First Hand Account

Sp4 Philip Thomas Randazzo
2nd Platoon, Charlie Troop
C21 Recon, ĺ Cavalry, 25th Infantry Division
Vietnam Duty - September 1967 - September 1968

Tan Sun Nhut Air Base, January 31st

    After getting hit by the NVA, and hearing Sgt. Strayer ordering us to "Fire! Fire!" I was blown off of my track and onto the black top roadway, I crawled into the ditch next to the road with Sgt. Dolan on one side and Sgt. Strayer on the other.  Sgt. Strayer had his 45 (Pistol). He shot it between my track and Captain Virant's and then his head just slumped over.  I pushed his head to the side and could see the bullet hole in the middle of his forehead.

    As I lay beside my Platoon Sgt, Sgt. Strayer, who was dead now,  I felt very scared. I also had no weapon in my hands to defend my position.  Sgt Dolan lying on my right side had taken a few shots at the NVA when they had tried to cross over the road between the tracks.  Sgt Dolan told me not to worry that we would not be captured alive.  He said that he would save two bullets, for us.  I tried to get up and grab a M60 off of my track, but the AK fire was keeping me pinned down in the ditch.  Every time I tried to rise up, the bullets would hit the road keeping me down. The next thing that happened was as terrifying as a scene from hell.  Here came four NVA between the lead tank and Captain Virant's track.  They stood still in one spot for at least ten seconds.   This was to my left at about a 10:00 o'clock (direction).  Their weapons, (which were all rifles) were not pointing at us.  The NVA were all standing shoulder to shoulder with their rifles pointing upwards.  At that point I put my head face down in the dirt and pressed close to Sgt. Strayer's body thinking that those rifles would  be pointing down sooner or later.  I was waiting for the bullets to start riddling our bodies.  I started to hear firing, but I wasn't hit.  I picked up my head and turned to my right and saw Steve Porter standing and firing a M60 machine gun at the four NVA.  They were jumping up and down like rag dolls trying not to get hit.  The angle wasn't quite good enough for a clean kill, but they jumped frantically back between the vehicles.  Steve Porter was from Chicago.  He saved Sgt. Dolan's and my ass that day.  I know those four NVA would have cleaned the ditch that we were lying in without another thought had they not been distracted.  I still can see the look on Porter's face when he was firing; it was a crazed, a "Come on you bastards" type of look.  After that bit of heroism, which was run-of-the-mill for 2nd Platoon solders, I never saw Steve Porter again.  Still laying in the same position, ten minutes into the battle, a soldier came running alongside my track in front of my position.  He had a weapon and was not getting shot, so I jumped up and ran with him to the Captain's track.  We opened the back door and then I had a M16 in my hands.  This soldier's name was Al Porter, he was from the Detroit area, like myself.  He went inside the track while I was standing at the door firing at the NVA.  Al Porter pulled Capt. Virant to the door and I helped by grabbing him and we both pulled him out and carried him to the ditch.  We thought that the Captain was dead, he had bullet holes in his head.  We also did the same with the rest of the bodies.  I was able to get more ammo before I jumped back into my position in the ditch.  I still don't know how we weren't hit with all the rounds coming our way.  Porter apparently went back to wherever he came from because I didn't see him again until sometime later.  So, here Sgt. Dolan and myself are still in our original positions, but with a bunch of dead bodies surrounding us.

        At that point I thought everyone in the column was either dead or wounded.  Sgt. Dolan and myself tried the best that we could to keep the NVA from crossing the road to us.  I used my ammo sparingly.  I was terrified of running out.  Many thoughts came to me about our  situation.  I asked Sgt. Dolan where in the hell Delta Troop was.  Usually we would have two gunships (slicks) strafing around us when we got hit.  But now we had no Air support.  I was praying for Artillery and that never came.  Still lying in the ditch, we received mortar fire. We could not retreat at all because the Air Base to our rear was surrounded with barbed wire, anti-personnel mines and booby traps.

