The Day Smith Died

The Day Smith Died

by: john harrison

Me, James Albert Bunn, (KIA) my platoon sergeant, John Geraci, CO 3/506th Abn Inf, Tom Gaffney CO Company A 3/506thAbn Inf, Bob Mairs S-3 3/506th Abn Inf. Photo Jerry Berry

Me, James Albert Bunn, (KIA) my platoon sergeant, John Geraci, CO 3/506th Abn Inf, Tom Gaffney CO Company A 3/506thAbn Inf, Bob Mairs S-3 3/506th Abn Inf. Photo by Jerry Berry, 3/506th PIO.

 

I saved PFC John Smith’s* life three days before he was killed. In 1968, I was the platoon leader of the Second Platoon, A Company, 3d Battalion of the 506th Infantry (Airborne), 101st Airborne Division. Smith was one of my men.

On the last day of January 1968 we were based at LZ Betty around an airfield just outside of Phan Thiet, which is a small city in the middle, and on the coast of the South China Sea of what was then the Republic of South Vietnam (RVN). Since we had been told to expect an attack in force against our perimeter around the airfield that night, we were aggressively patrolling the wire around our well fortified base that afternoon to clear the area in front of our defenses.

PhanThietMap

Some of the land in front of the airfield was chopped up into small fields with tall, thick, hedgerows separating them almost like the ones that I had read about in Normandy after D Day in France during World War II. Our hedgerows were six or more feet tall, three or four feet thick at the base and were often massive, rock hard, earthen berms topped by thick, tough, green, twisted and snarled but very prickly vegetation. When you went through a hedgerow into another field you were cut off from the rest of the platoon behind you, and from their support. You could not even see them.

Because the terrain was so tight, I was walking right behind the point man so that I would be up front where the action started, when it started and would not have to move up through fire to find out what was going on. Smith was my point man. Therefore, I was his slack man as well as his platoon leader. The slack man’s job is to wait until the point man has fired a full magazine at the enemy and then the slack man fires at the enemy as the point man reloads.  He literally takes up the slack.

After the slack man has fired a full magazine, the first squad, under the covering fire of the point man and then the slack man was supposed to have moved up on line.  At that point, as the platoon leader, I would have a decision to make, either to attack immediately, or to maneuver the two trailing squads right or left. On this day, it was all run-n-gun, so we usually just attacked immediately; killed or captured the VC and kept right on moving.

We had just climbed up through a hedgerow and into a new field. Smith, Hal Dobie, of Yakima, Washington, my RTO (Radio Telephone Operator) and me were the only ones in that field. This field was narrower than the others, so our left and right flanks were in the adjacent also hedgerow lined fields on our left and right. While we could not see our flankers, we kept in constant voice contact with them as we moved forward. The rest of 2nd platoon and A Company were coming along in platoon column formations behind us.

It had been a running gun battle all day; we were moving fast and had been rolling up, killing or capturing irreplaceable VC cadre in those hedgerows. It was Tet, the first day of the Tet Offensive, 1968.  So far, the day had been a turkey shoot. These guys, they turned out to be the VC Province Chief, his assistant, a VC tax collector, a senior VC intelligence officer and several other VC had all been just no match for our combat hardened, veteran paratroopers, the famous Currahees of the 101st Airborne Division.

Whatever else may be said about Tet, the local force VC around Phan Thiet never recovered from that battle. We were never again surprised near Phan Thiet.  As 1968 moved on we more often than not surprised the NVA battalions and even Main Force VC units as they moved around Binh Thuan Province. Tet was an utter military and political disaster for the VC in Vietnam, its other political effects at home in the US to the contrary notwithstanding.

We were a separate battalion, the 3rd of the 506th, of a separate brigade, the 1st Brigade, of the 101st Airborne Division. The word “separate” by our battalion name means that we fought independently from any other American unit. During Tet 1968, since everyone else in country was busy too, we were very much on our own in Phan Thiet, RVN.

That was fine with us. “Currahee”, a Cherokee Indian word and the 506th’s motto means,”Stands Alone”. The Currahees had earned our nickname at Bastogne in World War II, now we would earn it again in Vietnam.

