Hastings At 34, Part 6. (July 24, 1966)



At this point, I want to make one point perfectly clear. I’ve learned over the years that the platoon commanders, as well as the platoon sergeants, played a very important role in the survival of India Company after the shit hit the fan on Hill 362. As I originally wrote my story, I was trying my best to sort out all of the bits and pieces that had been swimming around in my head over the past thirty years. In fact, a very close friend of mine who was a Company Gunny during all of this, has told me that as he continued serving a long career with the Corps over the years, occasionally he’d run into India’s former company gunny, and another staff NCO. "They always bought the beer." He told me, adding, "They always let me know, that they at least appreciated our help on Hill 362 that day."

I guess my memories were mostly from an "enlisted perspective" because they were mine. Admittedly, my approach was somewhat biased. I must stand corrected! Right here and now, I want it known that as my story was unfolding, just clicks away, some heroic efforts were being put forth by the junior officers of India Company. (I will include several of their citations for valor at the end of this series along with others.) As a friend of mine from India recently put it (in reference to a certain Captain who will remain unnamed), "He won't be mentioned, but I'll continue to praise the Lieutenants till the day I die." That works for me!


You know how music will sometimes play in your head when you’re either happy or sad? Or even preoccupied doing something? Like rock-n-roll music when you’re driving too fast, or Beach Boys or Jimmy Buffett when you’re down at the beach? Well, maybe when your building a patio deck…? Anyway, I remember quite distinctly, Wagner’s Siegfreid Funeral March, playing in my foggy brain with all of its ominous notes and all of its ominous gloom – when I awoke the morning of July 24, 1966. To this day, and over the years since Hill 362, I’ve played this music. (Wagner – for those who don’t know of him, was a classical, German musician.)

I awoke with a start! Not even all of the energy expended the night before, and on into the early morning hours, with so little sleep during the entire operation to that point, could preclude me from my destiny. I found it wasn’t all my own reaction that had brought me back to reality, after barely an hour of sleep. Gunny Dias, my platoon sergeant, was standing there looking down at me, having nudged me firmly with his boot.

"Good work last night." he said with a smile. "You’ve got the lead. Get us up that hill." Man! Even a few words like that, especially from ‘ol Dias (old at 30?), was enough to give me a boost. Rock-n-roll baby, let’s go! But, nope! Not this time, as the beating of my heart fell into the solemn, and rhythmic base kettle drums of Siegfreid. Dum, dum – dum, dum. As I got up slowly and looked around, I could see others getting their gear on. As I looked for mine, I was suddenly aware that I’d left it back at the fighting hole I had attempted to dig the previous night. (Not long before someone handed it to me.) The darkness of the early morning added to the gloom. There would be no sunshine on this day. There was an inversion layer still laying it’s heavy damp breath upon the surrounding area of the temporary refuge that the company had quickly established during all the confusion. It wasn’t long before we linked up with what was left of the ‘dusk patrol’. I became aware of a body laying on the ground close by, covered by someone’s poncho. It was Stallings. I hadn’t learned of John Holoka’s death yet, but the vision of the lifeless form of what had once been a good friend, struck home. The dead (there were others, as it turned out) hadn’t been air lifted out yet. It was too risky. I found out later that our Company Gunny Al Ross had risked his life by waving a couple of battery operated batons around in the dark (in enemy territory!) to bring in a med-evac chopper for our wounded. (Besides John Holoka, there were at least four others extracted under the difficult conditions, in those early morning hours.)

I don’t know how much time it takes for a company of a hundred fifty plus men - to move through a particular set of grid coordinates. It depends on a lot of factors, the presence of enemy, of course, being one of them. I suspected that the reason I couldn’t move my music into rock-n-roll mode, was because we were being cautious. I’m sure there were many behind the scene things that were taking place as we moved slowly along. I didn’t have a radio, so I wasn’t aware of all that was happening. Who was in communication with whom? I was, after all, and as I’ve plainly stated before – only a Pfc., you see.

