The decision to leave a mortar platoon alone at Hereford sealed the fate of its men and journalist Sam Castan
Soldiers shield themselves as best they can from dirt and debris stirred up by a Huey squeezing into the tight, one-ship landing zone around noon. The pilot touches down and two officers jump from the helicopter and land in a large mud puddle. One GI chuckles, pokes his buddy and laughs quietly at the officers in fresh jungle fatigues, stamping the mud off their polished boots. A dirty, unshaven captain greets them wearing torn jungle fatigues and mud-covered boots, toting an M-16.
The trio moves to the edge of the landing zone where towering elephant grass offers a bit of protection from the early afternoon sun. The major unfolds a map and the three begin discussing a mission. Within minutes there is strong disagreement over the plan. Lieutenant Colonel Rutland Beard, commander of the 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry (Airborne), 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) and his operations officer, Major William Roll, are insisting that Captain Don Warren, Charlie Company commander, leave his 20-man mortar platoon alone on Landing Zone Hereford to provide fire support to Warren’s company as it moves down the steep precipice toward the valley below. Warren is equally insistent on keeping at least one rifle squad behind to provide security: “Sir, my mortar platoon is down to half-strength because of malaria and has only M-16s and a couple of M-79s. If I leave behind a rifle squad, they will have at least one machine gun for security.”
Beard tells Warren that the mortar platoon will be on the hill for less than an hour before it will be lifted out and taken to another LZ. Warren’s eyes lock on Beard’s, “Anything could happen in an hour, sir.” Irritated at Warren’s near insubordination, Beard warns: “Captain, if you don’t do as I order, you will be in more trouble than you can imagine. Is that understood?” Warren hesitates a moment before answering tersely: “Yes sir, colonel. Will that be all, sir?” Beard indicates yes, and Warren spins on his heels and walks over to his rifle platoon leaders to pass on the orders. Beard takes a sideward glance at Roll, shakes his head and turns toward his helicopter.
Warren has every reason for concern about the safety of his understrength mortar platoon. Hereford’s topography makes it nearly impossible for even a fully armed rifle company to defend it from a determined enemy. It is a small saddle 165 yards long by 45 yards wide that is partially encircled by tall elephant grass. Beyond the elephant grass, it is completely surrounded by a rugged, unforgiving landscape, the most hostile being the steep, razorback ridgeline reaching northeast toward a towering mountain nearly 1,000 feet high. At the base of the ridge, Hereford’s northern boundary begins sloping gently downhill to the landing zone’s southern edge. At the southeast rim of the perimeter is a sheer drop over a rocky precipice. The northwest limit of the perimeter is a steep, rock-faced, vine-covered drop-off into the valley. Completing Hereford’s narrow boundaries is a large, craggy, brush-covered hill on its western margin. With all its tactical shortcomings, however, Hereford is the only suitable landing zone within miles of a large enemy buildup in the untamed wilderness of central Binh Dinh Province.
Hereford was also the center of fierce fighting that began seven days earlier on May 15, 1966. When word of that battle filtered down to the 1st Cavalry leaders, they decided the next day to conduct a major operation in the area. The 1st Brigade, under the command of Colonel John Hennessey, was ordered to deploy its three battalions to “find, fix and destroy” the enemy force. The operation was named Crazy Horse. In the days since then, above Hereford on the ridge, the Americans had been waging fierce and costly combat against the 9th NVA Regiment and the 97th VC Regiment.
Sitting on the edge of his foxhole on LZ Hereford, Staff Sgt. Robert Kirby watches as Captain Warren leads three platoons from his rifle company off the mountain and down a steep slope in search of the enemy. When the last man disappears over the rim, Kirby checks his watch. It is 1:40 p.m. In less than 45 minutes, his mortar platoon is to be airlifted off Hereford to LZ Savoy, where it will continue providing fire support for Charlie Company.
Tasked to occupy a company-size defensive perimeter with only 19 men, Kirby figured the best way to do this was to form a U-shaped defense and place two men into every third foxhole. This, however, left the top of the horseshoe open.Knowing his men are spread too thin, Kirby, a 29-year-old native of South Los Angeles, scans the perimeter from his foxhole at the bend of the horseshoe, beginning with the gun crew directly behind him. Inside the pit is gunner Sergeant Charles Gaines and Spc. 4 Austin Drummond, a former Golden Gloves champion with fast hands—perfect for dropping rounds into the mortar tube. Sergeant Isaac Johnson sits on the ground nearby with a plot board on his lap. The gun crew is ready to place supporting fire when and where company commander Warren calls for it.
