Marine reconnaissance team Box Score’s fight for survival.
Seven North Vietnamese Army soldiers, carrying packs and rifles, strode nonchalantly down the trail toward a small stream that slowly meandered through an overgrown rice paddy at the base of the hill. As the NVA column approached one of the numerous bomb craters dotting the surrounding landscape, something caught one soldier’s attention. He glanced in that direction—an instinctive act that signed his death warrant. Suddenly a concentrated burst of small-arms fire from concealed Marines in a 3rd Force Reconnaissance Company team scythed through the North Vietnamese formation. Moments later the recon team itself was under fire and would spend two days trying to survive deadly combat with an overwhelming enemy force in February 1968.
The eight-man Force Reconnaissance Team 2-1, call sign “Box Score,” led by 2nd Lt. Terrence C. “Terry” Graves, was assigned to “conduct reconnaissance and surveillance in zone to determine enemy activity, paying particular attention to the many trails to determine if the enemy was using them.” Secondarily, the team was told to plot potential helicopter landing zones and “make every effort to capture a prisoner.”
The members of Box Score under Graves’ command were Cpl. Robert B. Thomson, Cpl. Danny M. Slocum, Lance Cpl. Steven E. Emrick and Pfcs. James Earl Honeycutt, Adrian S. Lopez and Michael P. Nation. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Stephen R. Thompson, a hospital corpsman, was also on the team.
This was Graves’ fourth patrol but his first as patrol leader. The other team members had worked together on several missions.
The team’s reconnaissance zone was two-and-a-half to three miles northeast of the Marine artillery position at Firebase Charlie-2, about eight miles northwest of a major Marine base at Dong Ha, in an area the Leathernecks called “Indian Country,” Old West slang for largely unpopulated, dangerous territory with many enemy soldiers.
The NVA used it as a main infiltration route to attack U. S. Marine and South Vietnamese positions along the Demilitarized Zone separating South and North Vietnam. South Vietnamese farmers there had been relocated, and the entire area was declared a “free fire” zone, where any unidentified person could be shot on sight.
At 11:45 a.m. on Feb. 15, 1968, Team Box Score departed Dong Ha aboard a two-ton cargo truck. Upon reaching the drop-off point, the truck slowed to allow the recon team to jump off and then continued on its way.
The Marines quickly melted into the scrub growth along the side of the road and continued for several minutes, then set up a 360-degree perimeter and waited to see if they had been discovered. Graves gave the signal to move out, and the team soon discovered that the trails were pocked with footprints. The North Vietnamese were near.
After scouting the area for several hours, the team reached its recon zone and searched for a nighttime harbor. The Marines found a brush-covered site offering good concealment. They set up a 360-degree perimeter, plotted close-in artillery targets in case of attack, established a radio watch and checked in with headquarters. “Every two hours we would rotate the watch,” Nation explained, “which allowed everyone to get some much-deserved sleep.” The night passed uneventfully.
By dawn on Feb. 16, the team had moved west through thick scrub toward several hills covered with waist-high elephant grass. While moving across a bombed-out area, they heard two Vietnamese voices far off in the distance. The Marines got down, moved to the side of the brush line and waited to see if the Vietnamese would come closer. When they did not, Graves’ men moved out.
“We crossed a little streambed and crawled up the hill to a bomb crater where we formed a 360-degree circle,” Nation recalled. “That’s when I spotted five NVA, carrying packs and rifles, coming down the path toward us.” Graves passed the word to prepare an ambush.
“We peeled off and set up a hasty ambush alongside the trail as best we could because the brush was only 2, maybe 3 feet high,” Nation explained. “When it came my turn, there was no cover, so Honeycutt and I jumped into a 10-feet-deep, steep-sided bomb crater. All I could see was the sky.”
The NVA, now numbering seven, continued toward the ambush site. Four members of Team Box Score—Graves, Lopez, Thomson and Slocum—moved up the hill.
When the NVA came within 15 to 20 feet of the kill zone, one of them seemed to glance at the Marines. “I think he may have seen me,” recalled Nation, who opened fire with his M14 rifle, “and then everybody opened fire.” Thomson responded with an M79 grenade launcher; others with small arms and hand grenades.
