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November 11, 2009
"I am going to die well"By Greyhawk
This salute to veterans of the war in Vietnam was originally published in November, 2005, and is re-posted today in honor of Veterans Day.
Four decades ago the 1st Cavalry Division departed Ft Benning, Georgia for Vietnam. There, on 14 - 16 November 1965 in the Ia Drang valley they fought the first major battle between the American Army and the People's Army of Vietnam. The battle was immortalized in the book "We were Soldiers Once.. and Young", by Lt Gen Hal Moore, the commander of US forces in the engagement, and Joe Galloway, a journalist present during the fighting. (The book was later made into the movie "We Were Soldiers".) You can read a great overview of the battle here.
This weekend the veterans of that campaign will gather to observe the 40th anniversary of those days. Editor and writer Jules Crittenden (an occasional and welcome visitor here) recently profiled two of those men in the Boston Herald (Update: Archived story here). But due to space constraints much of their story was left out - and as you'll see shortly the story was too powerful to remain untold. My thanks to Jules for choosing to tell that tale here. I'll offer a brief thought at the end - the rest of this is Jules' work, and the story of heroes.
I met John Eade in the mid-1990s, when he was head of Inspectional Services for the City of Boston. He had a reputation for being tough and honest. The eyepatch was startling, and he had on his desk a small 1st Cav Division emblem, the yellow shield with a black stripe and the profile of a horse's head, but nothing else to indicate who he was or where he had been. He was a slightly built, somewhat odd man in City Hall, with an engaging and gentle air about him.
After I came back from Iraq in 2003 and met Joe Galloway, I asked him to put me in touch with any Ia Drang vets in the Boston area so that when the 40th anniversary came around, I could write something.
Galloway steered me to Larry Gwin, an investment lawyer downtown who had published "Baptism : A Vietnam Memoir" about his year in Vietnam and his 45 combat assaults, including the Ia Drang battles of Nov. 14-17, 1965. Gwin and I went out to lunch, and became friends. He invited me to bring my family to his Fourth of July barbecue in 2004, attended by several Ia Drang vets and veterans of other battles from Guadalcanal to Tet. They were gathered up on the second floor deck looking over the dunes to the Gulf of Maine and Cape Ann. I was introduced around. The last man whose hand I shook was a small guy with an eyepatch. He said, "Hi Jules. It's John Eade." I recognized him and did a doubletake, saying, "Oh. You're THAT John Eade."
Gwin's 1999 book -- an excellent companion to Moore and Galloway's "We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young," mentioned how Sgt. John Eade was found alive and conscious, though shot in the head, the sole survivor of those who had remained in Second Platoon's position at LZ Albany. Because Gwin had not yet reconnected with Eade when he wrote the book, he had little detail on what John had experienced. John, severely wounded, was immediately medevaced and had no further contact with his comrades for nearly four decades. When I read Gwin's brief account of Eade's experience, I didn't made the connection with the John Eade I had met in Boston City Hall five or six years earlier.
I've since become friends with Eade, and as the 40th anniversary of the Ia Drang approach, he agreed to speak about it. He had never done this in any public venue, and as I understand it, never with anyone who wasn't there.
In 1965, Sgt. Eade, 21, was a fire-team leader in 2nd Platoon, A Co., 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regt., 1st Cav Div. 1st Lt. Larry Gwin was Alpha Co.'s XO. The battalion was sent in to reinforce 1/7 Cav at LZ X-ray on Nov. 16, 1965, and with NVA forces at X-ray destroyed, 1/7 was choppered out, and 2/7 was marched 10 km to LZ Albany. They encountered and captured a couple of NVA soldiers, and had established a defensive perimeter at Albany when the two NVA regiments encamped nearby attacked. Gwin was at the A Co. command post among some trees and anthills in the center of the LZ. Eade and 2nd platoon had been sent into the trees to the left while 1st Platoon went right. Before it was over, more than two-thirds of the Americans were dead or wounded.
Eade recalls that his platoon was immediately pinned down in ferocious fighting as the NVA swarmed on them through the trees. "For the first hour and a half, it was intense hand-to-hand," Eade said. "It was like a gang fight. It was small groups of us versus small groups of them. It got down to knives. It got down to choking people."
Eade said he and three others, Wilbert Johnson, Barry Burnite and Oscar Barker Jr., had some freedom of movement along a line of brush and tried to flank the NVA.
