History books and novels are filled with stories of young men and women going off to war. In each, the experiences and challenges are as varied as the people themselves. The stories tell of leaders and followers, cowards and heroes. In Where’s Charlie? author Tim Soyars narrates his own story of how he came of age while serving in the US Army during the Vietnam War.
In this memoir, Soyars tells how his personality, background, and attitude contributed to his will to succeed and his desire to be involved in the Vietnam War. As a boy, he always knew he’d serve his country. With both humor and sincerity, Soyars narrates his story—his birth in Virginia in 1945, his induction into the army in 1965, his marriage in 1966, and his one-year service in Vietnam with the First Calvary from March of 1967 to 1968.
Including photos of the period, Where’s Charlie? conveys not only the sadness and heroics often associated with war, but also shares stories of warmth, compassion, and romance. It provides a glimpse into the horror of battle and offers insight into one soldier’s actions and thoughts during this unique time in history.
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WHERE'S CHARLIE?Memories from a Time of War, 1965–68
By TIM SOYARS
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Tim Soyars
All right reserved.
ContentsChapter 1 March 1967....................1
Chapter 2 A Backward Glance....................9
Chapter 3 Basic Decision....................15
Chapter 4 OCS....................21
Chapter 5 I Dream of Jeanie....................28
Chapter 6 The Rainbow....................35
Chapter 7 Coconut Cocktails and Odds 'n' Ends....................41
Chapter 8 A Full Day's Work....................50
Chapter 9 Frenchy to Montezuma to the Sea....................54
Chapter 10 Bong Son Plain....................65
Chapter 11 Mountain Missions....................78
Chapter 12 Patrols in the An Lao Valley....................87
Chapter 13 Stand-down....................95
Chapter 14 Village of Lo Dieu....................103
Chapter 15 Cs, Sundries, and Doughnuts....................110
Chapter 16 Pop Smoke....................115
Chapter 17 Night Patrol....................121
Chapter 18 Highway One and the General....................126
Chapter 19 Wow!....................130
Chapter 20 The S4....................133
Chapter 21 Those Magic NCOs....................140
Chapter 22 The Chick(s) and Egg Thing....................143
Chapter 23 Helicopters....................148
Chapter 24 Love and the Officers of the Round Table....................153
Chapter 25 The Chaplain, the Latrines, and a Hot Shower....................157
Chapter 26 Thanksgiving and Christmas 1967....................163
Chapter 27 Tet 1968....................168
Chapter 28 Home at Last....................175
Appendix A Excerpts from Letters....................187
Appendix B Charlie Company, Second Battalion, Fifth Cavalry Regiment Operational Reports, March 1967 to March 1968....................241
Appendix C Thanksgiving 1967....................259
Appendix D Christmas 1967....................263
Appendix E Faces of Vietnam....................267
Appendix F Reflections on Leadership....................271
Appendix G Glossary....................275
It was clear and warm in the late afternoon on March 23, 1967, when my helicopter set down inside the perimeter of Charlie Company. The company was operating in the mountains near the An Lo Valley, northwest of the Bong Son Plains in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Charlie Company, an infantry unit of the Second/Fifth (Second Battalion, Fifth Cavalry Regiment), First Cav (First Air Cavalry Division), had received causalities during the battle of Phu Ninh on March 11, 1967, and I was one of the officer replacements for the company. The battalion commander escorted me to C Company's mountain camp to introduce me to CPT Don Markham, the CO (commanding officer).
A week earlier, while I was attending new soldier orientation training at Camp Radcliff (headquarters for the First Cav), I was introduced to Captain Markham one evening at the battalion officers' club. The captain was returning from R & R (rest and relaxation) and was scheduled to rejoin his company in the field the next day. He was eager to get officer replacements and welcomed me warmly. As we drank beer and passed the night at the club, he shared stories and the history of the company's activities during his tenure there. One story was about the recent battle at Phu Ninh. Being trained for combat and joining his company in a few days, I was very interested in hearing the details of the battle. He later published the story of this battle in an article for Assembly, a magazine for alumni of the US Military Academy at West Point. The article is also posted on the Charlie Company, Second/Fifth website. I have used that article to refresh my memories of the story that Captain Markham told me that night.
