[Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Robert L. Tonsetic’s new book DAYS OF VALOR: An Inside Account of the Bloodiest Six Months of the Vietnam War.]
The combat tracker team found a “hot” VC trail and followed it. At around 1330 hours, the point man, Sergeant Norman Tinker, broke through the undergrowth onto a rough trail running in a northeast direction. He immediately spotted two enemy soldiers who ran up the trail. The point man opened up on the pair as they ran. The VC left that trail and ran into jungle. Lieutenant Morris radioed Captain Drees and asked for instructions.
Captain Drees called for gunship support, and directed Morris to move 4th Platoon on-line, wait for the 2nd Platoon to move in behind, and then sweep through the jungle to the west to establish contact with the enemy. A gunship team arrived on the scene and began to work over the heavily wooded area, while Morris maneuvered his men into position to begin the sweep. At 1400 hours, Captain Drees ordered his platoons forward. All was quiet again except for the swishing of jungle fatigues moving through the dense undergrowth and the occasional snapping of a twig. The quiet didn’t last for long.
In Lieutenant Morris’ words, “We moved into the woods and within minutes all hell broke loose.” The jungle erupted in a tremendous roar as Chinese Claymores bellowed out thousands of steel pellets and tracer rounds from heavy machine guns seared through tree leaves and elephant grass. The two VC trail watchers had led Morris’ platoon directly to a heavily fortified base area. Alpha Company was nose-to-nose with an entrenched enemy battalion of the Dong Nai Regiment.
The enemy fortifications ran several hundred meters parallel to the trail on its west side. They were laid out in NVA textbook fashion for all around defense. Lieutenant Morris’ 4th Platoon approached the enemy position dead-on, just slightly left of the center. The enemy opened up with everything they had against Morris’ platoon. Interlocking machine gun and AK-47 fire from camouflaged bunkers raked the platoon’s line. Several of Morris’ men were hit and dropped as enemy rounds tore their flesh. Simultaneously, a series of deafening explosions from command-detonated mines inflicted even more casualties. Enfilading fire along the length Morris’ battle line pinned his men down as they tried to regroup. The screams and moans of the wounded were heard above the sound of gunfire and explosions. The 4th Platoon battle line was less than thirty meters from the enemy bunker line, and the grunts were pinned down.
Dennis Castaldo was a 20-year-old rifleman with 4th Platoon. He recalled that, “The firepower of that Vietnamese camp was absolutely incredible . . . but no one ran. Everyone stood their ground as they were told.” He further recalled seeing “men walking around with half their faces blown off from tree-mounted Claymores.” Despite the incredible volume of close-range fire directed at the grunts, they held their ground and fought back in a stunning display of personal courage, unit cohesion, and discipline.
Lieutenant Morris, the only officer west of the trail, encouraged his men to assault the enemy fortifications, unaware that he was heavily outgunned and outnumbered. He was assisted by his platoon sergeant Dan Garrison. During the initial contact, Garrison sustained wounds to his left hand. Ignoring his wounds, Garrison continued to push his men forward. When he saw his men fall, he rushed forward and pulled the wounded to the rear. As he moved from position to position, he was wounded again, this time by a Claymore mine blast. When he saw his platoon sergeant go down in the blast, PFC Norm Reeves, the platoon RTO [Radio Telephone Operator], rushed forward to administer first aid. As he was trying to stem the flow of blood from Garrison’s shoulder, Reeves was wounded by a burst of machine-gun fire. The rounds also knocked out his radio. Despite his wounds, Reeves managed to drag his platoon sergeant forty meters to the LZ [landing zone for helicoptors] for medical evacuation. PFC Reeves then refused evacuation himself, and volunteered to replace the company commander’s RTO who was more seriously wounded. Reeves calmly and efficiently assisted Captain Drees in coordinating fire support and communicating with the various elements in the battle.
