I Still Recall Binh Gia...
Written by: Major Tran Ve
In the Marine Corps, whenever a battalion is mentioned, one generaly associates a geographical name to it, e.g. The 1st Battalion with Dam Doi, the 2nd Battalion with Tam Quan Bong Son, the 3rd Battalion with Ba Gia, the 4th Battalion with Binh Gia...
In the same vein, when the Vietnamese think of the Marine Corps, they invariably think of Quang Tri. The reason is that these places were where these units won huge victories, experienced painful souvenirs, lossed their brothers-in-arms.
My military life was bound to two units: the 4th Marine Battalion (the Killer Sharks), and the 5th Marine Battalion (the Black Dragons). Just after I graduated from the Da Lat National Military Academy, I joined the 4th Marine Battalion. This unit was like a mother to me... it trained me, advised me, nurtured me from the position of platoon leader, to company executive officer, to company commander. After eight years in the 4th Battalion, I was appointed Executive Officer of the "Black Dragons". I was to lead the 5th Battalion's companies in a fierce operation.
With the "Killer Sharks", I shed a great deal of sweat, tears and blood, and was with them in the victory at Binh Gia. That battle made the "Killer Sharks" famous. There were six second Lieutenants in command:
Vo Thanh Khang
Nguyen Van Hung
Ho Ngoc Hoang
Do Huu Ai
We reported ourselves to the Marine Division Headquarters situated in Le Thanh Ton Street, a morning in December 1964. Uptight and gawky in our new short-sleeved service uniforms, we waited in the corridor for the audience with Lieutenant Colonel Bui The Lan, the Chief of Staff of the Marine Brigade. We were all silent, for everybody was nervous and anxious. A person appeared and said:
"New officers, please come in... the Lieutenant Colonel is waiting!"
Vo Thanh Khang gave the order to salute the Chief of Staff, as we had been trained at the Military Academy. The Chief of Staff nodded, seemingly pleased. After asking us some questions, he said: "You are all appointed to the 4th Marine Battalion in Vung Tau, but it has been performing operations in Di An, Bien Hoa. G4 will transport you directly to the Battalion Forward Headquarters. Is that clear?"
"Yes Sir!" we exclaimed in unison.
After leaving the Brigade Headquarters, we headed to the 4th Battalion Forward Headquarters, the atmosphere there was very tense. The Battalion was preparing for an operation scheduled the next morning. The Battalion commander at the time was a tall and lean major by the name of Nguyen Van Nho.
The Executive Officer was Captain Hoan, a robust man with a ruddy complexion.
The Chief of the Medical Platoon was Dr Truong Ba Han.
The Commander of the 1st Company was First Lieutenant Tran Ngoc Toan.
Commander of the 2nd Company was First Lieutenant Do Huu Tung.
Commander of the 3rd Company was Second Lieutenant Trinh Van Hue.
Commander of the 4th Company was First Lieutenant Nguyen Dang Tong.
Hung Rau and Vo Thanh Khang went to the 2nd Company.
Ho Ngoc Hoang and Do Huu Ai went to the 1st Company.
Thai Bong went to the 4th, and I, Tran Ve, joined the 3rd Company.
Trinh Van Hue was a Da Lat Officer of the 17th Class, the members of which had taught our 19th Class at the Military Academy. When he saw me saluting him, he smiled and said: "Ok, you don't have to salute me with such a stiff neck. How were your holidays? Ready for the operation?"
"Lieutenant, I had a month's holiday... and this morning, I reported to the Brigade. I have just transferred here."
The Company Commander called S4 to bring us the tiger-striped uniforms and said: "The Battalion will perform operations tomorrow. Everyone is to stay in camp till then. Change your uniform now. Take only some necessary things with you. Leave the rest behind. When the Battalion returns to the base, you will recover it." Turning to the person sitting on the next table, who was busy tendering money to each person, Trinh Van Hue called: "Hey, Lich, there is a newcomer, Come here and I'll introduce you."
