The soldiers in Company D, like these troopers from another unit in the 1st Cavalry Division, were hit with a hailstorm of bullets and mounting casualties. (Robert Hodierne)
The Battle of 506 Valley ranks among the top battles of the Vietnam War, yet rarely appears in histories of the war and is not well known except by those who survived. During the fight, 34 soldiers in the 1st Cavalry Division were killed and 81 wounded. The author of this very detailed article fought in this battle. Read what he had to say.
By BOB MARCH
More than 20 platoons of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) waged a bitter fight for NVA bunkers largely forgotten except by those who survived.
After darkness fell on Dec. 17, 1966, the dead and wounded of Delta Company lay in an open area between North Vietnamese Army bunkers and hedgerows. In daylight, it had been a no man’s land where anyone who moved was shot. Pfc. Michael Noone was shot three times—once in the leg and twice in the torso. The bullets broke his ribs and knocked his stomach out of the body cavity. Giant red-and-black biting ants, dubbed “blood ants” by American soldiers, crawled over him, feasting. He used his one good arm to slowly pick them off and bite them in self-defense.
Under the light of flares, NVA soldiers crept out to execute the wounded and scavenge the dead. One approached Noone and peered over him. A flare went off and the enemy soldier ducked until the light receded, then got up and looked Noone directly in the eyes. The American feigned death. The NVA scavenger put his rifle down and picked Noone up by the pistol belt. Unfamiliar with the hook attachment, the North Vietnamese soldier struggled to remove it. As he fiddled with the belt, the ants bit him and he immediately dropped Noone to the ground. After searching the American, he left him for dead. Noone was one of the lucky ones.
Seven hours earlier, at 1:38 p.m. Noone’s Company D, along with companies A and B of the 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade (Airborne), 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), were told to prepare for helicopter pickups. The troopers were going into a valley north and west of Landing Zone Uplift, 8 miles south of Bong Son in Binh Dinh province in South Vietnam’s central coastlands. The area was called 506 Valley, named for the “highway” that ran through it.
The Dec. 17 battle in the valley involved all of 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment; two companies of 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment; a platoon of 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment; and elements of 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, for a total of more than 20 1st Cav infantry platoons.
In number of U.S. casualties, the Battle of 506 Valley ranks among the top battles of the Vietnam War, yet rarely appears in histories of the war and is not well known except by those who survived. During the fight, 34 soldiers in the 1st Cavalry Division were killed and 81 wounded, according to the division historian’s report after the battle. More than half of those killed were assigned to Delta Company, which suffered 18 deaths, all but one in 2nd and 3rd platoons, the company’s highest one-day death toll of the entire war. Delta had 12 men wounded.
Company D, initially the battalion’s combat support company (reconnaissance, mortars and weapons), had recently been reorganized into a line infantry company, although 1st Platoon continued to be used as the battalion’s recon unit. A six-man long-range reconnaissance patrol team from 1st Platoon was sent out two days before Dec. 17 to identify NVA activity in the valley.
Recon team member Spc.4 Larry Nolen was concealed in an observation position behind thick bamboo and elephant grass. Sweat dripped down his nose as he sat motionless and waited. Eighteen NVA soldiers, carrying mortar tubes and base plates, approached the recon team, which watched the NVA moving cautiously across the American front.
An NVA scout, walking parallel to the line of march, approached the team’s positions, checking for the possibility of ambush. He pushed the bamboo concealment back with the barrel of his AK-47 assault rifle and looked Nolen right in the eye from 3 feet away. Pretending not to see Nolen, the scout let the grass spring back into place. Nolen shot him dead. The team’s position was “blown.”
A running firefight ensued. “The NVA headed for the cover of a nearby tree line and the LRRP team ran down-slope towards a possible pickup zone near a small village,” recalled Spc. 4 Steven Chestnut, a member of Delta’s recon platoon, in an interview with this article’s author.
Before the team could reach the pickup zone, it was surrounded by the larger enemy force. One recon trooper was shot in the elbow. His bone fragments wounded team leader Sgt. Curtis Smith in the lower leg. The team was in trouble and needed help. Two heavily armed black CH-47 Chinook helicopters arrived at 1:15 p.m. and hosed down the NVA, driving the enemy out.
A few miles away, the opening act of the 506 Valley engagement was well underway. The first round of fighting began when Company C, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry, was on a morning patrol using an XM-2/E63 personnel detector, a backpack-size sensor and tube that samples the air to detect concentrations of ammonia, a characteristic of sweat and urine. The “people sniffer” led Company C to an estimated platoon-size NVA force in the hills above the 506 Valley, and a fight between the two forces began about 10:03 a.m.