As Lieutenant Morris’ platoon laid down a base of fire, 2nd Platoon moved in directly behind 4th Platoon, and began to mix in with Morris’ men. In Morris’ words, “It became rather unimportant who belonged to who that afternoon . . . the soldiers just fought with whoever was there to support or needed help.” The devastating enemy fire took a heavy toll on the grunts, particularly on the squad leaders and fire team leaders.
Squad leader Sergeant Ray Kelley led his men toward the concealed bunkers, throwing hand grenades as he advanced. He moved to within fifteen meters of the enemy bunker line when he was hit with a burst of machine-gun fire. Kelley’s squad was caught in interlocking machine-gun fire from two bunkers. He shouted to his men to move back to the trail while he provided covering fire.
On the 4th Platoon flank, squad leader Sergeant Gary Hahn courageously led his men through the dense undergrowth in an attempt to flank the enemy fortifications. Moving in from the flank, the 24-yearold Californian was hit in the arm with small arms fire and thrown to the ground. Despite his wound, he got to his feet and hobbled forward, firing his weapon with his one good hand while urging his men to continue their attack. He spotted an enemy bunker and attempted to get close enough to toss a grenade into the aperture. As he ran toward the bunker, he was hit again by enemy automatic weapons fire and knocked off his feet. Unable to rise, Hahn crawled forward toward the bunker and was shot again and mortally wounded.
Twenty-one-year-old Sergeant William Pruitt maneuvered his squad forward toward the enemy bunker line. The entrenched enemy unleashed a furious blast of small arms fire that cut through Pruitt’s squad, wounding several grunts. As the attack stalled, Sergeant Pruitt turned his attention to the wounded that were still in the line of fire. After ordering his men to take cover and lay down a base of fire, Pruitt started to evacuate his wounded men. He was mortally wounded himself as he was carrying one of his squad members away from the heaviest concentration of enemy fire.
As the squad leaders fell, fire team leaders took over the closequarter fighting. When 23-year-old Specialist Four Eugene Zeigler realized that the lead elements of his platoon were pinned down, unable to advance or withdraw, he maneuvered his fire team forward until he reached his beleaguered comrades. He then shouted to his men to lay down a base of fire to cover the evacuation of the wounded and dead. Ziegler then rallied the remaining men and assaulted the trench line to their front. While aggressively leading the assault, Zeigler was mortally wounded.
The loss of these key leaders was taking its toll on Alpha Company. Wounded and dying men were scattered all along the shrinking line. As the battle raged on, combat medics moved from man to man to render life saving first aid and drag the men out of the line of fire.
PFC Durward Limbacher, an Alpha Company medic, was one of the lifesavers that the grunts depended on. The 20-year-old Iowa native moved forward immediately after contact was made to administer first aid to two seriously wounded soldiers. After he treated the two, he spotted a third soldier several yards forward of his position. Without hesitation, Limbacher exposed himself to incoming fire and dashed forward to aid the seriously wounded man. Enemy machine gun fire erupted from a bunker less than ten meters away, killing Limbacher instantly. He was not the last medic die in the battle. Lieutenant Morris continued to press the attack with his remaining men. Morris was in radio contact with his CO, Captain Drees, whose command group was some fifty meters east of the trail. While the men assigned to the command group started to cut a one-ship LZ to bring in medevac choppers, Drees radioed Lieutenant Colonel Schroeder with a desperate request for gunship and air support for his heavily engaged platoons. Schroeder told Drees that fire support was on the way.
