Haig


     On this same afternoon, about the time we were engaged in this shootout with the ambushers, the men inside our perimeter at "Thrust" would have been able to see several lines of Hueys in the distance as they passed by our NDP on their way to land the "Blue Spaders" at LZ "George". The "Blue Spaders" were led by Lt. Col. Alexander Haig. The LZ was only about three miles from our own location. There would be no enemy resistance as they landed.

     The forty-two-year-old Haig was not the kind of commander who left anything to chance, yet he was not a "fretter" either. Haig oversaw the initial landing at LZ George and the exact placement of his own battalion's defensive positions. Soon after landing, he met with his officers and key N.C.O.s including the F.O. (forward observer) assigned to his unit. His faithful S3 (operations officer) and longtime companion, Capt. George Joulwan, was by his side. As he stood there in the tall grass, getting feedback from his security patrols, he started forming a picture in his mind of how he wanted his defenses laid out. I doubt that any of his subordinates, save Joulwan, realized how fortunate they were to have a man like Haig leading them during the next couple days. He was somewhat of a "shot in the dark" to some above him, I'm sure, because he had not worked his way through the usual field commands, from platoon, to company and then battalion. However, the men under him had now been with him long enough to sense his competency. He was wired differently than our commander, Dick Cavazos. He was not as "earthy", and not as apt to identify with the individual needs of a grunt like me. Never mind that, though, because no American commander possessed the overall tactical command presence, from top to bottom, as did 38 year old Lt. Col. Dick Cavazos. Yet, Haig was not as aloft as our last commander, Denton, or even the 1/16th's Lt. Col. Lazzell. He was just "matter of fact", and smart. Those qualities resonated with almost anyone who came in contact with him. Although he wore a similar veneer, on the outside, to that of Westmoreland, his interior was made of high grade steel, while Westy's was composed of a somewhat softer metal. So far, in the two months he was with the Blue Spaders", Haig had managed to pass every tactical "pop quiz" thrown at him. The big question was whether he was going to be able to pass the final exam when it came his time to do so? Cavazos had passed his a long time ago in Korea. He scored an A+. Haig had been in Korea also, but his lessons in leadership had prepared him to handle leadership problems of a more strategic nature. He had been a staff officer the entire time he served in Korea and also a staff officer, when he first arrived in Vietnam. Although he had arrived in Vietnam looking for a combat command, General Depuy grabbed him to be his G3 almost as soon as his plane landed. The word was out about Haig, amongst the general command,  and DePuy wasn't about to let talented man like him, slip through his fingers. Haig was "maestro" at covering a boss's rear end, and DePuy knew it. So, Haig was indeed "type cast" and that was that. At this juncture, it was beginning to look like Haig would always play a supporting roll. He would never be the "leading Man". Shortly after becoming DePuy's staff officer, DePuy had actually witnessed for himself how brave Haig was. That made no difference either. Haig had chased down an enemy soldier, right in front of DePuy, and was wounded by a hand grenade, which this guy pulled on him as he physically tried to coral the guy on the ground. DePuy decorated Haig with a purple heart but still said no to a command. So there you have it. Except for a thing which some call fate, there was just no way Haig was going to get to be a field commander. Finally, one fine day in January of 1967, while sitting across the planning room table from Haig, DePuy was ordered in a phone conversation, by his corps commander, to release Haig for staff duty at II Field Force Headquarters. DePuy, gulped twice, then without missing a beat, quickly did a "slight of hand". He announced to his superior that he had already assigned Haig to take command of the "Blue Spaders", which was a lie. It was a lie, however, which DePuy now had to rectify. he immediately looked across the table at Haig and without batting an eye said, "Haig, I need you to report to the "Blue Spaders" as their new commanding officer". DePuy then moved their present commander into Haig's old position. That person was Lt. Col. Paul Gorman who went on to become a four-star general. So, that is how Alexander Haig finally got his chance to command a combat unit in Vietnam. The "Blue Spaders" was Haig's first "front line" combat assignment, where he carried a "long rifle" and personally led men into actual combat. It’s true that a commander like Dick Cavazos was a grunt's dream. Having him was akin to winning the lottery, but there is no doubt in my mind that Haig could have given him a "run for the money" if he had stayed in a command unit longer than he did.

     Haig possessed the critical interpersonal skills, required of a commander to coordinate air strikes, artillery and rifle fire during the heat of battle, while at the same time he knew exactly how to deal with the stupid "ass chewing chiding" and the humiliating petty commands, delivered by generals flying somewhere above the fray. Haig had learned a lot about the plight of the average field commander in Korea, while serving under a "crusty ole" Lieutenant General named Ned Almond. This experience had more than prepared Haig to feel at home when dealing with the "higher ups" in the First Infantry Division. The experience had taught him how not to put his neck in the "hangman's noose" on the radio. He knew the right lingo to use when communicating with those who outranked him. His staff experience commonly exposed him to general officers which developed a confidence in him, which most other officers in the United States Military did not have the opportunity to develop. Haig's abundant common sense was also a factor in his success at climbing the ladder of success. Shortly after graduating from West Point, Haig had married a General's daughter. This alone helped him realize that general officers were not "gods" to be feared, or worshipped, but men like him, some with much smaller brains than his own, though he would never voice that thought to anyone, but his wife, Pat. Haig's confidence freed his mental processes, so he could concentrate on defeating just one enemy, the one in front of him in the jungle. He had already defeated some of the worst ones in his own head.

     Here is one last observation, for the taking, about Haig's personality. He seems to have been a man who wore a chip on his shoulder. Now a chip on anyone's shoulder can become a hindrance in one's life, if not worn wisely. It can also be an asset, to get one off "dead center", if it is worn wisely. With the help of a couple God given mentors in his early years, Haig had learned to wear his wisely. The chip, itself, was created in the aftermath of his father's sudden death, when he was only nine. It was during the height of the Great Depression and his entire family struggled sorely, after his well-established attorney father passed. His family suffered both emotionally as well as financially,. However, a "God sent" uncle provided the emotional, as well as financial support, which the family needed, to not only make it through this difficult time, but to begin to flourish. It's another version of the "Henrietta and Lauro Cavazos story" which gives more evidence to the fact that God's blessings can flow through a wide range of human personalities, for the good of future generations. This same uncle opened a door of opportunity for Haig to attend Notre Dame and later West Point. Interestingly enough, charity can work through believers and unbelievers, but most of the time many of the giving acts of unbelievers are diverted, by Satan, into harmful enablement, which then becomes a curse, instead of a blessing. Charity, which enables evil is not charity. The fruit produced later, In Haig's life, however, is proof that these acts of kindness were well spent in Haig's case.

