Chap 17 Shenandoah

     Shenandoah is the name of a town in Virginia. It is the name of a county in Virginia. It is also the name of a river in Virginia. That river runs through the northern portion of the most beautiful valley in the world. That valley is located between the Allegany and the Blue Ridge Mountains. The name of that valley, too, is called The Shenandoah Valley". I spent many of my boyhood days in that valley. I was born in that valley. Shenandoah was also the name given to the last and bloodiest operation of the war for my 1/18th Battalion and our leader, Lt. Col. Dick Cavazos.

     Operation Shenandoah II kicked off on the 29th of September, 1967. That was around three weeks after "Ianding" my new job. Jack Toomey's 1/2nd Battalion would be the first to see significant action in this operation. On the first day they established an NDP about 4.5 Klicks (4.5 kilometers) N.W. of Lai Khe. According to a grunt's timeline, it had been ages now since Jack had been welcomed to his unit, where he was immediately given mid-section seating (2 klicks away) to the "Alexander Haig Show" at LZ George. Sgt. Murry and his boys had hogged all the upfront seating (500 meters away). In the aftermath of that battle known as Ap Gu, it had not taken Jack long, at all, to realize that it would be a very good idea to provide himself with all the fire power he could muster. So, he volunteered for the job of platoon machine gunner. On the 30th day of October, my unit was flown from Di An to Phuoc Vinh as a ready reserve force for Jack's 1/2nd Battalion. Jack's unit began a "search and destroy" operation just east of highway 13 and about 15 Klicks north of Lai Khe. My truck and a water trailer, which I was pulling behind it, were flown to Phuoc Vinh in a Chinook. I sat in the driver's seat during the twenty minute flight because there was no place else to sit.

      On Oct. 4th, as the 1/2nd Battalion's recon platoon left the NDP, they were ambushed by a sizable enemy force. The battalion was planning to make a large sweep in a westerly direction. Recon platoon was running point, while C Company followed behind. Jack Toomey's A Company and the newly formed D Company were suppose to bring up the rear. However, they were still "milling around" inside the perimeter when the shooting started. Part of C Company was also saddling up to join the march. The newly created D Company had just been flown out from Di An to join the rest of the Battalion for their very first combat operation. Plans were changed the previous evening for Capt. Bill Hearn's B Company to now stay behind and protect the NDP, while D Company took their place in the line of march. The unit had not gone 300 meters when they walked into the jaws of this enemy ambush. Recon platoon's point man, Terrance Schneider, was the first to be fatally wounded. His death was just a repeat, of the same "constant" which was ever present with that job and there was really nothing one could do differently to prevent those deaths from repeating themselves over and over. Point men like Terrance were always going to be the first to go down. That fact was built into this destructive body-count tactic, which was also Westmoreland's adopted strategy for winning the war.

      Yes, that's right. It was a mindless tactic, not a strategy for winning wars. Instead, Westmoreland should have been occupying territory, enclave after enclave, turning them into peaceful spots on the globe, ruled by Judeo-Christian principles, just as it had been done in America in the past. CIA's Far East Division Chief, James Colby, tried to show "Westy" "as much" and indeed, many years later General Petraeus would show the entire world how this could be done, with his victory over the insurgency in Iraq. However, the insecure "Westy" would not leave the confines of that genius side of his brain long enough to entertain other rational thoughts. His genius side did do an amazing job of micro managing "bureaucratic details". Maybe that was his downfall, because he seemed to be stuck. He seemed not to be able to go beyond the ridiculous, to reach a very basic truth. That truth says this. All successful strategies of war are fought with the end goal being the possession of the land. Additionally, if we are to wage war successfully, we must make sure that like minded people to our core way of thinking are empowered to possess that land. In my Christian opinion, never has there been a more like minded people to us Americans, on the face of the earth, than the Vietnamese people. They put a priority on family, hard work and frugality over religious and political ideologies, as do most Americans.  

