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In the battle for Widows’ Village during Tet 1968, a single scout platoon earned three DSCs, six Silver Stars and 22 Bronze Stars.

In late January 1968, my scout platoon—part of the 9th Infantry Division’s 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry (Mechanized)—set up in a defensive position off High- way 15, the major road leading to the port city of Vung Tau. We had been ordered to maintain a low profile during the upcoming Tet celebration. Although few of us fully understood Tet’s significance to the Vietnamese, we were looking forward to some slack time, believing that all offensive operations were on hold. We were wrong.

Shortly before sunset on January 30, we received orders to move to a position south of Long Binh, the huge American logistical base east of Saigon. Around 0400 hours, I monitored an excited radio transmission from the military police in Saigon saying that the Viet Cong had stolen two MP jeeps. I sent out a net call to the platoon, ordering a full alert. From that point on, our net was a constant clutter of calls, all reporting various stages of street fighting in Saigon. Not long after, I heard that VC were inside the U.S. Embassy compound.

After first light, my scout platoon was ordered to move to the vicinity of the 90th Replacement Battalion, picking up the 2-47th battalion command element en route. My platoon had 10 M-113 armored personnel carriers, upgraded to the armored cavalry assault vehicle (ACAV) version, with a tub shield around the .50-caliber machine gun and gun shields for the two side-mounted M-60s. Two of the APCs mounted 106mm recoilless rifles.

As we arrived at our destination, I monitored transmissions between our Companies A and C and “Panther 6,” the call sign of Lt. Col. John Tower, our battalion commander. Turning around to verify the arrival of my trail track, I felt a blast shock wave and saw a huge ball of fire erupting from the area of the 3rd Ordnance Battalion ammunition supply depot, a couple of miles to the north. Enemy sappers had blown the ammo dump, but fortunately several of the satchel charges had not gone off.

A medic drove up in an ambulance and begged us to help casualties nearby who were pinned down by the enemy. I tried to explain that I couldn’t follow him, as my orders came directly from my battalion commander. Just then the voice of Panther 6 came over my radio, ordering me to move to the vicinity of the U.S. II Field Force headquarters compound. The medic followed us, continuing to plead for assistance. I decided to ask the Old Man for permission to perform the relief mission.

The unit taking fire was just across the road in a place we called Widows’ Village, a hamlet of shacks where the widows and families of many Army of the Republic of Vietnam soldiers lived. Panther 6 told me to detach two of my APCs to secure the battalion’s tactical operations center, and then to proceed with the rescue.

We raced toward Widows’ Village, and the medic pointed at the beleaguered unit, which was a platoon from our own B Company! I counted four APCs on the edge of this small hamlet, with one on the road blocking our way. I didn’t detect much incoming fire, and no outgoing friendly fire, but I did see several troops crouching beside the APC ahead of us. As I dismounted, I noticed that no one was manning the .50-caliber. Then I saw that the track commander had been killed, and others in his squad were wounded and trying to form a fighting position beside the disabled track. Calling for my medic to treat the wounded, I hand-signaled my other tracks to deploy into a line formation on either side of the disabled APC.

I immediately called for mortar or artillery support, but our net control station told me that indirect fires were denied in this area due to the proximity of civilians. Advancing by fire and movement, we quickly reached a ditch line concealing enemy riflemen and started mopping them up. Then, as I was on my way back to my track to get more ammunition, I noticed movement in the ditch to my immediate left, less than 10 feet away. In what seemed like ultraslow motion, a North Vietnamese Army soldier raised his AK-47 and pointed it right at me. Without aiming, I fired a round, hitting him in the chest. He fell against the back of the ditch, reflexively aiming his weapon at me. After two more well-placed shots, he finally went down. At the same instant, though, another soldier popped up and raised his weapon. As I pulled the trigger, all I heard was a dull “click.” I was out of ammo. With no time to reload, I spun around and delivered a classic pivot-kick, just as I had learned in basic combat training. I knocked the weapon out of his hands and took him prisoner.

We were taking heavy fire from AK-47s, .51-caliber heavy machine guns, RPD light machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). This was not a typical small-unit ambush; we were facing a large force, at least company-size, well organized, well entrenched and about to overrun and annihilate the mechanized rifle platoon we were trying to rescue. That unit had been reduced to less than 15 combat-effectives, and their platoon leader was gravely wounded. The remaining warriors were fighting valiantly against overwhelming odds.

After overrunning the enemy outposts, we continued the attack through the village, only to encounter rolls of concertina wire. On their own initiative, scouts Staff Sgts. George Ottesen, Junious Hayes and Robert Mutchler, plus Spc. 4s Ray Rehfeldt and Bill McCaskill, crawled through the fire, wire cutters in hand. While they were cutting openings for our tracks, my M-79 grenadiers bombarded the enemy’s positions, and our .50-caliber and M-60 machine guns laid down heavy suppressive fire.

