Delta Air Strike
August 10, 1968
August 10, 1968 2nd battalion's newly formed "Delta Company" was decimated by their own air strike. Eight were killed and over 50 wounded. Posted here are stories from a few that were there that awful day:
Ben Costello, Delta Company Machinegunner-
As I recall the incident began mid-afternoon or so on August 9, 1968. D Company was part of a three company "hammer and anvil" search and destroy mission. We were acting as the anvil, with two sister companies flanking us some distance away. We were slowly working our way along a bicycle trail that was steadily climbing toward some higher hills. My squad was on point. We were crossing a series of low ridges with ravines between them. I was toward the end of the point squad. The trail started down a small ravine and then up across a hillside covered with elephant grass. One by one the point man, slack man and M-79 man crossed the small ridgeline, went down into the shallow ravine and started up the elephant grass covered slope. Just as I reached the edge of the ridge, the man in front of me crossed the ravine and disappeared into the elephant grass as he start up the slope.
At that instant, before I took another step, one shot from an AK rang out, then another. We hit the ground. I was right on the low ridge and set up my M-60. Suddenly there was a lot of movement in the grass farther up the slope. I started shooting and the movement stopped. I kept up intermittent fire as the rest of the company moved up, and we sent a squad in to see what happened. Pretty quickly it was determined that the point man had been shot in the throat and killed and the slack man had been shot in the upper left chest area just below his collarbone. The squad pulled both the point man and the wounded slack man out of the grass and Shay and I went down into the ravine to carry them up the slope and pass them on to other troopers that took them over to an area being cleared for use as an LZ to medi-vac them.
About this time the CO started dropping artillery on the slope and into the jungle at the end of the grass. It seemed to be both fire directed at the enemy positions in the grass and H&I fire to keep them from getting away into the jungle. My gun position was on that ridge all the rest of the day and all night. We were firing intermittently, with some occasional incoming rounds, but the artillery was keeping them pretty low.
Just after dawn, the next day, four jets started the air strikes. I sat in my foxhole and watched the napalm and 500-pound bombs impact the slope as each pilot took his turn. The jets were using a standard attack pattern, flying from our right to our left, with one jet attacking, one jet climbing out at the 9:00 position, a jet high at 12:00 and one jet ready to attack at the 3:00 position. I recall watching each jet drop the heavy ordinance. About this time the Lt. came over to me and said I was to take my gun off the line because I had been in the thick of things since the fighting started the day before. He sent me back to get ammo and cleanup the gun a little for the assault. He said as soon as the jets finish strafing we were going in, so get ready. Shay and I got our gear and pulled out of the gun position and the other M-60 in the Platoon moved up. Every third guy was making a water run to the ravine on the back side of the ridge from the fighting. Shay took the canteens and went down for water.
I cleared a place to sit down in the trees on the back side of the ridge away from the jets. Just before I sat down to clean my M-60, I glanced over the ridge and saw one of the jets on a strafing run. I sat down and disassembled the action on the M-60 and was oiling and reassembling it when I heard an AK-47 go off - full clip on auto. As near as I can figure, one of the Charlies was shell shocked, or had just had enough and figured to take out one of the jets. I did not see what happened next, but when I asked in the hospital and read a letter from my Platoon Medic about a month later, it seems that the pilot saw the Charlie that fired at him. Seeing his position, the pilot altered his attack pattern and swung way out to his right in an effort to come around and get that guy. By doing this, the pilot made his strafing run right straight at us. The rockets and, as I understand the incident, the cannon fire swept over the enemy positions and then over us.
I recall a roaring noise and I rolled over to my left when the shrapnel impacted my neck low on my right side. There was no ear splitting sound like a 500-pound bomb going off, and no ground shock either. At that instant, everything went into slow motion like it did for me in combat and in the two automobile wrecks I have since been in. I recall rolling down the slope to my left with trees - ground -trees - sky - trees - ground - trees - sky - trees - ground - trees- then finally sky filling my vision. The air seemed clear, and I do not recall the smell of detonated HE. After three rolls, I had come to rest on my back, lying across the slope with my left arm on the down slope side and my right arm on the upslope side. I lay there for a few seconds and then tried to get up. My right side would not move, it was like it was nailed to the ground. I tried to get up again, and I still could not. In frustration, I reached over with my left hand, grabbed my right shoulder and lifted my self to a sitting position. I felt something wet, and when I pulled my hand away and looked at it, it was covered with blood.
