Hastings At 34, Part 5. (July 22-23, 1966)
I think what stands out most to me now about LCpl. Bob Sorenson’s mishap, is I can still hear some of the guys who were on that ambush, describing it to me in detail the following morning (as if it were yesterday). I remember something else too – a very dejected Marine who up until then was always squared away, and an excellent leader. I felt sorry for Sorenson then and I guess I do now. I remember him getting chewed out, and without mentioning any names, will say that the guy chewing him out was one hell of a gung-ho individual and an excellent Marine in many respects, but wasn’t always concerned with the overall well-being of the men under him. We’ll let it go at that.
I’m certain at this juncture in my life, that today (the 22nd of July), was the lost day that some of us have referred to when trying to piece together these events. I attend a Lima Company Reunion every year. It is one of the most important and rewarding experiences I’ve ever enjoyed and hope to always be able to participate in. The camaraderie is just so strong between not only us of the ‘Old Corps’ (’66), but with the subsequent individuals who filled our shoes until the very end as well. We have a lot of fun – and pride is so thick you can cut it with a sword. Many times, we’ve talked about how this operation affected our lives forever, and many times these talks have shaken loose memories over the years. But there has been this one ‘lost day’ that we (I?) can’t seem to account for (along with plenty of other things).
I may have just figured it out. Over the years, I’ve had bits and ‘snippets’ of a memory of sitting along a creek bed in the shade. Even dozing off for a while – something I was not prone to do. I’m beginning to think that we may have gotten a little rest (for a change). All these years, I remembered constantly moving without so much as a break. And, no sleep…certainly none worth mentioning. I’m going to say it wasn’t much of a break, but enough so that now anyway, that lost day would (could) figure into the time frame here.
I’m also going to say, that this break involved the whole company – that it wasn’t just my platoon. And I’m pretty sure that we didn’t dig in, but instead spread out in a haphazard company-sized perimeter. It’s this sort of thing that brings the memories into focus. A snippet comes to you. You go with it, and concentrate on it for a while . . .
Something I’ve been proud of since first writing about Hill 362, is that I have been able to retain some basic facts about what happened. Stuff that I kept in my noggin for years, and then finally spit out on paper some thirty years later. Writing was more out of frustration then anything else. I felt frustration over remembering some things that I thought were important (…who could forget something like that?), and over other stuff that either wouldn’t come to me or wasn’t important. Although by addressing it, I’ve had better insight into what was happening. By talking with people about it, I saw things from other people’s perspectives. Many times, it would jar someone’s remembrances loose. I’ve often been surprised over subsequent years to have guys come up to me and say: "Right on…I’d forgotten about that!"
I don’t know why I feel that I have to keep hammering away at Hastings. Reliving it, year after year. Unless it would be to someday make some of sense of it. For whatever purpose, I’m not sure yet.
Anyway, I’m going to say that the whole company holed up for nearly the whole morning while patrols were sent out to try to verify Sorenson’s observations from that night/morning. I don’t remember having anything to do with this, as far as scouting or analysis. Plausible? Yes, and it does stand to reason. It would be the reason why we weren’t required to dig in. We had to be able to move quickly if the enemy were found. I don’t think anything came of it, and the company moved out sometime in the early afternoon.
Later on that day, and again using a snippet of a memory - I’m going to say that I must’ve been on point, because at least one other person remembers the same incident. I was in or near (once again) the streambed. I remember bending down to fill my canteen, and thinking this is what it had been like when I was fishing in the high Sierras and the Bitterroot as a boy. Clear, clean water rushing over mossy rocks. The water trickled noisily through various crevices making up the stream. The sound of it refreshing for some reason, as you anticipated casting an egg or a fly into a pool on the opposite side with maybe a cutthroat or a rainbow trout, lingering in the shadows of that big boulder. I had to be careful of getting carried away with my thoughts, especially after the incident just a day or so before. You couldn’t relax for a minute. Still, it was hard at times to focus on the situation at hand, when the aesthetics of it all reminded me of other, happier times.