So, it annoyed the hell out of me to constantly have to stop every time I felt that we were picking up momentum. I suppose it was just my own overanxious, possibly even overzealous efforts, to move the "herd" along a little faster. But, just as I’d thought we were going at a pretty good clip, someone would run up and tap me on the shoulder and say, "Captain says you’d better slow down, or he’ll put someone else on point." Okay! No problem…(damn it!).

And, it may well have been that way for the rest of the day. Switching off at point occasionally. I just don’t remember all of the details anymore, other than we just weren’t moving fast enough for my satisfaction. However, I do remember seeing the trail I was on, as I had never seen it before. I was reading foot traffic that had come down it, maybe as far back as three or four days. At least the first part of the trail, which as I stated earlier we had attempted to traverse the day before, on our first attempt to go to India Company’s aid. I’ve since looked at a map of the area, and I’m pretty sure we had originally tried to cut more directly to the north on the first attempt to get up Hill 362. I know that earlier rains had hampered my efforts to discern anything out of the ordinary that might have given me clues to the enemies’ whereabouts.

At some time during the day, I felt as if I were an Indian back in the 1800’s trailing my foe. I remember tossing the feeling aside with the thought that I felt like one of Custer’s scouts at the Little Big Horn… Remembering the battleground’s history, and a visual flashback of it, as a kid growing up close by. And the song that briefly replaced Wagner’s in my head, "Gee mister Custer–ah don’ wanna die…"

What I saw that day, especially after leaving the main trail and following a smaller one closer to the hills, was a lot of foot traffic. It was the enemy’s…from the look of the heel marks. Of that, I was certain. (Why weren’t they trying to disguise their presence as before?)

Sometime that day (I’m going to say around noon), I came around a slight bend in the trail as it started down a steep incline. I knew right away that I wasn’t going to be eating anything for the rest of the day. The horrible smell of death once again assaulted my senses to the point of wanting to wretch. Strewn out before me were about six enemy bodies in various stages of decay. They had been dead for at least three days (according to my calculations, measured by the amount of biological activity engulfing the bodies). I sent word back to the CO that I was in an enemy position, and that they (about six) were all dead from what I could tell. He had me halt (thanks, Skipper!), and set me in with three or four other guys in a covering position around the area, while the rest of the company moved through. The area was a system of bunkers built into the side of the hill where at least two, maybe three, streams converged. Others had to search these bunkers, while I smoked nearly a pack of cigarettes to try to mask the smell.

Shortly after that, we made our way north towards the hill. Our objective became more and more visible as we started up the south slope. The south slopes of the hills in this general area, were almost always covered with elephant grass. Once up at the top, the vegetation covering the terrain would abruptly turn into dense forest which sprawled down the north slopes of the hills and beyond. It seemed a little strange, but I mentally figured it was from the rainfall, or an ancient forest fire, or maybe even both. Throughout the whole operation, there was very little evidence of any human habitation (other than the enemy’s) in the area.

I had taken up a position of tail-end-charlie after we had checked out the bunkers, and started to move again. There was nothing of any importance at the enemy base camp (that I was aware of). I still had no idea of who might have wasted the gooks (although I don’t think it was us). I’m almost certain we hadn’t been through that area before. Two things struck me about the situation though. The enemy almost always tried to retrieve their dead, many times in the heat of battle, using meat hooks - in order to deny us the satisfaction of counting a victory. Come to think of it though, the Marine Corps is also well known for retrieving our dead, no matter what the circumstance.

So, what this meant to me was that they hadn’t either the time (or the ability) to retrieve their dead. Something else that stood out in my mind then, and still does – is that one of the dead gooks was at least six feet tall (or more). Vietnamese don’t get that big, at least I never saw any that size while I was ‘in country’. So who was he? Chinese maybe, or North Korean? An advisor? Or what? His presence will probably always remain a mystery to me.

As we made our way towards the top, of what would soon come to be known as Hill 362 (it wasn’t at the time), I became even more depressed. I hadn’t yet heard how many casualties India Company had suffered, but the sight at the top of the hill was very ominous - to say the least. Big Chinook (SH-46’s which were twin rotor, and much larger then the SH-34’s) helicopters were hauling up baskets by cable from out of the barely visible canopy on top of the hill. My first impression was that it was the dead being lifted out. One by one. No sooner had one chopper gathered up it’s cargo, then another would fly into place. Years later, of course, I learned it was India’s wounded, and that most of the dead gathered at that time, were still on the ground. I’d realize this fact many years later. It was very depressing as I was making my way up, and I’ll never forget the thoughts that were coursing through my head. What could have happened there…!? And, I just hoped none of my friends got it. All of this, along with the gray inversion layer around us, fell into tune with Wagners’ Siegfreid Funeral March. It was so very depressing!