Most of the mortar platoon men have been together since Ft. Benning, Ga., but a few are replacements who have never been in battle, so Kirby has no idea how they will react under fire. One of the new men is Spc. 4 David Crocker, a 21-year-old medic who sits a few feet from Kirby reading a paperback, his medical bag ready at his side.
In the foxhole next to Kirby’s is his longtime radio telephone operator (RTO), Spc. 4 John Spranza, who is the platoon’s link to the outside world and is never more than an arm’s length away from Kirby. Communications are unreliable because of the high mountains and deep valleys. “How’s the commo?” asks Kirby. “So far so good,” answers Spranza, “but who know for how long.”
Kirby focuses on the western section of the perimeter. Holding down the most forward position at the top of the open horseshoe are two men who have fought bravely in previous firefights, privates Lonnie “Sleepy” Williams, whose deep sleep often resulted in heavy snoring, and Clarence “Gomer” Brame, a good-natured hillbilly who looked and acted like TV’s Gomer Pyle.
Two empty fighting positions below them are combat vets Robert “Radar” Roeder and Pfc Harold Mack Jr. In a fierce firefight a few months before, Kirby had been wounded and pinned down when the 18-year-old Roeder, ignoring heavy fire, ran out and pulled him to safety. Mack and Roeder have been close friends ever since airborne school.
In the last defensive position on the western side, Kirby assigned a competent and respected leader, Sergeant Louis Buckley, with Pfc Henry Benton, who joined the platoon only two weeks ago. Kirby knows little about Benton and the two new privates covering the southern sector a few yards away from Kirby’s position, Joel Tamayo and James Francis Brooks Jr., both of whom joined the platoon just a few weeks earlier.
Kirby decides to walk the eastern side of the perimeter, but before he goes, he tells Buckley to collect and stack water cans, food containers and other equipment in preparation for the helicopter pickup. “Roger that, Sarge!” says Buckley as he springs into action. As Kirby walks away, he hears Spranza take the first call for reconnaissance fire in advance of the company’s movement in the valley below.
Sitting in the nearest position to Kirby’s on the eastern sector is Spc. 4 A.V. Spikes, who is complaining about something to Pfc Wade Taste. “Spikes, stop bitching and keep your eyes open,” warns Kirby as he approaches. Spikes, 26, a seven-year veteran whose disregard for authority is well known, looks at Kirby but says nothing. Kirby orders 18-year-old Taste to help Buckley, who is already picking up scattered cans and containers.
Kirby moves to the next position where Look magazine correspondent Sam Castan is interviewing Spc. 4 Daniel Post and Pfc Robert Benjamin. Castan came out to the field the day before to “write a story about death.” He had chosen to stay on at Hereford with the mortar platoon rather than travel with the company. Post, known as the platoon’s practical joker, feeds Castan mischievous responses while Benjamin only responds in “yes” or “no” answers. Kirby queries the two troopers on what they will do if attacked. They tell him they plan on throwing hand grenades down the rocky precipice below their position and fire interlocking fires with the positions on their right and left. Satisfied, Kirby heads for the most forward position at the top of the eastern sector, manned by Paul Harrison and Charles Stuckey, both battle-tested specialists. Harrison and Stuckey have established interlocking fires across the open end of the U-shaped perimeter with Williams and Brame on the western side.
On the way back to his position, Kirby nods to Sgt. 1st Class Edward Shepherd sitting on the rim of a foxhole not far from the mortar pit. Shepherd, 38, is the only soldier there who is not in the mortar platoon. He stayed behind to catch a helicopter to An Khe, where he is to appear before a promotion board.Kirby sits on the edge of his foxhole and watches Spranza talking on the radio with Captain Warren, who is calling in a correction on where to place another mortar round. Spranza yells back the correction to the gun crew, and it then fires a few more rounds.
Shortly after 2 p.m., Warren radios Spranza that the helicopters are on the way, and the word spreads from hole to hole. What Warren does not know is that the helicopters are actually delayed and are still sitting on the ground at LZ Savoy in the valley.