Just a few minutes later, further up the stream, the whole scene suddenly evaporated, as if it were made of clouds being chased away in a windy sky. The gruesome sight of a body floating in the dark shady pool of water in front of me – took me totally by surprise. I must have leaped back a foot, at least. It was the first time I’d actually seen a dead gook, up close and personal. Sure, there’d been times we had seen dead enemy since the operation had started, but I was never aware of them in that way. Just a brief glance, if any, as we moved on in a hurry.
This was different. This guy was laying face up in the shallow water. There was no blood – but his face was practically shot off. I could tell that he’d been in the water for a while. All of a sudden, the smell of rotting human flesh hit me as I spotted yet another one laying to one side in the shadows further up the creek bed. There is no other smell in this world as bad (that I know of) as that of rotting flesh. God! And I’d just filled up my canteen! I yanked it off of my cartridge belt and poured it out. I heard a noise just then and saw the guy behind me doing the same. Turned out, it was Gerry Hohol and, like me – he had a hard time ever drinking out of that canteen again. To this day, I don’t know who wasted the gooks. Turned out, there were about three of them. This seems to be the thing that confuses the men that fought on this battleground, as much as anything. Who had done what where, and when?
Late that afternoon there was another gunfight with the enemy. I must have been in the rear by this time, because I remember coming up on the still smoldering bodies of three more of the enemy. It was a gruesome example of what a 3.5 rocket launcher can achieve firing willie-peter rounds (white phosphorous rounds). The charred remains of the bodies were hardly recognizable by the time I came along. The phosphorous was still sputtering in the burned flesh as it ignited pockets of oxygen (in their lungs?). I mentally marked this down in my head on a list that included many other entries - as "not a way I wanted to die".
Later, as dusk was approaching, my squad leader Cpl. Troy came over to me and asked me if I could pick a spot on his map, for a good ambush site. I studied it for a minute and put my finger on a likely place from what I could tell by reading the contour lines and the trail. Before the actual ambush team was put together, I ended up sneaking out to where I could get a better look at the site with one of the other guys. (I think Lopez of my squad went with me to check it out). It was situated right off a well-traveled trail, and went right up against a steep hillside. It had a view of a slight depression or small narrow valley to the northeast. On the other side of this were some rather large hills. By the time we finished setting in for the ambush, it was nearly dark.
That night, July 22nd, we witnessed one helluva fire fight up on the hill to our northeast. It looked as if someone was having a pretty hard time of it. You could see the flashes of artillery and mortars and tracers flying all over the place. I mentioned it later, on one of those small reel to-reel tape recordings that I would send home every once in a while. Had it been earlier in the month, it could have been mistaken for a Fourth of July fireworks display. It seems to me, even with all these years behind me now, that it lasted much of the night. I don’t know what time it was when it all started. Even though we couldn’t talk among ourselves in that ambush site, I’m sure we were all thinking the same thing. What the hell was going on…and who was catching all of the shit?
Something else I remember about that night was that it was wet and damp. It wasn’t raining hard, but it was really dark, and there was a damp chill in the air. It’s still there.
When I wrote about this, back in 1996, I hadn’t learned about computers yet. I had a Canon word processor, which had finally replaced an ancient Smith-Corona typewriter I’d used for years. Although I attended a viewing of the Moving Wall at Camp Pendleton in 1990, and noticed then that the dates of several of my friends who died during this operation, appeared to be recorded incorrectly on the Wall. So, in my writings, I still maintain that this night ambush took place on the 22nd.
Something I’ve taken into consideration while writing this, is the information now available for reference on the Internet. I keep a number of files on my laptop along with links to certain websites. I keep records and information about Hastings always within reach. Unfortunately, I believe some of the data is contradictory, as far as the dates of some of those who were killed during this time. There are a few examples of this, as I go through that particular set of events. From what I have read, since I first wrote my version of The Battle Of Hill 362, my dates as to when India Company was first hit by the enemy is about right. With only a couple of minor differences. I hope to someday consolidate these areas, but they are of little importance in the overall picture as it stands right now. Any discrepancies that I’ve inadvertently made (without knowledge other than my memories), will be changed.
