Sergeant Joe Amos

The morning of October 30th 1967 brought nothing out of the ordinary for my B Company people in the 1/18th Infantry Big Red One Division commanded by L.T.C. Richard Cavazos and nothing out of the ordinary was always a good thing, from a grunt’s standpoint. Around noon the sound of the very recognizable repetitive woodpecker clacking of an enemy RDP light machine gun irrupted somewhere outside the Battalion Night Defensive Perimeter and was immediately joined by other sounds of AK 47’s, M-1 carbines, M-14’s and M-16’s in a continuous concerto of small arms fire. Any soldier, who had ever been in a fire fight, and hearing the sheer volume of this gun fire, knew that somewhere close-by a deadly exchange, involving more than just a small enemy patrol was taking place. What the average grunt in B Company didn’t know, however, was who was caught up in this fire fight. Was it a recon patrol? Was it one of our own Battalion’s security patrols? Was it a larger search and destroy element of our own battalion? I would not know the answer to that question for almost another fifty years. Thanks to the internet though, and my knowledge of that area of the 1967 Vietnam Battle Field, I now have the ability to fill in the blanks with a plausible scenario of probable events in what later would be called The Battle of Srok Silamlite II.

The gun fire heard was Sergeant Joe Amos’s lead platoon of A Company making contact with a much larger enemy force than C Company had encountered the day before. The shooting started, as they were moving toward the irrigation ditches at the edge of the rubber trees like Pat McLaughlin and C Company had done the day before.

I never met Platoon Sergeant Joe Amos, although he and I had been traveling on a parallel course for over a year now. He had been one of hundreds of drill Sergeants, who trained raw recruits like me at Fort Jackson South Carolina, in the summer of 1966 and was probably there while I was there. Now, upon arrival in country on October 17, he had immediately been rushed to the front and assigned as a platoon sergeant in A Company. Less than two weeks later, on this day I am describing, Joe’s Platoon was in the lead position, possibly because it had the most experienced people, who were led by Old Timers like Sergeant Kenter and Sergeant Hanson.

Joe had been born in the segregated state of Alabama on April 21, 1931. When he was a boy, Americans like Joe not only rode at the back of the bus, but they also were required to use different public facilities like restrooms, restaurants and hotels, if they could find them when they traveled, and good paying jobs were all but non-existent for young men like Joe Amos. To say Joe started his life as a second class citizen would be an insulting understatement. Even the United States Army was segregated when Joe was a boy.

It would be a lie, if I said none of these conditions phased young Joe, but what I can say, for sure, is this. It hurt him but he didn't let these persecutions stop him. Most Americans in Joe’s shoes who shared the same obstacles in life, would have buckled under the relentless grinding weight of humiliation that came with it sooner or later, but there was a different kind of fire that burned inside the Baptist heart of Joe Amos. This kind of fire is not dampened by adversity. It simply grows brighter with persecution. Maybe Joe learned early-on something that many people never learn and that is: Nothing good in life is free. Someone, sooner or later, has to pay the price for it. Joe played football at Wenonah High and I am sure that early on this gave him a boost of some badly needed self confidence. After high school he served in the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team during the Korean conflict. There are two occurrences, which I was able to glean from researching Joe’s early life that are a testament to his fearless nature. The first was a statement made by one of Joe’s buddies concerning an incident he experienced with Joe, while they were in combat in Korea. His friend said they were being shelled by enemy artillery and were running for a fox hole to take cover when an artillery shell exploded in that very fox hole, as they approached it. Joe jumped in anyway then turned to his friend and said, “Come on. They can’t hit the same place twice”. The second example of his fearlessness was when Joe took on all comers while he was still in Korea to become the Regimental heavy weight boxing champion in his spare time after hostilities ceased. With knowledge of these facts, I think it is safe to say he was a real man’s man, who did not have to seek out the respect of others. He just naturally conducted himself in a way that made the officers and men around him feel comfortable enough to automatically give him that type of respect that most men long for, but few obtain. In 1965, Joe, again, entered a combat zone, when his 82nd Airborne Unit was sent to the Dominican Republic.

