Melvin Lee Morrow, Jr., was tall, thin and straight. His face was parched from the Vietnamese sun, and his jungle fatigues were a size too big. A loss of 2025 pounds was not unusual among infantry company commanders. He was a Southerner and had the drawl to prove it. What stood out about him was his voice–slow, methodical and easy. It was a voice that exuded confidence and had a calming effect on his men in tight situations.
I’ve known many captains in the Army. I’ve served under them as an enlisted man; I’ve served alongside them; and I’ve had a good number serve under me. But Lee Morrow is the best Army captain I have ever known. This is no snap judgment. I first met Morrow more than 25 years ago, so I’ve had a bit of time to reflect. I only knew him a matter of months in 1969, but I was impressed with how he handled himself as a company commander during heavy fighting.
A commander I once knew had a saying that has stuck with me through the years: ‘There is no substitution for results.’ There were soldiers who presented a better appearance, gave sharper salutes, and stood taller on the parade fields, but none of them could hold a candle to Morrow. He got results in combat, where it counted. There was no one cooler under fire, no one who functioned better under stress, and no one who could better take up the slack when his commander lost communications in the middle of an enemy attack. Morrow was brave but not foolhardy. He knew to just what degree to put himself in harm’s way to gain the confidence of his men, and to inspire them to do what he wanted. He knew which buttons to push to get the results he expected, and his clear, concise commands were easy to understand.
Upon returning from my second tour in Vietnam, I did not want to look back. After seeing the horror of war, I tried to block it out and put the past behind me. I just wanted to forget. I kept in contact with only a few of those with whom I served, and Lee Morrow was not one of them. It has been only in the last few years that I have wanted to reflect on what happened in Vietnam. While reflecting, Lee Morrow came to mind.
Less than two hours after I had taken command of the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry (2/12), I left Fire Base Pershing by helicopter to visit two of my companies out in the bush. We stopped first at Company C, commanded by Captain Morrow. Major Parrish, my operations officer, introduced us. Morrow had a firm handshake and a good grasp of his mission and how he intended to carry it out. His quiet intensity gave me the impression that he was an officer I could count on.
That night, Morrow’s company was in a vicious firefight. With one dead and several wounded, Company C was holding off the attackers but using lots of ammunition. Brigade headquarters notified me that a command helicopter was on the way. Parrish and my artillery liaison officer, a Lieutenant Johnson, were on standby.
The combat area was not hard to spot from the air as we approached in the chopper. The rifle flashes gave an eerie outline of the perimeter. Morrow had his company in a rectangular night defensive position. He had a blinking light on each corner of his perimeter and one on the interior to show where he wanted us to land. He agreed to put out maximum firepower once we started our descent. I told him we would evacuate as many of the wounded as we could.
I took a deep breath as we began our descent. Guns were blazing like crazy as we landed without incident, kicking out the ammo almost before the struts touched down. I saw Morrow, and we both tried to talk over the roar of the chopper, to no avail. In all of about 30 seconds, we had dropped off the ammunition, picked up the wounded, and were off again. During the mad scramble to get the wounded aboard, someone handed me something wrapped in a blanket. It wasn’t until later that I found out what it was.
The Bell UH-1 Huey helicopter strained under the extra weight of the wounded, but the pilots were able to get us out safely. By some miracle, we did not receive a single hit. Up in relative safety, I finally got a chance to see what had been handed to me. I looked down and hanging outside of the blanket was a combat boot containing a foot attached limply to a leg! The blanket held what was left of one of my soldiers. I can recall someone saying, ‘This whole damn country ain’t worth that kid’s life.’
Company C did quite well that night. They had two killed and 11 wounded. The Communists lost at least 32 men, and we captured 12 AK-47s, several rocket launchers and a .50-caliber machine gun. Morrow was grateful for our help. I was proud of him. Morrow conducted himself well during a number of other skirmishes while I commanded the 2/12. The most critical, and the one that stands out in my mind, was a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) attack on a night defensive position where I coordinated the two companies involved. Earlier that day, we had gotten word that one of our helicopters had been fired upon in the vicinity of the Boloi Woods. Division headquarters wanted someone to check out that area. We were put on standby for the mission.