Around 2:15, five minutes before the anticipated arrival of the helicopters, Stuckey spots three well-camouflaged North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers watching him from the elephant grass. He opens fire with his M-16, and Harrison joins in. The three enemy drop, either dead or wounded.
Then, in the next instant, a massive volume of automatic and small-arms fire is unleashed from the high ground to the north and a ravine to the east. Shepherd, sitting on the rim of his foxhole, is killed in the first volley.
Within seconds, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and mortar rounds explode near each occupied position. The men burrow deep into their foxholes under the terrifying cacophony of shrapnel slicing the air and bullets cracking overhead. The platoon is surrounded, outmanned and outgunned.
Kirby yells to Spranza to radio Warren and tell him they are under attack and need immediate air and artillery support. A stunned Warren acknowledges, immediately calls battalion for fire support and orders his company to turn around and head back up the hill.
In the open, stacking equipment, Taste falls to the ground with two bullets in the throat. Buckley, his shoulder covered in blood, dashes across the open perimeter, screaming: “Get off the hill! Get off the hill!” and disappears into the elephant grass.
Harrison yells for Stuckey to go to the mortar pit while he stays behind to hold off the enemy. Stuckey takes a few more shots at the enemy, turns and zigzags for the mortar pit when an RPG round explodes in front of him, throwing him to the ground. After the shrapnel and dirt stop falling, he raises his head and looks to where Post and Benjamin had been trying to make an escape. Both are dead. He sprints toward a large rock just outside the perimeter. As he turns around the corner of it, he encounters an enemy soldier about to throw a grenade into the LZ. Spotting Stuckey, the NVA tosses the grenade directly at him instead. The grenade sails over Stuckey’s head, hits the rock behind him and explodes, wounding him. Managing to stay on his feet, Stuckey fires three rounds into the NVA’s chest, killing him instantly. Stuckey then moves around the rock face, finds a narrow crevice and squeezes into it, hidden from the enemy.
Paul Harrison, slapping magazine after magazine into his rifle, fires at every charging enemy soldier he can see. When he runs out of ammunition, he jumps up from his foxhole and charges the NVA using his M-16 as a club, cracking a few heads before the blood-covered rifle slips from his hands. He then wades into the enemy with his fists until he falls dead from dozens of bullets.
As North Vietnamese troops burst through the elephant grass, Spranza opens up with his M-16 on full automatic, tearing three of them apart. He manages to fire off a few more shots before RPG rounds, visible in their slow trajectory, plunge toward the mortar pit. One round slams in front of Spranza’s foxhole, showering his back with shrapnel. Another explodes to his left, killing “Doc” Crocker instantly. The third round sends shrapnel into Kirby’s arms, head and chest. The last round hits the rear lip of the mortar pit, tearing off Drummond’s right arm and mangling his left leg. He dies in a pool of blood. Gaines is killed with a bullet through his head.
Johnson, the only gun crew member still alive, takes shrapnel in the face but continues firing on the advancing enemy. As attackers fall, others jump over them, running toward Johnson, who keeps firing until he is out of ammunition. He makes a running dive at the rocky embankment on Hereford’s southern edge and rolls down the slope, careening off rocks and over tree roots until finally coming to stop. He spots a V-shaped depression hidden by thick vegetation with a stream running through it. He pulls himself into the stream and gathers brush and vines to hide his body, gripped with fear and exhaustion.
On the western perimeter, Williams and Brame frantically fire their M-16s on full automatic at the waves of NVA, as do Roeder and Mack. A few NVA fall dead but most brave the wall of fire, overrunning the forward position and killing Williams and Brame before turning toward Roeder and Mack. Mack pops up to get a better shot when he takes a bullet in the head, crumbling back into the foxhole dead. Roeder fires his M-79 until he runs out of ammunition, then picks up Mack’s M-16 and continues firing until it too is empty. He throws two grenades at the charging enemy, forcing them to fall back, then jumps out of his fighting position and heads for Benton’s foxhole. When he tumbles in, he finds Benton dead. He crawls out and with bullets trailing his every step, races over to the foxhole of Brooks and Tamayo, but they are dead as well. The western defense has crumbled. Figuring everyone else is dead, Roeder does what he was trained to do: escape and evade. He tears down the side of the hill into the elephant grass, followed by several of the enemy. With bullets zipping over his head, he runs deeper into the elephant grass as fast as he can until he is overcome by exhaustion and drops to the ground. When his gasping for air subsides, he realizes the enemy is no longer following him. He stays hidden, silently praying that he will be spared.