Although it is not generally known, Phan Thiet had once been the home of Ho Chi Minh. It was where he had worked as a teacher right before World War II. Phan Thiet was also a place that we later heard that Vo Nyguen Giap, the North Vietnam Defense Minister, had personally promised Ho Chi Minh that he would take from the Americans in his first wave of attacks. In 1968, during Tet, Phan Thiet was, riveting.6801801 - Phan Thiet-City and Peninsuula.NEPhan Thiet from the air. Most of the round white dots you see were caused by airstrikes. Photo by Jerry Berry, 3/506th PIO.

In contrast to what I have sometimes read about some other areas of Vietnam, our intelligence in Phan Thiet about planned VC operations was often very good. During and before Tet ‘68, contrary to all reports that we were surprised, the intelligence was right on target. We knew when they were coming. We knew where they were coming. And, we knew both in time to prepare. You cannot do better than that as an intelligence operative.

The VC were planning to hit our perimeter around our airfield, named LZ Betty, and they had placed a large part of the entire VC cadre of Binh Thuan Province around the LZ Betty perimeter in the hedgerows to act as guides for the sappers, and the hardcore VC and Main Force NVA  units that were to make the actual assault on our base. All day we had been killing, or capturing those guides, mostly killing them.

Suddenly, when we were about halfway across the narrow field, a man surged out of the hedgerow in front of us. He was firing a pistol at us, a little Russian Tokerev pistol I noted automatically. I yelled at Smith to shoot him, but Smith just looked on at the man as he ran toward him, shooting that pistol at Smith all the way. Smith still just stared at the man as I shouted at him again to shoot him. Even then, Smith did not return fire.

The man was running toward all three of us. He had started running toward us from about fifty feet away. By now he was only about thirty or so feet away, and he was still firing that pistol at us.

Things can happen incredibly fast in combat, but this all happened in slow motion for me. That man, like a lucky NFL quarterback avoiding a sack, seemed to have had all the time in the world to shoot his pistol at us. Since Smith would not shoot him, I started shooting him. My RTO, Hal Dobie was behind me and could not get a clear shot, but I could, and I did.

Like a trained infantryman, I counted the rounds out in my mind as I fired them. Starting a little below his waist and ending in his head, I shot him exactly sixteen times. I could see little puffs of dust as each 5.56mm bullet from my rifle drove home into his body. Even on his face, I could see the little dust puffs thrown up by each bullet’s impact.

It was not like Sam Peckinpaugh’s classic movie, The Wild Bunch, at all. It is not blood splattering that you see in real life when you shot someone. It is dust. A little puff of dust blew up as each bullet smashed its way into the man’s body. I was surprised to see that even on his face a little puff of dust would fly up at the bullet’s impact.

The blood, often in a pink haze, comes out the back, but only if the bullet punches its way all the way through the man’s body which the lightweight M-16 bullets rarely did. However, even if the little 5.56mm, M16 bullet punches its way through, if you are the one doing the shooting, you can’t see that pink haze coming out the back. The rest of the body blocks your view.

But still he fired at us, my bullets slamming into him and all, but still he fired that pistol. Now he was firing at us from less than fifteen feet away. He was still running toward us. He was still shooting.

I did not have time to wonder how many rounds his little gun had held. I was worried I was going to run out of bullets for my own rifle. My magazine had held only eighteen rounds when I started shooting at the man with the pistol. I was sure I was going to have to beat him on the head with my M-16 after I fired the last bullet into this man that would not lie down and die. He was dead. I had shot him many times, including several times in the head.

He had to be dead, but he was still shooting at me. I was still shooting at him. I was hitting him. I could see each of my bullets hit him. He was missing. At least me, he was missing. I was pretty sure he was missing me.

So, I aimed carefully and squeezed the trigger as fast as I could, still carefully counting each time my rifle fired a bullet. A trained infantryman is never surprised when he fires the last round in a magazine. He counts the bullets out, drops the magazine immediately after the last one fires and then reloads. Even though I was a 2nd Lieutenant, I was trying very hard to act like a trained infantryman.