Early on March 11, Charlie Company was operating near the village of Phu Ninh supporting a mechanized sweep of the area by the Fortieth ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) Regiment. Charlie Company surrounded the target area with First and Second Platoons to the north and the Third and Fourth Platoons deployed to the south near the Nui Nieu Mountains. Around 1000 hours, Captain Markham ordered Lieutenant Gerald, Third Platoon, to send a patrol to secure the southern flank. Gerald sent out a squad led by Staff Sergeant Kriedler, who came upon NVA (North Vietnamese Army) soldiers. The squad quickly pursued them, killing one and wounding the other. Hearing the weapons fire, Lieutenant Gerald took another squad to reinforce Kriedler.
Captain Markham was monitoring the radio, listening to the communications between Kriedler and Gerald. Kriedler left two of his men to guard the wounded while he and Specialist Garza searched the area. As they moved into an open area bounded by hedgerows, the enemy opened fire, killing both instantly. Lieutenant Gerald took his patrol cautiously forward. He soon sighted the bodies of Kriedler and Garza, only three meters (ten feet) from the hedgerow. All was quiet. As they cautiously advanced, automatic-weapons fire erupted from the hedgerow. Lieutenant Gerald was mortally wounded, and three of his men were killed outright. The remaining members of the squad took cover and were pinned down within eight meters (twenty-five feet) of the NVA.
Hearing of the situation on the radio, Captain Markham took the remainder of the Third Platoon on a sweep south of their position to try to get to the pinned-down men, leaving the Fourth Platoon in place to block the rear. As they moved, they avoided the trails as much as possible, breaching hedgerows and following the natural drainage ditches. Sergeant First Class Shelly took the lead with Private First Class Watson on point (lead man in the column). As they approached the location where Lieutenant Gerald had fallen, they turned east trying to encircle the area. Moving cautiously along the trail, Watson encountered a lone enemy rifleman, who fired at him and then retreated. They continued their advance when firing erupted again, and this time Watson was hit. The machine gunner, Specialist Beal, sprayed the area, allowing Shelly to rescue Watson. When Beal stopped firing to reload, the enemy fired again, dislodging Beal's helmet but not wounding him.
With every step they encountered NVA fire and more casualties. The barrage of bullets was coming from many locations, which meant the opposition was much larger and stronger than first estimated. With this assessment, Captain Markham decided to keep the Third Platoon in its present position and requested an airlift of the Second Platoon to provide reinforcement.
Staff Sergeant Shoemaker, the Fourth Platoon leader, had been monitoring the radio transmissions and was anxious to get involved. He radioed the CO and offered to lead five soldiers to a position northwest of the pinned-down men. Permission was granted. He carefully moved the squad forward. When they were within fifteen meters (forty-five feet) of the wounded men, the enemy opened fire, and they were also pinned down with little opportunity to advance.
One of Shoemaker's men crawled forward toward the stranded men only to be shot. He was pulled back by his heels. Another attempt was made with the same results. Shoemaker decided to call in Bravo Troop, First/ Ninth Cavalry to hit the NVA positions with ARA (aerial rocket artillery). The gunships made several passes, pounding the area with rockets, yet the enemy continued to resist.
The Third Platoon was almost nose-to-nose with NVA, so Captain Markham couldn't call in artillery or rockets to their position and couldn't direct fire to assist Shoemaker either. When the ARA gunships left the area, he ordered Lieutenant Gaffney, the artillery forward observer who was attached to the main element of the Fourth Platoon, to move up to assist Shoemaker. He advanced with his RTO (radio operator), but when he came within sight of the pinned-down squad, he spotted enemy movement and dashed to safety. The NVA immediately fired. Gaffney made it to safety, but his RTO fell to the ground, seriously wounded. The RTO managed to strip off his radio and crawl to cover. Unfortunately, the radio lay on the ground in plain view of the enemy positions with little chance for retrieval.
