For every man in battle there is a unique perspective; no two will have the same, each will remember moments of personal drama that most directly affected him. Though such moments often meld and are sometimes transposed in their order of occurrence, they remain forever a part of his life. In researching the events of 25 October, 1968, I sent a query and rough draft of Bill Hooper’s view of the action that day to the website of the Fifth Infantry Division. Nothing came back for weeks, another dead end. But then came the reply from Jim Roffers that saw the recollections of three Catkillers develop into something else entirely ….
Yes, sir, I remember YOU VERY WELL!! I have waited all of these years to say THANK YOU. I have always thought that I would not be alive today if it hadn't been for your very timely "air strike" on that NVA 12.7 machine gun. I was a SGT with Recon 1-61. A 12.7 was chewing us UP – I had crawled to within 50 meters from it and stood to fire my LAW at him. He spotted me and adjusted to me. I fired the LAW and it said "CLACK" – misfire – Sir that 12.7 had me cold – you swooped in and GOT him!! just in time for me. I also remember the M-16 firing out the side window and the hand grenade "bombs". It has taken me a long time to finally get to say this, THANK YOU, Sir.
Twenty-year-old Jim Roffers had returned from his first Vietnam tour with the First Infantry Division – Big Red One – and spent Christmas and New Year’s leave in his hometown of Marshfield, Missouri, before reporting to the Fifth Infantry Division at Ft. Carson, Colorado. Hearing that the Division’s 1st Brigade was deploying to Vietnam, he volunteered for a second tour and was assigned to the Reconnaissance Platoon of Headquarters Company of the 1st Battalion 61st Infantry Regiment (Mechanized),  under the command of newly-commissioned Second Lieutenant David Merrell.
“We started training, with Recon acting as the NVA,” Roffers said. “We had a pretty free hand to hit them however and whenever we chose; the only real rule was ‘don't break the skin’ - they didn't want anyone scuffed up. The Brigade was almost all Regular Army, but a National Guard unit arrived for their two-week summer camp and went through the training with us.
“All along, they were pretty snide, saying things like, ‘We know where you're headed. We're headed home when this two weeks is done!’ Well, not exactly. I think those National Guardsmen had their trucks packed, ready to get back to civvie life, when we had our final assembly before going home on leave. That’s when they learned that they were going to Vietnam, too. Talk about faces going pale.
“On our way back from leave, some of us had only enough money to get to Denver, so when we got there we called Lieutenant Merrell for help. Despite the fact that his parents and new wife were visiting him, the man spent the day ferrying us from Denver to Ft Carson in his car to keep us out of trouble.
“On 22 July, 1968, we loaded up in C-141 Starlifters and flew from Colorado Springs to Anchorage, Alaska, where we were told that the next stop would be Yakota Air Force Base in Japan – unless we got a favorable tailwind, in which case it was non-stop to Viet Nam. It was 18-20 hours of misery, riding in jump seats with our knees twisted sideways. To get to the latrine, you had to stand in place, turn around, step up onto the jump seat, climb onto the metal framework and monkey forward atop this frame. No one has forgotten that trip.
“When we landed, Lieutenant Merrell commented that Japan was pretty, but he thought it would be somewhat cooler. I took one look at the flagpole and realized we had got that favorable tailwind. ‘Sir, the Japanese flag is not yellow with three red stripes. We're here!’
“We were ferried to Quang Tri in C-130s, then by trucks out to Wunder Beach, where our equipment was being offloaded by the Navy inside a Marine perimeter. We were there for several weeks and Recon started out as armored cavalry, keeping the road between Quang Tri and Dong Ha open at night for the Marines. We had some skirmishes and the companies some good firefights, but it was mostly fairly small scale, nothing like what we would experience during Op Rich.”
Operation Rich, the official After Action Report later recorded, was conceived as a Reconnaissance in Force to search out and destroy enemy forces and matèriel in a designated area between Con Thien and the Ben Hai river. Enemy strength and exact locations and dispositions within the area of operations were not known prior to starting the operation. Order of Battle data indicated that the area was believed to be the area of operations for the 27th and the 138th Independent Regiments (AKA 132nd Independent Regiment).
“Along with B and C Companies and the battalion HQ group, we were waiting at Con Thien,” Roffers remembers. “About a week before the operation, Lieutenant Merrell said he was worried because he had gone to Armor OCS and knew very little about infantry tactics. So every evening while we pulled radio watch, he and I sat on his bunk with a pencil and notebook, going over different tactics. On the last evening he looked at the drawings and said, ‘Jim, this looks familiar.’ I replied that he just needed to imagine that each soldier was a tank instead of a man. I knew he had it when he said, ‘Why didn't you say that on the first evening?!’”
Sp/4 Joe ‘Ski’ Krawcykowski, 22 years old from Dunellen, New Jersey, was with A Company at A-3 fire support base near Gia Binh. “One of the things that I remember in the few days prior to going into the Z was an Air America chopper that landed and shut down. Official looking people climbed out and went into the command bunker. It seemed an awfully long time for someone to park a chopper where we got mortared everyday. As the radio operator for Captain Haddigan, CO of Alpha Company, I was with the command group but was hanging with the our mortar platoon because I did not want to be near that mortar magnet. The skinny coming down was that something big was in the works. No real word, just a feeling. On 22 October A Company was told to be ready at 2400 to move out on foot alone; we’d meet up with the rest of the battalion in the DMZ. After getting my gear ready, I played horseshoes with the mortar platoon. The stakes could not be seen from the pitching end, but being with the mortar platoon, we called in adjustments and actually had a decent game. But the tension in the air could be cut with a machete.
“Then mail call came. I received a men's magazine. Can't remember the name, but the cover had Joe Namath with a girl peeking out of his locker. The inside lead story was Marines Battle Near DMZ. It was about Operation Buffalo and the Marines getting their asses kicked in 1967 in an area right outside our base camp! Bad vibes, ugly omen. The sphincter tightened. Morale sunk. After chow, most people hit their racks to get some rest. The bunker for the command group was heavy with something in the air; when you thought that you were the only one awake, you would hear someone whispering. The air had something in it. Oppressive.”
Roffers: “As we were breaking up for that last evening at Con Thien, Lieutenant Merrell shocked me by saying, ‘Jim, if you hear me give an order that is wrong, I want you to get on the radio and countermand me.’ Holy Jesus. And here I am an E-5 sergeant for barely a month. He spent some time that last evening with Lieutenant Ted Nordin, from the Flame Platoon. Ted said later that he was extremely worried about our lack of radio gear and on- and off-again commo. I think we had only three PRC-25s and two PRC-6s. Most of the time we were passing ‘the word’ back and forth, up and down the line, verbally. Before we left Con Thien, we had scrounged all over the Battalion, trying to beg or borrow radios ... no go. I even had to steal a radio from our so-called allies, the ARVNs, down in Cam Lo. Anyway, when we left, Lieutenant Merrell was really up-tight.”
Ski: “A Company started out from A-3 at about 2345 hrs. Dark as hell. Walking through the water up to my neck behind the captain and the group, I became separated by a little bit and no longer had visual contact with them. I thought, ‘Great, dark, can't see, can't yell and I don't want to be out here alone. This shit is insane. How can I find them? Then I realized that they had left a phosphorescent wake though the water, so I just followed that. What a hump through the water to make up time! Then I thought, Wait, if I can see the trail, so can the gooks! This is insane!’ Nothing to do but hump on. Caught up with the group and humped until daylight.”
One-six-one moved northeast under radio silence. The NVA could usually expect the Americans to ‘prep’ an objective with artillery before an attack, which told them where to disperse and where to marshal their forces. Operation Rich, however, began with a deception as Army and Marine batteries sent shells to the west and northwest of 1-61’s intended area of operations. At the same time, elements of the 9th Marines and 2nd ARVN Regiment were preparing to launch a separate armored and mechanized infantry attack into the DMZ, eight miles to the east of 1-61’s area of operations.
When the sun rose, 1-61 stumbled on the first NVA bunker. Then more appeared, many containing weapons caches and food stores, one with a hot meal hastily abandoned by the enemy. As the American troops advanced, push-pull Cessna O-2s from the USAF 20th Tactical Air Support Squadron at Danang, callsign ‘Barkey,’ were on station above them, already calling in artillery on suspected enemy positions and marking targets for airstrikes. One of Barkeys drew a burst of fire from a camouflaged anti-aircraft gun.
Corporal Alan Ogawa, 18 years old from Honolulu, Hawaii, was with 3rd Platoon, Charlie Company, scouting for a river crossing point. “I looked up and saw a plane flying low, marking the area with white smoke,” Ogawa said. “Then it seemed like the plane just glided down and disappeared into the trees. We didn't have far to go to the crash site, but the very thick undergrowth slowed us down. When we got there, the fuselage was in a small clearing on top of a hill. The wings and top of the cockpit had been ripped off when the plane went through the trees. The pilot was still strapped in his seat, dead, and there were NVA sandal footprints all around the wreckage. We had to cut his harness to get him out and onto a Medevac chopper that took him back.” The pilot, Major Marion Reed, had become the first casualty of Operation Rich.
