After 50 years retired general still prays for men he served with, but didn’t make it home
Three days after the initial contact by Lt. John Dolan and his team, all of the companies of the 4th Battalion, 31st Regiment were on the move up Nui Chom.
Lt. Col. Sam Wetzel was already looking at what would come next because he knew a fierce and difficult fight awaited as the Americans got closer to the top of Nui Chom.
“We needed a landing zone on the mountain to evacuate the wounded and bring in the supplies,” he noted. “There was a shelf-like area near Charlie Company’s location that I thought would be suitable.”
Wetzel secured two chainsaws and jumped into the command helicopter with pilot Mike Riley.
Under enemy fire, Wetzel lowered the chainsaws to the troops. Lt. Stan Cantrelle, a Charlie Company platoon leader, was on the ground when the chainsaws arrived.
“I remember cutting down the trees to get supplies to us,” Cantrelle said decades later in an email to Wetzel. “That was some dense jungle.”
Wetzel and the command helicopter got out of there.
“We were lucky, we only got a few holes,” Wetzel said.
The air war on Nui Chom was heating up. Wetzel ordered seven air strikes and five F-4 Phantom jets were part of that effort. To the left of Charlie Company, the ground war was raging for Alpha Company, commanded by Capt. Billy Braswell. First Lt. Kevin Burke, raised in Iowa and a graduate of Notre Dame, was a platoon leader in Alpha Company.
From the time Wetzel took battalion command in July, Burke had lobbied to lead a rifle platoon in the field.
“I finally relented,” Wetzel remembered. “I said, ‘Kevin, go to Alpha Company and keep your head down.’”
While moving up the mountain trail that day, Alpha Company spotted an NVA observation post and fortified bunker complex. Alpha Company had walked into a trap.
There was a trail with ridge lines on both sides.
Jack Bisbee remembers that about half the First Platoon had waked through before the NVA opened fire. Small arms and machine gun fired poured out of the bunkers. A reality of war set in for Bisbee.
“Somebody once told me that combat is terrifying, brutal and deadly,” he said.
There is also adrenaline and fear, Bisbee said.
“Once you get over that fear, you’re OK,” Bisbee said. “Then, you just don’t care if you live or die. … If you worry about it, you will be full of fear all the time. You just can’t care. I hit the point where I couldn’t care less if I lived or died.”
Sgt. Danny Hudson of Chadron, Neb., was walking point. Sgt. James Larrick, a squad leader from Alexandria, Va., was also in the lead group. They had walked into an extensive NVA bunker complex that was about to stop the company’s advance up the mountain dead in its tracks.
Four soldiers, including Hudson and Larrick, were shot. Hudson was killed and Larrick was seriously wounded.
“We got word that a number of guys had been separated and were pinned down on low ground about 20 or 30 meters from our position,” Rodney McFee recalled.
Burke asked for volunteers to perform a rescue mission. About 15 men raised their hands. Burke was convincing in his account of what needed to be done and his men responded, McFee said.
“When he explained the situation to us, every man said, ‘Let’s go. We are sure as hell not doing any damage here,’” McFee said.
They crawled about 15 meters and spotted an injured soldier about 10 meters ahead. Burke ordered cover fire and got in a crouched position to try to recover the man, McFee said.
“I can still see him going for that man, the helmet jolt back and the lieutenant dropping,” McFee said.
The radio was cracking and Burke’s men returned fire. A soldier to the right of McFee was hit and his lower jaw was missing, but he was alive.
“Word came through the radio to pull back because artillery was preparing to close fire,” McFee said.
The Alpha Company platoon rounded up the wounded the best they could, but were unable to get to Burke’s body or to Larrick, the soldier Burke was trying to save. Two more soldiers found themselves well in front of the rest of the company and in imminent danger.
Medic “Doc” Stafford had, in his words, “gone too far out,” in an effort to reach an injured soldier he only knew as “Smiley,” who had initially been shot in the arm a few inches above his wrist. Stafford went toward Smiley, crawling the final 15 meters.
