Updated: May 10
Our birthdays are supposed to be happy, celebrations of the day we were born. I hated mine. For my wife and children, I would pretend to enjoy myself.
The problem was my mind could never forget the day I turned twenty-two.
It was the 25th of April, 1968. I was in South Vietnam’s A Shau Valley.
I was an infantry platoon leader for 1st Platoon, D Company, 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). Yes, Custer’s old outfit.
I arrived in Vietnam a week before the Tet Offensive. As a brand-new second lieutenant, they literally threw me into the fire and over the next three months, it never let up.
We were entering the second week of “Operation Delaware.” I Corps had reports of a large concentration of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in the A Shau. We were to seek and destroy them before they could flee across the border into Laos.
The first day of the operation was brutal. The fighting was intense, seemingly never letting up. Our chopper pilots did their absolute best to get the wounded out, keep us resupplied and additional troops brought in. But they were taking a beating. They lost ten choppers and had twenty-three damaged. In fact, their one-day loss was the greatest for the entire Vietnam war.
I started with a platoon of twenty-five men. By the beginning of the second week, I was down to twenty men. I had two wounded and three Killed in Action (KIA’s).
The morning of the 25th, Captain Alvarez met with his platoon lieutenants. He laid out our orders. We were to move north approximately one klick (kilometer). Aerial reconnaissance showed what looked like a large NVA supply bunker.
My company would proceed through the grassy center with Charlie and Delta companies on our sides. I had a great deal of respect for the captain. But this order was insane.
I looked at Captain Alvarez. “Sir, outside a couple of ant hills, my platoon will have no cover if the shit hits the fan.”
“Listen lieutenant, that’s your job.”
“Gentlemen, any more questions?”
With that, we all started walking back to our platoons.
“John, comeback over here. Listen, I said the same thing to the major. He knows it’s fucked up, and he expressed his disagreement with the general. John, I promise you, I will do my best to keep you and your men safe.”
“I know you will, captain.”
As I was walking away. He shouted; “Happy Birthday John. I have a special box of C-rations for your birthday dinner.”
When I got back to my platoon, I met with my Sergeant Jim Curry and gave him the bad news. Jim was a “short timer.” He had less than three weeks to go before he would be headed home. I had tried to get him reassigned to a rear area job, but our battalion commanding officer would not allow it.
“Jim, we both know this could be bad. Promise me you will keep your head down and no heroics. I want you home with Mary and the kids.”
“I promise Lt, By the way, Happy Birthday.”
Twenty minutes later, we got the order to move out. As we walked north through the grass, I had my men spread out, making it harder for the NVA.
I had this gut feeling something wasn’t right. After being in combat for months, you develop a sort of six sense.
Sgt. Curry came up alongside of me.
“I don’t like this. The little bastards are out there and waiting for us.”
Before I could answer, all hell broke loose.
We were taking fire from all sides. Our point man and three by him never had a chance.
I told Sgt. Curry to get the men and form a circular firing line. I grabbed the field phone from my radio man and advised Captain Alvarez we had been cut off. Both Charlie and Delta companies were doing their best, but the NVA had set up several machine gun positions that were keeping them both pinned down.
The firing was intense. Unless you have been in combat, you have no idea of the noise. It is deafening. Not to mention the sounds of bullets whizzing by your head.
I did my best to get around to my men and reassure them that the boys of the 5th of the 7th would get us. Now I just had to convince myself.
I had the men go easy on the ammo. The last thing any of us wanted was to run out of ammo.
Time seemed irrelevant. Before I knew it, the sun was going down. All I was told on the radio was to sit tight.
I told my radio operator (RTO) “No shit, where the hell do they think we are going?”
There were two attempts to break through to us during the day. The last one was at dusk. Both were driven back. Captain Alvarez assured me they would get to us.
I felt helpless. I looked at the stars and prayed that God protect my men and get them all out.
What worried me was four of my men had been cut off from the platoon when the initial firefight began. I told Sgt. Curry that I was going to take three men and get to them.
We started crawling towards their position but had to stop. The gooks were between us. We could hear moaning coming from their position. It sounded as if at least three of the four had been wounded.
Before we started back crawling towards them. We heard our guys shouting. “We’re wounded. Don’t shoot.” Then we heard the sounds of AK47’s and saw the muzzle flashes. The sons of bitches shot my wounded men.
We made it back to our position. I got on the radio and with tears running down my dirty face and my voice breaking up. I told Captain Alvarez.
“The bastards are killing my wounded. God Damn it, you better get to us or we all will be dead before morning.”
Sgt. Curry was lying next to me. “Lt., I hear the little bastards.”
“I do too. I am going to light them up.”
I took a flare gun and shot it upwards. It lit up the entire area. There were gooks everywhere. We opened fire and used most of our hand grenades, but we drove the little shits back.
“Jim, that bought us a few minutes.”
My radio man told me they were coming for us at 0500hrs.Right on time, we heard the sounds of M16’s and hand grenades going off. I had my men open fire to the areas away from our rescuers.
After an intense thirty minutes. I heard a voice yell, “John, you out there?”
I raised my M16 and said; “Over here.”
It was Lt. Mike Barry. “You alright, John?”
“I am not sure Mike? My mind is ready to explode.”
That morning, we were all able to get all of us out. The dead, the wounded, and the living.
There were only six of us not wounded. The wounded were one trooper and Sgt. Curry. Jim had a minor wound to his right thigh. We had twelve KIA. Of that, the NVA had executed seven.
I helped Jim Curry into the chopper. I gave him a big hug
“Jim, seeing you on this chopper, knowing you are going home is the greatest feeling ever.”
“Lt. I almost forgot your birthday. I have something for you.” He reached into his rucksack and pulled out a small package wrapped in birthday paper. “Me and the boys chipped in to buy you something for your birthday.”
He handed it to me.
“Open it up.”
I tore the paper off, and there were three paperback books. John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath. Ernest Hemingway’s, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“We know you like to read. Me, I am Car and Driver guy. But you educated people go for these smart books.”
The chopper pilot leaned back through the opening. “Look lieutenant, we have a wounded sergeant that wants to go home.”
I gave Jim one last hug. “Take care.”
I stood back and watched as the chopper lifted and watched it until I could no longer see it.
Then I found a spot where I could be alone. I sat against a tree and broke down into tears. The sights, the sounds, and the smells of the 25th filled every ounce of emotion I had in my body that day.
For those of us that made it, that day will never leave us. I can still hear the voices of the wounded begging the NVA not to shoot them. I can still see the dead troopers.
Every birthday for the past fifty-three years. I have gone to my church, prayed for all those that died that day and lit a candle to honor them. I will continue to do so until the day I die.