     As Cavazos was transforming us in a very short time, Haig was also transforming the "Blue Spaders" just as quickly. However, Haig, himself, was also about to be transformed. He had always been the underling of elites. Now, during this very brief window in time, he, himself was about to be transformed, as he joined the ranks of the most elite group of people, this natural world has ever known. ( I am not speaking of spiritual things here.) There has only been a sprinkling of these elites, throughout an entire history of the world. Becoming a member of this elite group not only requires an offering of blood, but it also requires an offering of that blood, while defending righteous causes. The members of this elite group are made so, because they offer up all that they are and all that they will ever be on earth, for the right of other humans, to freely choose for themselves the course of their own lives. Never mind whether their motives are pure or not. It’s the righteous cause which counts. With us humans, there is no cause, more righteous or no level of elitism higher, save the spiritual one, than that, of one human being sacrificing their all, for the freedom of another. Haig was about to become a member of that elite club.

     After making a final round of the perimeter defenses and inspecting each "DePuy" bunker to make sure it was constructed and positioned correctly with proper firing lanes, Haig called for one more jungle board room meeting. He had noticed that one spot on the north side of the perimeter was particularly worrisome, because the thick jungle came awfully close to a couple positions there. This was a weak point in his defenses, but Haig also understood, that there were always going to be weak points. He wasn't going to have "tired men" shift an entire section of the perimeter defenses, which would require digging new bunkers, but he would make sure that the FO had this area adequately dialed in by supporting artillery bases like ours. 

     As for me and the men at "Thrust", we had long since resupplied ourselves with ammo and rations. We also had cleaned our weapons and checked our "claymores" to the front of every position. Finally, it was time to sort through our own thoughts and try to put the traumatic events of the day in perspective. The big guns behind me kept firing away. Much of this firing later in the afternoon was registration rounds dialing in targets for future fire missions at " LZ George". The artillery officer with us was having his crew register coordinates, for quick firing reference, and writing those coordinates down in his little notebook. For sure, he would have noted the coordinates of the weak spot pointed out by Haig. Coordinates written on this small note pad, would ensure, that his guns could respond quickly when he woke up, all sleepy eyed, in the middle of the night. Firing these registration rounds as well as H & I rounds also meant that we had to listen to a lot of noisy guns blasting away for most of the evening. H & I meant Harassment and Interdiction. It was the act of firing random shells on targets in the middle of nowhere, just to be firing. I will address the stupidity of this tactical procedure later in the book. "Fire Base C" to our east (2nd Brigade Headquarters) also provided artillery support for both "George" and our position at "Thrust". We also had the 173rd Airborne, to our south, which was in range, providing artillery fires for us and I believe Fire Base Charlie also, although I don't believe their guns could reach "LZ George". 

     The next day, March 31st, the 1/2nd Infantry Battalion was "helicoptered” from fire support base Charlie into the grassy clearing at "George" and immediately marched south, crossing to the south side of Rt. 246 about two "clicks" (Kilometer) due south of their "drop zone" at "George". They then established an NDP which was six "clicks" west by northwest of our position at "Thrust". The 1/2nd was led by " Lt. Col. William Simpson. This same morning draftee Jack Toomey was flown in from Phuoc Vinh with the mail and resupplies on a Chinook helicopter, to join his 1/2nd battalion for his first day in the field. Toomey didn't have a clue what to expect. With triple canopy jungle surrounding his unit on all sides, and not a single Vietnamese civilian to be seen anywhere. For all Toomey knew, he had just arrived at the edge of civilization. Only the occasional landing of a Chinook, bringing more supplies, convinced him otherwise.

     This same morning Haig's recon platoon started out from base camp, making a probe in a northeastern direction. Their patrol moved through thick triple canopy jungle mixed with grassy clearings. The day before, shortly after landing, security patrols had discovered lots of freshly dug enemy positions in and around the grassy LZ along with some older ones. There was also freshly traveled trails within the wood line of the triple canopy jungle. The soldiers on that morning's patrol, who had been accepted into this battalion recon platoon were not your average grunts. They had proven themselves to be highly proficient at their jobs while in a "line company" like mine. They were volunteers. Twenty-one-year-old Pete Petersen from Garden Gove, California was walking point, for the patrol. Like me, he was a draftee who had started his tour of duty a month before I had started mine. There is good indication in my research that Pete was probably walking point for his entire battalion as I was for mine during those dark nights which I have described in an earlier chapter. The recon platoon leader was the no non-sense and very competent Lt. Richard Hill.  Richard and Pete were the best of the best, and today they were not just the tip of the spear, but the very point, itself. 

     While Petersen was leading his patrol further and further northwest of "George", and Jack Toomey was getting settled into his new life, it was road clearing business as usual for my unit. We started operations that morning and it was my squad's turn to take a patrol down one side of Highway 246 just inside the wood line five meters or so off the road. Mine sweepers went down the middle of the road, staying abreast of us, sweeping with metal detectors for mines. My squad was noisier than usual this morning and since our unit had been engaging enemy patrols every day, it was getting on my nerves. My people could not stop making a lot of noise. I was becoming very aggravated at everyone especially at Bartee, for not saying something. I wasn't a team player. Not only was I not a team player, but that term wasn't even a part of my vocabulary. I was used to solving problems, myself, or better yet just avoiding them altogether. Today was no different. To avoid being shot by a sapper, because my squad members were making too much noise, I simply sped up, and stayed in front of Bartee, about twenty-five yards. Problem was, I didn't bother to let him know what I was doing. On a patrol like this, there was a great need to be even more quiet than normal, because sapper teams were drawn to the road like steel to a magnet. At some point Bartee caught up with me, close enough, to tell me to slow down, so the rest could keep up. In a whispered voice, I quickly and a little abruptly explained to him why I was staying a little further in front of the rest of the squad. By this point in time, I figured that he should have needed no explanation so that irritated me even more. Recently, during his down times, Bartee had started engaging more and more in smoking pot with Bill. I could tell that it wasn't helping his cognitive awareness whatsoever. I now wondered if it hadn't somewhat deadened his awareness of just how dangerous this area of operations was to everyone involved. My anger, about his reprimand to me for getting too far ahead instead of warning the rest of the squad to be quieter, soon subsided, because Bartee finally snapped to the situation, and silently waved two fingers toward me, indicating that he was giving me the okay to stay further to the front. He then stood still, watching me turn around and melt into the jungle. It seems he had finally snapped to why it was better for me to be a little further out in front this morning. By allowing me to do this, his own chances of survival were also improved greatly. It meant that he probably wouldn't be standing beside me when an ambusher took his first shots. Bartee, for all his faults, had just displayed again the one trait, which I liked about him. Yes, he had cloudy thinking, but unlike so many other NCOs, if he could be shown to be wrong, he had no problem changing his mind about a situation. On the other hand, I was beginning to build up long term resentment toward him for favoring his pot smoking buddies over me, when it came to handing out "details" while we were in base camp. My little "fairness meter" had begun to indicate that I was getting more than my fair share. 

