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Lieutenant Robert Lewis, Blue Team platoon leader from the A Troop, 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry (Aerial Reconnaissance, 1/9) of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), was elated with the order. It said, in essence, to get the hell out of there. Lewis and his men, having suffered three dead and three wounded, were happy to comply. Sent into the village of Hoa Hoi to mop up the remnants of a Viet Cong platoon, they had stumbled into two North Vietnamese Army battalions. As the Blues backed out, 12 UH-1 Huey helicopters carrying the lead elements of the 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry (1/12), arrived. Hoa Hoi was now their problem.

Hoa Hoi was located at the base of the Hung Lac Peninsula between the Mieu Mountains and the South China Sea. Sweeping toward the South China Sea, in an effort to pacify Binh Dinh province, was the 1st Cavalry Division. By October 1, 1966, the Cav’s 1st Brigade was north of Hoa Hoi, fanned out across the coastal corridor between Highway 1 and the South China Sea. To the west of the village, generally along the highway, was the 3rd Brigade. Inside the cordon were assorted local VC elements and the 18th NVA Regiment, believed to be in the Mieu Mountains.

On October 2, the Cav moved to shrink the cordon. The 3rd Brigade airlifted two battalions forward about seven kilometers. At the same time, the 1st Brigade airlifted two of its battalions to locations south and east of the Mieu Mountains. A third battalion, 1/12, remained in the north until the rest of the brigade had been ferried into their objectives. Screening in front of both brigades were the 1/9’s reconnaissance helicopters.

At about 7:30 a.m. on the 2nd, their OH-13 scouts and Huey gunships spotted and engaged several small clusters of what appeared to be both NVA and VC troops. When seven enemy soldiers in Hoa Hoi were killed by a gunship, Lt. Col. George McIlwain, the 1/9 commander, ordered his A Troop’s ground force into action–an infantry platoon known as the Blue Team, designed for close-up work. McIlwain told his Blue Team platoon leader, Lieutenant Lewis, that the village contained an enemy platoon and that the Blues were to cut through the middle of the village and then head south.

Lewis and his Blues landed at 8:30 a.m. on the beach east of the village and started toward it. They made it to an outer trench line surrounding the village. There the enemy ‘platoon’ turned out to be a trench full of soldiers with enough firepower to kill three Americans, wound three more, and knock out three helicopters. Lewis and his men spent the next hour on their bellies.

Monitoring the Hoa Hoi fight was Colonel Archie Hyle, commander of the 1st Brigade. As it became clear that reinforcements would be necessary, Hyle went looking for a battalion to handle the mission. His initial choice was the 8th Cavalry’s 2nd Battalion, which had just air-assaulted into a position about 2,000 meters overland northeast of Hoa Hoi. But Lt. Col. James T. Root, Sr., commander of the 1/12, pointed out that he could get there faster with his B Company, instead of standing by for a 12:30 p.m. air assault into an objective south of the village. Hyle gave the nod to Root’s battalion.

In October 1966, the 1/12, like most of the 1st Cav, was a fresh unit. Due to the one-year rotation schedule, nearly everyone who had deployed to Vietnam with the Cav in the summer of 1965 had already departed, causing an almost complete turnover in battalion personnel. Root had taken command in July along with three of his four company commanders. His operations officer and the fourth company’s commander were replaced in August. Collectively, the battalion learned air assault techniques on the job, but ground combat tactics had not changed significantly since Root’s enlistment in 1941.

Root saw the combatants in Vietnam as equals in virtually every respect but firepower. The edge, as he saw it, was in the use of artillery, which he made sure could always support his wide-ranging units. However, he noticed that when his units made contact, typically with small enemy delaying forces, his leaders halted and wasted precious minutes waiting for artillery fire to be adjusted. By the time the infantry started moving again, the enemy was gone. To counter this problem and still retain the advantage of artillery, Root developed two procedures. First, units had the supporting artillery elements fire a marking round at regular intervals to confirm their location and to facilitate rapid calls for fire. Second, he insisted that his subordinates immediately execute fire-and-maneuver tactics as they had been taught.

