Blackhorse Riders: A Desperate Last Stand, an Extraordinary Rescue Mission, and the Vietnam Battle America Forgotby Philip Keith
Winner of the 2013 Silver Medal in History from the Military Writer's Society of America
Finalist, 2013 Colby Award
Winner of the 2012 USA Best Book Award for Military History
Philip Keith's Blackhorse Riders is the incredible true story of a brave military unit in Vietnam that risked everything to rescue an outnumbered troop under heavy/i>/p>/p>/p>… See more details below
Winner of the 2013 Silver Medal in History from the Military Writer's Society of America
Finalist, 2013 Colby Award
Winner of the 2012 USA Best Book Award for Military History
Philip Keith's Blackhorse Riders is the incredible true story of a brave military unit in Vietnam that risked everything to rescue an outnumbered troop under heavy fire--and the thirty-nine-year odyssey to recognize their bravery.
Deep in the jungles of Vietnam, Alpha Troop, 1st Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry, the famed Blackhorse Regiment, was a specialized cavalry outfit equipped with tanks and armored assault vehicles. On the morning of March 26, 1970, they began hearing radio calls from an infantry unit four kilometers away that had stumbled into a hidden North Vietnamese Army stronghold. Outnumbered at least six to one, the ninety-man American company was quickly surrounded, pinned down, and fighting for its existence. Helicopters could not penetrate the dense jungle, and artillery and air support could not be targeted effectively. The company was fated to be worn down and eventually all killed or captured.
Overhearing the calls for help on his radio, Captain John Poindexter, Alpha Troop's twenty-five-year-old commander, realized that his outfit was the only hope for the trapped company. It just might be possible that they could "bust" enough jungle by nightfall to reach them. Not making the attempt was deemed unacceptable, so he ordered his men to "saddle up." With the courage and determination that makes legends out of ordinary men, they effected a daring rescue and fought a pitched battle--at considerable cost. Many brave deeds were done that day and Captain Poindexter tried to make sure his men were recognized for their actions.
Thirty years later Poindexter was made aware that his award recommendations and even the records of the battle had somehow gone missing. Thus began the second phase of this remarkable story: a "battle" to ensure that his brave men's accomplishments would never be forgotten again.
The full circle was completed when President Obama stepped to the podium on October 20, 2009, to award the Alpha Troop with the Presidential Unit Citation: the highest combat award that can be given to a military unit.
A riveting account of one of the most extraordinary and courageous rescues in U.S. military history. Blackhorse Riders is written with enough detail to satisfy even the most particular of military historians, yet Keith's compelling storytelling breathes life into the personalities involved, so that minute by minute, following both rescuers and rescued, you keep turning pages to find out who lives and who dies.
One of the finest and best-told combat stories to come out of Vietnam. Blackhorse Riders is a portrait of men at war; reluctant soldiers in an unpopular conflict whose actions on a single day rose to the level of extraordinary heroism, courage, and sacrifice. For those of us who were there, this is the kind of book we would be proud to pass on to our children.
This gripping, vividly detailed narrative finally tells a story that was overlooked for far too long, a story of nail-biting action and Band of Brothers--like courage. Blackhorse Riders is a bold tale, well told, of heroism, rescue, and, finally, recognition.
This riveting true story of young American soldiers fighting in Vietnam paints a gut-wrenching picture of combat rarely described in print.
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ALPHA TROOP: MEN OF IRON, STEEDS OF STEEL
1200, MARCH 26, 1970, ALPHA TROOP’S NDP, WAR ZONE C, REPUBLIC OF VIETNAM
Somebody’s in serious trouble, Capt. John Poindexter told himself as he sat, sweltering, in the stifling heat. The long, tall Texan, twenty-five, was trying to steal a few minutes of downtime after a horrible night of pain, terror, and numbing death among the members of his cavalry troop.
It was well over a hundred degrees, even under the cover of the canvas tent-top that extended from the rear of Poindexter’s M-577 (a specialized ACAV, or armored cavalry assault vehicle). Seconds before, the battalion radio inside the baking command vehicle behind him had crackled to life. Racer Two-Nine was calling Stone Mountain Two-Nine and insistently asking for help.
