|The C.I.B. Experience
Since I experienced a very controversial war, it is important that I share my individual experiences in that war for future generations of Wade’s, if not the broader public. I am the patriarch of my family, a New Testament Abraham if you will. I would love to have had information recorded by my Great, Great Grandfather but I know nothing about him what-so-ever, except that he lived and died in West Virginia. By the way, West Virginia, by far, suffered the greatest number of causalities per capita, of any state, in the Vietnam War.
When I had been with the 1/18th Infantry battalion for little over a month, around the middle of January, 1967, I earned the Combat Infantryman Badge and was officially issued it on January 28, 1967. It was an award initiated in World War Two to recognize the infantry soldier who actually was exposed to enemy contact and had, in turn, actively engaged that enemy, himself. If I had been in a combat unit but performing the duties of a cook or a truck driver and had been exposed to enemy mortar fire, I would not have received this award. A soldier must actively engage the enemy, himself, in some manner. Military personnel in large military bases where shelled all the time in Vietnam but unless they actively engaged the enemy, by firing back, they were not eligible to wear this badge. Most soldiers in the rear, including my unit, were not allowed to carry weapons, while in base camp, so there was no way for these military personnel to engage the enemy even if they had wanted to do so. A personal example of what I am trying to describe here concerning eligibility for this medal happened to me just a few days after I had been assigned to the 1/18th. My Battalion was working with the South Vietnamese troops who were searching through villages not far from our base camp at Di An. My Battalion encircled this village late in the afternoon. My position was just across a small swallow river from one edge of that village and up on the bank of that river about twenty feet or so. This was B.C. (Before Cavazos) so we were not required to dig in and grunts will only do what they are required to do. So my buddies and I just sat on that bank and waited for the South Vietnam soldiers (ARVINS) to arrive and search the village, which they did the next morning. A couple hours after dark I experienced a small still voice inside my head telling me to move, which I now realize was The Holy Spirit. I said, "Hey guys, let's move to the left about twenty yards or so". Our unit positions were spread out thinly, so that was no problem. Not a single other guy of the two or three that were there, argued with me. We simply picked up and moved. About an hour later two mortar rounds coming from the village landed dead on our old position and that is where we would have been if we had not moved. It was obvious that before dark some one in the village had targeted our position and waited until nightfall to fire those mortars. The next morning ARVINS went through the village, found the three perpetrators and made them kneel down across the river bank from us so we could see. Then they executed them in front of our horrified eyes. In my mind these were enemy combatants, not spies. They shot enemy prisoners in cold blood. However, Let's get back to the point I want to make here. Although we were definitely in a combat situation while on this operation, and were engaged by the enemy, since we did not engage him back, we did not qualify for a C.I.B just because we had been shelled and because we had been place in harms way while supporting a combat mission in which the enemy had been eliminated.
The C.I.B. medal is worn above every other medal on a soldier’s uniform including the Medal of Honor. I have heard that General Eisenhower once said he would have traded all his medals for a Combat Infantryman Badge, which he never obtained. I have learned over the years that this is a pretty big deal for most career infantry soldiers, though it meant nothing to me at the time. It was just a blue rectangle with a musket in the middle and a silver wreath around it. All I could think about at that time was how to stay alive for a year and put the mess I found myself in behind me.
Anyway, as we continued walking through rice patties, villages and patches of jungle somewhere north of Saigon, my B Company linked up with other companies in our Battalion on one side of a circle, which our unit made around this small bunker complex, discovered hidden in a clump of jungle and surrounded by rice patties on all sides. As I remember, I think we were within walking distance of our base camp at Di An. (Walking distance could be 20 to 30 miles). Word filtered down that we were going to take this small complex by making a direct assault and that B Company was going to lead the assault. I thought to myself, “Jesus, this is exactly the way John Wayne did it in the movie, “Sands of Iwo Jima”, and I knew very well how that movie ended. It wasn’t good for Sergeant Striker, Wayne’s character.
Earle L. Denton was our battalion commander at this time. Earle was a highly decorated Korean Veteran, who, as a young second lieutenant, had been subjected to the horrendous slaughter at Pork Chop Hill. There is no doubt that Earle was an incredibly brave soldier. However, it takes more than bravery to be a great field commander and Richard Cavazos who took over after Denton left in March was one of the greatest field commanders who ever lived.
