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During recovery of dead American soldiers, Alpha Company finds life amid the carnage

Retired Lt. Gen. Sam Wetzel talks about the battle for Nui Chom during a recent interview.
Retired Lt. Gen. Sam Wetzel talks about the battle for Nui Chom during a recent interview. mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com

Sgt. James Larrick, a squad leader, had spent the night of Nov. 20 in hell.

He was in an NVA bunker high on Nui Chom, a mountain in South Vietnam’s Quang Nam Province, between the South China Sea and Laos.

There was no food, no water, according to a 1969 magazine account written by Sgt. George Hawkins that graphically detailed parts of the battle. It was later discovered that at one point, two enemy soldiers entered the bunker, assumed Larrick was dead and began to search his pockets.

The North Vietnamese soldiers did not hang around and moved on quickly.

Lt. John Dolan was in now in command of Alpha Company and assigned to recover what was then thought to be four American bodies on that mountain.

Alpha Company surrounded and secured the sight of the ambush, Dolan noted in his account to Wetzel.

“Once we had secured the site, we moved in to recover the bodies of Kevin Burke, Michael Crescenz and Danny Hudson,” Dolan said.

The Alpha Company soldiers placed the dead in body bags and moved quietly, talking only in hushed tones. First Sgt. Francis Duvall, a 39-year old career soldier, supervised the recovery process. The recovery team could not know that years later Crescenz and Burke would receive the military’s two highest honors for their bravery on Nui Chom.

The Army awarded Burke the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest military decoration. The highest honor, The Medal of Honor, was awarded to Crescenz.

Dolan noted that even though he had not yet joined Alpha Company when it was ambushed on Nov. 20, that mission was still deeply personal.

“Kevin Burke was a friend of mine,” Dolan said.

What the recovery team found next was what Dolan termed “a wonderful gift to all of us.”

Sgt. Larrick was still alive, awake and communicating. Word quickly spread of Larrick’s condition. Severely wounded, leeches and maggots had infested his wounds, likely a blessing because it had helped slow down the infection. Larrick was quickly put on a litter and carried back to the makeshift landing zone for evacuation.

As he awaited the helicopter, he was approached by one his buddies, Sgt. Allen Shermers, according to Hawkins’ account.

“I got one of my canteens, offered him water and asked him how he was doing,” Shermers is quoted as saying. “I held the canteen and gave him a sip, because I wasn’t sure if he should have any water. When I took the canteen from his mouth, he looked up and said, ‘Hell, don’t be bashful because I haven’t had anything to drink for a day and half.’”

Larrick reported that the NVA had searched the bodies of the three dead Americans, as well as him. They took everything but the dog tags, Larrick noted.

Word on Larrick’s rescue reached the command and Wetzel in his command helicopter.

“Great news,” was the commander’s reaction. Wetzel’s boss, Brigade commander Col. Fritz Kroesen wanted to see the battle for himself. Kroesen had provided the additional men for the fight at Wetzel’s request.

Kroesen got to the landing zone and was talking to one of the company commanders, Capt. Billie Braswell as Wetzel was ordering additional air strikes.

“I happened to turn around and he was gone,” Wetzel said.

Kroesen, an old battle tested Infantryman who had fought in Europe during World War II and Korea, wanted to see the troops and began to climb up the hill and away from the landing zone.

“Shrapnel was flying through the trees from the air strikes and my first thought was, ‘I am going to get my boss killed,’” Wetzel remembered.

Dolan, according to Wetzel, had called back to the landing zone and requested binoculars. So, Kroesen, who later earn four stars and command NATO’s Central Army Group, was delivering them.

“He loved soldiers and was kind of a fearless leader,” Wetzel said.

At one point during the battle, Kroesen had assigned so much of the infantry, cavalry and artillery support to Wetzel, the brigade commander joked, “Why don’t you just take it over.”

As Wetzel orchestrated what he could of the battle, he also noted that Kroesen had put the battalion in a position to accomplish the mission.

“I truly was blessed to have a boss who would provide me the assets to accomplish the mission without interference,” Wetzel said.

The battle is not over

After the colonel departed, there was plenty of work left for the battalion.

Before dawn on Nov. 23, if it had not previously been painfully obvious what the 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Division stepped into, it was now.

And a 19-year-old NVA private who had been captured by Charlie Company confirmed the size and scope of the NVA operation in the vicinity.

At 3:45 a.m., the young North Vietnamese soldier began talking to a U.S. interrogator, and before it was over he had disclosed a wealth of information. The private was in the 3rd Squad, 2nd Platoon, 2nd Company, 1st Battalion, 21st NVA Regiment, 2nd NVA Division. A battalion-sized NVA force of between 300-400 men had left North Vietnam in May of 1968.

They walked for three months, the private revealed, before reaching South Vietnam in August. Five days earlier, the NVA regiment was at Bigh-Kieu Hamlet, headed to Son Phuoc when they were engaged by U.S. forces. They had dispersed with plans to regroup. Their mission was to engage enemy forces that entered the regiment’s area.

Later that morning, Wetzel and other commanders continued to move the pieces around in the plan to take the top of the mountain. One of the things that had to be done was to move Delta Company, which had been pulled back after making the initial contact, off the mountain.

