I sat down on a log in the center of the little field where the men from First Squadron Ninth Cavalry and Capt. Theodore Danielson’s Company A, First Battalion (Airborne) Eighth Cavalry had fought for survival all night and savored the feeling of the sunshine and the marvelous way all of my fingers and toes operated.
Capt. Danielsen came over while I was holding up my right hand and admiring it.
“What are you doing, Charlie? Still not convinced you’re all in one piece?”
“Convinced but just enjoying the sensation,” I told him.
Lt. Col. John B. Stockton was walking toward us, he had arrived with the sudden flood of helicopters which had brought the relief force to our little battleground. Capt. Danielsen got up and saluted. I just sat there and grinned.
“Sir, if I had been able to have seen this terrain, I could have shoved them on out of here and chased them all night. That little ridge over there is the key to it,” Capt. Danielsen said.
He meant it. He had been chagrined ever since his assault into the trees at dawn when his paratroopers had dropped snipers out of the trees and pushed back the last North Vietnamese resistance so that the landing force could get in without opposition.
I got up and walked over to a group of riflemen basking in the sun of a new day and flopped down on the grass by Sp4 Nolan King. Sp4 King had already captured six North Vietnamese weapons in the fight at the PAVN hospital, including a handsome automatic pistol. He was the center of envious attention again. He had captured another pistol for his personal armory.
S-Sgt. Eugene Pennington lent me a cigarette and told me about Capt. Robert Knowlen’s ambush, which I had heard in all of its fury, and whose aftermath had provided such a spectacular night.
“We set up along the trail. We put eight claymore mines about 10 meters apart at about 15 meters from the trail so they would sweep a full swath.
“I went with Sgt. John Salavar and two other boys - they were both hit last night in the fight here - and we were on the forward security element. We put a claymore to sweep right down the trail and we all had M-79 grenade launchers, too. Sgt. Robert Turner had the four men in the rear security element, the rest of the guys were strung out along the trail.
“We heard the PAVN’s first about 7:30 p.m. We were within 150 meters of their camp, it turned out. You could hear them talking and laughing and getting rolled up to move. When they came out, I had misjudged the way they would come.
“Charlie, when the first bunch came by they were within 20 feet of all four of us. We were laying in that grass in the moonlight and I wouldn’t have bet a thing on getting away with it.
“I counted 48 of them, all riflemen. They were close together and moving right on that trail. Eight guys came by then, there was about a 25 foot interval between elements. These guys were carrying four hammocks on poles. Two of them had each hammock. I don’t know what was in the hammocks but they were bulged pretty heavy.
“After about another 25 foot interval, a weapons company came out of the brush. I counted four mortars and five of those big .57 mm. recoilless rifles. There were machine guns and then a line of guys with automatic weapons.
“Sgt. Turner down on the other end said he had counted 84 people through when Capt. Knowlen hit that first claymore. The other seven along the trail all went off at one time. There wasn’t a yard of that trail that didn’t have a man on it and there wasn’t an inch of that trail that didn’t get blasted!
“I touched my claymore off right into the face of a bunch of them coming out of the brush. You could hear screams and hollering and people were milling around and crowding up down the trail.
“We put 12 M-79 grenades right into them and sprayed them with a magazine each of M-16 bullets. We had teams which were supposed to grab weapons and make a body count but with a battalion milling around there wasn’t time for that. Everybody put fire and grenades on them.
“We were getting secondary explosions from those people’s hand grenades and ammunition. It was unbelievable almost the way they were hacked down. We all pulled out and made it to the rendezvous, a field about 150 meters from the ambush and then we heard the only opposition we had on the ambush. Somebody fired two shots back there. Just two shots. We must have killed more than a hundred of them right there in a few seconds,” Sgt. Pennington told me.
Capt. Knowlen, tired, his face grimy but split by a grin, told me he had picked the center of the column “because I wanted to put all the hurt on them I could. You hit the center and you have two ends threshing around disconnected! Besides, that was their weapons company and I wanted to get those weapons people.”
Word came in then that the ambush had been a bitter lesson to the PAVN troops indeed. There had been 147 of them killed along the trail, according to the battalion which had just reached the site. Bandages and bloodstains had shown that many wounded had been treated and carried away. The riflemen who had come in to rescue us at dawn also reported 78 bodies strewn in the woods around the field where our last ditch fight had been made.
I watched as eight tragic bundles were carefully loaded into helicopters. The poncho wrapped bodies of our own men were carried by their buddies from the edges of the field and we stopped talking and watched them go by in silence.
ã Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
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