Finally, Spec 4 Francis Edwards came through the hedgerow behind us and put the better part of thirty rounds from his M-60 machine gun into the man. I did not know then that Edwards’ assistant gunner, Ed Blanco, had practically thrown him through the hedgerow when he heard our firing in front of him. Blanco had tried to follow but he fell, tripped by those knarly bushes. By the time Blanco got there, it was all over.

Drawn by the firing, others, including Sergeant Ron Ford had put a few rounds into the man as well.  One bullet actually went down the barrel of his pistol. After it was over, we found he still had one bullet left in his magazine, so that bullet down the barrel of his pistol was probably what ended his shooting rather than the bullets in his body.

When the M-60 machine gun bullets had slammed into the VC’s body he stopped, and finally, fell backwards. After he fell, I took literally two steps forward still aiming my M-16 rifle at his head; we were that close by then. I had two bullets left. I looked down at him through the sights on my rifle. He was dead. Carefully I moved around his body and kicked his head a little. Finally, he was dead. I was sure. Then, I looked down at me. He had missed. He had completely missed.

After that I changed magazines on my M-16, chewed out Smith for not firing and we moved into the next, thankfully wider, hedge row encircled field as I brought the Captain, Tom Gaffney, up to date on the radio. That was only the middle of a very busy day for us.

Smith was still on point. Usually I rotated point men and the point squad to the rear of the platoon after each contact, but Smith had not fired so in a sense he had not been in this contact. However, Smith had never failed to fire before and it never happened again. He was one of my best point men and he and his squad did rotate to the back of the platoon after we found and killed the next VC guide.

The VC did not attack our base camp that night. They never attacked our base camp while we were there, and although they tried several times, they never took Phan Thiet while the Americans were in country. Neither Ho Chi Minh, nor Vo Nyguen Giap ever said if they were disappointed by their failure, but I hope they were.

Three days later, on another sweep during Tet, Smith at the head of a fire team walked into a house next to where we were stopping for a moment to check it out. Unfortunately, there were several VC in that house waiting for them. While the rest of the fire team escaped the house in the hail of bullets that followed them out of the house, Smith was shot and fell on his back on the raised front porch of a blue painted Big House (See map below) built of concrete blocks just outside of Phan Thiet proper.

That firing was the signal for all of the other VC and NVA in the area to open up on us, and there was an entire battalion of them. While we had avoided the ambush they had set up for us on the Cart Road they had expected us to walk down, there were an awful lot of them dug in along the Cart Road and all around the huge dry rice paddy in front of us. It was early in the day, before lunch, and Smith lay there on that porch and bled all day while the Second Platoon fought fiercely and ever more violently, to get to him.

ArialPhotoBlueHouse

The VC had lined the Cart Road (above) with bunkers and expected us to move down that road, right to left on the above aerial photo. However, we moved along the tree line below and parallel to the cart road leading to the Small House, which turned out to be behind both VC ambush sites. The area to the left of the Big House and the Small House was a huge dry rice paddy field. The VC had numerous bunkers ringing that field as well as their fighting positions on the Cart Road. The ring of bunkers around the open rice paddies was a second ambush set up to ambush a relief force coming in by helicopter to help a unit trapped by the first ambush on the Cart Road. However, we were behind rather than in front of all of their bunkers. The round white circles in the picture are bomb craters. Photo by Jerry Berry, 3/506th PIO.

We yelled to Smith to roll off the porch so that he would be easier to get to. Sergeant Ron Ford and Spec 4 Michael Trant did most of the yelling but Smith would not or could not roll. We tried everything we could think of to find a way to reach him.

We attempted to blow a hole in the side of the Big House so that we could get in there, kill the VC in the house and then drag him inside. I shot a case of LAWs (a Light Anti-tank Weapon also useful against bunkers, a 66 mm rocket in a disposable fiberglass firing tube) into that house and I requested satchel charges. The LAWs punched nice, but unfortunately small, round holes and sprayed the inside of the Big House with shrapnel. However, even if I had been able to blow a big enough hole in the concrete block wall, there was still all of that barbed wire in the way. There were three barbed wire fences running between the houses, each fence was a little more than hip high with three strands of wire, and no gates.

