Chapter 7: Charge of the Light Brigade
A letter Dan Hill had sent to Larry Hess was returned to Hill the same week at Fort Campbell. Stamped on the unopened letter was "Search," meaning that the addressee couldn't be found. Hill knew that meant only one thing: Hess was dead.
After Rescorla, there was no man Hill had felt closer to than Hess. He had given Larry the copy of "If" that Rescorla had given to him. Now he was haunted by the notion that the heroism celebrated by Kipling and extolled by Hill had led Hess to his death. Hill knew Hess had just turned twenty. He thought of Hess's jazz guitar music that no one would hear again, and he wept. Late that night, Hill got a bottle of Jack Daniel's bourbon, and he started drinking. He kept going until he had downed the entire bottle. He donned his camouflage fatigues, rifle, and pistol, painted his face with camouflage grease, and began rampaging through the house.
Hill awakened his wife, Pat, who found him fully armed with bloodshot eyes, looking crazed. She'd never seen him in such a state. "Leave me alone!" he yelled. He looked as if he were about to use his gun on himself. Frightened, she was about to call the military police. But then Hill passed out.
The next morning, he had a ferocious hangover and his memory was blank. "What happened?" he asked his wife.
"You nearly killed yourself," she said.
Soon after, Hill saw press reports about a major battle in the Ia Drang valley and saw that Rescorla's battalion was involved. On ABC News, General Westmoreland said, "I'd characterize this entire campaign as being the most successful of this conflict thus far. I feel that success is really unprecedented." But Hill was troubled by reports that there might have been more than three hundred American casualties.
Hill wrote Rescorla immediately, asking what had happened and if he knew anything about Larry Hess. From An Khe, Rescorla reported that the battles of X-ray and Albany were "the goddamnedest thing I've ever been part of in my life." Nothing he experienced in Cyprus or Africa had prepared him for warfare on this scale, with so many casualties. "Now I know why the guys in World War One and Two came back shell-shocked," he wrote. "I've never seen such carnage in my life." And he told Hill what he knew about Hess: that he'd been killed at Albany, charging valiantly into enemy fire, wounded three times before he fell.
Unlike his hangover, Hill couldn't so easily shake off his grief. He began badgering the assignment officer at the Pentagon, asking for immediate assignment to Vietnam. He wanted to avenge Hess's death.
Hill landed in Saigon on January 19, 1966. From the air the landscape was beautiful: verdant, lush, with rice paddies and irrigation ditches forming a patchwork quilt stretching to the distant mountains. After landing, Hill reported to Camp Alpha, the American base outside the city hastily built to accommodate the huge infusion of troops. Hill found it fly infested, filthy, the latrines overflowing. He left almost immediately to explore Saigon.
It wasn't the gracious former colonial capital he had expected, though he could see that it had once been beautiful, with grand boulevards and palm-lined streets. But now it was noisy, dirty, and crowded, overflowing with refugees camping in the streets, fleeing the fighting in the countryside and drawn by the American dollar. After fighting off scores of pimps and ragged children begging for candy and cigarettes, Hill checked into the Saigon Hotel and had a shower. Still wet, he wiped the soap from his eyes and saw that a young woman had come into his room. She was naked. Hill said there must be some mistake and insisted that she dress and leave. He resumed his shower "in a rather disturbed state of mind," as he later wrote in his diary.
Four days later, Hill reported to the American base at Tuy Hoa, located about an hour's helicopter ride south of An Khe. It was even closer to the coast than An Khe, and Hill briefly enjoyed swimming in the South China Sea off of the beautiful white sand beaches adjacent to the base. But he was quickly thrown into action. Like Rescorla's platoon at An Khe, Hill's unit was so well disciplined and effective that it drew the heaviest assignments and was often the first to land in a hostile area. By now, "search and destroy" was standard operating procedure, and day after day, Hill and his men were sent by helicopter into unfamiliar landscapes, told to pursue and kill the enemy, then return for a short rest before being sent out again.
Hill kept a diary of those early months in Vietnam. Inside the front cover he wrote: "This book is dedicated to 2nd Lieutenant Larry Hess, who had all those soldierly traits and qualities, that great generals strive to achieve, and who demonstrated every one of them, right up to the day he valiantly gave his life for his country, leading his troops at An Khe, Republic of Vietnam."
