By CHARLES BLACK
Enquirer Military Writer
AN KHE, Viet Nam - The helicopter assault by the First Battalion 502nd Airborne Infantry, 101st Airborne Division hadn’t gone as planned.
The unit had been due to hit 8,000 meters from a little village on a creek in a valley which was a well-known Viet Cong training area manned by one and sometimes two hard-core Communists battalions.
Lt. Col. Willford Smith, the assault commander, had changed his mind and picked a landing zone almost at the foot of the little village. He had no reason not to do so. One LZ was like another in this area. It was marked on the maps with a big square, and no real hard information was available concerning the VC headquarters location. His force was simply to sweep through while a pair of blocking forces made up of the First Battalion 327th Infantry Task Force Hansen lay in wait for fleeing Viet Cong.
The almost accidental change in landing zones, done to eliminate the long approach march to the actual suspect area, changed every feature of the operation. PFC Steve Van Meter, a photographer with the First Brigade, 101st Airborne Division public information office, had tried to go with Task Force Hansen, the unit I accompanied during the four-day operation, but was assigned to the helicopters. He had been disappointed because, he said “it looks like another operation where you won’t see anything and just walk yourself to death.”
The 19-year-old Wheeling, W. Va., paratrooper sat down with me the night I came in from four days of walking and talked about what he had seen and one. I had just received a tape recorder through the mail with some rather confusing instructions from George Gingell of WRBL about its operation. Gingell had put the instructions on a tape which I had to play in order to find out how to play the machine. I succeeded in erasing the first half of them before getting the right buttons, but an influx of radio and television experts since the battle near here saved the day. I recorded PFC Van Meter’s account. This, with parenthetical notes to fill in details, is from that recording.
(The tape was played over by a group of late-comer reporters, so PFC Van Meter’s account is probably fairly famous by now. Steve told a saga of the courage of outnumbered paratroopers, caught in a prepared ambush, who simply killed Viet Cong at a rate of four and five to one in a gunfight.)
The young soldier landed from the fourth helicopter in the first assault wave, a Marine H-34, and said that he thought “sure enough, another operation where I won’t see anything.”
“Then in about five minutes I heard some firing to the rear and I walked over that way thinking I could get some pictures,” he said.
He met a squad of troopers hurrying along a trail and joined them. A burst of firing came.
“The man on my right was hit over the left eye. . . the man on my right yelled; he was hit in the arm. I emptied the magazine from my M-16 at a group of about 25 VC firing at us from a hill and took off. I could barely see them. They were well camouflaged; you could just see them when they moved,” he said.
An after-action report said the dead Viet Cong had wire-mesh disks which they tied to their clothing and which they covered with vegetation. They popped up out of small spider holes, firing at close range, and their machine gun and mortar positions had been carefully located and prepared long in advance.
PFC Van Meter said the heavy firing commenced when the second wave landed about 25 minutes later. The first wave had been pinned down and had never been able to completely secure the landing zone. Most of the helicopters hit (four were shot down and later evacuated; 24 more were hit with 20 seriously damaged. Two helicopter crewmen, including a member of the 1st Cavalry making a medical evacuation run to the battle scene, were killed during the afternoon ahead.)
“Mortars, heavy machine guns, automatic weapons - everything opened up then,” he said.
He told of being pinned down behind a paddy wall with a platoon while a heavy machine gun snapped rounds just overhead.
“There was a time when I felt just plain terror. I could hear those bullets; they sounded as if each one kept getting closer and closer, and I thought then that I was going to die. Then I got over it just as the machine gun quit and it got very quiet. The captain by me raised up to see what was going on. It was a mistake. A machine gun burst struck him and he fell back. The medics tried to save him but he was killed instantly. It was very sudden, it was just after the first shock I had gone through and it was very unsettling,” PFC Van Meter said.
He said then that he heard “a bunch of screaming and yelling and guys were running across the LZ up a hill. We didn’t know if they were ours coming to help or what. Then I saw the major, the battalion executive officer. He was in front shooting his .45 and taking the attack up. They tried twice and I saw three Viet Cong pop up out of a hole just as the major was hit by a machine gun burst and pump bullets into him and a soldier who ran up to try to help him. A guy took care of those three with an M-79 grenade round. I saw a PFC, nobody knows who but they are trying to find out, run over to the mortar up there and actually tear the sight off of it and throw it away,” PFC Van Meter said.
He said that the mortar fire was “inaccurate and ineffective” later in the evening and through the night, and said the PFC, probably one of the casualties, “deserves credit for saving a lot of people. It was a real brave thing.”
Airplanes had been kept out of the fight by bad weather until the afternoon. M-Sgt. Thomas J. Boudin and Platoon Sergeant (first name still unobtainable) Whitman were given credit for bringing in A1E skyraiders when the weather broke.