There was a group of about 50 women, children and a few very old men gathered behind our APCs. As our firing became more intense and effective, a Vietnamese woman with two small children appeared directly in front of us. She was panicking, uncertain where to go. We instantly shifted our fire from her direction, and I shouted for her to come forward, assuming she could understand me or even hear me. But she was frozen with fear, so I ran forward and grabbed all three of them. As I carried them to safety behind one of our APCs, I heard the crack of small arms and saw dirt kicking up to either side of us.

When the woman and her two children were secure, we renewed the mounted attack, crushing several hooches to prevent the enemy from using them. We eliminated all the resistance we encountered on our first sweep, and then started another, capturing several more prisoners and weapons. I then returned to my track, wanting desperately to have some time to regroup, plan for the next phase and maybe have a quick smoke.

Instead I found confusion and fear. My driver, Spc. 4 Danny Lawless, was holding the near-lifeless body of his close friend Spc. 4 Charles Kronberg. While I was leading that second assault from the ground, Kronberg had climbed into the cupola of my APC and began firing the .50-caliber to cover our attack. Kronberg was shot in the head while on the gun. My platoon medic, Spc. 4 Paul Keener, and Lawless were fighting desperately to save his life. I saw the gaping wound in the back of his head and the patches of black blood. His eyes were already glazed over. I had to turn away. I still remember the look of total helplessness in Lawless’ eyes, pleading for me to do something, but I knew there was nothing I could do. I walked away feeling sick that such a fine young man had to die in a nondescript place like Widows’ Village.

A little later, while we were attempting to sort the wounded from the nonwounded prisoners and treat them, a group of MPs arrived on what appeared to be a joy ride, taking pictures and acting like a bunch of tourists on vacation. My troops pulled one of the wounded enemy soldiers out of a nearby culvert. Not completely convinced that he would be better off as a prisoner, he pulled the string on a Chi-Com “potato masher” grenade and tossed it in the general vicinity of some of my scouts. With a shout of “Grenade!” everybody hit the ground. It went off without injuring anyone, but before the smoke and dust had cleared, one of the MPs flipped his weapon onto full automatic and fired off an entire magazine in the general direction of the now disarmed NVA soldier. He missed his target completely, but he hit my scout Pfc Richard Veilbaum in the neck, killing him almost instantly.

I arrived on the scene about two minutes later. After learning from Bill McCaskill what had happened, and seeing the white rage pouring forth from my men, I told the MP captain that I could guarantee his safety in my area for only the next 15 seconds. At least five .50-calibers were already trained in his direction. To his everlasting credit, the captain and his sorry bunch of MPs quickly departed, avoiding what might have been yet another senseless tragedy.

Later in the morning we were still in heavy contact with the NVA when I noticed two gunships continually circling our position. They were the new AH-1 Cobras, only recently arrived in-country. Since I didn’t have their call sign or even their radio frequency, I climbed on top of my ACAV and waved my arms at the pilots. Despite the incoming fire, I pulled on my collar, indicating that I was the ranking man on the ground. The command pilot of the lead ship nodded his head as he made another orbit around our position. On his second pass, I pointed down a row of houses that I wanted him to fire on, and then drew my finger across my throat. Again he nodded. On the third pass, the Cobras came in firing automatic grenade launchers and miniguns. After they made several gun runs, we swept through that portion of the village, counting more enemy dead and gathering more weapons and equipment.

By now we had replenished our ammo, so I dis- mounted my ACAV one more time to direct the final sweep through Widows’ Village. I wanted to mass the fires of our .50-caliber and M-60 machine guns, M-79 grenade launchers and anything else I could deliver to permanently rid the village of the NVA. I already had coordinated this final push with elements of the 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry, that had been airlifted into a position on our far left flank. All eight of my ACAVs, plus the two operational APCs from our B Company’s 1st Platoon, were in a line formation, with dismounted troops in between. On my signal, all weapons roared into action, dealing death and destruction to any NVA still hiding in the ditches, bushes, hooches or rubble.

It was all over in less than 10 minutes. We consolidated our position and prepared for the next mission from Panther 6. Walking back to my track through the village, I saw scores of enemy dead and wounded. By this time, several ambulances and some cooperative MPs had arrived, relieving us of the burden of treating and securing the more than 30 prisoners we had taken.

My platoon was ordered to move to support our Company C, commanded by my good buddy Lieutenant John Gross. His company had been in heavy contact with NVA forces all day around the ARVN III Corps headquarters compound in Bien Hoa City. To get there, we had to move through Ho Nai village, a cluster of tightly packed shops and hooches along Highway 1. The village was predominately populated by Roman Catholic refugees who had fled from North Vietnam to avoid religious persecution.

Before all eight of my tracks cleared the village, we were caught in a murderous crossfire that cut my platoon into three groups, each facing a numerically superior enemy force. We had been suckered into a classic NVA/VC ambush, with RPGs, heavy machine guns and roadblocks.