I shook hands with First Lieutenant Ho Quang Lich, and was told that he was a graduate of Thu Duc Training School for Reserve Officers. We were to became close friends. When Ho Quang Lich became the 5th Marine Battalion Commander later, he asked our superiors to transfer me over to become Executive Officer.
At that moment, an officer came in, Trinh Van Hue introduced him to me as First lieutenant Pham Huu Hoang Son, of the 9th Thu Duc Class. He was the Company Executive Officer. He had just come back from leave. He shook my hand in a friendly manner.
"Any presents for us, now that you're back?' a small, and active officer asked him.
"Nothing at all! I was intending to return to Vung Tau after my leave to collect something, but the Marine Brigade did not allow me. I was told to go straight here. I didn't have time to do anything else. Son turned to me: " This is Warrant Officer Lam Xuan, the leader of the 3rd platoon."
Lam Xuan and I were to became good friends in the 3rd Company, until I went away to the USA for further training.
The next day, the Battalion ordered all companies to be ready to move. We were to take 5 days worth of dried food. Ho Quang Lich, who had just came back from the Battalion Headquarters, shook my hand and said: "I am going on leave now. We haven't had a chance to have a drink together, have we? When you get back to Vung Tay, come and have a drink on me. Ho Quang Lich was an excellent drinker... drank alcohol like water, yet never got drunk. In this respect, I resembled him - and perhaps that is why we got along so well."
The Company Commanders returning from the briefing quickly summoned the Company Executive Officer and platoon leaders to give them the orders. It was during the preparations that I met Warrant Officer Nguyen Van Nu, the leader of the 1st platoon, and made the acquaintance of Sergeant Thach Bien the temporary leader of the 2nd platoon.
First Lieutenant Trinh Van Hue pointed to the map, and explained:
"Our Battalion will move to Phuoc Tuy, in Ba Ria, then we will march to Binh Gia 5km west of Ba Ria. The Rangers have been confronting the enemy there, so our responsibility is to give them a hand."
After having given the orders for the operation, he asked the Executive Officer, Pham Huu Hoang Son:
"Is the company ready? Let me see the list of personnels."
"We are ready sir! There is also Second Lieutenant Tran Ve...which platoon would you like him to join?"
Preserving the hierarchy was important in the ARVN. Even if two people were in the same rank, the elder or the one with the more important responsibility was treated as the senior. At that time, I was a graduated from Da Lat National Military School, so was an authentic Second Lieutenant. Pham Huu Hoang Son had been a Warrant Officer and was only recently promoted to temporary Second Lieutenant. The company commander pondered. Hoang Son had more seniority. I was a new graduate. A moment later, he reached his decision. "Well Tran Ve is a newcomer, so he'll go with me. I shall train him in "Fighting and Commanding."
That was a piece of goodluck for me. I didn't have any experience, and now I had the chance to learn from the Company commander himself. Later, I found out that the five friends were wounded as soon a they entered the battle.
The battalion convoy stopped in front of the district headquarters so that the Battalion Commander and the Executive Officer could hold a meeting with the Chief of the District before the operation.
When the two officers left the District Headquarters to return to their jeeps, they passed by the 3rd Company's trucks. I saw that their faces were very tense. Captain Hoan, red faced, exclaimed something which I did not catch, while Major Nho strode silently next to him. Later on, I was told that the situation had been more serious than reported by the District's S2. The enemy had been gathering a mighty army. Captain Hoan had suggested to Major Nho that we needed more time to gather information. But the Chief of the District ordered the 4th Marine Battalion to immediately advance. Major Nho had no option but to agree. Thus the convoy continued to drive to the line of departure.