      Unfortunately for "Jack and friends", their battalion commander was new with no previous combat experience. In other words, he was a "babe thrown to the wolfs".  This was his first major engagement and as the fire-fight continued, Jack's A company, along with D were forced to shuffle back into perimeter positions while the soldiers in C Company were naively ordered forward to defend the beleaguered recon platoon. It was just another repeat of past actions, which once again played into Trait's hand and that of the 271st NVA Battalion, along with other elements of the 9th Division. It was a long fire fight which lasted until 1100 hours. The duration of the fight and also the number of casualties, tells me all I need to know about the ineffectiveness of the American response to this ambush. Instead of ordering a couple fire teams to immediately "fan out" to the left and right flanks and lay down covering fire long enough for others to recover the wounded and withdraw the short distance toward the perimeter, recon platoon was made to "stay put" and slug it out with the enemy. It was an enemy, who already had the advantage of choosing their fighting positions beforehand. To make matters worse, as C Company men rushed forward to join the recon platoon, they exposed themselves, like cardboard cut-outs, to tremendous amounts of fire, coming from the well-situated enemy machine gunners and tree snipers. C Company quickly sustained 25% casualties, making it much harder now to withdraw, while taking care of the wounded at the same time. As with Haig's boys in recon, at the battle of Ap Gu, all recon platoons in the First Division had one thing in common. They were "natural born killers". 1/2nd recon platoon was no different. As they hunkered down for the "long haul", they were also able to lay down extremely effective return fire, especially with their M-14s. They did this all morning long. No doubt, they would have held that ground until every man had taken his final breath unless told to do otherwise. I know their mindset because I served along side of men like these. I was in a position to observe them day in and day out. I also know how to read casualty reports to decipher more that just numbers. For instance, only two out of the twenty eight or so recon patrol members were killed, yet they were in the forefront of the fighting from early in the morning until 1100 hours. That information says two things to me. First, it says that artillery units were not able to be utilized as effectively as they needed to be or the fire fight would not have lasted as long as it did. Secondly, it says that recon platoon did some "mighty fine shooting" or there would have been many more Americans killed, over such an extended period of time.

      This was a well-planned ambush. By now, the enemy knew they could count on us Americans to patrol certain areas and respond to attacks in the same manner almost every time. The 1/2nd had been operating in this area for four days. By process of elimination, over the last four days, the enemy would have been able to calculate, with a high degree of probability, what side of the perimeter the Americans would be entering the wood line, on this particular morning. So, that's the side they chose to stage their ambush. They also knew, that once engaged, it was common for us Americans to "hunker down" while getting our artillery and air strikes going. This gave the enemy time to kill and wound a lot of Americans and escape "out the flanks", before artillery and air strikes could do bad things to them. Why did we allow ourselves "over and over" to be played like this? If first Division had enforced a standing order to simply withdraw when first shots were fired, that would have foiled the effectiveness of many of these types of ambushes. A withdrawal of only fifty meters would have given us extra jungle covering to stop enemy bullets and also allow our artillery to target close-in enemy positions much more effectively without taking a chance of harming our own boys. General Depuy had encouraged this type of maneuver and his replacement, Hay, had no problem with it either. However, sadly, nothing was done to train new commanders in this procedure and the 1/2nd Battalion commander was new, with no previous combat experience, whatsoever. Dick Cavazos and his successor, Lt. Col. George Tronsrue seemed to be the only battalion commanders in the First Division who regularly used this very effective tactic. Why was that? I now believe the trickle-down effects of apathy in senior leadership was a major reason. Many American Generals (not all) were apathetic toward their job assignments. You see, for them, Vietnam became a revolving door. It was a temporary duty station, where one could spend six months to a year and pick up enough credits to advance to that next rung on the latter. To complicate matters further, at this time in America, the over-riding worry for our senior military leaders was not Vietnam but the "Cold War".         

      Failing to develop proper operational tactics has all kinds of negative effects. However, the worst is the unnecessary loss of life. Here, in just this one incident with the 1/2nd, is a couple accounts of the unnecessary loss of life due to bad tactics on this day. Multiply this account by what was happening across Westmoreland's entire area of responsibility and I believe the reader will have no problem realizing how enormous that unnecessary loss was. It was a loss which could have been so easily prevented, by recognizing and then implementing a few realistic tactical changes based on what was happening on the battlefield, instead of in the head of some young clerk's office space far removed from the reality of combat. Thank God for Cavazos, who had been schooled in outthinking hardheadedness since he was a boy sitting on his father's knee.

