|In Memory of a Fallen Comrade |
May 28, 2012 | Donald J. Taylor
I write this in memory of MSG William B. Hunt, U.S. Army Special Forces, MIA, November 4, 1966. It is an account of the sacrifice he made to his country, to his comrades, and to the Vietnamese people.
In November 1966, SSG Hunt and I served together at Special Forces ODA Camps under Detachment B-32, 5th Special Forces Group, Tay Ninh Province, in the Republic of Vietnam. Hunt was with ODA-322 at Camp Suoi DA, and I was assigned to ODA-323 at Camp Trai Bi. Our camps were about 30 kilometers apart and we only had VHF voice radio communications between our camps through the radio relay site on top of Nui Ba Den Mountain, but we spoke frequently, as our operational areas bordered each other.
I became involved in the incident that resulted in Hunt’s death only because I was returning from R&R and passing through B-32 Tay Ninh on my way back to Trai Bi when 3rd Company, III Corps Mobil Special Forces Strike Force (Mike Force), operating near Suoi Da, made contact with a Viet Cong Main Force Regiment and suffered heavy casualties. If you’re wondering how it happened that a Mike Force Company took on a Viet Cong Main Force Regiment, well here’s the story as best I remember it:
Major General William E. DePuy, CG of the 1st Infantry Division, had scattered three Special Forces Mike Force Companies (Companies 1, 2, and 3) into the area of War Zone C north of Suoi Da in search of COSVN Headquarters (Central Office of South Vietnam). We all knew if COSVN was indeed there, they would have at least a Main Force Regiment from the Viet Cong 9th Division as security, but MG DePuy promised that as soon as the Mike Force located COSVN, he would respond with the full force of his Division, and this turned out to be an empty promise.
While I was at B-32 awaiting transport back to Trai Bi, SFC George Heaps (call sign China Boy 3), the Mike Force Company Commander, called in through the radio relay site on Nui Ba Den Mountain and reported his company had just made contact with an estimated Viet Cong Regiment, he and his XO, SSG James (Jim) Monaghan, were wounded, their company had taken heavy casualties, they were low on ammunition and needed both an ammunition resupply and a medevac. Heaps reported that he believed he had found COSVN HQ and had made contact with elements of its VC Main Force Regiment all armed with AK-47s. As the Mike Force at that time was armed with WWII Era M-2 carbines, the Mike Force was badly outgunned.
It was then late in the day, night was rapidly falling, and it was too late to request a medevac flight out of Bien Hoa and bring the wounded out before dark, so a lone "slick" UH-1D with call sign "Blue Bird" that happened to be flying through the Tay Ninh area was asked for assistance. The pilot was advised that a company of Mike Force Chinese Nung mercenaries with two wounded Americans was surrounded by a Regiment of Main Force Viet Cong and urgently needed a medevac. He knew his Huey had no fire support other than his two door guns, but he still agreed to fly into a fire-swept LZ at last light to bring out the two wounded Americans.
When “Blue Bird” was diverted to medevac China Boy 3 casualties, no one at B-32 was aware SSG William B. Hunt was on board the helicopter and returning from R&R. Within a few minutes, “Blue Bird” was making its low-level approach on China Boy 3’s LZ and found the LZ to be barely large enough for one Huey to narrowly fit. “Blue Bird” took heavy ground fire on approach, and one of the door gunners was wounded. The next few seconds on the ground were very intense. The helicopter was taking small arms hits from the tree line, the door gunner was bleeding profusely, the pilot wanted to lift off immediately, and, although SFC George Heaps was wounded, he was loyal to his Nungs to the very end and refused to leave them. Heaps knew if there were no Americans with his company to direct artillery and air strikes, his company stood no chance of surviving. Hunt had to quickly make a decision on what he was going to do, and he unhesitatingly decided he couldn’t leave a lone American on the ground, so he got off the helicopter and stayed with Heaps. The Huey flew out with one wounded USSF (SSG Jim Monaghan) and ten of the most severely wounded Nungs, taking heavy ground fire again on the way out.
Hunt quickly estimated the situation, saw the position was untenable and wanted to move the company off the LZ and withdraw toward Suoi Da, but MG DePuy wouldn’t allow it. China Boy 3 was ordered to move about five kilometers to their north and secure an LZ large enough to bring in reinforcements. MG DePuy’s orders were to hold that LZ and he would bring in reinforcements as soon as the LZ was secured.