The combination of responsive artillery and aggressive infantry pressure worked. The battalion had spent August and September perfecting these technique and learning how to work as a team. Blooded in a variety of minor engagements and confident in its ability, the battalion was also frustrated. It had spent a month thrashing about in search of an ever elusive enemy. Hoa Hoi represented a chance to land a real punch. Root wanted to get into it, and so did his men.

Even so, Root still had no idea of what was in the village. When he contacted his B Company commander, Captain Frederick Mayer, who was still in the air reconnoitering his planned objective, Root told him to expect a reinforced enemy platoon.

B Company with two platoons went in at 10 a.m., landing near where the Blues had first arrived. Mayer immediately sent the 12’slicks’ (helicopter troop transports) back to pick up the rest of the company. Then he got oriented. There was firing everywhere–from the village and from two gunships overhead that were covering his landing. Three crippled choppers were seemingly parked on the dunes, and a beat-up Blue Team was crouching nearby. Mayer directed the 1st Platoon, under Lieutenant Joe Anderson, to set up a blocking position at the north end of the village. That seemed to be the most logical escape route for the enemy and one that could be covered in a hurry. Mayer then ordered Sergeant Leslie Wilson’s 2nd Platoon to take a position between the village and the landing zone (LZ). Although the Blues were withdrawing through Wilson’s platoon, little information was passed between the units.

In short order, the 2nd Platoon approached an enemy trench line that opened up on them. Private First Class Roy Salazar charged forward, rifle blazing. He was killed and two others were wounded, but that action carried the platoon to the lip of the trench. There the platoon went to ground within hand-grenade range of enemy soldiers, who could be seen dashing about to their front and still in the trenches on their flanks. In the north, Lieutenant Anderson reported light contact. Mayer, who had originally planned to assault the village with Wilson’s platoon and the Blues, now thought better of it. The Blues had been ordered out, and Wilson was in heavy contact. He ordered everyone to stay put.

When the 3rd and Weapons platoons arrived, they were sent to the south side of the village, the left flank of the 2nd Platoon. As these platoons moved up, what Mayer initially thought was a friendly M-79 shell exploded near his command group. He radioed the 3rd Platoon and yelled for them to reorient themselves. Then he clearly saw an 82mm mortar round spiraling in from the village. It landed 10 feet away in the sand and exploded. Seven men were wounded, including Mayer, who was hit in the face and arm. Dazed at first, the captain soon regained his feet and was coherent enough to convince Root not to evacuate him. Mayer now had troops covering three sides of the village and river to the enemy’s rear. He had done it right, but B Company was spread paper thin.

As Root circled above B Company and listened to the reports over the radio, the situation became more challenging; the NVA had commo (communication) wire, trenches, at least two heavy machine guns and a mortar. Clearly, the enemy force was a hell of a lot bigger than a platoon. It was time to bring in the rest of the battalion.

From his vantage point in the command bird, Root could clearly see the entire area below, and he began to calculate how much it would take to encircle the enemy force. His immediate problem was determining the dimensions of the defense. He thought back to the three-day stand made by the 23rd Regimental Combat Team at Chipyong-ni, Korea, after it was surrounded by three Chinese divisions. He also thought back to the 120th Infantry Regiment’s desperate fight at Mortain, France, against three German divisions during World War II. He knew the lessons learned by both the attackers and defenders, and he intended to apply them at Hoa Hoi. The most critical factor initially was speed.

The trapped enemy commander had to get out to safety, and the faster the better. The Mieu Mountains were across the river to the west. ‘If I were the enemy commander,’ Root told himself, ‘that’s where I would go.’ With that supposition in mind, Root flew back, picked up the A Company commander, Captain Thomas Fields, and took him on an air recon of the village while briefing him on what he wanted done.