Poindexter perked up and cocked an ear to listen. He knew Stone Mountain Two-Nine was his current boss, Lt. Col. Mike Conrad, battalion commander of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry. It took him a few more seconds to recall that Racer Two-Nine was that fellow Hobson, the commander of Charlie Company, also part of Conrad’s battalion. Poindexter had worked with Hobson’s company, but that was before Hobson had taken over a couple of weeks back. Poindexter’s men were soldiering with Alpha Company, a brother company to Charlie, currently under the command of Capt. Ray Armer. Armer was, in fact, sitting just a few feet away from Poindexter, suffering in the same heat and also intently interested in what the radio was pumping out.
From the semigarbled back-and-forth it eventually became clear that Hobson was in a real shit sandwich (a very bad tactical situation). His company of infantry, about eighty men, had inadvertently walked into the middle of a large, concealed, heavily fortified North Vietnamese Army (NVA) supply base. Worse, the complex seemed to be populated by frontline regular soldiers, possibly as many as a battalion. If the NVA were even at moderate strength, Hobson was outnumbered at least seven or eight to one, maybe more. Even worse news: The NVA were entrenched in bunkers. This meant they were safely behind stout dirt-and-log barricades and Hobson and his men were out in the open, or at best ducking down behind much less substantial jungle foliage, fallen timbers, or whatever cover they could find. They had already taken boo-koo (bastardization of the French beaucoup, many) casualties and were getting dangerously low on ammunition.
Poindexter got up wearily and stepped into the back of the M-577. He found a map of the local operations area. He didn’t know exactly where Hobson was, but by the sound of the gunfire that was growing in volume he guessed he and his men had to be somewhere off to the northwest about four klicks away (approximately two and a half miles). He tossed the chart down on the table and went back outside, sinking into his grime-and-grease-stained canvas chair once more.
Four Cobra gunships and two U.S. Air Force F-4 Phantom jets streaked overhead, racing to where Poindexter figured Hobson was bogged down. Artillery rounds, from Fire Support Base Illingworth, a few klicks behind them, arced overhead, trying to reach out to the NVA and cover the stranded Americans. The distant crash and boom ratcheted up and up, the crescendo building, indicating an all-out firefight was under way.
Ray Armer stared at Poindexter and quietly said, “Sounds like they need help.”
Both officers knew that their small command of approximately two hundred soldiers, Sheridan tanks, and ACAVs were the only ground forces within miles that could come to Charlie Company’s aid. They were way out in the boonies, far in advance of the main force, but Charlie was out even farther, probably very close to the Cambodian border.
Both men also knew that the jungle nearby was virtually impenetrable from the air. Unless Charlie had somehow located or manufactured an LZ (landing zone) before they were jumped (not very likely) it would be impossible to send in a rescue force by air or attempt any kind of vertical extraction. If Charlie Company couldn’t fight their way out, and the radio traffic clearly indicated they were surrounded, their only hope was a rescue column of some sort. The only conceivable “column” was hunkered down in the middle of a dry lake bed, licking its own wounds, and separated from Charlie by a couple of miles of dense, choking jungle.
The choices were few and ugly: Do nothing until ordered, in which case the men of Charlie Company would continue to suffer and die without hope; or mount up and charge off into the jungle with every prospect of either getting ambushed along the way or being chopped up in the same meat grinder that was chewing through the ranks of Charlie.
The sweat rolled off Poindexter’s brow, but it was no longer only because of the heat of the day.
* * *
The subsequent decisions made by John Poindexter and the resultant actions of the men of Team Alpha are the main focus of this book. Before we learn more about what happened to this redoubtable band, it is important to describe their organization, their capabilities, and how they came to be sitting in that dust-choked depression in the middle of War Zone C, deep in enemy territory.