About halfway up the hill, I received orders to take the point again. It was getting to be late afternoon, and we were finally getting close to the top of the hill. As we approached India Company’s lines, I was the first to see anyone. I only remember seeing one guy, a machine gunner, on the trail. He looked pretty bad. His utilities had been torn to shreds. I remember he had tears in his eyes, but a smile on his face. He seemed pretty shaken. I could only imagine what he’d been through. (Years later, I wonder if this man may have been Lance Corporal Richard Pittman who had exhibited unbelievable courage under fire.)

I apologized to him for not being able to get there sooner…that we’d run into trouble. He said he’d heard. He asked if I had a cigarette. I gave him what was left of my pack. I was glad to do something for a guy who must have just been through Hell.

I moved on, until I reached the top of the hill, where I was told to halt. I don't remember seeing any more men from India Company. While I was on point, our company had split up behind me. (I was told later that two platoons, the First and Second, along with the CP group – had decided to take another path further to the North to move up the hill. This later turned out to be a wise decision.) The remainder of my squad (about six men, including me) were told to set-in temporarily while the rest of the company decided on a defense for the night. As I stood there on the west side of the hill, I noticed a gook foxhole…a nice one - about four feet by five feet, and about two and a half feet deep. (I could always tell the enemy’s foxholes from ours because they looked like a they’d been scooped out with a backhoe, making them deeper and more square than ours.) I remember thinking there must be others around and that the enemy had apparently once owned this hill. There were a couple of tall trees behind the foxhole I was looking at and one tree directly in front of it. The area was covered with a lot of vegetation (trees, bushes and some bamboo).

Corporal Troy gave me (and Bob Stewart) orders to ‘dig in’ near the general area of the foxhole I had just noticed. I was so tired by then, I could hardly stand. So I begged permission for us to use the foxhole that was already there. Especially since it looked like we were probably going to be moving out again soon anyhow. Although he clearly had other things on his mind, Troy grudgingly granted us permission to set in.

Bob Stewart and I were both so exhausted by the events of the past few days, that without saying a word, we tossed our packs into the hole, leaned our M-14 rifles together at the back of it, and sat down on the edge with our backs to the downhill side. I know it sounds careless now, but there was no reason at the time to think that the enemy would attempt another fight (with us now within the perimeter of the hill top). In fact, it never even crossed my mind.

We’d just opened our packs and started to rummage for some C-rations, when I heard the sharp snap of a twig behind me to the left, and instinctively turned my head over my left shoulder towards the sound. There, not more than 30 feet away, was a NVA soldier walking up the hill with his rifle under his right shoulder! Without taking my eyes off of him, I slowly reached for my rifle. Just as slowly, I brought it to my shoulder, and took aim. Stewart noticed my movement, saw the enemy approaching us and reached for his rifle as well. Suddenly the gook saw us, and tried to bring his rifle up! I pulled the trigger and was surprised when a sudden ten-round burst of fire and subsequent upward jerk of the rifle told me that I had accidentally grabbed Stewart's rifle (which was an automatic, M-14 with selector). This fact barely had time to register in my brain when all Hell broke loose!

Suddenly the air around us was filled with bullets zinging through it. Pieces of trees, brush and dirt were flying in every direction. Bob and I both hit the bottom of that fighting hole at the same time. The enemy had been closing in around us, and we hadn't even noticed. I would jump up and fire a burst of rounds with the Bob’s rifle, and drop back down as fast as I could. Over and over again. Each time firing at anything that moved. Each time, I’d send rounds in a different direction because everything around us was moving! The enemy was all over us. It was like we were in the middle of a terrible storm, like a tornado, with everything flying through the air around us. Several times I was hit by ricocheting, spent bullets. When they’d hit me, it felt like someone slugging me real hard, leaving welts under my utilities without breaking the skin.

