by Eric Hammel
Copyright © 1996 by Eric Hammel
On the afternoon of January 31, 1968--the first day of the Communist Tet Offensive--2/5 was undertaking a coordinated three- company effort to clear an NVA battalion out of the area around the vital twin-span Troi Bridge complex, eight kilometers south of Phu Bai. Suddenly, with no warning, the 5th Marines CP ordered Fox/2/5 to break contact with the enemy and report to Phu Bai immediately for unspecified duty. The order was peremptory and non-negotiable; Fox/2/5 pulled out of the battalion line and assembled in a field for the drive north to Phu Bai.
Fox/2/5 left Troi Bridge for Phu Bai in terrific shape. Though the unit had sustained several losses around the bridge on January 31, there was hardly anyone on R&R, all the Marines who had been lightly wounded, injured, or sick had been returned to duty, and the few replacements the company had required had arrived. Fox/2/5 was thus nearly at full strength, well rested, and well integrated. It had its full complement of lieutenants and staff NCOs, and all the squads were led by sergeants or seasoned corporals.
When Fox/2/5 reached Phu Bai by truck late in the afternoon, the company commander, Captain Mike Downs, was ordered to report to the Task Force X-Ray CP. There, Downs met with the task force operations officer and his assistant, both lieutenant colonels. Though Downs knew nothing of the situation in Hue or even around Phu Bai, he could not imagine why the Task Force X-Ray CP was in a state of confusion bordering on panic. Following a useless briefing, Downs was sent over to the 1st Marines CP, where he was told by the regimental operations officer that Fox/2/5 would be flying up to Hue the next day to operate with Lieutenant Colonel Mark Gravel's 1/1. Once again, Captain Downs emerged from a sketchy briefing with only the vaguest sense of what was going on in Hue. As far as Downs could figure it, there were enemy troops inside Hue, and Fox/2/5 was needed to push them out. The impression Downs had was that his company would be back in Phu Bai pretty quickly, in a few days at most. Fox/2/5 would be going to Hue without its packs. The troops had grounded their personal possessions before going into the attack at Troi Bridge, and there had not been time to retrieve them when the call came to report to Phu Bai. All anyone had was ammunition, weapons, web gear, and whatever they had had the foresight to cram into their pockets. The company received a hot meal that evening, and everyone slept under canvas that night.
On the morning of February 1, the troops learned through unofficial channels that they were bound for Hue. None of them had ever been in Hue, except maybe to pass through, but virtually all of them were glad to be going. Fox/2/5 had been months in the bush, had taken casualties, and had very little besides its corporate bitterness to show for the experience. Word was, the NVA were standing and fighting in Hue, something neither they nor their VC allies ever had done in any of the bush Fox/2/5 had tromped as far back as anyone could remember. Reinforced with a pair of 81mm mortars and two 106mm recoilless rifles, Fox/2/5 began lifting out of Phu Bai at 1458, February 1, aboard a small number of CH-46 transport helicopters, bound for the Doc Lao Park LZ, on the south bank of the Perfume River. In addition to lifting out Fox/2/5, the Marine helicopters were charged with carrying a significant resupply of ammunition and other goods for 1/1 and the two Marine companies already in Hue.
The Fox/2/5 Marines and their officers were unprepared for the sporadic fire that greeted most of the helicopters as they set down on the Doc Lao Park LZ. In a few cases, the helicopters were struck by small-arms fire, which penetrated the thin metal skin and terrorized the unwitting troops inside. Fortunately, no one was injured by such fire, but the effected squads and platoons charged off the helicopters' rear ramps with serious intent, certain the LZ itself was under ground assault. There were not enough helicopters to fly the reinforced company the short distance to Hue in one lift, so the effort became quite protracted and did not end until 1705. By then, the leading elements of Fox/2/5 were already in a bloody fight.
Lieutenant Mike McNeil's platoon of Golf/2/5 had been battling the entire day in a vain effort to cross Highway 1 and attack toward the Provincial Prison, six long blocks southwest of the city's MACV compound, which had become the center of operations to clear the enemy from Hue. A dogged effort had carried Captain Chuck Meadows's tired Golf/2/5 across the highway and about 15 meters up the first block of Tran Cao Van Street, but the NVA's resistance had steadily stiffened, and the attack had ground to a standstill. As the hours wore on, the mission was scaled back. All McNeil's platoon had to do was reach a small compound housing a U.S. Air Force communications contingent. The house was only a few blocks southwest of Highway 1, half the distance to the Prison. Three blocks or six blocks, it didn't matter: Golf/2/5 remained bogged down less than a half-block from its line of departure.
The eye-opener of the day for Chuck Meadows and his Marines was how many men it took to secure a row of buildings, for it wasn't simply a matter of attacking past them. To secure a row of buildings, Golf/2/5 was learning--but had not quite learned--a unit had to secure every room in every one of the structures, had to fight a war in three dimensions rather than the usual two.