At dawn the next morning the infantry companies moved out of their night defensive positions. More enemy bunkers and caches of food and ammunition were found and destroyed. C Company’s Kit Carson Scout translated a sign on one complex identifying it as an NVA battalion headquarters. The first response from the enemy came with long range harassing fire from the north bank of the Ben Hai river. Another Barkey spotted the enemy positions and called in airstrikes and 5-inch fire from the cruiser USS Boston.
AAR: At 241334, B/1-61 came under the heavy enemy fire from the Northern bank of the Ben Hai River. Air Strikes and Naval Gun Fire were initiated. A detailed search of the south bank of the Ben Hai River revealed extensive enemy fortifications and supplies.
By the time the sun slipped behind the mountains an estimated 40 NVA soldiers had been killed, but it was small consolation for the friends of PFCs Larry Martin and Lonnie Parker of Charlie Company, who had been lost to enemy fire. As the men of 1-61 pulled ponchos over their heads and settled into their night defensive positions, it seemed the elusive enemy had no intention of closing with them.
Soon after midnight on the third day of Operation Rich, Intelligence sources reported a large enemy force near Trung Luong, an abandoned village four kilometers northeast of the American unit.
Con Thien Duty Officer’s Log #5 0130 0135 FROM BDE G-2, EN ACTIV INCREASED
YD 199 785 BELIEVED MOVING SOUTH
Those who managed to sleep awoke to the piston-engine growl of Barkey 1-6 overhead. The battleship USS New Jersey, steaming ten miles offshore in the South China Sea, advised him that she was in position and ready to fire. Her target was the suspected enemy force near Trung Luong. It would be the first time her big guns would be used in support of US troops.
Con Thien Duty Officer’s Log #22 0740 0750 BDE BATTLESHIP NEW JERSEY FIRING TOT WITHIN NEXT HR. YD 193 782 NOTIFY PEOPLE ON GROUND. SEE IF THEY CAN OBSERVE SECONDARY EXPLOSIONS
Ski: “When the FAC told us to get our people down, I told him that we were down in the bottom of B-52 craters and digging already and how much further could we go? He replied something along the line of, ‘You'll see’.” Far less accurate than the Navy liked to claim, the battleship sent the first shell a mile or more past the target. “A spotting round landed in the rice paddies and seemed to burn a lot longer than a normal artillery round,” Ski said. “Then those 16-inch shells started coming in. They sounded like freight trains, and I remember the ground shaking and pieces of debris coming down like rain. The reaction from some of the troops was, ‘What the hell was that?’ The FAC was on the radio and said, ‘That’s the USS New Jersey, son.’ It made me feel good that we were getting help from a ship named after my home state.”
A few hundred meters west of Ski and A Company, Recon Platoon was leading Captain Jack Langston’s B Company. Moving cautiously along a narrow trail that snaked through the elephant grass, they stumbled onto a clearing. Within it lay a well-camouflaged bunker complex, a small cooking fire flickering on a hearth.
Roffers: “We spread out to search it. Even close-up the bunkers were very hard to see, because of the thick vegetation around and over them. They were covered with logs and a foot or so of dirt, with ground-level firing slits about a foot high and two or three feet wide. Each had with a sloping entry at the rear and were spaced about ten to fifteen yards apart around the small perimeter. There was a small Vietnamese pig running around loose in the brush. Inside one camouflaged hooch within the perimeter we found freshly-pressed NVA uniform shirts and a lot of papers. A metal washbasin filled with water had a catfish swimming around and around in it.”
Sp/4 Wayne McKendree, 25 years old from Callahan, Florida, remembers, “Lieutenant Merrell told me we needed to get the documents back to Intelligence, so I grabbed them and threw ‘em into my poncho bag.”
Dong Ha Duty Officer’s Log #21. 0815 1-61 to TOC Spot Report A. B/1-61; B. 250811H; C. YD 154760 D. Found complete bunker complex with hootches, furniture and documents. VN interpreter says it was Colonel’s quarters through documents found; E. Cont search; F thru M. neg; N. see line D.
Con Thien Duty Officer’s Log #40. 0925 A Co ON RAILROAD TRACK. TAKING AUTOMATIC WEAPONS AND MORTAR FROM N AND E
Ski: “My call sign was Baby Tides 6 Romeo and one of the Air Force Barkeys contacted me and asked where an airstrike was needed. I replied to the east of the railroad track.” Alpha Company was engaging the enemy positions with small arms fire, when Barkey 1-8 brought in a flight of Phantoms. “There was still a lot of the company trying to get down the line under heavy fire,” Ski said, “when the planes dropped their loads and the 1st Platoon reported friendly casualties.”
Con Thien Duty Officer’s Log #41. 0926 A Co TO BARKEY, AIRSTRIKE ON 1ST PLAT ELEMENT, STOP IT.
Con Thien Duty Officer’s Log 50. 0941 BN CO TO XO – RELAY BDE 2 LIGHTLY WOUNDED ON AIRSTRIKE, CONTINUING AS PLANNED
“We’d gained some distance from the river and were still going uphill,” Ski said. “I was a step or two behind Captain Haddigan, with Sp/4 Jim Soriano and Sergeant Jim Wright running more or less abreast of each other a few feet in front of him. There was an explosion as a mortar round landed and I hit the ground. I jumped up, saw no one moving, hit the ground again and low-crawled over to check everyone out. I rolled Soriano over and saw that he was KIA. I next checked on Sergeant Wright, who was very badly wounded and dying. I heard a moan and went back to check the captain, who was bleeding from several wounds. I pulled him back to a bomb crater, then pulled Sergeant Wright back to it. I also believe that I pulled Soriano's body back to the rim of the crater. There was a lot of small arms fire in the area but I saw no one else. Captain Haddigan gave me instructions on what he wanted done, then I got on the radio to the battalion CO, Colonel Wheeler.”
Con Thien Duty Officer’s Log #61. 1019 A Co TO BN CO. MY CO HIT BAD. BAD SITUATION FIRE FROM THREE SIDES
Con Thien Duty Officer’s Log #65. 1023 BN CO TO B MOVE FAST THEY ARE CLOSING IN ON THEM
Con Thien Duty Officer’s Log #66. 1024 BN CO TO A Co, ANY WAY YOU CAN PULL OUT ([NO,] SEPARATED FROM ONE OF MY ELEMENTS)
Ski: “The 1st Platoon was re-organizing after the airstrike, higher ups wanted to know the status, and the firing was getting heavier and closer. I juggled things as best I could, relaying orders and giving a few of my own over the radio. When the battalion commander called again for an update, I told him to stand by until I called him: I had enough to do and didn't need him at that time. I yelled for Top, First Sergeant Ledford, who had been behind us when we were working our way out of the paddies and running south on the track line. We had only one radio because the mortar that killed Soriano and Wright had ruined the other one. That was the company push. I had the battalion push and converted over to company.
“We were spread out after running across the knee-deep rice paddies to the railroad embankment and I directed the platoon leaders to their right rear and left rear from the firing I heard. Thought the 1st Platoon was on the right and 3rd Platoon on the left, but they came back in the opposite order. Captain Haddigan was in and out of it, so when they finally made it back to my location, I passed on what he had told me to tell them.”
Con Thien Duty Officer’s Log #68. 1033 BN CO BDE CO NEED MEDEVAC WITH GUNSHIPS WITHIN 30 MINUTES. TIDES SITUATION BAD PINNED DOWN WITH AUTO WEAPONS AND MORTAR. B Co TRYING TO RELIEVE PRESSURE. A Co 6 WIA
Con Thien Duty Officer’s Log #69. 1043 BN CO TO B Co. LINK UP WITH A Co AND MOVE BOTH ELEMENTS SOUTH
Roffers: “A few minutes later, the word came back down the line that Captain Langston had ordered Recon to move through B Company again and attack the ridge top in support of A Company. My hair nearly stood on end. If they were pinned down, why were we going forward? Only four of us in the platoon had ever fought an infantry battle; the rest of the guys had been trained solely as Recon men and had never been into anything like this. We were travelling light – I had ten mags and some only had seven. Our job, the one we had been trained for, was to slip up, find the enemy and then turn them over to the rifle companies. Well, at that moment, we had become the infantry and didn't have the ammo or trained people to do this.”
Sp/4 Tom Coopey, 20 years old from Brooklyn, New York: “After having our mission changed, Recon reversed course again back through B Company to bring relief to A Company. We made our way past the reinforced NVA bunkers, which had been searched and were about to be blown by the combat engineers, when we came under intense enemy fire. The only way to advance was to lag several meters behind the man to your front. I had to hit the dirt several times, as I could hear the rounds snapping very close to me. I managed to keep sight of Willie Williams, who ran like a deer. He dove into a bomb crater and I was seconds behind him. We found Lieutenant Merrell, his radio operator Tommy Ray, and Wayne McKendree there. Barney Hyatt was on the ground, shot in the shoulder and in shock. At this point Dave Merrell had his back to the enemy and directed my squad to an empty enemy trench line to his left and another squad to his right.
“As soon as my squad got to the trench line we could hear automatic fire all around us,” Coopey said, “mostly big stuff, 12.7 crew-manned, some AK-47s. We couldn’t see them because of their spider holes and the six- to seven-foot-high elephant grass. We began firing to our front, where the sounds of automatic fire were originating. I had about fifteen magazines of M-16 ammo and went through half of that in about five minutes. Some of the guys were standing up in the trench, with only elephant grass hiding their upper torsos, when, out of nowhere, Langston appeared and began berating us for firing on our own troops, presumably A Company. He was outside the trench line, oblivious to the risk he was taking and I would almost swear he was alone and without a weapon.”