The NVA fled down the hill toward a village, leaving behind equipment, including a radio switchboard, implying the presence of a much larger force. The 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry’s aerial scouts in H-13 Sioux scout helicopters were deployed to find the enemy. At 1: 34 p.m., they reported the NVA forces were dug in around the village. The squadron’s ground platoon was then flown in on Hueys. The platoon immediately ran into a buzz saw of fire from AK-47 assault rifles and machine guns in NVA bunkers. Significant casualties forced the cavalrymen to pull back.
Lt. Col. George D. Eggers Jr., commanding 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry, and responsible for operations in the area, realized the enemy force was much larger than estimated. At 1:38 p.m., he told the battalion operations officer, Maj. Leon D. Bieri, to order all 1st Battalion companies to the nearest helicopter pickup zone and prepare to join the fight. Companies A, C and D were to attack from the north and Company B would be inserted to the east to cut off an enemy escape. Elements of 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry, and 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry, were already deployed from west to south.
Delta Company hurried to its pickup zone. On Dec 17 the company was commanded by its executive officer, 1st Lt. Chester Cox, an airborne Ranger acting for the commanding officer, Capt. Barnett, who was on leave. At 3:40 p.m., 2nd Platoon led by 1st Lt. Paul Prindle and 3rd Platoon led by 2nd Lt. Timothy Feiner helicoptered to a landing zone near Thach Long (2), the numeral indicated the village was the second one in the valley with the same name. Delta secured the landing zone for the battalion’s Company C, then moved southeast. Within 15 minutes Delta made contact.
One of the Delta Company men in the fight was Spc. 4 Jack Deaton, a married, 22-year-old airborne volunteer, who arrived in Vietnam on Sept. 1, 1966. Shortly before the 506 battle, Deaton confided to Spc. 4 Michael Anderson, the platoon medic, and other platoon members that he had received a letter from a close relative expressing the wish that he would be killed in Vietnam. He did not elaborate.
Deaton was upset, and his buddies were concerned about him. Caustic letters were common, but for someone to wish death to a combat infantryman was extreme. Deaton’s buddies wondered: “Had someone in Deaton’s life become a hard-core anti-war activist, or worse a North Vietnamese sympathizer? Had he said something unwise that fueled such sentiment?” Deaton would not say. With that letter in his pocket, a pall hung over him on Dec. 17.
In a comprehensive account of the 506 Valley battle, 1st Lt. Steven Schopp of the 1st Cavalry Division History Detachment, described how events unfolded: Delta Company had formed an assault line facing a hedgerow. Feiner’s 3rd Platoon was on the right, or south end. Prindle’s 2nd Platoon was on the left, north end. The NVA was positioned just beyond a second hedgerow. “But no one was aware of that,” Schopp noted. “The enemy positions were of the cleverest camouflage, impossible to detect.”
Delta passed the first hedgerow and was out in the open again, not 10 feet from the second hedge, when “the enemy at last revealed their presence with a fusillade of bullets,” Schopp wrote. “The surprise was effective. Delta was now in the open with no place to turn except over more open ground.”
The first enemy burst downed Pfc. Timothy Ewing and Deaton. The NVA found Deaton still alive and “put another burst in him,” Schopp recorded, adding that squad leader Sgt. William Cook was fatally wounded. Spc. 4 Michael Anderson, the medic, moved to Ewing, who was still alive, but his lung had been punctured and he was having trouble breathing. Anderson tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. “Just then an enemy bullet hit across his hand,” Schopp stated. “Anderson continued his job all afternoon and into the night. It was nearly one o’clock the next morning when he stopped to patch his own wounded hand.” He was unable to save Ewing.
Meanwhile, Pfc. Roger Hattersley was pinned down as “enemy bullets kept churning the dirt on both sides of him,” Schopp wrote. “He fired all his ammo from there and then ran in the open to where Deaton was lying, picked up 200 rounds and ran back.” Hattersley shot up three-fourths of that ammo and then charged the bunker, killing at least one NVA soldier. The American was hit in the right shoulder but made it back to safety and was later medevaced.
The killing continued unabated. The chaos of battle reigned. Explosions rent the battlefield, bullets cracked, men yelled and moaned.
Feiner’s 3rd Platoon was bogged down as close as 20 feet from the NVA bunkers and “spider holes,” rounded one-man foxholes. The interlocking fire from NVA positions, almost impossible to see, picked off platoon members one by one.
Almost at the same time, Prindle’s 2nd Platoon approached the bunker line. As Pfc. Eleazar Trevino started through a small hole in the hedgerow, he was struck by a sniper bullet, according to Schopp’s account. Spc. 4 James Jeffers, close behind, moved toward his wounded comrade, but Trevino motioned him back.