      At one point we had to halt while a wounded mine sweeper was evacuated, by a "dust-off". He was shot by a sapper from around a hundred yards down the road. The sapper probably used a Russian carbine, because I heard only one shot. As we started moving forward again, I plainly understood that I could be the next target. These sappers were great at shooting and running off never to be seen again. As I have already said, several times in the last few days, my fellow grunts had reported seeing bushes move through the woods, as they sat around on road guard duty. With this information in mind, I predetermined that I was going to shoot first and ask any moving "bush" questions later. I kept repeating to myself, "Pull the trigger as soon you see the slightest movement of a leaf in front of you. All those years of training my eyes to see the slightest movement of a squirrel's head on the limb of a tree really came in handy now. Suddenly, there was a flicker of motion, to my front, and a little to the right, away from the road. The motion was coming from something small, running across a patch of clear ground, making a scurrying sound. It was a mongoose, hunting snakes. My tension eased. It was a false alarm. Out of sight of my squad, by some distance, I began to hear a distinctive small voice inside my head keep repeating, "Beware. Be ready. Don't let your guard down". In response to that voice, I became acutely aware of my left index finger on the trigger of my M-14, (I'm left handed") as I lowered the barrel to scoot under a vine and come up on the other side. It was a quiet maneuver, but the leaves on the vine, which I lifted upward with the barrel of my rifle quivered slightly. At the same time, other leaves on the vegetation to my front shook slightly. That movement had nothing to do with what I was doing. In response, my trigger finger moved forward, unlocking my weapon's safety, and then backward on the trigger. Firing from the hip, my M-14 "barked out" a perfect three round burst, intentionally shot low, and under the spot where I had detected the movement. It wasn't long before Bartee appeared from behind, asking in a rattled tone of voice, what I was shooting at. I could only say that I had shot at movement to my front. I could tell by the look on his face, that he was thinking I had over reacted. There was no indication whatsoever that I had shot at anything other than a few leaves. However, it wasn't his life hanging in the balance, if there had been a real threat. I didn't feel bad at all about what I had just done. We started moving forward again and I could see droplets of blood on the leaves around me. I said nothing to Bartee about the blood. However, it wasn't long until he spotted it for himself. "Wade, I see some blood. Be careful", he whispered softly. His whispered words had a totally different tone. It was an affirming "tone of voice" this time, but I never acknowledged him and kept walking. My irritation was starting to return. It was time to start thinking about another line of work. When was that truck driving job ever coming through, promised to me by my friend, the motor pool sergeant?

     After clearing the rest of our assigned section of Rt. 246 just east of "George", Milliron and I sat on our post off the road, just inside the wood line for the rest of the day, while convoys rolled up and down the highway. There was absolutely no civilian presence whatsoever. I remember Milliron lying on his back lazily dozing in the morning sun, while I watched a mongoose scurrying around the jungle floor, making those familiar rustling sounds in the leaves. These cute little fellows made very distinctive sounds, which had become very recognizable to us. Bill woke up and "got on a roll", describing to me the beautiful rose gardens in his hometown of Santa Barbara. I listened to him with one ear, but ever the point man, I was also listening to the sounds of the jungle with the other ear. Mid-morning, I detected something which didn't sound right. It was a crunching of leaves followed by a long pause. The pause was too long to be the sound of a mongoose. Besides, all other jungle sounds had ceased. It became deathly quiet, except for the low mumbling of Bill's voice, as he continued to talk about Santa Barbara, as if he was a travel guide of some kind. I interrupted him and pointed to the jungle in front of us. "Listen", I whispered. "Do you hear that?" After hearing two or three crunching sounds for himself, he looked at me as if to ask, "What do we do now?" Without answering, I grabbed one of my hand grenades. I then whispered in a low voice, "I think It’s time to run a little "recon mission". Bill grinned knowingly and reached for his own hand grenade. We pulled the pins. He threw to our left front, and I threw to the right, making sure that I didn't bounce my grenade off several big trees to my front. This course of action served two purposes. It stopped the crunching sounds, for the rest of the day, and the sound of the exploding grenades told everyone pulling road security within ear shot of the explosions to wake up and pay attention. The rest of our morning pasted without incident, but later that afternoon shortly after about 1300 hrs. we started hearing the faint sound of machine guns firing, followed by distant explosions, to the northwest of our position. 

     The sounds were coming from the direction of Pete Petersen and the battalion recon patrol. They had run into one of many temporary base camps for the 70th Guard and were now in a fire fight with hundreds of enemy soldiers. They were 800 meters north northwest of their own base camp at "George" when it happened. Sapper teams had been aware of the patrols straight line movements, from the moment the patrol left its own perimeter at 800 hrs. that morning. It was elements of the 70th Guard, who would do the dirty work today. The 271st NVA unit was not far away, preparing for a later attack on "George", itself.

