At around 1800 we started receiving incoming artillery rounds. I was at the new camp eating dinner and at 1830 I went back to the old camp, by jeep, accompanied by SP4 Johnson. The artillery kept up until dark.
Shortly after 0015 on February 7, 1968 Sgt. Ashley sent Joel Johnson Ashley’s/my bunker to wake me up and notify me that there were “tanks” at the wire. I told Johnson to quit screwing around because I had just gotten to sleep. He said he was serious and ran out of the bunker. I looked around and saw that Ashley was gone. I thought “this ain’t Kansas no more Dorothy”.
Once topside Ashley brought me current with the attack situation. Apparently Col. Shunghel had requested support from Khe Sanh almost immediately.
I was getting antsy from feeling helpless, and asked Ashley, what can I do? He told me he wanted the Laotian Colonel to get us some illumination so that we could access the situation. He said that he had asked the Laotian Colonel but hadn’t gained any cooperation. He sent me to communicate to the Laotian Colonel that we needed illumination over both camps.
When I got to the Laotian Colonel’s bunker I found his bodyguard standing in front of the bunker door. He was rather an ominous looking fella, who for some strange reason couldn’t understand my English, and would have understood less of my use of the Laotian language. So, I used plan B, I shoved him aside and kicked in the door. I found the Laotian Colonel standing there with a beautiful local woman, which I assumed she was his concubine, because no introductions were made. I shouted that we needed illumination now and we needed his presence topside. The Colonel just stood there, and once again I went to plan B. I took out my 45 cal., put a round in the chamber, shoved the 45 under his chin and said if I didn’t see illumination in the air in the next few minutes I would be back and blow his fucking head off. (Please note that in calmer moments, such as sitting by my barbeque roasting a Tri-tip, I might have chosen a calmer way to request his support.)
Within a few short minutes we had illumination so we could make some since at who to shoot at. Spooky arrived about 0130 and started dropping flares, but wouldn’t come down close enough to fire his guns. Khe Sahn also started dropping illumination rounds at around 0130, and now the Laotians were manning their 81s.
From our position we saw 2 tanks, one on the North and one on the South sides of the new camp, firing at everything in between. We could also see several tip flares going off around the camp. Spooky dropped a few funny bombs at the Eastern slope of the helicopter pad.
At 0330 B 52’s arrived to make bombing run’s on Co Roc.
The new camp started receiving H.E. rounds from Khe Sanh but they were hitting directly into the camp, so they were discontinued.
Around 0400 we lost contact with the new camp. Since we were unable to reach any ranking officer at the new camp, Ashley, the senior NCO at the old camp, took over the leadership role.
Then 2 skyhawks came online and we called strafing runs and B.T.V. Now we could only here sporadic fire coming from the camp.
The night had started out nice and clear, but by early light visibility became somewhat limited. Just prior to dawn villagers from Lang Vei were trying to get into the old camp, and we had to persuade the Laotian Col. To keep the villagers out. We also got word from the FAC that the NVA were sited heading towards us.
At 0645 we heard from McMurry, and informed him we were on our way. The Laotians had around 400 troops and with the Colonel a little more cooperative now, Ashley was able to get about 100 guys to hit the new camp. As we started out we were joined by about 20 CIDG, whom we persuaded to assist us in getting out their, and our comrades.
Ashley with Johnson, and me then led this small attack force to attack the enemy at the new camp. By early daylight we were on route 6 moving to the new camp. Ashley had the radio and was in contact with the FAC overhead and Frank Dooms in the bunker.
We progressed up route 6 and entered the new camp. Once we got to the new camp we were able to see first hand, the results of the prior night’s attack. Via the FAC we were able to have the all important Eye in the sky to let us know when NVA were moving toward us and in what general direction. Ashley had gotten in contact with Frank Dooms, in the bunker, identified that there were 8 men (Frank Dooms, Moreland, Nick Fragos, Capt. Willowby, Lt. Longrier, John Early, Brooks, Emanuel Phillips,) isolated in remains of that underground facility. This was our only contact with the men at the new camp. Ashley determined that getting the men out of the bunker, be our first objective.
Ashley ordered us to spread out and begin our first assault. Although the vegetation outside the camp was thick and lush, inside the camp it was rather sparse and barren. Essentially we stood out against the terrain, in our camouflage uniforms. We started our assaults at the edge of the camp nearest highway 6. The terrain sloped upwards toward the TOC bunker, where 8 SF soldiers were trapped. I had only been at the camp for 5 days and spent 95% of my time at the old camp thus I was unfamiliar with the specifics of the camp, i.e. the exact location of the TOC. I just knew to keep going till we found them.