The line of departure was situated in a French rubber plantation. The rubber trees towered above, there trunks were so thick that it was impossible to wrap ones arms around them. Sunlight was totally blocked. About 5 km to the west of Ba Ria, there were two villages: Binh Gia and Xuyen Moc. There was only one red dirt road leading from Ba Ria to Long Thanh, via the two villages.
The population in the area was sparse. The people made their living from the rubber trees. The inhabitants of Binh Gia lived within strategical hamlets surrounded by a high bamboo fence. They kept guard seriously. The Catholic father of Binh Gia's church had organized all the men into squads to take care of the village. Thus, the VC found it impossible to infiltrate.
Xuyen Moc, situated further west, was not under complete government control. The VC frequently gathered there, threatening and bullying the men to carry ammunitions and food for them. During the day, regional forces occasionally performed operations in the village, but would withdraw at night time. The communists were particularly troublesome in the region. The enemy frequently used Xuyen Moc as a springboard from which they attacked Binh Gia. But the inhabitants of Binh Gia were always up to the challenge.
Two kilometres from the departure line, the battalion met a number of wounded Rangers who were being medevacuated. The first company which had been leading was sent ahead to keep guard. The 2nd and the 3rd companies protected the flanks, while the Battalion Staff and the 4th Company protected the retreating Rangers.
Early that morning, the Ranger company which had been reinforcing the Ba Ria District was performing search and destroy operations. They confronted the enemy between Xuan Moc and Ba Ria. Immediately after the fighting broke out, the Rangers killed 10 VC, seized a number of weapons that included machine guns. The presence of machine guns at the time showed that the enemy's attacking force was at the battalion level - contrary to what the Ba Ria's S2 had estimated. Gaining momentum, the Rangers pressed on in the hope of eradicating the VC. But the fighting turned fierce. The Rangers told the Marines that the enemy had attacked wave after wave, and far from being up against a small unit, we were facing a battalion. The Rangers had to stop attacking and defend. They also had to urge the Ba Ria District to call in reinforcements.
When the Rangers had completed there retreat, the 4th Marine Battalion advanced a further 2 km, but found nothing. All was quiet. In the rubber plantation, it became dark suddenly, even though outside, it was still the afternoon. The Commander allowed the Battalion to withdraw to the strategical hamlet of Binh Gia for the night. The bamboo fence was higher than our heads and was very solid. When we arrived, the guards informed the leaders, and the Catholic Father ran out to us. We had to enter in single file to avoid the grenades they had set up to ward off the enemy. Though it was night time, none of the houses lit their lights. The atmosphere was an emergency one. The inhabitants were keyed up to defend.
As I ate that night, I heard the sound of gunfire coming from the position of the 1st Company. Being with the Company Commander, I overheard that the guard had seen moving shadows, and so had opened fire. The Battalion requested flares from the Ba Ria district, and also asked for artillery shellings to be directed at suspected targets. Now and again, the dogs in the village barked. The Binh Gia villagers told us that every night, the VC guerillas would prowl around looking for information. Sometimes, they attempted to infiltrate the village, only to be blown up by the grenades. Now that the Marines had come, the enemy had likely sent men out to investigate.
That night, things were relatively calm, though a few artillery rounds fell close to us, ripping away tree branches near our defence lines. As the Company Commander and I lay side by side, we recounted to each other the good and bad times we had experienced in the Da Lat National Military Academy. We chatted about some of the pretty girls from the Bui Thi Xuan Girls' High School. Many of us at the Military Officers Club had taken them out. The conversation gave me sweet dreams, and it was probably the most fitful sleep I ever had as a fighter.
When I woke early next morning, the Company Commander was already up, coffee in hand, looking carefully at the map. He as already equipped and ready to go. Turning to me, he said in a friendly tone: "Hi! Did our new graduate officer have a sound sleep? Bet you dreamt of a high school girl!"
I was embarrassed for waking up so late. "Lieutenant, it must have been that long walk we had yesterday - I slept like a log. Has anything changed since?"
