By Spencer Matteson
The following is an account of the battle at LZ Bird. It happened in the early morning hours of December 27, 1966, Near Thôn Xuân Sơn, Vietnam. Though it was a relatively short battle, it was by far the most intense fighting seen during this author’s tour. Read his story here:
I was a member of the weapons platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Bn. 12th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division. This is how I remember the battle that changed me forever.
There’s a sandbag pit about 20 feet in diameter and three feet high. My head is near the outer face of it and I’m doing what passes for sleep in Vietnam. The pit I’m sleeping next to holds a 155 MM Howitzer that’s out of service; it needs a new barrel, so it sits idle. The gun pits of 105 MM and 155 MM howitzers are spaced irregularly on a low‑lying, oval hilltop about a hundred meters from a bend in the meandering Kim Son River. My bunker is very close to the landing zone for the supply choppers and there’s a 500-gallon bladder of jet fuel out in front of us. (It occurred to me later that if rocket or mortar fire had hit that bladder, things could have gone very badly for us.) The rains which soaked us to the bone on Christmas day have given us this night off.
It’s after midnight and pitch black. A dense, tropical cloud cover is blotting out the moon and stars. Out in the darkness, just beyond our perimeter, hundreds of small, wiry, underfed bodies are slithering through elephant grass, closing in on us with uncanny stealth. They are two battalions of the NVA’s 22nd Regiment – well-trained, well-disciplined and motivated, reinforced by local VC insurgents. The total attack force is estimated at 1,000 men. Our combined field strength of infantry and artillery on LZ Bird that night is 170 men.
The hilltop position is about the size of a football field and relatively level – like a small plateau. The higher ridges nearby are used by the enemy to great effect by raining rocket and mortar rounds down on us once the battle begins. Strategically the position is questionable and many of us feel we are being used as bait.
My Bunker Was About Half Way Between Where It Says “Helicopter Pad” and “Main Thrust”
A few minutes after 1 a.m., a thunderous roar of incoming mortar, rocket and small arms fire blows me out of my slumber as Charlie hits us with everything he has. From the opening salvo, it’s obvious we are vastly outnumbered. In the few seconds it takes me to reach my bunker, the two men on watch have already been wounded. One is hit in the arm, the other in the back of the head. Both are bleeding and calling out for help. I check them out in the glow of the incoming fire; the injuries appear to be superficial shrapnel wounds. I assure them they will be okay.
The deafening roar continues for what seems an eternity. Individual blasts meld into one continuous maelstrom, sounding bizarrely like a monstrous engine revving up. Charlie means to kill us all tonight and he’s off to a great start.
During the first minutes of the battle, I try to get my bearings and figure out what to do. The main attack is not coming directly at us so I have time to think. The two guys on my position are down in the bunker, and there is no room for me. The M‑60 machine gun which is assigned to me earlier that day sits on top of the bunker, resting on the overhead cover; I grab it and fire in the direction of the assault. After a few short bursts, the M-60 jams, it’s rendered useless and leaves me in the battle of my life with an Army-issue Colt .45 automatic and a few clips of ammo.
Bird’s Eye View of Bird – Arrows Indicate Thrust of Attack – Circle in Upper Right Shows Where Enemy Mortars and Rockets Were Placed
To the right of our bunker is my squad leader’s position and midway between a stack of hand grenades still in the cartons brought out by chopper too late to distribute. My squad leader, Sgt. Delbert Jennings and two other men in the bunker to our right (the direction of the attack) are under such heavy fire they have to pull back – they come running toward our position. Jennings yells frantically for us to open the grenade boxes. We quickly set up an assembly line of sorts and three of us start doing this as fast as we can. The cases are about the size and shape of a case of 12 oz. beer cans and each grenade is wrapped in its own cardboard tube with tape around it. Thanks to Jenning’s quick thinking, within seconds we are flipping the unwrapped grenades to him, with pins straightened, so he just pulls the pins and lets them fly. The steady stream of grenades we put out are highly effective. In the morning at first light, we find a dozen enemy dead and it’s anyone’s guess how many we wounded.