    As time went by I started to see the battle clearer. I looked to my right, the track behind mine (C21) and saw track C22.  There was just one soldier on top, a soldier by the name of Martinez.  We had become good buddies.  He was from Puerto Rico.  He was on top of his track in a kneeling position, he had his right knee on the surface and his left leg bent leaning on his left foot.  He had a LAW (Light Anti-Tank Weapon) on his shoulder firing it into groups of NVA.  I don't know how long he was up there firing, but I was surprised that he wasn't already shot off by the time I had spotted him.  That particular thought was fleeting.  While I am watching he gets shot and falls into the track.  Instinct took over me and I jumped up and ran to his track.  I forgot about getting shot and killed.  I wanted to get to Martinez.  I got to the back  of the track and there is Al Porter again, pulling him out.  I helped pull Martinez into the ditch and he was in terrific pain and going into shock.  He had gotten shot right in the groin and was really ripped apart.  I lay next to this soldier, (Hero) knowing that he had killed a lot of NVA or wounding them with his expertise with his weapon, the LAW.  He started shaking and then he would stop.  He kept yelling, "Don't  let them capture me!" When he started shaking I would lay on top of him to keep him down and out of sight.  Finally, a medic crawled up and put a large patch against his groin and told me to put pressure on it.  The medic left, and I used my right knee to apply pressure while I lay next to him still firing my M16.  But, I couldn't stay in that position long because I had to defend my original position and all the dead bodies.  So, I crawled back to my left where my original position was next to Sgt. Dolan.  The NVA  were lying low on the other side of the road crawling around.  It wasn't easy to get shots off, because when your head and rifle were in position the bullets would rip all around us.  There were some good shots coming from their side.  I knew the situation was very bad, but  I got a good feeling when I saw Tommy Cowan, a guy from New York and another New Yorker, Longabardi, crawling towards us.   They had M16s, ammo, a quite a few hand grenades.  They were on our mortar track.  Apparently, the enemy fire was too much for them on their track.  The mortar track only has a 50Cal MG on it.  The mortar tube is useless in fighting that close.  I'm surprised they never took a RPG.  That sure would have taken care of all our problems, plus all the NVA.  I remember Tommy tried to shoot his rifle at a group of NVA.  He tried three different times, each time his rifle would be hit by enemy snipers.  For me it was hard to believe that someone had him zeroed  in perfectly. Tommy lost his mind at that point and just stood up and started to run across the road at them.  I barely grabbed him by his waistband  in time and pulled him back down.  He lay in the ditch with a look of fear on his face.  That was it, he was down for the count.  I believe it was Longabardi who dragged Cowan back towards the center of the column.  Longabardi returned shortly after.  This time he was carrying a fifth of whiskey and more ammo and some grenades. I took a swig of the booze while lying down in the ditch and Longabardi returned back to his original position. Now I had a M79, a M16, grenades and a couple of Claymore mines.

    Right about this time I got a glimpse of the 1st Platoon breaking through the barbed wire of the Air Base and I thought that we were going to get some relief up front.  But, I was mistaken.  The 1st Platoon was about parallel now with the 3rd Platoon and the 1st Platoon came under heavy fire were stopped immediately.  But, I had my own problems.  We were still up front with heavy rifle fire keeping us pinned down. Sgt. Dolan and I were still by the dead soldiers trying to hold the NVA from crossing over the road.  I managed to set a Claymore mine on the road between my track and Captain Virant's track waiting for the gooks to cross.  We were rolling grenades over the road into the ditch to keep them down.  Somewhere in the time period between my track C21 and Martinez's track behind mine a male civilian wearing a dark suit with a white shirt was signaling me to let him come across the road.  I did not encourage or discourage his actions.  He started towards me and he made it to the middle of the road when he was shot down.  He fell forward and his head was about two feet from me.  He picked his head up and looked at me with a very sad expression on his face.  I still see his face clearly yet today.  What really shocked me though that there was also a woman with one child in her arms and two small children alongside her.  She came running with her kids to her husband's side.  They tried to retreat when they started to get hit.  But, that woman and her children got caught up in the fury of that fight and got hit hard.  I could not provide them much cover because I only had a M79 with me then.  That was a very sad moment in my life.

    There were so many things happening to the front of 2nd Platoon.  All this time had gone by and we still did not have air support and no reinforcements moving up front to our position to help us out. There were two slicks that came over our frontal position.  I remember them landing behind  the barbed wire in the Air Base.  Colonel Otis's bubble chopper showed up at about the same time and that chopper landed in the same area as the others.  Still today I don't know why Delta Troop wasn't covering the area with rocket and machinegun fire just like any other time that we got hit.  Usually we would get hit at night, but this was a daylight ambush and the enemy was really exposing themselves and their positions.  I guess that's what happens when you lose your FO, Captain, and Platoon Sergeant (Strayer), all in the first few minutes of a battle of  this magnitude.  Sgt. Strayer had all the combat experience that any platoon could ask for.  This scenario I laid out was and still is very depressing to me.  I couldn't see down the column to see if there was any fighting going on.  I actually thought the 3rd Platoon had gotten wiped-out.  The lack of fire power was missing from their positions.  We, 2nd Platoon, couldn't get any cover fire so we could remount our tracks to either remove our M60's or use them, we also wanted to get the dead and wounded.  As for "Charlie" he definitely had us fooled.  He not only was on the ground but also in the tall trees half way down the position of the 2nd Platoon.  There was at least one good sniper up in the trees.  He made the mistake of his lifetime by letting me see a green tracer round.  I watched for a minute or so and picked up a 2nd green tracer.  That was his downfall, I was able to get him with my M79.  My first shot was low, but the 2nd one left his family without a bread winner.  There has to be a little humor in this battle.

