FIRST CASUALTY: A night remembered

Copyright 2006: Jim Sheppard. All rights reserved. (copy permission at bottom)

Introduction: This story, while starting out as an account of a difficult night manuever, turned out to reveal several inaccuracies in our KIA Database. After input from Toby Hamon (Since Deceased), Gary Quint, John Topper, and my former Platoon Leader, Bob Driscoll, this story evolved into a much more accurate form than I originally envisioned.  I never meant the story to be perceived as criticism for any command decisions involved....but simply a story of one of the scariest nights of my life! While at the time this story was written, it was believed that Jim Freidt was our Battalion's first casualty, 1st Cavalry Division level documentation revealed that an "A" Company man was killed in action some 6 hours before Freidt...making Jim the second man killed in action for our Battalion.

Night of October 10th-11th, 1967, Bong Son Province, Vicinity of  the Villages of Phu Ha

We had yet to realize the seriousness of the conflict we were about to embrace.  Third Platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion (Mechanized) 50th Infantry departed the Main body of Charlie Company to establish a night position about 1000 meters North of the village of Phu Ha near the South China Sea.  We were to form up as a blocking force the following morning as the main body of Charlie Company was to sweep through the southern part of the village toward us in the early morning hours.

We set out on foot about an hour before dark.  Bob Driscoll, our Platoon Leader, recalls that earlier in the day someone from the 2nd platoon had tripped a grenade booby trap.  Although no one was killed in that incident, several were wounded…and the trails in our vicinity were loaded with booby traps.  For this reason, we were ordered to stay off the trails wherever possible as we moved toward our night position.Our platoon had two radios, Bruce Backes on one, and for this night only, I on the second.  The reason escapes me, but I believe the regular Radio Telephone Operator (RTO) was back at our Base Camp Area, LZ Uplift, for Sick Call.  We proceeded up a beautiful draw…lush with green brush and jungle growth… below high ground rising to our right.  Before taking the main elements of the platoon up to their night position, Platoon Leader LT. Bob Driscoll split off one squad to set up an ambush position to the Northwest of the platoon.  Their orders were to rejoin the main platoon element just before dawn, and the reformed platoon would move to the appointed blocking position.

I recall the brush was heavy climbing up to our night position.  This was our first field mission alone…that is to say, our first platoon sized overnight mission.  Having yet to experience any contact with the enemy, I believe we had no idea of how potentially dangerous the mission really was!  I can vividly remember the laughter and playful joking between Bruce and myself as we made our way up this slope. We emerged on a knoll with scattered brush and also a loose perimeter of fox holes…obviously having been used before as a night position.  The night was extremely dark….no moon.  In Vietnam one learned to love the full moon phase.  It lit up the paddies and jungle almost like day!...and the VC and NVA generally stayed at home…lest they be easily spotted.  But the dark nights opposite the moon’s full stage were the worst.  This night was one of those very dark nights…which would prove to be a lifesaver for the Platoon Leader and me. You could hardly see your hand in front of your face…and even the new Starlight Scopes we used showed no images to speak of.  The mood quickly changed as darkness fell. The men of third platoon silently took up occupancy of the foxholes, which were in a circular configuration around the top of the knoll at an elevation of about 100 meters.  There was a large foxhole in the center of the knoll and Bruce and I, as well as the Platoon Leader settled in and radioed our position to the Company Commander.  The Company Commander, CPT Herbert Randall, in turn notified Battalion HQ of our night position, lest we be spotted by other friendly elements and be mistaken for the enemy.  The approximate coordinates of the squad set out on ambush were also reported.  The night was rather uneventful…very quiet.  The darkness brought on a grim silence to all the men…suddenly becoming aware that this was a precarious position…and if we were attacked, we were basically on our own!  Bruce tutored me on the radio a bit.  It was my first time carrying the big old backpack sized radio common to the field Infantry in Vietnam and I was not totally familiar with it.  He explained the “squelch” knob…which would keep the background noise off…and only allow the incoming “spoken” (stronger) signals through.  There were communication and situation reports throughout the night back to the Company Commander.  Bruce and I took turns sleeping…what little sleep we could muster was not for long... more like “cat naps”.