     Fact is, there were just too many people in this thirty-man patrol to slip through the jungle unnoticed as they performed the same mission a squad could have performed. A platoon like this made at least three times as much noise, moved much slower and provided three times, as many targets, for ambushers to take advantage of. In the years to come, we Americans would improve reconnaissance tactics and navigation equipment greatly, but by then, it would be too late for men like Pete. Making these longer reconnaissance probes into enemy territory was the primary job of this recon platoon. They were assigned to the battalion headquarters company and were different from the long-range reconnaissance companies (LRRP) authorized by Westmoreland on the brigade or division level. In a perfect world, their main objective was to collect intel, not get into fights. However, on this day Pete's "little band of brothers" would break that rule in just about every way it could be broken. Years later, "Seal Teams" did this kind of reconnaissance work and did it better with eight men, than the battalion recon patrols could do with thirty men, for a variety of reasons, none due to recon's own individual inabilities, but, because Pete was forced to operate within the naive confines of our leader's mindless tactical decisions. It was "seat of the pants" stuff, which Pete had no choice but to go along with. Later, Haig would very briefly, but poignantly address what I am trying to say this way. He said, "In Vietnam, strategic factors hardly applied. Tactics was all, and the name of the game was not chess, but a demented and bloody form of hide-and-seek".  No final ordeal in the final moments of any American soldier's life, gives more credence to the truth of Haig's words here, than the final events of those final moments, in the life of Pete Petersen.

     Before the shooting started, Pete approached a large heavily used trail. He followed it a few feet to examine something, which caught his eye. It was a paper sign, like the ones, which the platoon had encountered earlier in low hanging branches of trees. Like the others, it said, "GO BACK OR DIE, AMERICANS!" only this sign had been intentionally placed in a firing lane of an enemy bunker, completely concealed and about twenty meters away. It was tied-in with interlocking firing ports to other bunkers and connecting trenches, filled with hundreds of unseen enemy soldiers. Pete didn't stand a chance. The enemy machine gunner covering the firing lane, where the sign dangled, waited long enough to see if more people would congregate around it. However, the veteran members of this patrol were too savvy to fall for that trick. The gunner eventually tired of waiting for more targets and "open fired" on Pete. Pete went down almost immediately. Dead branches were everywhere, left over from the construction of the overhead cover for the bunkers. As the firing continued, tracer rounds set these dead branches on fire, causing a brief but intense wildfire to erupt. The fire did temporarily disrupt the movements of the enemy, but it also made it impossible for anyone to rescue the badly wounded Pete Petersen. He was unable to escape the path of the fire and was engulfed in flames.

      The platoon leader, First Lt. Richard Hill was a veteran who had been in his share of fire fights. He immediately recognized, from the amount and type of incoming fire, that he was facing an over whelming enemy force. He radioed that fact to Haig, as he ordered the withdrawal of most of his men to a safer distance from the bunkers. However, Richard, himself, hesitated just a moment too long, probably trying to figure out a way to help Pete. That hesitation was a death decision for the lieutenant. A random bullet found its mark. Unnamed NCOs, however, as well as Hill's veteran RTO stepped into the command gap. The NCOs continued organizing the short withdrawal and the establishing of a semi-circle firing perimeter, while the RTO gave Haig some very accurate coordinates for an initial artillery strike. Haig did the rest with flawless precision. He made sure the artillery did its job first, followed by low flying antipersonnel bombing next. The heavy bombing came behind that, which broke apart staging areas. Without accurate adjustments called in to Haig by the RTO, however, none of this would have been possible. From their prone positions, the recon patrol now offered very small targets to the enemy, while at the same time its new position forced the enemy to leave the protection of their bunkers to get at them, before American artillery and air power could make "mincemeat" out of everyone in those bunkers and trenches. The little band of about 28 recon platoon men, however, outnumbered by at least ten to one, were able to perform in a way which should have earned each of them at least a bronze star for valor. Why? Because they held that line with such effectiveness, using controlled return fire, for the next four hours, without losing a single man. Many of them were using the M-14, which contributed greatly in their ability to do this. It was hardened and committed NVA soldiers, of the 70th Guard, not conscripts, who charged the men of this recon patrol, but they didn't stand a chance. They either ran into recon platoon's bullets to their front or were mowed down by the shrapnel from our big guns at "Thrust" and Fire Base Charlie.

     In night dreams, years later, some of this little band of soldiers would still hear Pete's agonizing screams, while the very courageous and twice wounded Vietnam veteran, Oliver Stone, would later be deceived into making a movie, which would forever tarnish the names of men like Pete Petersen and Richard Hill, by depicting them as being murders of innocent women and children, as well as each other. Fact is, the murderous events, depicted as the norm, in the movie "Platoon" never happened in the unit Oliver served in. Why would a brave and very intelligent man like Oliver Stone defile the light, which had been reflected within his own soul, causing him to volunteer to fight on the side of a righteous cause, a cause, which, if won, would have brought freedom for millions of his fellow human beings? 

      Upon hearing that the recon patrol was under attack, by a large enemy force, without checking with Haig, B company's commander ordered his men, who were just returning from security patrols at "George" to head toward the shooting. It’s amazing how these young company commanders would mindlessly respond to a situation without thinking. I saw this happen over and over, while I was in the field. When they impulsively did this, they usually got themselves and their men shot to pieces. To make matters worse, Haig took to the air to try and coordinate air and artillery support, from his two-man bubble helicopter, only to be shot down shortly after arriving over the fighting. Fortunately, he and his pilot made it out okay, only to become exposed to a wall of gun fire, as he ran to catch up with A company, which he had ordered into the fight, to help the beleaguered B company. Except for the recon patrol RTO, nobody had a clue as to their exact location, because everyone in the relief elements had simply started running toward the sound of gun fire, without making sure someone was counting paces and keeping track of their location. Haig's chopper crash had caused him to lose track of his own location. However, the nameless recon patrol RTO saved the day for both Haig and B company. He had kept track of his Platoon's location and was able to communicate with Haig and give him the correct coordinates to direct fires, not only onto the enemy, but also to enable Haig to keep friendly fires from falling on his own men. Haig was a very experienced master tactician, and as I have already said, he performed flawlessly in that regard. He knew exactly how to "call down the world", when it came to directing fire support and obtaining necessary reinforcements. However, what he couldn't do, was give his FO 's the proper coordinates to direct accurate fires, because he had done the same thing, he later faulted his B company commander for doing. After crashing, he had run toward the battle "halfcocked", losing all sense of direction and recklessly exposing himself to enormous volumes of enemy gun fire. I hate to think what would have happened to his men in the major battle they were yet to fight, not to mention what a couple presidencies would have done years later, if Haig had gotten himself killed on this day. In that case, I have no doubt that his future duties would have been left to a much lesser man. Haig admitted that it was a real miracle that he wasn't killed in a hail of bullets, mortar and rocket fire. In my opinion it was the unnamed recon platoon RTO who saved "Haig's bacon" on this day.