George Heaps was wounded and had difficulty moving, but with Hunt’s assistance they began moving their company in the dark towards the LZ that had been selected for them. It took them almost 24 hours to fight their way the five kilometers to the LZ and they arrived at the LZ and secured it just as night fell. It was then too late in the day and too dark to bring in reinforcements, but one Huey got in with a sorely needed ammunition resupply, and it was while they were breaking down and distributing the ammunition that they were attacked by a battalion sized VC Main Force unit and almost over run. China Boy 3 repelled the attack, but once again took heavy casualties and both Hunt and Heaps knew they couldn’t withstand another such attack. MG DePuy ordered them to hold the LZ and reinforcements would be there at first light in the morning.
Mike Force 2nd Company, call sign China Boy 2, commanded by SFC Jim Edgell, was operating 10 kilometers to the north of 3rd Company and they were in radio contact with one another. Jim Edgell attempted to move his company south and join up with 3rd Company but ran into a large Viet Cong unit and they too were soon fighting for their lives. Mike Force 1st Company, call sign China Boy 1, commanded by SFC Joe Lopez, was much farther to the north and out of PRC-25 radio range with either China Boy 2 or China Boy 3, but they too were in heavy contact with a numerically superior Viet Cong unit. Night fell with all three Mike Force Companies fighting for their lives and doing their best to survive until MG DePuy could fulfill his promise of reinforcements.
The morning after Hunt joined China Boy 3, I was sent to Soui Da to replace Hunt until he returned, as Operation Attleboro was beginning, things were getting very busy in the area, and I was needed more at Soui Da than at Trai Bi. I to Soui Da in a Huey loaded with an ammunition resupply for China Boy 3 that didn’t finally get to them until later that afternoon. For the remainder of that day and through out the night, I remained in the command bunker and maintained radio contact with China Boy 3.
Shortly after midnight we heard what sounded like a column of tanks approaching Soui Da on the road from Tay Ninh. But it wasn’t tanks; it was a battery of 1st Infantry Division M-109 155MM self-propelled howitzers that had moved from their firebase at Tay Ninh-West under the cover of darkness and observing radio silence. The artillery battery had caught the enemy unaware and had made a night march over twenty-five kilometers of enemy controlled roadway in order to bring their guns in range to support China Boy 3. They positioned their guns adjacent to our perimeter and immediately established radio contact with China Boy 3. Hunt was on the radio the remainder of the night registering defensive fire concentrations with the 155MM howitzers and incorporating the concentrations into his final protective fire plan for the attack he was sure would come at first light. When the attack came, Hunt and the 155MM Battery FDC (Fire Direction Control) were prepared to throw up a wall of steel around China Boy 3’s perimeter that would have destroyed any Viet Cong unit that tried to assault through it.
At first light the next morning, MG DePuy was over China Boy 3’s LZ in his C&C ship and watched as their positions were over run by a battalion sized unit of Main Force Viet Cong. No quarter was asked and none was given. After a brief but vicious fight, the Viet Cong battalion assaulted through the Mike Force Company, repeatedly shooting everyone, even the wounded, and, after stripping the bodies of their weapons and equipment, left them all for dead. In fear of air/artillery strikes and reinforcements, the Viet Cong didn’t remain long on the LZ and quickly departed.
Hunt was on the radio with the 155MM battery FDC when he was shot, and his last words were to shout, "Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!" Then everyone on that radio frequency in III Corps heard the burst of AK fire that hit him. He had called on the 155MM battery FDC to fire his final protective fires, and the guns were not permitted to fire; they were under a “Check Fire” because MG DePuy’s helicopter was in the line of fire and they were forbidden to shoot until the General had cleared the area.
MG DePuy’s final words were, "The situation down there is hopeless, and I’m not putting anyone else into it," and then he just flew away. I have frequently thought about MG DePuy’s words over the years, every time I heard DePuy’s name mentioned.
The Viet Cong broke contact with China Boy 1 and China Boy 2 that morning and withdrew in the direction of the Cambodian Border. Both of these Mike Force Companies were then extracted by 1st Infantry Division helicopters and moved to Soui Da. Shortly after arriving in Soui Da and setting up positions around the airstrip, both companies received mortar fire from nearby Viet Cong 82MM mortars and both companies again sustained casualties.
About noon that day, the 155MM Battery Commander walked into Soui Da camp to visit the command bunker. I could tell the Captain was emotionally drained and very much on edge. He had been up all night, and had pushed his guns and his men in the dark over twenty-five kilometers of enemy controlled roadway to bring his guns into range of those who desperately needed his assistance. But he had not been permitted to fire when his guns were most needed, and had listened to men shot while pleading with their last breath for him to fire his guns. His guns still had the rounds in their tubes he had loaded that morning to fire Hunt’s final protective fires, but he had never received clearance to fire them. By the time MG DePuy had cleared the area, no one was still alive on the LZ to direct the fire, so the guns never fired. The Captain had come in to request permission to empty his guns into the side of Nui Ba Den Mountain, as it was not only difficult but very unsafe to physically unload a 155MM shell after it had been inserted into the chamber and its rotating band had been firmly seated in the barrel’s rifling. He was given clearance to empty his guns, and the rounds that could have saved China Boy 3 were fired harmlessly into the side of Nui Ba Den Mountain.
