“We the People” Must Never Forget
(It is our soul, our fabric, who we are)
Each year at this time, I reflect back and remember the awful chain of events on that Memorial Day in 1966. I also wrote about them in my book Last Ride Home (FYI: Updated here on Kindle). Those events follow as best I recall are these and still fresh as ever:
Background to the Event: There was an interlude between Operation NEW YORK (on February 28, 1966 which was the day I was first wounded and evacuated for 45 days before returning to duty), and Operation JAY (South of Hue City).
We were told to continue conducting small unit patrols (squad and platoon level) to “sweep the villages” and keep our edge sharp and basically to fill the gap between those two operations as we continued to move more and more northward towards the DMZ and eventually that led to Operation HASTINGS (the biggest of the war at that time) in July-August 1966.
On one of those “sweeps” that ended for me and my platoon was on Memorial Day, May 29, 1966. We had just finished a couple days of patrolling in a nearby village east of the battalion temporary CP HQ located along Highway 1 just North of Hue City. This highway led right into the most-northern provinces, which further led into the DMZ, and then right on into North Vietnam.
We were packed up and were ready to pull out of the village and trade places with another platoon on their way to relieve us and also from Golf Company (Platoon Sergeant, SSgt. John Gaines, who was a very good friend of mine). I had been in radio contact with Gaines over the company radio net all morning briefing him. We exchanged information about the village and what was going on back at battalion. I told John what we had done and what we had seen and had not seen, namely no NVA.
Then I told him to be careful moving in from the direction he was moving in from because our look out had seen some movement up and around our positions earlier in the morning. I told him I didn't know what to make of it, but to be damn careful and alert. Gaines said roger, thanked me, and said he would relay the info to his Lieutenant. That was that.
My platoon: We had no Lieutenant at the time, so I was acting commander in that position and had been since January 1966, soon after Operation HARVEST MOON soon affer we came ashore for permanent duty for the rest of that year.
We had just pulled out of the village and started up a long dusty road leading back to the battalion perimeter, which was some 2,000 yards ahead of us. Then once again, as before, my point Marine spotted a group of NVA moving across our path what looked like the same path Gaines and his platoon would be coming down that led into the same village we had just left. I got back on the radio and called for artillery and mortar fire on them.
The fire was effective because after we reached the spot where our rounds had hit, we found numerous body parts and some NVA combat gear - but that was it. I initially thought we had spoiled their plans, so I passed that information along to John Gaines. I told him we had hit them but that I didn't know if it was the front or rear or any size unit. Then I reminded him one more time to be very alert. I told him where we had seen them and the direction they were heading, but didn't know much beyond that. He acknowledged my advice and said again, “Roger, I'll tell the actual (his lieutenant), thanks, out.” His radio went silent. We continued on our route back to the battalion CP.
We had no sooner returned to the perimeter and started dropping our gear, than a call for help came across the battalion radio net from Gaines' platoon. Almost at once, we could hear mortar and machine fire coming from the village we had just left. It seem that Echo Company, who also had been moving back to the CP, was ordered back to assist Gaines and his platoon in the village.
One of Echo's platoons was led by Staff Sergeant (later promoted to Gunnery Sergeant) Jim MacKenna. Off they charged into the village from the southwest side as Gaines was on the northeast side. I don't know exactly what happened in between the two platoons, but it turned out to be a mess. While all that was going on, my platoon was ordered to saddle up and get ready to move back into the area and provide support.
We did end up going back in after things seemed to have settled down, about two hours later. Then the battle damage assessment started coming in over the radios. It was awful: Echo Company had eight Marines killed, including Jim MacKenna, with half a dozen wounded.
In Golf Company, John Gaines was alive, but he had lost 13 Marines in his platoon. Included in his count were many left over from the original Fox Company that I had served with and knew quite well.
One of those losses was especially hard for us all. It was the loss was Lance Corporal Billy Joe Holt (Cameron, TX). He was probably the best machine gunner in Fox Company who had been trained by Frank Pruitt.
Also killed along with Holt were Dave Brandon (Lake Oswego, OR); Gordy Briggs (Seattle, WA); Jim Briles (who had been in country only a month from Portland, OR); Tom Britton (Great Neck, NY); and R. B. Marchbanks (Moriarty, NM). The other seven killed were so new and had just joined Golf from other units that I hardly had a chance to know them very well. With those losses it just about wiped out the original Fox Company ever since we had arrived in VN from Camp Pendleton back in September 1965.
