Ever so slowly, night crept toward day.
From their perch up on Marble Mountain, Larry Trimble and ST Rattler could verify the insanity, as well as the extent of the carnage and destruction. There were simply too many bodies to count. The supply complex and the old TOC were leveled and glowing with fire, while the new TOC had been heavily damaged. A pall of dingy smoke floated over the compound. It looked like the recon area had suffered the most extensive damage, with virtually every building having been hit. The whole roiling mess resembled a harshly lit stage setting for a major battle scene.
On the ground at FOB 4, Barclay and another SF soldier decided to stay put outside the bunker along the northern TOC wall, with Barclay looking east and the other SF troop west. Slowly, the gunfire began to ebb and the satchel charge explosions ceased in the northwestern segment of the compound where the TOC was situated.
Nonetheless, Barclay felt it was too quiet, and asked his SF counterpart to look around the corner for NVA troops. No sooner had he moved to the corner to do so than two sappers appeared out of nowhere and charged Barclay’s counterpart. The SF soldier’s reflex alone killed them. The two dead NVA landed at Barclay’s feet. He put his boots on their faces just to make sure they were well and truly dead.
Inscribed on the head bandanas of the dead NVA sappers were the words, “We came here to die.” And so they did.
As Barclay sat with his feet firmly planted on the dead enemies, he could hear intense gunfire in the eastern part of the compound where the indigenous soldiers continued to fight feverishly, helping turn the tide of the battle. Despite the fact that many indig had been killed or wounded in the initial attacks on their hootches, the survivors had rallied and launched a counteroffensive against the NVA sappers.
Peters, Watkins, and others remained stationary for the rest of the night, fending off whatever attacks came their way. Henderson, Jungling, and a few other medics moved quietly from wounded soldier to wounded soldier, providing whatever treatment and comfort they could give with the limited supplies they carried that night.
Watkins and Henderson began moving wounded troops to the dispensary. The place was a madhouse; bodies were everywhere. The SF medics got them triaged as quickly as possible and then went to work on the most seriously wounded.
At first light, Spider Parks returned to FOB 4 carrying Watkins’ submachine gun. As he walked east up the main road leading into the compound, he could smell the cordite from all the weapons fire and could see the haze hanging over the camp. Inside the compound, it was an unbelievable scene of mass destruction and chaos. People were running everywhere, some of them still dazed by the night’s tragic events. Snipers were occasionally firing down from Marble Mountain and sappers were still roaming the camp. He headed for the dispensary. When he saw Watkins moving among the wounded, he gave a silent prayer of thanks for his friend’s safety.
A relief force from FOB 1, led by Lieutenant Colonel Roy Bahr, landed on the beach at dawn near the POW camp and began systematically working its way south, killing every sapper it encountered. Along the way, Bahr and his men picked up survivors while the troops began to organize.
Gene Pugh soon found himself in the dispensary too, having helped a wounded soldier along the way, now seeking treatment for his shrapnel wounds and cuts. “There were people everywhere,” he said. “To this day, the one that stands out vividly in my mind is the one with a huge hole in his right side. He was just lying there on the floor, just inside the door. I don’t know if he was U.S. or Vietnamese. I had acute tunnel vision. He was all I saw…then I said to myself, ‘I don’t belong here.’”
Had Pugh looked toward the back door of the dispensary, he would have seen a wounded and heavily bandaged SF officer, Travis Mills, guarding it. Mills was lying on two chairs, facing the door with his CAR-15. Mills had been shot five times by an NVA sapper when Mills exited his hootch at the southeast corner of the recon company area, followed by Ron Crabbe. When the sapper opened fire, he shot Mills in the stomach. As the impact of that bullet threw Mills to the ground, the next round struck Ron Crabbe, driving him back into the hootch and into First Lieutenant Geoff Fullen, who was attempting to follow them out of the east door of the team room.
Mills told SOFREP, “My first reaction was I was pissed. Really pissed. At first, I thought I had been accidentally shot by one of our own indigenous troops. When I yelled, ‘You son of a bitch, I’m an American!’ he shot me again, this time in the arm.” Mills tried to shoot the NVA, but the sapper shot him again, this time under the shoulder blade. Mills tried again. He was shot in the back of the head. Once again he tried, and was shot in the neck. This time he laid still, face down in the sand, as the NVA walked a few steps toward him and stood over him with his muzzle pointing at Mills’ head.
Fortunately for Mills, the sapper was distracted by noise in Mills’ hootch. The sapper stepped to the door of the hootch and sprayed it with full-automatic fire from his AK-47, striking Fullen in the hand. A minute later, Bob Blatherwick went outside to check on Mills. Mills pointed out where the sapper was standing near some sandbags and Blatherwick killed him with one shot.
As Colonel Warren, the FOB 4 commander, made his way through the camp, the stress began to show. Outside the TOC, he found Barclay with his feet still planted on the sappers’ bodies. Warren demanded to know if the sappers were dead. Barclay answered in the affirmative.
“I’ll never forget that exchange between Colonel Warren and Barclay,” Watkins told SOFREP. “There was no doubt in Barclay’s mind that those NVA were dead. Warren asked again, and Barclay replied that yes, they were dead. Then Warren told Barclay to shoot them. Barclay explained that he’d had his feet on them for hours and that there was no need to shoot the dead sappers.” The colonel angrily turned and headed into the TOC.