Fields’ A Company landed to the southwest of the village across the river. The first two platoons came under immediate sniper fire from the north. The company hosed down that sector for a full five minutes. The snipers were silenced. As the lift helicopters departed to refuel, Fields was advised that it would be at least an hour before the rest of his company could be brought in. Root gave him the option of holding or advancing. Fields chose to advance.

The two platoons promptly ran into fire from an enemy trench. While the 1st Platoon deployed, John Sinkovitz, the platoon sergeant, and two others assaulted straight into the enemy position. Around the first bend in the trench, Sinkovitz was shot in the thigh. He immediately fired back, killing three enemy soldiers and sending those farther back scrambling for cover. First a squad and then the rest of the platoon joined the men in the trench and, in a close fight, managed to clear the enemy to their immediate front.

As the 2nd Platoon entered the trench line, they stumbled into an 82mm mortar crew. The three-man crew grabbed the tube and took off for the river, but they were gunned down before they made it.

Another group of enemy soldiers was seen disappearing into the brush along the edge of the river. Several were seen dropping their weapons into the water before dodging out of sight. Captain Fields ordered his platoons to put men in the water to see if they could retrieve any weapons. Specialist James Leva and Pfc John Perry volunteered. Fields reached the river as Leva bobbed to the surface, reporting that he had found a cave full of VC and yelling for an M-16.

Seeing one of his men in such an exposed and hazardous position caused Fields to rethink his order, and he shouted for Leva to get out of the water. Leva refused, saying that he could see five enemy soldiers and could get them if he had a weapon. Fields threw him a rifle.

True to his word, Leva swam out and emptied a magazine into the cave. Perry then went in and pulled out two dead and three wounded.

This success convinced Fields to send a dozen more men into the water, where they relentlessly worked both embankments. In the next hour, they killed 40 and wounded another eight, while suffering only one slight injury among themselves. Above ground, five snipers tied to trees above the trench line were killed.

Root continued to circle overhead in his command bird, calculating his next move. For all practical purposes, he held all the cards and he knew it. His operations officer, Major Leon Biere, clamored to get on the ground, but Root held him in the air, where he could assist in command and control. The battalion executive officer, parked back at LZ Hammond, also sought to join the battle, but Root kept him in place as well. Too many times Root had seen senior leaders get so close to the action that they functionally became little more than individual riflemen. There were times when that kind of leadership was required, but so far this battle did not need it.

Meanwhile, he was working on three requirements: contain the enemy inside Hoa Hoi, build up enough force to successfully finish the fight, and clear the decks of civilians in the village.

The artillery was in place and ready to fire. C Company was standing by, ready to get into the fight. The question was where to put them. In the north was the obvious choice, but whether they should simply displace Anderson’s platoon or reinforce A or B companies required a decision. The problems encountered by A Company when it tried to extend north up the river settled the matter. C Company would go in at the northwest corner. That would reduce the frontage for both A and B companies and close down any escape into the Mieu Mountains. Finally, there was the issue of clearing out the civilians. Although the matter was often ignored, Root felt compelled to give it a try.

In the north, Anderson’s 1st Platoon had been largely left alone. Given this opportunity, it had extended its line west toward the river. From that vantage point Anderson could see the A Company troops clearing the embankments. He was on the phone reporting this news when five enemy soldiers ran out of the village and straight toward him. Anderson shot them all.

The NVA inside the village were finally getting organized. The fire against A Company in and along the river increased steadily. Another group of NVA had filtered through the seam between A and B companies and was blasting away at Alpha’s LZ. The 3rd Platoon of Bravo at the southeast corner conducted a ‘mad minute’ (firing all available weapons). When they stopped, the NVA replied with a three-minute-long ‘mad minute’ of their own.

