Military Order of the Purple Heart

Texas Capital Chapter 1919 Austin, Texas

 

BRICE BARNES

 

 

 

 

BRICE H. BARNES

 

As Best I Remembered It:  My Recollections of the

Battle for Widows’ Village, Tet 1968

 

 

In order to comply with the directive to maintain a low profile during the upcoming Tet celebration, our mechanized infantry battalion had been ordered to set up in a position off Highway 15, the major road leading to the port city of Vung Tau.  All offensive operations were also put on hold during this ceasefire period.  And although few of us understood the significance of the Tet celebration in the Vietnamese culture, we were looking forward to some slack time.  But such was not to be!

 

Shortly before sunset, a change of mission for the battalion immediately set in motion a series of actions that caused us to dismantle our defensive position, to load all concertina wire, engineer stakes, and other material, and head towards Long Binh, a huge logistical base northeast of Saigon.  My platoon, the battalion Scouts, consisting of ten armored personnel carriers, upgraded to ACAV’s, with gun shields around the .50 caliber MG, gun shields for side-mounted M60 MG’s, and two APC’s equipped with 106mm recoilless rifles.  The Scouts were directed to a position south of Long Binh along the Highway 15, ready to respond to any calls from the battalion commander.  The longest day of my life was about to begin.

 

The night progressed smoothly and without incident, with all of my tracks calling a negative situation report or SITREP until 0400 hours, when I monitored an excited voice from the Military Police in Saigon, who coincidentally shared our radio frequency.  I heard that the VC had stolen two MP jeeps.  The next obvious question that came to my mind was, “Just what the hell were VC doing in Saigon during this celebration?”  From that time on, our net became a constant clutter of calls, all reporting various stages of street fighting in Saigon.  Not long after this, I heard that the VC [only later did I learn that the enemy was regular North Vietnamese forces, not Viet Cong] were occupying positions inside the US Embassy, and that our troops were being lifted on to the roof to combat these forces.

 

Very shortly after the first light of dawn began to creep over the bamboo lining our particular sector of the highway, my platoon was ordered to move to the vicinity of the 90th Replacement Battalion, picking up the battalion command element enroute.  As we arrived there, I monitored the transmission between Companies A and C, and the battalion commander, or Old Man.  Turning around to verify the arrival of the trail track, I saw a huge ball of fire, preceded by a racing shock wave, erupting from the 3rd Ordnance Battalion Ammunition Supply Depot, about a mile to the east.  Several more satchel charges, with attached timing devices, were later discovered within the depot area, and had it not been for the ineptitude of the NVA sappers, these charges could have done enormous damage.

 

As we continued to monitor the progress of the battles that involved all of the line companies, we were getting more and more excited, anxious and ready to assist our buddies.  Not long afterwards, a medic drove his ambulance to our location, and begged us to give him some assistance with some casualties and others who were pinned down by the enemy.  I tried to explain to him that I just couldn’t follow him, as my orders came from my battalion commander.  Just then, the voice of Panther 6, the Old Man, came over my radio, ordering me to move to the vicinity of II Field Forces Headquarters.  The medic followed us to our new location, and continued to plead for assistance.  I decided to ask the Old Man for permission to perform this rescue and relief mission, as the casualties and unit in question were close.  He told me to detach two of my APC’s to help secure the battalion tactical operations center, and then to proceed with the requested mission.  With an affirmative answer from Panther 6 still ringing in my ear, we raced for Widows’ Village.  The longest day of my life was about to become extraordinarily more complicated.

 

As the medic pointed us in the direction of the beleaguered American unit, I counted four APC’s on the edge of this small hamlet, with one sitting on the road blocking our entrance.  At this time, I couldn’t detect much incoming fire, and no outgoing friendly fire, but did notice several troops crouching beside the APC on our route.  I dismounted my APC, and noticed that no one was in the track commander’s (TC’s) hatch, manning the .50 caliber MG, SOP during combat operations.  Then I saw that the TC had been killed, and others in his squad were wounded, and trying to form a fighting position beside the disabled track.  Calling for my medic to start treating the wounded, I hand-signaled my other tracks to start deploying into a line formation on either side of the disabled track, and to start counter-attacking the enemy forces before us.