When the helicopter gunships arrived on station, Drees instructed the pilots to switch to Morris’ platoon radio frequency. The gunship team leader’s voice crackled over the platoon’s PRC-25 radio, requesting Morris to “pop” a smoke grenade to mark the forward position of his platoon. The lieutenant removed a yellow smoke grenade from his web harness, pulled the pin, and tossed it a few meters to his front. The grenade burst and hissed on the ground as it spewed a billowing cloud of yellow smoke from its nozzle. Morris’ subordinates monitoring the radio net popped their own smoke grenades. Observing the smoke, the enemy threw smoke grenades as well, hoping to confuse the gunship pilots. Soon a mix of multi-colored smoke hung over the battlefield like a fog. As a result, the gunship pilots had great difficulty identifying the location of all friendlies on the ground, and on two runs their 2.75mm rockets screeched overhead and detonated on Morris’ men with shattering blasts. Morris yelled into the handset of his radio to call off the strikes. The dense foliage and jungle canopy hid the enemy positions, and it was difficult to identify friend from foe from the air. Alpha Company’s men, some wounded, some dead, and others still fighting were scattered across the terrain in front of the enemy positions.
The number of dead and wounded in the 2nd and 4th Platoons limited Alpha Company’s capability to sustain the fight. The assault on the superbly concealed VC bunker complex was repulsed by overwhelming enemy firepower. Gunship and artillery support was unable to break the stalemate. The final outcome of the battle remained in doubt as small groups of enemy soldiers began to emerge from their bunkers and trenches in attempts to roll up Alpha Company’s flanks. The embattled Warriors of Alpha Company were in desperate need of reinforcements and heavy fire support.
Orbiting overhead in his C&C ship [Command and Control helicoptor], LTC Schroeder informed the Alpha CO that he was requesting TAC [U.S. Air Force fixed-wing] air support. Captain Drees ordered his platoons to withdraw with their dead and wounded to the small LZ that his CP [Command Post] group had cut in the jungle. After the errant gunship strikes, he was concerned about the possibility of friendly casualties from the incoming TAC air strikes.
Despite the heavy volume of incoming fire, and lack of able-bodied men to carry the wounded, Morris and his men began to pull back. In fact, the evacuation of the wounded was already underway.
Like the men around him, Chaplain Liteky was stunned when the enemy battalion opened fire on Alpha Company. He’d been under sniper fire before, but never intense close-range fire. Liteky was in the center of the column with Captain Drees and his RTOs [Radio Telephone Operators] when the battle began. The Chaplain hit the dirt and hugged the ground as enemy rounds snapped off twigs and branches a few inches above his head. Claymore mines exploded and blasted the area around him with hundreds of pieces of lethal shrapnel. Trying to make himself heard over the deafening roar of gunfire and explosions Liteky shouted to Drees, “Is there anything you want me to do?” but the Captain was on his radio requesting gunship support. Nothing in his chaplain training had prepared Liteky for this moment.
Father Angelo Liteky had entered the Army in July 1966 and arrived in Vietnam in March of 1967. Born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1931, Liteky grew up in a Navy family. His father served 32 years and retired as a Chief Petty Officer. During an interview with the brigade information officer, Liteky recalled that when he decided to become a priest his father “was a little more than surprised after some of the things I had done in my younger days.” After graduating from high school, Liteky was accepted at the University of Florida with a football scholarship. Injured in pre-season practice, he sat out the season, and later transferred to Chipola Junior College in Mariana, Florida on another scholarship for a year. During his second year, he related that he read the book entitled “The Red Hat,” about a man who became a priest and later a cardinal, and that book started him thinking about becoming a priest. He later entered the seminary and was ordained a priest in a religious order, the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity, in Winchester, Virginia. After his ordination, Father Liteky worked at the Shrine of St. Joseph Mission in Sterling, New Jersey, until he volunteered for military service. Entering the Army, he completed the Chaplain School at Fort Hamilton, New York, and was subsequently assigned to the Basic Training Command at Fort Benning, Georgia. Six months later, Chaplain Liteky volunteered for Vietnam where many of the trainees he counseled were headed. Upon his arrival in Vietnam, he was assigned to the 199th LIB [Light infantry brigade (Army)] as the brigade Catholic chaplain.