All men who have faced combat are changed and I must admit, most of the time that change is not for the better. It certainly wasn't for me. I will go even further, to say, it is a rare breed, indeed, who has faced combat in two different wars and is still able to face yet a third, and be changed for the better, developing the fathering temperament that now defined 36 year old Sergeant Joe Amos. How do I presume to know so much about the temperament of a man, whom I have never met? That's easy. I have read the comments of his friends and I know from personal experience what the battle ground conditions were. I know what effect the exposure to that type of combat, at that instant in time, had on the average soldier. I also know the culture that defined Joe Amos and the drill sergeants who trained draftees like me at Fort Jackson, Joe's last duty station, before shipping out to Vietnam. I can say from personal experience, that these combat tested drill sergeants, which I came in contact with, were of that rare breed. I can only describe that culture as a "fathering spirit culture" of "do as I do" instead of "do as I say". These men walked the walk instead of just talking the talk. Like fine steel, they had been tempered by a most cruel fire and only those who withstood the heat were chosen as the fathering spirit culture to train draftees at Fort Jackson. Sergeant Joe Amos was one of these men. I cannot make that same statement about the culture of any other duty station I was assigned to. Yes, by the time 1966 rolled around, Joe Amos was not the same man he was when he first saw combat in Korea. He had defied the odds and become better. In Korea, he had never had anyone but himself, to be concerned about. Now he was a husband and father of two kids back home. Now, as he "hit the ground running" in his final tour of duty at the tip of the spear, in an unbelievable third war zone tour of duty, he most assuredly took one look around him and saw the men he now commanded through the same fathering eyes and in the same protective way he had seen so many wide eyed trainees back at Fort Jackson.

With this brief explanation of who Joe was and how he came to be that way, we can now return to my story and understand why Joe did what he did on that day so long ago. As events unfolded among the rubber trees in this now seemingly vain and thankless national endeavor called The Vietnam Conflict, the point men of A company moved through the rubber trees exposing themselves from a long distance as targets for enemy machine gunners.  The enemy would have been able to see them as far out as perhaps three or even four hundred meters. However, if a man stopped moving and lay flat in the grassy weeds between the rows of rubber trees, then he would have become very difficult to see. Since only four Americans were killed in the entire battle, that is a very good indication that the enemy machine gunners got itchy trigger fingers and started shooting hundreds of meters too soon. More than likely the point men were wounded but not killed in the initial burst of gun fire from an enemy RDP light machine gun. This would have caused everyone standing to hit the dirt, making it much harder for the enemy to pick out targets at this distance, since those targets had now disappeared under a cover of weeds.

From Joe’s standpoint, his combat experience would have kicked in when the first shots were fired and he saw his point men go down. He would have known immediately that three things needed to happen very quickly before the blind, but withering enemy machine gun fire produced more causalities. First, green soldiers, who had their noses buried in the dirt, needed to be instructed in no uncertain terms to start returning fire in the direction of incoming enemy tracer rounds, so a firing line needed to be established. Secondly, the wounded needed attention. Thirdly, the extra belts of M-60 machine gun ammo which almost every soldier carried needed to be gotten into the hands of the platoon machine gunners before they ran out of ammo.

Joe had two good battle tested Buck Sergeants to assist him in carrying out these tasks by the name of Kenneth Hanson and Michael Kenter. Kenneth Hanson had been in-country since December 24, 1966 and Michael Kenter had been in-country since January 5, 1967, which was considered to be a life time on the front lines of Vietnam and for many it was. I had been in country since the very last days of November, 1966. The three of us probably earned our C.I.B. (Combat Infantry Badges) during the same baptism of fire, charging the same bunker complexes not far from Di An, while under the command of L.T.C. Denton. Both these men, like me, were twenty year old draftees, who had started out their in-country combat experiences as 19 year old privates, but that is where the similarity ended. Only the cream of the crop went from private to Sergeant in less than a year. Although these two men were my close contemporaries, we were not in the same league. I was a private when I started my tour of duty in Vietnam and a private when I left the country a year later. My self centered inferiority complex and fear of authority was certainly to blame. These character flaws in me had always led to a blaring lack of all desire for normal basic interactions with my fellow human beings, which in turn, was not something my young leaders could have easily understood. Withdrawing into my wall flower self was most assuredly seen by them as a disqualifying characteristic that would have never allowed them to classify me as the cream of the crop.