My M2 carbine jammed, and I got really pissed. I grabbed it by the barrel and wrapped it around a bunker. I looked around for a weapon from one of the dead, and realized I had plenty of choices. I found a BAR, ammo and some grenades and we continued the assault, with Ashley leading from the center of the skirmish line. I chose the BAR because I felt it had a more lasting impression than another carbine.
We crouched slightly, to lower our profile, as we began our assent. The machine gun fire was somewhat minimal at the base of the hill, but increased with intensity as we gained ground. As we moved up the hill we stepped over numerous dead, from both sides, who had fallen in the initial hand-to-hand fighting with the tanks and assaulting troops.
Once we started receiving heavy machine gun fire, the Laotians halted their participation in the assault, ran back down the hill, leaving Ashley, Johnson and myself stranded. I hadn’t paid attention I guess, but I realized I was leading the assault (I guess I had forgotten my training again). I found out subsequently that the main machine gun we were facing was the one that had previously been turned on the men in the bunker. In addition to the machine gun fire, the NVA were tossing American hand grenades at us (and they had boxes full). I got a little upset each time that good old U.S. technology got tossed in my face.
We were between the proverbial rock and a hard place, we were unable to get up and run because they were spraying us with waist high machine gun fire, and we could not lie where we were at because they were tossing hand grenades at us. We were down hill so the hand grenades would roll at us like a bowling ball towards bowling pins. Since debris and bunkers separated us I could not see how Ashley or Johnson was able to get back down the hill. I remembered rolling down hills as a kid for fun, and thought, what the heck, it might work here. I tucked the bar against my chest and started rolling down the hill, going over dead bodies, some with field jackets lined with explosives, and some faceless souls who had lost theirs in the heat of battle.
We re-grouped at the end of the first assault and I found Ashley and Johnson trying to use a 60mm mortar, which been blown away from its base. Ashley was working on getting the mortar rounds prepped and Johnson, balancing the mortar against his boot, used his belt as the aiming device for the mortar. After a few misaimed rounds, Johnson went back to the old camp to find a recoilless rifle to bring in some fire to the new camp.
I was able to convince (think Plan B) the remaining Laotians that they might survive the battle by joining Ashley and I as we made our second assault on the camp. Again we received the machine gun fire as before and Ashley had us re-group at the bottom of the hill. Peter Tiroch, and William Craig now joined us. We started seeing Colonel Schungel and some of the other guys who were wounded, and re-directed them back to the old camp.
Crouching, and then crawling, we made another assault. The cracking of automatic fire and the sounds of the periodic ricochets and exploding grenades heightened our anxiety. The automatic fire was now joined by 81mm and 60mm fire. I forgot to mention the wonderful feeling derived from the view and fragrance lying all around me, that of dead bodies riveted with automatic fire, or torn apart from explosions, (I don’t know what Ashley and Johnson were feeling during these moments, but if fear was present, it was hidden quite deeply, because it was not apparent in their voices or actions.) I think that Ashley’s calmness and ability to give direct orders gave me the continued confidence to continue our efforts to relieve the beleaguered men in the bunker.
As I crawled my way up that hillside I tried to go over in my mind, all the courses that I had been given to that point. One of the courses I remembered was the one where the instructors used live ammo and shot over our heads. I thought to myself, today isn’t too much different, except the height of the fire will be lower to the ground and more closely targeted to us. I think that I knew how a mouse felt when a room full of cats is chasing him. You wonder, is this the right direction, or have I moved directly into a clear line of enemy fire. Still we inched our way forward until the grenades started falling all around us.
Johnson and Tiroch grabbed a 60mm mortar and tried to return fire. They didn’t seem to be getting anywhere, so Johnson went to the old camp to get a 57 recoilless rifle.
Ashley, Johnson, myself, and Craig and Tiroch continued making assaults on the hill, running up against continued machine gun fire, until Ashley was shot. (No sense describing the detail, it was just duck, shoot, and crawl, run, etc. through each assault.) Although I don’t remember during which advancement to the rear, I found myself running through tangle foot and getting all cut up when I fell in it.
Johnson returned with a 57 recoilless rifle, and on our 4th assault and knocked out the first bunker.
