The Attack At the Bridge
by john harrison
Jim Schlax was the 1st Platoon Leader of Alpha Company, 3/506th from the time Alpha Company was formed at Fort Campbell, Ky., until he was wounded in Vietnam during Tet ’68. We were both recent OCS (Officer Candidate School) graduates when we were assigned to Alpha Company. However, Jim clearly out ranked me because his OCS class was commissioned a week earlier than mine. This was a fact that he never mentioned, but one that we both knew because junior second lieutenants keep careful track of such petty, but nonetheless important things.
When I first reported to Alpha Company, I was appointed as the Executive Officer (XO) since by then all of the platoons already had platoon leaders. While higher in position, the XO is second in command of the company; the XO’s job was less desirable for a lieutenant than that of platoon leader. Luckily for me, after another officer was relieved, Army-speak for fired, I took over the 2nd Platoon. I also continued as XO.
This curious situation, the most junior officer in the company being both second in command as XO and a fellow platoon leader produced some unusual conversations among the Alpha Company lieutenants. For example, Schlax and I might have a conversation as fellow platoon leaders of more or less equal rank, in the midst of the conversation I might act as XO for a while, therefore I was in charge of some things and might even give a couple of orders and then switch back to being just another platoon leader.
From time to time, but only for short periods, I might also act as the Commanding Officer of Alpha Company while the CO, Captain Tom Gaffney was away. Then, I would be giving the platoon leaders orders, but two of the other three Alpha Company platoon leaders, Jim Schlax and Joe Alexander, both clearly outranked me.
This is customarily very important stuff in the Army, but the question of rank never came up between us, only the job of getting Alpha Company ready for Vietnam mattered. Part of it was that the same people had trained us all and everyone recognized that had our positions been reversed, much the same orders would have been given. Still the complete lack of friction between us was extraordinary, particularly given the pressure we were all under getting Alpha Company ready for war.
My nickname for Schlax was “Nasty little Man”, not because he was actually nasty, although he was physically short. I gave him the name because he was so effective, so dangerous, as a rifle platoon leader. He earned it many times.
For reasons that only our CO, Tom Gaffney, could explain, the 2nd Platoon usually led any company movement in the field. Second Platoon was therefore the “point” platoon in that formation. If two platoons were up on-line, then the 2nd Platoon was the base platoon, the platoon that set the pace and the direction of march. First Platoon, Schlax’s platoon, was always the next platoon in the Alpha Company line of march, or it would be the platoon moving on line on the 2nd Platoon’s flank.
On the other hand, when Alpha Company stopped, it was the 1st and the other platoons that did almost all of the patrolling and night ambushes while the 2nd Platoon provided Company CP (Command Post) security and acted as a reaction force for the other platoons while they were operating away from the Company.
As a practical matter, what this meant was that Jim Schlax and I had to absolutely depend on each other all of the time. If the 2nd Platoon made contact, it was the 1st Platoon that would be maneuvering though the enemy fire to get us out of trouble. If the 1st Platoon made contact on a patrol or ambush, more often than not it would be the 2nd Platoon that arrived first to help. Because of experience over time in Vietnam, I came to believe that there was no trouble that the 1st Platoon, or it and the rest of Alpha Company could not get me and the 2nd Platoon out of, so I acted accordingly on point.
All of the Alpha Company platoon leaders were very aggressive, but this was not a competition among lieutenants, rather it was an expression of our shared confidence in the men of Alpha Company, and anyway, they were as aggressive as we were. Like every airborne soldier, we were all volunteers.
When there was contact with the enemy, at least until the situation stabilized a bit, Jim and I would pretty much direct each other at first depending on the tactical situation. I would tell Jim where I needed 1st Platoon, or he would do the same for me if he was the one in contact. Captain Gaffney would listen to these conversations, try to get more information about what was going on, and talk to battalion. If Captain Gaffney heard something we said that he did not like he would intervene, but usually he just asked for more information, lined up fire support and let the situation clarify before he gave orders.
Because of movies and television, people expect a flurry of orders immediately when the bullets fly. But all those orders have pretty much been codified into battle drills that each platoon has practiced until they are second nature. Therefore, the first part of any firefight is as nearly automatic as we could make it. It is really rare that any orders were given early in a firefight in a well trained platoon.
Our radio conversations during a firefight usually consisted of:
“What do you have?”
“What do you want to do?”
“What do you want me to do?”
“What do you need?”
“Do you have any casualties?”
And my personal favorite from Gaffney:
“I can get you some air support, do you need it, or will gun ships do? Artillery is on the way. Prepare to adjust fire.”
