Recollections of Jack Burr January 1967
by Jack Burr
RECOLLECTIONS OF JACK BURR, 3RD PLATOON, A COMPANY, 1/35 INFANTRY, WEST OF
PLIEKU, SOUTH VIETNAM, 19-20 JANUARY 1967
The 3d Brigade, 25th Infantry Division was planning a search and destroy mission in an area east of Highway 14 and west to the Cambodian border. Typically, that area was occupied by sizable North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units. The Brigade Commander wanted more intelligence.
The answer: Send a reconnaissance patrol into the area to gather much needed
A day later, my team climbed aboard two Hueys, the UH-1 Iroquois workhorse troop transport of the Vietnam War. The team included: the Radio Telephone Operator RTO, Specialist 4th class Pace Caldwell, medic, and two squad leaders who chose a total of six men. That made 12 of us.
First and foremost I told our men we must move slowly with deliberate care in the difficult mountainous terrain. Our mission depended on not being discovered. Surely we would be outnumbered.
On the 19th of January 1967 we touched down in the landing zone LZ chosen by the Brigade Operation Officer. As was standard procedure we quickly moved away from the LZ and stopped after about 800 meters. We put out security. Since it would be getting dark in an hour or so, we found an easily defended area providing cover and good fields of fire along the only avenue of approach into the area.
After a quick breakfast the next morning, we started out. A few hours later our point man saw an NVA soldier who at the same moment saw him, but a fraction too late. Our guy had his weapon pointed directly at the NVA soldier and pulled the trigger on full automatic. I do not remember the point man's name, but he was not hit this day.
During the initial exchange of fire, it became apparent that we did not know the size of the NVA force and we had four casualties. Our situation was not good. For the next few minutes firing was sporadic. We dared not maneuver until we could develop some advantage over our enemy. I gave Headquarters an update and asked for help and was told that a friendly infantry unit was about two or three hours from our location.
By this time I had called for a 175 Howitzer marking round but could not hear or see the marking round. After five large adjustments and three to box the target, I then called for a barrage of high explosive with delayed fuse. I told the team to hug the ground and gave the command to fire. The result was a series of explosions found the target.
I had lost track of time by now but I knew that we needed help and soon. I looked around to survey our situation and my eyes locked on Specialist 4th class Pace Caldwell who was staring at me. As we looked at each other, I noticed the pain in his eyes and knew he needed help.
Before I realized what I was doing, I had dropped the phone and was running toward the soldier. I grabbed him under his arms and scrambled out of the ravine and back to Pickle.
The RTO reported that battalion could not send a medevac and rescue forces may take an hour longer than thought.. Our situation seemed to be getting worse.
We were sitting ducks in the low ground. We needed better positions from which to defend ourselves. I called another artillery barrage and had a rifleman on each flank give covering fire while we moved the rest of our guys back to higher ground. As we consolidated our position we realized that three of the four men wounded in the initial volley were now KIA.
While moving to higher ground one of my squad leaders was wounded. I saw him go down. He yelled I'm hit. I didn't think, I just ran to my friend and grabbed him by the arms and started back up the hill. I glanced at him once as I pulled him and saw bullets dancing in the dirt around his legs. He grimaced as one more hit him.
Safe on top at last. Although wounded, he said he shot the NVA soldier who shot him. I cannot remember the name of the courageous squad leader. Our new position was now a more defensible one in the event we did not get help.
I knew we needed to get the wounded out. I called the artillery battery who fired the 175 barrages which broke the enemy's initial success and gave us a little breathing room. I asked if he had a Chinook with extraction gear in my vicinity. He said he would check and call back.
Suddenly the artillery firing on suspected enemy routes was called off and almost simultaneously the promised rescue force arrived as the enemy vanished. We consolidated our position and thanked our rescuers and got back to work.
I called the artillery officer I had talked to earlier. He said he could have medevac on station in about 10 minutes. As the CH-47, Chinook, hovered over our position. A nylon cable with a web platform was dropped through the triple canopy forest. The most seriously wounded soldier, Specialist 4 Pace Caldwell, and two KIA were lifted out, one after the other.
The pilot was anxious to leave after the three were aboard and banked east to return home. I was kneeling by the squad leader, one of the three remaining wounded men, who looked at me and said, "LT, I will never make it off this mountain".
I shouted into the mike, GET BACK HERE, WE'VE ANOTHER MAN. With much reluctance the pilot returned and extracted the additional soldier. I thanked the pilot profusely.
Of the twelve of us on the mission, three were KIA and three were wounded. Two of the KIA and two wounded were evacuated. Seven of us walked off the mountain carrying our lost comrade.
