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Vietnam vets finally honored for brutal rescue mission

After 39 years, Alpha Troop is awarded a presidential unit citation for its heroism during 'The Anonymous Battle' in 1970.

October 25, 2009|Alexandra Zavis

By the time the letter landed in his mailbox six years ago, Ray Moreno had long tried to put the Vietnam War behind him. He had packed away his Army uniform in 1971 -- and never put it on again after protesters at the San Francisco airport shouted "baby killer" at him when he returned from a terrifying year in the jungle.

He had worked for a time in construction, picked oranges and eventually became the supervisor of the Tulare County roads department.

Moreno opened the letter, uncertain of what was inside.

His former commander wanted to know if he would share his memories of one terrible day so men like him would finally receive the recognition they deserved.

But Moreno did not respond. "I just wanted to be left alone," he said.

::

(italics) This is an account of a desperate battle that no one bothered to name in a war few care to remember. (end italics)

-- John Poindexter, Troop A, 1st Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment

Poindexter, Moreno's lanky and debonair captain, had taken charge of Alpha Troop at the age of 25. His men numbered about 100. Most had been drafted, but Poindexter -- the son of a well-to-do Houston family with a history of military service dating to the Revolutionary War -- had volunteered.

His unit was assigned to a pocket of thick jungle about 60 miles northwest of Saigon, where engineers were rebuilding an old French road that soon would be used to invade Cambodia. The men lived in their vehicles and ate out of cans. In the rainy season, the place was like a swamp; in the dry season, a dusty furnace. There were almost daily firefights.

In the summer of 1970, Poindexter left Vietnam and didn't look back. He finished graduate school in New York, made a fortune on Wall Street and built a successful manufacturing company in Houston.

Then, 33 years after leaving the war zone, he picked up a book titled "Into Cambodia, Spring Campaign, Summer Offensive" and found a two-page account of a bloody rescue mission he had led. For the first time, he realized that most of the men he had recommended for medals had never received them. "All these guys, they had been stiffed by me," he said. "I assumed that it was done, and I was just dead wrong."

In his files, Poindexter had a yellowing carbon copy of an unpublished article he had prepared for a military journal. The draft contained useful information, but he needed more. Getting his troops honored would require details, documentation, witness statements, maps.

So he turned to a veterans group for help finding his men. He needed them to share their recollections of the battle.

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(italics)

Few people will ever find themselves in a situation so terrible, so desperate that they know within their deepest being that this is the day they will surely die. . . . Without [Alpha Troop], I and all the men of Charlie Company would be names on a wall in Washington, D.C. (end italics)

-- Kenneth Woodward, Company C, 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry (Airmobile) Division

March 26, 1970, was a bad day long before the sun came up. During the night, the soldiers of Alpha Troop, 1st Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment had circled their tanks like a wagon train in the Vietnamese jungle. But a faulty round inside a mortar carrier ignited, killing three troops and injuring a dozen.

In the morning, a ferocious gun battle erupted less than three miles away. A company of about 100 infantrymen from the 1st Cavalry (Airmobile) Division had stumbled into a North Vietnamese army bunker complex near the Cambodian border. They were pinned down, outnumbered 4 to 1, and taking huge casualties. Helicopters couldn't get in close enough to drop off ammunition or evacuate the wounded. It seemed the entire company would be wiped out.

Poindexter ordered his men and another company of infantrymen to "mount up." They were going to rescue those "grunts."

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(italics) It's easy to pick out Vietnam veterans in a crowd whenever a helicopter flies overhead. It's those 50- to 60-year-old guys looking up and just staring into a time gone by. (end italics)

-- Pasqual Gutierrez, Troop A, 1st Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment

Gutierrez had arrived in Vietnam as a 20-year-old staff sergeant -- a "Shake-'N'-Bake NCO" as the Army's fast-track noncommissioned officers were then called. Within months, the East Los Angeles native was promoted to platoon sergeant, replacing a much older and more experienced man who had been wounded on patrol.

When Alpha Troop set off on the rescue mission, he expected little resistance.

"Who in their right minds would ever challenge an armor unit?" he said recently at the sleek Ontario office of HMC Architects, where he is now an owner and director.

Alpha Troop punched through thick forest for two hours to reach the trapped infantrymen. When they burst into the firefight, all guns fell silent. Gutierrez was puzzled to see rows of ponchos on the ground. They were wrapped up like burritos, he said, with boots sticking out.

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