It took several hours for the Hueys to arrive, so it was late afternoon before my two companies were inserted. I went in with a small command group, consisting of an operations sergeant and two radio operators. We searched the area until nearly dusk but saw no signs of enemy troops. I then got word that we were to set up defensive positions that evening and resume the search the following morning.
I selected an area away from the tree line where we could mark our positions well, in the event we had to use gunships and air support. We would also be able to evacuate our wounded by helicopter more easily. The natural shelter afforded by the paddy dikes provided some protection from small-arms fire. I decided to use a rectangular-shaped defense, thereby taking advantage of the dikes and giving each company two sides of the rectangle to defend. My command post would be in the center. Working until about 11 p.m., I was satisfied that we were in a position to repulse any enemy attack of reasonable size.
Shortly after midnight, the thud of mortars began to resound within the perimeter and the surrounding area. Soon afterward, small-arms fire broke out to our front, and our troops began to return it. I notified brigade headquarters and asked for gunships. Lieutenant Johnson already had fire coming into the sector where the small-arms fire originated. The mortars continued. Another sector began receiving fire, and I could see the outline of figures in the intermittent glow of the incoming mortars and our own artillery fire. We were under a full-scale ground attack.
Our troops were putting out a hail of fire, and I pressed them to put out even more. I could still see the figures rapidly approaching, and not as many as I had expected were falling. They were getting so close we began to use hand grenades. The gunships arrived, and I contacted the pilots and gave them an area to work over with their rockets and machine guns. I lost contact with my Company B commander, a Captain Bulgarin, a new officer who had recently taken command. I soon received word from one of his lieutenants that two of our bunkers had been hit and Bulgarin was dead. I appointed the senior lieutenant as company commander and instructed him to hold at all costs.
Through it all, Captain Morrow was as steady as a rock, giving me periodic reports and reassuring me that his sector could hold. Somehow he even found time to check Company B’s sector and offer encouragement to the newly appointed company commander. The battle raged throughout the night. The artillery and gunships really raked the area around our perimeter, and at about 4 a.m., things quieted down. We had a chance to lick our wounds and assess our casualties. The enemy had taken out two of our bunkers, killing all of the occupants. We had nine dead and two wounded. The five or six hours spent digging in and setting up wire and Claymore mines certainly had decreased our casualties considerably.
Apparently, the NVA had used expert sappers who had been able to sneak up and put a hand grenade in each of those positions, killing everyone inside. One of the casualties was Lieutenant Johnson. The injuries suffered by the two wounded soldiers were minor, and they did not have to be evacuated. Our good defensive setup, the proper use of artillery, the excellent performance of the gunships and the actions of Lee Morrow that night were the key reasons we survived the attack. Our intelligence later learned the attacking force consisted of elements of two enemy battalions.
When it was light we had a chance to assess the enemy losses more thoroughly, and I made a helicopter reconnaissance to survey the battlefield from the air. There were about two dozen dead enemy soldiers within several yards of our bunkers. They obviously had been killed by our troops. They had gotten so close you couldn’t miss. There were many others farther out that the artillery and gunships had accounted for. The division and brigade commanders visited and praised my troops for the job they had done.
Lee Morrow, modest to a fault, accepted little credit for our success. I knew that he was the glue that had held the defense together, moving about the perimeter, exposing himself to enemy fire, and doing those things that I had little time for after the initial attack. Issuing orders and receiving reports from two companies, reporting to brigade headquarters, and coordinating artillery and gunships was as much as I could handle. At one point, when I had a momentary problem with a radio to brigade headquarters, Morrow filled in for me and kept things going without missing a beat. In effect, he was my deputy commander during the fight, and without his calm presence, things might have turned out differently. Although I have not seen or heard from him since those days back in 1969, my admiration for this brave soldier knows no bounds. Lee Morrow is the best captain I have ever known.
This article was written by Lt. Col. John Mann, U.S. Army (ret.) and was originally published in the October 1996 issue of Vietnam magazine.
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