In many entries Hill recorded the peculiar mix of excitement and dread that characterized their missions: "How men can thrill at the knowledge that soon they may be in pitched battle, struggling to stay alive or to kill their opponents, I don't know. But it was there. It came and went, now jubilation, now fear, now thrill, now anxiety. Maybe here is the very cause of war: the human lust for adventure, the slight touch of insanity within the normally sound mind that challenges one to risk death in a mortal contest with another man or nation."
It didn't take long for Hill to realize that Vietnam was a new kind of warfare, where the tactics he had learned in postwar Europe and the code of honor that went with them seemed irrelevant. The enemy was indistinguishable from the population they were meant to save; civilians one day were Viet Cong the next; areas supposedly "pacified" reverted to enemy control the instant the Americans and their rifles, grenades, and mortars left. On one mission, Hill's platoon was ordered to assault a village in which eighteen North Vietnamese regulars were reported to have taken refuge. Hill ordered his machine gunners to open up on the village, then he and his troops warily advanced to the first buildings, expecting the enemy soldiers to open fire on them at any moment.
Instead, "out of the houses came a bunch of women and children of all ages," Hill wrote. "There were a few old men, one so sick he couldn't move and had to be carried by two of the younger women. I held my breath and my heart stopped. I was sorry now I had the troops go in firing and feared that I had been responsible for many, many women and children being killed or injured. When we finished searching the village we found only a cow had been hit. I was weak with relief." On another mission he wasn't so lucky. As he and his men searched a village, a figure dressed in the black pajamalike garments of the Viet Cong had run into his path, carrying what looked like a rifle. Hill had shot instinctively. When he reached the body, it turned out to be a woman carrying a broom.
"Why do women and children have to get involved?" Hill wrote in his diary. "Soldiers have asked themselves this for centuries. This is the reason soldiers hate war more than anyone else. They see the torn and twisted bodies, smell the death, and rip themselves apart inside for the rounds they fire that kill the innocent, and the ones they don't fire that are the cause of some enemy soldier living to kill a friend."
On one mission, Hill's platoon was ordered into a valley to pursue a Viet Cong battalion that had reportedly taken refuge there. After jumping from the helicopters, they found themselves in "boggy muck" three to four feet deep, "covered in green slime" and infested with leeches. They immediately came under heavy enemy fire from higher positions and called for artillery support. Two volleys struck the enemy positions. Then, "my stomach knotted with the grip of stark naked fear," Hill wrote. An artillery barrage fell short, onto their positions. The explosion threw Hill into the air. When he landed intact, he dug himself into the muck as more rounds landed and shrapnel flew overhead.
"Get that artillery off my ass!" Hill yelled into his radio.
Then American planes arrived, dropping napalm and white phosphorus on the enemy positions, and the hillside erupted in flame. Hill's men began to cheer.
When the smoke cleared, they advanced into the devastated area, which contained a labyrinth of tunnels and caves that had been occupied by enemy troops. But now they were gone. Despite the intense bombardment, Hill was astounded that the caves were intact and there were no enemy bodies. The enemy "may well have suffered not a single casualty, which I now began to suspect," Hill wrote. He radioed for permission to pursue the fleeing troops but was told instead to withdraw. "We have another mission," a senior officer said. They marched back to the landing zone, and the helicopters returned to take them back to camp.
Filthy, hot, covered in sweat, and exhausted, Hill and his men returned to find a television film crew had arrived. The officer motioned Hill aside, out of earshot of the film crew and his men. "What's the big mission?" Hill asked.
"Now look," the officer replied. "You're not going to like this. You're going to take that hill again. They sent out this TV crew to get some film of an attack. I want you to take that hill the same way you did before."
Hill was speechless. He couldn't be serious.
"You understand?" the officer asked.
"No, no. I don't understand," Hill replied. "I took it once. We got away clean. Right now, Charlie is crawling back out of those holes and he's going to zap somebody on this go-around."
"That's enough, Hill," he said sharply.
Hill took a large swig out of the canteen of Jack Daniel's bourbon he always carried. Then he walked over and offered some to his men. "You gents better have a drink," he said.
The canteen was passed around, and no one said anything. Finally one spoke up. "Well, sir, how do the sons of bitches want us to take it for the camera?" he asked.
"How did you know?" Hill asked, incredulous.
"Sir, I've been in the old army, the new army, the modern army, and now this shit. I've seen the same assholes a million times. We knew when we saw you arguing with him. Just tell us how you want us to do it."
A sergeant chimed in, "The second time is always easier."
Hill was touched by his men's effort to make him feel better and their willingness to follow him back into such a dangerous situation. "How do you do it?" he later wrote in his diary. "How do you tell a man that he did a fine job so far, that nobody was killed and we lucked out. But now you want them to do it again and maybe this time get killed. What did I want them to risk their lives for? Our country? Our flag? The platoon? Their buddies? The freedom of Vietnam? No. Just a few feet of film."