ALPHA TROOP, THE MECHANIZED COMPONENT The 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (see appendix 2) traces its roots back to the 11th Cavalry, a much-decorated unit that began operations in 1901 at Fort Myer, Virginia. It was all about the horses at first, but the real provenance of the 11th begins after the flesh-and-blood mounts were traded in for steeds of steel. Reorganized first as a tank battalion at the beginning of World War II, and then converted into a true armored cavalry regiment, the 11th served steadfastly in France and Germany, including the D-day landings and the Battle of the Bulge. After the end of World War II, the 11th, like many similar units, was caught up in a rapid and extensive demobilization effort intended to take the army back to much smaller and more traditional peacetime levels. The 11th was ultimately deactivated completely on November 30, 1948.
No one knew the Korean War was coming, of course, so when that conflict erupted in 1950, the army planners reversed course and reactivated the proud old unit, this time as the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, and stationed it at Camp Carson, Colorado. The regiment had to be rebuilt from scratch, except for its motto, which remained, “Allons” (“Let’s go,” in French) and its “Blackhorse” logo.
Once the 11th was back on line, it was moved again, to Fort Knox, Kentucky, and the unit was given the task of training reservists. They relocated yet again in 1957 to Germany, where the men took up duties of guarding the German-Czechoslovakian border. The regiment’s overseas duties ended in 1964 and the entire command, now supporting an aviation company, was shipped back to Fort Meade, Maryland. The 11th would remain at Fort Meade until its deployment to Vietnam in September 1966.
The 11th would stay in Vietnam almost six years. The last men out would not return until March of 1972. In that long stretch of time, the regiment would engage in many actions, such as the one that is the subject of this book; be led by nine different commanders, including Col. George Patton Jr., son of the legendary General Patton of World War II; and three of its members would receive the Medal of Honor.
In March 1970, the 11th Armored had three squadrons with four troops in each. Troops are akin to company-sized units but slightly larger, about 160 men per troop. Alpha Troop, in 1st Squadron, was commanded by Capt. John Poindexter and had an official allowance of thirty-one “tracks”: nine M-551 Sheridan tanks, fifteen M-113 ACAVs, three mortar tracks (modified M-113s), and four armored command and admin vehicles.
On March 26, Alpha Troop was short one M-113. ACAV A-13 had been disabled by a land mine a few days earlier. Their roster had “somewhere around” 110 or 115 men present for duty. Exact lists were hard to maintain. Squad and platoon leaders could generally keep a precise count or a mental list of all the men for whom they were responsible; then again, they might not all be present. A few were always on R&R (rest and relaxation); some were detailed to rear echelon duties helping the XO (executive officer—second in command) with supplies, rearmament, the squadron kitchen, and the like. There were always broken bones, wounds, and a myriad of illnesses to deal with, all of which constantly kept at least a few men in the hospital.
COMPANY A, THE INFANTRY COMPONENT Soldiering along with Alpha Troop was Company A, 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). Company A numbered about a hundred men (keeping track here, too, was not an exact science for the same reasons stated above) and was a straight-leg, nonmechanized infantry company of regular grunts (what the men called themselves, a modern-day equivalent to “GI”).
Together, the two units were designated Team Alpha. To grasp the tactical logic that had thrown these two normally incompatible units together, it is essential to further understand the military objectives for War Zone C.
THE TACTICAL ENVIRONMENT War Zone C, in 1970, was an area of roughly 1,000 square kilometers, much of it thick jungle, containing the all-but-deserted town of Katum and the more active Tay Ninh City. In the rainy season (May to September), the area was a swamp. In the dry season (the balance of the year), it was often a choking, ovenlike dust bowl. The western boundary was the north-south Highway 15; the eastern boundary ran parallel to the north-south Highway 13 from Loc Ninh to Saigon; the southern boundary ran east-west from Highway 13 to Highway 15; the northern boundary was the Cambodian border itself. The entire zone was located northwest of Saigon, and the rough contours of the upper sector, when viewed on a chart, resembled the outline of a canine’s profile; thus, it became known as “the Dog’s Head.”
In more peaceful times, a portion of the area had been a moderately populated region of rice-producing families. For the past two decades, however, it had been a free-fire zone containing all the warring factions attempting to control Vietnam. By 1970, the district was almost totally depopulated.