It was at this seemingly inopportune moment that Root ordered a halt to the fighting. The men on the ground protested, but they complied, and at 11:30 a.m. a Huey with a loudspeaker arrived over the village. A taped announcement told those below that the Americans would cease firing for 45 minutes and that all civilians should leave the village. The NVA, of course, were not obligated to adhere to the cease-fire and they did not, maintaining such a racket that many American soldiers could not even hear the loudspeaker. Remarkably, 171 villagers did listen, and headed for the American lines and safety.

During this interlude the balance of A Company arrived and immediately came under fire from the trench line. As the 3rd Platoon fanned out and returned fire, a cluster of old men, women and children stumbled between the two forces. Lieutenant Donald Grigg, the platoon leader, stripped off his gear and ran out to them. Lifting up the two children, he led the group to the relative safety of his lines.

Elsewhere, the first two platoons of C Company under Captain Darrel Houston landed at the extreme northwest corner about 400 meters from the main village area. For the next three hours, Houston’s men swept toward the village, crossing open rice paddies and clearing a number of outlying huts on the way. They were met by sporadic sniper fire and collected a dozen prisoners.

During this period, Colonel Hyle, the brigade commander, and Root huddled on the ground at the A Company command post. Something, unseen and unheard in the din, nicked Hyle in the stomach. Hyle dismissed it, the meeting broke up, and both men returned to their respective command birds. Only after he was airborne and tuned back into the radio networks did Root realize that the danger had been significantly closer than either colonel sensed.

In the brush immediately behind where both men had been sitting was an NVA lieutenant. He had his rifle aimed at Root’s back when he was killed by Sergeant Delbert Jennings. Jennings would later win the Medal of Honor for his actions during the defense of LZ Bird on December 27, 1966.

At 3 p.m., C Company began to move into position between A Company and Bravo’s 1st Platoon. With a number of civilians still wandering about, C Company held its fire and crawled forward toward the northwest corner. This move displaced Anderson’s 1st Platoon, which was ordered to march south through the village and rejoin B Company.

Anderson’s men came out shooting and pitching grenades at any possible enemy position. They kept this up all the way, taking only three wounded at the very beginning of the 45-minute movement. The casualties came when Sergeant Jim Owens threw a grenade into a bunker, only to have it thrown back out into the middle of his squad. After that, only continuous enemy sniper fire met the advance. Anderson’s assault south through the village was largely unopposed.

Root was concerned. He was certain that at least an NVA battalion was in the village, yet a single American platoon had just walked through essentially unmolested. It did not make any sense. Root had been considering asking for additional companies. Now he began to reconsider his next move, figuring that his battalion alone might be enough.

A Company extended north to link up with C Company and, in the process, became responsible for a small bridge across the river. Captain Fields saw it as a potential escape route and ordered it secured. The 2nd Platoon started across the bridge from the west side. An NVA machine gun met them, killing Pfc Joe Cacgimble, who was in the lead, and wounding the three men behind him. The platoon scattered for cover.

Private First Class Franklin Donaldson went forward to help his wounded comrades. As he moved near them, he spotted eight enemy soldiers coming up the riverbank. He immediately killed the first four, then shot it out with the others until they, too, were killed. Finally, he dashed over to where the wounded were and dragged them back to cover.

Captain Fields brought up his 90mm recoilless anti-tank rifle. With three rounds it destroyed the machine gun, its three-man crew and the house they were firing from. The fire from other sources, however, was still too much to allow another try at crossing. Gunships were called in while the company backed up 100 meters. A Company then turned its attention to linking up with C Company in the north and B Company in the south. The latter companies, however, were having difficulties of their own.

Shortly after 3 p.m., C Company, advancing with platoons on line, encountered serious resistance. The 2nd Platoon, in the center, took intensive fire from an enemy trench line. Exposed in a rice paddy, the platoon went to ground. The 3rd Platoon, on the left, maneuvered left and stumbled into the trench. Its third squad then started down the length of the trench, knocking out several NVA automatic weapons. The 4th Platoon, on the right flank, swung right. As the men advanced, the platoon sergeant, Paul Jackson, and his radio-telephone operator, Pfc Larry Willis, went after an NVA squad taking up positions in the trench. In the initial gunfight, Jackson was hit in the head and knocked unconscious. Dragged to cover by Willis, Jackson recovered, and the two men launched a second assault. This time they were successful in killing eight NVA soldiers. With their flanks lost, the NVA withdrew to the village. C Company moved up and linked with A Company.