     Amid devastatingly effective artillery and air power this devoted but demented battalion of the COSVN's infamous 70th regiment still managed to keep the attack going all afternoon. They no doubt followed their usual tactic of trying to flank both sides of the recon patrol, where they soon ran into the charging B company reinforcements. This created heavy casualties for both friend and foe alike. I believe the recon people were the lynch-pin center of the American fighting line this day, giving everyone else a stable rallying point. Enemy soldiers, who were caught between the recon patrol and the artillery fires were annihilated. However, B company did not fare well, because they were standing up like papier-mâché targets, as they crashed into a hail of bullets, coming from the enemy flankers, skirting both flanks of the recon platoon. This was just plain crazy. Five B company people were killed outright, and if the truth be known most of the thirty-eight wounded were also among their ranks. The First Infantry Division rarely fielded more than a hundred men in a company. With that information, its not hard to suppose that B company lost at least twenty five percent of its fighting strength, in a matter of moments. No one was killed in A company. This is good evidence that A company arrived at the fight after the remainder of B company people had established effective counter firing positions. They were also the beneficiaries of effective supporting artillery fires, which had begun to have a devastating effect on the enemy. Again, the unnamed RTO was a key factor in making this happen. Still, it was a long hard fire fight, lasting most of the afternoon.

     So, there you have it. This is my personal "after action" analysis done fifty some years too late. If this analysis had been done at the time, by an "ole" NCO warhorse instead of a newly minted clerk, with interviews of witnesses, and had that analysis been presented, as case studies for improving tactics, maybe more lives could have later been saved on both sides. However, that's a lot of "maybes" and all "water over the bridge" now.

      The noise made by bombing and gun fire, coming from Haig's troubles three miles away was of very little concern for Milliron and me, as we finished road guard activities that day. Back in camp, with no OP or ambush patrol duties for the night, all we had to do was wait by our holes for the night to close in around us. It would be over fifty years before I would realize what the "Blue Spaders" had been through on this day, or even that a unit called the "Blue Spader" existed. We were a battalion of three hundred guarding a fire support base of mechanized artillery and that was my world. Little else going on in the distance around me mattered. There were close to three thousand enemy troops nearby, but I never dreamed that our camp had any chance whatsoever of being overrun. I never dreamed that such a large force of hardened enemy troops, mixed in with young conscripts existed, in the first place. At least I never dreamed that they could be so close. Oh yes, I knew that there was a very good chance I could be killed, but never believed that my entire battalion could be overrun and slaughtered. In so many ways, I was still as naive as a baby calf, waiting to be turned into veal.

     This same day, Greg Murry, with A company of the 1/16th, was in Lai Kai for what they thought would be a few days’ rest. It was late afternoon when his unit got the call for help, from Haig. Haig determined correctly that he was going to need more reinforcements, soon after his recon platoon was hit. Like us, the 1/2nd was close by, but tasked with protecting the road used to bring in supplies. They were scattered out up and down Route 246 and had to stay put, doing what they were doing. So did we. When two companies of Lazzell's 1/16th, coming from Lai Khe, landed just to the west of Haig's "Blue Spaders" they landed unopposed, though they could see and hear the fireworks. Not long after landing, they did come under repeated mortar attacks. I believe one good thing came out of that. Some of these mortar teams were located and done away with, by air strikes, leaving the enemy a little short of mortar crews the next morning when they launched their main attack on Haig's position. Maybe that's why we never got mortared during the main attack.       

     As the sun was setting, the noises of the daylight combat events tapered off. The NVA had retreated by then from their attack on Haig's recon patrol. Except for those grunts on ambush or listening post (LP) duties, we "Dogface" boys in the 1/18th were in our holes, for the night. The 1/2nd were in their holes for the night, and Greg Murry with the 1/16th was still digging his hole. Jack Toomey, however, had just learned that he would not be in his hole on his first night in the field after all. He and two other new guys were told to man a listening post (LP) fifty yards in front of their battalion's perimeter. Though I am sure Jack has forgotten many mental boyhood landmarks, he still remembers this night like it was yesterday. He remembers exactly where he was, and what he was doing the entire night. Why? Because it would be the first time, he would ever have another human being trying “real hard” to kill him. That made it a "night to remember".

     On this same night, enemy patrols were thick as fleas. Besides the regular patrols assigned to place mines on Route 246, from An Loc to Katum, other sapper teams were assigned to scout around the perimeter of the 1/16th and the 1/2nd for suitable places to cause trouble anyway they could. Maybe it would be a quick ambush on an American ambush patrol, or a listening post or even a battalion perimeter, itself. On this night (March 31, 1967), however, these sappers knew very well, that they were the side show, in the upcoming main NVA attack, which would target Haig's "Blue Spaders". That attack was to be a "show piece" assault. Perhaps, some of the COSVN leadership were looking over the shoulders of the planners, as they made their plans. I say this because it was common knowledge that their protectors, the 70th guard, was never far from senior leadership in South Vietnam, and the 70th was in on this attack.

     A couple hours after darkness fell, Jack and the two new guys with him heard rustling noises in the jungle to their front. As they sat in the darkness, they also began to hear Vietnamese voices. Immediately, they broke radio silence and relayed this information to their platoon RTO. It wasn't long before the company commander was monitoring their transmissions. Jack's companions soon became frightened enough to ask if they could return to the safety of the perimeter, but their request was denied. Jack didn't know enough yet to be that scared. He was, however, becoming acutely aware, that he was not in "Kansas" any longer. It was a little overwhelming, so he did what most of us had done on our first day in the field. He "just went with the flow", while one question kept popping up in his head. How had he gotten himself into a "fix" like this in the first place? This combat thing was quickly becoming, by far, the "biggest deal" of his young life. Fifty-some years later, the now retired judge Jack Toomey would say in a public interview, that situations he faced in combat were the most life-changing events that he would ever experience. Having said that, let me also say, that the later twice decorated machine gunner, Jack Toomey, obviously faced some big challenges after returning from Vietnam. Some of those voluntary challenges were greater than most of the rest of us would dare embrace. Many of them were in the service of his fellow Americans. I say all this to say, a statement like this by Jack should speak volumes to other veterans who are struggling with the awful memories of combat. If Jack could overcome it, then you can do it, if you don't give up. Confess Christ as lord and then ask God for His help.