"Okay," he told his men, "once more, just like before." The men laughed nervously.
"Ain't this a bitch," Hill said.
As Hill had feared, their descent into the valley was met with heavy enemy fire, duly recorded by the television crew. They fought their way up the same hillside, but before they again reached the abandoned caves and tunnels, they were ordered to form a perimeter they could defend overnight. There were numerous casualties among the American soldiers. A sergeant was shot in the chest and back and was paralyzed. When the medic came to the sergeant's aid, he was shot in the arm. Another man was killed by bomb fragments.
"You just got to be hard, Dan," another lieutenant told him when they gathered for the night. "You got to be hard."
Given that he faced enemy fire almost constantly, Hill was surprised that he himself managed to escape injury. In part this was because he had become such a keen observer of the enemy, trying, as he had advised Rescorla, to know the enemy as well as himself. He had learned to recognize the scent of canned mackerel, the standard ration for NVA regulars, as well as the tiny hot peppers they ate with them. If he detected a whiff of clove, he knew someone had been smoking the clove-scented cigarettes favored by the Vietnamese. In the morning, the air would drift from high to low ground, carrying with it any telltale scents. And yet, perhaps inevitably, Hill was hit.
Not long after returning from the expedition filmed by the TV crew, Hill's platoon was assigned to patrol a series of hamlets outside of Tuy An, a town about twenty miles inland from the coast. Though the area had supposedly been pacified and cleared of North Vietnamese troops, it remained infested with Viet Cong, and virtually every turn in the road marked the site of a potential sniper. Hill and his men were carefully moving single file along a road through one of the villages when a shot rang out and Hill felt something hot near his buttocks. The soldier behind him whirled around and fired, killing an armed Vietnamese man who had been hidden in a hole covered with sod.
Hill's medic came rushing over. "What did he hit?" he asked.
Hill had no idea. All he felt was a burning sensation. He felt along his rear end, then removed the fanny pack he'd been carrying. He reached down his trousers. There it was: the bullet had entered the pack, passed through a can of beans, and lodged in Hill's underwear. In all likelihood, the fanny pack had saved his life. "I'll be damned," Hill said. The medic removed the bullet but warned Hill that he'd be suffering from a fierce blister by the next morning.
At An Khe, Rescorla had been promoted to head a reconnaissance platoon, which was considered a high honor. Only the best platoon leaders were considered for recon. Word of Rescorla's performance at Albany had spread widely; some were calling Rescorla the best platoon leader they'd ever seen. The recon platoons were typically dropped into isolated areas to search for evidence of North Vietnamese troop concentrations and Viet Cong military activity. Then, if they made contact, they called in air support and troops for more of the search-and-destroy missions that had become the mainstay of the American war effort. Casualties in the units were high, since they operated in enemy territory so far from support units. Rescorla handpicked a group of his men to join him in the new platoon, including a new medic, Joe Holloway, and a sergeant named John Driver.
Driver was Irish, an immigrant like Rescorla, and he could hold his own with Rescorla at drinking, spinning yarns, and philosophizing over beers. He also obviously worshiped Rescorla. Others joked that in Driver, Rescorla had found a replacement for the British batmen who had served him in Africa. Rescorla developed a deep affection for Driver and later recommended him for Officer Candidate School. Of the men he invited to join him, only Sergeant Thompson turned Rescorla down, because he didn't want to leave Bravo Company bereft of experienced leadership.
Before he left, Rescorla gave Thompson half of the platoon flag that Rescorla had designed and had made after the Ia Drang battles. It had a green field to symbolize the jungle of Vietnam, with British commando wings for Rescorla's British army experience and a cavalry saber across the wings. At the end of the saber was a Communist star with drops of blood on it. On the flag was inscribed, "Hard Corps, Ia Drang Valley." Rescorla kept the other half.
Rescorla thrived away from the regimentation of the base camp, where he was free to develop his own tactics. But not all of his men liked it. Fantino, his radio operator, hated the long forays into the jungle, the ambushes, the nights spent fending off insects, the constant threat of attack. But Rescorla brushed aside his complaints. "This is a part of war," he said. "You have to fight the enemy on the enemy's terms. We're not fighting the Second World War. It's not like there's a line, and the enemy's on the other side. We're in the middle of the enemy."