      Charlie Sauler, a Canadian, who had enlisted in the American military was running point for Company C. His tour began with C Company on December 1, 1966. Since then Charlie had been in more than his share of fire-fights and had won two bronze stars in two of those fights. Charlie rushed forward and started laying down suppressing fire along with "recon platoon" as soon as the fight started. As he voluntarily exposed himself and aggressively fired back at enemy positions, an enemy bullet found its mark. It cleanly passed through his chest, causing him to slowly bleed out. Instead of enlisting a medic's help before it was too late, Charlie propped himself against a tree and continued to fire on enemy positions with deadly accuracy until the end of his time here on earth. Posthumously, Charlie received a silver star. In another sad incidence, which a quick withdrawal would have prevented, the battalion physician, Dr. Howard Gerstel and one of his medics, SP-4 Donald Schrenk took it upon themselves to leave the relative safety of the perimeter. They were enticed to do so, when they heard mounting casualty reports being reported over a radio so close by. They ran toward a "hail of bullets", to give aid to the wounded, exposing themselves time and time again to enemy fire. Both men were killed performing duties above and beyond what the Army expected of them. Until recently, Donald had been a field medic with B Company. However, when Capt. Bill Hearn from Texas learned that Donald had a small child back home, he transferred him to the battalion aid station. This was much safer duty for a medic. On this day, Donald was under no obligation to follow Dr. Gerstel into the jungle. Shortly after doing so, Donald was wounded and placed on a "dust-off". He jumped off and return again to the side of his doctor friend, when he learned that his friend, the doctor, had been wounded. Almost immediately after returning to give aid to Doctor Gerstel he was shot again and killed by a sniper. Donald received a silver star and Dr. Gerstel, who also died while performing far above that which was required of him, should have received one, but didn't. In all probability, both men would have returned home safely from their tour of duty if an immediate withdrawal had been called for by the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Mortimer O'Connor. However, Mortimer O'Connor was not at fault. As I have said, Mortimer was new to the unit and had no previous combat experience. From all accounts, he was a good leader, who served well beyond the six month field duty requirement for officers. Trouble was, Mortimer, like so many other field officers, was left to "wing it", until they could either learn on their own or were brow-beatened out of a command position by senior leadership. Its just too bad that our senior leaders turned him out to the "wolves" to learn simple tactical lessons by trail and error, lessons paid for with the blood of the men, whom by all accounts, he loved. Against all odds, mostly on his own, Mortimer managed to become a fine commander, who was respected by his men. He, himself, paid the ultimate price while serving beyond his required time in the field.          

      In response to this attack on the 1/2nd, my 1/18th was immediately flown from Phuoc Vinh to the Chon Thanh Air Strip and then air assaulted into a jungle clearing just S. W. of the 1/2nd, where it assumed a blocking position. As usual, Dick began to work the radios as soon as his orders came down. He made sure that the landing zone was properly prepped, before sending his boys into harm's way. When facing immanent danger, Dick always assumed the worst, and this time he would assume no differently. Intelligence reports had indicated that the enemy had close to 4000 troops in the area of operation. Dick knew that was more than enough resources to have staged an ambush on the 400 men of 1/2nd battalion, and at the same time mount another ambush on his 1/18th as they came to their aid. The 1/18th was about to land only a couple klicks from the 1/2nd and Dick wasn't about to get caught with his pants down. Twenty minutes before the first Hueys touched down, the entire area in and around the LZ erupted with napalm, artillery and antipersonnel bombs. Dick's thorough precautions were well rewarded. After his boys landed, security patrols immediately located numerous sapper bodies scattered throughout the area of the bombing. Judging from the numbers of enemy dead, it was apparent to Dick that Trait had planned to pull the same trick on him which he was able to "pull off" on Lazzell at the Battle of Xom Bo II. However, with a thoroughly prepped LZ, that was now impossible. The local VC sappers who were going to guide NVA conscripts down ox cart trails into attack positions were dead. "Como lines" were burned up and so were the "tree watchers/snipers" whom he counted on to relay critical messages about the landing to sappers on the ground and then on to him. The trails to be used to hustle conscripts into attack positions were also now blocked by downed trees, caused by the bombing.

    Since spies were everywhere in the First Division encampments and command posts, I am certain that Trait would have had some knowledge of Dick's jungle fighting characteristics by now. Judging from what Trait did next, I would also guess that Dick's abilities to "take care of business" was starting to "get under his skin". Dick's proficiency in prepping the LZ caused Trait to cancel the attack on the 1/18th's perimeter, which was planned to be executed before our men of the 1/18th were able to dig-in and build their DePuy bunkers. Momentum was lost and such a quick attack was now impossible to "pull off". It's a sure bet that Trait also had enough feedback from his spies to realize that Dick was the guy responsible for wiping out hundreds of his NVA conscripts, as they were resting peacefully in their bunkers two days after the battle of Xom Bo II. Now, here again was Dick, killing scores of "hard to replace" guides and scouts from the local area, by thoroughly prepping the LZ before his men landed. The warm bodies of conscripts and the teenaged girls pressed into a slave's existence were easily replaced. However, these "local guys", not so much. Trait didn't believe in coincidences. He was starting to become more and more wary of Dick Cavazos.