The Viet Cong and MG DePuy may have left everyone for dead on China Boy 3’s LZ, but some were not. When George Heaps regained consciousness, Hunt, although badly wounded himself, was treating Heaps’ wounds. When the Viet Cong had assaulted through the Mike Force Company and had left them all for dead, they had stripped their bodies of weapons, equipment, and their radio, so they were now unarmed. With their Nung Mike Force Company dead around them, Heaps and Hunt had no choice but to withdraw off the LZ and search for a place to hide until the 1st Infantry Division arrived as MG DePuy had promised. Both men had suffered multiple gunshot wounds, had lost a lot of blood, and were unable to stand, so they began to crawl off the LZ. During their crawl off the LZ, they encountered three wounded Nungs who joined them.
The group crawled about 200 meters off the LZ and hid for the remainder of the day, waiting for the reinforcements MG DePuy had promised. Later that night they heard the Viet Cong return to the LZ to rob the bodies and to shoot any they suspected might still have life in them. The next morning, Heaps and Hunt determined no reinforcements were coming, and it was too dangerous to remain near the LZ, so they began to crawl in the direction of Suoi Da.
All five of the group were badly wounded, had lost a lot of blood, had no food or water, and were passing out at frequent intervals during their crawl toward Soui Da. Each time one of the group lost consciousness, they would pause and wait until the unconscious man regained consciousness before they continued on.
After crawling for two days, Hunt told Heaps he was too weak to continue and would remain behind for a while and catch up later. Heaps ordered one of the less seriously wounded Nungs to remain behind with Hunt and to give him any assistance he might need when he recovered his strength enough to continue. Heaps and the two remaining Nungs then continued their crawl in the direction of Soui Da.
It was on the third day, after they had crawled about four kilometers from the LZ, that Heaps heard helicopters overhead. One of the Nungs had a Zippo lighter in his pocket that miraculously still worked, so they crawled out into a clearing, set fire to the dry elephant grass to attract the helicopter crews’ attention, and a helicopter landed to pick them up.
As Heaps was boarding the helicopter, the Nung he had left with Hunt showed up on the LZ and Heaps asked the Nung where Hunt was. The Nung replied that Hunt had died and he had left him where he died. When Heaps heard this, he refused to get on the helicopter and started crawling back in the direction they had come. The helicopter crew, thinking Heaps was delirious, physically restrained him, put him on the helicopter and evacuated him to the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon.
It was only then that we, in Soui Da, realized there had been survivors of the battle four days before. For the next two days, wounded Nungs straggled into Soui Da until about twelve of the ninety man Mike Force Company had been accounted for.
The Mike Force’s detection of COSVN HQ location kicked off Operation Attleboro and for the next seven days, MG DePuy was too busy chasing COSVN around War Zone C to honor his promise to the Mike Force. It was on the seventh day after the battle that MG DePuy finally sent a unit from the 1st Infantry Division to China Boy 3’s LZ, and for some reason, they arrived unprepared to recover bodies.
They came to a battlefield where bodies had lain in the heat for over seven days and they came without body bags. By that time, the bodies were all badly decomposed, animals had gotten to many of them, some were almost completely devoured by maggots, and some had been reduced to nothing more than puddles of maggots in the bottom of their fighting positions. But some of the bodies had hardly begun to decompose at all, and that was the hardest for any of us to bear. For it meant these men hadn’t been killed outright during the battle seven days before but had only been badly wounded and had lain there for several days waiting for us to come for them, until they had finally given up and died.
The 1st Infantry Division troops did the best they could do without body bags and wrapped the bodies in their ponchos before putting them on the helicopter for transport to Tay Ninh. On arrival in Tay Ninh, they were laid beside the runway still wrapped in ponchos to await further transport to Bien Hoa. As anyone who has ever recovered bodies knows, body bags have zippers to enclose the smell and to keep the maggots and fluids from escaping. Ponchos did neither for these bodies, and that’s why I don’t think all the bodies, to include Hunt’s, were removed from that LZ.
