Sunday, February 26, 2017

Vietnam War: February 28, 1966 (Monday) and Operation NEW YORK

2nd Battalion, 1st Marines
(The Professionals) 
(The Enemy Called us Ghosts hence the name stuck)

Author (left) and fellow Sgt. Steve Feliciano 
(Going to Chow: Early January 1966, Phu Bai, South of Hue City and DMZ)

Our Marine infantry battalion (2nd BN, 1st Marines) arrived in-country in Vietnam in early September 1965 off-shore on helicopter carriers and operated off-shore until we came ashore in late December 1965 after Operation HARVEST MOON. The battalion conducted intensive ground combat operations until April 1971 when it returned to the United States.

Monday, February 28, 1966 is still a melancholy date for me each year. It was the day I was first wounded during Operation NEW YORK up North in the Phu Bai area of operation (A/O). That same day we had 18 Marines and Corpsman killed in action and numerous wounded (about 30 plus).

All the reports that I have read since (like here in part) regarding that operation have said that we killed over 200 North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers who belonged to a “fresh” unit from North Vietnam and newly arrived in the area, which was not far from the DMZ dividing the two countries. Our BN was in fact the most-northern combat unit at the time. The NVA had been infiltrating from North Vietnam and all intelligence indicated that they were planning on attacking us in the Phu Bai area. But, we struck first.

As I said at the time, we were the most northern Marine infantry unit. We were slowly moving north towards the DMZ and in fact would end up fighting there in July 1966 during Operation HASTING – one the largest combat operations at the time. We had one major encounter in June 1966 during Operation JAY along the way just south of the ancient city of Hue (later badly damaged during the 1968 TET offensive) which was not far from Phu Bai. 

After that dreadful day, the last day in February and after a really intense battle, I was “Medevaced” to our battalion aid station (BAS) for initial treatment. From there, along with many others, we were flown to the joint hospital in Danang. Then from there many of us were flown out to the Navy hospital ship, the USS Repose (AH-8) for more surgery and recovery while afloat. I stayed on the ship for about 40 days and then I returned to the unit in mid-April 1966. Returning was a joyful time for me, being all healed and ready for duty and then finding out after I arrived back at my unit (Golf Company) that I had been promoted to Staff Sergeant, effective April 1, 1966. That was a big and welcomed surprise. 

Our unit had held various ceremonies to remember all those who died that day. I knew almost everyone well dating back to our time at Camp Pendleton where we trained before our deployment. They gave their all as Marines are proud to say. Here is that list of honored names:

1.  PFC Roger Bulifant, Belleville, MI, age: 18
2.  Cpl Henry “Sunny” Casebolt, St. Joseph, MO, age: 24 (Awarded Navy Cross)
3.  PFC Warren Lee Christensen, Hooper, UT, age: 19 
4.  LCpl Bill Foran, Decatur, IL, age: 20 (died of wounds: March 1st)
5.  PFC Bill Fuchs, Milwaukee, WI, age: 20
6.  Cpl Charley Johnson, Batavia, IL, age: 21
7.  PFC Bob Knutson, Norfolk, VA, age: 21
8.  PFC Jim Laird, Davenport, IA, age: 21
9.  LCpl Larry MacDonald, Detroit, MI, age: 21
10.  SSgt Ed McCarthy, Chicago, IL, age: 37
11.  LCpl Andy McGuire, Chicago, IL, age: 23
12.  PFC Jim McLemore, Knoxville, TN, age: 23
13.  LCpl Mark Morgan, San Bruno, CA, age: 19
14.  PFC Miguel E. Naranjo, Pueblo, CO, age: 18
15.  PFC Richard Nugent, Westwood, NJ, age: 19
16.  LCpl Art Pederson, Minneapolis, MN, age: 19
17.  PFC Darrell Ray, Olympia, WA, age: 18
18.  PFC Jose Torres, Sinton, TX, age: 21

I told the story of Operation NEW YORK in my book, which is the same story the fallen can never tell, so I tried to tell it for them. This is as best as I remember that dreadful day as I describe in my book:

As I said, Fox Company’s strength continued to dwindle right up to the end of February 1966. But, by mid-February, I had been transferred from Fox to Golf Company (1stLt. Charles C. Krulak, Commanding). Fox had beefed up when some Marines from Fox 2/7 became Marines of Fox 2/1 with the stroke of an admin officer's pen. My move to Golf was not unusual in those days due to NCO shortages, and since I was a senior Sergeant, I took over a platoon in Golf Company where they were short Sergeants. Operation New York was one of those famous quickly-named operations (not well-planned in advance with some fancy name and lots of units lined up). Those kinds were famous for being put together in a short period of time, and usually when events went sour and employment was needed quickly – Operation New York was no exception to that rule.

At any given time, there were always some major ARVN and PF units operating in and around our base at Phu Bai. Since we were relatively new to that northern area and still learning the terrain, the ARVN units worked closely with us to help us get to know the area and lay of the land. We were the only major U.S. combat unit that far north of Danang and that close to the DMZ, thus we had to rely heavily on ARVN and PF intelligence for anything about the NVA and VC. The PF units were actually a raggedy bunch (more like local militia than first rate Army units). They were not well armed or equipped, but they bled and died like anyone else. I give them credit; they tried hard, and we liked them in own silly way.

One afternoon, reports started coming in about an ARVN unit and a bunch of PF's who had engaged a large NVA unit east of Phu Bai. We were put on alert, which meant to "stand by" (I hated that word stand by). That meant we might have to go help them or block for them on short notice. All day we prepared and waited and waited and prepared all over again right until early that evening when it looked like we'd have to wait and go the next day. We started settling down for the night even as reports kept flying in all night.

I had actually just gone to sleep when around 2200 hours (10 p.m.) I was shaken out of my cot and told "we're mounting out." Mounting out, I said, oh, shit, it's midnight. Midnight or not, we saddled up and moved to the LZ (a huge empty sandy area where 'choppers would land, pick us up and head off to who knew where). We loaded up and had little idea of what lie ahead. I remember that we didn't get much of a briefing. We were told to expect more after we arrived at the scene early in the morning. We loaded aboard CH-46 choppers and took off – it really was just after midnight, February 28, 1966.

We flew for about 20 to 30 minutes, and then we started circling for what seemed like a very long time. Then we started to descend into our LZ. This landing was a Marine Corps classic, and a Marine Corps first we later learned.

The first infantry battalion to attack at midnight by helicopter. The landing was uneventful, although a bit scary. Two CH-46's - Sea Stallions (the new, twin-rotor birds that replaced the old single engine H-34's) hovered overhead with their huge landing lights shining down below on the rice paddies as the rest of the 'choppers sat down and dropped us off. That part was the scary part. I imagined that if there were any NVA here, we're dead ducks with all this illumination. All they would have to do is start shooting at the bottom of the light and follow it up to the waiting birds like a step ladder. There they were bound to get lucky and hit any one of us. But, luckily it did not happen. Things went very smoothly, not to the surprise of everyone. The NVA must have seen us, got scared and ran away I kept thinking. We found out later that we actually hadn't landed very close to where the fighting was in the first place. That meant we would have to hump there and attack or block at daybreak. Here we go again – attack at dawn. In an ironic way, our first night assault went off without a hitch, except for missing some sleep!

We assembled as fast as we could before the last bird flew away taking the last of the light. It was pitch black and I mean pitch black. You couldn't even see your hand in front of your face it was so dark. We couldn't see shit. Man oh man, was it dark! All we could do was spread out, keep close as possible, set night watches, and try to grab some sleep as best we could. Daylight was not far away.

At first light, we wolfed down some C-rations; dry brushed our teeth, pissed, and started saddling up. Then came our new orders: “Sweep forward and help the ARVN and PF units as needed. They would do the heavy lifting, we would support and block. End of orders.” Well, that sounded simple enough. We would block and shoot VC and NVA as they were pushed toward us. Hey, no sweat, now maybe we could get revenge for Harvest Moon. It all sounded easy enough, but I also knew these things sometimes turn sour quickly.