As the men of my B Company listened intently to the enormous volume of small arms fire, I can now only guess, many years later, with a fair amount of certainty, how the sequence of events unfolded.  To aid in this, Pat McLaughlin’s description of that area, from his experiences the day before plus my own re of the field of battle that day and also drawing from my own combat experiences, I can come up with a very likely scenario.  What I am dead sure of is that Joe Amos, as platoon sergeant, could have laid low and directed his squad leaders and team leaders to carry out his biding. However, the Joe Amos I have come to know through sketchy reports on the internet was never in a hundred years going to do that. That fathering heart that beat within Joe was not going to put the lives of those grunt-sons, who looked, to him like the ones he had trained at Fort Jackson, ahead of his own safety. In his mind, it would have been just like sending his own son into mortal danger to save himself. So Joe kept moving among his platoon members, organizing them into a firing line to place suppressing fire on the enemy position. He ran from man to man, as machine gun rounds popped past his head, concentrating on his men, but then the wounded needed his attention. They needed to be evacuated. So, now, he directed others to help move them further to the rear and out of the direct line of fire. As the wounded moved were moved toward the rear, Joe continued to direct fire. The M-60 machine gunners in the platoon were pouring very effective suppressing fire on the enemy in the ditches, but one or more of them now began screaming for more ammo. Each man carried an extra 100 round belt or two of machine gun ammo, but it had to be collected and distributed. Whoever carried out this task would have created an excellent target for enemy gunners and that man was Joe. As Joe moved from soldier to soldier, collecting machine gun ammo, more than likely, Joe’s buck sergeants were following his initiatives, which exposed all three men to certain death.

All I can say for certain at this point is that Joe Amos’s arrival and short stay with A Company, along with the support of Kenter and Hanson saved many lives that day. Not a single grunt in A Company died that day, but the enemy machine gunners in the ditches were given just too many opportunities to gun down the three sergeants, as they continually exposed themselves in performance of their duties. All three Sergeants were finally killed by enemy small arms fire. Joe Amos had a wife and two children who would be left with a hole in their hearts for the rest of their lives along with the families of Kenter and Hanson, while other misguided young Americans across the United States mindlessly looked upon men like these as one would look upon his enemies.

Silver Star Citation

Joe Amos Date of birth: April 21, 1931 Date of death: October 30, 1967 Home of record: Philadelphia Pennsylvania Status: KIA AWARDS AND CITATIONS Silver Star Awarded for actions during the Vietnam War The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress July 9, 1918 (amended by an act of July 25, 1963), takes pride in presenting the Silver Star (Posthumously) to Platoon Sergeant Joe Amos (ASN: RA-15297019), United States Army, for gallantry in action against a hostile force while serving with Company A, 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, in the Republic of Vietnam on 30 October 1967. On this date, Sergeant Amos was serving as a squad leader during a search and destroy operation near Loc Ninh. As his unit moved through a dense rubber plantation, they were engaged by a well-entrenched, numerically superior Viet Cong force. Sergeant Amos immediately moved among his men, organizing them into a defensive perimeter and directing their fire onto the insurgents. Ignoring intensive hostile automatic weapons and small arms fire, he maneuvered from position to position distributing ammunition. He further exposed himself to the barrage of enemy fire as he organized and directed the evacuation of the wounded. As the battle intensified, he was mortally wounded by small arms fire. Sergeant Amos' courageous example inspired his men to fight with renewed determination and repel each Viet Cong assault. Sergeant First Class Amos' unquestionable valor in close combat against numerically superior forces is in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, the 1st Infantry Division, and the United States Army. General Orders: Headquarters, 1st Infantry Division, General Orders No. 8383 (November 20, 1967) Action Date: October 30, 1967 Service: Army Rank: Platoon Sergeant Company: Company A Battalion: 1st Battalion Regiment: 18th Infantry Regiment: 1st Infantry Division

Joe Amos First Infantry Division Vietnam KIA 1967