10 June 2009. Today, my heart and mind will spend the day back at An Bang (1).
10 June 1969. Dusk in the Arizona. We settled in for the night. When I checked lines at about 2200, we were still on 2 up, 1 down. The FNGs were nervous, as was to be expected, but my experienced Marines were steady.
Charlie 3 Bravo (Tonkyn) was to my left and 3 Alpha was about 10 meters to my front and slightly right. Our 60mm mortar section was about 20 meters to my left. The Skipper’s CP was behind me and to my right. Further down to my right, Charlie 1 was also settled in. Neal had a three man listening post about 75 meters in front of his lines.
Shortly after midnight, we were mortared, with no real effect. About 15 minutes later, there was an explosion to my right front. I heard Neal call the Skipper on the radio to report that he had lost contact with his LP. He asked permission to take a fire team forward to check them out. Frank denied that request. “Look, I may have just lost some Marines. I don’t need to lose you until we are sure what is going on. Both you and Charlie 3 check your lines and get back to me.”
I called Tonkyn who reported that he had checked his lines and all was secure. I could not raise 3 Alpha. I got out of my hole and moved up to the squad CP. There were 3 Marines in the position—the squad leader, PFC Wandro, and another Marine. All were asleep. The radio handset was in Wandro’s lap. I grabbed him, waking all three. “What the hell—sleeping on watch?”
He shook himself awake. “No sir. But…but.”
The rocket squad leader came sliding over from his hole about 3 meters to the left. “Can it,” I said. “You (pointing to the squad leader), check your lines to the right and get back to me. You (to the rocket squad leader), check things out to the left. And stay awake, dammit.”
The two squad leaders took off. The rocket squad leader walked perhaps 15 meters along the inside edge of the trench. I could see him bend over, as if to talk to someone. Suddenly, a stream of green tracers erupted from the trench. “Rockets” flew back and fell to the ground. Damn, I thought, he’s dead.
A minute later, we heard a scuffling sound to our left. “Don’t [universal modifier] shoot. It’s me.” The rocket squad leader flopped into the hole, breathing heavily. “Goddammit, Sir. There’s a bunch of [universal modifier] gooks in that trench.” No kidding. “I saw them crouching down, looking outboard. I thought they were the FNGs. I said ‘Are you dudes from Charlie 3?’ and they shot at me.”
“I don’t know, Sir. A whole damn pisspot full. . . . . Uh, at least 10.”
“OK, hold fast here. You’re in charge until the squad leader gets back.” I called the Skipper to report this disturbing news.
“Keep everybody in their holes. Anybody walking around is a sure target.”
“Uh, roger.” I passed that word to the three Marines and then, being the only Marine around who was above ground, I crawled back to my position. When I got there, Levi told me that as far as he could tell, we were being probed all along our front. He was huddled down, smoking a cigarette, which he held low in the hole, cupped in his hand. “Give me one of those,” I asked.
“You don’t smoke,” he replied.
“Well, this may be my last chance to try.” It was my first and last cigarette.
Meanwhile, over in Charlie 1, Neal had his hands full. I have heard him tell the story many times, but you really need to hear him tell it in his Georgia drawl.
As soon as the Skipper told Neal to hold fast, one of his Marines, Sam “Frags” Felton took off for the LP. Frags Felton is a gentle giant. He is a black Marine from Ohio, about 6’5”, wasp-waisted, a mountain of a man. When he got to the LP, all three Marines were wounded. He grabbed two and carried them back into our lines. Neal begins:
“So, here’s this big black man with two white boys, one under each arm. He lays them down and says ‘Here’s two of them, Sir. I’ve got to get the other one.’” Frags dashed outside the lines again. He picked up the last man, destroyed the radio, and headed back. Two NVA popped up in front of him. One shot him, but he killed both NVA with his rifle, and then limped back into our lines. He remained at his post until evacuated the next morning. You can read his Navy Cross citation here (scroll down).
It seemed as if the NVA were particularly heavy to our left front. There were repeated blasts as grenades were thrown to our front. The Colonel came up on our company tac net for a situation report. The rocket squad leader was still handling first squad.
I learned the next morning that the 3 Alpha was between holes, checking lines, when a chicom went off at his feet, knocking him out, but doing little other harm. He did, however, lose his rifle. When he regained consciousness, an NVA was hiding behind his “body,” using it as a rifle rest. Finally, when the gook had to change magazines, the squad leader grabbed him and strangled him!
The Old Man finally reported that we had a Spooky coming. “Can anyone adjust,” he asked?
“Three Bravo (Tonkyn) has the best line of sight,” I replied. “Three Bravo, can you adjust?”
OM: “OK, 3 Bravo, the man does not want to shoot any closer to our lines than 100 meters. Do you understand?”
OM: “Stand by.” The Spook opened up with one gun. There was a hum and then a ripping sound, like canvas being torn, as the rounds came to earth.
3B: “Uh, bring him in 50 meters.”
OM: “Son, remember that he doesn’t want to shoot any closer to us than 100 meters.”
3B: “Roger. In 50.” The Spook fired again. It sounded louder to me. Two RPGs exploded between me and the mortar pit. There was rifle and grenade fire all along the east side of the position.
