The real heroes are all dead. They put it all on the line. They put everything they had, everything they could ever be, and then they were gone. Forever.
The absolute anguish that we faced in Vietnam as a unit that had trained together in the states for six months before deployment was that this was happening all of the time to people we had trained with at Ft. Campbell, climbed with in the Great Smokey Mountains of Tennessee, and jumped with into the swamps of northern Georgia.
These men we knew like we know our own brothers. Often we knew their wives or their girl friends as well. Not just the men in our own companies, but particularly for the officers and NCOs, the men in the other companies as well. We all worked together to train the 3/506th for combat in Vietnam.
We all wore the “Pair of Dice” patch, from World War II fame, on our fatigues at Ft. Campbell. While some of those at Ft.Campbell derided it as the mark of the “Purple Heart Battalion”. As one battalion, we wore it with pride. The patch identified us as members of a special battalion even when we did already know each other personally. Both proved useful in bar fights in and around Ft. Campbell and later in Vietnam.
Early in our tour, Captain Nick Nahas’s Charlie Company fought the ferocious Battle at the Knoll. Lieutenant Ron Newton’s platoon bore the brunt of the bloody fight. Tom Gaffney’s Alpha Company was called in to help the morning after that battle. In the afternoon after we arrived my platoon moved over the knoll itself where the actual battle had taken place the day before to check out the area. We found numerous well-prepared, individual fighting positions and strong, mutually supporting, well fortified, well placed, fighting bunkers all over the knoll and on a nearby saddle between the knoll and another hill top.
Some of the bunkers had been torn apart by artillery, or airstrikes, but most of them were still there. It was the partially destroyed bunkers that led us to the hidden weapons and equipment.
When we tore the rest of the bunkers apart, we found weapons and ammunition as well as gear hidden in the walls and even hidden in the overhead cover. Cover is called a roof in civilian terms, but it is called “cover” by the military because the military version would stop steel shrapnel shards from airbursts that would tear straight through a civilian roof. However, even good cover will not stop a 750 lbs., Hi-drag bomb. It will not even slow it down.
Some of these prepared fighting positions on the knoll had been used against Charlie Company and some had obviously been empty during the battle. We tore them all apart. It was not anger; it was practical. We were looking for more weapons, ammo, and supplies of any type. We found stuff hidden everywhere around the knoll and particularly down in the valley behind the knoll, including AK-47s, other weapons, ammo, piles of rockets for RPGs, boxes of medical instruments and medicine, even a 100 lbs. bag of penicillin vials lying under a bush, over 1,000 vials.
They had left very quickly. They had left too quickly to take all of their stuff.
Behind the knoll that Charlie Company had fought so brutally on, we found a huge base camp in a valley that was protected by those fighting positions on the knoll. In the valley itself, there were several large classrooms, a couple of very impressive, completely dug into the mountain side, medical operating theaters, and a huge kitchen with the most ingenious smoke and heat dispersal systems for the stoves running up the side of the mountain.
For the VC, the battle on the knoll had allowed their personnel behind them in the valley the time to escape, but a lot of their equipment and supplies stayed behind and were lost. What we could not destroy on site, we helicoptered out. That huge base camp was why the NVA had fought so ferociously to stop Charlie Company on the knoll. We found so much stuff the NVA had left in the base camp that two generals flew in to look at it.
When you come upon the site of an infantry battle, like the one Charlie Company fought on the knoll, if you have the experience, you can actually read it just like you could read a story in a book. However, this story was written first in the blood of the men that fought there.
Walk this scene with me, over there in between two sizable but still very shot-up trees growing close together are two large piles of expended M-60 machine gun ammunition, shiny brass 7.62 mm shell casings in one pile and black, now disconnected, metallic links in the other, near that a twisted pile of bloody, originally OD green bandages, now black because of the still wet, clotting, blood, nearby next to another badly shot-up tree with multiple bullet slashes and ragged holes stands a clump of empty M-16 magazines, shiny brass 5.56 mm shell cases and then a large jumble of expended, metallic-brown, M-79, 40 mm, grenade shell casings.
There was a little blood and more sap still dripping from a low gash on another tree, and over there lay a discarded steel helmet with a bullet hole through it. The bullet had exited cleanly out the other side of the helmet. Lying nearby was the blood encrusted helmet liner. There were several empty OD green, plastic canteens lying around, their caps open. Empty, gunmetal grey, M-16 magazines and bright brass, 5.56 mm shell cases were scattered in singles and clumps everywhere. Battle had happened here. You could see that. Anyone could see that.
All of these signs pointed to hard, close, combat. They point to the infantry at work, only 8% of the armed forces, but they suffer 85% of the casualties. Perhaps there was great courage here, at this place of battle. That, you are too late to see.
Perhaps the dead soldier that fought here, right here behind this shot-up tree, where all of his blood is still pooled, and the empty 5.56 mm shell cases are piled high, and also scattered deserves the Medal of Honor, but he and everyone that saw his deeds are dead.
No medals. No bugle call. The real heroes are all dead.