Slocum stood up to move to another position and was hit in the thigh. “All of a sudden one or two rounds were fired,” Nation said. The recon team returned fire, while “Doc” Thompson treated Slocum for what the corpsman considered “a minor wound in the upper right thigh.” It was a “through-and-through” wound that took out some skin, Thompson said. “I put a couple of battle dressings on it and offered Danny morphine, but I didn’t recommend it because it would slow some of his senses. I believe his refusal saved his life.”
Graves and Thomson hastily searched the enemy bodies in the kill zone. “They came back a few minutes later with a pack, diary and a few odds and ends,” Thompson said. “All the NVA were dead. The trail was just one big mass of blood.”
The lieutenant called in a medevac helicopter to pick up Slocum, whose thigh wound prevented him from continuing on the patrol, and then ordered the team to move to the top of the hill. “As we started moving up, we got pinned down by automatic-rifle fire,” Nation recalled, “kinda like the movies with the rounds bouncing off the ground.”
Graves encouraged the team to keep moving despite the intense fire. Returning fire, the Marines moved uphill and formed a circle. Meanwhile, the lieutenant was on the radio calling in artillery support and directing gunships.
“The fire was so heavy that Lt. Graves would sit up and see where the round hit and lay back down and call in adjustments,” Thompson said. The small band of Marines was under attack by an NVA force estimated to be two companies in strength, probably about 260 men.
Graves passed word that the medevac, a CH-46 Sea Knight transport helicopter, was inbound and told his men to move toward the landing zone. As they closed in, the hovering chopper “was being riddled with machine-gun fire,” Thompson said. “It looked to me like the co-pilot and the gunner were hit.” The badly shot-up aircraft pulled out of the landing zone.
“Just a few seconds later we took a long burst of automatic weapons fire, and Lance Cpl. Emrick, Cpl. Thomson and Lt. Graves all got hit,” Slocum recalled. Nation said, “I remember the lieutenant was the first to yell that he got hit.” Graves received a minor wound in the upper right thigh, but the other two were seriously wounded.
As Thomson, hit in the lower waist, was being treated, he told corpsman Thompson, “I’m blacking out, Doc. I’m blacking out.” Then, Thompson recalled, “he passed out on me. I thought at that moment he died. I started closed chest cardiac massage and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.”
Nation turned Emrick over. The lance corporal, shot in the body, said, “Nation, take the radio,” and then stopped talking. But
Lopez could still feel a pulse, and Nation administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
After Graves was bandaged, he went back on the radio. “He directed airstrikes and kept up a small base of fire to give us some protection,” Thompson said.
At that time, six gunships and two F-8 Crusader fighter-bombers were mercilessly pounding the NVA positions. The landing zone was almost totally obscured by smoke from the airstrikes.
Flying a UH-34D Seahorse helicopter of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 163, Capt. David F. Underwood was on a routine resupply mission when he heard that a recon team was in trouble nearby. “The CH-46s that were trying to get these guys were getting shot up,” he said. “They finally said they couldn’t get in because the fire was too intense. I called the DASC [direct air support center] and said, ‘We’re working birds today, but I’ll give it a try if you guys want to do it. So they said, ‘Fine, if you want to do it go ahead.’”
Underwood radioed Graves that he was coming in for the evacuation. The pilot worked out a plan with one of the UH-1 Iroquois “Huey” gunships to lead him in and provide covering fire. “I followed him in, going flat out,” Underwood said, and as the Huey broke left he brought his Seahorse into a low hover on the top of the ridge. It immediately came under intense automatic weapons fire.
“I could actually see the NVA blasting away with AK-47s…unbelievable fire…anything except a -34 would have been blown out of the sky,” Underwood said, praising his UH-34 chopper. “My rotor wash was pushing the elephant grass down, and I tried to spot where the guys were. I air-taxied down the ridge until we finally spotted one of them half-hidden in the grass, dragging a guy who’d been wounded.”
Underwood got as close to Team Box Score as he could and set the UH-34 down. “Rounds were coming through the cockpit,” he remembered. “All the glass was blown out in my instrument panel. The windshield was blown out. You could hear the bullets going through the cockpit like bees.”