 

Normally, when confronted with what appears to be superior firepower, fortified positions and a poor force ratio, I would call for indirect fire support, air strikes, or some form of combat equalizer or combat multiplier.  The voice at Panther 33, our Net Control Station, informed me that all indirect fires were denied in this area due to the proximity of civilians.  This denial of assistance was not a good sign, but we pressed on.  The lack of indirect fire support was going to make this a very long and dangerous day.  We began to move forward by fire and movement, with either side of the attacking line alternating their fire and running forward.  Soon we reached a ditch line where snipers had been hiding and began a systematic elimination of their fighting effectiveness.  It was at this early stage in what became the longest day of my military career that I encountered what was to become a series of miracles.  I was walking back to my track to get more ammunition when I noticed movement in the ditch to my immediate left, at a distance of less than ten feet.  I was under the mistaken impression that we had cleared and swept past this point, eliminating all enemy presence, and had paused to re-establish the skirmish line.  In what seemed like a slow-motion process, an NVA soldier raised his AK-47, pointing it right at me.  Without having to aim, I fired off a round, seeing it hit him in the chest; the only reaction from him was reflexive, as he fell back against the back of the ditch, and started aiming his weapon at me again.  After two more well placed shots, he finally went to his reward, while at the same instant, another soldier, just to his left, started the exact same procedure.  As I pulled the trigger to take him out, all I heard was the “click” indicating that the bolt was locked to the rear position, and I was out of ammo.  Knowing that I didn’t possibly have time to reload, I spun around in the classic pivot-kick that I had learned in Basic Combat Training, knocking the weapon out of his hands, and took him prisoner.  Why I was spared, when I should have become a casualty, became the initial “Angel Tap” for me to start paying attention to greater and more important things that lay head in my life.

 

What we were up against soon became apparent:  weapons ranged from AK-47’s, heavy machine guns (.51 caliber), RPD light MG’s, and rocket propelled grenades (RPG’s). From the volume of fire we were receiving, I realized that this was not simply a small-unit ambush, the typical contact we usually encountered.  This was a large force, at least company-sized, well organized, well entrenched, and about to overrun and annihilate the American unit we rescued, a mechanized rifle platoon was reduced to less than 15 combat-effective fighters. Their platoon leader was already gravely wounded, and the remaining warriors were fighting valiantly against overwhelming odds.  Apparently, we showed up at the right moment!

 

After overrunning what were the enemy’s outposts, we continued the attack through the village, only to encounter rolls of concertina wire that were strung along the limits of the yards.  Our textbook mounted and dismounted attack was about to come to a grinding halt, until some Scouts, Ssg George Ottesen, SSG Junious Hayes, SSG Robert Mutchler, SP4 Ray Rehfeldt and Sp4 Bill McCaskill, without direction or orders from me, low-crawled through incoming fire, wire cutters in hand, and created openings for our ACAV’s.  While this wire clearing operations was taking place, the grenadiers continued to place a high volume of fire on suspected or confirmed enemy locations.  Our .50 caliber MG’s and M-60’s continued to provide suppressing fires to protect our wire cutters.  As the fire became more intense and effective, a Vietnamese woman with two small children suddenly appeared, directly to our front, on the dirt road that ran between two rows of houses.  Obviously, she was in a state of panic, uncertain of where to go to avoid being killed.  Friendly fires instanteously were re-directed away from her area.  I shouted for her to come forward to safety, assuming she could understand me or even hear me, but fear held her back.  In order to remove them from the danger area, I ran forward and carried all three of them to safety behind one of our APC’s. As I was carrying her and her two children back to a safe place, I heard the crack of small arms all around me, and saw the dirt kicked up to either side of us as bullets came near.  I was aware at that time of the presence of a “blue veil” that had enveloped me, although I was not certain when this Divine Protection first was made known to me.  Only much later did I realize that I had been the direct recipient of a genuine miracle.  As long as that “blue veil” was surrounding me, as it appeared to do from head to foot, no harm could come to me, or to those around me in the immediate proximity.  Nor could I do any wrong, or say any wrong.  I don’t recall even having the ability to curse at the time, which certainly would have seemed to be the soldier’s prerogative, considering the circumstances in which I found myself.  The gift of Grace, in a very active sense, became the wellspring of my realization of other miracles that have subsequently occurred in my life, and the absolute certainty that other miracles will occur in the future.  When the woman and her two children were secure, we renewed the attack, crushing several hootches along the way, thereby denying their use to the enemy.  All resistance on this sweep was eliminated, and another sweep was begun.  On the second sweep, several more prisoners were taken, and more weapons and equipment was seized.  I returned to my track, wanting desperately to have some time to regroup my thoughts, to plan for the next phase, and maybe to have a quick smoke.  Instead of the calm I was seeking, I found confusion, fear, and my driver, SP4 Danny Lawless, holding the near-lifeless body of SP4 Charles Kronberg.  During my absence while leading the just completed assault, Kronberg had climbed into the cupola of my APC, and began to fire the .50 caliber MG to cover our movement in the attack.  Chuck had been shot in the head, and my medic, SP4 Paul Keener and Lawless were fighting desperately to save his life.  I saw the gaping wound in the back of his head and the patches of black blood, and walked away in sickness that such a fine your man died in the nondescript place of  “Widows’ Village.”  His eyes were already glazed over in the “death stare,” and I had to turn away.  And I recall the look of total helplessness in the eyes of Lawless, who had been a close friend of Chuck’s, eyes that pleaded for me to do something.  My sense of helplessness was the realization that there was nothing I could for Chuck.  But this was not the time for tears, melancholy or despair, as a variety of snipers was still bringing us under fire.