Roffers: “So here we are, going up a brush-covered little slope, in the rain, into battle,” Roffers said. “The rain made the grass slippery and had turned everything else to mud. The visibility was pretty bad, but the darkness helped us to pick out the muzzle flashes. Heavy fire snapped all around us. We were running forward at a low crouch, crawling on hands and knees and bellies sometimes. I’m thinking, Man! This is going to be bad! I honestly didn’t think I was going to come out of it alive. When we reached the end of the slope, there was firing all around us – 360 degrees. All three companies were engaged, and Recon as well. Charlie Company was on the right flank and trying to hook around the enemy, but was encountering heavy resistance. Alpha Company was being shot to shreds down by the abandoned railroad tracks to our east.”
With Recon now fixed by enemy fire, the rain slackened and the skies started to clear. It would last only long enough to run one crucial airstrike.
McKendree: "The rain had stopped but everything was wet and muddy. Lieutenant Merrell, Tommy Ray and I were out ahead of B Company in a thick hedgerow when Captain Langston suddenly showed up and he and Lieutenant Merrell moved away from us. I couldn’t hear everything they were saying, but from the tone of their voices and their arm movements I could tell that they were arguing. When the lieutenant got back to us, he was really mad, which was unusual for him.
“He motioned for me and Ray to Come on, and the three of us started moving forward through the elephant grass. We were under fire from an enemy machine gun nest and I can remember the rounds whizzing by my ear. They were close. We kept on crawling until we got to a bomb crater. Ray was the first in, then the lieutenant. When I rolled into it, I ended up between them, elbow to elbow. The enemy machine gun was only about forty meters away, and when Ray raised up to look, he was hit in the head. I saw him get hit right next to me. Just as I turned to my other side, to tell Lieutenant Merrell what happened, I saw a round exiting his head. Ray was dead, but the lieutenant was still breathing. I needed to get a Medevac for him.
“I pulled the radio off Ray and tried to raise Sergeant Marzan. Nothing. I kept calling, but there was no answer. Then I heard someone on the radio say he was a lieutenant colonel and that he could help. It was a Barkey and he told me to throw a smoke to mark my position. The only smoke I had was a white one and that was only used to mark enemy positions, but he told me to go ahead and throw it. I looked up and saw this gray, twin-boom aircraft, with an engine in front and one in the back, and it was practically standing on one wing so the pilot could get a look. Then he said, ‘I can see the machine gun.’
“I must have told him what had happened to Lieutenant Merrell, because he told me to get the lieutenant down into the crater, that an airstrike was coming in. Then he brought in a jet that dropped a napalm. I can remember the heat and smoke; it was close, real close. Then the jet came back again, very low, firing his 20mm guns right over the top of me. An empty shell casing from the jet hit me on the helmet.
“Barkey said the machine gun nest was destroyed and that I could move. I got the lieutenant on my back and crawled out of the bomb crater to find help. I was also dragging the radio. I must have crawled about a hundred meters, when some other guys from Recon found me. But Lieutenant Merrell was dead. He must have died on my back as I was carrying him.”
The brief respite from the weather ended. Ceilings dropped to 100 feet or less and the rain returned, coming down in sheets. The bomb- and napalm-laden F-4s circling above a solid undercast broke off and returned to Danang or Chu Lai. Then the Barkey O-2s, already at the edge their envelope for slow, tight, low-level maneuvers, were forced to withdraw.
As the sound of the twin-engined Cessnas faded, Roffers remembers, “We were told that was it, we couldn't get any more air support because of the rain.”
The men of the 1st Battalion 61st Infantry were on their own and under attack by the seasoned 2nd Battalion of the 132nd Independent Regiment. On the other side of the Ben Hai river more units of the Peoples Army of Vietnam were marching south to reinforce them.
“I can only guess at the thoughts going through the heads of those who were running things,” Roffers said. “We didn't have things set up for this type or size of battle, no ammo ready to go, no resupply set up, nothing prearranged, or at least, it didn't appear that way to me. The top brass must have been scrambling around, wondering how it was going to look back home if an entire American battalion got annihilated up there.”
Eleven miles south of 1-61 and unaware of the battle that had been joined, Bill Hooper and new guy Rod Stewart were in the Dong Ha line shack, their early morning two-ship mission into North Vietnam cancelled because of the weather. Stewart, 22 years old from Westchester, California, had never flown with the other pilot who sat moodily in the door, watching the rain. “I knew little about Hooper other than he was very enthusiastic about taking the fight to the enemy and had a bit of a John Wayne reputation within the company,” Stewart said.
“When the phone calls started coming in that morning, the one side of the conversations I heard was alarming. My excitement was high but Hooper became absolutely frothing to get to the fight. Switching our FM radio to a frequency used by the battalion in contact proved my feeling was valid – US Army units in the DMZ … pinned down … Medevacs requested … airstrikes and artillery requested. Hooper hung up the phone, shouted instructions to the crew chief and was out the door in minutes.”
Hooper: “A very worried operations officer from the other side of the airfield was on the phone. He told me that part of the 1st of the 5th was fighting for its life in the DMZ and asked if we could lend support in any fashion. I looked out the door, barely able to see the other side of the runway 400 feet away, and wondered what use a Bird Dog could possibly be under these conditions. Then I heard him say very slowly and distinctly, ‘My people need help.’ I gave the weather another long look and told him that if he’d send me an observer we’d head out there and do whatever we could.
“Slipping on my gear, I heard the line chief mutter, ‘There’s no way you can help those guys.’ He pointed at the cloud base. ‘You’re gonna get your ass shot off.’
“Do we have any HEs?,” I asked, trying to hide my nervousness. He shook his head and left to load Willie Petes. At the door of the line shack there were a few pieces of scrap ceramic and steel armor plating. Grabbing one about the size of a dinner plate, I ran to my airplane and wedged it under my seat as the observer, an over-weight and deeply unhappy lieutenant arrived and reluctantly crawled in. I taxied into position. ‘Dong Ha Tower, this is Catkiller 1-2 holding short, ready for take off. Over.’
With the ceiling and visibility far below the minimums required by Army regulations for flying, the controller was clearly not expecting any traffic today.
“Catkiller 1-2, this is Dong Ha Tower, you’re ready for what ?”
The controller’s disbelief brought a brief smile to Hooper’s face as he pushed the throttle forward. The Bird Dog started rolling, the tail came up and the tiny Cessna disappeared into the rain.
Stewart watched Hooper depart and settled down to wait. “I was the new guy, so I was to stay and monitor the radio and answer the phone. If this was as big as it sounded, we would be expecting orders from higher up. Our platoon commander, Captain Finch, was already on his way up from Phu Bai, and Hooper could call if he needed any help. I sat and listened to the radio. I could often only hear one side of a conversation. I did not know what units the various call-signs represented. Locations and coordinates were not supposed to be given ‘in the clear’ but with map in hand and calls for strikes on such-and-such a target, I could piece together a confusing bit of the fight.
“The phone rang again and it was an officer at some command center. Instead of giving me instructions or orders, he wanted me to tell him what was going on up in the ‘Z’. My confusion only deepened. Why had we not been told of this operation before now? I radioed Hooper. He was not on our company frequency, but Captain Finch, trying to find Dong Ha in the rain, was and I relayed all the information I could think of to him. Like Hooper, he sounded like he was grinning in anticipation.”
Hooper was following Highway 1, weaving around the worst of the rain squalls. When he reached the West Trace the ceiling had risen to almost 150 feet, allowing him to leave the road and turn northwest. “When I was within a couple of miles of the battalion’s position I made my first call. The response was immediate. Given the heavy firing I could hear in the background I was amazed at how calm he sounded.”
“Roger, Catkiller 1-2, this is Tides 6 Romeo. How do you read? Over.”
“Tides 6 Romeo, this is Catkiller 1-2, I read you five-by. How me? Over.”
“Roger, Catkiller, lima-charlie.  Do you have us in sight? Over.”
“Negative, Tides 6 Romeo. I am an O-1 Bird Dog 100 feet above the terrain. My heading is approximately 020. Do you have me in sight?”
“Negative, Catkiller, we don’t see you, but we do hear you. We think you’re to our southeast. Turn northwest. You should pick us up.”
Down in a bomb crater, radio handset to his ear, Ski was peering into the rain. “Several of us were saying, ‘Where the hell is that little plane, and how the hell can that guy fly in this soup?’ We could hear a plane but not see him.”
Hooper: “My vision was obscured in every direction by ridges bulging below the cloud base. I brought the nose a little farther to the west, throttled back and dropped some flaps, allowing the plane to sink. Punching through a wall of cloud, I couldn’t believe all the muzzle flashes in the low scrub and elephant grass. Smoke from a napalm strike was still rising just to the east. Tides 6 told me he was in a bomb crater about a quarter of a mile directly in front of me.”