At 1300 hours, Second Platoon was airlifted to a nearby clearing and was directed to move cautiously along the network of sunken ditches. The going was slow since the ditches were filled with debris. As the point man cleared a patch of heavy vegetation with his machete, the enemy opened up with automatic weapons from within the ditch. They were on the other side of the vegetation, waiting. The point man was killed and two others were wounded. The Second Platoon fired grenades into the area, and the enemy was silenced. Sergeant First Class Salazar, the platoon leader, crawled forward to retrieve the point man's body, and the medic came up to attend to the wounded. The CO ordered the Second Platoon to pull back twenty-five meters to the intersection of two trenches. This proved to be a wise or lucky decision, because, as he found out later, that route of attack was leading the Second Platoon directly into a great trench at the base of the mountain, which was swarming with elements of the NVA.
This mission had placed Charlie Company in the middle of an outpost of the Seventh and Ninth Battalions of the Eighteenth NVA Regiment. The terrain on the Nui Mieu Mountain slopes was an ideal defensive position. The slopes were covered with room-sized boulders with large spaces beneath them that served as natural foxholes and bunkers. Waist- high scrub brush grew among the boulders, providing additional cover. From the ground, the NVA was invisible, so movement up the slopes would have been treacherous, given the enemy's placement there. The base of the mountain contained many natural drainage ditches leading to a major trench approximately six hundred meters (two thousand feet) in length and nearly twenty-five meters at its deepest point. This was the NVA's main defensive position. The army had received a report of enemy activity near the village of Phu Ninh but had known nothing of the NVA's large presence there. In front of the ditches and trench was a patchwork of agricultural plots, mostly enclosed by thick hedgerows. Within the hedgerows, the enemy had made bunkers and created firing positions. The area was a death trap to unsuspecting soldiers moving in the vicinity of the village, and Sergeant Kriedler, Lieutenant Gerald, and their men were the first victims.
The CO left a portion of the Second Platoon in their blocking position in the trench and took the remainder with him to link up with Shelley and the Third Platoon. They moved about fifty meters when two more soldiers were wounded. They tried several more advances but were repulsed each time. The situation was becoming futile. Soldiers were reluctant to move since the enemy seemed to have firing positions all around them. The CO asked for volunteers to search out the immediate enemy positions. Specialist Bennett volunteered to accompany him, and they crawled slowly down a sunken trail. Suddenly, there was a sharp crack close to the CO's face. Only one round was fired, and it struck Bennett. He died en route to the medevac hospital.
Around 1530 hours, the battalion commander, Colonel Stevenson, air assaulted Delta Company to a location about thirteen hundred meters from Captain Markham's position. Delta Company placed one platoon in reserve at the LZ (landing zone), and the company commander, Captain McInerney, led three platoons in a sweep toward the fighting. At the same time, the colonel brought in Alpha Company as backup and airlifted the First Platoon of Charlie Company to a hill on the northern slope of the Nui Mieu Mountains. The First Platoon, led by Lieutenant Dooley, was ordered to sweep down the slope and eventually link up with the Second and Third Platoons.
The First Platoon's landing on the slope was uneventful; however, about halfway down the slope, automatic-weapons fire sent the platoon scrambling for cover. Dooley ordered a squad to return to the top of the hill to protect the platoon's rear, but they encountered fire, with one man mortally wounded. Later, Dooley's RTO was wounded as they moved over a large boulder. With the enemy contact on the slope, the colonel ordered Delta Company to assist them.