Father Liteky soon earned a reputation for going out on operations as often as he could. He indicated that “he just wanted to be with the men.” That feeling was reciprocal among the grunts who didn’t mind having a Chaplain along, especially Father Liteky. This was especially true on December 6, 1967.
Chaplain Liteky could not ignore the screams and cries of the wounded and dying men all around him. His compassion and love for his fellow man inspired him to take action. Prayer alone was not enough. Ignoring the incoming fire, he stood up and moved off the path into the jungle, following the route taken by 4th Platoon. The first man he encountered was a young medic named McElroy. The medic had propped himself up against a blackened tree with one leg seemingly curled up under him. Only it wasn’t his leg, it was a bloody stump.
Senior Medical Corpsman Everett McElroy was with the Alpha Company command group when the fight began. Reacting quickly, he rushed forward with his aid bag to the hard hit left flank of the assault formation. As he treated the most seriously injured, the enemy detonated a mine a few yards from his position, shattering his leg at the knee. Waving off several grunts who moved forward to assist him, he crawled back out of the line of fire and propped himself up against the tree. Looking at Liteky with a smile, the 20-year-old medic said, “Did you say a prayer for me, Padre?” “Of course I did . . . you’ll be all right.” McElroy told the Chaplain that he thought he could make it back to the LZ on his own after he caught his breath, but there were three other men a few yards ahead that needed his help more than he did. “You’ll make it,” Father Liteky told him, and then the padre moved on further into the jungle following the route that 4th Platoon had taken. After pushing his way through the brush for several meters, he came upon three GI s lying face down on the jungle floor. They looked as if they were asleep. He checked their pulses and found that they were dead. Rolling them over he saw that they all had deep chest wounds. After administering last rites to the fallen Warriors, he moved on until he reached 4th Platoon’s front line of troops just as another enemy Claymore exploded with a quaking roar.
The men around the padre reported that while everyone crawled or sprinted from cover to cover, Chaplain Liteky walked calmly from one wounded man to the next administering last rites to the dying and assisting others to the rear. One of the wounded men fell in a particularly dense patch of undergrowth and Liteky was forced to break through a network of thorny vines to reach him. After he administered first aid, he lifted the man out of the thicket and lugged him to safety. Time after time, the Chaplain returned to the forward platoons to evacuate more wounded. When he found wounded men who were not ambulatory, he laid them atop his own body and crawled the men back to the rear. While administering last rites or first aid, one observer reported that he always put his own body between the enemy fire and the injured man.
On one of his trips to the front lines, Liteky found a Z-shaped trench where Lieutenant Morris and his platoon sergeant, Dan Garrison, had dragged half a dozen of the dead and wounded. The trench was part of the enemy’s outer perimeter fortifications. The priest dove into the trench just as an enemy mortar round exploded nearby, sending up a blizzard of shrapnel.
“Let’s try to get these men out of here to the LZ,” the lieutenant shouted. “They sure ain’t going to make it here.” The trio lifted the wounded out of the trench and crawled back toward the landing zone with the hurt men in tow. Knee-high enemy fire cracked overhead. Dragging the wounded, they somehow made it to the LZ.
Lieutenant Wayne Morris, among others, reported that he “never saw the Chaplain try to protect himself . . . and he seemed to be everywhere and his presence inspired awe and inspired myself and my men.” Norman Reeves, Morris’ wounded RTO, recalled that he saw Liteky carrying the wounded and dead on his back and in his arms time and again. “He was without benefit of a steel helmet, and had donated his fatigue jacket to a wounded soldier.” Dennis Castaldo, who earned a Bronze Star for Valor that day, remembered seeing Liteky “in the middle of chaos pulling men to safety.” Castaldo and Bill Clayford joined Liteky and pulled a couple of men to safety. Before the day was over, Chaplain Liteky was credited with personally extracting twenty wounded men while under continuous enemy fire. His bravery led to his recommendation and receipt of the nation’s highest award for bravery, the Medal of Honor.