Con Thien Duty Officer’s Log #73. 1056 A Co TO MAR FAC [Catkiller 12]  LOC 170 760 IN BOMB HOLE
“Through my open window I caught sight of a much bigger muzzle flash,” Hooper remembers, “and looked down to see a heavy machine gun in a trench filled with troops wearing helmets, light green uniforms and back packs. At first I thought it was an American position.
“Directly ahead lay a triangular pattern of three bomb craters, each filled with rain water and troops. I told him I thought I had his position, but to give me a hand signal and tell me what it was. As I crossed over the crater, I saw someone on his back, waving and kicking his arms and legs. He rolled back to his stomach and said he’d given me a spread eagle sign. Another crater to the south was taking fire from the heavy machine gun I had just overflown.”
Con Thien Duty Officer’s Log #74. 1101 MAR FAC TO A Co SPOTTED MACHINE GUN AND 10 MEN IN BUNKER 400 METERS FROM AIRSTRIKE THINK IT IS UNFRIENDLY POSITION. CHECK YOUR POSITION.
Hooper was told that 1-61’s companies and platoons were separated by strong NVA positions, which restricted return fire for fear of hitting friendlies. Until they could consolidate, they were threatened with being overrun. Hooper made a wide orbit. Surrounded by thick treelines on three sides and covered with old bomb craters up to forty feet across, the battlefield was cut by two rivers that flowed north to the Ben Hai, less than a kilometer away but hidden by the rain. He located a second company in more bomb craters under fire from all around them. The rain and thick vegetation made the different companies difficult to identify and he asked for flares.
Con Thien Duty Officer’s Log #76. 1108 BN CO TO B Co HELD UP SNIPERS. 1 – 81MM, 2-60MM CAPTURED. SPIDER HOLES COULD BE FIRING AT EACH OTHER. MACHINE GUN BETWEEN US APPROX 200M APART. B Co FIRED FLARE BN CO TO A Co – SHOOT FLARE TO HELP LOCATE HIM. TELL A Co TO HAVE PEOPLE ON WEST SIDE STOP FIRING.
“When I found the third company,” Hooper said, “they had their backs to an embankment and were under heavy mortar and automatic weapons fire from the eastern side of the battlefield. I advised the radio operator that the lightest enemy concentration appeared to be between him and the company just to the south. I reported another machine gun and he said they had people moving forward to take it out.”
Con Thien Spot Report # 77 [handwritten]
A. Catkiller 12; B. 251110; C, b 171758; D. Enemy machinegun position & possible
mortar position; E. Surrounding and taking under fire
Roffers: “My group received orders to pull back to the west. After only a minute or two of crawling on hands and knees, the word came to about-face and move easterly. Then a few minutes later, we were told to move directly south to hit an enemy 12.7 that was keeping everyone pinned down. My point man, Joe Shallcross, took the initiative and moved towards this heavy machine gun. I remember thinking, Oh my God, Joe... I dropped my pack and rifle in the trail and got out the LAW rocket that I'd been carrying and we all crawled forward to a large bomb crater.”
Hooper spotted and reported yet another enemy machinegun position.
Con Thien Spot Report # 80 [handwritten]
A. Catkiller 12; B. 251120; C. a surrounding position b 168757; D. Machinegun position & other defensive positions; E. Taking under fire
A desperate radio operator asked if he could put an airstrike on the 12.7 that had them pinned down. It was wishful thinking. Even if there were fast-movers circling above the clouds, there was no way they could get through the low overcast. The only air support available was an aging propeller-driven Cessna with four smoke rockets.
Hooper eased his turn, reduced power and waited until the gun appeared in front of him. It was firing steadily, muzzle flashes bright under the rain and tracers ripping towards one of the craters. He leveled the wings and went into a slow glide, aware that if they shifted their fire to him he would never have time to evade.
Roffers: “The machine gun was just to the left and south of our crater. I moved to the edge, stood up with the LAW on my shoulder and squeezed the trigger. Over all the shouting and gunfire around me, there was a loud clack! A misfire. The 12.7 gunner swung the weapon and several heavy rounds struck the mud around me. I ducked down, recocked the LAW, stood and aimed again. There was another clack! Rain had gotten into the electronic firing mechanism; it wasn’t going to fire. Bullets were flying all around me.”
Hooper: “I sighted down the crosshairs grease-penciled on the windscreen and at a range of not more than 250 meters, fired my first rocket. I broke to the left and looked over my shoulder to see it explode just to the left and a little short of the gun emplacement, spraying white phosphorous over it.”
Roffers: “I was half-turning to dive into the crater when I heard the raspy sound of a rocket go over me and an explosion. I peeked over the crater lip and saw the Willie Peter smoke. There was no firing coming from the machine gun. I ran bent-over back up the trail to retrieve my rifle and pack and ran into Sergeant Marzan, who gave the word to pull back.
“Recon was ordered a few hundred meters to the east. By the time we got there we were scattered in small groups all over the hilltop. There were six or seven in my group and we ran into someone who ordered us to move a little north to help guard a large crater filled with our wounded. A lieutenant from B Company kept going out to drag dead and wounded back into the crater. I witnessed three trips out and back. He was heading out again and asked if anyone had any hand grenades. I gave him my last two grenades and he ducked up and over the rim and was gone.”
Not long after Hooper had taken off Charlie Finch touched down at Dong Ha. “The weather was so bad coming up from Phu Bai, that I had to go feet wet and follow the beach north, before turning west, but even then I got lost for a while,” Finch admitted. “As soon as I’d refueled I was met in the line shack by my Marine observer, Captain Russ Cedoz. Russ had already been fully briefed on the ‘First of the Fifth’ situation in the DMZ and reckoned the Army was in a serious shit sandwich. Aggressive and motivated in the best Marine mold, he had brought extra clips of M-16 ammo and some grenades. Russ was ready for war as usual but much more wired than I had ever seen him. I usually carried five or six clips of ammo and could not really pack any more, so I stocked up on smoke grenades and filled the doors.”
“Rod Stewart had over-nighted at Dong Ha and had been monitoring the FM radio since Bill’s departure. What he had heard indicated that the Army had stepped into a giant hornet’s nest. When he asked about coming up with me, I weighed the weather and his lack of experience with troops in contact and told him to stand by for the time being.
“Russ and I lifted off about 0930. The rain was so heavy against my windscreen that I had to fly in a crab to see out the right window. We could hear Hooper on the radio. It was clear that he was extremely busy and that very little separated him from the battle just below. He briefed me as much as he could. The picture Bill painted was that the Army was not doing well. All three companies – as well as individual platoons – were separated, with enemy positions between them. That, and the weather, were making it extremely difficult to give them the cover and support that we normally provided for troops in contact – support they needed desperately.
“We came up on the eastern side of the battle, where there was a railroad bed that rose about ten feet above the paddies. There were NVA on top and on both sides. From the railroad tracks towards Con Thien it looked like a shooting gallery, with the infantry being the ducks. Russ and I were amazed at how close the NVA forces were to the American positions. We had seen this tactic of closing to within twenty meters of small Marine units to prevent air strikes, but not a force of this size. At first glance Russ said they would have to retreat. I came across and we started firing our M-16s out the windows and Russ was tossing out his grenades. At that point, it was about all we could do.”
Roffers: “We’d been told that we couldn't get any support from the air because of the rain, yet now there was a second FAC overhead. It made three or four low passes – maybe 25 to 50 feet – over and in front of us, someone dropping grenades and firing an M-16 out the window. The FAC was also taking fire and a couple of times I saw green tracers pass behind him. They were all that we had, but it meant that we weren't up there all alone. With the craters, the mud, the rain, us and the NVA firing at each other, and the little planes silhouetted against the dark skies – it looked like something from All Quiet on the Western Front.”
Lieutenant Colonel Barney Wheeler, Commanding Officer, 1-61: “I remember a Bird Dog flying low over the battle. He was an idiot. I told him he was an idiot, that he was going to get shot down.”
McKendree: “I can clearly remember a couple of dark camouflage- or OD-painted single-engine Cessnas flying over us.”
Finch: “The radio traffic was very intense, very difficult at times to understand. The ground troops were giving us directions to where the guns were, but with two identical Bird Dogs low overhead, sometimes they thought they were talking to me when they were talking to Bill, or vice versa. Calling both of us ‘Mar Fac,’ they’d tell us to ‘turn right’ or that ‘you are over our position,’ which sometimes had us making all sorts of unnecessary maneuvers. It was a classic example of the fog of war. Although occasionally we overlapped, Bill stayed west of the railroad, and I was east and south. Because of the rain and low clouds, we never saw each other.”
Roffers: “I saw two or three NVA running bent-over in single file towards our crater. Two of us opened up and they disappeared into some brush. The rest of the time I was shooting at muzzle flashes. The noise was unbelievable – the cracks of bullets passing over, the firing from us and the enemy, explosions near and far, people screaming, radiomen yelling into handsets, the little airplanes overhead … .”
Ski: “One of the guys in the crater with me thought we didn’t have much time to live and lit up a Chesterfield. I didn’t smoke, but I pulled it out of his mouth and sucked down half of it.”
First Lieutenant Dave Pittam, Battalion S3-Air, was in command of 1-61’s Tactical Operations Center at Con Thien. “For most of the operation I monitored the Rifle Company and Battalion radio nets and can recall listening to a Catkiller working his way through bad weather to locate our positions, and then a rifle platoon leader pleading with one of the Catkillers to find and eliminate NVA mortars that were inflicting casualties on his men.”
