STORY BY JOE DANIELSON
My Account of December 3, 1968
The Captain in charge of Delta Company on December 3, 1968 was the very capable and caring Capt. (Robert L.) Fitzsimmons. Although he was wounded, he returned later in my tour to visit in September of 1969. He is a splendid officer who has every ounce of my respect.
There were many reasons why we lost so many people on December third, and Capt. Fitzsimmons was not any part of any reason why we failed (in our own eyes, the soldiers' eyes). The 'military' regards this as a great victory and the 1st NVA division, as a great loss.
Unbeknown to the men of Delta Co., 1Lt. Dan Burdick, nicknamed Three Zero, had convinced me, a sergeant and forward observer for the mortar platoon, to recruit other men for a volunteer mission. We had discussed the plan together before we recruited Spec. 4 (Terrance L.?) Shavers and Corporal Buzz (Bones one zero mike) to join us. We approached Captain Fitzsimmons the night before our deployment to the fateful LZ (landing zone), and pleaded with him to allow the four of us to physically view the landing zone in a two mile night reconnaissance. He called the Lt. Colonel in charge of the 2nd Battalion and was summarily refused. He was not even allowed to explain the concept. So later...
We saw Lt. Col. (George G., Jr.) Hardesty approaching Captain Fitzsimmons, and we intercepted him, putting forth our plan in person. We were told we were going to be disciplined for breaching our chain of command. He dressed us down for even attempting to discuss tactics.
(I realize now why the colonel wouldn't even consider our "perfect" plan. It would have risked the lives of the company RTO, the forward observer (for field artillery, aircraft, ship fire, B-52, etc.), the mortar platoon forward observer and another soldier. The colonel saw that we would compromise the mission by possibly getting ourselves killed. Then, the surprise assault would not have been launched because the crucial personnel were lost in a harebrained scheme the night before. The colonel was just doing his duty.)
Nothing ever came of the reprimand as Lt. Burdick, who thought up this scheme, was the first person killed Dec. 3rd. He had been attached to our company from the 1st Bn., 21st Artillery as forward observer. He was the first person who took me under his wing to show me how to call in artillery and other indirect fire upon the enemy. He was my first friend in Vietnam and we had exchanged photos of loved ones; he wasn't stand-offish for an officer.
Lt. Burdick, Spec. 4 Shavers, CPL Buzz and I would have been killed for sure if we had ventured near the 1st NVA division base camp the night before. Burdick died instantly on Dec. 3rd as he was shot by a sniper square between the eyes while arguing with the artillery commander on the radio. Little did I or anyone else know that radios were the target of the enemy. I dropped to the ground to fire back at the sniper in the tree. I was well inside the company perimeter and saw that I couldn't fire directly at the enemy without hitting my own men. The sniper was my only choice and target. I was wounded shortly later as the sniper got off a round before I did.
I tried to kill the NVA who killed Three Zero. I laid on the ground, pointed my M-16 into the tree where I saw the leaves move, and...the M-16 was on safe, dammit. I took it off safe and put it on single fire. I wanted this bastard to die. I aimed but...BALLOOOMM!... the rotten so-and-so shot an RPG (rocket propelled grenade, same as now in Iraq) which missed my head but exploded at my feet. It had knocked my helmet off and put shrapnel up my back and neck when it went off. The grass caught on fire around me from the explosion. This was only a skirmish so far. We had lost our forward observer but I could call in the heavy stuff upon the enemy. While I was being bandaged and the helicopter was called to take me and the dead lieutenant back to the battalion base camp, I engaged a battery of 105 mm howitzers to drop twelve rounds in on the sniper less than 100 meters in front of us. FINALLY, they filled the fire mission that Three Zero had begun. It killed the sniper with an air burst in the trees. War is very mean and frustrating. As a young man, and for decades, I've blamed the artillery people for being overly cautious, as they could tell by their charts that we were very nearly causing our own annihilation. Knowing how horrible it is when soldiers are hit with their own effective fire, I blame them less now. Someone would have been court martialed, but we would have called it upon ourselves. During my tour I had endured just about everything ever thrown at the enemy including being hit by 105 mm fire. (No, not a direct hit, but I was in the kill zone.) I know what it is like to be too close to a B-52 strike. It is so bad that you can't stand on the ground, you can't sit, lay or do anything but bounce. The air punches you and takes your breath away, dirt falls from the sky, trees, entire trees fly over you... it's really seriously unsafe. Which is why they asked us if we were that close and we lied and thought we could handle it if the enemy could handle it. We did as did they, but they were more surprised to see us outside their bunker when they came out than we were to see their aghast bleeding faces. This was later on in my years' tour so I'm sorry for the detour.
