Night of Horror, Mystery Lives in Memory of GIs Overrun By Viet Cong Ch Chi, Vietnam
The horror and mystery of a night a week ago when a Viet Cong battalion overran Alpha Company, 4th Battalion, 9th Regiment, 25th Division of the U. S. Army, will remain with the American GIs to the end of their days. It was warm and a full moon bathed the long files of scarred rubber trees with a eerie glow. At 12:55 a.m., just as Lt. Jess Pearce of Channelview TX, the leader of the 1st Platoon, was getting ready to climb into the hammock he had slung between a tree and a bunker, mortar rounds began pouring into the area. Pearce immediately ran about, hurrying his men into the bunker. "As I did," he said. "I saw an ARVN soldier run by and fire his carbine into the hammock where I should have been sleeping. The minute the mortars began falling, an ARVN position on the left opened fire on our 50-caliber machine gun crew. I also saw an ARVN soldier run by tossing grenades into the company command post." Waves of Viet Cong, blowing whistles and laying down deadly automatic weapons fire, were inside the barbed wire perimeter within 15 minutes.
Battered GIs Wonder" Did South Viets Turn On Them? Did the friendly Vietnamese troops open fire on American positions? Did the Vietnamese interpreter assigned to the company kill a U.S. platoon sergeant who was risking his life to bring ammunition to a besieged bunker or was the interpreter himself needlessly gunned down by an overly suspicious American private who may have been mistaken in what he saw on that battle-confused, smoky moonlight night? Did the friendly government troops assigned to hold the west side of the American line fight bravely, as some men in Alpha Company swear, or did they cower in their bunkers, anxious to show the Viet Cong that they had not fired their weapons in case all was lost? And why did American advisers have to be called in to stop the Vietnamese troops from looting the bodies of the American dead, taking cigarette lighters, cameras and transistor radios from them as their buddies concentrated on trying to evacuate the wounded?
By Hugh A. Mulligan, Cu Chi, Vietnam
Maybe Alpha Company will never really know that happened the night a week ago when a Viet Cong battalion overran its position. But the horror of it and the mystery of it will be with the men all of their days. Some of them say they saw friendly South Vietnamese troops open fire on them when Viet Cong mortars began to fall. Others say it wasn't that way at all that it may have appeared that way to some in the confusion, smoke and moonlight. The men of the 4th Battalion, 9th Regiment of the U.S. 25th Infantry Division sit around their base camp here waiting for trucks to haul off the personal effects of buddies who died last Sunday night and the same haunting question keep coming up:
Nearly half of the friendly forces both Americans and Vietnamese who met the enemy in that harrowing encounter were killed or wounded. Casualties were officially listed as heavy, but the enemy paid a heavy price: A confirmed body count of 92 -- of which 47 were found inside the barbed wire perimeters and at least 30 to 40 more unconfirmed kills.
Pfc. Johnny Hodges of Trenton NJ, a rifleman with the 2nd Platoon who was watching from a distance of 60 feet, says he saw a man "strongly resembling" Sgt. Le Minh Tri, the Vietnamese interpreter assigned to Alpha Company, "raise his M16 rifle and shoot down Sgt. Nixon at a range of about 10 feet as he tried to lug that ammo toward the bunker." Hodges raised his rifle and fired. "I don't know whether I killed Sgt. Tri or not, but he tumbled into a ditch and I shot a whole magazine into that hole." Hodges, who wound up with two shrapnel wounds and a bullet in the leg, said he had no previous suspicion of Sgt. Tri. "All I know is I saw what I saw. It was bright moonlight and there were flares ligting up the area all the time. S. Sgt. Clifton Mathis of Pensacola FL was in the bunker next to the one that Sgt. Nixon was running for with the ammunition box.
"I heard him yell, 'Don't shoot, it's me,' Nixon (sic) related. "Then a grenade went off and he fell forward But the grenade didn't kill Sgt. Nixon. He was killed by a rifle. I couldn't say for sure that Sgt. Tri killed him. There were lots of people running around shooting in ARVN uniforms. Later when we policed up the area, we opened up the Viet Cong packs and found they all had ARVN uniforms in them." Sgt. Mathis said he was in the bunker when a Viet Cong shoved a Chinese made rifle through the opening. "I grabbed it before he had a chance to fire and began using it. It had a full clip," he said. "There was a Vietnamese soldier in the bunker with me and he wouldn't shoot. He was cowered there. Later I took off from that bunkers, as the V. C. began overrunning us, but the Vietnamese wouldn't leave. Afterward we found him dead. It's too bad. He wasn't a traitor. He kept pointing out V. C. to me to shoot at but he just wouldn't fire himself. Lots of them think that if they are captured with a weapon that hasn't been fired that the V. C. wouldn't hurt them."
Spec. 5 Kim McCoy of Chicago, a senior medic with the company up for his second Silver Star, is convinced that Sgt. Tri had nothing to do with the killing of Sgt. Nixon. McCoy, who had known Tri for more than a month and had been on many operations with him, said he is "an eyewitness to seeing Sgt. Tri do his duty on the battlefield that night. I saw him several times firing his M16 rifile at Viet Cong, fully engaged. I never saw Sgt. Nixon. I wasn't an eyewitness to that, but I did see Tri often conducting himself like a soldier." Hit by a grenade, McCoy treated his own wound and continued to move around the battlefield until 9 a.m. when he himself was finally evacuated to a hospital. Like others, he said he saw ARVN troops looting the pockets and packs of dead Americans.
"To my mind there's just no proof and there, never will be," said Col. Conaty. "Anytime a unit is overrun it's a debacle." "In the noise," Conaty continued, "and the dust and the shock, people just don't know what they saw or heard. I don't doubt for a minute that the Vietnamese and we too, were shooting at everything that moved. There's bound to be some panic when you're being fired on from all sides. "There's no indication of how Tri was killed, and I can't find any eyewitness to the allegation that he may have directed the mortar fire. Incoming mortars are pretty unselective about their targets. If I'm going to give away any positions I'd damned sure spend my time digging instead of moving around in the 2nd Platoon area. There have been a lot of unprovable allegations that it's best for us all to forget." Trust Endures Alpha Company, proud of having beaten off a Viet Cong battalion, mourning its dead, looks back on the episode from two separate viewpoints. There are those who would agree with Sgt. McCoy, who served a previous tour working mainly with Vietnamese troops. "I still trust them, I have sufficient faith in their competency and loyalty. This will all blow over," McCoy says. There are those, like Lt. Pearce and Pfc. Hodges, who for a long time will look over at the nearby government bunkers with a remembered suspicion. "I know we got to go back working with them," said Pearce. "That's what the war is all about. But you can't help thinking of all those who didn't come back that night." Capt. Yamashita is confident that Alpha Company can forget and forge ahead. "They got to," he said. "They got to." (The Oregonian, Portland OR, 6 Mar 1967)