In the south, B Company was hard pressed to extend itself across the south end of the village. Mayer, still bumping against heavy resistance on the eastern base of the L-shaped village, decided to call for 105mm artillery support. When the first volley came in, the shells landed almost in his face–much too close. Mayer was afraid to adjust the fire for fear of hitting friendlies, so he called off the artillery support. Four gunships came instead and poured rocket fire across his front. That fire, too, seemed awfully close, but the combination of rockets and artillery did serve to significantly ease the enemy firing in his sector.

One machine gun, however, bunkered at the angle of the L, continued firing. Mayer sent Lieutenant Walter Crimmins’ 3rd Platoon after it. The platoon got close before its lead man was hit. Private First Class Francis Royal went to rescue him and was shot in the head while dragging the wounded man back. A third man went after the first two and was also hit. The 3rd Platoon went for cover, and Crimmins called for help.

Mayer sent in Anderson’s 1st Platoon, and they ran into the same wall. While they crouched in a ravine figuring out what to do next, Sergeant Owens was hit. The bullet snapped through the center front of his steel helmet, forehead high, creased around the side of his head, and popped out the rear of his helmet. It was a perfect shot, and Owens should have been dead. Instead, he sat stunned, tightly holding a helmet with a hole in front and back.

Mayer called the gunships back in while his 1st and 3rd platoons backed out. Lieutenant Colonel McIlwain, still overhead, led the choppers in. Having shot up the NVA positions, and seeing the wounded Royal isolated in front of the company, McIlwain decided to go and get him. He dropped down, and as his crew was loading Royal aboard, an enemy soldier approached the rear of the Huey. The pilot, seeing him, simply dipped the rear of the craft and decapitated him. (Royal died later in the field hospital.) Meanwhile, Mayer brought up his 90mm recoilless rifle and knocked out the position that had fatally wounded Royal.

It was now 5 p.m. and decision time. An assault through the village that Root had hoped to conduct before dark was now clearly impossible. It was also clearly impossible for a single battalion to successfully hold the cordon until the next morning. By now Root had dismissed the Anderson assault as a fluke. More troops were needed. To this end Root flew back to meet with Hyle.

Root requested permission to retain command of the operation and said he needed at least two additional companies. Hyle gave him A and C companies of the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry (1/5). They were airlifted in to fill the gap between B and C Companies, 1/12.

C Company, 1/5, arrived at 7 p.m. aboard four Chinook helicopters and was positioned in the northeast corner. A Company, 1/5, landed at the same time aboard 23 slicks and deployed east of the village. B Company, 1/12, shifted left to cover the south end of the village. Two-man foxholes were dug completely around the village at 10- and 20-meter intervals.

With the ring around the village in place, Root returned his attention to ensuring that the cordon was tight. A small lake separated his Alpha and Bravo companies. The line there had to be extended to ensure that potential escape route was closed. Finally, Root ordered everyone to shake the hand of the man next to him. By 9 p.m. the adjustments had been finalized, and the line settled in, awaiting the breakout attempts.

Root, still nervous about how tight the seal around the village really was, decided to spend the night with B Company. When he joined the company at dusk, he realized he had left his radio on the helicopter that brought him. Rather than commandeer Mayer’s radio and potentially cripple command and control in that unit, Root simply used it as a relay station. Another plan of Root’s–to walk the perimeter–was dismissed when it occurred to him that a large segment of the perimeter was manned by soldiers who did not know him from Adam. Root decided to stay put and expend his efforts on closing the lake area–a certain escape route–and maintaining continuous illumination over the area.

