yeah, right, I thought — so were mine, although we had not seen any more of the enemy for some time. He told me to form some of my guys and sweep the hill in a line and forward to the end of the hill where the enemy had retreated. I did and we “charged” in a very slow walk toward the sappers’ retreat route which led down the hill under a shower of flares. As we swept forward, we went over the guy I had hit. His body was riddled with hits now. We also came across a head and evidence the sappers had pulled some other comrades’ bodies with them – like the headless one body was not to be found. We did not encounter any new fire. But I sure puckered up going forward toward their last positions.
All communications had been handled by the infantry – calling in support. About this time, I thought I had better report to my company in base camp. My Commanding Officer would be upset to have missed this. We used a 292 antenna but got no response from C Co TOC (Tactical Operations Center). So, we went up on battalion frequency and reported to the 326th Engr TOC. My CO was informed of the action by his boss, the battalion commander, — ouch.
Just then we had to take down all antennas, as we were getting slicks (UH-1s) in with reinforcements, but more importantly the same birds would take our wounded out. This happened and I never saw those guys again.
We spent a watchful next few hours until dawn. As we sat around the adrenalin wore off and a deep fatigue set in. Earlier, my feet really ached and when I looked down, I had seen my boots were on the wrong feet. We all were a bit giddy and so glad to be alive.
Dawn came. That’s when more reinforcements arrived to “chase” the enemy. They moved slowly down the hill trying to find their trail, but without a lot of enthusiasm. We cleaned up the unexploded charges and surveyed the damage. The enemy had gone right past the equipment and for the bunkers with people. The object was to kill as many of us as possible apparently. The intelligence guys later said that they had probably been on the hill several nights before the attack to locate everything. That spooked us a bit, but now we had an explanation for the trip flares. We were so lucky the illumination round was set to be fired at the moment of attack – it changed the whole fight.
We used our grappling hooks to move the bodies in case they were bobby trapped somehow or had unexploded armed charges. They were safe. These guys were wearing only loin cloths with their bodies darkened and heads shaved on the sides. Some had tourniquets already in place on their arms and legs. They had only one weapon each — a folding stock AK, an RPG launcher, or pistol, but had apparently carried a lot of explosives. They were the real thing – NVA sappers. I remember thinking how motivated they must have been to make such an attack. Their lifeless bodies did not seem real. They were already turning dark as the blood congealed in them and swelling a bit as I remember.
We laid out their gear for G2 (intelligence) photographing and the CG’s inspection – weapons, medic’s stuff, web-like gear. In a few hours, most of the gear disappeared into a GI’s pack as souvenirs.
We used a backhoe to dig a deep hole and we buried eight NVA soldiers in a common grave. (The G2 guy gave us credit for seven kills since someone else might find the headless body and claim a redundant kill. Division was very aware of charges in the press of inflated body counts.) I remember one of my guys dragging the guy I had shot to the hole.
It started to hit me that these NVA soldiers would never take another breath, never see their families, never do anything ever again – and we were responsible. I had not really wanted to take a life – I really only wanted to keep my guys safe and get them home unharmed. Now that goal was over for sure, and killing these men was part of the price to get us home. I felt a bit sick inside in a way, but so very happy it was them in the ground. I felt bad about my guys who were disfigured and wounded, but glad it was not me. I still to this day feel a bit guilty at times that I walked away, and others did not. What was the reason?
We moved to the new positions on the west hill of the saddle that afternoon – and that’s all we did. My platoon sergeant thanked me for making him stay. Chaplain Young held a thanksgiving service – and ALL attended.