“I thought I had backup, but I didn’t because the fire was so intense,” Stafford said.
He found himself in a sea of noise and smoke and alone with an injured soldier. Stafford, a 19-year-old kid from the East Hampton, N.Y., area who volunteered a year earlier to be an Army medic, was doing what he normally did when taking enemy fire, “I was praying they didn’t hit me.”
It was in Stafford’s job description to move toward the fire sometimes to assist the wounded. As he was also trying to help the injured soldier, he realized they were pinned down in a way that was probably not going to end well.
“There was no one around me,” Stafford said. “The fire was pretty intense.”
An unexplainable act of valor
Every time that Stafford would try to move “Smiley” to safety, more shots would ring out. The bullets were missing Stafford, but Smiley was struck again. And the shots were coming from the NVA bunkers. Cpl. Michael Crescenz was in a small group that could see Stafford and the injured soldier were trapped.
Crescenz was raised in Philadelphia and enlisted in the Army in February 1968, less than two years after graduating from Cardinal Dougherty High School. When the Battle of Nui Chom started, he had only been in Vietnam for two months. He was known in his unit as “a good kid who loved to talk about sports.”
Crescenz secured one of the platoon’s machine guns and made a one-man charge toward Stafford, about 100 meters away. As it was later noted in the Medal of Honor citation, Crescenz “left the relative safety of his own position.”
He voluntarily walked into a firestorm because where he was going was anywhere but safe. There were multiple NVA bunkers between him and his pinned down brothers. When he reached the first bunker, Crescenz opened fire, killing two NVA fighters. He did it again with the second, then a third bunker.
He had killed six of the enemy before reaching Stafford.
The whole time Crescenz was firing, the NVA fighters were shooting back.
“Everyone I think had backed up because the fire was so intense,” Stafford recalled. “They were all popping out of these bunkers and Michael was shooting at them.”
Crescenz was closing in on Stafford and the injured man.
“Suddenly, intense machine gun fire erupted from an unseen, camouflaged bunker,” the Medal of Honor citation reads. “Realizing the danger to his fellow soldiers, Cpl. Crescenz disregarded the barrage of hostile fire directed at him and daringly advanced toward the position.”
By this time Crescenz was maybe a foot from Stafford.
“He went around me and said, ‘Don’t worry about it,’” Stafford remembers.
Still wielding his machine gun,“ Crescenz was within 5 meters of the bunker when he was mortally wounded by the fire from the enemy machine gun,” according to the citation.
And he was just in front of Stafford.
Stafford watched as Crescenz was shot in the head.
He was in the splatter zone. “I wore it,” Stafford said.
It was obvious to Stafford that Crescenz was dead, but he checked for a pulse to make certain. Even today, it is difficult for Stafford to talk about those minutes of his life when a fellow soldier died in an act of bravery that Stafford can’t fully explain or understand.
“I know he saved my life that day,” Stafford said. “They used to say if a bullet has your name on it, that’s it. I think that day, Michael Crescenz altered the name on my bullet.”
Stafford is not the only one convinced that Crescenz’s actions saved lives.
That was the case Wetzel made when he nominated him for the Medal of Honor.
“As a direct result of his heroic actions, his company was able to maneuver freely with minimal danger and to complete its mission, defeating the enemy,” the citation reads. “Cpl. Crescenz’s bravery and extraordinary heroism at the cost of his life are in the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit on himself, his unit, and the U.S. Army.”
Fifty years later and with the experience of 34 years of military leadership, Wetzel calls what Crescenz did on that mountain unbelievable.
“What he did to save his buddies by going up to four bunkers to take them out so they could move up the hill, was the most heroic thing I have ever seen in combat,” Wetzel said.
The long night
After Crescenz was killed, Stafford knew he and Smiley could be next if he did not figure out a way to escape the situation. He was able to drag Smiley into a hole that turned out to be a part of one of the partially exposed NVA bunkers. By that time, Smiley was in shock and Stafford was able to stabilize him the best he could under the difficult circumstances. Stafford made a decision: They were not going to die in that bunker.