I’ll include a little of what I’ve already written in The Battle For Hill 362, as it remains to be proven what is chronologically correct. I also urge readers to get to the heart of the matter by going to India Company’s present day Internet web site at: http://www.securenet.net/3rdbn5th/india35, and by reading the stories written by Joe Holt, John Olsen, and former Lieutenant R. S. Williams – all eyewitness accounts of survival on Hill 362 during this historical battle.
The following is an excerpt from The Battle For Hill 362 written five years ago.
We got back to the company area early in the morning of the 23rd, only to find everyone is getting ready to move out. It was India Company of our battalion that had gotten hit last night, and we were moving out to provide support. Normally our ambush team would be able to pick up a couple of winks because we had been up all night. We normally would have been in a reserve position. But, not today. I volunteered for the point position. I've got buddies in that company. No way would they put me in the rear of the column. But they did. We tried for the shortest route. Wrong! The gooks figured on this, and pinned us down with machine-gun fire all day. We were stuck in this stagnate stream - full of leaches! (Always an excuse for a smoke break, to burn the slimy little creatures off.) An occasional spent round would slam into the brackish water around us. The whole time, I was desperately thinking, ‘Come on let's go. LET’S GO!’ We ended up having to turn back. Everyone was depressed - we all had friends in India Company. We sent out the dusk patrol along the way. Jim Yakubsin's squad with Pfc. Bob Stallings at point . . .
Note: We would sometimes send a flanking patrol out to cover the company as it moved in whatever direction necessary. Most often, these type patrols were sent out towards the end of the day – hence the term ‘dusk patrol’. (I’d like to mention here that I was proud recently, of being asked to speak in honor of my longtime friend, Jim Yakusin, who went on to serve twenty seven years with the Marine Corps including an active duty tour in Desert Storm in 1990).
Through the years, I have run across those I call the ‘ghosts’ of India Company - men who had served and fought on Hill 362. We would talk, and through them I have been able to piece together most of what had happened during the two tragic days it took for us to get to them. They lost a lot of men over those two days. Twenty-five men were killed in action…most of them on the first night. Just about everyone who survived - was wounded.
Stan, who had been a platoon radioman, told me that they just made a lot of mistakes. They had been given orders to get up Hill 362, and use it as a radio relay station. There had been a lot of action in the area - not just within our battalion AOR, but with 3/4 and several other battalions. With high hills separating the various battalions, a communications link was badly needed. So India Company was sent to the top of Hill 362.
When they started up, it was already dusk and getting darker. There were signs of the enemy all over - foxholes and even com-wire. They were in a hurry, and weren’t able to use normal scouting procedures.
The enemy hit them hard. First, with an ambush that cut off First platoon. Then, with an enveloping attack that pinned down the rest of the company. I’ll go into it further, later . . .
We made our first mistake. We decided to set up in the same positions as the night before. Not having been in those positions because of ambush duty - my squad had to dig in. I buddy up with Stuart again, and grumpily started to dig our fighting hole for the night. We hear a major fire fight off in the distance. Who is getting it this time?
As I’m digging, Troy suddenly shows up.
"Come with me, Harris - I need your help", he says hurriedly.
"Aw, Jesus - Troy", I complain, "can’t you find someone else?"
"I want you!", he snaps, "Lets go!" (We were all on edge. No sleep - no food, its getting on everyone’s nerves.)
Once we’re away from the rest of the squad Troy told me, "That was the dusk patrol that just got hit. Sergeant Bishop (?) is hit bad. And Stallings is dead. Got it between the eyes. Didn’t want to tell the others just yet . . ."
"Mother F—king Son of a Bitch!", I curse between clinched teeth once again feeling the pain of losing a friend.
"Stallings was a good friend of mine!", I said trying hard to keep the tears from welling up in my eyes. A lump began to knot up in my throat.
"I know", said Troy quietly. "I want to set you in by the trail down there - cover them (the dusk patrol) when they come into our lines." He added, "Make sure the gooks aren’t following them in". "The password will be ‘light - house’."