As soon as Fox/2/5 was assembled at MACV, Lieutenant Colonel Mark Gravel decided to send it to restore some momentum to the drive on the Air Force compound. Captain Downs had hardly reported to Gravel's CP, at MACV, before an Air Force sergeant who had lived in the compound was attached to the company as a guide. Then Captain Downs's company marched one block southeast on Highway 1 and turned right--southwest--up Tran Cao Van, the first cross street. The entire route looked like a cyclone--or a war--had hit it.
Just before reaching Tran Cao Van, Mike Downs met Chuck Meadows and Captain Jim Gallagher, 1/1's new operations officer. It was then that Downs learned learning to fight in defended urban terrain had cost Golf/2/5 seven killed and 57 wounded in twenty-four hours. Now it was Fox/2/5's turn.
Corporal Chris Brown's squad of 2d Lieutenant Rich Horner's 2d Platoon took the Fox/2/5 point as soon as Chuck Meadows and Mike Downs completed the formal turnover. At word from Lieutenant Horner, Brown's squad was to turn the corner from Highway 1 onto Tran Cao Van and attack down the right sidewalk. Another squad from Horner's platoon would follow and then peel off to attack up the left side of the tree-lined residential thoroughfare. The officers had already told everyone that every building on both sides of the street had to be completely secured from bottom to top before anyone could go onto the next building, and that units on both sides of the street had to advance apace to avoid NVA flanking fire from second-story windows.
The Air Force sergeant-guide joined Brown's squad a few moments before the Marines were to turn the corner. The first thing he told Chris Brown was that Golf/2/5 had been trying to fight its way up the street since around sun-up and that that unit had had "its butts beat every time." He went on to render his opinion that the mission to save his comrades was "suicidal." Corporal Brown went over to Lieutenant Horner to convey the Air Force sergeant's sentiments, but Horner just shrugged his shoulders and said, "Let's move out."
Horner's platoon advanced about 50 feet up Tran Cao Van with two squads abreast and one in reserve, a classic infantry formation. At that point, passing through Golf/2/5, Corporal Brown had his lead fire team--four Marines armed with M-16 rifles and an M-79 40mm grenade launcher--set up behind a shoulder-high masonry wall to provide cover. This was another classic infantry maneuver, strictly by the book. Though Fox/2/5 had never fought in a town and the junior troops had never been trained to undertake house-to-house combat, the troop leaders knew very well how to feel their way into hostile terrain. It was about then, however, that Corporal Brown, Lieutenant Horner, and Captain Downs ran off the edge of the knowledge that had been keeping them and large numbers of Marines like them alive and relatively well in the bush. It was then that Fox/2/5 learned what the term "mean streets" really signifies.
Private First Class Louis Gasbarrini went first. He stepped out from behind the wall and scuttled down the sidewalk to the nearest tree. Lance Corporal Charles Campbell went next, up and over the wall. Before Campbell hit the ground, Gasbarrini was seriously wounded in the arm by a burst of AK-47 fire that could have come from anywhere. Someone yelled, "Corpsman, up!" and Hospital Corpsman 3d Class James Gosselin, a 26-year-old former Green Beret, charged into the open from behind the wall. He was halfway to Gasbarrini when he was shot dead in his tracks, Fox/2/5's first fatality in Hue.
No sooner had Doc Gosselin fallen than the NVA trained their fire on Corporal Brown, the Air Force sergeant, and Private Stanley Murdock, Brown's radioman. No doubt, they were drawn to the whip antenna on Murdock's squad radio. Lance Corporal Carnell Poole was a few feet behind Brown, Murdock, and the Air Force sergeant when the automatic-weapons fire reached out at the three. He distinctly saw the stream of bullets pin Murdock to a wall at his back; the sheer force of the bullets held the radioman on his feet. The firing stopped, but Murdock just stood there, holding his M-16 loosely at his side, gasping for air every few seconds. In extreme slow motion, before Lance Corporal Poole or any of the other shocked onlookers could act, Private Murdock's eyes glazed over and the gasping stopped. Fox/2/5 had sustained its second death in a matter of seconds. The Air Force sergeant was seriously wounded by the same burst.
Despite the gunfire spraying the back side of the wall--or because of it--several members of Brown's squad streaked into the street, intent upon reaching the apparently safer left side. Most of the men made it to cover, but Corporal David Collins, Private First Class William Henschel, and Private First Class Cristobal Figueroa-Perez were shot off their feet. When the dust settled, none of them was moving.
As Chris Brown shrugged off the shock of near sudden death, Lieutenant Horner's piercing yell reached him: "Move it out!" Brown looked up, but there was no one around him. For a second, the squad leader didn't know what to do. Then he went into automatic overdrive, moved on training and instinct. Brown whipped out from behind the wall and zig-zagged down the sidewalk. When it seemed the right time to dive in, he landed next to Lance Corporal Campbell, who told Brown that every time he tried to fire back at the NVA in the buildings, bullets kicked cement dust into his face.
Corporal Brown yelled to Private First Class Gasbarrini, who was in front of everyone. Gasbarrini yelled back that he had been hit in the arm and that he was playing dead because he was afraid to move behind the nearest cover.