Rescorla's platoon headed north to Bon Song, a rugged area that bordered the South China Sea with some beautiful beaches and straddled Route 1, Vietnam's major strategic highway, which paralleled the coast. It was supposedly free of North Vietnamese Army regulars but filled with Viet Cong.
Rescorla excelled at reconnaissance, a skill he'd honed in both Cyprus and Northern Rhodesia. Reconnaissance allowed for far more autonomy. He trained his men to move undetected, to live off the land, to be alert to danger in other words, to blend into the terrain like the enemy. On one mission, his recon unit was attached to Larry Gwin's company. Gwin's unit had paused on a march into a treacherous area known as the Crow's Foot, when Rescorla and his recon unit overtook them. Even though Gwin and Rescorla had become friends after Rescorla had come to Gwin's rescue at Albany, Rescorla passed him by with no sign of recognition. Gwin later recorded his impressions:
"Then I saw Rescorla, and all I can say is that I was glad he was on our side. Jesus, he looked mean. He saw me, too, and we were friends, but his mind was like a steel trap, tense and ready to spring, and he walked right by me as if I weren't there. He was walking slowly, watching where he put his feet. His people followed him like ghosts, gliding by me silently with their camouflaged faces, soft hats, eyes scanning the trees, weapons at the ready. Had it been dark, I doubt that I would have heard them. It was eerie."
Word of Rescorla's prowess soon spread. When Dennis Deal, the fellow second lieutenant Rescorla had landed on top of in the dry creekbed at X-ray, was also promoted to head a recon platoon, his commander sent him into the field to join Rescorla and learn his techniques. So in January 1966, Deal met Rescorla in Bon Song and joined him on a recon patrol. Though standard procedure called for patrols of fifteen to twenty men. Rescorla preferred smaller teams of five men and had pioneered long-range patrols, where the group would live off the land and stay away from camp for days or even weeks. He explained that he was simply imitating the tactics that seemed to work so well for the North Vietnamese.
On their first mission, Rescorla led Deal and their men, about ten altogether, through some dense vegetation toward a clearing of fields, banana trees, and a small village where there was rumored to have been some enemy activity. It was a warm, sunny day and they had gotten an early start. As they moved through the clearing and reached the beginning of the village, they cautiously approached a thatch-roofed structure, a typical hootch that dotted the Vietnamese countryside. The hootches could be deceptive; sometimes they turned out to have only two or three walls and were open at the rear.
This proved to be the case. Rescorla and Deal were in the front of their small column, and as they rounded the corner, they saw that the building had only three walls. In the same instant, they realized the building was filled with North Vietnamese Army regulars, all dressed in khaki uniforms. There were about thirty or forty of them, all sitting on benches facing away from Rescorla and Deal, looking at what seemed to be an instructor and the front of a classroom. Their weapons and other equipment were stacked neatly just outside the structure. In the next instant, the instructor saw them and looked shocked, and then everyone turned and stared.
Everyone seemed frozen. Rescorla broke the silence.
"Oh, pardon me," he said in an impeccable British accent. Then he turned and ran. "Follow me," he said to Deal.
Rescorla led his men through a zigzag course across the landscape, dodging bushes and banana trees. Fortunately the terrain was flat. He set a punishing pace.
Behind them, the North Vietnamese grabbed their weapons and poured out of the hootch. The first shots rang out.
A couple of the Americans stopped to return fire. "This isn't about time, mates," Rescorla wryly observed. "It's about distance." In other words, Deal realized, "Get the hell out of there." No one bothered to fire again.
Once they reached the cover of the tree line, the firing began to taper off. They continued running, and eventually all they heard was the sound of their own movement. They had eluded the enemy, at least for the time being. But it took them four hours before they found a suitable landing area for a helicopter to fly them to safety.
Deal was amazed by Rescorla's calm under pressure. When he and Rescorla had encountered the enemy, it was as if Rescorla had been interrupting a tea party.
He and Rescorla continued to patrol the area for the next several weeks. They hoped to find the location of the North Vietnamese encampment, so they could call in the air cavalry. But they never found any traces of the North Vietnamese regiment they'd encountered. They could have been anywhere, melting back into the local population, or nowhere, having moved rapidly to another supposedly pacified area. For as Rescorla had already realized, everyone in Vietnam was hostile to them. The enemy was just about everyone.
