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Author's Name: Lawrence Connor

Title: "Into a Hornet's Nest"

Into a Hornet’s Nest
The Battle of LZ 10-Alfa
28-29 May 1966

In May 1966, 280 men from two infantry companies were mistakenly dropped off into the wrong landing zone in the dangerous Central Highlands’ Ia Drang Valley, right on top of the equally surprised headquarters of the 66th North Vietnamese Regiment.  

How did one 40-man infantry platoon, commanded by a new lieutenant, fight off two days and nights of human wave attacks by 1,700 NVA determined to kill every American? Outnumbered 42 to 1, at the battle’s end, this platoon (and its supporting air and artillery) inflicted an astonishing 86% casualty rate on the NVA and literally drove the regiment out of the country for a year.  Amazingly, it cost few American lives—six platoon members fallen plus 23 wounded.  After two days of non-stop battle, only 11 platoon members (none ranked higher than an E-4) were left unscathed on the field.  But, 34 men made it home, and this regiment ceased to exist, along with 1,467 casualties, 367 of which were killed.

I was a 21-year old infantry lieutenant stationed at Ft. Ord, CA running a basic trainee company, bored out of my mind. After a year of dull training cycles, I finally called a Pentagon major in charge of junior officer assignments. I begged him to send me to Vietnam before the war ended. He was pleased to accommodate me.  I was Airborne, Ranger and ready to experience what I'd been training for all along.

After a three-week course in Panama at their Jungle Warfare School, I arrived in South Vietnam on 
3 May 1966 and took over command of the 3rd Platoon.  The "Third Herd" was an incredible group of men. The NCOs were seasoned and solid, and the men all experienced. Great squad leaders who led great soldiers. God, they were good!

On the 26th day of my life as an infantry platoon leader, Company A (1/35 Inf. Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 25th Inf. Div.) got a call to make a late afternoon reinforcement of Company B 2/35 that had mistakenly dropped into an unsuspecting NVA regimental headquarters at LZ 10-Alfa.  This was the infamous, 1,700 man 66th NVA Regiment that was bloodied five months earlier by the late LTC (later lieutenant general) Hal Moore's 1/7 Air Cav. at LZ X-Ray about 2 km away.  (We Were Soldiers Once . . .)

As our Hueys came into the LZ late on the afternoon of 28 May 1966, we could see five abandoned 12.7 mm AA guns—a rarity in early 1966— arranged around the LZ. Our platoon was assigned to the NE third of the LZ and dark came.  Unknown to us, we were directly facing the massed NVA regiment scattered on the slope of the spooky Chu Pong Massif (2,400 foot elevation). These large AA guns and lots of commo wire leading up the hill in front of us were unmistakable signs that we were in the middle of a very large enemy force.  We had no idea how large yet.  We put out a listening post (LP) 100 meters to our center front, manned by four men. 

Shortly after Midnight the LP called me and whispered that they could hear lots of movement to their immediate front. I told them to make his way back to our line quietly, when the NVA opened up. All but one of my men made it back to our perimeter. Astonished and furious that three men had left a wounded trooper behind, I grabbed someone, somehow made our way through the attacking NVA, found our wounded, missing guy and helped him back to our platoon. Right then, at least a company-sized force attacked our platoon front. 

This went on for a while, wave after wave of some of the finest light infantrymen in the world.  The enemy withdrew for a while, then you could hear whistles blowing and shouting, and they’d rush us again and again.  Several times they got as close as 10-15 meters from us, but we drove them back every time. We fired hundreds of artillery rounds right in front of us, and thousands of M-16 and M-60 machine gun (MG) rounds at point blank range.

I remember crawling up and down our line with my radio operator and we came across a rifleman who had lost his helmet in the pitch black night. I gave him mine to wear without thinking anything about it. Sometime that night, I recall lying next to one of our M-60s, watching the NVA come up the slope toward us through a clunky Starlight night vision scope. I put the heavy glove on that came with the 60’s spare barrel and hosed the muzzle back and forth into the green shapes coming up the slope toward us.

At dawn they stopped attacking and it became absolutely quiet. Sadly, the wounded soldier from the listening post, who had been shot in the elbow, died from shock sometime that night. Right after dawn we were ordered to pick up our line and sweep our front, collecting weapons, intelligence and counting bodies. We stood up and cautiously moved down a slight, wooded slope, all in line. The slope in front of us was absolutely strewn with NVA bodies, weapons, and pieces of bodies from the artillery. We moved about 300 meters down to a dry creek bed, where we found a cluster of enemy bodies where our artillery had caught them massing to attack us.

Here we found a barely alive NVA captain who had been horribly wounded by our artillery. I asked our medic if he would make it back to our lines, and he just shook his head no.  I recovered a North Vietnamese map case made of bamboo with information that identified the enemy as the famous 66th NVA Regiment.  We turned around and began making our way back to our line. Each of us was carrying numerous NVA weapons slung over our shoulders. As we approached where our perimeter had been a burst of heavy machine gun fire tore into us from our front and on each side.  Using a tactic not yet seen in Vietnam it became clear that after we had swept down to the creek bed, the NVA crept behind us and our line.

