Kenneth E. Stumpf

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Stumpf's Revenge

One-Man Wrecking Crew Wastes VC Bunkers

By Samuel Zaffiri

 

Samuel Zaffiri served in Vietnam as a mortarman in the 1st Infantry Division. He is the author of Hamburger Hill, a non-fiction account of the controversial Vietnam battle, and of the biography, Westmoreland. This article appeared in the July, 1996 issue of Soldier of Fortune magazine.

In September 1967, Kenneth Stumpf was discharged from the Army and returned to his old factory job in Menasha, Wisconsin. In April 1968, he got a call from an Army officer with the news that he had won his nation's highest military award. At the urging of the Army, Stumpf re-enlisted and served another tour in Vietnam, where he was wounded while assaulting an enemy position. On 30 September 1994, after 29 years in the Army, Sergeant Major Kenneth Stumpf retired.

While flying over Quang Ngai province in 1966, a U.S. forward air controller described the region to a reporter as "the most beautiful and dangerous place in South Vietnam." It was an apt description.

Years earlier, at the start of their war against the French, communist forces turned it into a major center for military activity. Not once did the French enter Quang Ngai in any force. By the time U.S. soldiers and Marines entered South Vietnam in 1965, communist control of Quang Ngai was so total that many villagers had never seen any troops other than the Viet Cong.

In 1967, in an effort to break the communists' hold on the region, a division-size force moved into southern I Corps. As part of this operation, a series of company-size, search-and-destroy operations were launched.

On 24 April, Charlie Company began humping to the northwest. The three villages it passed through were deserted, a bad sign. Next morning, Captain Joseph Caudillo received orders to sweep southeast toward the village of Pho Nghia. The battalion's intelligence officer warned that a company from the 2nd VC Regiment probably was somewhere in the village's six hamlets training a local guerilla force.

At about 1000 hours the platoons moved cautiously, anticipating contact. Along the way they came across a number of enemy bunkers and trenches, all recently occupied. About this time, crewmen on a Huey gunship reconning an area about 300 yards outside the Bich Chieu hamlet spotted two VC troops in the open. The gunship immediately opened fire, killing one instantly. The other ducked into a nearby bunker.

The Huey's pilot radioed Caudillo, who decided to have someone check out the bunker. Third Platoon was the closest.

Sergeant 1st Class Garfield Wells was the acting leader of 3rd Platoon. After speaking with Caudillo, he ordered Specialist 4 Kenneth Stumpf to take his squad and check out the enemy bunker.

Stumpf, 20, had been in country seven months, but had already earned a reputation for bravery. Stumpf gathered his six-man squad and briefed them on the mission. There was almost certainly trouble ahead, he said, and for that reason he wanted the best man in the squad on point: himself. No one objected.

At about 1115 the squad started down the trail to Bich Chieu. Stumpf's squad, unbelievable as it might seem, had no radio. Wells was unaware of this until Stumpf's squad was 15 minutes down the trail. Realizing that if Stumpf ran into trouble he would need a radio, Wells ordered another squad leader, Sgt. John Madonich, to double-time down the trail with an extra field radio.

Like his friend Stumpf, Madonich had a reputation for being fearless. Since only two other men in his squad were experienced, M60 machine gunner Larry Wolfe and grenadier Jim Hufstetler, Madonich took point. They moved out.

Under Fire

They soon came to a fork in the trail. Madonich chose the trail branching to the right. Farther down, seeing no bootprints, he realized they had taken the wrong way. Just then, five or six VC troops hidden some 50 yards up the trail opened fire with machine guns and AK-47 rifles.

The Americans dropped flat and hugged the earth. No one could tell where the fire was coming from as they managed to crawl away.

Minutes earlier, Stumpf and his men had arrived at a chest-deep trench running north and south as far as the eye could see. About 80 yards beyond that was a thick wall of palm trees and bamboo. Although he could not see any huts, Stumpf knew Bich Chieu hamlet was somewhere beyond that green maze.

Stumpf told his squad to hold in-place along the west side of the trench while he went back to get a field radio. Clutching his M16 rifle, Stumpf started back down the trail. He hardly covered 40 yards when he heard a long burst of gunfire as (unbeknownst to him) Madonich's squad came under fire.

Fearing for his men, Stumpf pivoted and ran back up the trail. Nearing the trench, he dropped to the ground and low-crawled. Now, more gunfire, bullets ripped into the trees overhead. Back at the trench Stumpf found only three of his six men, all frightened out of their wits and firing furiously.

