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Assault Company Commander

By Barry R. McCaffrey
4/6/2017 • HistoryNet, Mag: Vietnam Featured, Vietnam Magazine

A retired four-star general recounts his experiences as a captain leading a company of 7th Cavalry troops at the height of the war.

 

Capt. Barry McCaffrey took charge of B Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, in November 1968. (Courtesy of Barry McCaffrey)

I had the honor to command B Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, during the intense and bloody fighting of Vietnam during 1968-69. When I arrived in-country, veterans of the battalion had already survived the terrible 1967-68 battles in South Vietnam’s northernmost provinces. The 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry had been the lead battalion in the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) during the Operation Pegasus push in April 1968 to reach the besieged Marine combat base at Khe Sanh. The incredibly courageous Marines of the 26th Marine Regiment had held the combat base against waves of attacking North Vietnamese Army troops and a massive enemy artillery bombardment for 77 days.

The years 1968 and 1969 were the turning point years of the war. Beginning with the Communists’ 1968 Tet Offensive and continuing through the second-wave NVA offensive of 1969, about 500,000 U.S. troops were engaged in an intense air-land-sea campaign against the determined and well-armed main battle force divisions of the NVA and their southern Viet Cong guerrilla units. Our troops paid a heavy price. During this long struggle, the 1st Cavalry Division suffered the highest casualties of any Army division—5,444 killed and 26,592 wounded.

By 1968, our military and political leaders had lost their way. They could not see a path to victory. They also could not bear the political costs of throwing in the towel. The war ended up on tragic autopilot. U.S. casualties were appalling. During the Tet Offensive week of Feb. 11-17 alone, U.S. casualties were 543 killed and 2,547 wounded. The American people finally concluded that our national leaders had no strategy to succeed. The Army and Marines were bleeding to achieve no sensible purpose.

Those of us who are 1968-69 veterans from the 7th Cavalry’s B Company, 2nd Battalion, still meet every two years to remember those long-ago battlefields when we were all very young. We can still remember the green, suffocating and beautiful triple-canopy jungle. The intense burning heat and humidity. The numbing cold rain of the mountains in I Corps, the military designation for the northern region of South Vietnam.

During Operation Jeb Stuart, north of Hue in early 1968, B Company was at Camp Evans before Air Force C-130 aircraft flew it hundreds of miles south to III Corps, the region around Saigon, in an emergency deployment to confront an anticipated assault during the 1969 Tet holiday.

When I assumed command of B Company in III Corps on Nov. 3, 1968, the entire 1st Cavalry Division had just completed the shift from I Corps and moved into blocking positions along the Cambodian frontier. The division’s brigades were deployed along a 150-mile arc of the Cambodian border northeast of Saigon. Our “Garryowen” (named after an Irish song) 3rd Brigade of three 7th Cavalry battalions—the 1st, 2nd and 5th—landed at the Quan Loi combat base. The troops were loaded into helicopters and dropped off in air assaults up to the Cambodian frontier as a covering force for a defensive campaign around Saigon named Operation Liberty Canyon. From Oct. 25 to Nov. 15, the 1st Cavalry Division battled four enemy divisions—the 1st and 7th NVA and 5th and 9th VC. The air-ground campaign was a series of bitter battles as we engaged enemy forces attacking toward the huge U.S. logistics base of Bien Hoa, about 20 miles east of Saigon.

Troopers from the 1st Cavalry Division leave a Huey to begin a reconnaissance mission in northern South Vietnam during April 1967. (Getty Images)

The central thrust of the NVA offensive in our brigade’s area was channeled down the “Serges Jungle Highway,” a sophisticated high-speed system of corduroy log roads with overhead woven-bamboo camouflage netting. Deep bunkers lined the network of trails to provide cover from the U.S. Air Force’s Operation Arc Light B-52 bomber strikes. Huge NVA base areas, depots and underground hospitals were spread out in the dense jungle. NVA anti-aircraft weapons provided protection for the night movement of enemy combat units. The NVA soldiers had clean automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, fresh haircuts and sharp-looking uniforms. Their leadership was good, and they were very brave young men.

Life in the jungle meant never-ending leeches on your legs, testicles and armpits. We were surrounded by the wild animals of the jungle—monkeys, elephants, tigers and “f— you lizards.” Mostly, these Cavalry troops remember the utter exhaustion and backbreaking physical misery of a combat infantry unit, a tough and brutish way to exist.

We lived like animals. We dug like moles. We carried individual loads of 90-plus pounds: an M16 rifle, M79 grenade launcher or M60 machine gun, 5.56 mm and 7.62 mm small arms ammunition, trip flares, six quarts of water, hand grenades, Claymore mines, smoke grenades, C4 explosives, entrenching tools and pick axes—and some food, one pair of extra olive-drab socks and half a towel. The mortar platoon carried one 81 mm mortar and 100 rounds of ammo spread out in the company. We looked sick and malnourished, and our uniforms were frequently in shreds. We constantly had multiple minor physical injuries, crotch rot and infected bug bites. Our hands were blistered from digging.