     On this eve of one of the biggest battles fought in the entire war, positioned at the very edge of human insanity, I am using Jack's story as a good example of the way most of us felt, as we encountered the enemy for the first time. Very little, taking place on this LP, even remotely, reminded him of a single life experience acquired thus far, in and around his hometown on Long Island, New York. As Jack struggled with the same flood of new emotions, the Vietnamese voices got louder. Then too, the “begging to come home" talk on the radio also increased. Obviously, no one had bothered to show these new guys how to tell enemy voices in the jungle to "shut up". They had no idea that a few well-placed hand grenades thrown in the direction of the voices would do the trick almost every time. If it didn't, then a few well dispersed three round bursts, would definitely get the job done. Instead, they allowed these seasoned sappers, to hear their anxious voices on the radio, resonating fearful tones, which could be recognized in any language. The very breaking of squelch, in itself, was enough to give their location away. It was a game of sorts, and a game where "Jack and friends" had just become the prey. Bullets started popping over their heads, slamming through the vegetation all around them. When that happened, Jack's company commander immediately gave his permission for the LP to pop claymores and return to the perimeter. The savvy sappers then quickly withdrew a safe distance, only to reappear again, during the night, to harass other spots along the battalion's perimeter. Jack was now as wide awake as he had ever been in his entire life and would remain that way all night long. His adrenalin was flowing, but the crash would catch up with him later. However, for now, he was experiencing the same rush that every new guy felt, after being shot at, for the very first time. Six clicks away from where the main attack would take place, I was starting to enjoying a few hours, of quiet, as the big tracked 155 mm guns behind my position went silent for a short time.

     After the day's events, Haig's men took full advantage of the respite, Haig included. The most underrated but maybe the most important aspect of successfully commanding a combat unit in Vietnam, or anywhere, for that matter, was, and is the ability of a commander to recognize, when and how, to take advantage, of a thing called sleep, doing nothing, but turning the mind off, and "slumbering away". Haig had mastered this skill in Korea, but there was a secret ingredient in his recipe, giving him a huge edge. That ingredient had a name, and her name was Patricia Fox Haig, Alexander's wife. His wife, "Pat", had kept the home fires burning brightly since the beginning of his military career, and would continue to do so, year after year, assignment after assignment, including those very trying Whitehouse assignments to come. Americans like "Pat" were and are truly the unsung heroes of this age. Are you listening, Sally? However, with the assault on the family unit, which is the elemental building block of all free societies, their numbers are dwindling.

     Sometime after three am in the morning, the person manning the radios at Haig's command bunker started receiving calls, from all three company commanders. The reports said over and over that many of their listening posts were hearing noises. Haig was immediately awakened from a deep sleep, probably by his faithful operations officer, George Joulwan, who would have certainly known, when to wake Haig up, and just as importantly, when to let him sleep. As Haig sat up, rubbing his face with both hands, he was given the news. He immediately gave orders for each company mortar platoon to go to work, dropping rounds on positions, where the noises were being heard. (This was something that Jack's commander should have strongly considered doing, when Jack's listening post heard those noises). The previous day's attack on Haig's recon platoon had already alerted Haig's keen mind, to the fact, that an all-out attack on his perimeter lines was imminent. That's exactly why he posted no ambush patrols on this night. Haig was one of those rare guys, who had a knack for figuring things out, no matter what mess he was thrown into. He reasoned correctly, that the "Blue Spaders" were very close to Cambodia, which meant enemy supplies and conscripts could be moved quickly, from protected staging areas just across the international border (Thank you, Mr. Johnson) to "pre-attack positions" surrounding the three American battalions. Visa versa, after the battle, Haig knew it was only a short distance over the border, to very safe and well stocked camps, for the precious and very committed communist cadre to make their get-a-way. Who could give a flip about the conscripts? Most of them were only given a one-way ticket in the first place.  

     April 1, 1967 was to be "a beautiful day in the neighborhood" for the murderous General Thanh. His commanders stayed busy all night moving troops into locations around Haig and Lazzell's battalions, while his sapper teams surrounded Jack's 1/2nd battalion, mainly to monitor whether they stayed put, or not, during the main thrust. Large numbers of conscription forces were used in the battle of Ap Gu on both sides. However, there were no restrictions, moral or otherwise, for the communists, on how they used human flesh, to fuel their war machine. Throughout the war years the communists maintained large numbers of conscription forces in the South, with death being the only release date, for their enslavement. These conscripts were largely composed of youngsters, whose parents were not members of the communist party. Non-membership alone, was enough reason for their communist overlords to view them with distain. The communist action plan had always been to rid themselves of two problems, at the same time. Over and over, in the war, communist thugs like Thanh, would routinely sacrifice the lives of these politically uncommitted souls, just as quickly, as they would kill a foreign soldier like me. The Vietnamese communist mindset, largely schooled under Stalinism, considered this type of sacrifice a just atonement, for anyone, who committed the nearly unpardonable sin of being politically neutral. To this very day, only 3% of the Vietnamese population is communist. Now, to any reasonable mind, this sin of omission, if a sin at all, would be considered harmless. Never-the-less, it turned politically powerless rice farmers into the "deplorables" of their day, in the eyes of their communist neighbors. By nature, like all communists, Thanh was a hate filled creature. He had no problem directing that hate against his fellow citizens, simply because they had no wish what-so-ever to substitute their innocuous pursuit of growing rice, peacefully raising their children, and honoring their ancestral traditions, in order to follow the inhuman initiatives of the communist party. Like so many of my fellow citizens today, however, they were too late in their realization of just how impossible life could be, once they fell under the iron fist, of the communist doctrine. History proves that societies, devoid of a relationship with God, are not intrinsically good, but evil, beyond anything imaginable. Once a totalitarian government is enshrined, under fear of death, a one-party ruling class has no trouble keeping powerless "deplorables" in check. Thanh learned quickly how to wield his virtually unlimited political and military control over his own countrymen, taking most of his murderous lessons from Stalin. Then and now, the more this power is wielded, the more it intoxicates true believers in the communist ideology. It made Thanh drunk with hatred, toward all fellow human beings, who did not think exactly, as he thought on any given day. It wasn't a huge leap, for the "haters of Hanoi", like Thanh, to embrace a quicker way to rid the utopian state of errant thinkers. They took these children of "deplorables", whom they considered tainted by family traditions, away from their families, then placed them onto a bureaucratically powered conveyor belt, which we Americans called the Ho Chi Minh Trail". When they reached their holding pens in the south, before being led to the slaughter, they were drilled night and day. One of the last drills to be taught was how to run to their death at the sound of a bugle. In this way, which I have briefly described here, Thanh's "big battle" strategy accomplished two goals. It gave the spiritually challenged Westmoreland the illusion of victory, through body counts, while steadily drawing him down a dead end street to defeat. At the same time, this action plan got rid of a whole bunch of "deplorables" who would die in the place of Thanh's more ideologically committed cohorts. In a sick way, Thanh's actions were a very clever, enabling him to continue the fight, until both his enemies, from within and from without, were destroyed by each other, leaving him and his communist mafia friends even more powerful.