Immediately after those two artillery barrages (6 guns firing 2 rounds) landed killing the sniper, very literally, hell itself opened up and swept us in. Fire and death ran rampant with thousands of rounds of machine gun fire raking through everything over and over. There was a pause early on in the firing because I remember I talked to Sgt. (John N.) Holcomb during that time, and I gave him my M-16 because I was going to be helicoptered out, I thought. I remember calling in more artillery, saying drop 50, meaning 50 meters closer, and getting another argument.
We were toast. The radio disintegrated next to me in the machine gun fire. The dirt around me boiled with impacts from all kinds of bullets. I couldn't see for the dust. The impacts hurt my chest and gut as the bullets went under me in the dirt. I don't know how long that went on. When the constant fire stopped, I noticed that every little movement I made drew fire, that nasty big machine gun fire that hurt when it even missed me. Then the enemy would throw out grenades that float on the wind with little parachutes that would float over you... sometimes, happily, they were duds.
We landed in an innocent looking clearing about 50 to 75 meters in diameter surrounded by trees with grass about waist to chest high, very dry, and it turned out to be the roof of the 1st NVA division base camp.
OOPS! Sneak up on them we did. Yep, we accomplished our mission in that regard. Boy, oh boy and BOY HOWDY, I'll bet all five thousand of them said, "Hey, what'll we do? There's over a hundred GI's attacking us, upstairs, three stories up, above the concrete, above the five feet of compacted earth." This was not going to be a good day for them either. We had found the most fearsome and decorated of all NVA divisions, and my company had them covered. They were safer while we were on top on them. They had us in a horseshoe ambush above ground firing with constant machine gun fire. I counted three 12.7 mm machine guns, and in 1968 usually only one regiment had one 12.7 mm machine guns. The jets complained that they were taking heavier fire, 37 mm ?, but I lost the radio very early on in the battle. I probably gleaned that in the after action reports the evening of Dec. 3rd.
It was very difficult to know very much of what was happening after that one pause early in the battle. It was so very horrendous that I can't believe anyone survived. I remember at 5:30 PM when a helicopter flew in dropping off water, I got up and ran for it. Others did too. I was stunned. The helicopter took off as we were still taking rounds. I stood and drank out of a five gallon jerry can filled with hot water tainted with jet fuel, and while I was drinking, the water exploded out and up my nose. The jerry can took three rounds. Some other GI scolded me for wasting water, really, and for me to help get the wounded on board the next helicopter. I have no idea who he was or what his rank but it was a good idea, so I spent the rest of the evening getting the wounded and killed aboard helicopters as the sun set.
That night, Charlie Co. who came in to help extract us (losing many men too) withdrew from the area and those B-52s took care of that LZ. I went back to see it about six weeks later. Though it was hard to recognize the cratered moonscape as being our position... the sniper who was killed by artillery was still up in the tree. Buzz actually climbed up and cut his "ripeness" down. No. We didn't do anything to him. He was a soldier, so were we. His patch was 1st NVA, he was about 20. He had a wallet, a family. He very nearly killed me, too.
A considerable number of very good young men died that day. I saw actual heroism on that day as you can read the happenstance of how Sgt. Holcomb gained the Medal of Honor. We, the survivors, each seemed to have a tale regarding how Sgt. Holcomb seemed to withstand attack after attack, to keep us from being overrun. I put all the accounts into one describing the events from several people. Being there did not make us all heroes. Real heroes do things beyond all concept of ability. They seem to be everywhere doing everything, and sometimes they are. It takes REAL leadership to get everybody moving, and he was able to get the paralyzed to somehow function and defend themselves.
It was particularly hard for me as I had called all fire in on our position. The radio was destroyed before the message got out. I had to fight my way out of this, it was not going to be a good day. I'm fortunate the radio was destroyed. Despite an unbelievable volume of fire against us without any cover, despite the use of white phosphorus in the dry grass by the enemy, despite taking napalm and high explosives from very close jet bombing runs...a few of us were capable of moving and helping others. When someone shoots at you all day, a lull in the battle is like a summer's breeze. The exhilaration of surviving was very short lived as I loaded chopper after chopper with people I used to know, faces I'll never see again, whether or not they survived. I wouldn't let anyone show me pictures of their family after that day. I wasn't real friendly either, though I was never abusive. Life was more serious after Dec. 3rd 1968. It's become more precious now everyday.
Printed by Permission.
ŠJoe A. Danielson, 2004-2009, All Rights Reserved.