The old French colonial government had built a roadway through the region to connect the area towns with Cambodia and Saigon, but that highway had been completely reclaimed by the jungle. The roadbed was still in reasonable shape, however, and it became the reason why Alpha Troop found itself stuck in War Zone C. For reasons that were completely unfathomable to the troopers, they had been assigned to protect a group of South Vietnamese and American engineers who had been tasked with clearing the old road. It seemed to make no sense: The thoroughfare went straight into the dense forest and up to the Cambodian border, and then it stopped. Why did the army want a “road to nowhere” through a tract peppered with enemy troops? The reasons would only become apparent as the same men rolled along that road, two months later, headed to the currently planned but still secret invasion of Cambodia.
Once the roadbed had been secured and cleared, Alpha Troop was reassigned to serve under the commander of an infantry battalion, the 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry. This repositioning was puzzling: The squadron commander, Lt. Col. John Norton, had been told to send one of his troops to work with the infantry. The reasons were hazy, at best, but apparently someone wanted to know if the two disparate branches could work together effectively at the company/troop level in the jungle. Norton selected Poindexter, knowing that his gung ho young troop commander could probably figure out how best to handle the situation.
Poindexter dutifully reported to Lt. Col. Mike Conrad, the commander of the 2nd Battalion, who promptly announced, “Well, I’ve got you, but I have no idea what to do with you.” Poindexter told Conrad not to worry; he asked to be loaned a company of Conrad’s men. His suggestion was that they patrol together and see how it might work out. Conrad said, “OK,” and indicated he’d assign companies, on a rotating basis, to work with Alpha Troop. He told Poindexter, “Keep me informed.”
The hybrid unit’s new duties morphed into making the rounds of the area along the cleared highway and probing for enemy activity. This unorthodox combination of cavalry and infantry did not feel comfortable, at first, to the men of either outfit, but as the weeks wore on, the men got used to it, and their joint operations proved to be highly effective.
The infantry provided extra patrol and search capabilities for the crews of the armored vehicles; the cavalry offered transport and thereby increased speed and reaction times for the infantry. It allowed the team to cover more territory, but it also got them into more firefights. Enemy body counts increased in Team Alpha’s AO (area of operations), but so did fatigue and friendly casualties.
* * *
The main weapon in the arsenal of Alpha Troop was the M-551 Sheridan tank (see appendix 3 for a more complete description of the Sheridan and its history). The troopers assigned to Sheridan crews in Vietnam tended to be equally divided between those who loved the Sheridan and those who hated it with a passion.
On the negative side, the Sheridan had been designed, in part, to be “air drop capable,” that is, deployable by parachuting it into hostile environments. This proved to be a particularly useless design characteristic in the jungles of Southeast Asia. It also meant that the Sheridan had to be much lighter than its predecessors (the hedgerow-smashing main battle tanks of World War II) so it could be hauled around by air. The turrets would still be made of steel, but the hulls were made of aluminum and could, unfortunately, be penetrated by mines, rocket-launched grenades, and heavy-caliber machine-gun bullets.
The Sheridan fired caseless ammunition which meant “without solid brass casings.” If a round was roughly handled, the projectile could easily separate from the pelletlike explosive used to fire it, which meant that there were many instances when highly flammable bags of explosive particles would be rolling around in the bottom of the tank. This was not at all desirable in a hostile warfare environment where sparks and flame were ever present.
The Sheridan’s diesel engine was quite reliable and could run all day at top speeds of over 40 mph, but there weren’t many roads in the bush, and the Sheridan had a frustrating tendency to overheat quickly when it was asked to bust jungle (smash down or roll over trees and foliage). The Sheridan was cramped for a crew of four and, of course, had no air-conditioning: Temperatures inside the hull often exceeded 100°F.
There were some design aspects to love: The Sheridan rarely threw track; that is, the mechanical treads so critical to its locomotion rarely came off, even in the jungle. It had a really big main gun: a whopping 152 mm cannon. This gun fired either a high-explosive artillery-type round or the very popular “beehive” round. The beehive was filled with ten thousand tiny aluminum-alloy darts that could shred wide swaths of foliage or, unfortunately for the NVA, large groups of men. Last but not least, the Sheridan was relatively easy to maintain, from a mechanical standpoint: a very valuable characteristic in the middle of the jungle, where there were no handy repair shops.