With Graves and Slocum providing covering fire, Thompson and Honeycutt dragged Thomson to the helicopter, while Nation and Lopez struggled with Emrick. “We couldn’t stand up because the fire was still coming in on us and the grass was so short,” Nation recalled. “You had to just kind of kneel down and pull them, while trying to keep them breathing.”
Underwood noticed that the Box Score Marines were having trouble getting their wounded to his helicopter. “We stayed in the zone approximately three minutes…under intense automatic weapons fire,” he said, “but we were going to stay as long as we could to get everyone on board. I was going to try to take the whole team out.”
Cpl. Al Mortimer, Underwood’s crew chief, frantically gestured for the team to hustle. “Two recon members brought up one man [Thomson] and ran back and got another one,” he said. “Then the corpsman came in. He started pounding on the man’s heart, trying to keep it going.”
Nation, Lopez and Honeycutt finally were able to slide Emrick into the cabin. Then Honeycutt jumped off the UH-34’s step to assist Graves and Slocum in suppressing the NVA fire.
Lopez also jumped to the ground, but a fast-thinking Mortimer reached for the private. “I grabbed him by the collar,” Mortimer said, “and was helping him in when he got shot in the leg. ‘I’m hit!’ he yelled. At that time we took off and were in the air by the time I pulled him in.”
Thomson and Emrick lay on the helicopter’s bloody deck. Corpsman Thompson hunched over Thomson and massaged his heart as Nation attended to Emrick. After a few minutes, Nation realized “Emrick was gone, and I gave up on him.” He started working on Lopez, unconscious from loss of blood.
“The doc gave me his Ka-Bar [combat knife], and I cut his pant’s leg open and pressed a bandage on the wound to get the blood to stop,” Nation said. “It was just gushing all over the bottom of the chopper.” The bullet had severed an artery in Lopez’s thigh, ricocheted into his abdominal cavity and exited through his right hip.
Bullets suddenly ripped through the helicopter. “The whole side of the chopper seemed to be coming in on us,” Nation said. “Some of the stuff hit me in the face.”
The three men providing suppressing fire prepared to board. Honeycutt was just climbing in, and Slocum was to one side. Graves was a few feet away, Nation remembered. “The lieutenant was screaming at the top of his lungs: ‘Get out! Get out!’ And he just waved at the chopper pilot to get the hell out of there because he can see that the fuel tanks had been ruptured.”
As the helicopter lifted out of the zone, Underwood saw Honeycutt jump out. “I called my crew chief and asked him how many men we had aboard,” the helo captain said. “I was informed that we only had five. …At this point there was nothing I could do.”
Underwood flew the badly damaged aircraft to Dong Ha, the closest medical facility and shut it down.
“The crew shouted for us to get out,” Nation recalled. “There was fuel running out all over the place.” The helicopter had taken 20 hits, mostly in the cockpit. “I could not have flown it anymore,” Underwood said. “In fact, it had to be lifted out.”
The wounded were rushed into surgery. Doctors worked hard to help Thomson but couldn’t save him. They were able to stabilize Lopez and evacuated him to a larger hospital at Da Nang. But he died the next day.
Back at the landing zone, Graves, Honeycutt and Slocum scrambled to the top of the hill and waited for the next rescue helicopter. Capt. Carl E. Bergman, Underwood’s wingman, flying a UH-34, followed a Huey gunship into the zone. Smoke from white phosphorus rockets fired by the Huey obscured the ground, and Bergman made three attempts to find the site before setting down.
“The aircraft started to take hits,” Bergman said, “and my gunner cried out that my crew chief had been hit in the shoulder and was bleeding badly. I looked around and didn’t see anyone.”
As the chopper lifted off, Bergman’s co-pilot saw three people lying in the grass. “I made about 20 meters, and I sat down one more time,” Bergman said, “and I still couldn’t see any movement, so I picked up and left, with both my crew chief and gunner seriously wounded and the aircraft with major damage to vital components.”