The enemy was all over us, and I was going through ammunition fast. At one point, I tried to give Stewart his rifle back, but he wouldn’t take it. There wasn’t even time to trade arms. He would encourage me to keep on, that I was doing good, and then would warn me if I needed to slow down to prevent burning up the rifle. (Burning up a rifle is when the barrel warps from the heat of too much rapid fire.)

At this point, they were throwing everything they had at us, except grenades. The only reason they weren’t throwing any of those was because the hill was steep and covered with dense vegetation. But we had an automatic - a lot of fire power - and they wanted to silence it.

I usually carried about one hundred loaded rounds of ammo on my cartridge belt - or five magazines, loaded with twenty rounds each, with one magazine in my rifle. Fortunately, I had another couple of loaded magazines in my pack that day. Same thing with Stewart. (By a shear stroke of luck, Stewart and I were also carrying several belts of machine gun ammo that day for our weapons platoon.)

At first, Stewart would jump up, fire a few shots from his (my) rifle and duck back down into our hole, but after a few minutes into the fight - I heard him yell with pain. Without taking my eyes off the scene unraveling in front of me, I yelled to him to find out how badly he’d been hit. Forunately, it wasn’t a serious injury. He yelled, "Got my first Purple Heart!" I quickly glanced back at him to see a bullet had hit the trigger guard on his (my) rifle, and fragments had taken a chunk out of his forefinger. With a sigh with relief, I opened up again - catching movement out of my right eye.

Everything we were doing was in unison. I'd spend a magazine - pop it from the rifle, reach back without letting my eyes leave the terrain in front of me, and there would be a fresh one slapped into my hand. Without saying a word, Stewart was taking the magazines from both of our cartridge belts, to have them ready. He was saving me precious seconds. I noticed as we were getting to the end of our loaded magazines, that he had taken my bayonet from it's scabbard and stuck it into the side of the fighting hole – preparing, if necessary, for hand-to-hand combat if we were overrun. I still remember hearing Stewart repeatedly yelling for more ammo and for a machine gunner, but his yells were just a part of so many others, that they fell on deaf ears. Everyone was busy - trying to stay alive.

We really lucked out that day. We both happened to be carrying machine-gun belts, as support ammo for our weapons platoon. Those belts probably had an extra four hundred rounds apiece. (I never complained about carrying ammo for weapons again.)

As I reached back to grab one of our last loaded magazines, wondering why they were no longer just being slapped into my hand, I glanced back at Bob Stewart. He was using his bayonet and fingers - clawing rounds out of the machine-gun belts to re-load for me! He was literally tearing his fingernails apart in his frenzy.

I could hear the gooks swearing at us, both in Vietnamese and broken English. "U-DIE! U-DIE! MOLINE - U-DIE!" I swore back at them at the top of my lungs, while we fought for our very lives. I remember hearing a horn of some kind blowing from their direction and thinking to myself…‘Custer's revenge’ (What happened then, even after all these years, still seems incredible. It's like I was in one of the tall trees on the hill - looking down at our fighting hole. I was watching two Marines, me and Stewart, in some kind of strange ballet of survival. Every movement was choreographed into a dance with death. The memory is burned into my soul - only to resurface again and again over the years of my life. Sometimes the picture show will spring suddenly, and without provocation - from some hidden depth in my brain, and take me back… )

Then it happened! I was just about to slap in another magazine, when there was a loud "BLAM"…and everything turned a dark green. There was no sound except for this bright fireball - like a comet - that flashed before my eyes. And then everything went black!