Someone shouted, “Stay back, there are snipers all over.” Platoon Sgt. Rogue Perpetua Jr. and Pfc. Angel Luna went through another opening in the hedgerow. “Perpetua spotted a machine gun bunker and charged for it,” Schopp relates. “He was right on top of it when he was hit.” The sergeant’s helmet had 11 bullet holes in it. Luna was killed by a sniper as Perpetua fell.
Cox, the lieutenant serving as Delta’s commanding officer, also was shot. Platoon Sgt. Donald Leemhis, attempting to reach him, was shot through the neck. He fell dead next to Cox, already dead. Close by medic Pfc. Alton Kennedy, a private first class, was treating the wounded and dragging them “out of the fire-swept field,” Schopp wrote. “Kennedy made two trips, braving the bullets in spite of pleas for him to stay back. He couldn’t bring himself to ignore the pitiful plaintive cries of, ‘Medic, help, Oh God, help!’ Moving out again, Kennedy was wounded on his third trip. His fourth was his last. Kennedy gave his life to save others.”
Pfc. Richard Rock, a radio telephone operator in 2nd Platoon, emerged from the hedgerow. Rock was the second non-airborne trooper to show up in his platoon when the 1st Brigade (Airborne) was just beginning to fill its ranks with non-airborne infantry units in late 1966.
He became known as “NAP2,” for “non-airborne person No. 2.” Staff Sgt. Harry Forsythe, considered to be a “tough” noncommissioned officer, often teased Rock about cowardice: “NAP2, if I see you run away in a firefight, I’m going to fill your back with holes.”
Coming out of the hedgerow, Rock witnessed Perpetua getting shot in the head. Soldiers on all sides of him were being hit and falling. Running to a clump of bushes in front of him, Rock observed bullets hitting the ground. They could only have been coming from the trees. Rock shrugged off his radio, rolled over and fired three-round bursts into the trees, emptying 12 magazines. He then ran to the nearest dead trooper to get more ammo. “I saw so many wounded and thought ‘somebody has to do something to help these poor guys,’” Rock said in an interview with this article’s author. “Realizing that all the NCOs were dead or wounded, I concluded that somebody was me.”
Bullets were snapping around Rock. He patched up two troopers who were badly wounded, then fired his M16 rifle at a bunker to no effect. Seeing an M79 grenade launcher and ammo on the ground, he ran and grabbed the weapon, then stood up to shoot over the bush in front of him. His hurried first “blooper” sailed about 4 feet over the bunker. The enemy machine gun chattered. His next shot hit the corner of the bunker opening. On the third shot he stood up, again exposing himself. Yet he took his time, aimed carefully, controlled his breathing and trigger pull, and sent a round through the bunker opening, silencing the machine gun.
Feiner and Forsythe attempted to bring in artillery, but neither was able to pinpoint his location on a map because they were enveloped in a thick jungle and couldn’t see the hills that would have established their position. They did a position estimate and called in smoke to confirm, but the smoke rounds were too far away and could not be seen because of the dense jungle. Their position estimate was incorrect by 1 kilometer (0.62 miles) to the east. It almost didn’t matter because Delta Company’s closeness to the NVA positions and the large number of helicopters in the air ruled out artillery fire for fear of hitting U.S. troops.
Rock continued to patch up the wounded. He retrieved weapons for those who could hold one, gave each man a sector to watch and said, “Kill anything that moves.”
Picking up the wounded by the collar, he dragged them to a safe area, making multiple trips back and forth while under fire.
Helicopter rocket artillery roared in but had only a momentary effect on the bunkers and wounded some of the Delta GIs. It was called off. During the battle two helicopters were shot down and seven were damaged so severely that they could no longer fly.
Prindle, near the left side of the Delta line, was blocked by a barbed wire fence. As Prindle reached out to cut the barbed wire, Rock saw the lieutenant’s watch casing disappear from his left wrist. The bullet left the base of the watch and the band intact. Undeterred, Prindle reached out again to cut the wire. This time a bullet hit in the front of his helmet, passed around the inside and blew an exit hole out the back, briefly knocking him unconscious.
Like a fighter recovering from a knockdown, Prindle jumped up, grabbed a machine gun and yelled, “Let’s go!” He, Rock and Spc. 4 Calvin Brown headed toward a bunker to rescue soldiers lying out in no man’s land. Prindle fired the machine gun directly into the bunker while Rock and Brown went to get Trevino and a wounded medic. After that successful attempt, Prindle continued to use the machine gun to attack bunkers and suppress enemy fire long enough to allow for the rescue of other wounded. When his gun slowed from overheating, he found another barrel to replace the original and returned to the fight.