So, we tried to attack the Big House from its rear. My Platoon Sergeant James Bunn took Sergeant Stacy Raynor’s squad there as I called in air strikes, helicopter gun ships, 4.2 mortars and 105mm artillery in front and on both sides of the Small House we were in.

At first, we were being fired on from 360°. The 1st and 3rd platoons took care of the NVA in our rear, while helicopter gun ships call name “Tiger Shark” from the 192nd Assault Helicopter Company, Air Force F4 Phantom jets and 105 mm artillery from LZ Betty pounded the NVA units in our front, and on both sides, of us.

It was those incredible Phantom jets that won the firepower contest for us.  The FAC (Forward Air Controller), call sign “Jack Sprat” sent the Phantoms roaring in every time I asked.  He seemed to have an unlimited supply that day.  The F4 Phantom was the best fighter bomber in the world at the time, and in recognition of its record of downing large numbers of Soviet-built MiGs over North Vietnam, it was also known as the “World’s Leading Distributor of MiG Parts”.

A great aircraft flown by great people, I called it, savior, friend and guardian on the field of battle.  There are no words sufficient to describe what I felt about what the United States Air Force F4 Phantom close combat air support pilots did for us on that bloody day

.68031025 - Cpt - Version 2

“Jack Sprat” getting into his observation plane. Photo by Jerry Berry, PIO 3/506th taken at LZ Betty.

The Second Platoon lost more men that day than during any other single day of the war, but not all at once. Smith was hit at the very beginning of the battle, several minutes later George Schultz was hit, shot in the chest, as he returned fire from the front yard of the Small House that we were in.

Still later my Platoon Sergeant, James Bunn, was killed at the back door of the Big House, almost but not quite inside. While Jim Bunn did get a hand grenade, and fired an M-16 magazine into the back of the Big House, he was shot dead from a supporting spider hole.

Even later in the day, three more men were wounded taking Schultz back to the company CP (Command Post) to be medivaced. Several more of my men were also wounded as we fought during the day.

Late in the day a second Airborne rifle company, Captain William Landgraff’s Company B, 3/ 506th, came up to help. One of their platoons, led by Lt. Jim Kissinger, actually one of Captain Nick Nahas’s Charlie Company platoons, but operating with Bravo Company that day, joined us at the point of the spear, on the firing line. We had trained together in the states, now we fought together in Vietnam; and together we attacked the Big House again and again.

It was the only time in the war that no matter what I did, we could not achieve fire superiority sufficient to manuver. Even with the two rifle platoons firing together, that meant six M-60 machine guns on the firing line as well as all of the M-16s and M-79s we had firing together it was still not enough. Even crueler, although we had pounded them with airstrike after airstrike all day by multiple flights of two fighter-bombers each, usually F4 Phantoms, plus hours of 105mm artillery fire, 4.2 mortar fire and repeated helicopter gunship attacks as well, the enemy’s return fire never slackened no matter how many we killed, no matter how much we fired at them.

There were just too many of them in spite of everything still shooting at us, still trying to get closer and closer to us to avoid all of the air strikes and artillery that I was raining down on them through out the day. Finally, late in the day, as the sun was going down, we were ordered to leave.

When I got back to the company perimeter, our artillery FO (Forward Observer), Lt. Robert Richardson and I located the NVA positions for an artillery and heavy mortar barrage. We foolishly climbed up on a mound of dirt in the twilight to get a better look at where the shells would land.  However, we forgot that being on the dirt mound gave the enemy a better look at us as well.  We both dropped precipitously to the ground when a machine-gun opened up us, but Lt. Richardson had gotten a good enough look and when I called for it much later that night, he dropped the massive 105 mm strike, battery six—four quadrants—fire for effect, in the right place.

Later that night after we had set up the artillery strike, Sergeant Ron Ford and I led a small, all volunteer night patrol, some called it a suicide patrol, surreptitiously back to the Big House to recover our men.  When the call went out for volunteers, the night patrol was immediately over subscribed.  Among many others, the entire third platoon volunteered.  Since the idea was secrecy, I whittled it down to a few more than a dozen.