A full moon helped, but Root was convinced that a clever enemy who knew the terrain could find a way out. The solution was to keep the flares falling all night. It was not an easy task. When the artillery ran out of ammunition after several hours, an AC-47 ‘Smoky the Bear’ fixed-wing gunship was brought in. When the AC-47 ran out of flares, naval gunfire was used from a destroyer offshore. Then the resupplied artillery kicked back in for the remainder of the night.

About halfway through the night, Colonel Hyle asked if the battalion could not just rely on the light of the moon. Root replied that bright light through the night was the key to keeping the enemy bottled up. Hyle made sure the illumination kept coming. In another effort to keep the enemy buttoned up and off-balance, high-explosive rounds were dropped into the village at one-minute intervals. While the artillery proved to be both accurate and effective, a few rounds did land dangerously close to the friendly lines. A baby, camped with a group of villagers near the B Company command post, was hit in the face by a fragment. Among this same refugee group, Root had earlier watched in astonishment while a Vietnamese couple dropped to the ground for some recreational sex. Evidently, they had not seen each other for a while.

The breakout attempts started soon after dark. While Fields was still adjusting A Company’s positions, the NVA made a run at his 2nd Platoon. Assisted by Fields and his command group, the platoon held, and the enemy fell back into the village. Two other major attempts were made in the south against B Company’s 1st and 3rd platoons. There, the NVA followed behind a herd of stampeding water buffalo. The Americans let the animals pass, then shot the escaping NVA soldiers. The enemy promptly regrouped and made another try, this time using civilians as a screen. The results were the same. The villagers were let through, and the NVA soldiers were engaged. For the balance of the night, groups of four or five NVA soldiers continuously pecked against the inside of the perimeter. Their efforts were futile, and by dawn every company had a collection of dazed POWs, many bleeding from their mouths and ears as a result of the artillery fire.

Root’s plan for the final assault was simple, and he conceptualized it as, in his terms, ‘collapsing an egg.’ In an operations order given over the radio the previous evening, he had directed his two northern companies (the C companies of 1/12 and 1/5) to attack due south. Once that sweep was completed, C Company, 1/12, and B Company, 1/12, would then assault back from south to north.

As planned, both northern companies jumped off at 6 a.m. on October 3 with Captain Houston’s C Company, 1/12, on the right and Captain Donald Sim’s C Company, 1/5, on the left. Sims and his unit encountered only light resistance and were soon pinched out of the assault as they crossed in front of A Company, 1/15. They were sent back up to re-establish northern blocking positions. Houston’s men, marching down the stem of the village’s L shape, bumped into a major gunfight almost immediately.

As the 3rd Platoon, under Lieutenant John Rudd, crossed a rice paddy about 25 meters from its start point, the NVA opened up. While the rest of the unit flattened, Pfc David Osborne stood up and began firing his M-60 machine gun against the bunkers to his front. Following his example, Specialist Daniel Shubert, the other M-60 gunner, stood up and also began hosing down the NVA positions. Then the platoon charged. When the platoon cleared that trench line, they encountered still another. This time Specialist Gary Lusk, Rudd’s radio-telephone operator, stood up and began pointing out targets to Osborne and the others. When the enemy fire slackened, the platoon charged again. The rush carried them and the rest of the company through the outer NVA defensive line and into the village proper. There, they advanced hut by hut, engaging in isolated gunfights the whole way. It took the company four hours to reach the American lines in the south, but they arrived without losing a man.

C Company then did an about-face and, along with B Company, began a sweep from south to north. Resistance this time was sporadic at best, and their arrival in the north at 12:30 p.m. signaled the end of the battle. Root’s forces had suffered three dead and 29 wounded. The 7th and 8th battalions, 18th Regiment of the North Vietnamese Army were annihilated.


This article was written by James T. Root, Jr. and originally published in the August 1994 issue of Vietnam Magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Vietnam Magazine today!