I thought that the fighting this time would be on our terms and not on their terms. But, wouldn’t you know it: Murphy dropped by and decided to screw up things only as Murphy can. He dropped off one of his famous Murphy laws and totally whacked us! Murphy as everyone knows always has plenty to say about changing events. Things like, “If it can go wrong, it will go wrong.” Damn, you Murphy. At the time, I hated remembering Murphy and for all he stood for. 

[Click photo for larger image]

We had moved about a thousand meters or so without any resistance and without hearing any gunfire. Maybe the ARVN and PF units were still asleep, or maybe the NVA and VC slipped away overnight. But, at the same time, I kept thinking, where in the hell are the ARVN and PF units anyway? Maybe the NVA and VC didn't slip out at night. Who needed so much help in the first place? What's really going on here? We kept spread out and kept moving forward. We were on line and just stopped facing a huge tree line 300-500 yards ahead on the edge of the fairly dried out rice paddies. 

Left to right we had Echo Company, then Hotel Company, and then our Golf, and anchored on our right flank was my old unit, Fox Company. So, on that line we had four Marine rifle companies with about 400 Marines lined up neat ready to block and kick some NVA I’m sure we all thought as the VN units pushed them towards us – the plan we had been told. Lying there, smoking a cig and wait for a long time it seems and still nothing, not a damn thing. Where were they? We heard no air or artillery fire – nothing – eerie to say the least I remember thinking. We were just 400 Marine “grunts” waiting on God only knew.

We were enjoying that smoke break when a single rifle shot rang out up ahead. Everyone hit the deck. Then we looked around at each other with the same question was on everyone's mind: “What the hell was that? What did it mean? Who shot at whom?” Many of our eyes asked each other that same question. What did it mean, if it meant anything? Was it a misfire, an accidental discharge, or some kind of signal? No one said anything, we just wondered collectively and stayed alert.

Slowly we got up and started to move slowly forward when the whole damn place opened up in a hail of bullets. Well then knew where the enemy was! Some of us hit the deck and started firing straight ahead, others started running for cover. Many others just fell dead right where they stood. It looked like another fucking mess in the making. Marines all around were running and falling, some dead, some wounded, others taking up firing positions. No one was counting, but the numbers of those not moving seemed to be growing fast. I raced forward only a few meters. Marines were falling all around me. I stopped, hit the ground again and continued to fire straight ahead not knowing if my fire was effective or not.

The enemy fire was intense and from all accounts, very effective. I saw our choices go from slim to none in a flash. In retrospect, we had several options: stop, get down and hope for the best; or get down, lay there and probably get killed; or continue charging onward and die while taking some with us; or, finally run like hell towards the enemy hoping not to die, and if we made it, take as many of them with us before they took us with them. None of those choices were good ones, but there was no time for debate. All these thoughts went through my head in about one minute. Any choice, either way, life and death looked like the only choices following any course of action we chose. Thanks goodness, I didn't have to make a choice – it was made for us. Lying there for only a few minutes seemed like a lifetime, and then I heard my Lieutenant, Terry Moulton (from New York City), shout over on my left side.

Moulton leaped up on a paddy dike, pulled out his pistol and K-bar knife and started screaming something at the time I wasn't quite sure what. Then his words rang clear. “Fuck this shit, let's go. Charge!” My first thought was Moulton, you asshole, what the Hell are you doing?” But, it didn't matter what I thought, or what his words were, it worked. We all seemed to be motivated about our predicament at the same time. We leaped up and started charging and screaming at the top of our lungs as we headed straight for the tree lines into the withering fire. Something dramatically happened at the exact moment we started to rush the tree line, the firing all stopped for a brief moment in time. It was as if shock hit the NVA all at once and they panicked right there in their trenches as they saw us screaming and charging straight at them. I know they were stunned because I was stunned myself.

I continued running and shooting as fast I could while dodging straight ahead. I wanted to take as many of them with me as possible before they got me, because surely if I lay there, I was going to die and I knew today was my day on Earth.

