11-12 March, 1967
Just by pure coincidence, a staff reporter
for the Kansas City Times by the name of Robert Pearman was at the
Brigade Firebase when the contact began. He asked for and got permission
to join us in the field within hours of the battle ending. He
interviewed a good number of us while everything was still fresh in our
minds and wrote the following article published in the Kansas City
Times, Thursday 23, 1967. (SGM (Ret) D. F. Butters, then Operations
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"A Pacifist Medic Dies
Beside a Soldier"
by Robert Pearman
(A member of The Starís Staff)
|Near the Cambodian Border
West of Pleiku - About 9 oíclock in the morning Sgt. Joe Towner,
Seaside Calif., was pushing the 1st platoon of Alpha company
through the thick jungle growth about a mile from the Nam Sa Thay river,
which at this point separates Cambodia from Vietnam.
The company, part of the 2nd battalion, 35th
Infantry, 25th Infantry division, was checking out the area
after a B-52 strike.
Up ahead on the trail the point man saw an enemy soldier, dressed in
the uniform of the North Vietnamese army. He called back the word to
Sergeant Towner who sent a squad forward. They killed the enemy soldier,
but the point man, moving forward to check the body was shot and
THESE MEN HAVE BEEN cut off in the jungle
at night and surrounded by the enemy. They have seen their buddies
die, get wounded and had been unable to help them. The strain of
combat shows on their faces. - (Kansas City Star photograph by Robert
|Boyd Gardner, the
platoon medic, was a conscientious objector and even refused to carry a
weapon. His duty, he thought, was to aid the wounded, not to kill people.
Like many soldiers he had decorated his helmet cover: "Would you
believe Iím a medic?" "Donít follow me Iím lost too,"
it said in the back. "I donít make house calls." "Vietnam
When the point man went down Gardner rushed forward to help him. A
machine gun bullet split the brim of his helmet, struck him between the
eyes and killed him.
The fire continued. The first platoon, separated from the rest of the
company, was cut off. All that day and that night they, and the rest of
the battalion, would fight for their lives with an estimated two North
Vietnamese army battalions.
Aid Moves Up
Lt. Col Clinton Granger, Killeen, Tex., the battalion commander began
to move two other companies through the jungle to the relief of A company.
The A company commander was no stranger to combat. Capt. Luis Barcena, a
short and volatile naturalized American, had as a Cuban, participated in
the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion. Later in the American army, he had
fought with the paratroopers in the Dominican Republic.
All of A company was now under heavy automatic weapons and mortar fire.
The blazing sun moved to midday and then into the western sky. Air strikes
seared the jungle with napalm and friendly artillery shells burst around
the men clinging to a patch of jungle.
The second platoon was in trouble, too. In the late afternoon PFC Bobby
Day, 20 Canton, Okla., and the men in his squad were pinned down by enemy
fire. "The Lieutenant was running up trying to get the men up on
line," Day said. "We were yelling at him to get down. Finally he
got down on his knees, then I heard him say Ďoh,í like that."
|"I said, ĎAre you hit
sirí and he groaned and said ĎYes, hereí," The Lieutenant was
shot in the chest and he stuck a finger into the bullet hole to stop the
It was the first time PFC Wendell Meade, another medic, had been under
fire. He, too, was a conscientious objector and carried no weapon. He
crawled to the Lieutenantís side to try to help him.
He is Wounded
The darkness gathered over the jungle. Meade, wounded himself now, was
trying to help other men.
ARTILLERY POSITIONS fired 2400 rounds in response to a
Communist mortar attack on Plei Djereng.
|Day could hear the Lieutenant
groaning and asking for water. "I tried to crawl over to him but an
AKA (sub machine-gun) sent a string of bullets down between us. I waited
and tried it again. The same thing happened. Finally I threw him my
Out of the night a Chinese Communist grenade landed between the medic
and the injured Lieutenant. With some last reserve of strength the
Lieutenant covered the missile with his steel helmet. The shrapnel from
under the helmet struck him in the legs. Shrapnel glanced off the medicís
entrenching tool and injured him slightly.
Day saw the Lieutenant turning in the darkness. He saw the hunched
figure of the medic. Then there was no more movement or sound and he
knew the Lieutenant was dead.
Not far away, but as a million miles because of the thickness of the
jungle, B and C companies were moving toward the trapped men. B company
was hit hard by an enemy force. Seven
ABOUT 9 O'CLOCK IN THE MORNING, C Company, 2nd
battalion, 35th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division, made its way out of
the jungle to the battalion command post. They brought their dead
and wounded with them.
|soldiers died, 21
were hurt. Tied now to the bodies and the wounded men, the company had
to stop, dig in, and wait for helicopters to get the injured out.