I was on the runway at Tay Ninh waiting for transportation back to Trai Bi when the bodies from China Boy 3 LZ began to arrive, and SFC Bill Hanson, the B-32 S-4 NCO, asked me to help him unload the bodies. The first Huey to arrive in Tay Ninh with a load of bodies came in too fast, hit the runway, bounced, slid, spun around, and the crew left the helicopter before it had stopped moving. They were all standing or sitting there on the runway slapping and beating on themselves and on each other when Bill Hanson ran up to them with a fire extinguisher, as he thought they were on fire. But they weren’t on fire; they were covered from head to toe with live maggots, body fluids and their own vomit. The stench was unbearable.
The doors had been removed from the helicopter to prepare it for combat assault, and when the helicopter lifted off from the LZ, the rotor wash had blown the ponchos off the bodies and the wind had blown live maggots and body fluids all over the inside of the helicopter. The pilots had flown the helicopter back to Tay Ninh with live maggots crawling down their shirts, up under their helmets, and into their ears, eyes, nose and mouth. The pilots and crew of the helicopter refused to return to the LZ for another load of bodies and left immediately for Bien Hoa; they were all quite ill. I later heard the helicopter had to be scrapped and used for salvaged parts, as they could never completely remove the unmistakable odor of death from its interior.
Helicopter loads of bodies continued to arrive from China Boy 3 LZ and by the time we had unloaded all the bodies, Bill Hanson and I had both vomited until we could vomit no more; we were too weak to stand and were on our knees dry heaving. If another helicopter had of arrived with bodies, we physically wouldn’t have been able to unload it. By that time, we too were covered with foul smelling body fluids and dead or dying maggots. Afterwards, we both threw our uniforms and boots away, as we would never be able to wash out the smell. My hands smelled of death for several days.
When we were told there were no more bodies on the LZ and the helicopters departed, we wound up with no more than forty bodies recovered. That left over thirty men unaccounted for, including Hunt.
None of the bodies could be identified as being Hunt’s. Were the Nungs wrong about Hunt being dead? Did the Viet Cong find him alive and take him away? Or was the recovery of six and seven day old bodies more than green American draftees from the 1st Infantry Division could bear and they just buried Hunt and possibly thirty badly decomposed Nungs before they departed? After the 1st Infantry Division departed the area, the Commander B-32, LTC Newlin R. Happersett, led a company of CIDG in a search of the area where Hunt was reported to have died, but nothing was found.
Soon after this battle, Camp Suoi Da closed, ODA-322 moved nearer to the Cambodian border and built a camp at Prek Loc. I don’t think ODA-322 ever conducted an operation that took them back to the LZ to look for Hunt’s body. I think they simply took the 1st Infantry Division’s word for it that his body wasn’t there.
The Third Mobil Strike Force couldn’t replace the Chinese Nung mercenaries lost during that battle, and the Nung companies were soon disbanded and replaced with Cambodian Khmer Serai (Free Cambodian Army). To my knowledge, the Mike Force never went back to that LZ to search for their dead, but simply accepted the word of the 1st Infantry Division that no bodies were left behind, much as they had previously accepted and believed MG DePuy’s empty promise.
MSG William B. Hunt was carried as MIA for many years before he was declared KIA, but his death near that LZ and the absence of his body has been one of those things I’ve never been able to put right in my mind. Somehow, after all these years, I have the feeling Hunt's remains might still be near that LZ, or even worse, he might still be held captive in some remote jungle prison patiently waiting for us to come and get him, for he knows Americans never leave anyone behind.
Soon after this happened, I was transferred to ODA-334 under B-33 at An Loc to put in a new Special Forces A camp at Tong Le Chon. There were other battles and other casualties, and I didn’t think of this incident again for many years. Now, after more than forty years passing, I remember that day in November 1966 when three brave men displayed a degree of valor seldom seen. There was the unknown Huey pilot who wouldn’t hesitate to fly into Hell its self to bring out a wounded American, the Company Commander who refused to leave his command when they needed him the most, even though he was wounded, and SSG William B. Hunt who wouldn’t leave another American behind, knowing it would in all likelihood cost him his life.
George Heaps passed away in 2007 and he carried to his grave a feeling of guilt for his having left Hunt behind. No matter how many times he was told he had done all he could have possibly done, considering the severity of his wounds, George Heaps was remorseful till the day he died. I don't think George ever completely recovered from the gunshot wounds he received that day, and I know he never recovered from the mental wounds.
In an effort to gain final closure, MSG William B. Hunt’s son, LTC Kenneth Hunt, U.S. Army Special Forces, has made two trips to Vietnam to visit the place where his father was last seen, and he plans to organize an attempt to recover his father’s remains when he retires from the army.
It has been said a man doesn’t really die as long as his memory is kept alive, so I thank you for reading this and keeping the memory of William B. Hunt alive for just a little while longer.
Donald J. Taylor
Sergeant Major (Retired)
U.S. Army Special Forces