When the bullet struck me, the fact that I’d shoved my helmet back on my head to take aim at that first enemy soldier, probably saved my life. The bullet hit the edge of my steel pot on the left side and glanced off (leaving a small dent), and went through the upper portion of my neck just below the knowledge knot. The bullet exited the right side of my neck, and hit the other side of my helmet (blowing the right side completely apart). The bullet’s impact made me to bite my tongue…Hard. It knocked me out and I collapsed face-first into the bottom of our fighting hole. My shoulder came to rest on the sizzling hot barrel of the automatic rifle. When I came back to consciousness (after probably no more than a minute or so), my body jerked off of the searing hot barrel. Dazed, I got to my knees and grabbed at the burning sensation at the back of my head. My head was pounding, and seeing my helmet laying there all torn apart, I thought a grenade had gone off. I looked at Stewart who was sitting down with his back against the hole - his face ashen. When he saw the blood flowing from my mouth and down the back of my neck, he thought the bullet had entered through my mouth and exited the back of my head. We argued briefly about whether I’d been shot or whether there’d been a grenade involved. Both of us were relieved that the injury, at least for the moment, seemed to be less serious than it looked. But we were still in one hell of a bad place. Between a rock and a hard spot? Up a creek? Take your pick. (Why we weren't overrun during that brief period of time after I got shot is beyond me!)

It’s difficult to explain what happens to a person during combat of this nature. Some people respond differently than others. In my case, I know that at one point I was so scared that I almost pissed in my pants. But then, I remember an incredible rage take over. I realized that we were going to die. But despite that fact, I knew I was going to take as many of the enemy with us as I could, before going down. (I learned this attitude from Sgt Payne, my DI, back in boot camp.) It was like the bullets and everything else flying around, and whizzing by me - were not even relevant. Since they hadn’t killed me yet, I focused my attention on the most immediate threat. My mind has stuffed the actual killings deep into my subconscious. From what I’ve heard of the bodies that were found below our fighting hole the next day, I know that I must have looked into some of their eyes before wasting them…but I just don’t remember it (yet).

As this rage filled me, I picked up the automatic, slapped in a magazine, and yelled at Stuart, "Where did it come from?!" (meaning the bullet that had just hit me). He pointed to a thicket of bamboo (not more than a hundred feet away. I turned and used up the whole magazine blasting the bamboo into toothpicks. (Bob Stewart told me that I cut that gook in half when I took him out, but I don’t remember seeing him die.)

Then I yelled for another magazine, as I went back to work with the automatic. I remember Stewart yelling for a corpsman. The battle was still raging on all around us. Up until then, I hadn’t fired an automatic that much. There was usually one man in every fire team that was the designated automatic weapons man. This strategy evolved from decades of Marine Corps tactical thinking. Three fire teams, consisting of four men each (when at full strength), per squad…and three squads to a platoon. I was a pretty damn good shot, and learned quickly that by working my four and five round bursts in a diagonal slash pattern at anything that moved, I was doing some damage.

My skull was throbbing. As my senses continued to come back into focus, I became intensely aware of two things. Not only were we running out of ammunition (rapidly), but the enemy was trying to position snipers into my blind spots. Our fighting hole was in a good position because I could fire at the enemy with nearly a 180 degree field of fire without worrying about hitting any of our guys. But, I had a hard time trying to cover the whole area at any given time. I had to try to make every shot of every burst of fire count. The enemy was still swearing at us (and I back at them), but I think I was gaining on them. I didn't hear quite as much swearing, and the bushes weren't moving as much as before.

There were several times Stewart saved my life that day. Not just by tearing his fingernails literally apart to keep magazines loaded and coming to me, but by physically grabbing me and holding me back from rushing down that hill at the enemy. I was so mad, that I started taking foolish chances. At one point, I jumped out of the hole to get a better shot at the enemy, letting off a burst of fire from behind the tree that was in front of our hole. I jumped back into the hole to reload, and was about to jump back up and do it again when Stewart grabbed my arm and pointed at the tree starting to disintegrate! The enemy was probably hitting it with a fifty one-caliber machine-gun!

About this time, the corpsman that Bob had yelled for finally showed up. The corpsman had to stop about fifty feet from our fighting hole and take cover because of all the shit still hitting the area around us. He yelled that he couldn’t get to us because of all the fire, so I yelled back that I was all right, even though blood was still streaming down my neck. He yelled out that our platoon commander, Lt. Anderson, told him to check out my wounds. So I jumped out of the hole, bolted past the corpsman, and dove behind a log near him. The corpsman ran over, landing next to me, and began checking my head wound. Directly across the trail from us, behind some other logs, were Lt. Anderson, PFC. Gil Velasquez and LCpl. Galloway. (I later learned the reason there were so many trees laying around was from the explosions during India Company’s recent fight.)

