Fort Benning

Sam Wetzel: ‘You were the most gallant fighting soldiers I saw in my entire 34 years in the Army’

Then Maj. Gen. Charles M. Gettys, commander of the Americal Division, pins the Silver Star on Lt. John Dolan for actions on Nov. 17, the first day of the Nui Chom battle.  Lt. Col. Sam Wetzel is on the left edge of the picture.
Then Maj. Gen. Charles M. Gettys, commander of the Americal Division, pins the Silver Star on Lt. John Dolan for actions on Nov. 17, the first day of the Nui Chom battle. Lt. Col. Sam Wetzel is on the left edge of the picture.

On the morning of Nov. 24, Lt. Col. Sam Wetzel and three companies of the 4th Battalion, 31st Regiment were now atop Nui Chom.

They could see down into the Antenna Valley below, which was controlled by the U.S. Marines. It was a beautiful view, Wetzel said.

Wetzel wanted to see from the ground what his men had fought an entire week to secure.

“I was talking to some of our men, and I noticed a dead NVA lieutenant in a fresh khaki uniform,” Wetzel said.

The NVA officer was one of the last men killed in the battle the day before by Alpha Company. Wetzel bent over and took a small Chinese pistol from the officer’s holster. Wetzel then turned and gave it one of his men — to this day he can’t tell you who — as a souvenir of war and a token of victory.

There was a huge human toll to get to the top of that hill.

It was a hard-fought battle that resulted in the deaths of five American soldiers — First Lt. Kevin Burke, Anita, Iowa; Cpl. Michael Crescenz, Philadelphia; Sgt. Danny Hudson, Chadron, Neb.; Spec. Thomas Dickerson, Thomaston, Ga.; and Cpl. Harold Glover, Silver City, N.C. Another 38 Americans were wounded and had to be evacuated from a force of about 600 men, Wetzel said..

When it was over, there were 26 NVA bodies found on the mountainside. A captured NVA doctor told the Americans that more than 60 NVA fighters had been wounded in the battle.

A few things became clear from the top of the mountain, the most obvious was the artillery barrage had worked to perfection. Although the area was still wooded and rocky, the ground vegetation was not nearly as thick as it was lower on the mountain.

And while the bombs and artillery had not pierced the thick rock, it done something just as good. During the fight, NVA soldiers had been pinned down in a cave by the damaged rock. Other NVA fighters had fled to the north as the Americans took control of Nui Chom.

Dolan, now the Alpha Company commander, was one of the men standing with Wetzel on the top of Nui Chom. It was more than appropriate. When the battle had started a week earlier, Dolan was a young officer leading a Delta Company platoon, and reconnaissance team that drew first contact.

By the time they reached the summit, Dolan was a company commander, battle-tested and greatly trusted by Wetzel and others.

He volunteered for the Army and received a Regular Army Commission out of the ROTC program at Georgetown University. Being designated a Distinguished Military Graduate and accepting a Regular Army Commission meant that Dolan’s military obligation would be extended by two years.

But it also meant he would get essential training at Fort Benning prior to going to Vietnam.

“What was most meaningful to me however was that it also gave me the opportunity to go to Ranger School, which was extremely important to me since I knew that I would one day be leading an Infantry Platoon in Vietnam, and Airborne School; after completing the Infantry Officer’s Basic Course at Fort Benning,” Dolan said.

When he finished the training, he was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, until he went to Vietnam in July of 1968. He was 23 years old when he got to Vietnam and he was among the oldest men in his platoon and company. Wetzel was the veteran at 39.

As they stood on the mountain top, Dolan informed Wetzel he was about to accompany a platoon on a sweep of the area. Wetzel wanted to go with the men and Wetzel asked Dolan a simple question: “Where’s the front?”

“Right here,” Dolan responded.

Five days after the fighting subsided and the 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Division controlled the top of Nui Chom, it was Thanksgiving Day.

It was a day to feast, even if the meal had to be flown in. Stan Satcher, one of the men with Capt. Sid Ordway when the battle began Nov. 17, was on the crest of Nui Chom when the helicopters brought in the food.

“We had to blast an area with C-4 so the choppers could lower down the food crates,” Satcher remembered. “They couldn’t get too much lower so they started throwing the food out the doors.”

Milk, fruit and other food was flying all over the place, Satcher said.

“We didn’t get all of our stuff, but we got enough to feed us,” Satcher said.