After talking with the Battalion Operations Officer, an LZ was identified in a valley about 5 kilometers south. We needed to move and avoid trails where the enemy would certainly be waiting. One hour later it was dark, a deep and black darkness. A darkness that seemed to permeate our very souls. Sometimes the worst part of a battle is the part that follows. We did not have time to morn our losses.
The men constructed a stretcher to carry our deceased comrade. The two wounded men said they could walk but were unable to help with the stretcher. Between five of us, we took turns on the stretcher. The squad leader and I had a map, a compass, an azimuth and distance to the LZ. The two of us took turns leading us off the mountain.
The point man was permitted to use a flashlight. One with a red lens. The rest followed in total and complete darkness. Then a stroke of luck. One of the men fell and as he was regaining his balance to stand, we noticed that one of his hands glowed but the other didn't. We examined the ground where he fell and found that he had scraped one hand on tree bark that left a luminous substance.
We applied the material to the back of our helmets. We could then follow each other more easily. Even then, we had to hold hands to keep from becoming lost. Several times someone would inadvertently break the chain and we stopped and reformed our group as we continued off the mountain.
After three hours or so the luminous substance faded and was no longer helpful. Our progress was now slower than before.. We had to pace ourselves because carrying a stretcher up and down ditches and ravines with undergrowth was a demanding task. But no task was too difficult to care for one of our own. Our motto leave no one behind was not just a motto. It was a mission.
It took us almost eight hours. I suspected that at times some of us could have just sat down and cried. But we didn't. We encouraged one other with lame jokes and other nonsense that served its purpose. One foot in front of the other and just before first light, we found the LZ. It looked perfect. We secured the area and called for our ride.
After a debriefing at base, it was determined we were dropped about five kilometers northwest of our intended spot. The mission was destined to be a debacle from that point on. At least, we made it back, but at a cost.
A couple of days later I visited my men in the forward field hospital. First, I went in to see Specialist 4th Class Pace Caldwell, the first and most critical of two wounded that were evacuated. We talked and cried and I left. He spent several months recuperating. Some of it in the states.
Next, I went into my squad leaders room. He and I had become friends since I was assigned to the 3rd Herd. He was a brave man full of courage and dedication. A good friend to have. He appeared to be sleeping when I walked into his room. As I stood next to his bed he sensed my presence and looked up. He smiled and said Thanks LT. We both wept. He recovered but I never saw him again.
The three KIA were:
PFC Julian Martinez Alvarez died in the service of his country at the age of 24 in Binh Dinh Province, Vietnam on January 20th, 1967. Decorations include Combat Infantryman Badge, Silver Star, Purple Heart, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Palm Unit Citation.
PFC Henery Earl Robbins died in the service of his country at the age of 21 in Binh Dinh Province, Vietnam on January 20th, 1967. Decorations include: Combat Infantryman Badge, Bronze Star with V, Purple Heart, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Palm Unit Citation.
PFC George William McGhee died in the service of his country at the age of 22 in Binh Dinh Province, Vietnam on January 20th, 1967. Decorations include: Combat Infantryman Badge, Bronze Star with V, Purple Heart, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Palm Unit Citation.
PFC McGhee is the soldier we carried off the mountain.
The event described below is a follow up of the battle fought on January 20, 1967. It is about 50 years later.
I had deliberately avoided discussing, watching videos or any thing else about the Vietnam War for about 50 years. Then about four months ago, with much help from my wife Phyllis,I began dealing with that period of my life.
I have been writing stories about our family and friends since then. Recently I wrote stories about my dad, Alfred Burr's, WWII experiences. His military records were partially burned several years ago when the St Louis holding facility caught fire. Using his date of arrival in France and unit assignment, I started researching to find what he did in WWII.
During my research I found something I was not expecting. I found the following message on a military blog written in 2008.
I'm looking for Jack Burr a platoon leader in the late 1966 thru Jan, 1967 with Co A 1/35th 3rd platoon. Anyone know his where-abouts, please advise. I have not seen him since he visited me in the hospital, late Jan 1967. THANK YOU. Pace Caldwell (email....)
I sent an email and about four hours later, Specialist 4th Class Pace Caldwell called me. Specialist Caldwell and I talked for over an hour. He told me I had saved his life and described how he had been shot and I pulled him to safety. I had forgotten, but remembered as he told the story. Then he added he had been searching for me since 2000 and tearfully added, I'm not going to lose you now". We bonded as only soldiers can.
We've talked several times since then, exchanging pictures, sharing memories but most of all just listening to each other and remembering long ago. We plan to met and stay in touch.