Stafford got up and tried to pick up Smiley and make their way out. Stafford tripped over a root in the dense jungle and began to fall.
He felt a thud against his helmet and thought he had been shot, however, the bullet just grazed the top of his head.
Dizzy, Stafford tried to get Smiley out of there, but his strength was gone. Stafford began to call for help, but that was fruitless in the roar of battle. He sought what cover he could and fired his M-16 until he exhausted all the ammo, then began using his .45.
At some point, day turned to night. The enemy was so close, Stafford could hear them jabbering.
“I was sure my time to die was here,” he said.
By the end of the day’s fight, the bodies of Hudson, Burke and Crescenz had not been recovered. They were listed as Missing in Action, as was Sgt. Larrick.
Though Stafford and “Smiley” were not officially listed as missing, they were certainly far from safe.
“But for the grace of God we both survived,” Stafford said.
They lived through the night and were able to get back to the platoon the next morning. “Smiley” was evacuated by medical helicopter. Stafford had an option to stay or go.
“I stayed with my platoon,” he said.
Stafford was still thinking about Crescenz and what he had done.
“Mike saved me and probably the whole platoon,” Stafford said.
Wetzel still has one question about what Crescenz did that day.
“Why did he all of a sudden pick up that machine gun?” Wetzel asks.
An aborted rescue attempt
The battle was now entering its fourth day and the climb was not getting any easier, though the heavy rains had finally subsided. The ground was wet and slippery and it was getting much steeper as the Americans got closer to the top. Aerial surveillance discovered what many of the soldiers on the ground already knew — there were elements that supported a company-sized NVA force at the mountain’s summit.
As light broke, NVA fire came from a bunker that had been destroyed the previous day. A soldier in Charlie Company was injured in the burst. Charlie, Alpha and Bravo companies were now in bunker-infested territory that appeared to be the perimeter of a much larger camp.
Wetzel called in the “Blue Ghost” gunships, heavily fortified planes that would rain down bullets and bombs, to rake the area with fire. He then called for more tactical air strikes, Wetzel knew where the enemy soldiers were and he was going to do all he could to soften the blow before his battalion walked into the next phase of the battle.
“The fighters dropped 500-pound and 750-pound bombs on the top of the north side of the mountain to thwart any attempt by the NVA to move in reinforcements,” Wetzel said.
The effort was designed for one purpose — to cripple the enemy. Wetzel also made a command decision that day. Trench foot due to wet jungle conditions was racing through Delta Company, the unit that had made the initial contact with the enemy. Much of that unit was sent to a rear position to recover and be treated.
Alpha Company went back to try to recover the bodies of the four men — Hudson, Burke, Crecsenz and Larrick — believed to have been killed the day before.
They were officially still listed by the Army as Missing in Action, but the men who had been there the day before knew better. As an Alpha Company platoon penetrated the bunker complex where the firefight had occurred the day before, they found Larrick was still alive.
Shot five times, the sergeant had crawled into one of the knocked-out enemy bunkers. Spec. John Shields went to Larrick and had him halfway out of the bunker, when a burst of automatic fire struck him in the back.
Shields managed, without Larrick, to crawl back to his squad. Two more men who attempted to reach Larrick were also forced back by heavy fire.
Larrick yelled for his men to pull back and leave him before the platoon suffered any more casualties, Wetzel was told.
Reluctantly, his men withdrew and left a bleeding, seriously injured Larrick in the bunker.
Dolan, the platoon commander who had been in the thick of the Nui Chom battle from the outset, was about to be given a field promotion to Alpha Company commander by Wetzel.
“It’s my recollection that it was on Nov. 21 on LZ West that Lt. Col. Wetzel told me that he wanted me to take command of Alpha Company, and that I actually took command on Nov. 22,” Dolan said.
The Battle of Nui Chom
Today/Part 5: “He altered the name on my bullet”