Down In The Highlands

“A bedraggled paratrooper came stumbling out of the trees at the far side of the clearing. The man had been wounded in the previous days action but had evaded the NVA. As a medic treated his wounds Bodine asked him where the rest of Bravo was.

“Just a little way down the trail,” the youngster said in a quivering voice.

Bodine took his platoon forward. A short distance beyond the clump of trees he spotted the mass of bodies. Bodine, ignoring the carnage, moved beyond the site and set up a protective line. Then he radioed to Captain Leonard to come forward.

A few minutes later, Captain Leonard brought the rest of the company down.

No one could comprehend the horrible scene. Dozens upon dozens of American bodies laid sprawled in death’s grotesque grip. A heavy veil of black flies swarmed over the swollen corpses and the thick pools of blood and gore. The smell of death hung so heavily in the jungle that many of Charlie’s paratroopers were unable to control their stomachs. They staggered behind trees to vomit.

It was immediately apparent to Lieutenant Harrison that many of Alpha’s men had been executed; a large number of their bodies bore ghastly exit wounds in their faces. Other corpses had been mutilated, their features destroyed, rings fingers cut off, and ears removed.

The scene was almost too much for Harrison to handle. He’d never expected to encounter something like this on his third day in the field. He couldn’t deal with it on a human scale. His mind and body began functioning solely on their five years of extensive military training. Oblivious to the carnage, Harrison started searching for his classmates, Judd and Hood. He found their bodies within minutes.

Helicopters brought in stacks of body bags. Charlie Company’s grunts began the gruesome task of filling the rubberized green canvas bags with the remains of their comrades.

Three members of Alpha’s decimated platoon had survived the slaughter. One was the man Specialist Patterson had witnessed changing his M60 barrel with his bare hands. Another man had been shot three times in the back but survived. Lieutenant Harrison found a man who, while he played dead, had had his ring finger cut off by a machete-wielding NVA. After the NVA left the battlefield, the man in his delirium, tried to reattach the severed digit to its stump with the tape that wraps around a smoke grenade’s cardboard canister. Then he stuck his injured hand in an abandoned canteen cover.

Bravo company finally arrived at the site at about 1500. They immediately pitched in to finish policing up the ground. Within minutes of his arrival, Lieutenant McDevitt heard the news about his friend Don Judd. It didn’t seem possible; just two weeks earlier they’d been making plans for R and R. How could Judd be dead?

Back at Dak To, Captain Milton began the grim task of positively identifying the dead. The NVA had been known to switch dog tags on American corpses, causing untold agony for family members when the deception was uncovered. Assisted by 1st Sergeant Deeb and Sergeant Nichols, who knew the members of 2nd platoon, Milton spent the next two days positively identifying his men.

The final toll for Alpha Company was shocking. Out of 137 men in Alpha on 22 June, 1967, 76 were killed. Another 23 were wounded. Of the dead 43 suffered fatal, close range head wounds.

Captain Grosso, the brigade surgeon, signed all the death certificates. Those for the executed Sky Soldiers listed the cause of death as “fragmentations wounds to the head.” A few weeks after the incident Grosso was given a statement, prepared by an unknown source at brigade headquarters, which confirmed the executions. However, Grosso never read it. He was so disgusted by the brutal realities of war he simply scrawled his signature on the document.

On 0845 on November 15 the NVA dumped a dozen mortar rounds on the airstrip. This time they were much luckier. Three C-130s received direct hits. One was slightly damaged but the other two erupted in huge balls of flame. The nearly full fuel tanks on the two transports burned furiously for hours, the intense heat driving off several attempts to douse the fire. Finally somebody decided to just let them burn.

Just across from him, not more than ten feet away, Sergeant Sandstrom writhed in agony. Both his legs were gone. Next to him lay the mangled corpse of a paratrooper. A third man had been blown about ten feet away. One of his legs was gone.

Mescan crawled on all fours to Sandstrom. While he applied tourniquets to the torn stumps, Sandstrom grabbed his arm. Between gasps he asked, “Will I walk? Will I walk?”
“Sure,” Mescan lied.

Dak To: America’s Sky Soldiers in South Vietnam’s Central Highlands
Edward S. Murphy. 1988.

Men in War Series   Why do they do it?  Because they love it.  Let’s take a break.

It’s coffee time.

Author: Steven Brown


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