Our mission to support Charlie Company now took a back seat to extricating our- selves from the kill zone. An RPG round landed right behind my track, slamming me against the cargo hatch and injuring my right shoulder and knee. Shrapnel struck me on the right side of my neck, but I didn’t realize until later that I had been hit.

Following standard procedure, we halted the ACAVs in a herringbone pattern to provide as much interlocking and mutually supporting fire as possible. In the lead element, McCaskill and Lawless quickly dismounted an M-60 to secure our exposed left front. They successfully thwarted several attempts by the enemy to flank us and to infiltrate our position. Radio calls from other tracks informed me about their status.

As the situation in the lead element stabilized, Doc Keener maneuvered to assist the middle element. Running in a crouch and carrying his aid bag and M-16, Keener had almost made it to a semi-secure position to treat the casualties in the middle group when he took an AK-47 round in the right temple side of his helmet. Sprawled on the highway in front of a Catholic church, Keener lay bleeding. When I saw him get hit, I was sure he was dead, until I heard him cursing like a man possessed! I crawled out and dragged him back to my ACAV, where we applied dressings to his severe head wound. He survived.

Meanwhile, in the rear element of my platoon, Major Ray Funderburk, the 9th Infantry Division’s public affairs officer, was recording the fight with his camera. Funderburk had linked up with us in Widows’ Village, and had hitched a ride on our way to Charlie Company. Taking charge in the rear of the column, he directed the scouts’ fires against the RPG and automatic weapons positions that were threatening to overwhelm his small force. Staff Sergeant Robert Schultz dismounted his ACAV and charged an enemy machine gun that was firing on a disabled track. After eliminating that threat, Schultz charged another machine gun, throwing hand grenades and firing a captured AK-47. He fell mortally wounded after destroying the second threat.

Specialist 4 Lee Wilson spotted an RPG position that was firing on another ACAV. Calmly standing in the middle of Highway 1, with bullets and RPG rounds hitting all around him, Wilson fired an M-72 light antitank weapon directly into the RPG position, sending the enemy to their rewards.

Fighting house to house, we managed to link up the lead and middle elements. After retrieving and treating the wounded, we tried to bring in a dustoff. But when the medevac chopper was on final approach, I waved him off because he was taking intense groundfire.

We continued our extraction process, finally linking up with the trail element. A call brought us two gunships: reliable old Huey UH-1Bs. Directing them to the target by radio, we saw both ships fire a full load of 2.75-inch rockets into the yellow two-story house where the RPG fire was coming from.

Once the firing had ceased, we received orders from Panther 6 to return to his position and secure treatment for our wounded. When we reached the battalion’s position and got the wounded to the aid station, I started checking on the remainder of my warriors. It was only then that I learned Staff Sgt. Schultz had been killed, and he was still in the village of Ho Nai.

The loss of this fine young hero hit me hard. He had only recently joined the scout platoon. All the old-timers respected and admired his professionalism, sense of humor and complete devotion to his subordinates.

I reported to the tactical operations center, and told them I was going back to Ho Nai to retrieve Schultz’s body. I couldn’t help but cry, partly from rage, partly from relief and partly because I didn’t know how else to deal with the insanity I had just experienced. Colonel Tower, normally not the most affectionate person in the world, knew exactly what to do. He grabbed and hugged me, letting me sob unashamedly. He told me that it would serve no useful purpose to expose my men to further harm at that time. He understood the need to go back to Ho Nai, but I could return there the next morning, and that was an order.

Enemy order of battle documents later confirmed that the scout platoon and other elements of the 2-47th had fought a reinforced battalion of the 88th NVA Regiment. We had helped rescue more than 50 ARVN family members. For their bravery in Widows’ Village and Ho Nai, the 40 scouts and two attached medics of the scout platoon were awarded three Distinguished Service Crosses (Robert W. Schultz, Lee E. Wilson and myself), six Silver Stars, 22 Bronze Star Medals with V Device and more than 20 Purple Hearts. Everybody was a hero that day.

The scouts suffered three killed and four wounded seriously enough to be medevaced Stateside. The walking wounded remained with the unit. For both actions that day, the scouts were credited with 110 enemy killed and 33 taken prisoner.

The following day we walked slowly down the middle of Highway 1. About a half-mile into Ho Nai, we found the body of Schultz. He had been carried out from the interior of the village where he had fallen, and some Vietnamese Catholic nuns had placed a beautiful lace handkerchief over his face. I called my track forward, and Schultz took his final ride as a scout.

I’ll never know why I survived that day, why I never received that final “angel-tap.” It is impossible to survive an experience like that without believing in miracles.


An officer in the Texas Army National Guard from 1963 to 1970, Colonel Brice Barnes rejoined the Guard until 1986, then transferred to U.S. Army Reserves. He retired in 1993 and works part-time for Northrop Grumman, providing classified computer-driven war games. You can hear Colonel Barnes narrate 221st Signal Company film footage of the Widows’ Village battle on YouTube (search for “Widows Village”).

Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.