The trench foot situation in the company had only worsened. A company from the 1st Battalion, 46th Infantry was brought in by air to take the Delta Company position. Delta was evacuated by air to Chu Lai, a seaside Army base during the later years of the war. Wetzel had made the decision Delta Company “needed some R&R and time to get their feet in shape.”

By making that decision, the unit that first engaged in the fight would not be there if the Americans reached the mountain top.

As Delta was being flown off the mountain, another of the units under Wetzel’s command control, Charlie Company of 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry, observed 25 to 30 NVA fighters dressed in khaki uniforms with packs and weapons. They engaged with small arms and artillery with unknown results, but one American soldier was shot and injured.

When the shooting stopped, the Americans moved into the area, engaged and killed an NVA soldier and captured his AK-47. The fighting was intensifying. As Alpha, Bravo and Charlie companies continued to move forward, Bravo soldiers discovered enemy bunkers and started to check them out.

At 11:25 a.m., Bravo Company began to receive small arms and automatic weapons fire from a series of NVA bunkers. Two American soldiers, both from the South, were killed in the exchange. Spec. Thomas Dickerson and of Upson County, Ga., and Cpl. Harold Glover were killed.

Where the fatalities two days earlier were well documented, there was little known about this engagement.

But Tonya Caldwell, who is Dickerson’s daughter, knows a little about what happened because she has been able to piece it together from men who fought alongside her dad and Glover. Caldwell, 50, was just four months old when here father died. He never saw her, but she has spent considerable time trying to learn about him.

Bravo Company was clearing bunkers and her father was at the point, Caldwell has been told.

“He was shot by a man who was hiding in a hollow tree,” Caldwell said Tom Anderson told here. “He said, ‘But if it gives you any comfort, baby girl, we’ killed the man who killed your daddy.’”

Three more Americans were wounded and four NVA fighters were killed. That drove the number of American dead on Nui Chom to five.

Wetzel called for another round of artillery and air strikes.

There were smaller fights across the mountain as the three companies continued the push to the top. NVA fighters were being killed and weapons and gear confiscated, such as Chinese machine guns and field communication equipment.

“The NVA forces had been seriously weakened the day before from the stepped-up artillery barrages during the night,” Wetzel noted. “Many destroyed enemy fortifications were found during the day.”

Getting to the top

Dolan remembers it was “a tough hump up the ridge” that day as he remained in communication with the Charlie Company commander, who had his troops just to the East of Alpha Company. Bravo Company was also on the move.

The plan, just like the one during World War II at San Pietro, had worked. All that remained was to move on the ridge line atop the mountain and finish off an NVA force that had been badly beaten by ground and air forces, but not yet defeated.

“The Charlie Company commander and I were on the phone together as the two companies approached the crest of the ridge and then started to move toward each other,” Dolan remembered. “A couple of NVA soldiers were caught on the trail at the top of the ridge, as Alpha and Charlie moved toward each other.”

One of them was a young NVA officer killed by the approaching forces. Alpha and Charlie companies then created a two company perimeter at the top of the ridge.

Alpha company soldiers had left their packs at the last night logger position, which is a perimeter.

“On the way up the ridge, the men of Alpha carried some water and what we would need to close with the enemy – weapons, ammo, grenades, radios, etc. The intent was to have our packs airlifted to us after we got to the top of the ridge and had created a landing zone,” Dolan remembered.

But the weather, as it had for most of the week, didn’t cooperate.

“There was constant rain, and the fog and clouds totally socked us in at our elevation, which at this part of the ridge was about 2,200 feet,” Dolan said. “The choppers could not get our packs out to us.”

With their packs below them, the Alpha Company soldiers didn’t have any food; or the ponchos, poncho liners, or air mattresses that normally provided some protection from the elements, Dolan said. It was cold and raining and not a good night to be without proper gear.

That was the bad news about the first night near the top of Nui Chom. The good news was much better.

“We didn’t have any contact with the NVA after dark that night,” Dolan said.

Charlie Company’s 3rd Platoon captured a well-supplied NVA hospital. An NVA doctor and two female nurses tried to escape, but were also captured.

“The doctor had received orders from high command to leave everything behind and move north,” Wetzel noted. The doctor said they had treated more than 60 injured NVA fighters in the week of the Nui Chom battle.

One of the Charlie Company’s soldiers, Tony La Polio, described the hospital in detail in the 1969 magazine article by Sgt. George Hawkins. It was about 20 feet by 50 feet, mostly made of bamboo with a green canvas serving as the roof. There was also a storage tunnel. There was an operating room and table with a well-stocked pharmacy that had more than 30 different kinds of medicines, including penicillin and morphine.

There were medical texts and journals, some written in Chinese and some in Vietnamese. The hospital was resupplied every five days, the doctor told his captors.

The hard work was almost over.

The Battle of Nui Chom

Part 1: Lt. Col. Sam Wetzel takes command of 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment

Part 2: Getting ready for the fight

Part 3: The first shots are fire on Nui Chom

Part 4: Making a plan on how to attack Nui Chom

Part 5: “He altered the name on my bullet”

Today/Part 6: Finishing off the climb to the top

Part 7: Thanksgiving dinner on the top of Nui Chom

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