E-6 Sergeant Bartee from Roanoke, Virginia had not been assigned to my squad yet. We had another sergeant whom I remember absolutely nothing about, including his name. I just remember standing in an assembly area, waiting on assault orders and looking at Walker who had come to the squad only a couple weeks after me. I didn’t care for Walker at first. He was dark skinned, handsome and very street smart beyond his years. Looking back, I believe I didn’t like him because I felt threatened by a certain confidence I saw in him, which I misinterpreted as cocky. Maybe he also felt threatened by me too. Who knows? Anyway, he was all City Slicker and I was somewhat of a Hill Billy. However, neither the city slicker or the hillbilly had a clue about what was about to happen next and we knew even less about the tactics that would be employed. Basically, we were just warm bodies, or, to put it another way, we were as green as green could be. Now, standing face to face, we really looked at each other for the first time. We had both been contemplating the day we would see our first action. Now that day had arrived and I sensed the hard veneer which Walker had been sporting towards me, break. I also saw the fear in his eyes as I am sure he saw in mine. Then, to my shock, he started talking non-stop strait to me, like we had been old friends all our lives, ignoring all the brothers standing around him. And I listened. He started, with a general description of his life back in the big city, and how he used to be a pimp, and what nice cars he used to drive and then he said something that bowled me over like a bowling pen. He said, "Before I was drafted, my girls took care of me. I had all the money and things I needed. Now for the first time I am doing something that really counts. I am serving my country and I AM PROUD TO BE HERE". Well shut my mouth and call me stupid! From that moment on, I never looked at Walker the same, ever again, and I have never forgotten him, though I have forgotten most of the others. To me, this is proof that one does not forget the manifestation of greatness, and this was greatness manifest in its purest form, standing in front of me on that deadly piece of ground so long ago.
It is really strange how the mind focuses on such a narrow remembrances of a traumatic event. I can remember Walker’s face and the green towel he wore around his neck to wipe the sweat away, as clearly as if I had just seen him only 30 seconds ago, and yet, I remember nothing, at all, about the other soldiers all around us, who were engaged in all sorts of noteworthy activities. Now I know what I didn’t know at the time. My mind was shutting down and so was Walker’s. Maybe that was why he talked to me the way he did and why I listened the way I did. I understand that it is a very common phenomenon in trauma victims, for the mind to start shutting down, even ignoring the present circumstance and focusing more on other comforting thoughts. But why did Walker pick me, of all people, to express these thoughts to? I now believe the answer is that he was drawn to the Holy Spirit of God, who dwelled inside me.
Looking back now, I don’t remember having any artillery support or tanks for the attack. I do remember five hundred pound bombs being dropped from phantom fighter jets, which we later discovered, did little good. They were not numerous enough to be effective. In those days, we did not have smart bomb technology which would have allowed a single bomb to be guided onto the target much more precisely. The area would have needed to have been carpet bombed by regular bombers, to be effective. I know that now, but I did not know that then. Now, there is no doubt in my mind that Dick would have either had the area carpet bombed, used napalm or brought in tanks, if he had been there to run things. Napalm would have sucked all the oxygen out of those bunkers while roasting those inside and it would have also burned up the jungle foliage so our attacking force could see what we were attacking more clearly, but it was not used. One tank would have also taken care of those bunkers very nicely. How do I know? I know because later in my tour of duty, myself, and a handful of other soldiers followed a tank around as it mashed down jungle and destroyed a bunker complex much larger than the one the entire Battalion was up against here. If we had tried to accomplish that feat without that tank, like we were getting ready to do on this day, there is no doubt in my mind that my name would now be etched on that black granite wall in Washington D.C. along with those other fellows, who were following that tank around with me.