As the mortar and rocket fire subsides, the small arms fire grows heavier. The enemy is breaching our perimeter. They are coming in waves, and it isn’t long before we see them behind us inside the perimeter. Sappers run in alongside the riflemen with satchel charges of TNT in small rucksacks strapped to their backs. They are attempting to blow up the artillery guns with them. Some blow, some don’t. It’s likely their detonators and fuses are wet and therefore not working. We find many of their crude-looking hand grenades unexploded the next day, looking like World War II-era potato mashers, with long wooden handles.
Eventually, the onslaught is too much – it’s down to hand-to-hand combat now inside the perimeter near the artillery pits and we start pulling back. On Jenning’s order, we retreat toward our left flank, away from the brunt of the attack, skirt around the far side of the hill from where the attack is coming and along the way come across several of our wounded. One of them lies in the bottom of a bunker, unable to get up. He screams for help out of the pitch-black darkness – there is nothing we can do for him. We tell him he will be OK, and we’ll be back for him as soon as possible. We try to calm him, but he’s insane with fear and crying out in pain, pleading mournfully for help, but any attempt to get him up out of the bunker in the heat of battle, will most likely mean death for us all. I feel sick having to leave him there.
We make our way to the farthest point from where the attack originated and are not alone. It seems everyone not dead, wounded or playing dead, has instinctively made their way to the same spot. We form a tight perimeter around the one gun emplacement still in our possession, one of the smaller, 105 MM Howitzers. The firebase has been over‑run except for this small foothold. We are terrified and expect to momentarily be annihilated.
We do, however, have a plan for this type of situation. It calls for a green signal flare to be sent up. Any of our men still alive out front, upon seeing the flare, are to get their heads down and stay down. Then we level one of the Howitzer barrels and let fly with a canister or “bee‑hive” round (a shell about two feet long and about 4.5 inches in diameter that blasts out 8,000 red hot “flechettes” of metal). The plan works. The bee-hive rounds have blunted the onslaught and Charlie begins to retreat. After the canister rounds are fired, the small arms fire diminishes and there is only sporadic firing, which continues through the night. This will turn out to be the first actual combat use of canister rounds.
At some point during Charlie’s retreat, Chinook gunships show up and begin strafing the area where the attack originated. As the first chopper makes its pass the sky lights up like the Fourth of July with tracers. For every round going from the chopper to the ground, some thousand rounds seem to be going from the ground up. It’s an awesome and frightful sight. Against all odds, the chopper makes it through.
Dawn is a long time coming. Sometime during the night, elements from the 1st Bn., 5th Cav. show up to reinforce us. We’ve taken a terrible beating—especially my company and especially my platoon. Out of 26 men in my platoon, only six emerge without a scratch. I am one of them. We count about 15 dead and five wounded. The hilltop smolders and dead bodies sprawl everywhere. A strange silence enveloped the hill (though I’m half deaf from the battle) and the scene is surreally like living in a Bosch painting. Demolition experts arrive to disarm the satchel charges that failed to explode. We carefully reconnoiter our old positions, wary of booby traps, searching for wounded and assessing the damage in human terms.
Once back in our platoon area the enormity of what happened hits us. We find Gary Peasley, a tall lanky kid from Detroit, has taken a direct hit from a 57 MM rocket, there isn’t much left of him. Peasley and I were ordered to switch positions late the previous afternoon. He was due to rotate in a few months and I recall just the day before, as we ended a poker game, he stood up, stretched and with a boastful air said, “Yeah, I always said if Charlie didn’t get me by Christmas, I’d be home free.” No such luck.