Delta Company moved in a column toward the north slope of the mountain. They were, unknowingly, within close proximity of the great trench when NVA firing thundered across the open field, killing or wounding everyone in view. Captain McInerney came forward with the other platoons to assist, and many more soldiers were wounded or died, including McInerney. Staff Sergeant Cuellar assumed command of the company and eventually pulled back to the LZ to evacuate the wounded and to allow room to engage the NVA with artillery. Cuellar ordered Sergeant Dawson, the Third Platoon leader, to go forward and bring back the wounded before he called for an artillery strike, but Dawson got pinned down by deadly fire and could not complete the mission.
Darkness came to the battlefield, and both Delta Company and the NVA retrieved their dead and wounded. It must have been surreal to the American wounded, playing dead, as they watched NVA soldiers walk past their quiet, prone bodies solely to retrieve their NVA comrades. When all of Delta Company's soldiers were accounted for, the entire company pulled back to the LZ. Charlie Company spread its ranks to form a partial perimeter and settled in for the night. They also set up ambushes and trip flares along logical routes but were unable to collect their American dead.
By dawn, the NVA had vanished, apparently fleeing east during the night, leaving many dead soldiers behind. Captain Markham wrote about the morning's discovery as follows: "In the silence of the deserted battlefield we walked the great trench that yesterday had been bloody hell. Only now could we evacuate the bodies of several comrades. There was little talk." In an almost tearful moment, Captain Markham stated that twenty-two American soldiers were killed and twenty-six were wounded at the battle of Phu Ninh on March 11, 1967. They counted eighty-one NVA dead.
As I listened to the story I tried to picture myself there in the battle. I thought of how I might respond to the various situations and the call for volunteers. I thought briefly of the dead and wounded, but I didn't dwell on the subject. My time to join Charlie Company was close at hand, and I would soon have first-hand experiences of my own. The story of the battle of Phu Ninh presented an accurate picture of the way engagements occurred during the Vietnam War. On March 11, the enemy had fortifications and battle lines; they waited in ambush; they engaged in combat; they disappeared into the night. Finding NVA with large fortifications was not common, but this kind of NVA, hit-and-run contact was a frequent occurrence during the war. However, most combat soldiers, including me, would have preferred the large, decisive battles to the small encounters that were the norm.
I was excited and apprehensive when I joined my company. The battalion commander presented me to Captain Markham, wished me well, returned to his helicopter, and flew back to battalion headquarters. Captain Markham greeted me with enthusiasm and introduced me to the officers and senior NCOs (noncommissioned officers) of the company. After some orientation concerning protocol and mission, the CO turned me over to the platoon sergeant of the Second Platoon, SFC Adolfo Salazar. Sergeant Sal was a seasoned veteran and a fine man, as I'd soon discover. He was in his midthirties, a veteran of the Korean War, and in his second tour of duty in Vietnam. He talked about the history of the company, including the battle of Phu Ninh and the Second Platoon's role, and introduced me to the men of the platoon. With each introduction, we briefly exchanged information about hometowns, family, and service history. Then, Sergeant Sal went over the vacancies on the platoon roster and the orders for the night. Second Platoon was to take a squad of men to a junction along a trail about 150 meters from the company's perimeter and lie in ambush, returning after first light the next day. He volunteered to lead the ambush. I agreed, and I told him that he would be in command but that I wanted to tag along. We departed at dusk to prepare the ambush site. The team consisted of Sergeant Sal, a squad leader, three soldiers, and me. While on patrol earlier that day, the sergeant had identified a well-traveled trail as a good site for an ambush. Upon arriving, the men and sergeants took out entrenching tools and dug a deep trench along the tree line, out of view of the trail. Soon, we settled in for the night. However, no enemy passed our way, and, with little sleep, we returned to camp at first light to begin a new mission.
Excerpted from WHERE'S CHARLIE? by TIM SOYARS Copyright © 2011 by Tim Soyars. Excerpted by permission.
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