3B: “Laundryman 6, this is Charlie 3 Bravo. Have him come in another 50.”
Long pause. OM: “Uh, son, remember that he wants to stay at least 100 meters out.”
3B: “Roger.” Much more insistent. “ In another 50.” They fired again. It sounded to me as if they were hitting right outside my hole.
3B: “OK, come in 25 and fire for effect.”
OM: “OK, but keep him at least 100 meters out.”
3B: “Roger. In 25 and fire for effect.” All three guns fired. I cannot describe the sound, but I’ll know it when I have forgotten everything else. Spook made three circuits and then had to leave for fuel.
About 40 minutes later, we were probed again. The Skipper passed the word to “Fix bayonets.” Those are eerie words to hear, echoing in the night, as Marine after Marine passes the word. And then you hear them clicking into place.
A minute later, a red flare went up and I could hear the Skipper shouting “Fire the FPL. Fire the FPL.”
Every weapon in our lines opened up. The FPL, i.e., the “final protective line,” is a defensive measure when the enemy is in the assault. Often referred to as the “mad minute,” every weapon is fired along a pre-designated line, planned so that rifles, automatic rifles, machine guns, 40mm grenades, and mortars create a criss-crossing and interlocking band of steel to your front. At TBS, it was demonstrated with every weapon firing nothing but tracers, and it is awesome.
After about 90 seconds, the word was passed to “Cease fire.” The silence was deafening.
The threat from outside our lines was about over, with only an occasional RPG or mortar winging our way. The NVA in the trench were still a problem. Tonkyn’s busy night was not yet over.
As the sky lightened in the east, he began a single-handed attack on the trench, crawling forward with hand grenades and tossing them into the trench. The NVA threw chicoms and fired their AK 47s. Tonkyn would crawl back to get more grenades and then head back to the trench. He made at least three separate trips, over 20 meters of flat open ground, totally exposed.
Finally, a Sergeant from 2d Platoon, apparently feeling left out, dashed forward towards the trench. He was hit in the throat and fell forward so that he was half in and half out of the trench. Tonkyn crawled forward, grabbed the Sergeant by his belt, and pulled him out of the trench. He grabbed the Sergeant’s rifle in his other hand and then pulled him back to where a corpsman could start working on him.
Taking two more grenades, Tonkyn crawled back to the trench, tossed in both grenades, and them, his rifle in one hand and the Sergeant’s in the other, he jumped into the trench and walked up it, firing both weapons like Wyatt Earp on a Dodge City Saturday night. The NVA jumped up and it looked like one of those Road Runner cartoons where Wile E. Coyote has realized he has stepped over the cliff and is trying to walk on air. Tonkyn killed seven of the NVA, although other Marines joined in. We found another three further up the trench.
And it was over.
As I tried to account for everyone, we realized that Wandro was missing. Finally, Bob Henson came up to me. “We think we found him, Sir” Think? “He was hit in the head, but he is the only one missing.” His body was in the trench, near the three dead NVA. He had apparently tried to clear the trench from his end, killing three before another NVA killed him.
On Wandro's Vietnam Wall page, Rod Pontious, one of our 60mm mortarmen who was about 20 meters to my right, wrote about Wandro:
I was a member of Charlie Company and [Jim and I]arrived at the 5th Marines about the same time. Jim went to a rifle plt. and I went to the 60mm Mortar section. Both of us were assigned "mess duty" at Liberty Bridge, the small side a month or so before he was killed. I remember the night he was killed. We were in the "Arizonia Territory" and were attacked by the 90th NVA Regiment that night.The NVA had broken into our lines and were in a trench about 20-25 yards in front of my mortar section between us and the perimeter fox holes. I was in a one man fox hole with Allen to the right of the mortar pit. The NVA would continually pop up and let out a burst of AK fire or throw their chi com grenades at us. I remember getting hit by dirt from their rounds hitting in front of me and grenades going off just in front of me and one bounced off my flack jacket and went off somewhere behind me. That night was a flashing memory with illumination, enemy tracer rounds of greenish yellow, fiery trails of RPGs, grenades and Spookys hosing red tracer trails and confusion. We couldn't fire back at the NVA because of fear of hitting our own men behind the enemy and my mortar section had given all of our frags to the lines when the attack first happened. This was when Jim crawled out to try to contact our lines near us and locate the enemy position. We got the NVA in the trench when dawn started to break and they couldn't use the darkness as cover to escape, One even tried to choi hoi. We found Jim's body that morning. I have a photo of him taken at An Hoa less than two months before his death. He was a good back alley player and I think of him all the time. Semper Fi.
Private First Class James Wayne Wandro, USMC, had just turned 19. “With pride”, the President awarded him the Silver Star Medal (posthumously). His name is on Panel 22 W, Line 29. I go there every time I am in DC.
Charlie 1 had captured one wounded NVA. I heard one of the Marines bragging about it, right after we found Wandro. The next thing I knew, the Gunny had me in a bear hug and Levi, Henson, and Gibby were yelling at me. I had my pistol in hand and was on the way to kill the NVA. The Gunny grabbed took my pistol and told Levi and Henson to stay with me until I calmed down.