Hue stood up, and moved his shoulders about. "Last night was quiet. They were only probing us. Take your breakfast. We're leaving in an hour and a half's time."
At 7.00am, the Battalion moved out of the Strategical Hamlet. The Company Commander told me that today, First Lieutenant Do Huu Tung's 2nd Company would lead. Before the departure, the 4th Marine Battalion requested the Ba Ria District to provide fire support. Two Skyraiders belonging to the VNAF bombarded the area in front of us. The noise of the bombs and the machine guns from the aircrafts reassured us. Finishing their mission, the aircrafts returned to their hangars. The Battalion moved slowly forward. The 3rd Company made up the rear, so we were able to see clearly what was happening in front. The rubber plantation was immense. Rows of rubber trees were arranged in endless straight lines. The trees were 2m apart, making it very difficult to camouflage. We had moved about 2km when the first gunfire was heard somewhere from the frontlines. The 2nd Company reported a platoon had detected the enemy. I followed developments closely over the radio, to advance more quickly, the Battalion Commander allowed two platoons to advance abreast of each other simultanously. We could here the sound of returning enemy fire now.
First Lieutenant Tung reported that the enemy were running back and forth between the rows of trees, making it hard for us to observe their movements. He requested a reconnaissance airplane to follow the enemy movements, and sky-raiders to provide fire support. I could hear clearly over the radio, Major Nho saying: "OK, Tango, continue your deployment. I will call the L 19 reconnaissance plane for you."
A moment later, the L19 could be heard approaching. It circled twice, and suddenly fired a smoke bomb. Two fighters rushed to the site and bombarded furiously. The 2nd Company's Commander's voice shouted joyfully over the radio:
"Great Eagle, that was fantastic!"
"Alright, I'll tell them to keep at it."
The fighters finished their job and flew back. I then heard the sound of a helicopter. It was circling over the site of the bombardments, probably to check if the targets had been hit. Suddenly, I heard no more of it. It was unclear whether it had landed or returned. But then the Battalion Commander called the 2nd Company and said:
"The district of Ba Ria has reported that a helicopter has been shot down a kilometre north of us. Send your troops to rescue it." They obeyed.
It was 12.00 noon, but in the rubber plantation, I thought it was late afternoon. Only a few sunrays managed to filter through. Half an hour later, I heard intense firing from the direction of the 2nd Company. First Lieutenant Tung reported:
"Great Eagle, I've located the helicopter... its badly damaged. The rats are so numerous, I'm trying to annihilate them."
In between the sound of gunfire, I heard B40 rockets and hand grenades exploding.
First Lieutenant Hue came to me and said: "It seems as if the 2nd Company is surrounded by an enemy battalion. But First Lieutenant Tung is standing firm...they've captured three B40 rocket launchers, five AK 47 rifles and have killed seven enemy."
Tung's spoke hurriedly in plain words over the radio: "Great Eagle, there are so many of them, and they are planning to charge. They are pushing civilians in front of them as shields. We are fighting to the finish."
Major Nho answered: "Tango, try your best! More support is coming."
Sure enough, the Artillery and the bombers came to the rescue. The gunfire stopped. The enemy retreated to hide, and wait for a more opportune moment to attack. The 2nd Company also moved back to give space to the Artillery and bombardment. It was 2.00pm.
All companies received the order to move immediately as soon as the bombardment stopped. As I was adjusting my ammunition belt, First Lieutenant Hue came up and said: "Ve! Khang and Hung Rau are both dead." I uttered a shocked exclamation, and stared at him, stunned. He shook his head silently.
I thought: "Khang ! Hung ! Why did you pass away so quickly? Was the life of a soldier meant to be that short? The six of us were going to drink to the victory together when we got back to base. Now we were minus two!!!.
My thoughts were abruptly shortened by the orders:
"Let's Move! Move!"