Finch: “The first desperate call I recognized as definitely being for me were that the NVA mortars needed to be silenced quick. Russ and I could see NVA everywhere – at one point we saw 25-40 uniformed troops lying on the east side of the railroad bed – but we had to ignore them and find those mortars. I lowered my flaps and got down to about 60 knots and we immediately took a hit about two feet behind Russ. My slow pattern kept exposing us to more ground fire, but it was the only way to do the job. I knew that Hooper was taking heavy fire to my west. There was no safe place. Calls for Medevacs increased, but the weather was still preventing them from getting in.”
Hooper: “With the three companies spread in a SW-NE arc and the company along the escarpment at the top, I orbited over the battlefield, advising on the disposition of the enemy troops. There was a tic as a round punched through the Bird Dog’s skin. Slamming forward the throttle, I hauled back on the stick and escaped into the clouds, changed course, waited a few seconds, then descended into the open over the escarpment.”
Ski: “I can’t recall how long I was on the radio but soon after the platoon leaders went back to their platoons, Top arrived, along with a Kit Carson scout named Thau. They helped out immensely when the NVA started to close in on our bomb crater. I directed Thau to cover the westerly side. A NVA soldier was about 150 feet away, coming towards us with a RPG. I yelled at Thau to shoot. Don’t know if Thau hit him, but the guy with the RPG disappeared. The rain was still coming down heavily. Top Ledford helped to get more people to our location and then took over, relaying orders from Haddigan and giving his own orders, until the designated platoon leader returned to take command.”
Separated by the same river negotiated by the rest of the battalion, Charlie Company was ordered across in support of Bravo Company. “We had a rope stretching across the river and the ones that couldn't swim held on for dear life,” Alan Ogawa said. “I took the loads off the non-swimmers and helped them across and we kept on going, with Staff Sergeant Yonesaki as acting platoon leader. We came under fire in an old rice paddy. Myself and another guy made it across but the rest of the platoon got pinned down on the other side and the rest of the company ahead of us kept on going. Finally, after returning fire, the rest of the platoon was able to cross. We were going around a hill and as soon as we reached the other side Sergeant Yonesaki got hit bad. We went in a old B-52 hole and started to receive fire again.”
AAR: At 251130 October, C/1-61 completed the stream crossing at YD 155762 and was immediately committed to the east of B/l-61 in order to relieve pressure coming from a reinforced bunker complex on the eastern flank and to prevent the escape of the enemy forces to the south.
Coopey: “We’d been in the trench for what seemed a long time. We had no communications, were low on ammo and very, very thirsty. Then we heard friendlies approaching from our rear. One of them shouted that he heard movement to their front - us. Another voice said to throw grenades and we all started shouting, ’No, no! Friendlies!’ We never saw or heard them again.
“A couple of our staff sergeants decided that we had to make a move. Much debate followed as to which direction we should use as our escape route. Finally someone jumped up and we followed. Moments later a figure came out of the elephant grass. He was shirtless and appeared to have a chest wound. He identified himself as a lieutenant, said he was policing up stragglers and that the NVA were popping up at random out of spider holes. He had two grenades, pins pulled, and advised us to follow him as fast as possible and that we should keep running if fired upon – his grenades would take care of the problem. He led us to an area pockmarked with 500-pound-bomb craters and we jumped into the closest one. One of the adjoining craters was lined with the dead and wounded.”
Ski: “Top Ledford was less than an arm's length away, when I looked up and saw another NVA about 250 feet to our west fire a RPG at us. I yelled, ‘Duck!’ and pulled Top down. The RPG went right over our heads and hit the next hole down, wounding several guys. The one whose cigarette I had swiped right out of his mouth earlier ended up paralyzed.”
Con Thien Spot Report #85 [handwritten]
Finch: “Only on UHF was there some clear communication. Russ was all over the FM in response to the guys on the ground telling us to change frequencies between company and battalion. Underneath us there was a lot of vegetation for everyone to hide in. Our guys would pop out and it was not always clear at first if they were friendlies. The weather was getting worse and it seemed the battle was intensifying. It appeared to a simple Army pilot like me that the mission planners had never anticipated an engagement of this size and ferocity.”
Dong Ha Duty Officer’s Log #39 1135 Bde CO to TOC: Est 1 NVA Bn is unit that A/1-61 is in contact with. Request 3rd MAR DIV launch gunships to contact area to support CO 1-61. B/1-77 (Rein) will execute contingency support plan and move southeast [sic] of A-4 to assist and reinforce 1-61.
Lieutenant Peter Van Haren, 23 years old from Phoenix, Arizona, was 2nd Platoon Leader, B Company, 1st Battalion, 77th Armor Brigade. “The first I heard of anything happening was over the tank radios when someone said to switch to battalion net. We heard that 1-61 had made contact north of us and that the enemy weren’t running as they usually did, but deploying and attacking. I could tell from the background sounds and the excitement and fear in the radioman’s voices that they were in heavy contact.
“I went over to the HQ bunker to listen to the radio traffic. My company commander, Captain Art McGowan, was there and practically begging the colonel to let us get going now. But there was some kind of glitch in the operation plan which HQ staff said meant we couldn’t go yet: they weren’t sure if the main route had been cleared or if the M-88  was ready, but finally the old man said, “Screw it … go.” Since I happened to be the only platoon leader standing there, I was assigned the point.
“I ran back to the line yelling for my platoon sergeant, ‘Mac’ McHenry Thankfully, everyone was right around the area and we were up and running in 30 minutes. I led my platoon off the firebase and onto the trail, heading northeast. I figured the other platoon and the two HQ company tanks would join the column as I cleared the base – which would give us a total of ten tanks – but they had problems getting started, so we had to stop a few klicks down the road and wait.”
Con Thien Duty Officer’s Log # 90. 1148 BDE CO TO BN CO B1/77 PLAN FROM YESTERDAY COMMENCING NOW COULD GET INTO TROUBLE
Finch: “We spotted the mortar positions and Russ called in an artillery fire mission, but no one wanted to take charge of the target. Dong Ha and Camp Carrol were receiving incoming from north of the river and the 155 and 8-inch batteries at various firebases were busy with counter-battery fire. We finally got some 105s, but in order to adjust the fire I had to tighten my turns under the clouds by lowering flaps, which obstructed Russ’s vision out the windows. We finally destroyed the mortars and I stopped the artillery so I could locate the automatic weapons firing on our guys. Right after that, the NVA over near the railroad bed came out of these holes and charged towards the friendlies. We could not believe our eyes. The number of enemy we saw going over the top towards our guys is burned deep in my memory.”
Hooper came out of a low turn over the embankment to see fifteen to twenty NVA soldiers running down a trail not more than 100 meters away. “Chopping power, I reversed the controls. I still wasn’t coming around fast enough and I shoved rudder and stick to the stops, forcing the nose farther down and to the right. Still descending, I squeezed the trigger. My snap shot sent the rocket straight down the path. It went about ten feet over their heads and I saw them hit the ground. I was now very slow and less than thirty feet above the ground, so close I could see minute details of their muddy uniforms as they came to their feet.
“My eyes locked on one man not more than 75 feet away, firing on full automatic and I could hear rounds hitting the airplane as I flew through his fire pattern. I should have stayed low and kept going, which would have exposed me for far less time but, on the verge of panic, I went for the clouds in a desperate attempt to escape. Just before reaching them, I felt and heard a deep thud beneath me and the cockpit instantly filled with smoke. I was sure the engine had been hit.
“Still under fire, we disappeared into the clouds. I rolled right, came back out of the clouds, pulled up again, broke off to the left and emerged once more, anxiously scanning the gauges. Okay. A quick check of the wings confirmed the fuel tanks hadn’t been punctured. I twisted around, expecting my observer to be dead or seriously wounded. He hadn’t been touched, but wore a helpless deer-in-the-headlights stare and was begging me to return to Dong Ha. The smoke was sucked out the windows and I turned back towards the battle.”
Finch: “Cedoz was switching back and forth between company, battalion and brigade in the back seat, and I was up on Guard trying to get some gunships to help as I felt I could guide them into the area. Dong Ha DASC was also looking for us. We had fast movers on standby at Danang and Chu Lai but the weather was still far too bad to get them onto the target.”
Con Thien Duty Officer’s Log #88. 1139 BN CO RELAY BDE CO, SEE IF HE CAN GET GUNSHIPS IN HERE
Con Thien Duty Officer’s Log #89. 1141 BN CO TO BDE CO
1. NEED GUNSHIPS
2. START SOMETHING OUT OTHER WAY.
3. CAPTURED TWO MORTARS HERE NOT DOWN THERE.
4. WEATHER CLOSING IN. DEMONSTRATION YOU KNOW WHAT TIME IT TAKES. OTHERS I HAVE REQUESTED.
Coopey: "Some E-7 rounded us up and said that we were to attack the enemy on his signal. We were out of the bomb crater and lying on flat ground with no cover. The sergeant blew his whistle and we started to rise, but got no more than ten inches off the ground, when the NVA opened up with everything they had. We got down again and there was no further mention of attacking."