"We wanted to hunt them down and give the platoon a chance," Eade said. "We bit off more than we could chew." Eade said. Burnite, a white trooper, was a machine gunner and Johnson, a black trooper, was his crewman. When the machine gun was disabled by shrapnel and Burnite was hit in the chest, Johnson dragged Burnite 30 meters in an effort to save him.
"It was the greatest feat of human strength I have ever witnessed," Eade said. "I don't know if Burnite was still alive." Eade, a native of Toledo, Ohio, is white and said that growing up, he had played sports with a lot of black kids and was not subject to racism. But he said that what he witnessed that day cured him of any possible vestiges and has left him with no tolerance for it.
Johnson, Barker and Eade holed up among some trees and continued to fight. Johnson was killed, and Eade was shot in the gut and the right shoulder, forcing him to fire his M-16 left-handed. His legs and boots had been sprayed with shrapnel, with a large piece stuck into his foot, so Eade couldn't walk. By about 3 p.m., much of the fighting had subsided around Barker and Eade. Barker tended to Eade's wounds when they weren't fighting, stuffing one of Eade's dirty socks into his shoulder wound to stop the bleeding because they were out of bandages.
"I knew and he knew that everyone else was dead," Eade said. He urged Barker, a black trooper, to try to save himself and run for the command post, where Gwin and others held a perimeter.
"He refused to go," Eade said. Shortly after that, Barker was shot in the chest, and Eade had to watch him die. Barker had a sucking chest wound, and it took him a long time to die, Eade said.
Eade has recently done research and is preparing paperwork in an effort to have Barker posthumously awarded a Silver Star for gallantry under fire.
Eade himself was awarded a Purple Heart. There are no living American witnesses to Eade's actions, which Gwin says would otherwise merit a Distinguished Service Cross. Eade says he is not interested in decorations. He wears the Combat Infantryman's Badge on his lapel and is satisfied with that.
After Barker was killed, Eade was alone. I asked Eade what his thoughts and emotions were at this time, as the last surviving man in his position with every expectation that he would be killed as the NVA moved around finishing off the wounded. I was under the impression that Eade had played dead to survive, but he said that wasn't the case.
"Playing dead was a way to die. It made no sense to me. Our job was to hold that position and kill the enemy," Eade said. "I had this thing in my mind, part of the U.S. Army's General Orders and the soldier's code you learn in boot camp: 'I will never forget I am an American fighting man. I will never surrender of my own free will. I will continue to resist to the utmost of my ability. I will not leave my post until properly relieved." Eade said he kept repeating it himself.
"I don't think it was unique to me," Eade said, citing the actions of men like Barker and Johnson. Eade said his seemingly hopeless position was made easier by his belief, established weeks earlier after several men in the unit were killed in other actions, that he would not be leaving Vietnam alive. What Eade says about that may sound familiar to other veterans of combat.
"It wasn't a matter of living or dying. It was taking care of each other and doing your duty. The anticipation of a future is what you give up. The question was not, 'Am I going to die?' We all know the answer to that. The question was, 'How am I going to die? I am going to die well.'"
In the command post, which Eade estimates was located about 50 meters of open ground beyond his own woodline, Gwin and the others holding out saw large groups of NVA moving through Eade's area. A couple of survivors who had made it out said they didn't think anyone was alive there, and despite some misgivings on the part of some officers, the decision was made to call in a napalm strike on the area.
"I think they made the right decision," Eade said. He was on the edge of the napalm strike and was set on fire by it, but said that among his problems, it was inconsequential.
"It set me on fire, but I managed to roll in the dirt and put it out," Eade said. In fact, he said, the napalm served a purpose. "It flushed them out and gave me an opportunity to reduce the numbers."
Later in the afternoon, he was surprised by the sudden appearance of three enemy soldiers behind him.
"There were three North Vietnamese looking at me, one with a pistol." Eade said he shot and killed two, but was shot in the face by the surviving Vietnamese, the one with the pistol. The small-caliber bullet hit him in the face, destroying his right eye socket and shattering parts of his sinuses, making it difficult to breathe. He was knocked unconscious, and when he came to, the surviving Vietnamese was gone.
"I was angry at myself for being shot in the head. I was angry at myself for being careless. I was really pissed off at the North Vietnamese. It was probably the most maniacal moment of my life." Eade said.
After the napalm, the numbers of North Vietnamese moving through the area had been great reduced, but they continued to come through until about midnight, Eade said. He said he stopped using his rifle after dark so he wouldn't give away his position.
As he heard small groups of NVA, probably collecting their dead, Eade said he crawled around and threw grenades.