Officer Looses Glasses
Capt. Ron Rykowski, a former enlisted man highly decorated in Korean
combat, is a gaunt, tall, hook-nosed soldier, with incongruous scholarly
heavy-rimmed eyeglasses. Without his glasses he is handicapped and his
glasses were lost somewhere in the combat in the jungle.
Colonel Granger says that all of his company commanders are
different. Rykowski is the hell for leather leader. Now he led his
company through the dark jungle toward the trapped men of A company.
On the ground surrounded by North Vietnamese, Day did not know if he
would survive the night. He heard someone coming, but he didnít know
who. Then a few feet away an AKA fired a long burst and he heard Capt.
Rykowskiís voice. "Shoot at me again, you S.O.B.," he said.
"I want to see where you are." The AKA sounded again. The
captain killed his antagonist with a burst from his own sub-machine gun.
All this occurred within 20 feet.
The dead soldierís name was Nguyen Van He. He himself was a platoon
leader. He kept a personal diary, a careful notebook of the men in his
platoon, and family pictures. There was one of him, in dress uniform,
apparently graduating from military school in North Vietnam. There was
one of a little boy and one of a little girl both carried on folded
paper with a gaily colored rooster. There was a picture of the
Lieutenant on his bicycle and two pictures of his wife and family.
Move to Clearing
C company buried him and seven others and began to move toward the
clearing where Colonel Granger with a handful of men had established a
helicopter landing zone and command post. On another enemy soldier they
found Gardnerís bible intact except for one torn page.
About 9 oíclock in the morning the captain came out of the tree
line and into the clearing. He brought with him his company, the
beleaguered platoon of company A, the enemy weapons and documents.
"Morningí Sir," he said to the colonel. "Itís been
a long night." "It was a long night here too," the
Captain Rykowski recounted what had happened to Charlie company.
"We moved along with no contact through the area of the B52 strike.
Then we encountered two on the ground and killed them, and two in the
trees and killed those, the last three were about 500 yards to the west,
then there is the one who shot a me, that makes eight. He made me mad
when he shot at me. He almost didnít miss."
Bullet Creases Belt
The captainís belt had been creased by the bullet. One by one the
companies came in. The men were haggard and somber. Perhaps a little
surprised to be alive. They passed from company to company, platoon to
platoon, finding out who was dead, who was wounded and how.
In his pack PFC Jerry Judd, Plano, Ill, found a small camera with a
bullet in it. "It must have been yesterday afternoon," he
said. "I thought I felt something hit back there."
William Hernandez, Specialist 4th class, took a machine
gun away from an enemy soldier and killed him with it.
Back at the fire base, James R. Truesdell, 20, Moberly, Mo., worked
in the fire direction center of the battalion mortar platoon which was
firing almost continuously.
Waiting on the hilltop for a helicopter to carry him back to his
company was PFC William Howard, 20, of 3231 Mersington Avenue, Kansas
City, who just returned from NCO School and was away when his company
was first committed to the fight.
The company commanders agreed that the enemy force was regular North
Vietnamese army. The dead enemy soldiers had new uniforms, new
equipment, their weapons were new and unbattered.
Sift into Area
From all appearances the unit, presumed to be the North Vietnamese Le
Loi division, had recently infiltrated. Four high speed trails, cut four
yards wide, with vines tied tree to tree to facilitate night movement,
cut through the area toward the border. There was no doubt that the
division operated out of Cambodia.
In a way itís a strange and different war that the 25th
Division brigade and the two brigades of the Fourth Infantry Division
fight along the frontier.
This is a wild, unpopulated, mountain jungle. There are no people
here, no Viet Cong guerrillas, only North Vietnamese army. Since the
first of the year the division has been operating from a series of fire
support bases - artillery and supply centers scraped on hilltops. Around
these the infantry patrols. The men are lean and tired. Often they go
CAPT. LOUIS BARCENA (with hat), whose company was the
first hit and cut off, talks over the situation with Capt. Ron Rykowski,
a combat veteran of Korea. Rykowski is C company commander;
Barcena is A company commander. The strain of command, the ordeal,
and the rugged existence shows on their faces. (webmaster note: Cpt Rykowski is in
the hat and Cpt Barcena is the other officer.)
|contact, but when
it erupts, the action with the North Vietnamese army is often sharp and
In the encounter described here 14 American soldiers died, 39 were
wounded. It is reasonably sure they killed 63 enemy soldiers. Many more
may have been killed by air strikes and artillery
Two more battalions were brought in along the river, but somehow the
enemy eluded a trap. It is the dry season, the winding ribbon of the Nam
Sa Thay is fordable on foot. Unseen, the enemy crossed over into
Cambodia. They will return, at the time of their choosing, to resume the
strange war the army wages through these jungled hills.
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