Platoon mate Joe Willis, a farm boy from central Illinois and a guy everyone liked, is lying face up, eyes wide open staring at the sky in a shallow garbage pit – his M16 still cradled in his arms. Six enemy bodies surround him. Willis was a soft-spoken, self-effacing type – never said a bad word about anyone. He was one hell of a soldier too.
Our platoon leader, Lt. Jerry Walace, whom we nicknamed John Wayne, because of his gung ho attitude, is found out in front of his bunker, face down, with his cherished pearl-handled revolver in his hand. Apparently, he ran straight out to meet the attack head-on. The man had guts.
Putting Out H&I Fire Again – Business as Usual – Photo by Steve Hassett
One of the long-timers, Donald Woods and one of the new recruits, who was spending his first night in the field are dugout after having spent the night in the bottom of their foxhole, buried alive by the overhead cover which had collapsed on them. After they are fished out, they tell us they heard Vietnamese voices all around them for hours and felt bayonets probing at the sandbags on top of them. They also report hearing women’s voices and babies crying during the height of the battle. The long-timer Woods is half-crazed and still shaking hours after the ordeal. He has shrapnel in his back and knows he will be flown out soon. He says his goodbyes to those of us left and vows he won’t be back. He’d rather spend the rest of his life in Leavenworth at hard labor than go through another night like this. We never see him again.
Our XO has a sucking chest wound and is medevac’d out. I’ll never know if he makes it. Our Company has been cut to ribbons and the artillerymen also have taken heavy losses. I’ve heard varying numbers on dead and wounded, but having been there I tend to agree with S.L.A. Marshall who states in his book “Bird,” we took 58 KIA and 71 wounded. I’m not sure how many died later of their wounds.
My buddy Andy had been out on a long-range patrol that night and from where they were, could hear the fierce fighting and monitored radio transmissions until they stopped abruptly. Communications are out for several hours during the attack. He’s been worried sick for my safety and we have an awkward reunion in the morning when he’s choppered in. It’s hard to look at each other. We make feeble attempts to talk about what happened, who was killed, who was wounded. We’re both glad to be alive, glad each other is alive, but we are torn up. We hem and haw, look at our boots, or up at the sky. We are ashamed to be alive.
I spend the morning dragging the lifeless bodies of our comrades to a makeshift morgue and cleaning them up for transport to graves registration in Saigon. We pull cigarette filters out of artillerymen’s ears (improvised ear‑plugs). We close our eyes and do what we can to wipe the mud and blood off their faces and clothing. We put them on ponchos and lay them in rows where they wait for the choppers to spirit them away.
Survivors Milling Around the Fallen – Photo by Steve Hassett
After our dead are gone, we drag the enemy dead to a mass grave dug by a bulldozer flown in that morning. None of us wants to touch them, especially the NVA dead. Rigor mortis has set in and it’s spooky. Death feels contagious; we don’t want to catch it. We use rope or wire, whatever we can find, looping it around a wrist or an ankle, and drag the ridged bodies along in the muddy, red clay.
I think the day after is worse than the battle itself. In the heat of battle, there’s no time to think. But when you’re exposed to the aftermath of a fierce firefight like this the experience becomes nightmarish. Still reeling from it all, we struggle to make sense of the horrific carnage, little knowing what we are experiencing will affect us for the remainder of our days. The battle was only an hour or two, but the cleanup and body count goes on for a few days.
Patrols follow the cleanup. Patrols count the enemy dead and examine Charlies’ escape routes. Bodies and parts of bodies are found—bodies blown apart by direct artillery hits. Twisted, grotesquely mangled limbs, body parts of all kinds hanging from bushes and trees – everywhere the smell of blood and death and rotting flesh. I am so immersed in horror and death that I become psychically numb, going about my business with a vacuous, zombie-like feeling. I shut it out and feel nothing, which is all I can do to keep from going mad.