Hooper: “The radio operator in the northern-most company reported they were in contact with the company south of them, but needed help to link up. I circled to the west until I had their positions identified, then turned towards the gap occupied by NVA troops. Lining up on the target, I sent my third rocket into the gap, pulled the nose up slightly and triggered the last. White phosphorus burst under the rain and the NVA began scattering towards the east. Out of rockets and low on fuel, I advised Charlie that I was returning to Dong Ha.”
AAR: While attacking to the flank and rear of B/1-6l, C/l-61 destroyed elements of an enemy platoon attempting to flank B/l-61 and the Battalion Command Group. Upon completion of the cordon, close Air Strikes and artillery were employed on the enemy forces to the north and east of the Battalion, resulting in the destruction of sizeable elements of the enemy force and driving small groups of NVA into the open where they were destroyed by the deployed Infantry forces,
Stewart: “Hooper landed and I remember the holes in his plane – not just the holes, which were memorable – but him laughing and joking about it with his observer and the crew chiefs. I was ready to take my turn but he thought otherwise. He refueled and took off for Phu Bai.”
Minutes after Hooper lifted off, Stewart got his chance. A call came into the Dong Ha line shack for someone to provide reconnaissance and air cover for the armored reaction force that had left Con Thien, and Stewart headed for his Bird Dog. “I was to fly out and find a column of tanks leaving Alpha 4,” Stewart said. “They were to be the knockout punch on the enemy's flank and I was to lead them to the fight. An observer drove up and we took off and flew out under the low overcast.
“I dialed in the frequency for the battalion's operations at Con Thien and learned that the tanks were moving too slowly, enemy strength was greater than anticipated, our infantry units were pinned down by heavy fire, and the enemy was sending reinforcements down from the north. Like a sand table problem at Ft Benning, an envelopment was shaping up. To make matters worse, the weather was holding out Medevacs, re-supply and making use of airstrikes difficult or impossible so close to the spread-out friendly troops.”
Van Haren: “The entire column was moving as fast as the terrain would permit, just gritting our teeth and hoping that there were no mines or traps. We pushed hard for several clicks, then hit two mines. No one was seriously wounded, but both tanks were disabled so we pulled the guns and radios out, spread the crews among the other tanks and kept going.”
Con Thien Duty Officer’s Log #103. 1227 B 1/77 TO BN CO – HIT 2 MINES
Con Thien Duty Officer’s Log #109. 1240 B 1/77 TANK BURNING WILL BLOW UP. PINNED DOWN SNIPER
Stewart: “I followed an old road running northeast out of Con Thien, with battalion operations acting as the relay between me and the armor. When they reported that the tanks could hear me but not see me through the rain, I asked them to pop a smoke grenade. Just about then, the lead tank hit a mine and started to burn. They were easy to find then. With battalion pressing them to move faster, the burning M-48 was left. Minutes later, a second tank hit a mine. Battalion asked if I could find the tanks another route to hasten their advance and finally agreed to put me on the lead tank's frequency.”
Van Haren: “We didn’t know just where to go until a FAC flying overhead came onto our company net and began directing us. His call sign was Catkiller something, and he was outstanding in keeping us aware of the current situation, how far we had to go and, most importantly, where the enemy were between us and our infantry. We were in high brush and trees by now and we couldn’t see any farther than the next bend in the trail. We had no choice but to go forward in column, because there was no room to spread out.”
Finch: “At times the clouds came right down and, to keep from becoming completely disoriented, I had to cross the Ben Hai into North Vietnam, before reversing and coming back. The radio was going crazy. An NVA machine gun had pinned down some of the infantry. By sheer luck I flew right over two machine gun positions, flew out about 30 seconds, found my way back, armed two rockets, and punched them off no higher than 100 feet and at about 90 knots. Couldn’t see the result, but someone on the radio shouted, ’Perfect! Keep it up!””
Con Thien Duty Officer’s Log #101. 1227 BN CO AND A Co SHOUTS TAKING BAD. C Co MOVE RIGHT FLANK, MARK FLANK WITH SMOKE
“We still could not get the Medevacs because of ground fire,” Finch said, “ and I had to calm down Russ more than once, especially when it was a Marine Medevac that tried to get in and got blown off with automatic weapons. Russ figured that if we were in the same area and getting shot at the same way, they should be able to get in.”
Con Thien Duty Officer’s Log #111. 1242 A Co TURNED BACK MEDIVAC, TOO HOT
Ski: “Most of the 1st Platoon wounded were brought back down to us but we could not get a Medevac in. Too much fire. We were down to about 20 rounds per man. Because we figured that the wounded would be getting out soon we took all their ammo. Those with chest or stomach wounds had their water taken, too. Several of us took any food and cigarettes that the 1st Platoon leader Mulford had.”
Finch: “I ran into some clouds that were right on the deck so I just headed east. The weather was the same in that direction. I turned south and eventually broke out south of Quang Tri. Very scary. Our low and slow flying with all the drag of flaps meant our fuel consumption had been higher than normal so I headed for Dong Ha for fuel, but they were taking incoming so I turned back to Quang Tri. It was only after we were on the ground that I realized a round had cut the chain connected to the rudder cables for tail wheel steering. Russ and I topped off the fuel tanks, rewired the tail wheel and headed back to the DMZ.”
Stewart: “Too many voices on too many frequencies, back seat talking on one FM radio and me on another, air-to-air on UHF, emergency traffic breaking in on guard, and the intercom back and forth between me and my observer. Suddenly a flat-gray Air Force O-2 dove out of the clouds just to my left, and we banked sharply away from each other. Aside from Finch to the northeast, it was the first I knew of anyone else in the air. The Barkey pilot told me he had not been briefed about Catkillers being there, nor anything about the tanks. He pointed out a triple-A site that had killed a Barkey two days before. The thought of that big gun turning in my direction chilled and enraged me. I fired a rocket but the low angle made hitting it next to impossible. I asked the tanks if they could see the white phosphorous smoke. Too far away. Barkey flew off to the east. I saw a Marine F-4 make one run but did not see any impacts, and weather caused his Dash-2 to abort. They disappeared into the scud.
“By lowering flaps and using the O-1's ability to fly very slowly, I held a tight racetrack over the armor, giving steering directions around hidden obstacles and dropping smoke grenades to point out enemy locations – with my backseat watching out of one side and me out the other. The tanks were doing what armor was made for - fire and maneuver. I was on the radio to them – ‘Turn 45 left … straight ahead … now more left … bunkers and troops to your 10 o'clock, twenty meters …’ We could see the NVA infantry falling back. Then a third tank hit a mine.”
Van Haren: “My lead tank hit a big mine and we got jammed up bad and had to leave the main road to get around him. I couldn’t see what was ahead, but again the FAC steered us around the craters and obstacles like some kind of guardian angel.”
Con Thien Spot Report 3 [handwritten]
A. B1/77; B. 251440 OCT 68; C. (a) 168749 028011; D. TANK HIT MINE; C. STRIPPING TANK & LEAVING IT; F-N NONE
“I had a couple of seriously wounded now and had to deal with keeping them safe,” Van Haren said. “Then Catkiller began to warn us that the NVA were massing on our flanks and moving towards the trail. I remember this part so well because (until we were overrun at night several months later) this was the most scared I ever got in Vietnam. Most of the time in combat things are happening too fast or, if you’re a leader, you’re too busy to be that scared. But this time, as the FAC kept telling me how many, how well armed and how close the enemy were, it was freaking me out!
“We needed the info, but every tidbit made it harder for me to keep the pedal down. And then they started shooting at him. Amazingly, he didn’t peel off but hung right in there and kept directing us. As is true with many heroic actions in combat, he inspired us to keep hammering forward, even though the incoming fire was getting heavy now. That guy had some real guts!
“We now had somewhere to direct our fire as well and we began shooting up both sides of the route with machine guns and grape. The NVA continued to shoot at him, but not as much, and by now the brush had cleared enough for us to maneuver. I had my platoon turn left and move off in line-abreast. The rest of the company kept moving down the main trail and we were now paralleling them. It had taken us several hours, but suddenly we were there, behind and to the side of the NVA, and we rolled right over them, killing many and scattering the rest. I think we also got a big .51 cal gun they were using to shoot at the planes.”
AAR: In the vicinity of coordinates YD 165745, B/l-77 encountered approximately an enemy platoon attempting to flank the Battalion (-), B/1-77 took this element under fire destroying two (2) squads and dispersing the remainder.
Stewart: “The remaining tracks spread into line-abreast and were rolling over the crest of the hill, past the anti-aircraft pit, firing their main tubes into bunkers, when my engine sputtered and started to quit. In all the excitement I had allowed one tank to run dry. I switched to the other, the engine roared back to life and I told the tanks and Con Thien that I had to leave immediately. It was a short flight back to Dong Ha but weather made low-level navigation difficult. I could have flown east to pick up Highway 1 and followed it south, but I was terrified of running the remaining tank dry and going down anywhere near the DMZ. The fuel error was just the kind of stupid thing a FNG would do.”
Van Haren: “There was no real line of combat – with the enemy on one side and the 1/61 on the other – but more like pockets of our infantry with NVA all around. We split up as a tank force and joined the infantry pockets individually, supporting them with machine gun and main gun fire. Some of the squads that had gotten separated used us as moving cover to rejoin their units.”