About three hours into the battle, Rock heard Forsythe’s voice rise in the distance: “Hey Rock, are you still alive?” Rock yelled back, “Yeah, why?” The sergeant asked, “Are you gonna run away?” Rock answered, “Why?” Forsythe’s response: “If you do, I wanna go with you.” Despite the circumstances, Rock had to laugh.
After sunset, Delta Company and other elements of 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry, were consolidated at a landing zone about a half mile northwest of the battle area. Wounded men needed to be medevaced. Flying conditions were terrible with poor visibility, a low ceiling and hostile groundfire. While green tracers converged on him, Feiner bravely pointed two flashlights in the air to guide the medevac choppers.
Later, a wounded man arrived from the jungle. Struggling to speak, he said there were still men alive in the killing zone. First Sgt. Gene Helgeson assembled a medical team to look for anyone who might still be alive. The volunteers included Capt. Edward Wagner, the battalion surgeon, Spc. 5 Donattis de Baitis and Spc. 4 James Ennis, both combat medics.
NVA soldiers were still plentiful in the area. The Schopp report describes what happened next: “Helgeson’s team crept around, looking for American wounded, treating them and pulling them back for evacuation. There can be no doubt that Helgeson and crew put life back into men who otherwise would have surely died from their wounds.”
Having spent hours lying wounded and alone, faced with marauding North Vietnamese and fending off insects, Noone was near despair. He remembers seeing someone quietly approaching him in the dark and fearing that it was yet another NVA soldier. But a shadowy figure grabbed his wrist and whispered, “This one’s still alive.” The shadowy figure turned out to be Wagner, who was in a precarious situation for a battalion surgeon just out of medical school.
Helgeson’s team carried Noone back to the landing zone, where he was treated and kept alive. It was not possible to bring in medevac choppers because of fog, so he was evacuated at the first opportunity the next morning. The medevac helicopter sped at maximum power to the hospital, where the staff immediately took Noone into surgery. Giant ants still infested his body and clothing. The surgeons sprayed anesthetic gas to knock out and disperse the ants before they could work on Noone. He was given last rites twice before his eventual recovery at a hospital in Japan.
By the end of the day on Dec. 17, Delta Company’s fighting force had been reduced to half its size. Only 35 of 62 men in the 2nd and 3rd platoons were alive and functioning.
The acting commanding officer, Cox, was killed, as were all of the platoon sergeants and most of the other noncommissioned officers.
Deaton, the soldier with the wish-you-would-be-killed letter in his pocket, was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star with a “V” device for valor. The accompanying citation stated: “Several men in the platoon were felled during the opening volley of fire… Standing up in the fire-swept field, Specialist Deaton led his men straight at the startled enemy force…In the exchange of intense close-in fire, Specialist Deaton was mortally wounded.”
The remnants of Delta were attached to Charlie Company where they spent the night being tormented by snipers. Spc. 4 Carlisle Mahto from Bravo Company shot 10 snipers out of the trees using a starlight night scope, which magnified light from stars and the moon to illuminate the area viewed.
That night most of the NVA dispersed in small groups heading into the mountains. The battalion searched the village and surrounding area. By Dec. 19, a total of 95 NVA bodies had been found.
The next morning Prindle was told to report to a helicopter that had just landed. There the lieutenant in battle-worn clothes found a major wearing clean, starched fatigues directing him to get in the chopper. A high-ranking officer wanted to see Prindle, perhaps for an award. Prindle cursed and told the major: “I’m not leaving my men. They’ve just been through hell.” He turned and walked away.
In the following days the 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry, pursued the NVA into the mountains. Intelligence gathered from prisoners indicated they were with the 7th and 9th battalions of the NVA 18th Regiment. The 506 Valley battle and subsequent pursuit left the regiment in disarray. It was unable to carry out existing orders to participate in coordinated attacks on nearby LZ Bird and LZ Pony on Dec. 23. Instead, the NVA ordered the 22nd Regiment to attack LZ Bird on Dec. 27. Much of LZ Bird was overrun by the North Vietnamese, but ultimately the attack was repelled. The NVA also was unable to launch effective attacks against LZ Pony.
Bob March served in Vietnam with Recon Platoon, Company D, 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment (Airborne), 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), November 1965-November 1966. He returned to Vietnam in 1968 with the 82nd Airborne Division. After three years in the Army, he left as a staff sergeant, went to college, became an electrical engineer and worked on weapons systems for the Navy until he retired.
This article first appeared in the December 2021 issue of Vietnam magazine and was republished on History dot net. Here’s the direct link: https://www.historynet.com/cavalry-nva-bunkers/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=fb_vietnammag&fbclid=IwAR0pLHlkBoGcBuWiBe9lFd8y7OulaULat4sDwlGjAUKCMKXB1sUdGCSWbzA
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