About three hundred men, all elite, all veteran paratroopers, fighting all day had not been able to penetrate the enemy position, but now we going to try it again, at night, this time with a little more than my dozen plus, patrol.  We drew ammunition and shortly after midnight we snuck quietly out of the company perimeter single file heading back to the Big House.

Almost at the Big House, our night patrol picked up the body of another fallen paratrooper. It was First Sergeant Phillip Chassion who had just replaced “Bull” Gergen, a full blooded Cherokee, as our Company First Sergeant. First Sergeant Chassion had been shot and killed trying to get to his friend, Jim Bunn. One of the night patrol, Sergeant Ray Mayfield knew where First Sergeant Chassion had fallen. Ray later received the Silver Star for leading a three man group out from our patrol that recovered First Sergeant Chassion’s body.

Unfortunately, we also picked up the attention of the NVA when we found that first body. From that point until we rejoined Alpha Company hours later we were under almost constant rifle fire and intermittent mortar fire from the enemy.

So the NVA were alerted and ready by the time we got to the Big House where Bunn and Smith were. Chris Adams was one of the team of three paratroopers that went up to that porch where Smith still laid. Even though they heard several NVA talking in the Big House, Chris and the two others were able to get Smith off of the porch and return to the patrol before the shooting started. However, Smith was dead.

After we recovered Smith from the Big House the NVA counter-attacked, but we fought them off. Then we attacked, this time we drove them out of the house to recover our last man. In the dark, we fought our way into the Big House and recovered the body of Sergeant Bunn. Now, all we had to do was get away from the NVA, and get back to Alpha Company.

Suddenly, the NVA fired machine guns, rockets and mortars at us, but strangely they missed us entirely in the darkness, they literally fired the wrong way. Their mortar shells exploded uselessly in the rice paddy right next to us, and their rifle and machine-gun fire, bullets arcing, green tracers flaring, cracked over still another nearby rice paddy.  We laid there with our friends and listened to the “thump” as their mortars fired, waited as their shells arced overhead and hoped they continued to land in the adjacent field rather than on us.  When they finally stopped we moved out.

They were not as adept in the dark as they had been during the day. On the other hand, we owned the night. That night we went where we wanted, when we wanted but only as violently as necessary. We eliminated everyone we had to eliminate to recover our men. All of the rest of the night on the way back we dodged their bullets as the pursuing NVA tried to stop us, tried to bring us to a battle we could not win.

Phillip Chassion was our new company First Sergeant. This was literally the first time he had been to the field with us, but it was a long way from his first time in the field. Here he is in 1966 briefing a long range patrol he would lead.

Phillip Chassion was our new company First Sergeant. This was literally the first time he had been to the field with us, but it was a long way from his first time in the field. Here he is in 1966 briefing a long range patrol he would lead. Photo by Robert C. Lafoon.

Our night patrol carried all three of our dead comrades out under the almost constant enemy fire.  Because of the small size of the patrol we tried to avoid rather than fight the enemy if we could. We put our friends down only when we absolutely had to fight our way clear.  The rest of the time we stayed low and quiet, moving fast. Everybody but me was helping carry a body. I was on point; rifle in one hand, compass in the other. There was no slack man.

On the way back to Alpha Company we used the terrain to hide from the enemy, moving as quietly as possible from shadow to shadow, ditch to ditch, hiding, but as a result tacking right and left like a sailboat in a heavy wind trying to get to port. The wind for us was the enemy bullets whizzing by. It took a lot longer going back.

At one point on the way back I became completely disoriented.  I not only did not know where A Company’s position was, I did not even know where we were anymore.  At first being lost did not make any difference—no matter where we were, we had to get away from the NVA that were too close on our trail at that point.  The darkness, moving fast and staying low had helped staying hidden from them, but it also meant I could not see any topographic features to tell me where we were.  We were lost, completely lost in Indian Country.