Looking back, I realize I could have been killed leaving our fighting hole just to get my wound checked, or Stu could have been overrun in my absence. I had taken the automatic rifle with me. But such was our command structure - you did what you were told and you didn’t interpret it any other way. Obeying orders and absolute respect for authority were mandatory in these situations. ‘Ours is not to question why - Ours is but to do or die’.

Lt. Anderson (Andy) yelled from his position across the trail over the noise of intense fire to find out how bad my wound was. Before the corpsman could answer, I yelled back that it was just a scratch and we really needed ammo badly! The corpsman said my wound needed to be taken care of and I would have to be sent back. As soon as he said that, I noticed Anderson, Galloway and Velasquez, turn their attention down the trail and start firing their weapons. I looked in that direction in time to see two enemy soldiers, racing up the trail toward us, firing AK-47's. I struggled to bring my (Stewart's) rifle up to take aim, and the corpsman shoved me back down. He was still trying to look at my head wound, unaware of what was happening. I shoved him aside and again tried to point the weapon in the direction of our immediate peril. But, by then, the gooks had been dropped, not more than a hundred feet down the trail.

F*** THIS SHIT! Thinking my chances were better back in the hole with Bob Stewart, I jumped up and ran for it, diving in, head first. Stewart was visibly relieved to see me back, as I picked up where I had left off before - jumping up, releasing five-round bursts downhill and ducking back down.

By now, things started to quiet down a little. And then, the machine gunner that we had been screaming for, finally showed up. He positioned himself about 20 yards to the right of us, and then just sat there! I shouted for him to help us, not understanding what he was waiting for. I kept letting off five-round bursts of fire, and yelling at him to shoot. He didn’t respond. He’d just put his hands up in a silent…‘I can't’ gesture, while shaking his head…‘No!’

After fighting awhile longer (maybe five minutes, maybe fifteen), and just as suddenly as the battle had started, the enemy fire stopped! I was so angry at that machine-gunner who (I thought) never fired a shot to help, it stayed with me for years. I found out some 30 years later, that he had burned up one barrel on the trail fighting for the rest of the platoon. With only one good barrel left, and having used it until it was hot, this guy had been sent off to let it cool down…or lose it and the gun. (Hell…for all I know, the poor guy may have run out of ammo, since Bob and I were carrying those extra belts!) I hope some day we find out who that guy was. He saved a lot of lives.

Bob Stewart and I just looked at each other, unable to comprehend that the battle might be over. Although we were relieved for a moment’s calm, Bob and I kept loading magazines (not knowing if, or when, the fight would continue).

We waited in that fighting hole for another ten minutes or so, nervously loading the rest of our magazines and waiting for the shit to hit the fan again. But it never did. There was an occasional shot now and then. Probably from our guys from nerves that were still reacting. But the battle was actually over. We couldn't believe it… refusing to hope. {For the rest of the time I spent in the war (about another two months), and through all of the fighting I would contend with later, none was as intense, profound and desperate, as that battle. That hour to hour and a half of fighting on Hill 362 was the most horrendous struggle, I ever faced.}

Finally, I heard Lieutenant Anderson’s voice call for me. I jumped out of the fighting hole and ran to where I had last seen him, near the trail where the logs were. The corpsman was still there. In response to his concern for my wound and whether Stewart and I were okay, I told him we were. It had been close, but we were all right. I let him know that we needed ammo real bad, but fatigue was once again starting to replace the adrenaline that had been pulsing through my body. He told me they had ammo on the way, and he was sending me back on a med-evac. I didn’t want to go, and asked him to let me stay. Although my neck was swelling up and I couldn’t really move my head in either direction, the pain seemed to have subsided a little. Lieutenant Anderson told me he didn’t want to take a chance on the wound getting infected and maybe losing me. He said he might need me again, and reassured me that I had done a great job down there. Was there a choice?