The First Company led by First Lieutenant Toan and our company were ordered to move forward, past the Battalion Staff to either side of the 2nd Company. I nervously asked First Lieutenant Hue whether I could accompany the vanguard to see Khang and Hung Rau. He comforted me and said: "Calm yourselve. The Company Staff is moving there now. You'll have a chance to say good-bye to them."
The Battalion Staff followed us closely, and the 4th Company became the rear contingent. As we reached the position of the 2nd Company and made ready to deploy to the right, I met First Lieutenant Tung. Pointing in front, he said:
"Your two friends are lying there. It was their first encounter with the enemy, but they fought heroically."
The bodies of Vo Thanh Khang and Hung Rau were lying next to the damaged helicopter besides the bodies of two American pilots. Vo Thanh Khang was killed by a bullet in his ear, and one to his chest. Hung Ray received a whole set of bullets from a rifle in his chest. I hurriedly wiped down the eyelids of my friends, and followed the company. It was 3.00 pm.
The Battalion Staff were already catching up. All companies were to deploy close to the downed helicopter so that medevac could be carried out. At that moment, shots could be heard from the direction of First Lieutenant Toan's 1st Company. Toan reported;
"The enemy have been sighted. They are advancing in large numbers in parallel rows."
The gunfire was very close - a few bullets even reached our position. First Lieutenant Hue was talking to the Battalion Commander when a signalman interrupted and informed that the 3rd platoon had located the enemy. He had barely finished his report when the sound of gunfire came form the direction of Lam Xuan's platoon. Five minutes later, fighting broke out all around us - at the left flank, the right flank, and also at the rear, where First Lieutenant Tong's company was. The enemy had caught us as we were deploying, and we had no time whatsoever to dig foxholes or trenches. Both sides had to resort to using the rubber tree trunks as shields.
All three platoons of the 3rd Company were firing away. The enemy leapt from tree to tree. We shot at them like practice targets, but still they came. I heard the neigh of horses, and bugles urging the enemy troops to attack.
We later found out that the VC general in charge of the battle, Duong Van Nhut, was the younger brother of the ARVN General Duong Van Minh.
So in actual fact, the enemy's fighting force was at the regimental level. This was the first time that they had gathered such a large force in South Vietnam and waged such a direct siege.
My ears were deafened by the continuous gun sounds. The 2nd platoon of Sergeant Kim Tam reported that the enemy were going to launch a second wave imminently. He requested a machine gun as reinforcement. First Lieutenant Hue waved to the machine gun group, and rushed with them towards the direction of fighting. Kim Tam was shouting: "They are charging. Machine guns, Fire ! Fire!"
The machine gun crackled to life. First Lieutenant Hue rolled himself behind a rubber tree trunk and pointed the next tree out for me. He directed Kim Tam's notice to ten shadows appearing to the left. Kim Tam ordered his guys to open fire. A fusillade was fired a Hue. A Marine cried out:"My God, the Company Commander has been wounded!"
Stunned, I turned and saw him wave to me. He was clutching his abdomen and blood soaked his tiger-striped uniform. I dashed over to him. He hiccoughed weakly and muttered: "I'm severely wounded... if anything happens to me, you and Son are to protect the company... "His voice broke." ...if they continue to attack, and you aren't able to resist, retreat in that direction ..." He pointed to my right. He gave me the compass and map and waved me back to my position. I rolled to my tree just as an enemy machine gun crackled. Hue jerked upwards and died instantly. Had I stayed a moment longer, and I would have also been riddled by the machine gun. Two signalmen carrying the radio ran towards me babbling: "Second Lieutenant, the Company Executive Officer of the 3rd platoon has also been wounded." Both the company commander and the executive officer were gone - I was petrified. What was I to do? How was I going to handle the situation?
All of a sudden I became quite calm and clear-headed. I ordered the company signalmen to check on the platoons' situations immediately. Then I turned to the signalman carrying the radio for contact with the battalion and said: "You! Report to the Battalion Commander that the Company Commander is dead."
