Early Lee Yates
The following story is an excerpt from the book "On the Tigers Back", this story accounts the day my wife first cousin was killed in vietnam.
Sometime around 0800 hours on Turkey Day, 1966, Charlie Company was ordered to air assault into a not too distant landing zone near where a North Vietnamese battalion was thought to be bivouacked.
"The LZ will be secured by another company" Those were the fateful, last words I would hear from battalion before the operation began.
The first flight of choppers sent to pick us up touched down far from where we expected and refused to come to my waiting men. Further contributing to our growing confusion was the fact that the S-3 Air told me to plan for eight choppers. Instead, we received four on the first sortie and six thereafter.
Third Platoon was designated to be the first unit out, followed by First, Second and Mortars. As it was, First Platoon was closest to the birds and I radioed Lieutenant Rick Belt, ordering him to load on the first four choppers. When the second lift of six birds appeared, the first three picked up the remainder of Rick’s men. First sergeant Westmoreland, three RTOs a grenadier named Richard W. "Rick" Smith left over from LT Belt’s platoon, an artillery forward observer and I took the forth bird. The remaining two aircraft carried men from Third Platoon which was commanded by its platoon Sergeant.
Although we try to impose some rational order over our lives, we often find ourselves the victims or the benefactors of an uncertain fate. The reassignment of First Platoon to the initial four choppers condemned two men to a death they would probably not have otherwise met.
As my lift approached the supposedly secured landing zone, I was fortunate enough to have a remarkably good, albeit fleeting, view of the surrounding terrain and the tactical situation. The landing area was an enormous. Flooded rice paddy separated into individual rice fields by a series of dikes, most of them not much wider than twelve inches and as high out of the water as they were broad. Cutting the paddy in half along its full north-south length was a much more substantial dike, perhaps six feet wide and three or four high.
The forested Cay Giep Mountains loomed off to our left rear. At their base was a typical village of twenty or so huts nestled under palm trees, Across the paddy and directly opposite the village was a low hill, no more than fifty feet high covered with scrub bushes.
To this day I cannot explain what whim or perversity motivated the troops responsible for securing the landing zone. However, as my sortie approached, we could see they were not in the village, but lounging on the large dike and waving at us with big smiles. As we passed, they started walking north on the dike, away from the landing zone. Obviously, they had not done their job. The LZ was not secured.
First Sergeant Westmoreland, who was sitting on the left side of the aircraft, turned to me and shouted over the sound of the rotors and the engine, "What the hell are they doin’ there?" There was a look of justifiable concern on his face.
I was unable to ponder the question. My attention was drawn to a spot far across the paddy were Rick Belt and six of his men were slogging through the paddy muck, cautiously approaching the village. When I glimpsed them, they were within thirty feet of their objective.
Staff Sergeant Brent Hodges, one of LT Belt’s best squad sergeants, was in the lead because his usual point man, Smith was on my bird. Edward McElroy was slightly behind him, followed by Bob Wolicki and Leonard Frederick. Rick Belt and his Platoon Sergeant, Paul Riley, followed along at a greater distance with the remainder of Brent’s squad.
At nearly the precise second Rick’s men came into my view, the NVA took them under rifle and machine gun fire. Brent Hodges was very seriously wounded in the lower abdomen. Edward McElroy, a splendid young trooper, was killed instantly. Frederick was hit in the leg. The remainder went down in the water and foot high rice plants, and tried to slither behind the low dikes so their bodies were generally protected; but they were unable to return fire. Lt Belt said the enemy fire was so close to min that he could see the bullets rip the ripening rice off the tops of the plants. Brent Hodges was so near the enemy, he could hear them talking to each other when there was a lull in the shooting. Having lost his M-16 by the force of the blow to his abdomen, Brent was armed with only a single grenade which he threw at the enemy to help keep their heads down and give him the opportunity to move further away. However, the seriousness of his wound did not permit him to move quickly or very far and he lay, calling for help, almost literally under the muzzles of the enemy guns.
After cutting down the squad, the enemy tracer rounds immediately shifted to the lead two choppers in our group. Those first two aircraft were about six feet off the ground in that semi-stall a helicopter achieves just prior to landing, with their rotor blades creating a hurricane of ripples on the water. The tracers were right on their target and I saw them slam into the aircraft. The pilots’ reactions were automatic and instantaneous, causing them to bank radically to the right and climb frantically. The third pilot delayed just a few seconds and then reacted similarly when he became the next target.
Because my chopper was last in some meters behind the others, we had a few additional seconds before the NVA gunner weapon and sights were on us. Our pilot unfolding and no doubt understood commander, I would want to be on the ground. Accordingly, he held the chopper in a hover. In those brief seconds I slid to the door and was sitting with my legs hanging out, thinking he’d land. He wouldn’t, I turned hurriedly to look at First Sergeant Westmoreland. The Top had also moved to the door on his side and was awaiting my next action. I jumped followed by all my men.
We fell at least twenty feet into eighteen inches of water and a foot of muck beneath that, which helped cushion a brutal landing. Our aircraft commander was obviously a quick thinking individual inasmuch as he had taken care to position us behind a dike about three feet high which afforded us protection from the bullets coming from the village.
As I picked myself up, I looked north towards the final two choppers in our sortie, several hundred meters behind. At that very moment all of the men in those aircraft were malting like birds also. Their pilots would not land for them either, but did position them about forty meters from the edge of the village, behind a low dike. I was momentarily filled with pride. Those were good soldiers-loyal, though, knowledgeable and well led. America could have sent none better. My next thought followed quickly and inexorably "Thank God". If they hadn’t jumped, my tactical position would have been very much worse, since they immediately engaged the NVA’s flank and gave them someone else to think about.
My group moved east as quickly as the deep muck would permit, duck walking and crawling behind the dike to avoid enemy rounds. Each time I looked toward the village, I could see enemy tracers streaking toward Third Platoon like some malevolent insects gone berserk. Occasionally, those same streaks of green light would flash over our heads or kick into the dike, throwing dirt over us.
I had already made several unsuccessful attempts to talk to Lieutenant Belt on the company net, and assumed his radio was out of order. As we moved along, I put the battalion commander in the picture and asked him to land the rest of Charlie Company behind the small hill from which I planned to develop a base of fire, using my machine guns and the mortar. My intention was to use that fire support to silence the enemy weapons and assault over the top of the trapped men into the village.
About fifteen minutes were required to reach a point where I thought we were behind Rick’s men. I peered over the dike while standing in a crouched position, but the men were nowhere to be seen, having completely submerged themselves in the water behind the dikes. At about that time, Doug McCrary’s Second Platoon secured the hill and was ready to crank up the M-60’s.
To be continued..