    As the fight continued a trooper crawled up to my side. I do not know who he was. I've never seen him before. I told him that we need to get a M60 off a track and into the ditch.  We tried to time this effort with all the firing coming at our position.  I told him on the count of three that we would jump up together and release the M60 on the track.  Just as we started to get up a RPG hit the track. It was just like the gooks were reading our minds. I fell back with shrapnel wounds to the top of my head and this fellow trooper got hit in the face.  I cannot remember what happened to him after that attempt.  For reasons unknown, I saw a track in the 2nd Platoon start moving to face the barbed wire.  I couldn't see the driver, but I did see trooper Al Porter again on this track.  It appeared to me that they were going to drive through the barbed wire with some wounded and dead to get them out of the ditch.  It wasn't a very good chance, but it was an opportunity.  I jumped up and started throwing some of the bodies on top of the track with Longabardi.  He had reacted with me instantly.  The driver, I wish I knew his name, another brave trooper started down the ditch and into the barbed wire.  I walked along the side of the track trying to keep the barbed wire from tangling into the  track and road wheels.  It moved at a slow speed, which enabled me to use my M16 to push the wire down on the right side of the track. The mission was a tremendous success.  We had broken through into the Air Base.  Once inside I left the track and ran over to one of the choppers and took their M60 and at least four strings of ammo around my shoulder and a string in the M60.  The Warrant officers were watching me along with Colonel Otis.  I quickly was able to get back through the barbed wire back to my position by Sgt Dolan at C21.  Sgt Dolan fed the M60 in a straight line so as not to jam it up.  At that point we couldn't afford to have it jam.  I later received a Bronze Star with V device for that action.

    We held that position for quite some time yet.  Finally, Sgt Dolan told us that we could move back towards the middle of the 2nd Platoon tracks.  That order made me feel very happy.  We hugged the ground as we started to crawl back.  What happened next messed up my happiness all to hell.  Next to the ditch by us was a small berm which we had to maneuver over.  Sgt Dolan crawled over it first and that is when he got shot.  I stopped advancing because he was just on the other side of that small berm.  I could see a bullet hole in his left arm around the bicep area.  It was a neat, clean hole.  Sarge crawled away a few feet and stopped.  I mentioned it before, and I'll mention it again, the NVA snipers were good!  I am now more or less on my own. At this point I have a M79 in my hands.  Sgt Dolan was looking at me.  He lay defenseless in the ditch. The pain did not seem to affect him. I didn't mention it earlier but Sgt Dolan and I were together on C21 for about 3-4 months.  We lost tracks together in firefights. Now it looks like we are in a "Custars Last Stand", situation.  I told him to look out, I'm going to roll over the berm as fast as I could, so I wouldn't get shot in the ass.  I pulled that acrobatic feat off well enough, but when I stopped I felt my front upper teeth smash apart.  I had a mouthful of cracked enamel and blood.  When I had rolled I had forgot about tucking my M79 tight into my body.  The sights of the weapon were extended upward, and they smashed right through my teeth.  Slowly we were getting broken down, physically and mentally.  I remembered what my drill instructor always yelled, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going". That particular phrase came to me during my whole tour in Vietnam.  We crawled to about the middle of the 2nd Platoon column and Lieutenant Pinto was holding that position down with Longabardi and I believe our medic was there, (Jones).  I remember yelling out to the guys, asking where in the hell our support was.  Hours had gone by and the situation was still very bleak.  Lt Pinto's track was sort of in front of me on the road, so I jumped on top and was trying to get a message out on his radio.  Iwas not familiar with this radio.  I was yelling into the hand mike that we were in grave danger of annihilation.  I was pleading for support, but I did not know if anyone had heard me.  I went back into the ditch quickly.  There was too much fire still coming at our vehicles.  The NVA plan seemed to be to keep us off our machine guns.  I won't give them too much credit though.  An APC is a big target and itís not worth a cat's ass in close combat.  Actually, they are a big magnet for lead and RPGs, (just a little humor).