In April 1966, Dan Hill was eligible for his first week of R&R. He could have gone to Hong Kong, Bangkok, or Honolulu, like his fellow officers. Instead, he told his battalion commander that he had a friend at An Khe and wanted to head up there to visit him. His commander looked at him oddly for a moment, then shrugged. "Fine," he said. Though they'd kept up a steady stream of correspondence and each had the other's radio frequency in case they needed to reach each other in an emergency, Dan hadn't seen Rescorla since their last night together at Fort Benning. He put together some gear and hitched a ride on a
helicopter going to An Khe. He watched intently as the lush vegetation of the southern highlands gave way to more rugged terrain and the Central Highlands came into view in the distance. Then the sprawling base camp materialized, and they landed in its dusty landing zone.
Hill asked for directions to Rescorla's recon unit and surprised him lying on a cot in his tent. Rescorla leaped up, gave him his big grin, and grabbed his hand. Hill was impressed by the sight of his friend. Rescorla had always been fit, but now he had no body fat, and when Hill grabbed his arm it felt like sinews of steel. Rescorla said he wanted to take Hill to a historic battlefield, as they had done so often while stationed in New Jersey, and told him to jump into a jeep equipped with a machine gun on the rear deck. Rescorla drove rapidly along Route 19 to the Mang Yang Pass. It was surrounded by mountainous jungle, shrouded by a triple canopy of vegetation. Here, Rescorla explained, was the spot where the French army lost an entire mobile army group. He took Hill to a six-foot-high obelisk with a simple inscription in both French and Vietnamese: "Here on June 24, 1954, soldiers of France and Vietnam died for their countries."
The next morning Hill and Rescorla boarded helicopters for an airborne search-and-destroy mission, which by now had become standard operating procedure. Rescorla would take his entire platoon, usually forty-four men, and they'd be dropped into a hostile area, hoping to lure the enemy into battle. There was little pretense that this would actually secure or "pacify" the region. Instead, it had become a war of attrition, with a strategy to kill so many North Vietnamese troops, Viet Cong, and their sympathizers that the enemy would be forced to
surrender. This week, Rescorla asked Hill to serve as his point man, someone who patrolled just ahead of the platoon leader to warn of danger.
After landing, the men fanned out silently through the underbrush. If they had to talk, they whispered, taking care to speak only after exhaling, which made the whisper quieter and more distinct. They looked for signs of the enemy: wilted vegetation serving as camouflage, traces of food, signs of human defecation. Hill was especially effective. After a day of screening for the enemy, they ate before sundown, then moved to another location as soon as darkness fell. They set up an "ambush" for the night, prepared in case of an attack. They divided into groups of three; two slept facedown under a mosquito net while the third stayed alert for signs of the enemy. Once the ambush was established, no one could talk or move. The tension never let up.
The next day they were patrolling through the underbrush when Hill motioned for Rescorla to stop.
"What is it?" Rescorla whispered.
"I don't know." Hill had frozen. He scanned the landscape: the tall grass, the brush, the trees just beyond the clearing. He couldn't see anything. It was almost too quiet. "There's something out there."
"Do you have a feeling?" Rescorla asked.
"Yeah," Hill replied. "Someone is watching us. Someone is waiting."
Rescorla motioned for Hill and another man to stay where they were. Then he moved to their left, disappearing in the tall grass. Hill set up their machine guns in a defensive position. Suddenly they heard gunfire. Rescorla was firing, and it was being returned. His voice came on Hill's radio. "You got me spotted?"
"Fire out ahead of me." Hill and the other soldier shifted their weapons and unleashed a barrage of machine-gun fire.
"Okay, move up to me." When they reached Rescorla, it was quiet. He pointed to the bodies of two men in NVA uniforms. A third, Rescorla said, had escaped.
The other soldier looked intently at Hill. "How'd you know?" he asked.
Rescorla grinned. "That's Hill," he said. "He's better than an English pointer."
Of Hill's week of R&R, he sent five days patrolling with Rescorla, eating C-rations, and setting up ambushes. When they returned to An Khe, they had two days to unwind. Hill accompanied Rescorla to the officers club. They ate steaks and chicken and drank beer. Rescorla played the guitar and sang. They shared Rescorla's tent, barely big enough for their two cots.
They hadn't been able to talk much while in the field, but even so, Hill sensed that his old friend was more reticent than he had been when they had been together in Africa. Since then they had no secrets from each other; they held nothing back. They had thought so much alike they could practically read each other's minds. But now something about Rescorla seemed different.
After one night of drinking and singing at the officers club, they were lying awake on their cots. Rescorla was quiet. His thoughts seemed far away. Then he turned to Hill. "What do you think of this situation?" Hill knew he was talking about Vietnam. As a professional soldier, Rescorla would never question the politics, strategy, or morality of the war in front of his men, nor would Hill. But Hill sensed that Rescorla needed to confide in him, to get something off his chest that he'd been holding back.