 

At one point during the day, we were attempting to sort out the enemy wounded from the prisoners, and to prepare for the next phase of the operation.  During this lull in the action, I directed my medics to start treating the wounded POW’s.  I had heard that the NVA had propagandized their troops into believing that, if captured, the Americans would torture and maim them beyond belief.  As “Doc“ Keener opened his aid bag, exposing the neatly arranged surgical instruments, I could see the look of pure panic in the eyes of the POW’s.  But then Keener gently cut the torn and bloody sleeve away of the first one, so that he could dress the wound, the look of terror was slowly replaced by one of relief and gratitude.  Shortly after this triage session, a group of MPs, to include a captain, a sergeant and two specialists, arrived on what appeared to be a tourist ride; they sat in their jeep, taking pictures, and acting like a bunch of tourists on vacation.  One of the wounded enemy soldiers was pulled out of a nearby pipe culvert, and still not convinced that he would be better off as a prisoner, pulled the string on the “potato masher” Chi-Com grenade, thereby activating the trigger mechanism, and tossed it in the general vicinity of some of my Scouts.  When one of my men saw this, he yelled, “Grenade!” and everybody hit the ground, the safest place to be in an instant like this.  After the smoke and dust cleared from this grenade, which did no harm to any of my Scouts, one of the MP’s took his weapon, flipped the switch to full automatic, and fired off a full magazine in the general direction of the now disarmed NVA soldier, missing him completely, but hitting PFC Richard Veilbaum, a newly arrived Scout, in the neck, killing him almost instantly.  I arrived on the scene about two minutes after this act of complete stupidity had occurred, and been over in another part of the village coordinating the actions of the supporting attack.  One of my Scouts, Bill McCaskill, told me what had happened, and seeing the absolute white rage that was surrounding him and my other troops, I told the MP captain that his safety in my area could only be guaranteed for the next fifteen seconds, as at least five .50 caliber MG’s, and other weaponry were pointed in his direction.  To his everlasting credit, the captain and his sorry bunch of MP’s quickly departed, thereby avoiding what might have been yet another senseless tragedy.

 

Later that morning, I noticed two gun ships continually circling our position.  We were still in heavy contact with the NVA, and I knew that this firepower, if available, would help us break the fierce resistance we were encountering.  These were Cobras, and I had never seen them employed in a fire mission before, as they had only recently arrived in country.  Since I didn’t have either their call sign or radio frequency, I resorted to simple hand-and-arm signals to direct them to where they were needed.  Despite the incoming fire, I decided to stand on top of an APC, and pulled on my collar, pointing that I was the ranking man on the ground.  I saw the command pilot of the lead ship nod his head in agreement, as he made another orbit around our position.  On his second pass, I pointed down a row of houses that I wanted him to fire upon, then drew my finger across my throat, to signify slicing, and he nodded agreement again.  On the third pass, the firing began, with the automatic grenade launcher and miniguns making a powerful statement of newly arrived military technology, which I appreciated by getting off the top of my APC.  Following several gun runs, we swept through that portion of the village, counting more enemy dead, gathering more weapons and equipment.  Two hours later, as we were replenishing our ammo supplies, I noticed a stranger walking up to my APC, a short pudgy man wearing a flight suit, a .38 caliber slung like Wyatt Earp, and a brand new camouflage cover on his steel pot, complete with “bird” colonel insignia.  Naturally, I saluted smartly as a lieutenant does not encounter a full colonel everyday.  Rather cockily he asked, “How did you like the gunship support this morning?” I automatically assumed that he was the lead pilot, and hastily replied, “Right on target, sir!”  Then I asked him if he had any trouble understanding my hand-and-arm signals.  “Hell no, lieutenant, I knew exactly what you meant!”  My follow-on question was more important:  in the event I need him again, what was his call sign and radio frequency?  “Checkmate 44, on FM 62.25.”  Names and numbers forever burned into my psyche.