Corporal Brown's squad was stymied. If anyone made a move, NVA soldiers in the buildings overlooking the street fired into Tran Cao Van. Brown sent word back to Lieutenant Horner that Gasbarrini was wounded and beyond reach. Horner sent word forward to Brown that he was trying to get a tank up to cover a rescue effort. Brown ordered everyone who could to withdraw back behind the wall. Then Fox/2/5 settled in to wait. There wasn't anything else anyone could do. Minutes later, Lieutenant Colonel Mark Gravel ordered Fox/2/5 to call it a day and return to MACV as soon as the company could police up its casualties.
It seemed to Chris Brown that hours passed before two Marine M-48 tanks turned into Tran Cao Van and chugged toward Private First Class Gasbarrini. When the lead tank pulled up even with the wall Brown was using as a sanctuary, Brown gingerly stepped out behind the armored vehicle and followed it warily down the right side of the street. The tank passed Gasbarrini and stopped, a steel wall to protect the evacuation. When Chris Brown leaned down to help the wounded man, a stream of bullets reached out toward them. Brown felt warm fluid streak over his outstretched hands. He was certain Gasbarrini had been wounded again, but it was only water; a round had gone through Gasbarrini's canteen. Brown pulled the wounded man behind the tank, and other members of the squad helped Gasbarrini toward the rear.
As the lead tank stood guard and probed the surrounding buildings with fire from its .50-caliber cupola machine gun, members of Brown's squad warily convened in the street to lift their wounded and dead comrades onto the flat rear deck of the second tank. Four of the men--Doc Gosselin, Private Murdock, Corporal Collins, and Private First Class Henschel--appeared to be dead. A fifth, Private First Class Figueroa-Perez appeared to be mortally injured.
As the rear tank, which was also firing its .50-caliber machine gun, pulled back, a B-40 rocket streaked out from a second-story window and struck it squarely on the side of the engine compartment. Two of the bodies on the rear deck, which was the engine, were thrown to the street. Immediately, piercing screams erupted from one of the bodies. Several Marines ventured back to the tank to see who it was and why.
The screaming man was Private First Class William Henschel. He had been shot in the head in his bid to cross Tran Cao Van, and knocked unconscious. It was no wonder his spooked comrades had mistaken him from dead; his gruesome-looking head wound had looked fatal, and there had been no time to conduct an adequate check in the middle of bullet-swept Tran Cao Van. When the B-40 blew Henschel off the tank, the shock of the blast apparently roused him. A closer inspection revealed that Henschel's left leg was missing below the knee. No one could tell if it had been blown off by the B-40 or if the tank had backed over it. It didn't matter; the leg was gone. Henschel was known in Fox/2/5 as the "Marine Doc." Though he had no formal first-aid training, he carried a Unit One aid pack, just like the Navy corpsmen. He still had it when his shocked and dazed comrades peeled him off the surface of Tran Cao Van. Its contents were used to affix a tourniquet and control the bleeding from his severed leg. The head wound turned out to be superficial.
After the tanks pulled back around the corner to Highway 1, one more absolutely motionless Marine still lay in an exposed position about 20 meters down Tran Cao Van. A nose count revealed that he was Private Roberto De La Riva-Vara. Every effort had been made to reach De La Riva-Vara's body, but the tanks had been unable to shield the rescuers, and the NVA had staked it out, certain they could kill any rescuers who ventured out after it. Lieutenant Horner had had enough. For nothing to show, Fox/2/5's 2d Platoon had suffered fifteen casualties, of whom three were known dead, one (Figueroa-Perez) was expected to die, and one (De La Riva-Vara) was presumed dead. The lieutenant asked Captain Downs to please call it a day; there was no sense losing more men to rescue De La Riva-Vara's body.
Mike Downs was not going to leave anyone behind. After the wounded and dead were unloaded from the tank and sent on their way to MACV, Downs ordered both tanks back up Tran Cao Van to cover Lieutenant Horner's recovery of De La Riva-Vara's body. Firing their machine guns as they went, the tanks advanced warily past the spot at which one of them already had been hit by a B- 40. Nothing much happened. The NVA fired their AK-47s at the tanks, but no more B-40s were fired. The tanks advanced, and the infantrymen followed them. They reached De La Riva-Vara at length, and, when they did, the inert man waved his arms a little. He had been shot in both legs and had been cannily--and convincingly--playing dead. On the way back, Lieutenant Horner was wounded.
The Fox/2/5 casualties were taken back to MACV without further incident. Later that night, all the day's serious casualties, including Lieutenant Horner, were medevacked off the Doc Lao Park LZ. Unlike a bloody medevac effort the previous night, the convoy to the LZ was led by one of the M-48 tanks, which simply drove through houses and courtyards along a path the NVA snipers could never have staked out in advance.
Before dawn, news arrived that Private First Class Cristobal Figueroa-Perez died of his wounds in the Phu Bai triage center.