Huey helicopter pilot Capt. Bobby F. “Gabby” Galbreath from Marine Observation Squadron 6 volunteered to make a third rescue attempt. “Gabby, don’t go in there,” Underwood warned. “The fire is too intense. You’ll never make it. A Huey can’t take it.”
“Nah,” Galbreath responded, “I think I can get them out. I’m going to give it a try.”
As he piloted the Huey through machine-gun and small-arms fire, the NVA “were really putting some rounds in it,” Slocum observed. “It never quite touched the hill, just kind of hovered about a foot off the ground.” Slocum, Honeycutt and Graves scrambled aboard.
They all got in, and Galbreath took off as enemy fire pelted the helicopter. “I saw the co-pilot [1st Lt. Paul A. Jensen] slump over as the rounds came through the rear section of the chopper, cutting up people,” Slocum said. “I also think the lieutenant [Graves] got hit again.”
The Huey lurched out of control. “It was completely spastic,” Slocum said, “and crashed on its side across the river, about 50 meters from the bank, right above a bomb crater.” The impact hurled everyone together in a tangled heap, he said. “I was on top of the pile, so I was able to shimmy out.” After jumping to the ground, he saw “one of the pilots stretched out on the ground, semiconscious.”
Slocum could see a line of 15 to 20 NVA soldiers closing in and asked the pilot if he had a pistol. The pilot said “no,” but he had a carbine in the cockpit. “I couldn’t find it,” Slocum said, “so I climbed up on the chopper and tried to get the machine gun.” Just as he got his hands on it, enemy guns opened up. He jumped off and landed about 5 to 6 yards from the copter. “I froze near the wreckage of a rocket pod, hoping they wouldn’t see me,” Slocum said. He heard the NVA firing one or two rounds at a time.
Slocum headed downstream and spent the night dodging friendly artillery rounds fired to harass enemy troops in the area. The next morning, Feb. 17, he got up at first light and followed a trail heading upward. As he got to the top, Slocum noticed an enemy soldier 15 to 20 yards away. He backtracked until the trail crossed a stream, walked along it for 100 to 150 yards and then crawled up the bank. NVA soldiers were so close “I could hear them talking,” he remembered. “They seemed to be coming toward me.” Slocum inched his way through the brush to the top of a hill where he could see helicopters and hear gunfire.
Late the previous afternoon 2d Platoon, Company B, 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, had been helilifted into the area to aid the recon team. The small force rushed to the scene of the crash. As the platoon approached the downed helicopter, the NVA suddenly hit the Marines from three sides with small-arms and automatic weapons fire. Radio operator Cpl. William A. Lee fell mortally wounded; four others were also hit.
Threatened with being overrun, the platoon withdrew and dug in for the night. Early the next morning, Feb. 18, the rest of the company joined the platoon and the combined force searched the downed helicopter. They found five dead Marines—Graves, Honeycutt, Galbreath, Jensen, helicopter crewman Staff Sgt. Jimmy E. Tolliver—and one badly wounded crewman, Cpl. Harry W. Schneider, who told them one recon team member had escaped. Schneider died of his injuries en route to Da Nang the following day.
Slocum was able to evade the NVA until an aerial observer spotted him. Gunships kept the enemy at bay, and “the grunts started moving my way,” Slocum said. “First, I thought they were NVA, so I started moving the other way. The choppers sort of motioned me back in, and it was grunts after all. I walked over to them, and they had a medevac come in and pick me up.”
Slocum was flown to Dong Ha for treatment and after recuperating for 2½ months returned to 3rd Force Reconnaissance Company.
Team Box Score’s heroic fight for survival and rescue had ended.
—Col. Dick Camp retired from the Marine Corps in 1988 after serving 26 years. He served in Vietnam 1967-68 as an infantry company commander with 3rd Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment, and aide de camp to Maj. Gen. Raymond G. Davis, 3rd Marine Division. He has written 15 books and over a 100 articles in military magazines. He is indebted to retired Marines Lt. Col. George “Digger” O’Dell, Col. Dave Underwood and Lt. Col. Carl Bergman, Marine veteran Mike Nation and Navy veteran Steve Thompson for their assistance.
This article appeared in Vietnam magazine’s December 2019 issue.