B Company soldiers were extremely cautious and wary grunts. We worked constantly to minimize danger. We observed sound and light and radio security and moved silently. All soldiers were camouflaged. We established security with observation posts in daylight and listening posts at night. Our tactical operations were carefully planned. Actions-on-contact were rehearsed at our firebases before we moved out. The company and platoon command teams understood the requirement for immediate succession-of-command when key leaders were wounded or killed. We were also very, very lucky.

In the end, however, service in an infantry company was simply too violent to make it through a combat tour unscathed. Eventually—probably—you got wounded or killed. We would never leave a fallen buddy even if all of us had to be killed attempting to recover the wounded trooper. Our combat medics were incredibly good at keeping a terribly wounded soldier alive. Each platoon carried a wooden frame stretcher. We had morphine, blood expander, tourniquets and compression bandages. The incredibly brave 1st Cavalry medevac pilots would come to pick up a wounded trooper no matter the intensity of enemy groundfire. In 20 minutes of flying time, our soldier could receive superb medical treatment in an air-conditioned surgical unit at the rear combat bases. If he was still alive when we put him on the medevac chopper, he very probably was going to survive to see his family.

The overwhelming percentage of battle casualties occurred in direct combat infantry, armor, reconnaissance, special operations and helicopter units—the thin line of soldiers in the forward edge of the battle area. More than 58,200 were killed during the Vietnam War, and 303,000 were wounded, including 75,000 severely maimed. Others bore the invisible wounds of combat. This was a violent war of point-blank combat against a well-led and determined enemy.

Our air-assault rifle company was invariably successful in getting the tactical mission accomplished. We were almost never surprised. We were always part of a larger coherent battalion and brigade tactical plan, which I as the company commander understood, but from the perspective of these B Company troopers it appeared to be us against the NVA, as we operated alone on the battlefield most of the time.  Perhaps 120-plus soldiers were in an environment of constant danger day after day. They endured bone-crushing physical labor and mind-numbing boredom—punctuated by sheer mayhem and the battle roar of intense violence. But we never abused enemy prisoners or Vietnamese civilians.

We were grateful for the support of our 1st Cavalry attack helicopters and the Air Force. Air power gave us a huge decisive edge. However, we knew that the 1st Cavalry’s 105 mm artillery was our ultimate hammer. We could not be overrun by any enemy unit of any strength if 105 mm artillery could mass and respond immediately. The 1st Cav artillery never failed us…ever.

At the company level our infantry soldiers were nearly 100 percent draftees, and this was in a period when only 25 percent of the total U.S. armed forces in Vietnam were draftees. During most of the time I commanded B Company, 1st Sgt. Emerson Trainer and I were the only two Regular Army soldiers over 25 years old. Trainer was a superb combat leader and Korean War veteran. Both of us were on our third combat tour and would be wounded for the third time while commanding B Company. Trainer had been severely wounded in Korea while serving as an infantry private in the same B Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry. In the field, he carried a two-headed ax and a .45-caliber pistol. At night when there was heavy rain, he slept in a green rubber “body bag” to the delight of our soldiers. Trainer was a leader of absolute competence who was trusted and loved by our soldiers.

The company leaders were normally draftee lieutenants (drafted college students eligible for an officer commission), who served a three-year obligation, and “instant NCOs” (enlisted soldiers rapidly promoted as combat losses decimated the ranks of noncommissioned officers), who served two years. The NCOs were selected by a Darwinian process that advanced those who could lead, fight and keep the trust of their soldiers. The NCOs promoted in the field were simply magnificent. These young sergeants were courageous, smart, natural leaders chosen and trained at the company level.

B Company troopers during 1968-69 were of all races and creeds. They were in good physical condition. They were devoted to each other and would lay down their lives in a flash for their buddies. These soldiers were extremely independent but would follow orders if they trusted you and the orders made sense. Most were teenagers or in their early 20s, much younger than combat soldiers of earlier wars. They were extremely well-educated, 79 percent high school graduates or better, compared with 63 percent in Korea and 45 percent in World War II. These troopers were also funny and resilient in an ugly and demanding environment.

Draftee infantry soldiers had a dozen reasons they could have used to escape combat duty in Vietnam. Many young American men fled to Canada. Others took the honorable choice of joining the National Guard, which did not deploy to the Vietnam War in any numbers. (A terrible policy mistake, fortunately corrected in America’s later wars.) However, the easiest way out of infantry combat in Vietnam was to maintain a student exemption or find a friendly doctor who would document a real or imagined physical limitation.