Finally, after we gained a little distance from our pursuers, I called Tom Gaffney and asked him to shoot three tracers straight up in the air.  As long as I could find A Company, it really did not matter where we were.Cpt. Thomas F. Gaffney - A Co. CO and S-3 Air copy

Photo by Jerry Berry, 3/506th PIO.

Tom did not object nor ask why even though it placed all of the rest of A Company at risk by telling every NVA in the area exactly where they were. In a moment, three spaced shots rang out. When we saw the tracers against the dark sky, I took a compass heading on them and we moved out again.

Finally, we had to do what is probably the most dangerous job of the Infantry. We had to rejoin a unit, at night, that has been in a brutal firefight all day. That is exactly what had killed Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in the Civil War after his classic victory at the battle of Chancellorsville.

What scared you is that you know as you are walking in that there is always someone that does not get the word.  There is always somebody that does not know you are coming in, and you know that particular somebody is there, right there in front of you; he is watching the darkness; he has a loaded automatic weapon in his hands; although tired, he is relentlessly looking for movement, ready and waiting to fire after a long, hard, violent day. No warnings, no pass word, just bullets await.

Even if you are not religious, you pray; you stand very tall because you do not want to look like you are sneaking around; and you walk very slowly.

While before we left the FO and I had set up a powerful strike of preplanned artillery and heavy mortar fire on the NVA just as we were leaving the Big House to try to shake their pursuit. Even so several of the NVA had stayed right on our trail, shooting at us, trying to call their mortar fire on us, all the way back to the Alpha Company perimeter.  If one of them fired on us, or on the perimeter as we were coming in we would be smack in the middle, standing up in the open, no place to hide, right in the middle of a fire fight.

We prayed harder, stood straighter and walked even slower.

That final walk in was the most scared that I had been all night. A few more than a dozen paratroopers had left the perimeter earlier that night. We had been shot at for hours by people really good at shooting people, but in spite of that we recovered our friends, and we had all, almost, made it back.

But, this one time everybody did get the word:

“Friendlies coming in. Do not fire.”

Smith had been a tall, thin, African-American man who had lived his short life courageously. He was interested most in photography and women. Although remarkably thin, he was enormously strong. Since he did not like to hurt anyone, he did not. He had smiled a lot and always did more than his share when there was work to be done.

No one complained when Ron Ford and Paul Clement carried him out that night through the almost constant rifle, machine gun and mortar fire to send his body home to his family. He had been fun to be around. I do not know to this day if Smith even had a chance to shoot when he was inside the Big House. I hope he got off a shot, but I do not know if he did.

My Platoon Sergeant Jim Bunn was heavier, harder to carry out. He had been a professional soldier who could not stand the thought that young men would die in Vietnam when he could have been there to help them. So, after returning from his first tour in Vietnam, he had volunteered to go right back to Vietnam, with a young, inexperienced lieutenant to train when he could have stayed in the States for at least another two years. Jim Bunn too had been fun to be around as well, and to learn from. He got off his shot and then some more before he was killed.bunn

Photo by Jerry Berry, 3/506th PIO.

Jim Bunn had also liked Smith a lot. Jim had talked to Smith after Smith had failed to fire that one time in the hedgerows. Not to chew him out, but to find out why, and to ensure it did not happen again. It is a testament to how good Jim Bunn was as a platoon sergeant that it did not happen again, and that on the very next contact, Smith took care of business. Smith was one of the 500,000 or so reasons why Jim Bunn was back in Vietnam again.

Jim Bunn was white; Smith was black. About a third of the guys that helped carry them out were black. Jim Bunn and Smith were from the second platoon, my platoon; the other Airborne KIA , First Sergeant Phillip Chassion, we also carried out was not from our platoon but he was from Alpha Company. I do not know about atheists, but there were no racists in our foxholes. They were all our men, all Currahees of the 101st Airborne Division, the famous 506th Band Of Brothers. We brought them all home. The Airborne recovers its dead.

John Melgaard was our platoon medic that day.  He had gone with Bunn and Raynor’s squad when they had tried to rescue Smith from the rear of the house. He was there when Bunn was killed trying to get into the back of the house while Smith was laying on the front porch dying.  On the way to the back door of the Big House, John had pushed David Stiles to safety into a small hut when Stiles had been temporally disoriented by being shot in his helmet.