The troopers could love the Sheridan or hate it but, as they themselves were fond of saying, “and there it is.”
* * *
The other main vehicle in Alpha Troop’s inventory was the ubiquitous M-113 ACAV, or all-purpose track. (See appendix 4 for a more complete description and a brief history of the M-113 in Vietnam.) The M-113 was used for just about every motorized function imaginable: troop transport (its original design), light tank (it mounted a .50 cal and two M-60 machine guns), roving minimedical ward, mobile mortar platform, repair vehicle, tow truck, and so on.
In Alpha Troop, the ACAV was a mainstay and provided a light, mobile, and spirited gun platform. It could also haul a squad of infantry to wherever troops were needed. It had a crew of four: a driver, two M-60 machine-gunners, and a track commander (TC). The TC operated the .50 caliber machine gun from a rotatable cupola atop the ACAV.
Like the Sheridans, M-113s were mostly made of aluminum. Also like their big brothers, they didn’t provide complete protection, but they could deflect small-arms fire and generally withstood RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) unless the aim was dead-on. The M-113s proved to be nimble and reliable, but compared to the Sheridans, they threw track more often—especially in swamps or bomb craters.
The infantry derisively called the M-113s “buckets,” but that was probably more out of pride in their own role as the “Queen of Battle” (an old reference to the queen in chess, which, like the infantry, is the most versatile piece on the board). The cavalrymen scoffed at that. They rather liked the M-113, at least more than running around on a battlefield with nothing more between them and eternity than a steel pot (helmet) and a fatigue jacket.
1800, MARCH 25, 1970, TEAM ALPHA NDP
As Team Alpha set up their NDP on the night of March 25, they found themselves in an open area about the size of two football fields. They would be very exposed, but so would any enemy that might try to creep up on the troop at night. They were just west of the nearly deserted town of Katum. It had been another long day of exhausting patrols and fruitless searches for an elusive foe.
Spirited horses and canvas-topped prairie schooners were only ghostly memories to these modern-day cavalrymen, but some old habits died hard. As they settled in for the night, the troop “circled their wagons” as a precaution against an adversary with a penchant for nighttime attacks. The Sheridans and stubby ACAVs were placed in a huge circle at 10-meter intervals, all guns facing outward toward the black wall of jungle. The command, mortar, medic, maintenance, and FO (forward observer) tracks were centered in the middle of this laager. The infantrymen, as their forebears had done since conflicts immemorial, dug in and tried to find comfort in shallow foxholes between the tracks.
The commander of each track rigged a claymore mine about 50 feet in front of his vehicle. This small, directional antipersonnel device would blast steel balls, shotgun-style, at any enemy seeking to storm the NDP. The claymore was tethered to a thin detonating cord that the soldier on watch in the track would keep handy. Out beyond the claymores, the troopers often set out trip flares. These illumination rounds were wire-triggered and intended to expose anyone sneaking up on the laager during darkness. Then, on top of these precautions, each Sheridan main gun was loaded with a canister round. Vigilance and preparation were paramount to survival in “Indian country.”
By 2300, the NDP was pretty well buttoned down. Every vehicle had been rearmed and refueled, with maintenance conducted where it was necessary. The men had cleaned, oiled, and reloaded their machine guns and all their personal weapons. A hot meal had been flown in by Shit-hook (what the men called the CH-47 Chinook helicopter), and there was fresh coffee, cold sodas, and innumerable cigarettes.
2300, MARCH 25, 1970, TEAM ALPHA NDP
Capt. John Poindexter was making one last circuit of his defensive perimeter before trying to turn in for the night. Poindexter was a third-generation Texan. He had received a BS in business administration, with honors, from the University of Arkansas in 1966. He accepted a job at Western Electric in New York City right after graduation. It was the first step in an as yet undefined career path that would eventually lead to Wall Street. Within a year, the war in Southeast Asia was reaching its fevered apex, and he realized it would be wise to address his military obligation. He had been preselected for officer training in college, so he volunteered for Army OCS (Officer Candidate School) and reported to Fort Knox, Kentucky. He did very well at OCS, becoming president of his class and head of the Student Brigade. After graduation he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the armor branch. A tour with the 3rd Armored Cavalry in Germany followed, as did promotion to first lieutenant and command of a troop. Poindexter completed Airborne and Ranger training and volunteered for Vietnam. Upon arrival “in country” he was assigned to the 11th Armored Cavalry. Promotion to captain followed almost immediately, and he was given command of 1st Squadron’s Headquarters Troop by none other than the legendary Maj. John C. “Doc” Bahnsen Jr. (see chapter 20 and the epilogue).