Strength of character and wisdom to deal with the higher ups in the chain of command is a critical trait for a field officer then and now. A field commander in the First Infantry Division, back then, was not only under pressure to deal with the immediate challenges of combat, but he was also under tremendous pressure from above. General Shelton, who wrote the book, “The Beast is Out There”, said as much in so many words. He also said it was not fair to compare other Battalion Commanders to Dick Cavazos. He said that Cavazos would simply not let himself be pressured by anyone into making hasty half-baked decisions. I will never know how much pressure was being placed on Denton that day to just hurry up and get the job done, but now, years later, I am guessing there was considerable pressure. He had experienced a horrible time in Korea but so had Dick. Experiencing and surviving a horrible event and being able to take charge and produce an outstanding outcome during a horrible event are two totally different things. Shelton said Dick always made sure he was in control or he would not proceed until he figured out a way to be in control. During the time I served in combat under him, I can validate Shelton’s statement completely. A soldier wins medals for being brave but a soldier wins The Distinguished Service Cross for being an outstanding combat leader and Dick won two of them. So, when he took over the Battalion in March, he hit the ground running, and we soon became the most effective line unit in the First Infantry Division according to Shelton. As I have said before, under Dick, every man in the unit received a bronze star. However, today, I came face to face with the problem of surviving until Dick got there.
Now, after a morning of song and dance amateur hour bombing sorties, played to the tune of what everyone would soon realize was an ill coordinated attack plan all the way around, B Company was ordered to advance to the tree line in preparation for assaulting the enemy bunkers head-on. B Company advanced, as commanded, into the jungle ticket where we could not see more than five to ten yards ahead, much less spot well camouflaged bunkers to our front. Almost immediately after entering the ticket, my company started receiving intense small arms fire coming from the enemy’s well-fortified defenses. Quite frankly we may as well have been throwing rocks back at them for all the good our small arms return fire did against fortified bunkers. Now, like so many other times, the American soldier, was getting ready to pay a price with his life’s blood for the lack of higher command's ability to access and supply the proper resources needed to protect assaulting troops from unnecessary loses. Walker and I stayed close. I don’t remember my good buddies Glen Bowman or Bill Milliron, whom I walked point with later, being there at this time. I cannot remember if they had even been assigned to the unit yet. Walker consistently thumped away with his M79 grenade launcher as he lay beside me, sending round after round of high explosive shells ricocheting through the very dense jungle growth to our front. The M79 was a remarkable weapon. The grenade round only armed itself, by the centrifugal force created, when spun by the rifling in the barrel of the weapon. It then had to travel for a certain distance before it would be capable of exploding on impact. When the shell did explode, it sent hundreds of pieces of shrapnel in every direction, which were created by a notched steel coil on the inside of the shell. Even if it exploded outside a bunker, its sharp metal could fly through a gun port and do a lot of damage to the shooter using that gun port.
However, under intense withering fire from these well protected enemy bunkers, our assault didn’t have a snowball chance in hell of succeeding and in the chaos that ensued, men started dying and many more were wounded. A withdrawal was ordered but now platoon leaders had to deal with retrieving the wounded and dead while still coming under heavy fire themselves.
I remember finally getting orders to return to our original staging area and as we pulled back, I could glimpse med-evac helicopters called dust-offs, approaching, one after another, from the other side of the embattled area. After carrying out this ill-fated assault, we stayed there another incredible three days while sporadic bombing was taking place against the enemy positions, still using fighter jets instead of regular bombers. As I said before, bombers would have been much more effective because they carried a much larger payload of bombs. Cavazos later used Australian Canberra bombers at night to destroy a large regimental enemy base camp that my squad had located earlier that day, while on a routine security patrol, (http://www.iam777.org/Retribution.htm ) but I don’t believe this Australian bomber group arrived in country until April. So, maybe these bombers were not available at this time.