The 1st and 2nd platoon reported back that though some of them had been killed and wounded, the rest were standing firm. Only the 3rd platoon had lost radio contact. Later, I found out that it had to move to the rear from its position next to the 1st Company because it was under such heavy attack.
Suddenly, I saw some shadows in front of me. I dashed to the machine gunner and clapped him on the shoulder: "Enemy there...fire in that direction."
He let forth a volley, and three or four VC fell down. The machine gunner turned and smiled: "Sir, are you the new officer to the company?"
"Yes, You fired very well..."
"Obviously you have not heard of Sau the Machine Gunner, then Sir."
I was told later that when he first entered the Marine Corps, Sau asked to have a machine gun, and everytime the battalion went into operation, Sau would only carry two bandoliers of ammunition and his machine gun, and nothing else. He wore only one uniform throughout. Every time he squeezed the trigger the enemy fell like flies. He was tough and was always the first in action when enemy fires were heard. Lieutenant Hue had liked him very much.
I shouted: "Fire! Fire! Here they come again."
"Sir, I see to that!" He pulled the trigger, and I saw four other VC fall 3m away. I felt a body next to me.
"Who is this?"
Sau answered: "That was Pocked-Faced Minh, my machine gun assistant. He was hit by two bullets, and is now reporting to Hades. Poor guy - he just married the girl who sold duck eggs in Vung Tau market two months ago."
I suddenly felt a great sadness, and swore angrily: "F...the Communists - if I ever get to be in a big commanding position, I'll finish them all."
At that, Sau smiled broadly and said: "Sir you are tough! I'm with you all the way."
At that moment, the fighting to the left intensified. It was where the 1st Company was. The shout of "Charge!" reverberated everywhere, and I could not tell which side was yelling it. At the Battalion Staff end, the fighting was even fiercer. The signalman carrying the radio leant his head near my ear and said: "It seems as if the 1st Company Commander is also wounded."
I was startled - all of the company commanders had been dwelt the same fate. The situation was truly serious. A moment later, the gunfire abated. I looked at my watch and saw that it was 8.00pm. We were so deeply engrossed in fighting that time had flown. It was pitch dark. Only the glimmer of stars shone through. I tried to contact the Battalion Staff but to no avail. All around, there was complete silence - except for the occasional groan of wounded Marines. Suddenly, the radio crackled. I grabbed the hand set and asked:
'Who's there? This is the 3rd Company."
"This is the Commander of the 4th Company. The Great Eagle has been killed. Gather your men and move to last night's position."
I went and counted my remaining soldiers. Sau, the Machine Gunner ran to me and said:
"Please, Sir, let me follow you."
I thought that he would come in use, so I nodded.
"Follow close then, and fire if necessary."
He ran back to where Minh lay and grabbed the two bandoliers.
In total, I had 32 men left - the 3rd platoon only had five. The remainder were either killed or wounded. While I was counting, I looked up to see a big black face towering above me. "Who is this?" I asked.
The signalman answered: "That is the Black American sergeant who was sent with us to collect the bodies of the two American pilots."
I nodded and offered the American my hand: "Follow me, OK?"
"He grinned, his white teeth flashing, and said "OK."
I issued the order to move in utter silence, and it was passed from ear to ear. I moved forward and led the retreat. Sau, walked close to me, followed by the two signalmen, the black American, and the soldiers. We moved slowly, walking lightly, our wits sharpened for any hint of danger. After 50m, I heard the thud of a flare going up.
"Lie down!" I ordered.
Everyone moved to the side, and hid in silence. It was so dangerous to march with such a flare burning - the enemy would spot us for sure. They only needed a volley to kill us all. Ba Ria District was attempting to help us. Everytime the flares lit up, we hid and surveyed the terrain. As soon as darkness returned, we hurried forwards.