The Headquarters Troop normally surrounded the workings of the squadron staff with direct protection and provided support to the other three troops. The aggressive captain found his new command to be highly capable in terms of support, maintenance, feeding the men, general supply, and necessary paper pushing but woefully underutilized in its fighting capabilities. Combat is not the Headquarters Troop’s main function, but if the entire squadron ended up in a general engagement it would be nice if the cooks and supply sergeants could drop their pots and paperwork, jump in an ACAV, and be effective. Poindexter set about to make it so, and he did.
Poindexter’s leadership performance was so effective, in fact, that when command of a line troop, in this case Alpha, became available it was offered to him. This was highly unusual for two reasons. First, command opportunities at this level for young captains were rare. To be given two chances in one tour was almost unheard of. Second, Poindexter was a reserve officer, not a holder of a regular commission, and not a West Pointer either. Poindexter would barely have sufficient time remaining on his Vietnam deployment to take on the additional responsibility, but he leaped at it when it was offered.
He was known for being unemotional, distant, tough, and a bit of a “cowboy,” but also fair. He demanded a lot of his men, but he was not a martinet. Most of all, he was a realist. He and his men were in a tough war that very few believed in, yet his sense of duty and honor remained steadfast. It was an underappreciated task they had been handed, but they would do it nonetheless. He would see to that and also try to get them through it.
Poindexter took up the reins of Alpha Troop quickly, and within a very short period Alpha had the top maintenance record in the squadron, which meant their equipment was in the best shape and most ready for action. On-the-job training was conducted constantly, and Poindexter kept the troop moving: They never spent two consecutive nights in the same NDP. To stand still in this environment meant to become big, fat targets for the NVA.
In early March, the squadron commander of 1st Squadron, Lt. Col. John Norton, came to Captain Poindexter with an odd request. Someone “up the line” had directed that the 1st Squadron detach one of its troops to be temporarily assigned to an infantry unit, in this case the 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). This same someone had also decided, apparently, that this combination of otherwise incompatible arms would be an experiment in the disparate branches working together in the harsh jungle environment. The aims were not terribly clear to the on-scene commanders, but there it was. Would Poindexter be interested in taking his troop deep into War Zone C and giving it a try? Given his reputation for spirited participation, Poindexter could hardly refuse.
Thus began a series of hookups and engagements between Alpha Troop and one company or another of the 2nd of the 8th, usually Company A or the soon to be prominent Charlie Company. This combined arms team was directed to conduct tactical sweeps in War Zone C.
Poindexter had three platoons under his direct command. The 1st Platoon was being temporarily led by SFC William McNew, a twenty-year regular army veteran. On the cusp of being too old for this sort of arduous field duty, McNew had been pressed into service as a platoon leader in the absence of an available commissioned officer. Perpetually pink from too much Southeast Asian sun and partly balding, McNew was an old-school NCO (noncommissioned officer): army proud, profane, hard-drinking, tough on his men, but not afraid of a fight.
The 2nd Platoon was led by 1st Lt. Mike Healey, twenty-four, from Flint, Michigan. Healey was the senior platoon leader, but not by much. At least he had a few firefights under his belt and was known to be solid, dependable, and fearless. He had attended New Mexico Military Institute, then the University of South Carolina, where he graduated in 1967. His ambition was to go to law school, but he was certain he was going to be drafted, so he enlisted instead, hoping to get a slot in OCS. He made it and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in 1968. After one year stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, he was issued orders to Vietnam. He got off the transport plane in Cam Ranh Bay in October 1969 and was sent immediately to the 11th ACR.