Still in his hole, Spranza sees a figure running right toward his position. He fires off a quick burst, somehow missing his target. “Don’t shoot for God’s sake! It’s me!” Sam Castan screams as he drops into the foxhole. The reporter looks over at Kirby and yells, “We need to get the hell out of here!” Kirby shouts back: “Where? We’re surrounded!”
“Get Six on the horn,” Kirby tells Spranza. “Tell him to hurry or we’re all dead.” Spranza screams into the handset, “Please hurry, we’re being overrun!” But Warren doesn’t get the transmission, as communications between Hereford and the company no longer exist. Spranza turns to the artillery frequency and repeats the message. The artillery RTO passes the call on to Warren, who now pushes his company even more, ordering his men to double-time up the hill, a murderous pace in the mud and tangled vines.
By this time, the battalion executive officer, Major Otto Cantrell, is circling above Hereford in his OH-13 observation helicopter, and Colonel Beard is watching the battle from his command and control Huey. The swarm of enemy they see below is so intermingled with the mortar platoon, neither officer can distinguish who’s who. Rather than kill the defenders by mistake, Beard holds off on the artillery requested by Kirby.Meanwhile, Kirby sees four enemy crawling toward his position less than 15 feet away and tosses three hand grenades as fast as he can, stopping their advance. Kirby now realizes Castan is right—their only chance for survival is to get off the LZ. He cups his hands to bark the order when the badly wounded Taste suddenly drops into his foxhole. Kirby quickly ties a dressing on Taste’s bleeding throat wounds and yells over the enemy fire: “We’ve got to make a break for it. Call arty in on the hill.” Spranza reaches the artillery net, shouting into the handset: “We’re getting out of here. The place is covered with enemy. Just about everybody is dead.” He’s told the artillery is on hold.
With bullets kicking up dirt all around them, Kirby and Taste low-crawl over to Spranza and Castan. “We’ll go over the rim in the direction the company will be coming back,” hollers Kirby. “Let’s go!” As Spranza struggles with his radio while he climbs out of his foxhole, Kirby screams: “Forget the radio! Blow it!” Spranza pulls the pin of a hand grenade and throws it into the hole with the radio. The three soldiers and Castan move quickly away from the blast and a few steps later come across a wounded A.V. Spikes, clutching his M-79. Kirby and Spranza have their M-16s but very little ammunition. Castan, who is also wounded, has a .357 Magnum that Kirby gave him. Taste is unarmed. The five wounded men now move toward the slope descending into a deep ravine to the east. Kirby, Taste, Spikes and Castan run, crawl and roll into the elephant grass while Spranza acts as the rear guard, before rolling down the hill to join them.
As they reach a small ravine, they hear the enemy coming down from the LZ in hot pursuit. They lie down. Figuring the Americans are hiding, the NVA begin beating the grass. The first North Vietnamese to spot the Americans is shot in the face by Spranza. Kirby kills another standing nearby. Spikes fires his M-79 into the group, killing five. Two others crawl away wounded.
Seconds later, another group of North Vietnamese spray the ground around the Americans. Spranza takes three bullets in his right leg, one smashing into his kneecap, severing the tendon. Another bullet rips through his left leg. “I’m hit!” Spranza screams as he falls in a heap on the jungle floor. Kirby sprays the advancing enemy with the last of his ammunition, causing them to retreat. When he bends down to check on Spranza, a bullet smashes into his right arm. He is now losing blood from many wounds. Kirby eyes an NVA peeking over the grass and pulls out a rusty French flare gun he’d found on an old battlefield and fires, hitting him between the eyes. The soldier falls backward, screaming in agony as his flesh burns away. In the meantime, Taste silently bleeds to death from his throat wounds.
Hearing something behind him, Spranza spins around just as a bullet enters the back of his skull, travels through his jaw and exits out of his nose, tearing away cartilage, teeth, tissue and skin. Eyes filled with blood, Spranza goes down, badly wounded but somehow still alive.