"Where're the others?" Stumpf yelled over the gunfire.

William Bush, Anthony Hernandez and Larry White had taken it upon themselves to check out the area just east of the trench. The men had moved only 20 yards beyond the trench when a VC machine gunner hit them with a burst at short range. All three fell, hit in the legs. Unable to walk or even crawl back to the trench, they cried out for help.

Stumpf was convinced now more than ever that he needed a radio. He told the three men in the trench to maintain fire on the enemy positions ahead while he ran back down the trail for a radio. He low-crawled away from the trench, then got up and ran. Seconds later he met Madonich and his squad.

I've got three men down near the village," Stumpf screamed at Madonich. "We've got to get back up there and get them out!"

"Lead the way," Madonich replied.

Stumpf charged back up the trail with Madonich and his 10 men. All 12 infantrymen low-crawled into the trench and took up positions. The VC, seeing the reinforcements, increased their fire. By now, VC machine gunners and riflemen in six or seven bunkers were putting out a torrent of fire. Worse, on the roof of one of the bunkers the VC had set up a recoilless rifle.

Explosive rounds were passing only inches above the heads of the Americans in the trench and exploding in the trees behind them, showering them with bark and branches. Stumpf, Madonich and their men fired back furiously, although they had no clear targets.

Suddenly, three or four enemy soldiers moved forward in an attempt to flank the trench. All wore North Vietnamese army fatigues, tire-track sandals, and pith helmets and carried AK-47s. Festooned with leaves and branches, they moved swiftly, slightly hunched over.

One of the Americans spotted the movement.

"There they are! Get 'em!" A wall of bullets dropped these VC, but did not stop the attack.

Seven or eight VC started another flanking movement. They came at a run, firing from the hip and throwing grenades. Explosions in front of and behind the trench wounded five Americans. The medic, "Doc" Fry, moved up and down the trench, bandaging wounds.

The second flanking attack ran out of steam in about 10 minutes. The VC commander on the scene quickly reinforced it with another 10 to 15 men. Within minutes, every man, except Stumpf, was wounded with grenade shrapnel.

Then a soldier shouted, "Stumpy, look out! There's a grenade between your legs!"

Stumpf looked down. There was indeed a grenade between his legs. He calmly picked it up, tossed it back at the enemy, then resumed firing his M16.

A few minutes later, the third attack stalled. The Americans could see the VC flitting from tree to tree as they retreated. The men in the trench used this period to gulp canteen water and to tend to wounds.

"Willie P"

The second round of VC attacks began about 10 minutes later. A platoon-size force tried yet another flanking attack, this time to the left side of the trench. They came at a charge, firing from the hip.

A blizzard of fire from the trench dropped five or six of the attackers. The rest of the VC dropped to the ground and began low-crawling forward, then dashing from tree to tree. The Americans tossed grenades, wounding five or six VC. It was grenadier Jim Hufstetler, though, who played hell with the attackers.

Too close for point-blank fire, Hufstetler set the but of his M79 in the dirt. With the barrel nearly vertical, he fired high explosive and phosphorous rounds into the enemy ranks. His accuracy was uncanny. The VC screamed in pain from the phosphorous raining down on them. Their attack failed.

Gunfire from the enemy bunker to the front of the trench, however, continued. Above this din, Stumpf could hear the cries of his three wounded men.

"Someone help us, please!" one of the men shouted repeatedly.

Stumpf suddenly screamed down the line: "I'm going out after those guys! Everybody lay down fire for me!"

Without the slightest hesitation, he leaped out of the trench. Legs pumping, he darted the 30 yards to the wounded men lying in a depression. He dove in beside them and crawled to White.

"I've got a broken leg," White moaned in pain. "I can't move."

Stumpf quickly turned White over on his stomach, then crouched down beside him. "Grab me around the neck and don't let go." White did as he was told, and Stumpf quickly slid under him. With a burst of adrenaline he rose to his feet and, with White draped over his back, started running back to the trench. The VC had a clear shot, streams of blue tracers cut through the air all around the two Americans. The men in the trench could not believe Stumpf was not hit. When he reached the edge of the trench, a dozen hands reached out to pull White to safety.

Doc Fry went to work on White. Stumpf caught a quick breath, then yelled, "Cover me!"