    Not too long after that I noticed an area in front of us had become almost eerily motionless and quiet.  The firing seemed to have come to a halt.  I was lying there looking around to my right front.  I saw a tank and a column of APC's alongside of the 3rd Platoon's vehicles.  They were on the village side of the 3rd Platoon.  The tank was just at a dead stop looking at the 2nd Platoon's situation.  I could see the TC of that tank and the driver stretching their necks to look our way.  They did not seem to know what was going on.  I found out it was Bravo Troop, (about damn time).  The enemy was not firing which made Bravo Troop unaware of that the enemy was almost on their backs.  At that point someone had to alert them to the danger.  So, I fired my M79 in their area and they did not respond.  I fired another M79 round and they finally got the idea.  They started to Recon by fire.  The tank had made a right turn and the column flanked the village.  They were firing at will until the left faced towards the village and charged.  What a feeling of great relief to see Bravo Troop vehicles start sweeping in front of us.  It cost some casualties on their side, but we were able to start mounting our vehicles once again and get our machine guns "talking".  A good friend of mine that lives by me here in Michigan was on one of those tracks.  He was a driver; name of Tony Koslinski.  His track was hit with a RPG, and Tony's legs are messed up pretty bad now.  I also noticed choppers were dropping smoke behind the village.  They also appeared to be dropping infantry off.  Then we had to watch our own firing as we could very easily hit our own men.

    By the time that Bravo Troop got directly line up to our front we had to stop our firing.  I used a M16 on any stragglers.  I moved forward along with Bravo Troop's movement to get back my original position by my track, C21.  The area was indescribable.  The battle was finally winding down.  What I now think of as a joke on us was behind the barbed wire towards the main gate.  It was another armor column.  It was the Big Red One.  It seemed to me that they were trying to play being our back up.  Just in case the enemy was to overrun the 2nd Platoon and get into the base full strength.  But, we were too tough of a unit to allow that bullshit to happen.  Somewhere in that timetable the 3rd Platoon pulled up in front and 2nd Platoon had more fire power cover now than I ever felt the entire four months prior.  My head had stopped bleeding.  But, my mouth was in terrible pain from all the exposed nerves from my teeth that had been ruined from my roll with the M79.  My clothes were covered in blood.  I was a mess, both physically and mentally exhausted.  I just sat in the ditch for a moment to catch my breath.  I happened to glance up and saw that civilian in the dark suit that had been killed trying to cross the road.  His body was in the same place where he had died.  The next sight is burned behind my eyes forever.  I saw a track coming down the road then it swerved and ran right over that poor civilian's head.  I'll never be able to get that sight out of my mind.  Scenes like that are common ones in a war.  Combat veterans have to live with those kinds of memories.  Sometime around 6 PM, (1800 hours) we gained access to enter the base behind the barbed wire.  The remaining troopers of 2nd Platoon, tried to regroup again as a platoon.  We spent approximately three days at the barbed wire of the base.

    The account of what I described  at Tan Son Nhut, January 31st, 1968 is the whole truth of what I experienced that day.  One fundamental lesson I learned that day was "never underestimate your enemy."  I would have that phrase in my mind over and over the next week

1. Defending the U.S. Embassy.
2. Body Guarding General Westmoreland
3.  The battle of Hoc Mon.

It would only get worse for the 2nd Platoon.  Let this information be known and recorded.

    For the record I have read in two different books, "Red Thunder, Tropic Lightening", and "A Hundred Miles of Bad Road" that C Troop never patrolled Highway One at night.  That information is incorrect.  To reiterate we not only patrolled Highway One every night, it is also when we had most of our firefights, and where we had our KIAs, and WIAs.  They were all things that happened at night.  We patrolled almost every night and performed many sorts of search and destroy missions in the villages with assistance from our mortar tracks illumination rounds.  Whoever it was that wrote those statements were not writing about " Charlie Troop" during the time period that I was there.  I will always defend the troopers who died or were wounded on these terrifying patrols.  I am really surprised why the truths of the missions of C Troop aren't told in writings.  But, then again, I am one of the few survivors.

    This is written for the men who are the real heroes, Sgt. Strayer, Sgt. Dolan, Sp. Martinez, Sp. Longabardi, Sp. Cowan, Sp. Steve Porter, Lt. Pinto, Sp. Al Porter.

I am proud to have been a Scout in 2nd Platoon of Charlie Troop

Philip T. Randazzo