Gary Owen Troopers Victorious in Battle After Setback
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Charles Black, Enquirer military writer, has returned home after four months in Viet Nam. He was with men of the 1st Cavalry Division during many of their recent engagements with Communist guerrillas, and his articles on the war as he saw it will continue in The Enquirer daily.)
By CHARLES BLACK
Enquirer Military Writer
Without going through the long chain of circumstances which occurred from the time I heard the Second Battalion Seventh Cavalry was heavily engaged until the time when I found out what had happened, I will outline the fight the Gary Owen battalion got into and fill out the details later.
Along with the First Battalion Fifth Cavalry, Lt. Col. Robert McDade’s battalion had left Columbus LZ walking toward possible landing zones found by aerial reconnaissance helicopters.
They had walked about 3,000 meters - moving fast and making good time through relatively open timber country - when the column split. The Second Battalion Seventh turned and headed toward two other landing zone possibilities which were already entered on the operations maps as “LZ Albany.”
The pace had continued to be fast. The battalion had left about 9:30 a.m. and by noon had made about 6,000 meters. It was a column formation on a narrow front and the companies covered about 1,200 meters of trail. A heavily beaten trail ran within 100 yards of the two fields which Lt. Col. McDade intended to secure so the artillery could be moved again.
There was the reconnaissance platoon from Company D up front followed by two platoons of Company A; headquarters and two platoons of Company D; Company C and finally Company A, Second Battalion Fifth Cavalry which had been working with the Gary Owen men since the Chu Pong mountain fight.
Lt. Col. McDade and his executive officer Maj. Frank Henry had taken the battalion command just a few days previously. They heard on the radio that the scout platoon had found the first field, it was covered with elephant grass, and had captured two PAVN soldiers. A stretch of woods lay between this field and the second smaller landing zone the battalion was to secure.
“I became impatient at the delay and moved on up with Maj. Henry to the landing zone. The Vietnamese interpreter were questioning the prisoner. I commenced making a reconnaissance of the area so I could set up the perimeter and told the company commanders to come on up so Maj. Henry and I could show them the positions they would occupy,” Lt. Col. McDade told me later.
As the company commander moved ahead, Capt. Henry Thorpe was 150 meters from the landing zone and had left his Company D under his executive officer and Capt. George Forrest had left his company at the tail of the column and was moving up, a fierce hail of fire struck the entire column.
“There were rockets, grenades, mortars, rifle and machine guns. . . it came from 360 degrees and it came all at once with no warning,” Capt. Thorpe said.
Company C was hit hardest. A wave of Communists swept up to its flanks on either side of the trail and eddied around the Americans. The PAVN’s forced Company C into outnumbered isolation.
Capt. Forrest turned and ran back toward his men. A platoon from his company was far out in advance of the main body, scattered as security.
“All I could think of was to get them back there, get them into a defense and to fight it out. I ran 150 meters through the grass with bullets clipping the ground around me, hollering at guys to get back down to the company. I got everybody started I could and I went back. I saw then I was all by myself, I had stayed out too long! I had to pour on the gas and run that 150 meters again. . . it was a long, long run. . . I made it. We got into a perimeter. I didn’t know the terrain but a ridge. . . a little rise of ground. . .would have solved it all. If I could have seen it and moved 200 meters we would have torn them up worse and maybe not have lost so many. I guess you always think about things like that later,” Capt. Forrest said.
He had no apologies to make for what he did do, of course. He fought his company and kept it intact and the PAVN’s died attacking it.
Up on the landing zone Lt. Col. McDade was organizing a defense. Mortar rounds were slashing into the field and heavy fire came from all over. Capt. Thorpe got there and under cover as did other officers and each took charge of the men nearest him.
There were three separate fights in progress by now, the column was split. Company C was surrounded, the two other segments of the line were both pulling into defensive coils. The PAVN attack reached a crescendo of ferocity.
Lt. Col. McDade was described as “cool and fearless.” Men kept calling to him to get down and he kept ignoring the plea. He used his radio sparingly, assuming that the PAVN’s had captured radios and code cards and would be monitoring his transmissions. He pulled his men into a defense in the woods and radioed for the ones out along the trail to get in there if they could.
Artillery commenced coming from the supporting batteries. Airplanes began hammering the attacking PAVNs. Helicopters swept in and dumped loads of rockets and machine gun bullets into the wood sheltering the force attacking the outnumbered Americans.
The fight continued in a solid smash of brutal violence throughout the night. There were continuous assaults by both American and PAVN’s. The air and artillery kept hammering. By the next morning, the fighting had tapered off.
There were more than 400 PAVN bodies counted when the fighting was finally finished in the afternoon. American losses were called “Moderate” but they seemed heavier than that. Charlie Company and a platoon of Delta company, cut off with the men in the center of the column, had been overrun and Americans were found in little circular groups of eight or nine where they had fought to their deaths. The PAVN’s had paid a high price for their attack but it had been the hardest, most savage single fight the First Air Cavalry Division had run into.
It was a fight which went on in a strange vacuum, too. Word of it never came to headquarters in Pleiku until casualties commenced arriving at Camp Holloway. Newsmen there had asked the night before and were told that there had been light American casualties and that only sporadic contact was still under way.
The captured code books and Lt. Col. McDade’s decision that he could not risk his surviving troops by letting the enemy know his true casualties or the desperation of his position was justified by the outcome - the troopers from Gary Owens pulled out a victory from the early setback, but it caused worry in Pleiku.
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