After 50 years retired general still prays for men he served with, but didn’t make it home
There was a way to fight the North Vietnamese Army on their steep and jungle-infested turf, and it came straight out of World War II.
It was a battle Lt. Col. Sam Wetzel had studied and taught as an ROTC leader. At Idaho State University 12 years earlier, Wetzel had used the December 1943 WWII battle of San Pietro in Italy during his instruction.
There was a controversial documentary of the battle of San Pietro released in May 1945. That film was part of Wetzel’s class. It was a nine-day battle in which Allied forces attacked and defeated heavily fortified German forces on the hills near San Pietro Infine The battle produced high causalities and civilian deaths.
It was a slow fight up the rocky mountain with the Allied troops using a lot of artillery, mortar fire and airstrikes.
The situation Wetzel and the men of the 4th Battalion, 31st Regiment found on Nui Chom was similar. And he had been thinking about it long before Lt. John Dolan, Capt. Sid Ordway and their men walked into the enemy’s camp.
“The San Pietro battle just popped in my head as I looked at the size of the mountain, and I thought about how we were going to attack the enemy on it,” Wetzel said. “I wanted to have as few casualties as possible with lots of air strikes, artillery and mortars. I did not realize until we finished the fight up the hill that they had more than 250, two-man bunkers with interlocking fire.”
The impressive part is Wetzel used his memory and not a military history book to formulate the plan according to San Pietro.
“I looked at the map and saw that there were three fingers going up Nui Chom, and attacking with three companies would get as many infantry fighters going up together as possible, supported by the air strikes, artillery and mortars,” Wetzel said. “It worked. I also knew we needed another company from the right flank on up the hill and I asked Col. (Frederick) Kroesen for a company from 2/1 Infantry to assist us. He agreed.”
But the soldiers were dealing with the human element of battle, not a plan ripped from military history. And it was clear on the second day of the battle this was going to be a lengthy fight.
Wetzel was on the ground at the start of the second day. He met with Dolan to get a first-hand account of what happened on the hill the day before.
“Lt. Dolan told me that the leaders of his platoon and all of the platoons of Delta Company acted on their own initiative the day before,” Wetzel said. “... Men and leaders literally moved to the sound of gunfire and took the action they saw needed to be taken.”
It was the right thing to do under the difficult circumstances, Wetzel immediately concluded.
“In doing so, they insured the lead elements were supported, enemy fire was suppressed and casualties were moved to safety and evacuated,” Wetzel said. “The NVA force that was fighting from fixed positions and had his company greatly outnumbered, chose to break contact and withdraw rather than continue to fight.”
The small group of Delta Company soldiers had sent the enemy scurrying up the mountain. Wetzel then put the three-fingered battle plan into play. First, he ordered Alpha Company, commanded by Capt. Bill Braswell of Henderson, N.C., to the left of Delta Company and to start up the mountain.
Time to move
The next move was to alert Charlie Company, commanded by 1st Lt. Dickie Dixon of North Liberty, Ind., to prepare to be moved by air to the Delta Company position on the mountain. He ordered Bravo Company moved to a ridge to the right of Charlie Company. He was putting the pieces in place.
But he wanted more men, so Wetzel asked the 196th Brigade commander, Col. Kroesen, for an additional company and the request was granted.
“I wanted this company to be able to move to and attack from the right flank at the top of the mountain,” Wetzel said.
The troops began the climb.
Jack Bisbee was part of Alpha Company that began the assent on Wetzel’s orders. The soldiers were in the field, maybe three or four clicks, the military term for a kilometer, from Nui Chom, Bisbee remembered.
“I had never heard of Nui Chom before then,” he said.
About 3 a.m., Braswell ordered his men to “saddle up,” and they began walking into the darkness and rain.
“We had no idea where we were going,” Bisbee said.
But they marched, about 100 strong. When they reached the mountain, the conditions worsened.
“You couldn’t see the guy in front of you,” Bisbee said. “I remember those trails were slippery and when we started to get into the mountains, it was really steep.”
The men were tired and anxious, Bisbee said.
“We knew something was up,” he said. “We just didn’t know what.”
But they did know the movement was a response to members of Delta Company being hit the day before.
One scout, Pfc. Julio Colon of Santurce, Puerto Rico, was at the lead for Alpha Company.
“His nickname was ‘Pee Wee,’ and he was just 5-foot-6 and 105 pounds,” Wetzel remembered. “Pee Wee was a tunnel rat and Capt. Braswell promised him a three-day pass if he could find an enemy weapon.”
Colon did one better as he moved about 400 meters ahead of his company. He found a tunnel with about 20 NVA fighters packed inside. Before he could pick up anything, three NVA approached Colon. They called out to Pee Wee in Vietnamese, Wetzel remembered.
“He fired his .45-caliber pistol and ran like hell zig-zagging back down the mountain,” Wetzel said.
Alpha Company on the move
Alpha Company was sent to the position Colon had vacated to verify the story. All they found was one enemy rifle — enough to earn Colon his three-day pass.
Wetzel ordered the artillery assault on the mountain to continue. Wetzel also requested additional artillery support. On the night of Nov. 19, an Alpha Company medic, Sgt. William “Doc” Stafford, remembers fireballs flying overhead.
The incoming was courtesy of the battleship USS New Jersey.
With the Nui Chom battle starting to take hold, Martin’s ace in the hole was the additional ammunition he had on hand — the same stash that had brought him the ire of a colonel a week earlier. From a position at the base of Nui Chom across the river, the artillery crew, probably about 40 soldiers, were shooting rounds into the mountain at the NVA encampments up the hill, though they had no idea the size of the enemy force or the depth they were dug into the mountainside.
“We started firing early in the morning,” Martin said.
He got a call from the command asking how he was on ammunition.
“I said, ‘Don’t worry about me, just give me the commands,’” Martin said.
By 9 a.m., the artillery unit was starting to run low. Wetzel’s command helicopter was bringing in what it could, about 13 rounds at a time because of weight restrictions.
But because of the extra ammunition, Lloyd Martin and his men were able to keep firing until the skies cleared and a Chinook helicopter brought in more. Martin had a direct request for the pilot: His guns would ceasefire and the Chinook could come in from the rear and drop the load in the middle of his guns.
“And I told him he better back out or I would blow him out of the sky,” Martin said.
Martin never got to properly thank that pilot.
“I wish I could see him today and thank him, because that is exactly what he did,” Martin said. In fact, as the Chinook was leaving, Martin and his men resumed firing underneath the helicopter.
“If looks could have killed, he probably would have shot me,” Martin said.
The Battle of Nui Chom
Today/Part 4: Making a plan on how to attack Nui Chom