I glanced over and saw one of our platoon sergeants, a huge Hawaiian, Sergeant Napoleon (we all naturally called him Pineapple). As soon as Moulton yelled, Pineapple also jumped up, pulled his pistol, pointed to the tree line, and started screaming the most blood-curling things I ever heard, but mostly in Hawaiian. I didn't understand a damn word of what he was shouting, but I'm sure it was a "Hawaiian blue streak or something plenty nasty." Maybe that's why the enemy stopped firing for a brief moment. But, that didn't last long. No sooner had he shouted at the NVA than they fired at him and a bullet slit his right index finger. That was huge mistake, now he was one really pissed. He started shouting and swearing and pointing all the while he looked around for part of his finger tip. I don't think he found it, but he kept screaming anyway and at the same time started his charge toward the tree line again and then the rest of us joined in without a second thought. It was wild, complete madness and aggressive. There were many stories about that day and about the way we attacked that tree line under such heavy fire. I heard about one story right after I returned from the hospital.

Apparently there had been an Army “O-1 Bird Dog” aircraft overhead with an Army Major working as air controller, even though things were so close he couldn't call in air support. I guess he tried several times to get air on board, but couldn't. He was reported to have said he had never seen anything like that in his entire life. Hundreds of screaming Marines racing across a rice paddy with fixed bayonets rushing a tree line filled with machine guns and NVA. It said it was right out of a war movie. The Marines, he was quoted as saying were: “Magnificent, simply magnificent.” I think he was right about that that day. We did do a good job, but it cost us dearly.

In retrospect, I don't know how long that charge actually lasted, but it seemed like forever. Any amount of time in close combat seems like an eternity in slow motion at times. At one point, we got very close to the tree line and could see the enemy dashing back and forth, raising up to shoot at us then ducking back down before raising up again like those pop up targets you see at a carnival. Some of our Marines jumped in the NVA trenches ahead of the rest of us and started hand-to-hand combat. They grabbed the NVA by the head, neck, or throat and commenced to beat them to death with anything they had in their hands. Some used their bayonets; others choked them to death or beat them with their rifle butts. It was something right out of WW II - something we had never experienced till that time. We were getting revenge for the beatings months ago and especially during our bloodbath on Harvest Moon.

At one point, I managed to crawl up behind a Buddhist grave where I could take up a good firing position. I continued picking off as many as I could. Those graves are hard-packed mounds of dirt and sand, were anywhere from 2-3 feet in diameter to slightly bigger. It provided a good firing position, but not much cover and almost no concealment, but I didn't care; it fit my need just fine at the time. Suddenly I saw a NVA soldier jump up right in front me about 25 yards away and throw what looked like two or three hand grenades straight toward me.

Just as he threw them, he started to duck back down, but he never made it. Staff Sergeant Reed from 1st Platoon mowed him down with a Thompson machine gun he had managed to "borrow" from a Tank crew member (the Thompson was something the infantry guys didn't normally carry). Reed got him, but he was little late. The NVA soldier got several of us. He accomplished his mission just before he went off to wherever NVA soldiers go off to. His two hand grenades got me and several others nearby. One grenade landed between the legs of one of the Corpsman who was on my left. I don't even remember his name, he was hurt real bad – and so was I.

I took pieces of shrapnel in my left thigh, left arm, left shoulder, forehead, and left eye. Oddly enough at the time with all the excitement and blast and noise from those hand grenades, I didn't even know I was hit until as I was helping patch up the Doc, I noticed blood on my thigh. I wiped it off, and as I did, I felt the pain in my leg. Then I felt the other wounds as well, and then I realized that the blood on me was my own and not the Doc's as I originally thought. Funny how fear works in moments like that. I was seriously wounded and didn’t even know it for a few minutes. After seeing the wounds, I began to feel them. There wasn't a lot of pain, but it hurt nonetheless. I think I must have looked worse than I really was with the blood running down my face and arm and hand. Then I saw my arm I felt that pain but not before. Then it started to look bad with all the blood even to me. I started to worry because I didn't know how bad I really was. I didn't know how many other places I had been hit. I started to feel helpless. Then I thought, it doesn't matter, I'm alive and that meant a great deal at the time. I got the “million-dollar wound and I'm going home, I thought!”