Now, while waiting to be ordered back to my death at any time during that next three days, I can remember two things happening. First, I was told that I had just earned the right to wear a Combat Infantryman Badge and secondly, I lost any lingering respect and trust that remained, for anyone in the officer's corps of the United States Army. Having grown up with a very rugged, individualistic attitude toward life under a father's influence, who greatly mistrusted authority, himself, this negative opinion toward all those in a leadership position over me had already been baking in the kiln of my adolescent mind. Now I was facing a traumatic event which was exacerbated by being militarily mishandled by those literally in control of whether I lived or died. The incompetence I witnessed was more than enough, to harden that belief, which said that absolutely no one in authority could be trusted. I already believed that anyone who made a career in the military was a weak minded individual who needed to be supported by the government. All "lifers" where already, by default substandard human beings in my mind until proven otherwise. I am not saying that this viewpoint was right or that I hold those same beliefs now. Its just the one I had then. My heroes were historical "stand a lone" figures like Davy Crockett, Kit Carson, Wyatt Earp, Daniel Boone and Sam Houston. l respected that Lone Ranger personality and I could smell that trait in another man in the time it would take for his heart to beat twice. Cavazos reeked with the smell of it. Many others did not. I now feared the stupidly of the U.S. Army a hundred times more than I feared the enemy. My war had just become a war on two fronts. At least I had a chance of shooting the enemy, but what chance did I have of surviving those idiots who were mindlessly sending me to my death? The thought of dishonoring myself or my family name was now the only thing that kept me going. My father had served during World War II at the age of 17, as a Seabee in the Pacific and my uncle was a medic in the European Theater.
Finally, after three days, some of the bombs found their mark and the enemy emplacement was destroyed. Thank God, we were never required to make another head-on assault.
Let me make something completely clear here, just in case a reader would say that I am being overly critical of those combat commanders who were serving in Vietnam. Some might say that I felt this way because I was subjected to a very traumatic first time experience in combat and it is common for the victim of traumatic experiences to later assign blame in the wrong place or to the wrong person. Again, let me say this another way, in hopes of dispelling such a notion. It is one thing to stumble onto an enemy force in the depths of jungle terrain and lose men during a surprise ambush, but quite another to have fifty or sixty enemy soldiers completely surrounded and pinned down in an area smaller than ten acres and not be able be bring to bear the proper and considerable resources of the U.S. military onto that trapped enemy in a way which produces desired results with little, if any casualties, to your own troops. This, then or now, is nothing other than incompetence at the highest levels. Higher command should always be held responsible for making sure a battalion commander gets the resources he needs, no matter what level of combat expertise that commander possesses. So there! Let it be known that I am not placing all the blame on a very brave Lt. Col. Denton, who I believe, later contributed greatly to a military think tank geared to solving battle field problems like this one, thus saving the lives of many young Americans serving in combat after Vietnam. Now, years later, and with a lot more of life's lessons under my belt, I can say, without a doubt, that most of that blame needed to fall on senior commanders. Even today, I don't believe the proper rules of accountability are in place for senior commanders to follow. For example, with the considerable brain power of military think tanks and the tremendous advances in technology today, there is only one reason why I. E. D's have remained a battle field problem for so long. That reason is the callous indifference of senior commanders in carrying out their duties to our fighting men and women. Perhaps they are spending too much time on social engineering.
I believe that the name of the seven men who died as a result of that operation are; David Lee Miles, Kenneth Michael Otte, Billy Sylvester Davis, Victor Luis Torres, Thomas Leroy Narum, Nathaniel Bullock and Pablo Guereca Contreras. Keep in mind, that statistically speaking, there were at least three or four times this number who were seriously wounded. As far as I know there is no way to find their names. No, this operation, in no way compares, in scope, to the intense battle at Pork Chop Hill. This was just a skirmish that probably never made it to to the First Infantry Division battle history. However, I believe these men died unnecessarily, because of the inflexible mindset in the chain of command. I also believe that leadership flaws in a small operation, will only be exponentially magnified in larger scale operations.
Here is a final note. Battlefields will be with us for a long time to come. Anyone who denies that is denying the lessons of history. If we want to maintain our freedom we must be well prepared to defend against the tyranny of those who work tirelessly to enslave us from without and even more tirelessly from the threat within. Both threats to freedom have one thing in common. They want to strip our military of its effectiveness. However, the parasites who work from within are much more cunning than those who work from without. Today a young commander would do well to gain a more complete understanding of the entire modern battlefield. That battle field is evolving rapidly to include many more political enemies working behind the lines, and even in the ranks of the military, itself, who are using sly political tactics, to enrich themselves, their cronies and our sworn enemies at the expense of a very naive American public. Remember commander, you did not swear an oath to contemporary personages. You swore to uphold the ideals contained in the Constitution of The United States of America and defend those ideals against all foreign as well as all domestic enemies. Wear those ideals close to your your heart and let no one come between you and that sacred obligation.