The young men who showed up for infantry combat in Vietnam did so for a grab bag of reasons. Personal pride. A dad or uncle who said, “Do your duty.” A feeling of curiosity and risk-taking built into the DNA of aggressive young men. Or simply bad luck, a family with no influence and a draft board that ruled your college career had too many bad grades and too much partying.

Even so, most our B Company combat troopers could have volunteered in advance of the draft, which would have enabled them to join some other branch of the military and not face the perilous life of an infantry soldier in Vietnam. But they chose to fight.

Our air assault company was a small, insular and violent band of brothers. We lived outdoors, together, 24 hours a day, forever. These soldiers were terrific fighters. Brave. Aggressive. Clever. Team players. They were determined to never let their buddies down. The soldiers joining B Company arrived on a Huey helicopter late in the day, dropped off at jungle landing zone … scared and exhausted and confused. These replacements had probably seen the incoming medevac casualties as they lifted off from the battalion firebase. The first sergeant and I would orient and coach them. We explained what life would be like when the sun came up the next morning. Most were no more than four to six months from civilian life. The first sergeant and I would turn them over that night to their platoon and then to their real family in an infantry squad.

When the sun came up, the reality of their new existence was stunning. These soldiers were now potentially minutes from being killed or maimed. They all had a filled-out casualty evacuation tag in a plastic bag in one of their jungle-uniform shirt pockets. Their contact with “the world” would now only be through a scribbled letter with no stamps handed to a helicopter pilot. Their entire existence depended on the smarts, energy and decisions of incredibly effective and brave young NCOs and lieutenants, as well as the support of their battle buddies.

Days of combat in an infantry company are a crazy mix of emotions and realities. The almost unbelievable animal stench from living in the bush for weeks. The heart-thumping excitement of Huey assaults into hot landing zones with helicopter rockets, artillery and M60 machine-gun fire from door gunners plastering the waiting NVA. The dread feeling of personal danger when the whip crack of enemy automatic weapons rips through your unit. The feeling of helplessness when incoming enemy 82 mm mortar shells and the shriek of 122 mm rockets pin you to the ground. The terrible feeling of despair when you are dragging a dozen seriously wounded, moaning and blood-soaked buddies out of enemy fire to get them winched up from the fight on “jungle penetrators”—metal rescue seats lowered from helicopters. The feeling of wild, pulsating elation when your company mounts a final flank assault on an enemy bunker with multiple batteries of 105 mm artillery screaming overhead, the company bugle sounding a charge, and the hammering of nine M60 guns and a hundred M16 rifles forcing NVA troops into their bunkers. The enemy would then be destroyed with hand grenades, pistols and C4 plastic explosive charges at close range. Kill or be killed.

By 1968 no one in the Vietnam combat units thought we were fighting to win a war. We were fighting for each other. We were fighting to stay alive.

There were no parades when we came home. Over the 50 years since Vietnam the soldiers of B Company have stayed together. The NCOs gradually tracked down many of their buddies and brought them back into our ranks. Overwhelmingly, these soldiers did very well in life. Their families love them. They went back to farms and machine shops and colleges. A couple are wealthy business leaders. I am not surprised that they almost all have had successful and responsible lives. But one died in prison. Some have tough and impairing memories of the war. Others were terribly maimed and permanently damaged with eyes ripped out and crippling wounds. These soldiers get through life with constant daily courage.

B Company gathers every two years at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington to remember those we lost — and all those who suffered. Most important, we still remember how we looked out for each other. Sometimes in the dim recesses of my memories, I fade back in time and remember leading a column of heavily armed and camouflaged soldiers moving to contact. Ahead of us is a sister company in a firefight and terrible trouble. The sharp crackle of automatic weapons fire ahead. The muffled thump of NVA rocket-propelled grenades. The fear and anticipation and rage of an upcoming firefight. And the terrible sadness knowing that some young lives are about to be altered forever.

This is how the infantry soldiers of B Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, remember our combat in Vietnam. We are proud we carried out our duty as the country ordered us to do. We want America’s future political leaders to know the reality of the 2.5 million of us who served in Vietnam. We want them to never commit our grandchildren to combat without pledging to completely achieve a vital national security purpose. Finally, we want our national leaders to order us into battle only if they have gained the support of the American people. This is the legacy we want to leave to the country. 

Barry McCaffrey served four combat tours: in the Dominican Republic as a platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne Division, 1965; in Vietnam as an adviser to the Vietnamese Airborne Division, 1966-67, and commander of a company in the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) 1968-69; and in Iraq as commander of the 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized) during Operation Desert Storm, 1991. He received three Purple Hearts, was twice awarded the Army Distinguished Service Cross and twice received the Silver Star—all in Vietnam.

 

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