"It's not much of a war, is it," Hill said. "But it's the only one we got."
"Do you think we're right?" Rescorla asked.
"I don't give a damn," Hill said. He reminded Rescorla of their discussions of the U.S. Constitution. No one had more reverence for the Constitution than Rescorla, in Hill's estimation. As officers, Hill reminded him, their duty was to carry out the orders of their commander in chief, the president, elected by the people. Otherwise the United States would be no better off than a banana republic. Democracy wasn't that what they were fighting for?
"How would you feel if you were Vietnamese?" Rescorla asked.
Hill pondered the question. He had little but contempt for the American puppets in the South Vietnamese government and officer corps. "I'd be a general or captain in the North Vietnamese Army," Hill conceded.
"I'd want my own country," Rescorla agreed. They launched into a discussion of Ho Chi Minh, how he'd sought the help of the Americans against the French but been rebuffed. He'd had no choice but to turn to the Communists. Now, they were involved in what Rescorla called an "internecine war," with "no solution and no end." There were no lines, no territory to hold, no captive people to liberate. "It's killing for the sake of killing," he lamented.
Nor was killing going to win the war. Rescorla had begun referring to the "rosy red hue," a phrase from Milton's Paradise Lost, through which the American commanders were viewing the war effort, but even accepting the inflated estimates of enemy casualties, it wasn't enough. Rescorla had calculated the North Vietnamese birthrate at nearly four hundred thousand a year, which meant that the enemy population was producing half as many male children every year more than enough to replace those killed in the war.
Rescorla said he wondered at times if the real point of the war wasn't to generate profits for the military-industrial complex and drive up stock prices. He even entertained speculation that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated because he was going to stop the war. "I think this may just be to make money," he said. "I think they're running up stocks with these boys' lives."
Hill was used to Rescorla's use of rhetorical questions to make a point, but he'd never sensed such sadness and despair in Rescorla. Yet Hill knew what he meant. On more than one occasion, Hill had drafted his own letter of resignation from the army, only to tear it up. He was too much the professional soldier to walk out and leave his men behind.
Hours had passed, but still Rescorla wanted to talk. "How do you feel about the men you lost?" he asked. "Does it bother you?"
Hill thought for a moment of Larry Hess. But he put the thought aside. "No," he replied. "I don't let it bother me."
Since Hess's death, Hill had made it a point to learn as little as possible about the men he commanded. He couldn't even remember most of their names or faces. If they were killed, he wanted them to seem like strangers. Hill didn't dwell on the people he had killed, either. When his men asked, as they sometimes did, how many men he'd killed in his life, Hill said he didn't know. He'd stopped counting at two hundred. Hill realized that to people outside the military, this might seem hard-hearted. But for him, it was simply a matter of emotional survival.
"Could you have saved anybody?" Rescorla asked.
Hill shrugged. Maybe, but that would be Monday morning quarterbacking. He wanted as few casualties as possible, but he knew he'd lose some of his men. This was war.
Yet he knew Rescorla was different. Rescorla began to recite a series of names: "Tommy Burlile, Charlie McManus, Elias Alvarez, Eddie Brown, Richard Young..."
Rescorla could name them all, the men who'd died under his command. He knew their names, their faces, their hometowns, their family members. He knew what wounds they had suffered and how, where and when they had died. He told Hill he had held them in his arms, their young faces stricken with pain and anxiety and fear of death. "You're going to be all right," he had told them all, no matter how dire their condition. He would keep saying it until they died, and even after: "You're going to be all right." And then he had wiped his hands in their blood. Feeling their blood, he said, helped give him a sense of
Rescorla confided none of his growing reservations about the war effort to anyone but Hill. He stayed on at An Khe, rallying his men for the continuing search-and-destroy missions and teaching them the skills necessary to survive. He spent his free time at the officers club, where nearly every night he and the other officers gathered for beer, conversation, and singing, either a cappella or accompanied by one of the men who played guitar. But he never lost his competitive zeal. One night he asked for two full beer cans, then issued a challenge to his fellow officers: "Let's see if the strength you profess matches the bullshit I'm sure you're full of." Then he demonstrated his challenge. Rescorla backed up until the heels of his boots were firmly planted against the wall. He took the beer cans, one held vertically in each hand, and bent forward until they reached the floor. Then, using the cans to support his hands, he began walking his hands forward, supporting his weight on one as the other advanced. Soon he had reached a push-up position. Then he reached out one arm and deposited a can as far from the wall as possible. He brought this free hand back to the other and, supporting his weight on the remaining beer can, moved back toward the wall until he was again able to stand. The goal was to place a can as far from the wall as possible, then return to an upright position without ever touching the floor with the hands. Rescorla had a twinkle in his eye and looked smug.