There is just nothing like an F4 Phantom jet screaming in at about 400 miles an hour, dropping very accurate 750 lbs., High Drag, bombs, or napalm, to create a positive attitude adjustment on the part of the enemy. Awesome, just total awesomeness.
People listening in on the Charlie-Charlie (Command and Control) radio frequency during a firefight often commented how mundane, even in the most extreme circumstances, these conversations sounded, except for the hard clatter of battle in the background.
For example, one day during Tet ’68 Alpha Company was moving through the outskirts of Phan Thiet, RVN. We received heavy fire from an old, colonial French, steel-reinforced, concrete blockhouse next to a bridge. Since we had been told that the ARVN had all been pulled back to Phan Thiet, 2nd Platoon attacked immediately, and violently.
When we got to the river, across from the blockhouse I called Schlax on the radio and asked him to cross the river on the left while 2nd Platoon pinned the garrison down with fire. For some reason, he could not hear my radio transmission. So, the next thing I heard was Gaffney, I am not sure if he used the radio or not, yelling at 1st Platoon to attack left. Even so, it was not an “order” so much as: “Go Left! Go Left!” The attack part was understood.
The 1st Platoon immediately maneuvered left, forced a river crossing under heavy fire, and then attacked the blockhouse from another direction, all while the 2nd Platoon poured fire on the blockhouse. The 2nd Platoon laid down a particularly heavy base of suppressive fire, including all three M60 machine guns firing at full cyclic, 650 rounds per minute per gun, the entire time that the 1st Platoon was in the river. While all that was happening, the 1st Platoon made a picture perfect, contested river crossing under heavy fire. Then, with the continued fire support of 2nd Platoon but still under heavy fire from the blockhouse, the 1st Platoon maneuvered to an assault position close to the blockhouse, and close to the 2nd Platoon’s fire.
If you are exceptionally observant, or you humped the “pig”, you will have noticed the empty brass 7.62mm shell casing flying to the right of gunner’s shoulder. This was taken under fire. Cool picture by Jerry Berry, PIO 3/506th.
It was this complex, and very difficult infantry maneuver, under heavy fire from the enemy, and using, but never masking our supporting fire, that forced the blockhouse to surrender. During the whole attack, Schlax and I had been completely unable to communicate.
We made this two platoon, attack based entirely on relying on each other’s training to know what to do, to know when to do it, and to execute. Otherwise, somebody, perhaps several somebodies, would die. Combat is not a game played with OD Nerf balls.
I really think our radios reacted more to enemy fire than we did. The number of times that the Army’s PRC-25 (Personal Radio Communicator #25) was working fine until the bullets started flying and then stopped working, was astonishing. We never figured it out, but Hal Dobie, my first RTO (Radio Telephone Operator) and then Ed Brady, my second RTO, almost habitually unfolded and attached the long antenna as soon as the first bullet cracked on its way by.
While both my RTO’s recognized that the long antenna was sort of a big “Shoot Me First” sign over their heads, we really needed to be able to communicate. So, up it went.
In spite of all the bullets and other ordnance flying around, I do not think we suffered a single casualty from the attack at the bridge. The South Vietnamese Popular Force (“PF”) platoon in the blockhouse was not so lucky even though they were in solid French designed fighting positions protected by steel reinforced concrete.
They told our interpreter, named Bong, that they were firing at VC who were attacking the blockhouse from another direction and they were very sorry that they had also fired at us by accident. I think they were sorry, particularly the wounded ones, but I was angry by then, being shot at always made me angry. Although I was not very sympathetic, we did treat and medevac their casualties.
Looking back on it now, I think the PF platoon, equivalent to our National Guard but not nearly as well-trained or equipped, were just terrified at being left out there all alone during the most violent battle of the war. They could literally see, feel and hear, the Tet Offensive exploding all around them. So, they were shooting at anything that moved. It was their bad luck that they shot at us.
What I remember most about that day was watching the 1st Platoon perfectly execute a difficult, a very complex, infantry maneuver, under heavy fire without once having ever trained to do anything like it. It was simply remarkable. Not only was it something we had never practiced; I think the only time I had only ever even seen it was watching old news reel footage of Allied attacks across the Rhine, or some other river in Germany from World War II on TV when I was a kid. However, I am not sure to this day that Schlax had even seen it done before he, and his rifle platoon, did it.
The 1st Platoon first had to actually maneuver under the 2nd Platoons’ fire as they crossed the river and then out to the side of our fire right up next to where our bullets were landing in order to get to their assault position. Schlax and his men accomplished all of this fluidly, moving under and then right around our gunfire as though they did it every day even though we could not communicate.
That remarkable display of courage in action and the 1st Platoon’s absolute trust in the 2nd Platoon’s fire discipline is what has remained with me for almost fifty years.
The Ca Ty River near Phan Thiet.