     Any of Trait's concerns, however, were not mixed with feelings of guilt or regret for the "loss of life" of thousands of Vietnamese teenagers, pressed into service for his "every war-time need". He would go on for the rest of his life maintaining his same detached and demonic demeanor, although I am sure he gave a helping hand, in "seeing to it", that three million more of his fellow Vietnamese were slaughtered after we Americans withdrew entirely from South Vietnam. You see, the communist mindset is such, that the lives of ordinary folks is of no value whatsoever, outside the individual's usefulness in gaining and maintaining power for those few at the top of the "food chain". Trait gladly sacrificed as many of his fellow citizens as he could get his hands on, to advance the "cause". The blood of his fellow Vietnamese was a cheap commodity and he had no problem spilling copious amounts of it, without feeling the slightest bit of remorse. All that mattered to him and the depraved devils he served was that their deaths advanced the communist agenda.

     That agenda relied heavily on "compelling optics" which could present the war in a way which furthered the goals of Trait's handlers in Hanoi. Sure, Dick and his boys were starting to become a "fly in the ointment" but ours was only one battalion. During the 1967-1968 period, Duan had decided to put on a series of "big battles" not just against "Dick and the boys in III Corps", but all over South Vietnam. They were keenly aware of the "favorable optics" which these "big battles" had the potential to create, especially when those "optics' could be transmitted behind the lines into their enemy's own living room, by powerful and very sympathetic "mass media" giants, like Walter Cronkite and Hollywood. Walter was "the most trusted man in America", and also a great asset to be exploited by Duan. Hanoi could always count on "good ole Walter" to show lot's of American blood being spilled during these "big battles" as well as the harming of Vietnamese civilians, caught up in events which resulted in them becoming collateral damage. He also was careful not to show too many dead bodies of NVA conscripts lying around, while, at the same time, disputing the reported numbers of Viet Cong killed, as being over-inflated. I was there and I know for a fact that those numbers were drastically under-inflated, not over-inflated. Walt was also amazingly proficient at ferreting out and reporting on every single mistake or immoral act we Americans committed, time and time again. "On the other hand" Hanoi could count on him to steer away from any in-depth reporting within the CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Groups) camps, where real eye witness accounts exposing the communist's systematic methods of mass murder and enslavement of civilians could be revealed in eye witness accounts. This little group of freedom fighters could describe the real horrors which were besetting the South Vietnamese people at the bequest of the Henchmen of Hanoi. In villages all over South Vietnam, innumerable atrocities were being inflicted on Vietnamese civilians, by not only blood thirsty communists, but also by the undisciplined South Vietnamese Army, itself. Dick Colby's CIDG multi-race jungle fighters (The best in the world at the time) led by our legendary special forces people were the ticket to protecting all of South Vietnam from the insurgency and bad leadership in the South Vietnamese Government. In other words they were the key to winning the war. However, American "new age bureaucrats" advising president Johnson would have none of that and here's why. How could most of them (not all) ever hope to obtain that next step to a rich life, if they did not provide a way to escalate the consumption of more and more war materials. Bigger battles meant a bigger war and a bigger war meant a bigger demand for all types of war materials. The very people who got richer as they received more and more lucrative government contracts, were also the same people, who were going to reward "top rung" Washington bureaucrats, who approved those contracts. It was a beautiful thing for a communist to behold and just the right sized "red flag" for Duan to get us American's to chase. Additionally, as this self-righteous American news media was becoming more and more deceived into becoming a propaganda machine for the communist party in Hanoi, it opened up all kinds of opportunities for a committed communist like Duan to take advantage of.

     Yes indeed. Duan's "big battles", could be just the thing to be turned into a powerful propaganda coup, especially with Walter's help. However, it was also sure to create "sore spots" which could fester and awaken us Americans up from our "foreign policy sleep" if these "sore spots" were not dealt with quickly. Cavazos and his boys were now becoming a "sore spot". Dick was proving to be as slippery as an eel and full of tricks, which certainly didn't provide for "good optics" for Hanoi. Worse yet, what if his kind of antics caught on and spread to other American units? "For one", this guy never allowed enough of his men to get shot to pieces for the cameras to exploit. Duan's field commanders needed to squash Dick before he gained any notoriety beyond his division. Fortunately the American news media was sympathetic enough to make that job a little easier, but still there was some work to be done just to be on the safe side. Yes, he and his boys were little more than a nuisance now, but Trait and his boss, Tran Van Tra knew they needed to focus on throwing everything they had at him just to keep it that way. He was bound to mess up sooner or later and they could count on Walter to be there with his cameras when he did. With this said, Dick had now, most certainly, become a marked man. Tran Van Tra and his field commanders would be gunning for him and his boys throughout the remainder of Operation Shenandoah until they could reduce him to a battered force which no one would want to emulate. Never mind the cost to their side. Their Vietnamese hostages would pay that price in many murderous ways and Duan could always count on Walter's cameras to never reveal that fact.