In the space of 30 days in 1966, the 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment was in the thick of three violent and sometimes desperate battles with the Viet Cong. The extra – ordinary performance and heroism under fire by the men of “Quarter Horse” and their commander Leonard L. “Lee” Lewane earned them high praise and honors—two Silver Stars for Lewane and the U.S. Presidential Unit Citation for the troopers. An extraordinary leader of men, Lewane’s career spanned Korea and Vietnam, where he consistently put himself in the center of the action.
Born in New Jersey in 1928, Lewane entered the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in 1950. When he graduated in 1954 as an ROTC Distinguished Military Graduate, he was commissioned as a Regular Army second lieutenant in the armored cavalry.
Lewane subsequently completed Airborne and Ranger training and served two combat tours in Korea as a tank platoon leader and company commander. From 1956 to 1958, he patrolled the West German-Czech border as the commander of armored cavalry companies in the 6th and 11th Armored Cavalry regiments. It was during his time in Korea and in Europe that Lewane learned about leadership. “I learned quickly that soldiers are always watching their commander and, while words can be important, what you do or don’t do is more important. That means you have got to take care of your soldiers and they’ll take care of you if you do. And that also means sharing the same dangers and hardships that they face.”
Lewane returned to VMI in 1959, serving as an assistant professor of military science until 1962. After finishing Command and General Staff College in 1963, he served briefly at U.S. Strike Command, MacDill Air Force Base, Fla.
In November 1965, now Lt. Col. Lewane arrived in Saigon. Although he had been assigned to J-3 Operations and Plans at Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, he immediately volunteered to command the 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, then a part of the 1st Infantry Division. On April 15, 1966, Lewane’s request was approved and he assumed command. Just a few months later, he and his troopers would repeatedly distinguish themselves in combat against numerically superior Viet Cong forces.
On June 8, 1966, Troop A of Lewane’s squadron moved north on Route 13, through an area held by the Viet Cong 9th Division, to reinforce the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division at An Loc. When the lead tank hit a command-detonated mine, it signaled a massive attack by three VC battalions from both sides of the road. Lewane’s troop faced withering fire from recoilless rifles, mortars and automatic weapons.
According to an account by General William E. DePuy, Troop A had run into the elite 272nd Regiment and was about to fight and win “an epic battle of the Vietnam war.” Despite being outnumbered 9-to-1—Troop A had 135 soldiers and the VC unit was 1,200 strong—the troopers “immediately closed with the insurgent forces in a fierce assault.”
For the next six hours of the bloody battle that followed, Lewane was in his OH-13 Sioux helicopter, coordinating with his commanders on the ground to bring in tactical airstrikes from Air Force F-4 Phantoms and F-100 Super Sabres. Despite the fragile nature of his helicopter, with its goldfish bowl, glassed-in cockpit, Lewane ignored the danger and twice directed his pilot, Captain Joel S. Spivack, to land inside the squadron’s defensive perimeter. Lewane wanted to ensure that his troopers had sufficient ammunition—and he wanted to inspire them. Consequently, Lewane walked from vehicle to vehicle, making his presence known in the heat of the battle and to show his troopers that he was really with them in this fight.
According to DePuy, then commanding the 1st Infantry Division, Lewane was a “striking commander” with his “close shaven head, open face, strong physique, flashing eyes, and energy oozing out of every pore.” DePuy continued: “Since the legendary Brevet Maj. Gen. Ranald S. Mackenzie who, as a colonel, led the regiment against the Apaches, Kiowas, Commanches, Arapahos and Cheyennes in the frontier wars, there had not been a more valiant and dashing leader of the 4th Cavalry—the best Regular Army cavalry regiment in the Indian campaigns.” Considering that generations of leaders had served in the 4th Cavalry in the years between Mackenzie and Lewane, this was high praise from DePuy.
At the end of the battle on June 8, Air Force bombs, napalm and cluster bomblets combined with the firepower from Troop A to rout the Viet Cong from their emplacements. A total of 105 VC were killed and a large cache of weapons was seized, making the Battle at Ap Tao O a phenomenal victory.
On June 30, Troops B, C and D (Air) of the squadron were executing a reconnaissance in force north of An Loc when they were struck by another Viet Cong regiment. Despite a tremendous volume of enemy mortar, recoilless rifle and automatic weapons fire, and repeated attempts to overrun the squadron by use of hand grenades at close range with point-blank firing and fanatical assaults, the cavalrymen once again emerged victorious against superior numbers. There were several heroic acts during the ferocious combat, including that of Sergeant Donald R. Long, an African-American trooper who received the Medal of Honor. Long sacrificed his life by jumping on a grenade that otherwise would have killed four of his fellow soldiers. Long’s gallantry, Lewane firmly believes, “reflects the reality of combat—that race and ethnicity are irrelevant when soldiers are a band of brothers.”
On July 9, 1966, Troops B, C and D were deployed southwest of An Loc as bait to lure a reinforced VC regiment into launching an attack. When the attack finally started, the intensity of the mortar, small-arms, automatic weapons, grenades and .50-caliber machine gun fire equaled that of the two earlier engagements. Since the squadron was acting as a holding force, Lewane and his men had to withstand this attack by a superior force for more than two hours until four infantry battalions could arrive by helicopter. In what became known as the Battle of the Minh Thanh Road, Lewane was in command aboard a Huey helicopter. He twice landed in the midst of the firefight to encourage his troopers to continue their fire and hold their position until infantrymen from the 1st Division arrived to support them. The Americans eventually broke the Viet Cong attack with the help of artillery and close air support from the Air Force.
For its extraordinary hero – ism as a unit during these three harrowing battles, the squadron was decorated with the U.S. Presidential Unit Citation in July 1967. This prestigious unit award requires a level of heroism equivalent to the Distinguished Service Cross. As that decoration is second only to the Medal of Honor, it is a high honor, and only one other unit in the 1st Infantry Division received it during the Vietnam War.
As for Lewane, his first Silver Star was for his gallantry on June 8. According to the official citation, when Lewane first learned of the Viet Cong attack, he “directed his helicopter pilot to fly over the hostile emplacements” and “without regard for his own safety, flew at such low altitude that he was able to deliver suppressive fire at the Viet Cong with his automatic rifle.”
Lewane’s second Silver Star was for combat heroism in the Battle of Minh Thanh Road. According to the citation, Lewane “was constantly exposed to intense insurgent fire. He always appeared to be where the fighting was heaviest, inspiring his men by his calm demeanor and mastery of the situation.” The citation also highlights Lewane’s “expert battlefield strategy” and credits him with orchestrating the overwhelming defeat of the Viet Cong regiment. In fact, the Quarter Horse troopers achieved an incredible 30-to-1 kill ratio.
After Vietnam, Lewane continued to serve with great distinction, commanding 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division, and serving as chief of staff, U.S. Army, Berlin. His last assignment was at Fort Monroe, Va., where he directed the Training and Doctrine Command’s Combat Systems Directorate, working with Army Materiel Command in the development of the M1 Abrams Tank and the M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
Lewane retired as a colonel in 1976 and now teaches American history, including a course on the American experience in Vietnam, at Blue Ridge Community College. He lives in Lexington, Va.
Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.