I had four Marines wounded, including three of the new guys. One had been shot through the left bicep. When I went to see him at the Battalion Aid Station, which our Surgeon, Lieutenant Alexander, MC, USNR, had set up in a bomb crater toward the west side of the hill, the Marine was running a small stick through the wound. “Wow. Look, Sir, it goes all the way through.” One of the corpsmen told him to “knock that shit off,” gave him a shot, and he calmed down.
About 20 minutes later, the Skipper and the Old Man walked over. “The Colonel wants to talk to Tonkyn,” Frank said. I led them over.
Tonkyn was sitting on the edge of his fighting hole, staring out into the paddy. He was eating a can of pineapple bits. The Old Man waved us off and walked on over.
“Morning, Tonkyn.” Mike looked up and started to rise. “Keep your seat, son. You’ve had a busy night.” He sat down.
Tonkyn started to take another bite of pineapple, then hesitated. “Oh, sorry, Sir.” He offered the Old Man the can.
“Ah, I’ve already eaten, but thanks,” he said gently. “You just go ahead and finish your breakfast.” They continued to sit there silently, looking out at the paddy.
Finally, the Old Man spoke. “Tonkyn, I have just one question for you. When you finally had Spooky fire for effect, how close were you shooting?”
Mike paused. “Uh, you see that beaten up ground about 25 meters from that hole in front of me?” He gestured with his plastic spoon, never taking his eyes off the paddy. “ That’s where he was shooting.”
The Old Man nodded. “I thought as much.” He paused. “ Son, do you know why that pilot didn’t want to shoot any closer than 100 meters?”
“Oh, yessir. Any closer and he so much as hiccups, we’re dead.”
“Right. So, why did you bring him in so close?”
Very softly, and still without looking away from the paddy, Tonkyn answered “Well, Sir, them fuckin’ gooks wasn’t a hundred meters out.” Sorry. You have to hear the exact words to appreciate the moment.
The Old man slapped Mike on the back and said, “Well done.” Then he turned to Frank and me. “I’d like to see a recommendation for the Navy Cross this morning.” You can find the citation
here (scroll down).
Later that morning, I took a patrol out to our east. Behind a small rise about a click to our east, we found row upon row of packs where the NVA formation had dropped them before they went into the attack. We believe that our two platoons, numbering about 60 Marines, were hit by 600 NVA from the 7th Battalion, 90th NVA Regiment. No one had come back for the packs, so Tonkyn’s shooting must have been pretty good. Charlie Company suffered two KIA and 8 WIA; no one else in the battalion was hit.
For that one fight, two Charlie Company Marines—Frags Felton and Mike Tonkyn--were awarded the Navy Cross (for entirely separate acts of heroism), three were awarded Silver Stars (including Wandro), and three, Bronze Stars, as well as 17 Purple Hearts.
In 2005, Frank Satterfield arranged for a group of us to have dinner together in Kansas City during the 1st Marine Division Association annual reunion. I had attended only one before that, and only Rob Montgomery was there from our time. Most of the guys were from the Hue City operation during Tet 1968.
In Kansas City, it was our first time together since 1969. It was as if we had last seen each other the day before. When I got home, SWMBO asked me how it went. I said, “Well, it was nice to be with a bunch of guys who could talk about ‘that night.’”
“What do you mean?”
"Well, nobody had to ask ‘What night are you talking about?’”
It was Frags Felton who christened the night of June 10-11, 1969 as “that night,” and so shall it be until none of us who were there are still alive. During dinner, he said, “You know, Frank, about 0230 that night, when you passed the word to fix bayonets, I started to get a little worried.”
“I gave no such order,” our noble leader avered.
Six heads swiveled and replied in unison “The [universal modifier] you say.” (A lady in the restaurant complained, but the manager, himself a Vietnam vet who had personally taken care of our party, simply told her that we were praying a special Marine prayer! He understood.)
But I think about that night every day. Our Marines acted with calm fortitude, presence of mind, and nobility, worthy successors to the Marines who fought with O’Bannon at Derne, at Chapultepec castle, with Daly at Belleau Wood, with the Division at Guadalcanal and the “frozen Chosin” reservoir, and our 1/5 brothers at Hue City.
In each generation, God allows only a few men the privilege of leading Marines in combat. I cannot tell you how thankful I am to have had the privilege of serving in their presence.
And, always, I think of Wandro. He is the other reason I have not had a good night’s sleep in 40 years. Later that morning, the other Marine (who he is is unimportant-he is a good Marine and nothing that he did could have changed that night) came to me.
“Uh, Lieutenant. Wandro wasn’t sleeping, Sir. He had woke me up to take over the radio watch. I guess I drifted off and dropped the handset into his lap. It wasn’t his damn fault, Sir.” He had tears in his eyes.
I told him that it was OK. “But don’t ever let it happen again.”
“No, Sir. You have my word on that.”
But I never got to say “I’m sorry, Wandro. I was wrong.” And I need to know that Wandro knows how sorry I am.
© 2010 Michael R. McCarty. All rights reserved.