My platoon sergeant was shot in the neck right next to me, and something hit me in the head and knocked me head over heels. I remember exactly what it felt like—getting hit square in the head with a baseball bat. I landed on my back and couldn’t see out of my left eye because my scalp was hanging down over it bleeding like crazy.  I found out later we’d been hit with one of their heavy Soviet-made machine guns that they pulled around on two wheels. 

I crawled over to my severely wounded platoon sergeant and lay on top of him trying to give him some cover. The enemy machine gun that hit us was directly in front of me, maybe 20 meters away in some kind of bunker that had been empty just a short time ago. They were so close I could hear them talking while they loaded another belt into the gun.

I shot both my and the sergeant’s M-16s bone dry at that bunker. I fired the 8 rounds from my .45, and then had nothing left. At some point I was laying there with three empty guns watching bursts walk up and down our sides, thinking that I was getting paid $290 a month as a second lieutenant and couldn’t help wondering if I'd made a good career choice.  I suddenly understood why the life expectancy of an infantry platoon leader in combat was 12 minutes.

At some point, I could hear a heavy volume of fire from our right side. It was our 2nd Platoon. They flanked the NVA and broke through to us. They literally saved our lives that morning.  The next thing I recall was being helped back to the LZ. The NVA kept attacking and we kept firing back. When things seemed to have died down a bit, a Huey slick braved a very hot LZ and landed to evacuate the most seriously wounded men.  Someone carried me onto the Huey.  Just as the bird began to lift off the skids, the NVA resumed their attacked again.  I jumped off, thinking I wasn’t hurt that bad and my men needed all the help they could get.  I just couldn’t stand to be evacuated in the middle of a horrendous fight before all my men had been first taken care of.

All day the NVA kept attacking in platoon and company-sized waves aimed mostly at our weakened line, but the “Third Herd” kept beating them back. We had lots of air support—500 and 1,000 pound bombs, rockets, 20mm cannon, napalm, 40mm grenade launchers, everything—all "danger close" to us. We kept begging them to bring in their next runs closer and closer.  I remember laying there watching a pair of A-1E Skyraiders make several runs, Huey gunships (one got hit right over us and crashed in the LZ), and several F4 Phantoms. I remember the F4s because they were so big, and because they came in nose high, flaps down and air brakes out to slow down enough to lay their bombs in very close to us. Like the artillery and our Huey gunships, the Air Force, Navy and Marine fighters literally saved our bacon that day.

Later that afternoon I was kneeling next to a tree firing another M16 and something slammed into my left side, knocking me down. By this time I’d lost a fair amount of blood, but this wound one hurt like a white hot knife in my side. I learned later it was an AK round that first passed through three empty M16 magazines in my ammo pouch—they probably slowed the round down enough to keep it from killing me.

That did it for me that day. I remember being carried into another Huey Medavac and laid down on the floor.  Unknown to me at the time, my company commander ordered several men to forcefully put me on this Huey.  This time I stayed. It unarmed copter banked so steeply coming out of the LZ I was afraid I’d slide out the open door on my back, helpless to move.  The next thing I recall was coming to on a stretcher inside a MASH tent near Pleiku.  When I heard how many of my men had been killed and wounded, I cried for the first time in my life.   

Our company was awarded both the Presidential Unit Citation and the Valorous Unit Award (there are no higher unit awards for heroism)—for “extraordinary leadership and exceptional valor”.   I learned later that U.S. troops left LZ 10-Alfa two days later, never to return.  The 66th’s NVA Regimental Commander was relieved of his command and ordered back to Hanoi.  The 66th didn’t return to South Vietnam for a year.  Our Battalion Commander, LTC Robert Kingston (“Barbed Wire Bob”), went on to create Delta Force and retired as a highly decorated four-star general.  I left the Army several years later as a captain with a Combat Infantry Badge, Silver Star, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart among other decorations.

An age old military axiom in all armies is that a unit that suffers a casualty (killed plus wounded) rate of 50 percent or greater must be considered “combat ineffective” and withdrawn.  While the 1,700 man NVA regiment experienced an 86 percent casualty rate, my platoon suffered a 72 percent loss rate.  As day two of the Battle of 10-Alfa ended, only 11 out of my original 40 men remained in the field.  Although outnumbered 42 to 1, we still lost six heroes and had 23 men wounded.   

Vietnam combat vets were never the same once they had survived combat trauma.  We universally felt a long-term sense of betrayal by senior military and civilian leaders, the destruction of capacity for social trust, and pain and indignant rage and bitterness at the enormous, unnecessary waste of life.

Fifty-one years later, I cannot help feeling like I died and was born again at that deadly, insignificant clearing at the base of the Chu Pong Massif in the Ia Drang Valley.  Not a night goes by without reliving my actions—and what I might have done differently—in that place of heroes called LZ 10-Alfa.