Volume 1, Issue 2 May, 1996The story on this page is John Olsen's recollection of his five days on Operations Hastings. The next page is Lieutenant Robert S. Williams' letter to his wife, written on August 7, 1966, and is also about Operation Hastings. (Editor Note: Lt. Williams was awarded the Navy Cross for his part in that operation, his citation is also on this site). Pearl's Poem page is a poem written by Pearl Kell on July 26, 1966, inspired by a headline in a Chicago paper (included).
Time of Reflection
July 21-25, 1966
By John C. Olsen with help from Dianne Olsen. The dates, names and events written below represent what I remember of those five days in July 1966.
On July 21, 1966 we camped along the Ngan River. I had just been made a fire team leader and was assigned to Sergeant Johnsons squad as the third team leader of third platoon. Pfc.s Pierce and Perich were assigned to my team. We spent the evening eating C Rations, getting to know each other and telling each where we were from, Perich from Bakersfield, California; Pierce from Augusta, Georgia and myself from Sedro Woolley, Washington. Quite the diverse group. Perich told us that he would really like to fire his rifle, because to this date he hadnt. In less than twenty-four hours two out of the three of us would be dead.
The next morning, Saturday July 22, 1966 we mounted up and started walking up the Ngan River. The sound of the water was relaxing. It was late in the afternoon when I heard someone say, "Ambush, weve been ambushed". At first I thought they were kidding because I couldnt hear any gunfire. I started running forward and as I got closer I could hear machine gun fire. Sergeant Johnson said, " Olsen take your team around to the left." We started climbing over the rocks and up along the side of the river. We came to a clearing, that was between a rock wall and the edge of the riverbank, and moved out into it. We were on a ledge about ten to fifteen feet above and to the left of the river. Perich was about fifteen yards out into the clearing, I was about ten yards out and Pierce had just come out of the tree line when all hell broke loose. Perich turned to me and I saw his mouth was open as if he was trying to say something but there was so much shooting going on I couldnt hear. The moment Perich turned to say something he was hit and fell off the cliff and down into the river landing on Lt. Carey. (His wish of firing his rifle never came to pass, his rifle was found later with the safety still on.) I turned to Pierce to tell him that we were taking fire and saw him go down with a bullet to the chest. I could hear bullets passing by my head, going through the bushes and hitting the rocks behind me. My adrenaline was going a mile a minute. I turned around to go forward and somehow my pack had gotten caught in a bush. Every time I tried to go forward the bush would pull me back. It seemed like I was hooked on this bush several minutes as the NVAs were shooting at me. In reality it was probably only a few seconds. I gave a final frantic lunge and with Divine Intervention the bush pulled me back against the side of the cliff, at the same time a bullet, that would certainly have gone through my chest, ricocheted off the rock and hit me in the right shoulder. Almost immediately I was freed from the bush, and I told everyone else to drop their packs. In those fleeting moments crazy things go through your mind. I remembered I had recently purchased a camera in Okinawa and reasoned that if I dropped my pack I may never be able to find it again. I kept my pack on and proceeded through the clearing to try to get behind the ambush. I finally got to some trees that were close to the river, passed through them and climbed down into the river. About this time Pfc Weitz and Pfc Dulecki caught up with me and the three of us started walking downstream towards first squad. It was beginning to get dark and we had only gone a short distance when there was a splash and a sudden explosion from a concussion grenade. The three of us were bunched up real close, probably within about two yards of each other. Weitz apparently saw where it came from and started shooting. The next thing you heard was someone screaming from being hit. I thought that because of the direction Weitz was shooting that he had shot one of our guys in first or second squad, so I grabbed him and said "Stop shooting, youre shooting our guys!". (Obviously he saw where the grenade came from and I am thankful he shot that NVA because I am sure there were more nearby.) The rest of third squad had gotten down to the river by this time. After the explosion and Weitz shooting, Dulecki said that he couldnt see.
It was about 1800 hours and down in the ravine it was getting dark. (It turns out he was blinded for about three days because of the grenade.) It was quiet and I could only hear the running water of the river. Sergeant Johnson told us to go back to the company, so we grabbed Dulecki by his arms and helped him. We worked our way back to the Company and found where they were going up a hill to make camp for the night.