Later in the day, John and three others had carried Schultz back to the Alpha Company CP to be medivaced. Everybody that went with John helping carry Schultz back to the CP was wounded while they were on the way back to the CP.  Even later that night, after all of this, John Melgaard volunteered to go on the night patrol to recover our men.  Each time John Melgaard had risked his life, just in case one of the men was still alive, just in case so that he would be there with his aid bag to help them if they still lived.  John Melgaard also, earned the Silver Star that long day.

DavidStiles

That is David Stiles with the bullet hole in his helmet that he received accompanying SFC Bunn in his attempt to get into the back of the house where Smith was.  Sergeant Ron Ford, the assistant patrol leader of the night patrol, is on the right smiling. Photo by Jerry Berry, 3/506th PIO.

Over forty years later, a month ago now, while I was watching the movie Gettysburg on television I thought again about what a man that VC with the Tokarev pistol must have been. He had been the Viet Cong Province Chief, a political officer, not a military man at all, but truly courageous nonetheless.

He, in Vietnam, and Colonel Josiah Chamberlain, at Gettysburg, had each obeyed that most difficult and dangerous, but distinguished tradition of the Infantry, the Spirit of the Bayonet. When they were almost out of ammunition, when they were outnumbered and heavily out gunned, when there was nothing else to do, they had both attacked with everything they had.  This is the true Sprit of the Bayonet.

They both put it all on the line for one final try. It cannot be done foolishly and still be within the spirit of the bayonet. There must be at least a chance of success; otherwise, it is just another suicide run.

The exhaustion of the rebels after a day of attacking and being up hill gave Chamberlain and his badly battered Maine regiment their chance of success at the battle of Gettysburg. The thick hedgerows, and the narrow fields by splitting my platoon into parts that could not directly support each other, gave the VC and his Tokorev pistol his chance. Chamberlain’s wild, down hill, bayonet charge succeeded; the VC’s violent attack across the hedgerow enclosed dry rice paddy did not, but neither had hesitated.

Chamberlain’s heroic, cold-steel, bayonet assault broke the back of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s last attempt to take Little Round Top on the first day at the Gettysburg battle. It set the stage for the blood red high water mark of the Confederacy with Pickett’s charge up to Cemetery Ridge the next day.

The VC Province Chief, I never knew his name, had died courageously and well, but even almost fifty years later he is still running, still fighting and still shooting that pistol every day, every night, in my mind. So too are PFC John Smith, Spec 4 George Schultz, First Sergeant Phillip Chassion and my Platoon Sergeant, SFC James Albert Bunn, and all those other brave, dead, infantrymen–black and white, red and yellow, who fought so long ago.


Author’s note: This is the history of what happened on February 2, 1968 near Phan Thiet, RVN. “Cone of Violence”, another of my articles, is more of a personal, emotional history of the same day. (“Cone of Violence”). The Morning After the Night Before is the story of the next day. (The Morning After, The Night Before)

* Not his real name. All of the other names are their real names.

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36 thoughts on “The Day Smith Died

  1. CJ Heck

    A very powerful story, John, and it was very well written. Your attention to detail is commendable, as well. You honored PFC Smith well, may he rest in peace. With my warmest regards and respect, CJ Heck

    Reply
  2. Cruz Collazo Jr

    A great personal recollection of events from the Vietnam conflict worthy of a movie not to glorify war but to educate us all that dying in a war is for real and it could be your friends doing it or yourself. Thanks.

    Reply
  3. JAMES DYER

    John, this is a very moving, intense and harrowing account of that night. Having been there in 1965 at Danang, I feel the emotion and adrenalin of that moment. Thank you for sharing this story with us. RIP to those of your friends that did not come out alive. But you did your best, and did come home alive to tell their story. Continue to write about them, so others will know! Jim Dyer

    Reply
    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      Thank you the very constructive feedback. It is what I write for. This story is sort of the factual rendition of what happened 2/2/68, “Cone of Violence” is sort of my emotional reaction. I refight that battle everyday, but it always turns out the same. Welcome home.