He walked with me down the hill to the main trail, and we picked a spot. Lots of cover, but close enough to see what’s happening. It was almost dark by this time. The inversion layer is going to make it a ‘pitch black’ night. It was so quiet - you could hear a pin drop . . .
Suddenly, off in the distance I heard a sound, like someone hitting a tree with an aluminum baseball bat. Metallic ‘thunks’ - a bunch of them. F--k! Mortars! My heart pounded out the thought that flashed through my brain… ‘Where are they going to hit?!’
Within seconds, we got the answer - and heard the shrill whistle of the projectiles coming down on us! We had no fighting hole to hide in - so we lay as flat against the ground as we could get. The first one landed just feet away. The ear-splitting explosion blew the elephant grass around us - flat! Either a rock or shrapnel hit me in the knee, and I yelled!
"YOU HIT?!" I hear Troy yell, as the explosions continued, but were slowly being ‘walked’ up the hillside and away from us.
"YEAH!", I yelled back, while reaching down to feel my knee. The trouser at the knee was sliced open. I could feel blood, but it didn’t feel serious.
"Just a scratch", I tell him. "I'm O.K.!"
The mortar barrage lifts for a brief moment. We heard blood-curdling screams coming from the hillside just above us.
"Who's up there, Troy?!" I'm whispering now.
"Holoka's squad," he whispers back.
"WE GOTTA GET UP THERE!" I yell, as the mortars start hitting again. "HE’S GIVING THEM OUR POSITION!"
And I started to take off up the hill.
Troy grabbed me, "Wait a minute . . ." he said, "let me call the CP."
Troy has a PRC-‘prick’ 10 radio with him, and he called the CP (Command Post). I hear Gunny Dias' voice answer. "Yeah, get up there boys. Try and quiet it down - before we all get blown away. I'll send help..."
We went racing up the hill - which was covered with elephant grass at least six feet tall and sharp! It was pitch black by this time. The only light to see by were the flashes of the mortars exploding on the side of the hill!
I was no longer concerned about getting hit. We had to get up that hill. My buddies were hurt. As we got closer, I see a tall slender figure silhouetted against an explosion. Shit! It looked like . . .Nickerson!
We were yelling as we neared their lines - "DON’T SHOOT! IT’S TROY- HARRIS!"
It was Nickerson, and we watched his contorted figure in the eerie light of a flare. He was screaming in an awful way that I had never heard before, and never want to hear again. Chilled my soul - and the blood in my veins - into ice.
I tripped on something and fell into a fighting hole. I saw Troy grab Nickerson and hit the ground. The flare went out and it was dark again. Close by, I heard Corporal John Holoka's voice mumbling, "Shut up, Nickerson…Shut up, Nickerson..." It was like a broken record.
"John - are you O.K.?", I whispered.
"Shut up, Nickerson - Shut up, Nickerson . . .", he continued to plead.
Note: During our Lima 3/5 Reunion in Cincinnati, OH (1996), the original company commander of Lima 3/5, Reiss Tatum, attended for the first time. He informed me that the mortar barrage that I’m referring to here, probably would have been much worse, had not our F. O. (Forward Observer) attached to the company, Lt. Ed Connell, braved the incoming explosions and accurately pinpointed and quickly eliminated the enemy position, by calling in artillery fire.
I realized something was wrong. I slithered over next to him in the dark. I could feel his body laying there - but it was so dark that I couldn’t really see him. I started to feel him from the boots up. My fingers came across a deep wound, gushing blood from above his knee. I had left my pack with Stewart when Troy had come to get me. So, all I had in the way of a bandage was a field dressing that I always carried in my shirt pocket. (A field dressing could be placed just about anywhere on the body…being pretty large with cloth straps.) I strapped this around his leg wound. At least the shrapnel hadn't hit an artery. I continued to feel his body for wounds. Again my fingers felt blood and a wound in his upper stomach. I needed more bandages, and feverishly started to feel around his fighting hole for his pack - and first aid kit. I cut my hand on a sharp object. It turned out to be a helmet - which was all torn to shreds. "Shit!" I exclaim under my breath. And forgetting everything else, I reached for his head and pulled it back as if I’d been burned! He had a terrible head wound!