AAR: … . B/1-77 continued the attack to the northeast, entering the right flank of the battalion cordon, eliminating the threat from the east and forcing pockets of NVA to flee into the open where they were destroyed in detail by elements of B/l-61 and C/1-61. B/1-77 continued its maneuver to the north and northwest effectively sealing the eastern flank of the battalion and overrunning an anti-aircraft machine gun position in the process.
Finch: “On the way back up I heard Stewart talking about being low on fuel and needing to get back to Dong Ha. We made another call on guard for gunships as well as any fighters carrying snake and nape. Got a call from some Huey gunships south of Quang Tri. I gave them directions but they never made it up to us.
“Just before we got back to the battle, a call came in from DASC to find the NVA guns firing on Dong Ha and Camp Carroll, so we headed straight across the Ben Hai into North Vietnam. The weather was marginally better up there and we found two active artillery positions fairly quickly. Russ was trying to get a Marine or Army battery to take the fire mission, when we were advised that Onrush, the USS New Jersey, was ready to give support. Russ called in the coordinates and we cleared the area.
“Everyone who fired this beast had his safety margin. We stayed parallel to the gun target line because it was the short and long rounds that scared everyone, and at least 2000 meters from impact to avoid shrapnel from those one-ton shells. Shot, then wait forever for splash. Even from two klicks away we could hear them coming in. Because of the weather I couldn’t see the ‘splash’ and told them to fire again. When I finally spotted a shell it was way off target and I had to adjust until we got them on target and took out the positions.
“Still north of the river, I turned east and we flew over Highway 1. Our jaws dropped at the sight of trucks and fresh NVA troops heading south. They were in a loose formation, walking in front, alongside and behind the vehicles. For the enemy to be on the road in those numbers meant their commanders had gambled we wouldn’t be flying that day. Russ got on the radio to his Marine guns, I got on the New Jersey net.
“As we were getting the coordinates established for the mission, I came around and flew straight up the road, both of us firing our M-16s out the window at almost point blank range. I broke to the east, came around again and used some of my rockets. As we went by with our wheels almost touching the ground, Russ opened up again with his M-16 and I can still see their faces. Given how slowly they reacted, they must have been inexperienced troops. They finally started shooting back, but it was all very inaccurate.
“With the excitement of seeing so many NVA out in the open, writing on my windscreen and kneepad with grease pencil, getting a naval gunfire mission cranked up, staying out of the enemy’s gunsights, trying to keep us below the weather and stay oriented, things were happening pretty fast for us. By now the New Jersey was ready. We broke away and those 16-inch shells started coming in. Once I had the New Jersey firing for effect, it stopped the column dead in its tracks.”
DECK LOG – REMARKS SHEET USS NEW JERSEY (BB-62) 25 October 1968 12-16 Underway as before. 1153 Maneuvering on various courses at various speeds to remain in area Bravo. 1433 Commenced fire Turret Three. 1526 ceased fire. Ammunition expended: 12 rounds 16”/50 Cal High Explosive Projectiles with 12 rounds Reduced Powder Charge Cartridges.
By the time Finch and Cedoz had returned to the battle, 1-61, now supported by armor, had been without air cover for an hour. But the rain was slacking off, the ceiling was lifting and Marine fighter-bombers were scrambling from Danang and Chu Lai. Catkiller 19 was waiting for them.
“All the Marine pilots were familiar with the DMZ,” Finch remembers. “We dry-rehearsed each flight using a west heading because of the weather, which meant they could not pull out feet wet like they were used to. As they orbited to the east we could give them a pretty good idea of how they would do their run.
“I ran a pair of Lovebug F-4s, a pair of Ringneck F-4s and a pair of Hellborne A-4s. We had it timed so when one of them started to roll in above the clouds, I was beginning my roll in to mark the target. Fortunately, there was very little wind so my smoke seemed to hang there forever. When one broke out of the overcast, all I had to say was where to hit relative to my smoke. They had confidence in us and themselves as long as they had enough time to see the target, release and not hit the ground in their dive – and they were a lot lower to the ground that day than normal.
“We did napalm first and frag bombs second. Running over friendly positions is a real no-no, but this time we did not have any choice. Because of the half-moon disposition of our troops and the enemy and the weather, the boundaries we always used to run airstrikes had to be dramatically revised. Some napalm was close to the friendlies and I was told later that we had warmed some soldiers with it. Then they came in with their 20mm guns.”
Coopey: “I remember napalm drops from an F-4 which were released to our rear and carried on over our heads. They hit a couple of hundred yards to our front, but close enough to dry my jungle fatigues.”
Roffers: “I remember them coming in low and fast, spewing empty 20mm cases all over the place. A couple of us tried to shield the wounded from these empties. They hurt.”
Ogawa: “When the spotter plane was flying over our old B-52 hole, we were afraid it would take us for the NVA so we flipped over on our backs and started to wave to make sure he knew we were friendlies. When the jets came we were happy to have them. We knew that they were taking out the NVA and had them on the run. The airstrikes were closer than usual but we didn't care or complain.”
AAR: After effecting link-up with the right flank of C/l-61, B/l-77 and C/1-61 systematically destroyed elements of two (2) estimated enemy platoons located to their front area in conjunction with two (2) Air Strikes, which placed heavy ordnance within 30 meters of friendly troops and sent enemy bodies flying into the air. They effectively reduced the NVA threat from the right flank of the Battalion.
Finch: “When the jets pulled off, we went down low again. I still have a vivid image in my mind of the NVA running in circles, many with their uniforms torn off from the explosions or burned off from the nape. I felt sad in a way as they had put up such a great fight. Without all of our airpower, armor and artillery, they might have won the battle. Russ never forgave me for waving to them to go north and get out of the way of the next artillery barrage. He wanted to stick around and kill them all but I was running out of fuel.”
Ski: “We got word to watch what we shot at because help was close and on the way. Soon after that, I saw Jack Langston and some of his people. I knew that we were going to be okay because Jack Langston kicked ass and the NVA always came out a loser when he was around. After another attempt to get a Medevac in with no luck, there seemed to be a lull.”
Con Thien Duty Officer’s Log #121. 1620 S-3 INFORMED US THAT THEY ARE LINKING UP WITH A Co, ALSO NEED MEDIVAC FOR 5 EMERGENCY AND 11 LITTER PATIENTS. WILL NOTIFY LATER WHEN WANT MEDIVAC
Finch: “After refueling again at Quang Tri and getting back to the fight, it seemed forever before we could get the Medevacs. I guided several in from the east because of the weather. The Marine pilots were unfamiliar with the area and took fire the whole way in, yet never wavered. The enemy was retreating, but still kept firing at all of us in the air.”
Con Thien Duty Officer’s Log #122. 1633 SEND MEDIVAC WITH GUNS
TO A Co
Coopey: “An attempt to bring in Medevacs at the end of the day was thwarted by enemy automatic fire from our flanks. A second attempt was made by four Hueys and again they were fired upon. This time they had returned with Cobra's which were just above the cloud cover. They descended and opened up with everything they had. I had never seen them in action before and it left a lasting impression on me.”
Ski: “It got eerily quiet. Really quiet. Then a Cobra gunship came up over the knoll behind us and unleashed a volley to the east. Staff Sergeant Jesus Fuentes jumped up and immediately aimed a pop flare at the chopper. When we asked why he’d done that, he said, ‘’Cause he scared the shit out of me.’ We all laughed like hell. The troops around him called his attention to the fact that he was taking on a Cobra with a pop flare, and didn't he think the odds where against him? Jesus was a helluva soldier and had been in the thick of things with A Company’s 3rd Platoon before coming back to the command area. Their motto – ‘Jesus Saves’ – was painted on the front of one of their tracks. The battalion chaplain thought it was very religious. We didn't have the heart to tell him any different.”
Roffers: “It was late in the day and my squad had ended up with some guys from C Company. We were moving southeast and had just passed the trench and bunker area. A Dust Off was coming in, when there was a heavy burst of enemy fire and we all hit the ground. A Cobra was behind it and opened up with his miniguns. Then the men on my left moved forward and dragged out four or five NVA bodies. With the arrival of the Huey Cobras we knew that we would be okay. A tank from 1-77 was off to my right about 100 yards and the armor began crushing bunkers and caving in trenches. We kept watch, had a small fire fight and started loading the wounded onto the choppers.”
Ogawa: “Sergeant Yonesaki was in bad shape with his stomach wound. When the first Medevac arrived, I asked for help to carry him but no one volunteered. I don't blame them because there was shooting still going on. Finally Frank Kaiser said, ‘Let’s go’. We borrowed two .45s and stuck them in our waist bands and carried Yonesaki in a poncho, sometimes in a low crouch and sometimes crawling. The rain was still coming down and the poncho was full with blood and water.
“When we arrived at the chopper, it was already full of wounded and they told us they couldn't take Yonesaki. I pulled out my .45 and told the pilot the most seriously wounded must go first. He ordered someone with a flesh wound on his arm to get out and we loaded Yonesaki. Frank thought I was crazy for pulling out the .45 but I didn't care. Yonesaki was already in shock and if we had to wait he wasn’t going to make it. Frank was a very short timer and I’ll always respect him for going with me. When we got back to the platoon, Sergeant Morgan was already on the radio and in charge and we started returning fire at the NVA running through the tree line.”