We finally got to where the company made a trail to get to the top of the hill. Lying along the side of the trail were the half clothed bodies of those who had just died. Even in the darkness their white, cold, blood drained bodies jumped out at you. Lt. Carey told a Staff Sergeant to be the last one up the hill and to make sure everyone made it. As soon as the Lt. left the Staff Sergeant told me and Pfc. Eberle to be the last ones up the hill. Well, personally, I didnt want to be the last person. After what I had just been through I wanted to be in the center of the column all safe and secure. As if there was such a place. Needless to say I was the last one going up that hill! I had gone about twenty to thirty yards up the hill when down about twenty yards and to my left there was a large explosion of an incoming round. I could hear debris landing fairly close. A few minutes after the explosion I heard someone coming up the trail after us and I told Eberle. We had just come to a turn in the trail where the path went at a ninety degree angle to the right and then took a ninety degree turn to the left. I positioned myself next to a tree where the trail turned right and I had Eberle cover me from where the trail turned back left. I yelled out, "Halt, Dung Lai!. Who is there?". I received a reply in broken English, "Garza". I then asked him, " Who is your squad leader?". "I dont know." Was the reply. "Who is your fire team leader?". "I dont know". "Who is your Platoon Commander?". "I dont know." "When did you join India Company?". "In the Philippines." By this time Eberle and I both had our safeties off and our rifles on full automatic. Garza had a heavy accent and it was hard to understand him. I said to Eberle, " Im going to let him come up. If he is a VC and he gets me, make sure to get him." So I braced myself, took a deep scared breath and said, "Come up with your hands up". It was probably about 8:00 p.m. and we are down in the middle of the jungle. It was pitch dark. I could only see a couple of feet in front of me. Garza started coming up the trail with his hands up. The trail was at a 45 degree angle and it was difficult to climb with the use of your hands, much less trying to do it holding them in the air with a rifle. When he got close enough I jumped on him and Eberle followed suit. At that time we could see he was one of us. "Why were you down there?", I asked. He replied, "I was in an ambush and I fell asleep. When that explosion went off it woke me up and I realized I was all alone. So, I started climbing up the trail." Around eleven p.m. we I finally got to the top of the hill and dug in for the night.
I had survived the previous day and today July 23, 1966 was my twenty second birthday. In the morning members of 2nd Platoon recovered the bodies. It was difficult to get the bodies up the hill because it was so steep. Helicopters were called in to get our four wounded and eight dead Marines evacuated. I heard later that the VC had put grenades in Youmans armpit thinking that when he was moved the grenades would fall out and explode, killing or wounding some others. The grenades stayed in place and were discovered and disposed of aboard ship.
Late that morning we mounted up and went down the trail to the river. Third Platoon brought up the rear because of the casualties we had suffered the day before. We went past the dead NVA that Weitz had shot the night before. A short distance further upstream we came to a place where the NVA had built Bunkers. We found weapons, supplies and other items.
Later in the day we came to a clearing in a valley below hill 362 and set up camp. While we were waiting for food and mail to come in by helicopter I thought I would cook up some of the rice we had captured. I had never cooked rice before but didnt think it would be very difficult. I started a fire, put some water and rice in a pail and hung it over the fire. The rice had not been cooking very long when, as I was standing by the fire, I heard a rifle shot and saw some dirt kick up close by me. I ran and jumped in my fox hole and looked up at the hill to see if I could see where the shot came from. I didnt see anything and it was quiet for a while, so I decided I would go out and check on the rice again. Just as I got near the pot there was another shot fired and so instead of continuing to get shot at over a bowl of rice, I just grabbed the pail and ran back to my foxhole. I am sorry to say that was probably the worst tasting rice I have ever eaten, but it was still better than ham and lima beans. Eventually the helicopters came in bringing us food, water and mail. The rest of the day was spent reading mail and having one of those good C-Ration meals. Happy birthday to me!
July 24, 1966 was to become the longest day ever. We mounted up mid morning with 1st Platoon taking the point followed by 2nd Platoon and then 3rd Platoon. I had taken over Carlos Canos fire team of Eberle, Weitz and Holland. We were the last ones in the column going up the hill. As we started up the hill I smelled something rotten. It reminded me of when I was younger, hunting along the river, and coming upon decomposing salmon. The smell became stronger and soon I could see the blackened rotting corpses of two NVA soliders along the trail.
We were probably about three quarters of the way up the hill when about twenty yards in front of me there was a mortar round explosion and someone yelled, "Hes hit!". I saw someone lying on the ground with two guys around him. I told my fire team to stay put. I ran over to the three guys and saw the wounded Marine, whom I believe was Denny, with his eyes open and blood coming out of his mouth. I tried to get a pulse but could not feel one and I told the two other men that he was dead. I pray to God that those were not the last words he heard. I then returned to my fire team. There were more explosions as the NVAs had us zeroed in and were walking the mortar rounds right up the trail from the rear of the column to the front. I heard Corporal Sullivan yell for everyone to get off the trail.