On the last assault, we had gotten further into the camp than on the other assaults. Somewhere in the course of the battle I had asked Ashley to stay behind me. I had felt that if I got shot, he could at least call for help, and I also remembered that Ashley had a family. As we shot our way up the hill, I ran out of ammo and had to re-load. I bent over to reload my BAR and Ashley caught a round through the button on the right side pocket on his shirt. I had been standing about one pace in front of him and one pace to the right; I guess it just wasn’t my day. The round went through Ashley’s body and passed through his radio. The radio still worked, so I contacted the FAC to let him know that Ashley had been hit.
For me the battlefield sounds fell silent, and the battle itself had stopped. Ashley lie mortally wounded at my side with a through and through sucking chest wound, and now I had to make use of my medical training. I prayed that I remembered every hour of medical training that I had gone through and that I could apply the appropriate medical response. I don’t know if I made the correct choice according to Army regulations. I have asked myself every day of my life, “What is the appropriate time to kill, and what is the appropriate time to save a man’s life”, during battle? There are no time outs, no mulligans.
The enemy fire went silent as I applied a medical field dressing, to the point of entrance and used the plastic wrapping to cover the exit wound. After I had applied the dressing, I picked up Ashley, his radio and both our weapons, and carried them down the hill until my knees dropped from exhaustion. I was able to get some Laotians to create a make shift stretcher out of a poncho liner and weapons, and we carried him to a jeep where I placed Ashley. I drove Ashley to the old camp and found Johnson. Ashley had lost consciousness but still appeared to be alive. I had Johnson get some D5W and bandages, etc. However at his return, a couple of incoming artillery rounds (could have been from the tanks, I do not remember) came in blowing both Johnson and I to the ground. When I opened my eyes I was lying half under the jeep, and saw a chunk of shrapnel lying next to my wrist and realized I was about 2 inches away from losing my left hand. (Fortunately I was right handed.) I got up and saw Johnson staggering towards me. I told Johnson to hurry up and quit screwing around. At that moment John’s body twisted like a pretzel, he dropped bandages and D5W and collapsed. I now had seconds to decide what to do next. I also realized that I couldn’t hear, that last shell had cost me hearing. I had Ashley lying in the jeep with a sucking chest wound, and Johnson lying on the ground unconscious. According to “the book” place your efforts to the man who is more likely to live. Although Johnson was unconscious, I was able to keep him alive by giving him external cardiac massage, mouth-to-mouth recitation and shoving an IV, meant for Ashley, into his veins. There seemed to be other cries for a medic but I was working on Johnson and I was not able to return to Ashley. When I looked up from treating Johnson, I was reminded of Custer’s last stand. I saw all the guys bandaged up leaning against a bunker, with weapons in hand ready to take on one more charge. I think it had been Nick Fragos who had taken care of bandaging the rest of the guys, I don’t know, I was deep in my own shit. Then it started, I seem to remember the damn hand grenades again, this time being tossed up at as from on oncoming assault. I looked around and wasn’t sure how long we could fight off the assault on the old camp. I am not sure who was in charge, but no one seemed to be telling me what to do, I had to rely on instinct and training.
The next thing I knew I looked up in the sky and saw a couple of Phantoms coming in, and a sky full of choppers behind (Think of Apocalypse Now). I felt like kissing the ass of the Phantom Pilots, on Sunset and Vine.
With the choppers coming in, my role changed. I got Johnson on the chopper, and was aided by Frankie Dooms to get other wounded men on the choppers as well. The rule was wounded men first. I had to stand there and bash a lot of Laotian heads in to keep that rule. Finally I ran out of gas and remember falling to my knees. Frankie was trying to get me into the chopper but I didn’t seem to have any energy left. The next thing I remember was a blast from an AK47 hitting the dirt near me, shit I could have qualified for the 100mm dash, because I was on the chopper.
Sgt. Ashley led us through 5 assaults directing our actions, all the while reassuring to our team members in the bunker that we would get them out alive and working with the FAC overhead to coordinate air power efforts. Sgt. Ashley fell while at my side. I feel honored to have worked along side a man who overcame any concern for his personal well being to face the enemy, at overwhelming odds, in an effort to regain control of the camp and free our team members.
Having to choose who lives and who dies is the worst experience of my life… I would not want to be God and have to make those choices. I seek forgiveness every day for Ashley’s death, and find there is none to be given.
I feel that our actions were based on a goal orientation vs. fear motivation. Fear and logic might have caused us to go in an opposing direction.