Seconds later he slid in beside Hernandez. Without a word, Stumpf grabbed Hernandez by the front of his shirt and started dragging him back. He stopped halfway to catch his breath, then continued dragging, his legs pumping furiously. Stumpf collapsed 5 yards from the trench. Three or four men scrambled to pull Hernandez in.

Stumpf was physically burned out. His breath came in piston-like gasps. Somehow he rose above his exhaustion and went back out. The last man was Bush, a tall black kid. With his leg wounds, Bush likewise could not walk or crawl. Stumpf did not have the strength to drag him, so he handled him as he had White, crawling under him and pulling him over his back. Then with what he felt was his last reserve of strength, he rose to his feel and started forward. After about 10 yards, he stumbled and fell. Viet Cong bullets still had not found him.

"Come on!" the men screamed from the trench. "Come on! Keep going!" Stumpf rose, stumbled and nearly fell again, but managed somehow to keep his feel. He made it to the trench. As Bush received medical attention, Stumpf lay on the ground, gasping.

Someone offered him a canteen, but he was breathing too hard to drink. Stumpf soon was joined by Madonich. Over the din, Madonich said that four of the wounded had lost a lot of blood, unless they got a medevac soon, they would die. Madonich suggested they move the wounded to a rice paddy about 40 yards to their rear. There they might safely bring in a chopped.

Stumpf agreed: Abandon the trench, move west and set up a secure perimeter around the rice paddy.

While Madonich's machine gunner and two riflemen laid down cover-fire, the four seriously wounded men were loaded onto poncho stretchers and carried to the rear. Throughout the move, the enemy never stopped firing.

At the clearing the wounded were laid down near a hedgerow. The rest of the men took up positions along two sides of the clearing. Madonich got on the radio and called for a medevac.

The chopper arrived a few minutes later from the north. Smoke was popped to guide it to the landing zone. As the chopper descended, the LZ was suddenly lashed by VC gunfire. To the south of the clearing, five or six VC had a clear shot at the helicopter. They knocked out the chopper's windshield and the pilot banked sharply to the left and flew away.

Hot LZ

"That LZ's too hot for a landing," he told Madonich over the radio.

Madonich stayed on the radio, pleading for another "dust-off." Five minutes later, a second arrived. Smoke again was popped. The chopper began a quick descent toward the clearing. It, likewise, was peppered with small-arms fire, but managed to set down. Around the perimeter, the men laid down covering fire while the four seriously wounded were loaded. Taking rounds, the chopper lifted off quickly and sped away.

As the medevac bird was pulling away, John Ford, a forward observer moved with Madonich and Stumpf to a prominent place on the southeast side of the perimeter. They peered over the hedgerow to get a good look at the enemy.

Seconds later, Ford was on the radio calling for fire support. The only thing available at the moment were two Huey gunships. For the next 15 minutes, the two helicopters raked the bunkers with machinegun fire and rockets. After the gunships expended their loads, two F-4 Phantoms appeared, dropping bombs and napalm.

As if stirred up by the aerial attack, 20 to 30 VC troops, all heavily camouflaged, began quietly filtering through the bushes and trees surrounding the clearing. It was yet another flanking attack. The VC were so well camouflaged that at first no one saw them. Suddenly a rifleman in Stumpf's squad screamed: "The bushes are movin'! The bushes are movin'!"

At that, the men in Stumpf's squad opened up on the camouflaged figures. They soon were joined by five or six men from Madonich's squad. The men poured a steady fire at the VC, but soon it was obvious that this flanking attack was not going to be stopped.

With every second, the VC pushed closer to the perimeter.

"We're bein' flanked!" Stumpf yelled across the clearing the Madonich. "We can't hold 'em!"

On the radio, Madonich called Capt. Caudillo and passed on Stumpf's assessment. Caudillo told Madonich to maneuver back to the original trench and wait there for 2nd Platoon.

Returning to the trench was hardly an ideal move, but at the moment it was the only option available. By now, groups of VC not only were hitting the embattled platoon's right flank, but its rear as well.

With two men laying down fire, the two squads made a mad dash back to the east. One by one, the men jumped over the trench then moved into cover behind a large hedgerow. Everyone took up positions facing south toward the enemy.

At the sight of this maneuver, enemy soldiers opened up on the hedgerow. Gunfire came from five or six bunkers. Since the air strikes had knocked down some of the foliage around the bunkers, a few now were visible.