Several muscular officers jumped at the challenge, eager to take Rescorla down a peg. The exercise didn't look that hard, but in fact it called for tremendous arm, back, and abdominal strength, as well as balance and coordination. Some managed to place the can farther than Rescorla's, then couldn't get back up. Others collapsed trying to place the can while fully extended. Finally Jim Kelly took up the challenge. Kelly not only had muscles of "coiled steel," as Larry Gwin later described them, but he was six feet four, which gave him a natural advantage over Rescorla, who was six one. Kelly took his cans, stretched to his full length, and managed to place his can ten inches past Rescorla's. There were tense moments as he struggled to return to the starting position, but when he finally succeeded, flushed from the exertion, the place erupted with cheers.
Then Rescorla returned to the wall, two cans of Budweiser in his hands. He dropped into position and quickly maneuvered into the push-up position. Then, incredibly, he kept going lower and lower, his chest nearly scraping the floor. Then he thrust his hand forward and left the can a good six inches past Kelly's. He was now stretched at nearly full length, his body supported by only one can, and he trembled slightly from the strain on his nervous system. He seemed about to collapse when he suddenly jerked backward and in a few powerful moves was on his feet.
The men went wild, cheering, yelling, clapping Rescorla on the back. For all the excitement, they could have been at the World Series or a world heavyweight championship. For a moment Rescorla made them forget they were in Vietnam.
"Beer walking," as Rescorla's game came to be known, became a regular event at the officers club, a rite of passage for new officers at An Khe. Despite his defeat at Rescorla's hands, Jim Kelly became the reigning champion. Having launched the competition, Rescorla himself gracefully retired, and his record was never surpassed.
On June 18, Hill was at Tuy Hoa when he got an urgent call that three platoons from the 327th Airborne Infantry were pinned down and suffering heavy casualties just outside the village of Trung Luong, in a wide valley near the Special Forces camp at Dong Tre. A substantial force of North Vietnamese troops was rumored to be in the area. After initial patrols yielded scant enemy contact, the Americans were ordered to sweep through the valley. Now it looked as though the Dong Tre incident had been a lure to draw the Americans into the heavily fortified area around Trung Luong. The three platoons under the command of Captain Charles T. Furgeson had suffered so many casualties that they desperately needed fresh leadership. Hill and two other lieutenants grabbed their weapons and jumped into the nearest helicopter.
The situation was far worse than had been reported. Furgeson had been ordered to advance on and take the village of Trung Luong, but it was heavily defended. North Vietnamese troops were concealed in thatched huts, barns, even haystacks. As Hill arrived, a medical evacuation helicopter was about to leave. It was loaded with casualties. Hill spotted a medic he knew. "Dan, you've got to get out there. They need leadership," he said.
Hill and the two other lieutenants raced through enemy fire to reach the American position on the outskirts of the village. "Jesus Christ, I'm glad to see you guys," Furgeson said when they arrived. He grabbed Hill's arm. "What do I do?"
Hill had already concluded that their position was indefensible, which meant they had to move somewhere, even at the risk of getting shot. "We got to do something," he said. "Go forward or backward and I don't give a damn which, but do something." As they flew into the village, Hill had spotted a nearby hill with a small pagoda on top. It looked like a position they could defend if they could get there.
Captain Furgeson sent each of the platoons in a different direction, then told them to regroup at the pagoda. Hill led one of the platoons, which acted as a rear guard, covering the company as it split into two groups. Using rice paddy dikes for cover, the two groups made their way to the pagoda, and Hill's platoon followed. They dug in hastily, and Hill radioed for air support. Nothing was available, he was told. They braced themselves for what they knew would be a long night. Exhausted and frightened, they were running out of ammunition and could easily be overrun by the enemy force.
As the night wore on, enemy troops attacked in waves. Finally, in desperation, Hill used the radio frequency to reach Rescorla at An Khe. "It's Hill," he said breathlessly. "I'm down to about fifty men, and we've got the rest of the night to go. I think we're going to be overrun. I don't expect to make it."
"Oh, shit," Rescorla said.
"When you get home, take care of Pat and the kids," Hill said. "Tell them I love them."
