"Reprinted with permission from the
November 2004 issue of VFW Magazine"
'Nine Days in May'
From May 18-26, 1967, the 4th Infantry Division's 1 st Brigade
engaged in a series of five continuous battles along the Cambodian
border. Valor was evident all the way.
by Susan Katz Keating
The soldiers proceeded cautiously through the jungle
highlands west of Pleiku, near the Cambodian border, on the morning of
May 18, 1967. The
men were part of Operation Francis Marion, aimed at stopping the North
Vietnamese Army (NVA) from seizing the Ia Drang Valley. The
Americans belonged to B Co., 8th Inf., 1st Bde., 4th Inf. Div. Most were
young, and many were new to Vietnam. But they all were about to become
seasoned warriors, via a series of savage battles known simply as "The
Nine Days in May Border Battles."
By the end of those nine days, some 2,000 GIs would go up
against 1,500-2,000 regulars of the NVXs 32nd and 66th regiments. The
enemy would attack in groupings that vastly outnumbered the Americans.
Three men from the 4th Infantry Division would earn posthumous Medals of
Honor. The 1st Brigade would earn a coveted Presidential Unit Citation
for heroically disabling two full enemy regiments and curtailing an
entire season's offensive
Ordeal of B Company
As outlined in the afteraction report for May 18-26, the five
battles can be traced to 10:40 a.m. on the 18th, when a lone NVA soldier
appeared before B Company, and then took off along a well used trail.
Additional enemy soldiers popped in and out of view, until the acting
company commander, 1st Lt. Cary Allen, dispatched his men into action.
Two platoons quickly organized a perimeter as best they could
within the dense jungle, while two others the 1st and the 4th set out to
investigate. And the 4th Platoon soon sighted another NVA. GIs gave
chase. "It was a decoy;" said John Barclay, who was an 18-year-old
automatic weapons rifleman assigned to 1st Platoon. "It was a lure meant
to draw them into a trap:' It worked. The 4th Platoon quickly was
surrounded and attacked.
"The rest of us tried to break through to them," Barclay
remembered. "But then we came under attack. We fought all afternoon. By
around 4 p.m., we. knew they weren't coming back. In fact, they were
Platoon Sgt. Bruce Grandstaff, 4th Platoon leader, fought
valiantly to save his entrapped men. Time after time, he raced through
enemy fire in order to help his wounded men, or to try to pop smoke
grenades up through the jungle canopy to mark his position. Wounded
first in one leg and then the other, Grandstaff called in increasingly
closer artillery strikes.
Bleeding profusely from multiple wounds, he crawled forward
until he was able to lob grenades atop an enemy machine gun emplacement.
Finally, a desperate Grandstaff called in an artillery strike on his own
Ray Harton was then assigned to the 6th Bn., 29th Artillery.
"I was told the platoon wanted artillery on top of them;' he recalled.
"I said, are you sure that this is what they want! Yes, put it on top of
them: I immediately made a correction for C Btry., 5th Bn., 16th Arty,
and fired many 155mm rounds on top of them."
An enemy rocket took Grandstaff's life. Later, he was awarded
a posthumous Medal of Honor.
Only eight men lived through the attack on the 4th Platoon.
The survivors then endured a gruesome ordeal, pretending to be dead
while NVA kicked and looted American bodies, shooting anyone who showed
the barest sign of life. One survivor later reported that an NVA
actually sat on his back and shoved a hand down his shirt to see if he
was still breathing.
The rest of B Company, meanwhile, continued to fight until it
drove off the enemy. It sustained 10 KIA and 24 WIA. Recalled Barclay:
"At the end of the day, I was amazed I had survived this horrible
battle. It had just begun:"
By the next morning, B Company had been joined by the
battalion's A and C companies, plus the Reconnaissance Platoon from HQ
Company. Members of A Company found what was left of the 4th Platoon,
and spent much of the day helping to care for the casualties.
Action resumed on the 20th, after the 1st Brigade set up a
defensive perimeter at a new site. "We had put up a low rock wall
between two trees as protection;' recalled Kent Combs, who was a 20-year
old with the Recon Platoon. "Sometime after dark we started taking
mortar fire, followed by ground attacks:'
Earlier that evening, Combs had talked to a friend from C
Company, P. Leslie Bellrichard: "He was leaning against a tree, reading
his Bible." When the attack was in full swing, with the Bible safely
stowed away, Bellrichard repeatedly rose from his foxhole to throw
grenades into the midst of charging NVA.
During one such attempt, Bellrichard was knocked backward by
an exploding mortar round. When his armed grenade slipped out of his
hand and into an occupied foxhole, Bellrichard threw himself atop the
grenade, using his own body to absorb the explosion. Mortally wounded,
he still managed to fire into attacking NVA before succumbing to his
wounds. The action cost Bellrichard his life, and also earned him a
Medal of Honor.
(Another Medal of Honor was earned that night by Frankie
Molnar, a 24-year old staff sergeant who saved the lives of his fellow
soldiers when he threw himself on a live enemy grenade.)
The companies fended off the three wave assault that engulfed
their night defensive position. In two hours of fighting the GIs lost 10
KIA and 65 WIA. The 3rd Battalion of the 12th Infantry provided a
backstop, preventing the NVA from retreating to its sanctuary in off
Another fierce assault came on May 22, when the enemy sent
human waves against A and B companies. "Heavy close in fighting raged
for four hours until the enemy force finally broke contact and
exfiltrated from the battlefield;' reads the brigade's Presidential Unit
Fierce fighting continued on the 24th and 26th, involving
elements of the 3rd battalions of both the 12th and the 8th infantries.
Richard Jackson was a medic assigned to C Co., 3rd Bn., 8th
Inf. "Doc" Jackson was on patrol with his unit on May 26 when he stopped
for a "nature call." From the corner of his eye, Jackson saw a slight
movement a shadow, perhaps, shifting position. He alerted his unit
members. Then, as Jackson described it: "All hell broke loose."
Some 300-500 NVA attacked with B-40 rockets, grenades,
intense AK -4 7 fire and mortars, or possibly artillery.
"That firefight was so intense, and the noise so deafening
that it made you strain to keep your senses," Jackson recalled. "Enemy
fire was slamming into our position like rainfall:'
Jackson immediately went to work. "I was taking care of the
wounded and see-ing my guys get killed on a scale that was
overwhelming;' he said. When Jackson himself took a hit, he pressed
onward. "I continued to weave my way through the carnage to get to
whomever I could:'
Jackson recalled hearing his platoon sergeant shout
repeatedly for his soldiers to keep the enemy at bay. The Americans did
as their sergeant asked.
"Our line held" Jackson said. "The Vietnamese finally
realized C Company was no slouch."
The same can be said of the entire brigade. As stated in the
Presidential Unit Citation: "The combined fortitude, determination and
unwavering courage of the 1st Brigade's personnel rendered two North
Vietnamese Army regiments ineffective and totally disrupted the 1967
summer monsoon offensive in the Central Highlands."
During those nine intense days, the 1st Brigade lost 79 men
killed and at least 200 WIA. Confirmed NVA dead totaled 367.
A battle survivor added this perspective. "We weren't a high
profile group;' said Landis Bargatze, who was assigned to A Co., 3rd Bn.,
8th Inf. "We weren't Special Forces or Airborne. We were mostly just a
bunch of draftee grunts who turned out to be damn good soldiers."
SUSAN KATZ KEATING is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to
November/December 2004 . WWW.VFW.ORG . 35
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