Wetzel remembers that Thanksgiving, as well.

There was a group of South Vietnamese Special Forces soldiers alongside the Americans. They did what people do -- they shared their bounty with the South Vietnamese.

“We fed them that Thanksgiving meal and they all got sick as dogs,” Wetzel remembered. “Their stomachs couldn’t handle all that food.”

As he ate that meal atop Nui Chom, Satcher remembers exactly what he was most thankful for.

“Being able to wake up that morning,” he said.

The aftermath

What happened on Nui Chom had far-reaching impact. One of those who has dealt with that week her entire life is Tonya Caldwell, who is 50 and lives in Pell City, Ala. Her father, Spec. Thomas Dickerson, was killed on the last day of fighting near the top of the mountain.

She has talked to a number of the men where in Bravo Company with her father. Roberto Delgado is one of the men who was there.

“He found me and he has become a very loved member of our family,” Caldwell said.

Delgado and the others have shared information with Caldwell about her dad.

A couple of years ago, she held a memorial service for her father at his graveside in Thomaston, Ga. Delgado drove in from New York.

“I was only four months old when my dad died,” she said. “We never met and. I have no memories of his funeral. The memorial service was a very healing thing for me.”

The memorial service for her dad, gave her the strength to go to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C.

“I participated in the reading of the names, and was able to read Daddy’s and Mr. Glover’s name,” Caldwell said. “I was so honored.”

Dolan looks at that time in his life in a little different way than some.

“Looking back 50 years to the Nui Chom Battle and the soldiers who fought it, I feel eternal gratitude for the gift of having been able to serve my Country in ground combat with such extraordinary men,” Dolan said. “I believe that all of us who served in 4- 31 Infantry at Nui Chom, and at any time in the second half of 1968, were specially blessed to have had Lt, Col. Sam Wetzel leading our battalion in battle.”

In the years after the war, William “Doc” Stafford struggled with what happened on Nov. 20, 1968. He know that Crescenz took a bullet that could have killed him.

Stafford went to counseling for years and became a counselor in New York.

“One of the reasons I am a counselor is because it’s self-therapy for me,” he said.

Stafford and Wetzel have become close and communicate regularly. Wetzel talked about that relationship recently as he was holding a sheet of those who died under his command in Vietnam.

The retired three-star general was asked what his men died for?

“For their buddies,” he said. “They fought for each other in the same squad or platoon. They never forget each other. There’s a medic who’s not listed here, Doc Stafford. He keeps in close contact with me. He is the guy who saw Crescenz run by while he was tending the wound. Here comes Crescenz running past him, saying, ‘I will take care of you’ and he got shot. Doc ran over and really gave him his last rites on the battle field.”

Wetzel knows that Crescenz’s bravery altered history.

“If Crescenz hadn’t done what he did, Doc would have been killed,” Wetzel said.

It has been difficult for Stafford to live with for the last 50 years.

“Doc’s a good man,” Wetzel said. “He knows that Crescenz saved his life.”

Others in the unit have reached out to Wetzel over the years. More than 15 years ago, Jack Bisbee was going to Florida from Nebraska when he called Fort Benning and asked to speak to the officer on duty. Wetzel was long retired, but Bisbee had read that Wetzel was living near Fort Benning.

“I told him I served in Vietnam with a guy named Sam Wetzel,” Bisbee said. “I said he was a battalion commander and I asked if he was still at Fort Benning.”

The officer asked Bisbee what business he had with General Wetzel. With little luck reaching Wetzel that way, he called information and got the general’s phone number.

They talked for a long time.

“He told me I was the first guy who had ever contacted him,” Bisbee said.

The two met one afternoon at Wetzel’s home in Green Island Hills.

“I am sitting there having coffee with a three-star general,” Bisbee said. “We went over a lot of things.”

At one point, Bisbee told Wetzel he didn’t know if he was a good soldier.

“I’ll never forget what he told me in his house,” Bisbee said. “’Every guy in my battalion is a hero. Every one of them,’ That stuck with me and made me feel a lot better.”

If Wetzel could gather his troops 50 years later, he would have a similar message.

“You were the most gallant fighting soldiers I saw in my entire 34 years in the Army,” Wetzel said. “I am proud of every one of you. What you did on Nui Chom Mountain and elsewhere was really unbelievable and hard for people to understand.”

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”

Part 6: Finishing off the climb to the top

Last in a series: Thanksgiving dinner on the top of Nui Chom