The question remained, how in the hell do I get out of here and go home to enjoy my rebirth. That little matter would take some time because we still up to our asses in NVA. The worst fighting continued to our right for some time between Fox Company and the NVA. Their side turned out to be the center of the main NVA force. Fox like so many other time, ended up in lots of trouble and suffered lots of casualties. That day, Fox lost 14 killed, and WIA died the next day, LCpl Bill Foran from Decatur, Illinois. Fox also had the most wounded. In fact, Fox ended up with about 75% casualties. Many of the wounded in Golf were serious wounds like the Doc and me; others less serious. I could walk even with my multiple wounds — they were bad, but not life-threatening.

Echo Company had one killed. Golf had no one killed and I still can't figure that out with all the shit that was flying that day. Hotel Company had one non-combat related death. Their First Sergeant died of a heart attack in the heat of the battle. A couple of hours into the fighting things actually slowed down. I didn't know if it was because we killed them all or if they managed to run away to the rear, or were they regrouping and rearming to counter attack? As it turned out, we had killed most of them, well over 200 it was later confirmed (no estimates, real dead bodies). We had beaten the shit out of two brand new NVA battalions. They had not even seen combat until that day and we managed to kill most of them. Two full NVA battalion-sized units hit us, and with only our small arms, machine guns, knives, and bare hands we killed over 200 of them.

But, as I said, we paid a heavy price. Fox Company was wiped out, virtually off the active duty rolls. Fox really hadn't been at full strength since Operation Harvest Moon and now this operation finished them off. All that was left was to convert them into one of those small CAC units a few days later.

During the lull, Lt. Moulton ordered me from the battlefield as the first wave of Medevac helicopters started arriving. I told him no, I was staying and that I wasn't as bad as I looked. I didn't refuse to go because I was a hero or anything like that. I wanted to stay and help clean up and kick a few more NVA asses myself. Although it sounded both foolish and hateful, I wanted revenge for Harvest Moon just like everyone else. Not only that, but I saw a couple of the choppers take fire as they approached and I damn sure didn't want to die in a fiery crash while getting lifted from the battle field, so I said no, I'm staying because the ground at that point seemed safer than being in the air. Moulton insisted and he told me to help with the wounded and get "out of there, now." I picked up the Doc and my gear and started crawling back to where one of the birds was about to sit down. It landed safely and we piled on and moved to the rear as others were trying to get on. We lifted off and as the pilot was pulling the nose up and starting to turn toward what I guessed was Phu Bai, when we took fire.

The pilot was hit, but no one else. Oddly enough, I had a chance to meet him in a bar one night in Okinawa while I waiting to fly home, (his name was 1stLt. Brown). He got hit in the upper thigh with the bullet lodging in his groin, and at the same time it nicked a small piece off his penis. I asked him how he was doing and he said, "Hey all my parts are working and I'm out here 'test firing' my gun" he said with a great big smile while holding a girl on each arm.

As soon as I heard the rounds hitting our 'chopper, I became more pissed at Lt. Moulton for making me get on the bird. I thought for sure I was going to burn up in the 'chopper, but alas, it did not crash and did not burn. In fact, after a few short bursts from the ground, Lt. Brown got control and got us back to the rear. We landed safely at the Phu Bai BAS (Battalion Aid Station). Those of us not seriously wounded we whisked away to a tent in the rear to await examination and patching up. I was lying there next to my old fire team leader, Cpl. Dave Goodwin who had remained with Fox and was now a squad leader. Dave had been hit by shrapnel too, but appeared to be okay. We both chatted like two old hens at a tea party about who had been KIA or who had been WIA. As we talked, medics started bringing the dead in and carrying them right by us to a temporary morgue in a rear tent. From there, I had the chance to see the real damage – our dead started coming in.

Thanks for remembering with me and thanks for stopping by and never forget.

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