Warren remained there a few minutes before continuing down to the dispensary, where he ran into Bahr, Captain Pfeiffer, Spider, and Watkins. Bahr gave a SITREP (situation report) explaining there were still sappers inside the wire and that snipers were firing into the camp from the mountain. The group drifted toward the east side of camp. As they did so, a sniper opened fire on them from Marble Mountain. Parks and Watkins instinctively took cover behind a pallet stacked with Black Label beer. Colonel Warren, however, turned toward the mountain and, in utter frustration, fired his CAR-15 on full-automatic, yelling at the top of his lungs.
They continued on to the officers’ barracks, where Watkins found First Lieutenant Paul D. Potter impaled by a jagged piece of two-by-four. The young officer had been nailed to his bed before he could respond to the attack, and probably had had no idea what hit him. Watkins shook off the sight and moved on, looking for survivors.
Back on Marble Mountain, Trimble and a few of his ST Rattler team members had moved off of their perch and were rappelling down in order to inspect the area where they had directed heavy firepower on an NVA mortar site. As Binn and another indig were sliding down the ropes ahead of him, Trimble heard a voice yelling something in Vietnamese. It was a NVA soldier trying to convince Binn and the other Nungs to surrender. Binn responded with a burst of automatic-weapons fire.
With One-Zero Ed Ames laying down machine gun fire ahead of the team, ST Rattler moved only a short distance before it found an enemy 82mm mortar emplacement. After confirming that neither the mortar nor an abandoned rucksack contained any booby trap rigged rounds, ST Rattler patrolled a short while longer before returning to the ropes with the weapon and the rucksack in hand.
Across the camp, near its northern perimeter, Peters and a few other SF troops patrolled along the main east-west road looking for hidden enemy troops. As Peters and the other men moved parallel to the northern perimeter, two sappers suddenly broke from their hiding place in the rubble and made a mad dash across the open road, disappearing into one of the camp’s wooden latrines. Peters and at least one other SF trooper immediately opened fire. There was the briefest of pauses, and then the place exploded. The plywood walls blew out and part of one of the sappers made a graceful arc before landing with a dull thud. It looked like a lump of butchered, smoking meat.
Hearing the explosion, Jungling joined the patrol. The group moved closer to the smoking outhouse and found a second sapper, or what was left of him, in the rubble of the latrine.
Watkins, Spider, and Captain Pfeiffer had been in the mess hall getting coffee when the latrine blew. The building rocked. The three troops went outside to investigate and they too ended up joining Peters, Jungling, and the others. While they hoped to find survivors, they mostly found themselves engaged in the gruesome task of collecting and identifying the dead.
A few minutes later, Watkins, Spider, and Peters walked into the recon area behind Jungling. There was carnage everywhere. One of the first dead bodies they saw belonged to Pegram. Before they moved him, they removed Pegram’s huge sapphire ring and his gold Rolex watch to ensure his family got them. With Jungling having returned with some boots, the four men placed Pegram’s body on a stretcher and started moving him out of the recon area toward the cement slab where the U.S. dead were being collected. Pegram was a large man and Peters, who had one end of the stretcher, was not. As they moved through the sand, the body shifted slightly, tipping the stretcher toward Peters. Pegram’s body landed in the sand. After the long night, it was too much for Peters, and he threw up. Peters looked around, embarrassed, but no one seemed to notice or care.
The search continued. Sergeant First Class Donald R. ‘Pappy’ Kerns appeared to have been shot while getting out of bed. Elsewhere, Sergeant Howard S. Varni and Sergeant First Class Donald W. Welch were found, both killed before they could fire a shot at the enemy. Varni was another SF soldier who yelled, “Don’t shoot, I’m an American!” according to Watkins. However, Varni didn’t realize the man with the weapon was a NVA sapper who promptly shot and killed him on the spot.
One bright spot was finding Special Forces medic and linguist George W. Bacon III still alive. Like many others in FOB 4, Bacon had flown from FOB 1 to stand before a promotion board. That morning, however, he was lying prone in the sand with a serious shoulder wound he’d received while coming to the aid of others.
While the SF troops within the camp were beginning to put the pieces together, up on Marble Mountain, an unusual exchange was taking place between Trimble and the indig of ST Rattler.
After a Kingbee helicopter evacuated Ames and the recovered enemy rucksack containing a mortar and rounds, the indig asked Trimble if they could leave the mountain, too. They were convinced the NVA were planning a major and overwhelming attack on them at any moment. These were fearless men, so their urgent request carried more than a little weight. Trimble respected their judgment, but he nonetheless said that their orders were to stay on Marble Mountain until relieved by another team.
Binn surprised him by saying the team had decided to return to camp regardless of Trimble’s orders. Trimble doubted they could reach the bottom of the mountain without a firefight and told them so. When the indig still insisted on getting off the mountain, Trimble wished them good luck and told them they could keep their weapons and web gear. As the indig walked away to begin climbing down the ropes, Trimble began rearranging all of the claymores in preparation for a solo defense of the outlook post. Considering all that had taken place, Davy Crockett had enjoyed much better odds at the Alamo.
It wasn’t long before Trimble heard a firefight erupt along the trail leading off the mountain. A short while later, he heard Binn calling to him from below, asking if the team could rejoin him. That the indig had been forcibly persuaded to change their minds was not particularly good news, but Trimble was nonetheless very relieved to welcome them back to the tiny 20’ by 20’ outpost. If the worst happened, at least he would not die alone.
Part six, the final chapter in this exclusive SOFREP report, will follow, with more startling, first-time-ever publicly revealed information about the darkest day in Special Forces history—a day in which 17 Green Berets were killed in one engagement.
(Featured image courtesy of Bettmann/CORBIS)