     As Murry finished up his last guard of the night, and was falling fast asleep, a single registration round fell a short distance from Haig's bunker. Haig, already awake, heard it, and guessed correctly, that a full barrage would soon follow. He had his entire battalion on full alert and called Murry's commander, Lt. Col. Lazzell, advising him to do the same, with his "Rangers" (the 1/16th nick name). Haig didn't have long to wait for the main attack to begin. In a matter of about twenty minutes over 300 rounds of 60 mm, 82 mm and 120 mm mortar rounds fell on Haig's position and probably an equal number on Murry's "Rangers". 75 mm Pack Howitzers and mortars were used to shell Fire Base Charlie, where we had just come from a few days earlier. The 75mm pack Howitzers were obtained from the Chinese, who obtained them from the United States, during the second World War. The shelling of Fire Base Charlie hampered somewhat their efforts, to provide fire support for Haig. This fire base, located about 12 clicks to the east of "George" was also 2nd brigade headquarters. The brigade commander, Col. James Grimsley was wounded by shrapnel and had to be evacuated. He would later go on to become a major general. The resulting enemy mortar attack on the 1/26th, the 1/16th and fire base Charlie was one the most ferocious of the entire Junction City operation.    

     Just before things got hot for Haig and Murry, I sat in the darkness, pulling the last hour of my guard time, and anticipating some of the dehydrated vegetable beef soup, which "Tiny" had started preparing for us, to be flown out to supplement our morning coffee. There would also be freshly made donuts, which were better than any I had ever tasted in the States. This was in addition to the hot meal Tiny made for us later in the day, day after day, while we were in the field, under Dick's command. We didn't get anything nearly this appetizing, while good "ole C-ration Denton" was running things.

     Suddenly, the gun crews behind my position came to life. Within two or three minutes, after I witnessed their crews scurrying around behind me, those big 155s began blazing away, waking up everyone, who was still trying to sleep. We had a star light scope in my position with fresh batteries, so Bowman and I started using it to search the wood line to our front about 75 meters away. In just a few minutes flares under little white parachutes started popping open over our heads. I believe they were coming from the guns of the 173rd Airborne unit to the south of us. We put the star light scope back in its case and started watching the skyline toward the northwest where we were able to hear large explosions. Bill had wandered off again, to be with Bartee and his RTO so they could monitor the radio, while Bowman and I held down the "fort", sitting quietly, saying nothing to each other. Bill was a Californian and Californians always seemed to be more sociable, than mountain boys, like bowman and I. Bowman was so quiet, that, at times, a stranger could have easily mistaken him for a "mute".       

      Jack's unit was spared a mortar attack. We were too. It was another story for Murry and Haig, however. Hearing mortars leaving their tubes, snapped the veteran Murry out of his dreamland state barely in time to dive into his bunker, before a mortar round turned him into small body parts. He was now wide awake and looking for his rifle, while his foxhole buddy was screaming for him to get off his back, literally. Still looking for his rifle, Murry scrambled off his "buddy" and crawled out of his hole into another hole made by a mortar round, the one, which would have blown him apart, had he been just a "tad" slower in the "low crawl". He grabbed his rifle and reentered his bunker to assume his shooting position. His buddy was already blazing away, as if he was putting on a show for Walter Cronkite's camera crew. That's when it happened. It was a nightmare which was repeated over and over for our fighting men in Vietnam and a needless one I might add. Murry's M-16 jammed, making him one more testament to how sorry the M-16 was. I can't help but wonder how many Washington palms had to be greased to make sure the contract for these inferior weapons never got cancelled. However, that touches on another story about another swamp, far removed from the swamps of Vietnam.

      While Murry low crawled from his bunker one more time, to the next bunker over, trying to find a cleaning rod to knock the jammed cartridge out of the breach of his rifle, Haig was faced with a much bigger problem and one, of a much more profound nature. Every action taken by Haig from this point on, during and after the battle of Ap Gu would forever be, to his glory, or his shame. That's the only two headings on the human score card for any combat commander, leading others in the act of killing, and being killed. Whether they are leading a squad, a platoon, a company or an entire army, a combat commander must let God sort things out, or else suffer an unpreventable tear to their human soul. Maybe not today, nor tomorrow, nor the next day, but at some point in time, regardless which side of the score card has the most check marks, if not for God, the test results will always spell madness for it's pupil. However, during this period in history, most Americans I knew couldn't care less about a combat commander's score card, and the national news outlets did their part to keep it that way. It was still Friday evening back in the States and many of my fellow Americans were just beginning to unwind from a hard week at work. While LZ George was lit up with bombs and mortars and tracers, some Americans were intently focused on adjusting the rabbit ear antennas on the TV, so they could view more clearly their favorite Friday evening TV show. Others were busy preparing to chase their Friday night passions in all sorts of ways.   

      Communist officers had moved their "deplorable conscripts" as close in as possible, just before the mortar attack was launched. They had picked the best spot on the Northeast side of the perimeter for the main attack to take place, the same spot Haig had been concerned about. A few conscripts who were deemed to have shown a little more initiative in training, were given satchel charges and briefly trained beforehand, on how to use them to blow up bunkers. It would not have been lost on the very intelligent minds of these "young deplorables", as to just how slim their chances were of surviving. I am sure that many of their thoughts were akin to those, which I was thinking, when Denton had commanded us to charge those fortified bunkers back in January. The difference between me and these hapless Vietnamese, however, was that their leaders had the power to put a bullet in their head, if they refused. I, on the other hand, could have chosen not to obey Denton, and not only would I have not been shot, but I could have later run for president, using my refusal as a reason to vote for me.   