The Americans poured fire at them. Spotting a bunker, a rifleman from Stumpf's squad got on one knee and fired bursts through the bunker's firing aperture. He was shot through the head and killed. Near him another man took a bullet in the arm and fell back writhing in pain.

The death of the first man triggered something in Stumpf. He yelled down the line to Madonich: "I've had enough of this shit! It's time to give some back."

Stumpf was wearing only his field suspenders and pistol belt. On the back of his left suspender he tied an empty sandbag. Stumpf then moved down the line of men, filling the bag with any grenades they could spare. When he was done, he had more than 25.

With the sack of grenades over his shoulder and an M16 rifle in his hands, Stumpf started off at a trot down the hedgerow. He was joined by a man from Madonich's squad, William Latimer. Stumpf and Latimer once had gotten into a fistfight in Pleiku, but had since patched up their differences.

"Where you going?" Stumpf asked Latimer.

"I'm goin' with you."

"Okay, let's go."

Rifles at the ready, the two moved forward side by side and slipped to the enemy's rear. They soon were confronted with a large bunker. Stumpf and Latimer were about ten yards away when a VC soldier popped out of the bunker's rear entrance. Seeing the two Americans, he raised his AK-47. But Stumpf and Latimer fired first, knocking him backward.

Stumpf rushed forward, shouting, "Cover me!"

Latimer kept his rifle trained on the rear entrance to the bunker as Stumpf leaped onto the roof. Pulling the pin from a grenade, he let it "cook" a moment, then tossed it in. He leaped off the roof. He and Latimer scrambled for cover. It was indeed the recoilless rifle's bunker.

Boom! The ammunition inside exploded, showering the two Americans with dirt and debris. Brushing themselves off they slipped past the bunker, now a smoldering wreck.

After moving about 20 more yards they turned a corner and suddenly found themselves looking down a long and winding, chest-high trench.

One-Man Wrecking Crew

There were small palm trees on both sides of the trench. Although neither man could see them at first, there was a chain of bunkers tied in to the right side of the trench.

They began moving cautiously down the right side of the trench. From about 35 yards away, they suddenly made out the vague shape of heavily camouflaged VC soldiers, AKs at the ready, moving directly at them. At the sight of the two GIs, four Viet Cong charged forward, their rifles barking. Stumpf and Latimer each dropped to one knee and opened up at once, dropping all four of the enemy.

Stumpf was about to move forward when he noticed that Latimer had dropped his rifle and was staggering. Stumpf grabbed his friend by the arm to steady him. He saw that Latimer had been shot in the chest.

Their eyes locked for a moment. Latimer mumbled, "I'm dead, Stumpy," then collapsed on the ground.

Latimer's death infuriated Stumpf even more. Rifle ready, he charged deeper into the bunker complex. He claims not to remember what he did during the next 10 minutes, but those who witnessed the scene afterwards say he was a one-man wrecking crew, shooting VC as he encountered them and blowing up bunkers with grenades.

One of the few things Stumpf would remember occurred at the end of his attack: He suddenly found himself face-to-face with an enemy soldier. Both fired at the same time. The VC was knocked backwards by Stumpf's bullets, Stumpf looked down to see that his M16 had taken a full burst of AK-47 fire. His rifle was shattered, useless. He tossed it aside and started back down the trench in the opposite direction. Madonich was shocked to see him alive.

"I thought you were dead, Stumpy."

"They got Latimer. They shot him in the chest, " Stumpf said. "I'm going back in. I'm out of grenades. Give me all you got…and I need a rifle."

"We don't have any more grenades," Madonich said. "And we're about out of ammo. We're gonna have to pull back. If they attack us again, we'll be wiped out."

"Where do you wanna go?"

"I think we ought to move straight back," Madonich replied. "Second Platoon ought to be getting close by now."

"Okay, let's go," Stumpf said.

Behind covering fire, the remnants of the two squads began yet another withdrawal, this time to a position about 50 yards to their rear. There everyone collapsed. Those with any water left drained their canteens. Moments later, Capt. Caudillo arrived with his command-post group. Then 2nd Platoon came into view.

Caudillo and his forward air control officer got a quick appraisal of the situation from Stumpf and Madonich.

"I'm gonna dump the world on their butts," Caudillo said. And he did.

For the next hour, he and his air officer directed one fighter-bomber after another against the VC bunkers. When the aircraft left, Caudillo pounded the bunkers further with artillery fire. The last of the foliage now was blown down, all of the bunkers were clearly visible for the first time. Three or four had been knocked out, but three others still were firing.