 

By now, everyone had replenished their supply of ammo, so I dismounted my APC one more time to direct the final assault in Widows’ Village.  I wanted to mass the fires of our .50 caliber MG’s, the M-60 MG’s, M-79 grenade launchers, and anything else I could deliver in this assault to permanently rid Widows’ Village of the NVA.  We were not able to find any ammo for our recoilless rifles, or to secure any indirect fire support, so our attack would only involve our organic weaponry.  I had already coordinated this final push with elements of the 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry, who had been airlifted into a position on our far left flank, and they were prepared for my signal to begin.  All eight of my ACAV’s, plus the two APC’s from 1st Platoon, Co B, were positioned in a line formation, with dismounted troops in between them.  On my pre-arranged signal, all weapons roared into action, spewing suppressing fire, death and destruction to any NVA still hiding in ditches, bushes, hootches, or rubble.  In less than 10 minutes, all resistance was crushed; we consolidated our position, and prepared for the next mission from Panther 6.  I noticed the severe ringing in my ear due to the intense noise of eight .50 caliber MG’s, 16 M-60 MG’s, and numerous other small arms, all firing simultaneously.  (This tinnitus has continued to this day.)  Walking back to my track through a part of the village, I encountered enemy dead and wounded, casualties of either our ground fire or that of the helicopter gun ships I had called in earlier.  One NVA soldier in particular was a recipient of the gun ship’s power, having been blown in two pieces, with the upper part of his torso separated by about fifteen feet from what was left of him.  The stench of blood, shit, fear, dirt, gunpowder, and a few dozen other elements was almost enough to make me wretch.  By this time, several ambulances and some cooperative MP’s had arrived, and relieved us of the burden and responsibility of treating and securing the30+ prisoners of war that we had taken.

 

After clearing Widows’ Village of all NVA my platoon was ordered to assist our Company C, who had been in heavy contact with NVA forces around Bien Hoa Air Base.  To get there, we had to go through Ho Nai village, a cluster of tightly packed shops, stores and hootches along Highway 1.  This village was predominately Roman Catholic, being made up of refugees from North Vietnam who had fled south to avoid the religious persecution of the communists.  I had failed to comprehend the depth of the infiltration of the NVA, or their respective strength in the area.  Before all eight of my tracks could clear the village, we were caught in a murderous ambush that cut my platoon into three groups, each confronting its own numerically superior enemy force.  We had been suckered into the classic NVA/VC ambush pattern, with RPG’s, heavy machine guns, and roadblocks.  Our mission to assist Charlie Company was now replaced by a more urgent mission of extricating ourselves from this kill zone.  One RPG round landed right behind my track, and the resulting concussion slammed me against the right side of the cargo hatch, injuring my right shoulder and right knee.  Some of the shrapnel found its way into the right side of my neck, I discovered later.  It seems that sweat and blood generally have the same temperature, and under the stress of combat, I didn’t realize the extent of my injuries until much later at the Battalion Aid Station.

 