About half an hour later, I heard the sound of cart wheels to my left. There were at least ten carts, and we could hear voices. It turned out that the enemy were using civilian carts to evacuate their wounded. Sau, wanted to squeeze the trigger badly, but I refrained him.
"No, we are retreating, and we are in an unfavourable position."
"I can't resist...I want to kill them so badly!"
"No! Repress the urge, and I'll give you a blank cheque for next time."
We marched for an hour, and finally emerged out of the rubber plantation. Now and again, we heard the sound of carts and voices. The enemy were also retreating and evacuating. We had to move ever so cautiously. Once we nearly had a confrontation. We marched another half an hour when the flares suddenly stopped. It was totally dark. The watch read 11.30 pm. I was in a quandary. It was probably better to continue the withdrawal tomorrow. We were surrounded by the enemy and it was too dark to orientate. I ordered the troops to stop. We leant against the trees in circular formation to sleep. I was still thinking when one of the soldiers nudged me:
"Have something to eat, Sir. You need a drink too."
Only then did I realize that I had had nothing to eat or drink. But I was beyond feeling thirst and hunger. I bit a piece of bread and gulped some water. Then handed back to him.: "Thank you, I'm not that hungry...you eat."
I sank back into my thoughts. Khang and Hung were dead. What about Ai, Hoang, and Thai Bong? The 1st Company had fought severely. Hopefully they would be safe. Where were they? Did they get to Binh Gia? So my life as a fighter began with these depressing thoughts and a sticky situation. I eventually drifted off to sleep.
Somebody whispered in my ear... "Second Lieutenant! Second Lieutenant! It's daybreak already." I started up, rubbing my eyes. The Marines had been preparing their rucksacks, and it was 7.00am. I took out the map, consulted the compass, and ordered the group to depart.
Two Marines, one old and one young, ran up to me and reported: "Second Lieutenant, we belong to the 2nd Company, but we got lost. Last night, the enemy attacked ferociously. First Lieutenant Toan was really tough - he killed a large number of them. In the final charge, he was severely wounded."
I nodded. Toan had been my senior in the Military Academy.
"Alright, the two of you follow me now."
We moved southwards towards Binh Gia. Then I heard the sound of an L19 Reconnaissance airplane. We hid, fearing that it would take us for the NVA. Suddenly, a voice boomed from the airplane:
"To the inhabitants of Binh Gia and Xuyen Moc! The NVA gathered two regular regiments attempting to invade Binh Gia. However, the 4th Marine Battalion has routed them. They are now retreating in small groups in the direction of Xuyen Moc in Rung La. We urge you not to hide any of these cruel, inhumane NVA. We are now pursuing them."
At noon, we arrived at Binh Gia. Every body was so relieved. We went up the road to the gate, where the inhabitants were awaiting to welcome us. They had cooked a feast of chicken, plain rice, and glutinous rice for us. As we entered, they ran besides us, offering food and drink. We were so touched. Ravenous, we wolved the food down.
At the Battalion Headquarters, First Lieutenant Nguyen Dang Tong ran forwards and hugged me. Then in a sad voice he asked: "Did First Leutenant Hue die?" I nodded silently. Sensing my grief, he said no more, and led me to the Battalion Headquarters to bring me up to date.
"After many waves of attack, the enemy succeeded in storming the Battalion Staff's position. The Battalion Commander, the Executive Officer and the surgeon were killed. But by all accounts, the enemy suffered heavy losses. An enormous number were killed or injured. They were retreating all night."
First Lieutenant Nguyen Dang Tong, the Commander of the 4th Company temporarily took over the responsibilities of the battalion commander. I asked him about my friends. He told me that Do Huu Ai and Ho Ngoc Hoang had been wounded and had been evacuated to Vung Tau. Only Thai Bong was unhurt. Reassured, I had no tme to think any more of them. I returned to my company to assess its condition.