I tried to change his mind, telling him that "Stu" might need help and still thinking the fighting might erupt again at any moment. Anderson interrupted my persistent request, with a firm order that I was going back…no further discussion. He said he would set someone in with Stewart, but my head wound needed attention. Looking at my torn helmet (that I had put back on), he said it looked like a pretty close call. He wanted the Doc to bandage the wound and me to head on up the trail to a place they were making into an LZ for the med-evac chopper. He said "You be on it...and I'll see you when I get back to the ship." At that point, he left to go check the rest of the men. I don’t believe he was aware of our overall losses at this time.

I headed for the LZ that was about eight hundred yards further up the trail. (India Company had started trying to clear one by chainsaws that had been dropped to them by chopper just before our battle erupted.) We thought we’d heard chain saws buzzing during the fight we were just in… Now I realized why. Men from India Company were making a clearing (and still were) for an LZ. There were logs scattered all over, having just been felled with the chain saws.

When I got to that LZ, one med-evac helicopter had already removed some of our wounded, but I didn’t know it at the time. I remember sitting down on one of the logs, taking my helmet off, and just looking at it. I think it was about this time that it dawned on me…how close to death I had come. I couldn't believe how one bullet could tear up a hard steel helmet like that. I sat there for a few minutes, my rifle straddled between my legs and my body sagging with fatigue, just looking at my helmet. Then it dawned on me that I still had Bob Stewart’s automatic rifle.

I made my way back to our fighting hole. When I got back, Stewart's face lit up when he saw me. He still hadn't gotten a replacement in yet. I told him I was going back to the ship, and figured he might need his rifle. I tossed him the automatic as he tossed my rifle to me. Then he tossed over my pack and said "Thanks…See ya back at the ship!"

(That's all that was said between us before I turned back up the trail to the LZ.)

For years this would be one of the more memorable images I could recollect. Me tossing him his rifle as he tossed mine back. I remember the feeling of surviving one of the most horrendous events of my life, and the sorrow I felt leaving him there. Together, we had just gone through Hell. And, together we had survived. Without each other, there is no doubt in my mind we couldn’t have lived through the battle for Hill 362. I wouldn't see Bob Stewart again until I was in the hospital in Chu Lai, after I stepped on a land mine on September 19, 1966. He had been wounded tripping a booby trap during the operation that immediately followed 'Hastings' (during Operation Colorado), which I missed because of my head wound. By then Bob was on 'no duty', and considered 'walking wounded'. He'd hitch rides down to Chu Lai to cheer me up. He told me he only did it because the food was better at the hospital than at our rear area (which was then based at Ahn Than), nearly twenty miles away. But I knew better. Although we would never fight together again, we had formed a bond during our battle on the Hill that day that would never be broken. It was Bob who filled in the details about the carnage we had survived. He was part of a special detail sent out the next day to count the bodies of the NVA dead, and to retrieve any bodies that were still there from India Company.

Shortly after getting back to the LZ, Corporal Troy stumbled up and sat down next to me. He was visibly shaking all over. I asked him what had happened to him. He indicated a huge furrowed dent on the top of his helmet, shaking his head and saying, "It was bad…really bad. They think I have a concussion." (I remember being puzzled by his words, until later when I found out the way that SSgt. Koos had been blown away right in front of him.)

As we waited for a med-evac chopper, I began to focus for the first time on the piles of stuff that earlier had registered in my mind as gear laying at the edge of the clearing. Probably India Company’s gear. To my horror, I realized it was India Company’s dead! All those men, laying side by side. Some of them with ponchos thrown over them. As the med-evac chopper hovered close to pick us up, I remember glancing back as I jumped aboard, and seeing the prop-wash blow the ponchos off of their dead bodies . . . and into the deepest recesses of my mind.


(NOTE: Along with some twenty-five men of India Company that perished while fighting this battle on Hill 362, five men from Lima Company of the Third Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment of the First Marine Division, United States Marine Corps, died within a heartbeat of each other on July 24, 1966. Their names were: PFC BRUCE A. BAKER; PFC. PRUITT H. CHEANEY; SSGT. NORMAN L. KOOS; PFC. JAMES R. NASH and PFC. PAUL J. STRAUSSER. They died, Sergeant Payne - like Marines.)

Next, Click on: Hastings At 34, Part 7 - THE AFTERMATH - (July 24, 1966 to the present)

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