Dick Farr, Delta's 2nd Platoon Leader-
Was interesting to read Ben's recollections of that tragic event of so many years ago. I have often thought of those days but have never written anything of them before. Whatever hazy recollections I have of those few days have been obscured by both the fog of war and the passage more than three decades, but let me offer a couple of brief vignettes to add to the discussion:
A few days before the incident, I recall seeing a very emotional Sgt Meyers (who was in another platoon) visibly upset and apparently struggling with a premonition of his death and his never seeing his family again. At the time, I attributed the incident to SGT Meyers being temporarily overcome by some of the fears that were always in the shadows around us. Nevertheless, SGT Meyers soldiered on and I understand he was walking point when he was KIA on the 9th. A bit spooky in retrospect.
I do have some photos of the aircraft attacking the hill next to us taken on the afternoon of the 9th and possibly the morning of the 10th also. As I recall, we were being supported by a flight of Navy F-4s on the 10th when the accident occurred. I recall monitoring the communications between our CO (CPT Dietz) and the supporting FAC, but I don't recall anything out of the ordinary as a precursor to the accident. In '71, I returned to the 2/17 Cav (101st) flying Cobras in the same general area and I can appreciate the difficulties involved in closely supporting troops on the ground - particularly from a fast-mover over thick jungle.
My first awareness that something had gone terribly wrong was hearing calls for 'medic' slowly arising out of the jungle all around me. The company CP was a short distance away and there I found CPT Dietz had been wounded but was on the radio calling off any further strikes and arranging for medevacs. As I recall, Doc Stewart died just a few paces away from the CP as he tried to assist other wounded.
I have a dramatic photo of an M-60 team (probably Ben Costello's) engaging the bad guys on the afternoon of the 9th. I'll try to locate these and some others of interest to D Co troopers and post to the net somewhere. During the aftermath of the air strike, I didn't take any pictures of the injured, the medevacs, or much of anything else - just seemed too personal and private at the time for those involved. Besides, we were pretty busy trying to understand the scope of the tragedy, to care for the wounded and get them prioritized and evacuated all while trying to maintain security.
I do recall coming across Ben Costello shortly after the incident. He was bleeding heavily from his neck wound and I undertook to get an IV into him. After a few fumbling attempts on my part, Ben's bleeding subsided, he got pissed, and simply got up and walked off to the medevac site. While he was at Walter Reed in DC, I asked my mother who lived in the area to look in on him. Good to know he got through it all in relatively good shape these many years later.
Although a few folks like Ben might disagree, my platoon (the 2nd) was extremely fortunate throughout this incident. Although we had been fairly interspersed with the rest of the Company getting water resupply, we suffered only 8 wounded (no KIA) while the rest of the company had only about 8 troopers that were not wounded. I was the only officer still with the unit at the end of the day; all others had been evacuated with injuries. I can only attribute our relative good fortune to the capricious whims of chance, but, again, kinda spooky in retrospect.
With something near 80% casualties, Delta Company was essentially rendered combat ineffective that tragic morning of the 10th. Somewhere, the decision was made to reconstitute the unit in the field and the rest of the 10th was largely taken up with evacuating the wounded and placing the bewildered replacements into the perimeter with their new units. The replacements were scrounged up from all across RVN - new arrivals, lots of folks from other units returning from R&R, anybody found just standing around, whatever. My NCOs were suddenly the seasoned 'old timers' and were tapped to provide the leadership for the other platoons being reconstituted.
Enough for now. My thoughts now, as then, are with our fellow Screaming Eagles.
Tim Lickness, Charlie Company Platoon Leader-
I remember this very well. In my essay in the Wall Street Journal (...and the War That Brought Out the Worst in Us, November 11, 1996) there's a reference to a soldier propted up on his remaining arm having lost the other and both legs. That was from this event. I saw this happen. I was near firebase Berchesgaten (sp) when the strike happened on Delta while it was operating in the A Shau Valley. We were providing security to the firebase and the wounded were brought there for triage and transporting back to hospitals. I believe LTC Beckwith (Chargin' Charlie) was at the landing zone also as the troops came through (at least that's my recollecting). Bad day. It was stunning as we had watched the air strike and then to find out that our own guys had been hit. In the book Rescue Under Fire by John Cook there's a picture (I can find the page number if you want) of the medivac landing zone at Berchesgaten. I doubt if the picture of the dustoff in that picture was of this event but it's within a very short period of time.