"What are your coordinates?" Rescorla demanded, wasting no time.
"We're west of Tuy An, about thirty miles," Hill reported.
"I'll be there," Rescorla said.
Without authorization, Rescorla summoned his platoon members and commandeered four helicopters. He radioed his commander, Colonel Moore, that he was flying to Trung Luong, where American forces desperately needed assistance. Then he called Hill to say he was in the air.
Hill waited through the rest of the night as the battle raged. Tracers lit the sky, green for the North Vietnamese, red for the Americans. Rescorla reported that the air bombardment was too intense to risk a landing, and he had to touch down at Dong Tre. He told Hill to hang on; as soon as it was clear, Rescorla would land. More reinforcements were coming. The North Vietnamese continued to assault Hill's position, but each time they suffered heavy casualties and were stopped. During lulls, Hill's men ran out and seized weapons and ammunition from the dead bodies. Hill quickly taught his men how to use the unfamiliar weapons. Then, while the sun rose, the sky darkened as Rescorla and the entire Third Brigade of the First Air Cavalry Division commanded by Colonel Moore descended in scores of helicopters. It was the most incredible sight Hill had ever seen. His men began to cheer. Rescorla and the cavalry had come to the rescue.
The choppers set down, and hundreds of fresh American troops began counterattacking toward the village. Hill and his men rushed from their positions to join them. A few hours later, under a blazing sun and in intense heat, Hill was trying to cross a stream to direct an attack on a haystack that concealed an enemy machine gun. He had just ordered his men to fire a couple of antitank weapons and called for a flamethrower when he suddenly felt a little dizzy. He began to feel weak and wandered aimlessly in circles, an easy target for enemy fire. He felt a hand on his arm. Someone said, "We've got to get him out of here." He lost consciousness.
The next thing Hill knew, he was three thousand feet in the air in a medical evacuation helicopter, an intravenous tube in his arm, wounded men lying around him. When they reached Tuy Hoa, he was wheeled out on a stretcher. "I can walk," Hill insisted, and tried to stand up. Then he felt weak and wiped the sweat off his brow. When he looked at his hand, it was covered in blood. What the hell, Hill thought. Then he reached farther up along his scalp. A piece of shrapnel was protruding from his skull.
In the medical tent, a surgeon walked up. "What's wrong with you?" he asked. Hill pointed to his head, still bleeding profusely.
"Let me take a look," the doctor said.
"Are my brains oozing out up there?" Hill asked.
"Sit still," the doctor ordered. He grabbed a pair of pliers. Without any anesthetic, he put one hand on Hill's head, gripped the shrapnel with the pliers, then yanked it out. He spread open the wound with his hands to see how deep the shrapnel had penetrated. Hill yelped in pain.
"You're okay," the doctor said. "It didn't penetrate the skull." He washed and dressed the wound. "Drink a lot of water," he said as he moved to his next patient.
Hill got up and walked to the tactical operations center. "I want to go back out." He was on the next helicopter back to the battlefield.
When American troops finally entered Trung Luong that evening, the North Vietnamese had vanished. They found that the village sat atop an extensive network of tunnels, used by the enemy both to reach their positions and to disappear without detection. Of the 172 men in Hill's company, 50 survived. Total American casualties were about 300 dead and wounded.
Several days later, Lieutenant General John A. Heintges, an aide to Westmoreland, arrived at Tuy Hoa for a debriefing on the battle of Trung Luong. Hill was told to act as the general's guide, and he accompanied him by helicopter, first to a provincial capital for lunch with a South Vietnamese colonel and then to the battlefield. When they arrived in sweltering midday heat, cleanup operations were in full force. Bulldozers were pushing Vietnamese corpses into large ditches, where they were soaked in diesel fuel and gasoline and then burned. The stench was awful. There were an estimated 850 Vietnamese dead. Hill pointed out the hill and what remained of the pagoda where he and his men had spent the night.
Then the helicopter touched down at the Special Forces camp at Dong Tre.
As Hill followed the general from the helicopter toward the command post, he heard an unmistakable voice ring out:
Here comes Hill!
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league, Hill!
Hill's face lit up with a smile. It was Rescorla, quoting from "The Charge of the Light Brigade." He clapped Hill on the back.
"Am I glad to see you," Hill said. "You saved my ass."
"I heard you got hit," Rescorla said.
"In the head," Hill replied, pointing to his wound.
"Shit," Rescorla said. "Don't they know you can't hurt Dan Hill by hitting him in the head?"
Copyright © 2002 by James B. Stewart