About this time, some others came stumbling into the area - a corpsman among them. I grabbed him and said, "You’ve gotta help, Doc. This man's in bad shape - take care of him first. I don't have any more bandages."
After assessing the extent of the damage, in the dark and under fire, he did the best he could, and said, "I've got to get over to the next guy. You better get him back ASAP!"
He didn’t have to tell me that! I managed to find John's poncho, and yelled for help to get him onto it.
We carried John down the hill first because he was in the worst shape. We stumbled through the darkness…four men, carrying a man weighing nearly two hundred pounds, down a hill of sharp elephant grass. There were still sporadic mortar explosions in and around the area. At one point, we were sloshing through a creek bed, slipping around in the mud. Several times, sliding down the sides of the streambed, we lost our balance and dropped him. He would just moan. We could smell and feel his blood sloshing around in the poncho. "I’m sorry John", I said. "We're doing the best we can… Hang in there, buddy. We're almost there…!" Helping carry John Holoka down that hill through that awful darkness was the most heart-wrenching experience I’ve ever known. Finally, we got him to an area where they were going to try and med-evac the wounded - and we went back after Nickerson. He had been some morphine to quiet him down - but he was still in a lot of pain. (We found out later that shrapnel had destroyed his pancreas, part of his liver - and collapsed one of his lungs).
In Boot Camp, we were taught how to die in battle. True! Sergeant Payne, one of our DI's -would gather us around him just about every night before ‘lights out’. And he'd say - "Most of you are going to be sent to war. Many of you won't be coming back. You will be dead!", he'd continue in his slow nasal voice, "Your eyes - will no longer see. Your heart - will no longer tick. You will no longer get a hard on. You will be dead! But when you die, you will die like Marines. With your mouths shut! You will not make a sound. You will not make a sound, girls, because you will not want the enemy to target your position - and cause other Marines to die!"}
Three times, we made the torturous trek back through that streambed and up that hill to help bring down our wounded. The last time was with Robert Lopez. Although wounded in the arm, and (I believe) also the leg, he chose to walk out. Tough guy, Lopez, and a good Marine. Each time we made it back to the helo-zone, I checked in on John Holoka.
The last time I saw him he was mumbling, "Sorry mom . . . Sorry . . ." His voice was getting weaker, and I could barely hear him as I knelt down to touch him on the shoulder.
He died on board the med-evac helicopter, on the way back to the rear later that night.
He died like a Marine, Sergeant Payne… With his mouth shut . . .
PFC Nickerson was horribly wounded and after nearly dying several times on his journey back to recovery (and eventually back to the States) wrote us a letter afterwards…letting us know that he was going to be all right. Lopez recovered… to fight again.
As an interesting follow-up to this sad chapter in my life, a historian in Gettysburg, PA contacted me last year wanting to know more about John Holoka’s death. He was writing a biography to honor John, along with eighteen other men from that county (Adams County) in Pennsylvania, who all died during the Vietnam conflict.
This led to a long exchange of emails, and culminated with me taking a trip to Gettysburg to honor John Holoka during a Memorial Day presentation in front of the Moving Wall. The event was broadcast on TNT television’s Memorial Day special programming that weekend. It would change my life forever. I met John’s family in the process, which allowed for closure for all of us. I was also proud, that a bunch of my Lima Company guys dropped everything they were doing, and came to Gettysburg to show their support. Among them, were two of the three other men who helped carry John down from our position that fateful night. (If you’d like to read more about this incredible story/journey, be sure to read The Easter Story, posted on the Lima Company web site at http://www.members.tripod.com/Lima35 under STORIES.)
The final chapter of this vigil will be presented tomorrow. Everything that a Marine holds dear in life, death, and combat becomes the focal point in this next episode. I’ll attempt to write about The Brotherhood of Valor that I have found to be of such pivotal consequence, for so many of us, for so long.
Next: Click on Hastings At 34, Part 6 - THE BATTLE FOR HILL 362 - (July 24, 1966)
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