     Haig never heard the enemy bugles blow at 0520 hrs., signaling for the main human wave attack to begin against his northeast perimeter. Neither did he see the flashes from the satchel charge explosions, which destroyed two of his C company bunkers, instantly killing the men inside. He had been much too busy making sure that the officers, NCOs and their RTOs now crowded around him had their wits about them. The trait which allows a leader to assess and steady his people, in times of severe stress, like this, is almost clairvoyant. Haig had it and Cavazos had it, but most commanders didn't even know it was a qualification of command, in the first place. Fortunately, not only was Haig clairvoyant, but he had been in command long enough to have made sure by now that most officers and NCOs affecting his command were either up, to the task, or reassigned. Since day one he had also used his experience to tweak his junior officers' understanding of S.O.Ps to his way of thinking. For example, everyone knew at the beginning of a fray, he always wanted artillery to have preference over air strikes close in, and the big bombs on the F4s were to be used to bust up assembly areas a little further back, but not as far back as the arbitrary 1000 meter S.O.P. called for. Now, while the sound of mortar blasts were subsiding and that of rifle pops was increasing, he began to focus intently on the multiple streams of radio transmissions around him, for any sign of a hiccup. The ones with the hiccups would be addressed immediately, but not as harshly, as the ghost of General Almond, looking over his shoulder, may have liked. It wasn't long before Lazzell's voice became one of those transmissions, letting Haig know he was receiving a lot of incoming small arms fire on the N.E. and east side of his perimeter. Another radio report said that fire base Charlie was being shelled. An FO's RTO was already on the horn with one of our artillery officers at "Thrust"  asking him to make adjustment to take up the slack, until Fire Base Charlie could get a handle on things. I say all this to say that the command bunker was a busy place, doing what command bunkers should do in a situation like this, which was to work "the crap" out of those radios. Haig, was tuning in and out of conversations as needed to keep abreast of the situation, when he heard the distinctive voice of his C company commander, Capt. Brian Cundiff, saying his side of the perimeter was being over run.  Haig grabbed the mic from the hand of his "Romeo 6" and started to address Capt. Cundiff by his radio call sign, "Charlie 6", when he was abruptly interrupted. "The b- -t- -ds are in the bunkers with us", Cundiff blurted out, for all the world to hear. On hearing this, Haig dropped the mic and looked at the recon platoon sergeant, who had been standing silently a little outside the circle of people surrounding Haig. Sergeant, tell your men to "saddle up", he said, as he reached down and grabbed up his AR 15. Haig, then gave his RTO one of the last string of vital combat orders, that he would give, as a field commander. "Tell Cundiff to "pop smoke. Recon is headed his way".

     Dawn was breaking enough now for targets to be identified, although low hanging clouds were still preventing the big jets from dropping their ordinance as close in as Haig would have liked. The communist planners had started their assault about an hour too late to take full advantage of the darkness. Haig had wisely kept his recon platoon in reserve the night before, allowing them to use the thinned out bunkers of B company for protection during the mortar attack. Now, in the twilight, recon people spread out around their "Ole Man" and headed toward the purple smoke. Bullets were flying everywhere. There are no words which can accurately describe details of what happened in the next few minutes. C company men joined by the recon platoon where drawing down on individual targets, which was pretty much unheard of in jungle fighting. There was even some hand to hand combat taking place. Capt. Cundiff shot 6 enemy soldiers, himself. The lines were quickly reestablished, with recon people filling in the gaps along with C company soldiers. These deadly shooters had eliminated every treat inside the wire, without getting a single recon man killed and losing only eight men in C company during the entire battle of Ap Gu. All but one of these, however, were killed by fragmentation wounds. This is good evidence that they did not die during this gun slinging shootout, but died during the first minutes of the human wave attack, killed by RPGs, hand grenades or satchel charges. This speaks volumes to the proficiency of this little band of mostly citizen soldiers.

      Still, the incoming volume of small arms fire persisted, coming from the grassy areas in front of C company positions, especially on their northern end where the thick jungle came closest to the perimeter. The big jets did not have enough visibility yet to bomb that close to the perimeter, without knowing exactly where the perimeter was located. By this time Haig was squatting down in front of his command bunker again, when the bad news came across about the Air Force not wanting to bomb close in. Both "Thrust" and "Fire Base Charlie", by this time, where getting low on munitions.  C company and recon were holding the line, but they were also running out of bullets. It was obvious by the amount of incoming small arms fire to both Lazzell's and Haig's lines that there was still a large force just outside the wire. The probably of another massive human wave attack was high. With small arms ammunition as well as artillery munitions running low, now was the time, like never before, for the Air Force to step up to the plate.

      By this time, General Hollingsworth, second in command of the Big Red One, was circling above the battlefield in his Huey gunship. Other gunships were peeing red tracers toward the ground, which I could see all the way from my position at "Thrust". "Puff the Magic Dragon" was also circling overhead. One Ariel report, coming from one of these circling aircraft, later said that they saw wounded NVA soldiers, helping other wounded soldiers, not to retreat, but to make death charges against the American line. When I received that information, like many others, my first thought was how committed these NVA soldiers were to their cause. That thought, however, was a "lying idea" generated from the pits of hell. These were not committed communist. These were "deplorable conscripts", who, under threat of immediate execution, were forced by their communist party handlers to return to the battle. Their heart was not in the the winning of this battle, but in staying alive for just a few more minutes. How can I be so sure that what I am saying here is true? One large piece of evidence supporting the truth in what I have just said is the fact that not a single recon platoon member was killed during the entire battle, and only one C company guy was killed by small arms fire. At one point, recon was out in the open engaged in a "good ole fashioned" O.K. Coral shoot-out just like these "deplorable conscripts" were. Yet, not a single recon platoon member was killed, while the after action report says that 38 enemy bodies were later found inside C company perimeter. There is no way that all the members of recon would have remained alive, if they had tangled with hardened communist killers, like those in the sapper teams, which my small squad patrols had been tangling with during the last few months. If any combat veteran of the Vietnam era disagrees with my analysis here and has any spare cash laying around, please contact me immediately. I have a beautiful piece of ocean front property for sale in Arizona which I would like to "sell ya".