Per SOP, we stopped in a herringbone pattern to provide as much interlocking and mutually supporting fires as possible.  In the front group, McCaskill and Lawless quickly dismounted an M-60 MG to establish a security element to our exposed left front.  They successfully thwarted several attempts by the enemy to flank us and to infiltrate our position.  Radio calls from other tracks told me the rest of the story, with casualty reports, current situation, and calls for assistance.  In the lead element, our situation stabilized with the heroic actions of McCaskill and Lawless, while Keener was maneuvering to assist the middle element.  In a crouching run, carrying his aid bag and his M-16, Keener had almost made it to a semi-secure location to treat casualties in the middle group when he took an AK-47 round in the right temple side of his helmet.  Sprawled on the highway in front of the Catholic church, Keener lay bleeding, and having seen him get hit, I thought he was dead, until I heard his cursing like a man possessed!  I low-crawled to his location, and dragged him back to my APC where we applied two individual wound dressings to his severe head wound.  Meanwhile, in the rearmost section of my platoon, MAJ Ray Funderburk, the 9th Infantry Division Public Affairs Officer, was recording more heroic actions in sight and sound.  Funderburk, who had linked up with us in Widows’ Village, had hitched a ride with us after hearing of our exploits there.  Taking charge of the situation, Funderburk directed the fires of the Scouts to the various MG nests, RPG sites, and other enemy positions that were threatening to overrun his small force.  Ssg Robert Schultz had dismounted his APC to charge a MG team that was placing deadly fire on a disabled track; after successfully eliminating this threat, Schultz charged another MG nest, throwing hand grenades and firing a captured AK-47, falling mortally wounded after destroying this second threat.  Meanwhile, SP4 Lee Wilson spotted an RPG site that was firing on another APC, and calming standing in the middle of Highway 1, with bullets and RPG’s landing all around him, fired a Light, Anti-Armor, Wire-guided weapon (LAW) into the exact location of the RPG team, sending them to their reward.

 

Fighting house-to-house, we were able to successfully link up with the middle element, retrieved and treated the wounded, and tried for a Dust-Off mission.  When the Medevac copter was on final approach, I ordered him out of our area, as he was taking intense ground fire from other enemy positions, and I didn’t need four more casualties to add to what I already had.  We continued our extraction process, linking up with the trail element in preparation to executing an assault on the remaining RPG nest.  A call to Checkmate 44 brought two gun ships, old, reliable Huey B models, to provide us some suppressive fires.  Directing them to the target, this time with radio contact, we witnessed the devastating effect of a full load of 2.75” rockets from both gun ships, utterly destroying the yellow two-story house.  Complying with the directives of Panther 6, we raced to his location to rejoin other elements of the Battalion, and to secure treatment for our wounded.

 

After reaching the battalion location and getting the wounded to the Aid Station, I started checking on the remainder of my warriors.  It was only at this time that I was told that Ssg Schultz had been killed, and was still in the village of Ho Nai.  I could only begin to feel the loss of this fine young hero, as he had been a recent and very welcome addition to my platoon, and the old-timers respected and admired his professionalism, sense of humor, and complete devotion to his subordinates.  I reported to the TOC, and told them that I was going back to Ho Nai to retrieve his body.  At this point, I was crying, partly from a sense of rage of having any of my men killed, partly for a plea for relief, and partly because I just didn’t know how else to deal with the insanity that I had just witnessed.  Panther 6, not known to be the most affectionate person in the world, knew exactly what to do, grabbed and hugged me, letting me sob unashamedly.  He told me that it would serve no useful purpose to expose my men to further harm at that time, that he understood the need to go back there, but that I would return to Ho Nai the next morning, and that was an order.

 

The following morning, we slowly walked down the middle of Highway 1, the road we had driven down the day before, right into the longest ambush I had ever encountered.  We met several civilians who had returned to their village, still warning us of “beaucoup VC,” but we did not meet any resistance.  There were several dead NVA lying beside the road, indications that the surviving enemy forces left in a hurry, as they normally extracted their dead with them.  About one-half mile into the village form our start point, we found the body of Ssg. Schultz, which had been carried out from the interior of the village where he had fallen, by some Vietnamese Catholic nuns, whose church was right across the street.  The most beautiful lace handkerchief had been placed over his face, and I called for my track to come forward, so he could have his final ride as a real Scout.

 

Afterward:  An examination of documents related to Enemy Order of Battle reveals that the unit the Scout Platoon and other elements of the 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry (Mechanized), encountered was a battalion (augmented) of the 88th NVA Regiment.  Their regimental battle flag is now in the proud possession Bill McCaskill.

 

For actions in Widows’ Village and later in the village of Ho Nai, the Scout platoon consisting of 40 Scouts and 2 attached Medics, were awarded three (3) Distinguished Service Crosses, six (6) Silver Stars, and twenty-two (22) Bronze Star Medals with “V” device, and more than twenty (20) Purple Hearts.  The Scouts suffered three (3) KIA, four (4) WIA serious enough to be Medevaced Stateside, while other walking wounded remained with the unit.  Officially, the Scouts were credited with 77 enemy KIA and 22 POW’s; however, a more accurate tally, including actions in the village of Ho Nai, raised this total to 110 KIA and 33 POW’s.

 


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