The time approached and passed for the ambush squad to rejoin our position.  Finally, unable to delay any longer, LT Driscoll ordered the platoon to begin down the slope towards the daybreak blocking position. LT Driscoll and I remained…fully expecting Toby Hamon’s ambush squad to return at any minute…and we would “catch up” to the main element of the 3rd Platoon. And so it was LT & Me there alone…the rest of the Platoon, less the missing squad, set out in the dark and moved down the hill toward a position north of Phu Ha.  Minutes seemed like hours. The Platoon Leader and I spoke in very hushed voices…and I cranked the squelch way up and turned the volume way down on that radio.   Then it began…subtle at first…a strange whiff of something foreign to us…yet common to this land…that fishy smell we experienced in the seaside villages…how could it have drifted this far up into the hills?  Then we thought we heard muffled voices…sing song…that unmistakable dialect we came to identify so well. (To this day, I can discern Vietnamese conversation and distinguish it from Chinese, Japanese and Korean… never forgets).  An enemy element was near…very near!  We could not be sure if they were searching for us, or just passing by. And occasional “blips” of squelch were popping from the radio…a dead position giveaway!  I was grateful for the Lieutenant’s sudden order to “turn the damned radio off”, and in a flash I had that thing off!  We crouched there in the dark…back to back…M-16s at the ready as the sounds of movement were all around us.  At one point a voice shouted, from no more than a few dozen meters away: “MEDIC”!  That was a sure sign that the enemy was near…since we had agreed NEVER to call “Medic” in combat.   We always called for our medic by his first name. They were “fishing” for us…and I fully believe they expected our platoon to still be in our night position and unable to resist firing upon an unseen but well heard enemy!  God only knows what size enemy element had watched us take up our night position and had then moved in for the kill!  Years later, Bob Driscoll intimated to me that he had seen men in dark pajamas carrying AK-47 Assault Rifles walk right past us in the dark. (It was then that he had ordered the radio off!) He only saw them for a second or two as they passed within a few feet of our foxhole! They did not see us!  I suspect they expected to encounter a larger force…and when they probed the perimeter and found the outer foxholes empty, they assumed we were all gone!  Silence soon followed…much to our relief!...And then it began to get light.  Just as the first signs of light began to appear, we heard the explosion.

PFC James Christian Freidt became the first Charlie Company Soldier and second man in the Battalion killed in South Vietnam. The platoon had moved down the mountain from our knoll position and was advancing along a path between reeds in a meadow by a small stream when Freidt hit a trip wire attached to a grenade.  The explosion took Freidt’s life. Several others were wounded, including the 4th Squad Leader, “Weasel” Morrissey…a “dead-eye” shot and Platoon sniper. LT Driscoll now wanted to rejoin the Platoon…and fast.   He recalls us frantically calling for a Medivac chopper. The missing squad would have to find their own way.  As the two of us plodded our way down the hill towards the area where Freidt had been killed, I was constantly handing him the radio’s microphone…as communications between him, Bruce Backes with the main Platoon element, and the Company Commander were now almost constant…with everyone requesting situation reports on the casualties.  The brush and reeds on the slope were very heavy.  We were blazing our own trail and it was getting steeper with every step.  At one point, the Lieutenant disappeared…and before I could call to him….my feet went out from beneath me!  There was a drop of about 6 feet and I was flat on my back, but dutifully holding up the microphone for the LT to answer yet another call from “higher ups”.  He got a chuckle out of how pathetic I must have looked!   Needless to say, I never again would volunteer to carry the radio!

On a final serious note, it was very sobering to witness that loss.  Suddenly the war became very real….as one of our own third platoon members became one of our Battalion’s first two KIA’s that day. By the time LT Driscoll and I reached the sight, the Medivac helicopter had already taken Freidt away…and only a few items of his remained…some bloody clothing and a partly shredded pack of cigarettes.   I recall the LT moving ahead quickly to rejoin the rest of the Platoon….leaving me behind with a few men to police the area and rejoin the Platoon and rest of Charlie Company.  We divvied up what was left of the cigarettes. The missing squad, led by Toby Hamon finally made their way past the position and we all linked up at Phu Ha Village. Toby recalled the night in a recent correspondence: “I recall that night. My Squad (2nd Squad) moved too far beyond where we were supposed to situate for the night. I remember that it was very dark and I had to rely on all the men to help find what we thought was the ambush site.  I set up the squad on a knoll in a defensive position looking down on a draw and trail.  We made so much noise getting to that position that it’s a wonder the entire VC Army did not hear us coming! It was a frightening night, we were lost!  I had an idea of the general direction we needed to go to get back to the Platoon, but was not absolutely sure until we heard the booby trap explode.  The good Lord was looking over my squad that night”!

We found nothing in the village. Any element of surprise we may have held for the Blocking Position was lost when the exploding booby trap took Freidt. Although Freidt was one of the first two casualties our Battalion suffered on that day in October of 1967, over 160 from our Battalion were to follow and pay the ultimate sacrifice. 

James Christian Freidt, Panel 27E ~ Row 089
Written by James H. Sheppard, 3rd Platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion (Mechanized) 50th Infantry, “As I remember it” January 17, 2006... with considerable correction from Bob Driscoll, John Topper, Gary Quint as well as help from Toby Hamon. This story also appeared in the March, 2006, Edition of our Association Newsletter.

Copyright 2006 Jim Sheppard,
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