Not many people outside the military know what happened that night, although it did make the headlines of the major papers the next day. It was just another battle, fairly early in the war and soon forgotten by all but those who were there. Personally, it has never been far from my consciousness. When I got back from Vietnam and left the army, I found people didn’t want to be reminded of the war, so I clammed up. I went for many years without talking about it. It wasn’t until the 1990s that I started to talk openly about it, and have since tried to put some of my experiences in writing. I’ve also been in touch with other veterans and shared my experiences with them.
My squad leader, Sgt. Delbert Jennings was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions that night. You can read about it here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delbert_O._Jennings
They say time heals all wounds and in my case, I think it has, or at least it has scabbed over nicely and doesn’t hurt so much anymore. I have been back to Vietnam twice since the war and instead of it being the cathartic, emotional experience I thought it might be, I found I could look back at my war experience with objectivity and equanimity and without a flood of anger or sorrow. I still, on occasion, do get choked up though, when I think about the terrible waste of life and the brothers I lost that night. I made a trip back in 2014 and visited the location where this battle took place, Xuan An Hill and in the process of finding it, ran across a little old man ambling down the road. Through my interpreter/guide, we questioned him and asked him if he remembered the battle. He answered: “Yes, I remember it, I was there.” He was one of the many local VC insurgents who had helped the NVA that night. We shook hands and buried the hatchet so to speak.
Ho Van Loc, Former VC Fighter – Enemies No More
LZ Bird Today – Appropriately, It’s Used As a Graveyard
The Monument Recently Erected by the Government at The Base of the Hill, It Claims They Took 600 American Lives, Though we only had 170 on the Hill That Night
Truth is the first casualty of war. Humans are strange creatures and each has his own version of the truth based on their point of view. Governments have their versions of truth too – they’re called lies. The number of dead and wounded at Bird vary widely, depending upon whom you ask. My experience at Bird I’m sure was quite different from the experience of an artilleryman that night. The experience of an officer was quite different from the experience of an enlisted man. (In Vietnam, most of the officers I saw led from behind, not out front, like in previous wars.) What I’m getting at here, is that this story is my truth. I’ve been criticized in the past for things I’ve written about Bird. Perhaps for not making my American comrades sound brave or courageous enough. I’m not writing history though, I’m just writing what happened to me as best I can remember it. The war still divides us vets. We bonded as brothers over there, but like brothers everywhere, we don’t always agree.
Here’s what retired General S.L.A. Marshall, author of Bird, The Christmastide Battle had to say about how the battle was documented:
What has been written [in this book] about the brave fight at LZ Bird must … stand on its own. No American or foreign correspondents got up to the position. None visited Camp Radcliff to do interviews about the operation. The Pentagon and MAC-V (Military Assistance Command – Vietnam) headquarters, though interested, still have not anything more than the foggiest notion of what happened.
The fight won headlines on the following day in the national press. The stories were based on what hard-pressed bureau chiefs in Saigon had to assume out of the scant information fed them by telephone from the field.
As reported, the fight at Bird was a defeat for the United States, no simple reverse, and barely short of disaster. A solidly placed and defended landing zone had been overrun. The enemy had had his way, Our losses, compared to theirs, were mournful.
Within 24 hours thereafter the fight at LZ Bird had passed from the public consciousness as the press ran on to other sensations.
Author: Spencer Matteson
I was born and raised in the Chicago area and lived in Los Angeles for many years. I am retired now and have been living in Cuenca, Ecuador, since May 2016. In the spring of 2014, I visited Vietnam and traveled the country from the Chinese border in the north to the Mekong delta in the south. I wrote a travel blog about my trip which you can read here: https://myvietnamtrip2014.wordpress.com/ As with all WordPress blogs, by default, it’s reverse chronological order, so if you want to read from beginning to end, you have to scroll down and read up. The first entry was from Easter Sunday. I have also been blogging my experiences in Ecuador. That can be read here: https://spencersecuador.wordpress.com/
This post originally appeared on the following website: War Stories – True stories of the Vietnam War (wordpress.com)
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