As we neared our assault position and began deploying, the sky began to turn dark and the wind began to blow. It started to rain. I was hoping that the rain would not put out the fires. To have both the rain and the smoke would be to our advantage. This would screen our movement and, hopefully, the NVA would be down in their holes trying to keep dry.
Having deployed, we began our assault walking our artillery up the ridgeline to our front. Halfway up the hill, the assault was stopped, not by the enemy but by order of the company commander. "How strange," I thought. Nothing stops the assault except the enemy and we had not made contact with the primary defensive positions yet. We would later learn that it was a matter of control; the inability to control such large units, so far out, in such bad weather.
A frag order was issued. We were to return to the position we had previously occupied. My platoon was to move through the rest of the company and take the point in the company's movement back to where we had left earlier that afternoon.
It became increasingly dark during our movement back to our previous position and by the time we arrived, it was night. It was still raining. Everyone was tired and miserable and the bone-chilling rain didn't help. We searched out the inner perimeter and, after doing so, each platoon took up their old positions. It was still raining hard. We put out our trip flares and claymore mines, put out our security, and established 50% security for the night. In each two-man fighting hole, one man would be awake while one man slept.
In my bunker were: me, my platoon sergeant (SSgt Morningstar), and my radioman (LCpl Hovietz). It was 0400 in the morning. The rain had stopped and there was an eerie mist hovering over the hill. I had taken my boots off, wrung the water from my socks, and turned my boots upside down to allow them to drain. Everything was quiet.
My second squad leader, Sgt. Billy Joe Like, broke the silence. I heard him shout, "Halt, who's there?" With that challenge, the entire northern half of the hill exploded. We were hit. I shouted to Morningstar, "Let's go," and sprang for the bunker entrance. As I did so, one of my Marines was blown in on top of me. He was badly wounded. I told Morningstar to take care of him and told my radioman to come on. From my right front at about 2 o'clock enemy machine guns were raking my section of the perimeter. At the same time, enemy mortars were falling over the entire hill. We fired our final protective fires. I could hear the machine gun near the first squad chattering in long bursts and I knew this was not a probe.
My second squad leader was nearly cut in half by machine gun fire. My first squad radioman, PFC John R. Meuse, radioed to me that he was hit and needed a corpsman. I told him to hang on, that I would get to him as soon as I could. My two corpsmen had their hands full, as did all the other company corpsmen. He told me that the machine gun (ours) in his area had been knocked out and that his squad leader was about to set off their claymore mines. I told him to go ahead. I heard the terrific explosion and then there was silence. But not for long. There were more explosions, screaming, agonizing groans of pain, and cursing.
Casualties were mounting. The situation was extremely bad. I called the command post and told the company commander that I needed help, that we were under assault by a large force, and that all of my crew served weapons had been knocked out. I also asked for my preplanned artillery concentrations to be fired and called for a flare ship. I was informed that I couldn't have both. I was somewhat pissed. I knew that the flare ships could fly above the maximum ordinance of artillery (arty) and I needed both. I asked for arty and waited. No arty. I screamed into my radio, "Damn the arty, give me some light." Another casualty. I told Hovietz to get him in the bunker with Morningstar.
Captain Lyon told me he was sending a squad from the 1st Platoon up to help me. They never arrived. Another squad was dispatched to me. They, too, failed to arrive. I learned later that both squads were badly hit as they tried to reach my platoon.
I made my way toward the company CP. I stopped at the XO's bunker. He was gone. I thought, "God, I hope he hasn't been captured." I again radioed the Skipper. I asked him to send me a 3.5 rocket launcher team to knock out the enemy machine gun to my right front. I met the team near the XO's position and took them up just behind my second squad. From there, I had a good field of fire and a safe back blast area. I was in the process of directing their fire when an explosion went off just in front of us. My rocket team was knocked out. I was still standing. For some ungodly reason, I thought nothing could touch me. I had put my radioman in the bunker with Morningstar to help with the wounded. As far as I knew, I was the only one alive up there except those that were in my bunker.
The enemy machine fun was still spitting out deadly fire. Trip flares were going off to my right front. I found no one alive in my first or second squads, yet there was movement all around me. My platoon was in trouble; I needed help.
I was able to reach the command post and inform my company commander of my situation. There I found the XO. I was glad he was alive. He would soon take over the company.
I informed my company commander that my entire first and second squads were wiped out, that there was only one friendly position up there, that of my bunker where Morningstar, Hovietz and two wounded Marines were located. My third squad, although lightly engaged, was still intact and had suffered no casualties. They were my extreme right defensive squad.
Captain Lyon informed me a platoon of Foxtrot Company was moving up the rear to help block the penetration. I passed the word to keep my bunker protected, that it was occupied by friendly troops. Sometime, from somewhere, I had grabbed an M-16 rifle, firing it until it jammed. I threw it down and pick up an M-14. I overheard reports that the NVA were wearing flak gear and Marine helmets and some were in the trees shouting, "Marine, you die." I cannot attest to this. I do know that they were hard to stop. Even point blank firing into their chests would not ensure they would be stopped. Some had been beaten with entrenching tools or whatever one could get his hands on. Consequently, there was much hand-to-hand combat that morning. We found later that several Marines had died while trying to clear jams from their M-16's.
Initially, these stoppages were blamed on unclean rifles. Such was not the case. Extensive investigation and research would later show that there were two reasons that the M-16 had so many stoppages. One reason was that the cyclic rate of fire was too fast for the buffer rate-reducing group. The other reason was two types of cartridges had been manufactured, one of which had a rim base so thin that often when fired, the extractor would pull off the rim, thereby leaving the spend round in the chamber.
It wasn't long before 2nd Lt. Carroll's platoon from Foxtrot Company arrived. I briefed him on the situation and cautioned him that my platoon sergeant and radioman, along with two wounded, were still in my bunker. I then moved forward with Carroll's platoon and, taking up a position beside a machine gunner, began to direct his fire into the position of the enemy machine gun. He started firing but soon stopped. "Damn jam," I thought as I turned toward him. I then saw why he had stopped firing. Blood was running down the side of his face. I rolled him over toward me so the assistant gunner could take over.
It was now light. I heard the Hueys behind us. Relief was just a few rockets away. Smoke was thrown to mark our positions and to direct the Huey's rockets north of us. One of the first rockets fired hit our command post, wounding our company commander and killing or wounding several other key personnel, including our forward air controller, artillery Forward Observer, and senior corpsman, Doc Kleinschmidt. Doc, knowing that I always carried a plastic tube with me, asked me to perform a tracheotomy should he stop breathing. I promised I would. He had been hit in the side of his left jaw.
At about the same time that 2nd Lt. Carroll's platoon had arrived, word came from Hill 881S that the enemy was grouping on the west side of our hill for a counterattack. The unit commander wanted to know if he could fire 106 recoilless rifles into them. He was given the go-ahead. I knew how impressive the 106 RR was. I had been a 106RR platoon commander. I had never been on the receiving end, though, but knew the devastation the 106 rounds could reap. Meanwhile, Marines on the west side of the hill from both John Eller's platoon and Frank Izenour's platoon, were throwing grenades down the hill as fast as they could pull the pins. The counter attack was quickly broken up.
Word was passed to pull back off the hill, that Hotel Company had been helilifted to our northeast and would be sweeping toward us. We couldn't pull off. My bunker with Morningstar and the other three Marines would be left unprotected. I wouldn't pull off. I would pull back just far enough to keep the bunker in sight. If Hotel Company did reach us, we could get down in our holes and let them sweep over us. With good communications, this could be done. We waited.