All companies were then ordered to return to the battlefield to collect the killed and the wounded who had been left behind. Altogether, the 3rd Company had only 46 Marines left, including officers. Gradually other Marines from other companies made their way back. At 12.00noon, we moved back to medevac. By then, an Airborne battalion had come to reinforce us. The Airbornes evolved either side of the road to protect us.
On the way, I encountered Nguyen Van Le and Nguyen Van Thanh (Bearded Thanh), who was from the 19th class of the Military Academy. They pulled me over and asked about our friends. I told them about Khang and Hung Rau. I also told them that Ai and Hoang had been wounded. Of the six of us, two had survived unscathed. Thai Bong and I were very lucky. Moments later, I met Bui Duong Thanh and Nguyen Van Nho, both from the 19th Class. They were from another Airborne battalion which had just arrived. They too inquired anxiously after my friends. Such was the bond that was forged at the Da Lat Military School.
At 6.00pm, the medevac was completed. All those killed and wounded were transported to Binh Gia to be airlifted away. That night, we slept in Binh Gia. The Airborne Battalion positioned just outside of the perimeter. The situation was completely quiet. The NVA had received such a fatal blow, that they had retreated, giving up their hope of capturing Binh Gia.
The next day, we were transported by truck to Vung Tau. That was the first time I saw the base camp of the 4th Marine Battalion. When the convoy entered the gate, I saw Ho Quang Lich running towards us. He was shouting:
"Where is Tran Ve? F...! I thought you had gone with First Lieutenant Hue!
I smiled, squeezing his hand."My lucky star is still shining - my time isn't up yet, brother!"
I also met Lam Xuan. When I first saw him, he struck me as a very agile, active sort of guy. And he really was. He successfully led his platoon to Ba Ria, from where they were transported back to Battalion Base Camp.
The next day, the whole Battalion gathered under the flag in the square to report itself to the new Battalion Commander: Captain Nguyen Thanh Tri. The new Executive Officer was Captain Nguyen Huu Nhon. The new Battalion surgeon was Dr Nguyen Van The. The 3rd Company also had a new Commander: Second Lieutenant Huynh Ngoc Lien. The whole battalion was honored for having broken the enemy's campaign to invade Binh Gia.
I was given a medal etched with palm leaves for valour. I recommended a bronze star for Sau the Machine Gunner. While waiting to be decorated, Sau stood next to me, neatly dressed in his tiger-stripe uniform, sleeves rolled up, hair newly cut. He whispered in my ear:
"Sir, on my way here, I met two girls selling sweet soup (che xoi nuoc)... they stared at me wide-eyed and said "Hi, is that you Sau? You look so handsome now." And then they laughed at me so hard."
I smiled at him and said:
"Yes you really are handsome...why not choose one of them immediately?"
"Oh, no! I can't get involved now - I'm in operation. One day, I'll take you to their place to taste the sweet soup. It is so delicious!" I nodded:
"What is delicious? The soup or the girls?"
He smiled broadly and said: "Both!"
In the speech, the new battalion commander named the soldiers and officers who had lost their lives for their country. He praised their valour and their sacrifices. I felt very sad. In this battle, we only had one battalion, but we managed to fight two enemy regiments. They were six times more numerous - yet we stood firm and repelled them. The Battalion was worthy to be honoured for the Binh Gia victory. We mourned for the slain, as we gloried in our success. The 4th Marine Battalion later erected a monument in memory of its dead at Binh Gia.
I write this in commemoration of the Battalion Commander, Major Nguyen Van Nho, the Executive Officer, Captain Hoan, the Battalion surgeon, Dr Truong Ba Han, First Lieutenant Trinh Van Hue, and my friends Vo Thanh Khang, Nguyen Van Hung, who died. I wish them eternal rest.
We, the remaining fighters are still keeping our stamina and spirit alive, always ready to fight for the freedom of Vietnam. And though we may be dispersed in foreign countries, we are ready to sacrifice our last days to the cause if needs be...