Possibly to regroup, the enemy stops firing. Kirby tells everyone to head farther down the ravine. Quietly the four survivors crawl, then walk down the slope. With help from Kirby and Spikes, Spranza manages to keep up. Feeling somewhat safe with the NVA about 100 yards behind, they move a little faster. Suddenly, spotting a small group of enemy coming up a trail to their flank, Spranza signals to get down. Castan does not see Spranza’s warning and keeps going, running straight into a group of North Vietnamese coming from another direction. One of the NVA shoots Castan in the head, killing him. The enemy now opens fire into the grasses from two sides. Spikes takes several bullets in his chest. Kirby checks his pulse, but he cannot find one.
The North Vietnamese troops slowly wade through the grass toward Kirby and Spranza. Kirby is out of ammo. Spranza’s rifle has jammed, but he has two grenades left and he gives them to Kirby, who tosses them into the advancing enemy. Just then, friendly artillery rounds begin pounding LZ Hereford. The deafening explosions stop the enemy’s advance. Kirby and Spranza take advantage of the situation and begin to move slowly back up the hill, but it is too much for Spranza. “Go without me,” he gasps, “I can’t move any further. I’m dying.”
“I’m not leaving you alone,” says Kirby. “Go now!” Spranza yells, “Save yourself. I’ve made peace with my Lord. Just go!”
Kirby, believing Spranza will die for sure, reluctantly accedes to his RTO’s demand and crawls away, back toward Hereford.
Spranza, although growing weaker from loss of blood, finds the will to take off a scabbard knife strapped to his leg by a leather thong. He places the knife on the ground next to him and uses the rawhide as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding in his right leg. He then somehow manages to open his first-aid kit, finds a gauze bandage and begins wrapping it around his head and eye. Before he can finish, however, he hears the rustling of men coming toward him through the grass. He takes his knife into his hand and rolls over facedown into the dirt. Playing dead, Spranza doesn’t move a muscle as three or four NVA slowly approach. He smells their bodies and stale breath as they search him for anything of value. One man turns him over and roughly strips off his signet ring. Others take his wallet, cigarettes and dog tags. Unable to stay motionless another second, he is about to jump up with his knife when he hears a helicopter rapidly descending. It sprays the ground with bullets, some so close they spatter dirt in his face. Screaming frantically, the NVA run for cover.
Still afraid to move, Spranza continues to play dead and seconds later he hears someone carefully moving toward him. He grips his knife a little tighter and when he feels a hand grab his shoulder, he musters all the strength he has left and tries stabbing the man. But the large, shadowy figure, backlit by the sunlight drifting through the trees, quickly grabs Spranza’s knife hand, screaming: “Hey! It’s me, Carlos! Carlos Cruz!” Charlie Company had made it back up the hill. The last of his energy drained, Spranza lays down his head and slips into unconsciousness.
Kirby is halfway up the slope when the friendly artillery ceases falling. Uncertain what it means, he keeps crawling. His many wounds are taking their toll, but he keeps going until he reaches the top of the hill, where he sees Charlie Company troops everywhere. Unable to control his wounded body and his frayed emotions, he slides to the ground. A medic gives him a shot of morphine and stops his bleeding. When the wounded Stuckey comes crawling into the LZ, another medic rushes over, lays him down and treats his wounds. Spranza is carried up the hill in a stretcher made from ponchos, and shortly, he, Kirby and Stuckey are placed in a medevac helicopter and flown to Ah Khe.
Passing the medevacs flying out, helicopters begin delivering reinforcements who pile out onto Hereford. A look of horror passes over their faces at the sight of so much death and destruction. One soldier throws up.
Hearing the helicopters coming and going, Johnson, who got off the hill and evaded the enemy, slowly approaches the LZ only to face the muzzle of an M-16 held by Pfc Morgan. He drops to the ground out of relief when he is recognized by Morgan.
The last mortar platoon survivor to get back to the LZ is a dazed Roeder. A company platoon leader asks Roeder to identify the bodies, all of which have been stripped of personal effects and shot in the head. He is able to name a few before the weight of the massacre takes its toll. He cannot look at another dead friend. As he sits down, the afternoon monsoon rains begin pouring down out of the dark sky. Roeder shivers as the rain pelts his sobbing body. So much death in such a small place.
Michael Christy served in the 5th Special Forces Group in Vietnam in 1967-68. In 1970 he commanded C Company, 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), and served as 3rd Brigade assistant operations officer.
Postnote: Click on this link to read the author’s reply to a query from a reader who wanted to find out what happened to Lt. Col. Beard (was he ever charged with negligence?) and other survivors of the battle.