I had a chance to meet up and talk to John Gaines later about what had happened. He told me he had relayed my info to his lieutenant and my warning, but that the lieutenant didn't seem to have cared or didn't believe our report. John said that Lt. always did things his own way and seldom listened to the NCO's. Unfortunately, the lieutenant paid a heavy price for that style of arrogance. He was shot two or three times in his back and buttocks, but he lived.
As best as we all could piece together what happened was this:
A larger group of NVA had slipped into the village from another direction and were unseen by anyone, even as my platoon was heading the other direction. They apparently were not part of ones I had called fire on earlier.
It seems they managed to set up a very elaborate “Horseshoe” shaped ambush in and around the village and along the trail that Gaines was entering in on. When Gaines and his platoon got in the center of the ambush site, the NVA opened up and the shit hit the fan from three sides. There was no escape. The NVA had a turkey shoot.
Then as Echo Company entered from the rear of the horseshoe ambush and unbeknownst to them, they too entered the trap and were cut to ribbons.
Not only was the day bad for the number of our losses, both killed and wounded, but the fact that it was on Memorial Day, and after a thorough sweep of the village area we found only one dead NVA soldier. Whether there were more that had been dragged away or hidden we never found out - that was the NVA's style to never leave traces of their losses.
We did find plenty of NVA machine gun cartridges and different firing positions all around. That indicated that they had had a large and strong force. Most of them slipped out just as easily as they slipped in during the mass confusion. The NVA won a big victory that day. They lost only one soldier that knew about and we had lost 20. The lesson was simple: One young Lieutenant didn't listen to their seasoned sergeant and they paid a heavy price.
In the whole mess, one hero did stand out, however. That was Lance Corporal Paul McGee, also left over from Fox Company. Paul was a classic Marine, great in the field and in tactics but a real shirt bird in garrison, but we all liked him in spite of his shortcomings because he was just plain likable.
Paul was shot three times that day and each time the NVA shot him, he got madder and fought harder especially after he saw Billy Holt killed since they had been the best of friends. Gaines said McGee went nearly berserk when he saw Billy Joe killed as he fired on the NVA.
McGee was wounded pulling Holt back from where he had fallen. No one could confirm for sure, but indications are that McGee alone killed a dozen NVA by himself while being shot in the leg, chest, and thigh. The NVA were notorious for not leaving any of their dead on the battlefield as I said so that count remained unknown. I figure that day they employed their best plan that included removing or hiding all their dead - and it worked.
Paul McGee was awarded a Silver Star for his actions that day. I wish I had seen his acts so I could have written him up for something higher. I'm sure he deserved it. As I said before, the Marine Corps was very stingy on their awards in the early days of the war. That stinginess would stay with us for years. We all knew it, but accepted that fact of life nevertheless as we did our duty.
We moved on a few days later - going towards the DMZ and Operation HASTINGS which would be worse – far worse.
ALDON M ASHERMAN JR, HM3, Age 20, Towanda, PA
DAVID B BRANDON JR, PFC, Age 19, Lake Oswego, OR
GORDON M BRIGGS, PFC, Age 19, Seattle, WA
JAMES W BRILES, PFC, Age 20, Portland, OR
THOMAS W BRITTON JR, PFC, Age 19, Great Neck, NY
ROBERT A CORKILL, LCpl, Age 20, San Benito, TX
RICHARD E CROWE, LCpl, Age 20, Long Beach, CA
JAMES R HEATH, LCpl, Age 19, Bala Cynwyd, PA
BILLY J HOLT, LCpl, Age 21, Cameron, TX
DAVID W JOHNSTON, PFC, Age 19, Tucson, AZ
JAMES J MAC KENNA, SSgt, Age 37, Denver, CO
R B MARCHBANKS JR, PFC, Age 23, Moriarty, NM
JERRY L NOLAND, LCpl, Age 19, Houston, TX
ERNEST G PAUL, PFC, Age 22, Concord, NH
RONALD RALICH, PFC, Age 19, Lorain, OH
ROY J RICHARD, PVT, Age 19, Lafayette, LA
EDWARD C SEXTON, PFC, Age 23, New Buffalo, MI
WALTER B STEVENS, Sgt, Age 25, San Diego, CA
JAMES H STEWART JR, PFC, Age 19, Columbus, OH
CHARLES E WALKER, LCpl, Age 22, Magnolia, ARKENNETH W WICKEL, Cpl, Age 21, West Lawn, PA