As the battle raged up front those of us in the back could only wonder what was happening. Every once in a while word would come back with news. One of those times we got word that Lieutenant Kopfler had been killed. He was an Officer everyone in the Company liked and respected. Just the evening before I heard him telling Lieutenant Carey that he wasnt going to stay in the Marine Corps. Lieutenant Cary went forward to see what was happening.
I could hear constant gunfire and regular explosions of mortars. Someone had called in an air strike and the pilots were dropping their bombs within fifty to seventy five yards of our front line. Late in the day word came back that we couldnt get our wounded out because the helicopters were taking too much enemy fire. Our perimeter was tightened up, wounded were placed in every foxhole and everyone was aware that we had to survive the night before help would arrive. We didnt know if, when or where the NVA might attack. We were told to maintain 100% alert. I had no problem following those orders as I had dug my foxhole next to a big tree which came complete with an ants nest. Not only was I scared, I had hundreds of ants crawling all over my body.
Late in the night, or early morning I heard a shot that came just up the hill from where my position was, and I thought we were getting probed. I found out later that a wounded prisoner had been brought back to our position and Corporal Bartzak had tied him to a tree. The prisoner was making so much noise that Bartzak thought he was going to give away his position so Bartzak shot him.
Later in the morning it quieted down somewhat and we were able to start getting our wounded and dead out. Several news reporters came in on evacuation helicopters and saw the dead NVA tied to a tree. They accused us of being murderers. As soon as they got their stories they tried to get on the helicopters. We were still trying to get our dead and wounded off the hill. Needless to say those Reporters were gently yanked from the Copters while we took care of our own.
I heard that Coates had been hit and was being evacuated so I went forward to see him. He was lying in a basket to be picked up by a helicopter. He looked really white, like he had lost a lot of blood. I told him that he had a "million dollar wound", he was going to get to go back to the ship and have some good chow and be able to rest and relax. I was trying to will him to live. He said, "I dont think Ill make it" The helicopter picked Coates up and I never saw him again. I later learned that he had died before reaching the ship. I felt angry at him for giving up. I came to realize that he was hurt more than I could see or accept at the time..
Sometime that morning Lieutenant Cary asked for volunteers to go on a patrol out in front of our lines. I was one of the volunteers and we went down the trail that second platoon had gone on the day before. The hillside was devastated. As we walked down the trail I noticed on the right of the trail there were three or four Marines lying close together in prone firing positions. Something caught my eye and I looked down at the bodies. I noticed that each of them had a small round bullet hole in the back of their heads. I recognized a friend of mine, Larry Daniels. We had shared some good laughs and had gone on liberty together several times when we were at Camp Pendleton. Larry told me before this operation that his mother had contacted her Congressman in an attempt to get him released because he was her only child. I felt angry and frustrated that my friend was gone. I felt sad thinking what a devastating blow this would be to his mother. I dont remember much more about the patrol.
Later that morning Lima Company hooked up with us. Larry Jones was the Company Radioman and a friend of mine from ITR. I dont know what I was thinking, I did a Marine Corps no-no. I left my rifle in my foxhole and walked up to the Command Post to talk to Jones. After talking to Jones for a few minutes I heard gunfire back towards my foxhole. At that time I realized I didnt have my rifle and also my fireteam was back where the shooting was coming from. I took off running down the trail towards my rifle and team. As I was running along the path I could hear bullets coming through the trees and I saw everyone else taking cover. I must of looked crazy running toward the firing with no weapon. My foxhole was about twenty five yards down the hill and to the left of the trail at the end of our Company Perimeter. Once I got to the end of the trail and started downhill, I scrambled, crawled, did a somersault and dove headfirst into my foxhole out of breath. There was sporadic gunfire and Marines from L Company were coming up the side of the hill as the NVA counter attacked. The NVA were surprised by L Company on their flank and retreated.
That was the last of the action for the day. As we prepared to walk off the hill Lieutenant Carey said, "You can be proud of yourselves. Hold your heads high as you walk off this hill". We marched for several hours and set up camp for the evening. I was sitting in my foxhole when I heard a grenade go off. Evidently two Marines from HQ were handling a grenade and the pin came out. One of the Marines threw himself on the grenade to save the life of his friend. That was the end of Operation Hastings for India Company. The next day we were taken back to our ships.