When 2nd Platoon arrived a moment later, Caudillo ordered them to get on-line and assault the bunkers. The survivors of 3rd Platoon got online to the right of 2nd Platoon. Both platoons advanced at a brisk pace, pouring small-arms fire on the bunkers. But the VC in the remaining bunkers were not deterred by the torrent of gunfire being directed at them. They fired back just as furiously, and within minutes five GIs were wounded. The attack stalled.

Frustrated at what was happening, Stumpf rushed over to Caudillo.

"Captain," he said, "we've got to do something about those bunkers."

"What have you got in mind?"

"Give me all your grenades and I'll take care of them for you," Stumpf said. "Let everybody know that I'm out there though. I don't want somebody shooting me."

The men in the command group quickly handed over all of their grenades. Stumpf dropped them into his sandbag.

Stumpf then made his way back to 3rd Platoon. He found Madonich in a bomb crater, steadily firing away the enemy bunkers.

Medal of Honor

"Let's go get those bunkers," Stumpf said.

"Lead the way," Madonich answered.

The two ran west, to their right. They leaped over the trench, their original fighting position, then turned south through an area of more palm trees and hedgerows. The two moved quickly, rifles at-the-ready. Twenty yards. Thirty yards. Forty yards. A hundred and fifty yards. They soon were behind the three enemy bunkers still holding up the advance. Two of the bunkers were only 20 yards away. The thirds was more than 60 yards away.

They decided to take out the nearest two first. After slinging their rifles, Stumpf and Madonich each pulled the pin of a grenade, rushed forward and three them into the rear doors of the bunkers. The grenade exploded, followed by three or four secondary explosions. Two down, one to go.

Madonich rushed over to join Stumpf.

"Cover me," Stumpf said. He dropped his rifle and took of his suspenders and pistol belt. He took three grenades from the sandbag, keeping one in his hand and putting the other two in a pocket on his fatigue pants. Stumpf pulled the grenade's pin but held the spoon. Then he started sprinting across the 30 yards to the last bunker. Some VC in a hedgerow to his right opened up, bullets kicked up dirt all around him, while streams of tracer rounds whizzed over his head.

As Stumpf neared the bunker, some GIs, thinking him a VC, opened up on him also. Above the cacophony, someone shouted: "It's Stumpy! Stop firing!"

The "friendly" fire stopped just as Stumpf was closing in on the bunker. At about five yards out, he let loose of the grenade's spoon. Then with a hard step, he flashed by the front of the bunker and flipped the grenade inside. But he had not let the grenade cook off. Stumpf instantly realized he had made a big mistake.

Someone in the bunker picked the grenade up and threw it back out. Stumpf looked back to see the grenade bouncing at him. He hit the ground and went into a fetal position. The grenade exploded. Miraculously, he was not wounded. Still, the explosion stunned him. Ears ringing, he groggily got to his feet. He pulled the two grenades from his pocket and staggered on weak knees to the side of the bunker.

"They won't throw these back out," he thought.

This time he let the grenades cook for four long seconds before throwing them in. The explosions rocked the bunker. A small, secondary explosion followed. Still groggy, Stumpf rolled off the bunker to see Madonich charging ahead to join him. Rifle at-the-ready, Madonich entered the bunker rear door. Inside he found five dead VC, two machine guns, five rifles and a number of boxes of small-arms ammo and grenades.

The men of 2nd and 3rd platoons all had watched Stumpf take out this last bunker. They quickly rose and began advancing again. There was no more enemy fire. The enemy in the hedgerow fled the area. The fight for Bich Chieu was over.

In September 1967 he was discharged from the Army. Stumpf returned to his old factory job in Menasha, Wisconsin. In April 1968, he got a call from an Army officer with the news that he had won his nation's highest military award. At the urging of the Army, Stumpf re-enlisted and served another tour in Vietnam. He was wounded while assaulting an enemy position.

On 30 September 1994, after 29 years in the Army, Sergeant Major Kenneth Stumpf retired.

For his heroics on 25 April 1967, John Madonich was awarded a Bronze Star. After being discharged from the Army, he moved to Calumet City, Illinois, where he now works as a remodeling contractor and homebuilder.

Charlie Company's commander, Capt. Joseph Caudillo, was killed in 1967 while leading an assault against at enemy village.

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