Roffers: “After the Medevacs lifted off we were ordered to the east again. My squad followed a M-48. We were very cold and the warm exhaust felt good. I saw about half of an Old Gold cigarette laying in the grass, still lit! I scooped it up and we passed this little stub around until it burned our lips. 1-77 Armor was kind enough to toss us a few cigarettes, water and a little food. The firing was dying down by then. It was getting very sporadic.”
Van Haren: “Eventually, the combined firepower of us, the infantry, artillery and airstrikes forced the NVA to retreat. We tried chasing them, but they were really good at melting away.”
AAR: At 251730, B/l-61 continued the attack north to effect link-up with A/l-61 at 251800 October. Small groups of NVA and abandoned weapons were destroyed during this attack.
Coopey: “When we assembled, there were only about forty of us. At first we thought we were the only survivors. Night was approaching, and I thought to myself, This is it, Charlie is going to overrun us at any moment. But as we moved out, more units began joining us and I started to appreciate how dispersed the battalion had been during the battle.”
Ski: “Suddenly, word circulated about gooks in the perimeter and I thought, Oh, no! Not more of this bullshit! Found out it was a wounded NVA medic who had been captured, and lots of people went to look at this guy. He was put on one of the Medevacs. That night, we were cold, wet and nervous, worn out, and shot to shreds. I found a can of ham and eggs – the least desirable of all the C-rations – and split it with someone, don’t remember who. We scrounged up some ammo, as we were all almost out of it.”
Van Haren: “That night it was cold and rainy, a damp, wet cold that chilled you right through. The infantry troops were shivering badly and began standing right behind our back decks so they could get some warmth from the engine exhausts. After awhile, a couple of them keeled over, others started staggering around and we realized they were being poisoned by the carbon monoxide in the exhaust. I remember feeling terrible that I had to order them away from the tanks. Some of them couldn’t understand why and looked so miserable. We took a couple of the worst ones into the hulls for awhile. There were many more who couldn’t get warm, so we let them back near the engines but made them move away every five minutes or so. They were hungry, too, and we threw them what we had, which wasn’t much as there had been no resupply.”
Ski: “We were covered in mud and our hands were all wrinkled from being in the rain all day. As we were lying by the command group, a replacement radio operator said that he had to piss but could not use his wrinkled up hands to undo his button fly. At that time most of our trousers were made with the bottom two buttons sewn very close together. It was a chore with normal hands, but with wrinkled hands that were cold, an even tougher job. I told him his pants were wet and muddy already, so, hell, go ahead and piss in them. Plus, it would be warm for about fifteen seconds. He asked me how I knew. I told him I just did it. He agreed about the warmth. The small pleasures of life!”
Roffers: “I had always wanted to get a close look at a Russian 12.7, to see how it was made and compare it to our .50 cals. So, I wandered back to the area where it had been and found some soldiers dragging bodies and weapons from bunkers. The 12.7 lay in the wet grass and was already rusting after being burned by the white phosphorus. The barrel was bent just in front of the action, where part of the rocket casing or tail fin must have hit it.”
Van Haren: “There were pockets of troops everywhere and when it got dark the ones that hadn't rejoined mostly stayed where they were hunkered down.”
Ogawa: “That night we tried to form a perimeter using the NVA trench line around what looked like their base camp. A guy named Everett was with me and we were soaked, very cold, hungry and completely worn out. He was married and his wife just had a baby and I remember him telling me if he didn't make it to contact her for him. I promised and we spent the night freezing, and unable to sleep, knowing the NVA was all around.”
The next morning Ogawa was still shivering and waiting for the NVA to attack, when, “We heard the tanks rolling in our perimeter. Were we happy to see them! They threw us some cigarettes and cans of rations. The tankers mentioned the contacts they’d had with the NVA coming up to us the day before. We huddled behind the tanks to get warm but someone told us to get away from the exhaust, fearing we would get carbon monoxide poisoning. After that we started our walk back to base camp. I remember on our way out an officer wanted to look for more NVA. I thought he was nuts, being we were all burned out.”
Ski: “The next day couldn’t come soon enough. We loaded up our dead and extra equipment and started out for what we thought would be a straight walk back to A-3, the closest base camp and A Company’s starting off point for the operation. After some time walking, the word came that A Company was to walk down the track line through this little valley, with B an C Companies flanking. Word was that the last people through this little valley had been the French. Column stopped. An undermanned company carrying our dead and all the rest, it seemed a dumb idea. From his chopper, the brigade commander wanted to know what the hold up was. Words were exchanged on the radio and I seem to remember him landing and talking to Staff Sergeant Fuentes, then getting back into his chopper and we then veered off to the right for A-3.
“On the way out of the area, we went past some food cooking over a fire and a tea pot on it, with plates surrounding the cooking area. It looked like the NVA had just left. Then we went through a hedgerow and there were news cameras. Really freaky thing. Fresh evidence of the NVA and then civilians taking pictures. The thought was that they were nuts for being out there when they didn’t have to be. We didn’t want to be but had to be. The march back to A-3 was pretty uneventful. When we arrived just before dark, the mess hall was open and had food, coffee and fruit for us.”
Roffers: “The usual method of having a memorial service is to take a man’s rifle and bayonet, stick it into the ground and place his helmet on the butt, but they used only four, one for each company and one for Recon. After the memorial service, I turned Joe Shallcross in for the Bronze Star, which he was awarded. I tried several times to locate the FAC who had taken out the 12.7, just to say thanks, but he was always out flying missions, so I never got to do this until over thirty years later.”
Ski: “Several days later, First Sergeant Ledford, and a young Shake and Bake buck sergeant and others went over to Con Thien to receive Bronze Stars from General Davis, 3rd Marine Division commander. Top Ledford left me in charge of the HQ section and gave me a case of cold beer and said my Bronze Star would be coming at the end of the month. Never did see it.”
When Hooper landed at Dong Ha, he remembers a very shaken observer crawling out of the back seat and slouching away without a word. “The line chief and I watched him go, then turned to examine the Bird Dog. Of the hits she’d taken, most were in or around the cockpit area. The ‘smoke’ that I’d seen was the result of a bullet striking the slab of armor under my seat, pulverizing the ceramic layer and filling the cockpit with a cloud of fine ceramic dust.”
The line chief stepped back and scolded him for being so careless with ‘his’ airplane. His scowl dissolved into an easy smile. “I told you that were you were going to get your ass shot off, Sir.”
Low on fuel after shepherding B/1-77 to the battle, Rod Stewart made it to Dong Ha. “When I landed, I taxied up to the platoon and got a new backseat, a stocky Marine who climbed in and asked, ‘How do I get out of this thing?’ when I slid the seat back. I continued straight on down to the fuel pit. Incoming started landing just when I shut down and we could not get fuel, so we tried to take off from there to the West. I ran out of gas and the engine quit about tail wheel-up time. We went off the end of the wet runway and down that grassy slope and stopped with the left main in a hole. My backseat got out before I did, answering his own question.
“The Marines came out of their bunkers, our ground crews hurried over, and we manhandled the bird back onto the runway. The most amazing thing was some of our ground crew drove over, climbed up on the wing and poured gas from a jerry can into the bird all while incoming was landing in the base. I have always regretted not finding out who did that. Those crew chiefs and mechanics should have gotten a medal and I should have been grounded. I then took off for Quang Tri for fuel.”
In the course of the battle Charlie Finch had landed twice at Quang Tri for fuel, rockets, M-16 ammunition and smoke grenades. When he finally shut down after his third mission of the day, he had flown seven and a half hours and collected bullet holes in his door, wing strut, fuselage and twice received hits to his tail wheel. “At least they were not holes in Captain Finch or Captain Cedoz,” he said.
Given the intensity of the close-quarter fighting, American losses were incredibly low, though each a tragedy for the families and friends of those who died. They were: Tom Casey, Billie Long, Larry Martin, David Merrell, Lonnie Parker, Thomas Ray Jr., Air Force pilot Marion Reed, James Soriano, and James Wright. Another sixteen were wounded, some disabled for the rest of their lives.
When a search of the battlefield was completed, the bodies of 303 NVA soldiers were counted, each death a tragedy for a family in North Vietnam.
Lieutenant Joe Abernathy, who Jim Roffers thinks was the officer he gave his grenades to, and Tom Coopey believes was the wounded, shirtless lieutenant who led his group to the bomb craters, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
Catkillers Charlie Finch, Bill Hooper and Rod Stewart were awarded the Silver Star.
Life does not count by years. Some suffer a lifetime in a day, and so grow old between the rising and the setting of the sun.
Augusta Jane Evans (with
thanks to Tom Coopey)
* * *
 Part of the 1st Brigade, 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized) – the ‘1st of the 5th’.
 Loud and clear
 Never having worked with the Catkillers, and thinking Hooper was a Marine, the troops used the generic ‘Mar Fac’ when talking to him. This would complicate communications even further when the next Catkiller arrived.
 M-88 – large bodied tank retriever
[received from Jim Hooper 03 May 04]
[file last saved 29-Nov-2009 8:47 ]