The 3rd Platoon belonged to 1st Lt. Robert Henderson Jr., twenty-four, from Oklahoma City. Henderson, who had gone by the nickname “Robin” since childhood, had graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1968. He did a year toward an MBA before finally accepting the 2nd lieutenant’s commission he had started working toward as an ROTC cadet at Oklahoma. He was following in his father’s footsteps. Robert senior had also gone through ROTC and served four years in the Army Air Corps, mostly in the Pacific, during World War II. Robin wasn’t sure the army was his life’s work. He was giving serious consideration to going back to Oklahoma and stepping into the successful oil and real estate businesses his father had started. In the interim, he would serve his country. A friend once asked him why he didn’t simply leave, maybe go to Canada and avoid the war. With a shrug he responded, “Hell, I’ve been trained. If I stepped away some other poor bastard would just be called up to take my place.”
Henderson was a newbie (a new guy—inexperienced in combat) in March 1970. He had yet to be in a significant firefight. He had a good deal to learn about jungle combat, but fortunately he was backed up by an exceptional platoon sergeant, SFC Robert Foreman. Foreman was another old hand from the regular army. Foreman knew his way around armored cavalry, and he’d keep Henderson—and the platoon—out of trouble. He was unique in another way, too. He was African American, and in an army that was still afflicted by deep-seated prejudice and class conflict, he had managed to stay above it all. He was respected not only by the men of his platoon but by nearly all the men in Alpha Troop. He knew how to keep a lid on the boiling pot of racism, train his men properly, fight his Sheridan expertly, and give good, soldierly advice when it was needed. When the men of Alpha Troop looked at Foreman they didn’t see a “black man.” They saw a professional soldier, through and through.
The senior enlisted soldier, the first sergeant of Alpha Troop, was Jerry Holloman. Holloman was also regular army, another twenty-year veteran, and as straight and true a soldier as the army ever produced. In the coming battle he would be the one Poindexter would trust as the commander of those elements of the troop that would remain behind to guard the NDP.
The NCO in charge of the three-track mortar section was twenty-eight-year-old Sgt. Francis “Bud” Smolich from Chaney, Illinois. Older than most of the men in the troop, including all the officers, he had taken a long time to be drafted, but once he was, he proved to be a steady and capable soldier. He was certainly the most well trained of anyone in the troop in regard to mortars.
The platoon sergeant for 2nd Platoon was S. Sgt. Pasqual “Gus” Gutierrez, twenty, from East Los Angeles. Although fairly senior in terms of his enlisted rank (E-6), Gutierrez had actually been in the army for only a year. He was a “shake ’n’ bake,” or instant sergeant. The wartime demands—and casualties—of the army had created a shocking number of vacancies for senior and midlevel NCOs. The army’s answer to the need for enlisted leaders was to take high-scoring draftees of great aptitude, like Gutierrez, and shove them to the head of the line. It was hoped that what these men might lack in experience they would make up for quickly via their innate intelligence. Gutierrez did, indeed, graduate first in his class from the NCO Academy at Fort Knox. He went from E-1 to E-6 almost overnight. He was shipped off to Vietnam in short order, and upon arrival in country he was assigned to the 11th Cavalry as a tank commander and a platoon sergeant.
One of the specialized tracks, a converted M-113 designated A-81, was reconfigured as a medic track. The TC of this track was Sgt. Donnie Colwell, twenty, from Distant, Pennsylvania. (“It was pretty far from anywhere,” Colwell states, “and way out in the western Pennsylvania woods, therefore ‘distant.’”) Colwell and his medic sidekick, SP4 Gary Felthager, would play crucial roles in the lives of Alpha Troop in the hours ahead, but they could not know that yet, of course. On this particular evening, Colwell and Felthager were just trying to square things away and get ready for another miserable day in the boonies.
These men formed the leadership core for Alpha Troop. Depending on them were another hundred-odd loaders, gunners, drivers, radiomen, mortarmen, medics, mechanics, machine gunners, and field cooks. Actually, most of them were barely men at all. The average age was just over twenty. There they were, half a world away from home, and about to be embroiled in what might become the most significant twenty-four hours of their lives. Sadly, for a few, it would be their last hours, period.
Copyright © 2012 by Philip Keith.
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