“Somebody heard Whitman on the PRC 25 radio talking to the pilots. The pilot said ‘what’s this about a machine gun, babe? Just point him out.’ Whitman told him where it was located and that plane came down and hit its first strike. They came in then and worked over that area around us. From the air it looked like a ring had been blasted when I left the next morning. Shrapnel from the bombs fell around us it was so close, they sure helped, they deserve credit,” PFC Van Meter said.
The major who had been killed was Maj. Herbert J. Dexter, the battalion operations officer who took over in the fighting when all three company commanders on the ground had been knocked out of the fight, one killed and two wounded.
“It was just a fight made by a small unit against a big unit that had every advantage, and the big unit got whipped. Lt. Col. Smith was on the radio at the last, directing squads and platoons. I was near him. He was very cool. He was concerned, but he was very cool,” the photographer-soldier said.
The paratroopers commenced getting artillery as well as air help then. A battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division’s artillery was airlifted into a position where they could support the action. The 101st Airborne artillery, which had been caught on the move when the fight started (the changed landing zone had forced them to change to another position), got into it.
As darkness fell, the paratroopers (about 300 of them, counting both lifts which had gotten into the fight) had cleared the village and held a perimeter there. A smaller group of about 35 men were located south of the village and fought off harassing attacks until they were down to 14 rounds of ammunition per man. A relief force from the 327th Infantry walked to within a mile of the area and settled in for the night. Task Force Hansen had been switched from an earlier blocking position and walked 14 hours to a perimeter under a high ridge traversed by a one-man trail, the back door to what had now become a trap for the Viet Cong if the beleaguered paratroopers in the village were not overrun during the night.
They held their ground. “Smoky Bear,” the nickname for C123s and Caribous which fly flare missions at night, kept the entire village and ridgelines around it lighted all night with the eerie illumination cast by parachute flares.
During the afternoon when the supporting aircraft and artillery seemed to have hammered out a secure area, medical evacuation of the 25 wounded men then at the landing zone was attempted unsuccessfully, PFC Van Meter remembered.
“The VC quit firing and the choppers came in. I knew what would happen, but I was praying I was wrong. The wounded were out in the field in the open. The VC cut loose with mortars and machine guns. There wasn’t anything else for the choppers to do; they would all have been zapped right there. The took off with only four wounded aboard. We got our first reinforcement then - a crew chief was left behind and spent the night with us.” PFC Van Meter said. (The 1st Cavalry Division crew chief listed as a casualty was hit here.)
The Viet Cong attempted individual attacks during the night but withdrew before daybreak. There was hand-to-hand fighting then, he said.
“Some of the men wounded during the night were hit from six feet away. Some had powder burns, in fact. Our guys were grabbing VC and dragging them into their holes and knocking hell out of them, killing them right in the holes,” PFC Van Meter said.
He said that the camouflaged spider holes used by the VC had been deadly during the early fighting.
“Our guys would go down a trail and a VC would just pop up from the ground. I was with some men and this happened. Two of them just came up behind us. The guys were too fast for these two, though. They whirled and blew them apart with M-16 rounds,” PFC Van Meter said.
“I’m proud to have been there. I was proud of our men. They fought their way out of a trap and won a victory. We proved we can whip them when they even have everything they want to fight us, when we’re outnumbered and when it is just our men against their men,” he said.
I was one ridge away from the fighting during the night. I had been slogging from a perilous river crossing made by Task Force Hansen, a composite group of soldiers from the First Infantry Division, the Second Battalion (Airborne) 17th Cavalry, 101st Airborne Division, and from other units, commanded by Maj. Marcus Hansen of the 101st Airborne, toward a narrow pass which would close the door to the Viet Cong trying to escape.
A group of men from the First Squadron Ninth Cavalry were with Task Force Hansen for “on the job training” before their squadron, commanded by Lt. Col. John D. Stockton, went into operations here. They came from Capt. W. P. Gillette III’s Troop D and included Capt. Gillette, S-Sgt. Joseph N. Falabella, Sgt. Don F. Ritter and Lt. Daniel Isacowitz.
We heard the firing and air strikes and had our perimeter lighted by the same flare planes keeping illumination on the paratroopers’ fight in the next valley when we finally collapsed at the foot of the trail at about 8:30 p.m. on a miserably rainy night. A burst of sniper fire from automatic weapons on the ridge above showed that the Viet Cong had also arrived.
Lt. Wilson, commander of A Troop, which I had walked with during the day, radioed in that we were in position and that we would go up the trail at dawn. It didn’t seem possible that anybody who had been on the march we had just finished would be able to roll over at dawn, but he sounded as if he meant it.
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