      Reply
      1. Tom Croff

        We are so fortunate to have a person with your skill to write such stories. My memory can’t recalled any thing to that level. Thanks you SIR.

  4. Otis Elkin

    Thanks for posting that event. It was
    very intense. The part about the F-4’s was really a memory jogger. There was a night that we were really glad to see them coming.

    Reply
    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      Thanks for commenting Otis. The Air Force, and Navy close support pilots were incredible, and have not received their due as far as I am concerned. I am not dissing the Marine pilots; we were never supported by them and I only write on personal knowledge. Welcome home.

      Reply
  5. currahees101st

    Thanks John. These Currahees will never be forgotten. Ho Chi Minh said whoever conquers the Central Highlands will conquer South Vietnam.
    Currahee brother!

    Rich Rios
    Bravo Company, 2nd platoon. 3rd/506th Infantry Battalion, 101st Airborne Division, RVN /Cambodia, 1969-70.

    Reply
    1. Desiree Bunn Spies

      Thanks for the article John. It really helps to know about what happened that day. I’ll forward this on to my kids so they will have a better understanding of who their grandfather was, so much more than a photo on the wall.

      Reply
  6. carl mccale

    Thank you for sharing it has been a lot of years but some that you wrote makes it seem like yesterday

    Reply
  7. carl mccaleb

    Thank you for sharing its been a lot of years but some of what you. wrote made it seem like yesterday

    Reply
  8. Bruce Deisinger

    Very interesting story. I was fortunate enough (if you call it that) to have been wounded after a couple of weeks in the field and sent back to the world. These stories from you and those from my unit, in some ways support my survivors guilt but in other ways show how lucky I am and how lucky those who survived a full tour were. I appreciate even more the horror of living a full year in the field. Bless you for sharing.

    Reply
    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      I did about 9 months in the field. Then I rotated back to XO. I think everyone that has been in a unit in combat has some, some a lot more than others, survivor’s guilt. I think that is the reason this battle plays out in my mind everyday, every night. Welcome home soldier.

      Reply
      1. Anitra

        I’ve been browsing online greater than 3 hours these days, but I never found any inttsereing article like yours. It¡¦s pretty value enough for me. In my opinion, if all site owners and bloggers made good content as you did, the internet shall be a lot more useful than ever before

  9. nordrof

    Good job then and good job on the rewrite.It still amazes me how we made it back that night with out getting anyone wounded.I suppose we both will be thinking about 2/2/68 until our last breath.R.Ford

    Reply
    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      Frankly, looking back on it, I am surprised we made it back at all. I put everybody who was on that night patrol in for a decoration. I followed up on it when it did not happen, but still nothing happened for most of you. I think the problem was it happened so early in Tet and people did not understand what we did that night.

      I think of 2/2/1968 everyday. Welcome home and thanks for commenting, Ron.

      Reply
      1. nordrof

        I think LT Schlax said it best.He said he felt bad no one ever got put in for medals because they were just to busy fighting the war.Made since to me.

      2. JohnEHarrison Post author

        That was part of it. We were very busy, very well trained, and when we did things sometimes it looked easy, but it wasn’t. It was often extraordinary, but we were so cherry we did not realize it. That was part of it too.

  10. althompson101

    First Sergeant Phillip Chaisson was originally from Maine. Although a fairly large land mass, for the East coast…it iremains sparsely populated.

    He was a personal hero…as I am also from that great state. I had fond memories of his repelling class stateside.

    I took his death hard. This is the first time I have heard a clear detail of how he made the ultimate sacrifice. Wish we could have talked 50 years ago.

    Thanks for sharing…this one was personal.

    Reply
  11. Sylvestre Primous

    B CO/3rd, 506th. Sylvester Primous, Oct. 67-Jan. 69.
    I was in the fort at Phan Thiet, do anyone remember that first night, when the rocket blow up the tower? Or that morning going thru the city?

    Reply
  12. Pingback: The Morning After, The Night Before | JohnEHarrison

  13. Pingback: The Morning After, The Night Before (Guest Blog) | Cherries - A Vietnam War Novel

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