"There was no shortage of grenades lying around," Eade said, referring to his dead comrades' munitions. He recalls that it was a struggle to stay awake. He was on his third night without sleep, and believed that if he fell asleep, he would be found and killed.
After midnight, the NVA activity ended. Around 9 or 10 the following morning, Eade said he heard someone moving toward him. He prepared to shoot, but held his fire. Then he saw the shape of an American helmet. "I yelled at them, 'Give me some water!'" Eade said. "I was really thirsty. He looked at me and said, 'You're shot in the stomach. I can't give you water.' I told him I had been drinking water all night, but he said no. So I asked him for some morphine. I told him I had used mine up on the other wounded. 'It really hurts,' I said. He said, "You're shot in the head. I can't give you morphine.' So I said, 'Well, then give me a cigarette.' They gave me that."
Gwin reports that the discovery of Eade alive was a tremendous morale boster for the rest of the battalion. When the battle was over, Gwin said, the battalion that had marched to LZ Albany could fit into four deuce and a half trucks -- nearly three-quarters of them had been killed or wounded in a matter of hours. But he said that despite the trauma, morale was high and remained so in following weeks as replacement rotated into nearly empty platoon tents and the battalion prepared to return to the field.
``The survivors rallied and cheered the fact that we had held the ground. We knew that we had killed a lot of them. We had given as good as we had gotten,'' Gwin said. "The morale was very high in a perverse sort of way, because we had survived it.''
Gwin went on to complete his year in Vietnam and 45 combat assaults as executive officer of Alpha Company. He was wounded later in his tour when he was shot in the leg, but returned to combat duty after a short in-country convalescence. He was awarded the Purple Heart and the Silver Star for gallantry under fire at the Ia Drang. Gwin's experience is detailed both in his own book and in "We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young."
Eade spent the next year in the U.S. Army hospital at Valley Forge, which is where Barry Burnite's mother came to see him.
"I don't know how she found me," Eade said. "She asked me, how did her son die. I kind of told her the truth and I kind of didn't. I cleaned it up a bit. The uncontrollable grief of that woman has stayed with me my whole life. Her pain and her grief was more than I could bear to look at. I can never think about it without wanting to cry."
His eye teared up for the first time in our conversation as he recounted this, and he explained that experience established his personal standard for when it is appropriate to go to war.
"For me, the measure was Mrs. Burnite," Eade said. "Afghanistan was very clear. For me, Iraq was not that clear."
Both Gwin and Eade said they had deep reservations about whether Iraq met their standard for committing troops to battle, and said the war has prompted both pride and anguish in them. But once President Bush had committed troops, both men say they fully support of seeing the war through to a successful conclusion, and hopeful about developments such as the recent elections. Eade says he is steadfastly opposed to a peace movement that has offered no viable alternative to the Bush administration's efforts to bring security and democracy to Iraq.
Gwin said, "I detest war as a foreign policy option and was deadset against us going into Iraq. But every now and then you've got to stand up and act. You ask any hardcore Vietnam vet who served honorably, 'Would you go again?' The answer is yes. Even though I've learned in retrospect that the war was horribly misguided, I don't feel bad for having served there. The underlying reason was to stem communism, which in the 1960s was a sword of Damocles hanging over us. There had to be people who were willing to stand up."
Gwin was deeply skeptical and cynical about government for years after Vietnam, but said that in recent years he has mellowed in his view. "Maybe it's age. The cynicism is fading. I'm still skeptical, but I think everyone, then and now, has been doing the best goddamned job they can. Our government is doing the best they can. I'm not as angry as I was."
Gwin saw Eade's name in the newspaper several years ago and reached him by phone. Their initial meetings were emotionally highly charged. Eade said a lot of his anger came out, and he had some misunderstandings about what had happened that he needed to sort out. The contact has been important for both men, and every year, they travel together to the Ia Drang reunions in Arlington, Va.
"When I meet John every two or three months for lunch, we talk about what we could have done, who fucked up, and then we say, we've got to stop talking about it. But we won't," Gwin said.
Originally posted: 2005-11-08 19:01:40
Update 25 May 2008: Jules Crittenden has an update to this story - On Dying And Continuing To Be Alive
Posted by Greyhawk / November 11, 2009 6:16 PM | Permalink
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Vietnam, Ia Drang valley, 14 - 16 November 1965: "Playing dead was a way to die. It made no sense to me. Our job was to hold that position and kill the enemy," Eade said. "I had this thing in my mind, part of the U.S. Army's General Orders and the sold... Read More
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November 26, 2010
I think anyone who's ever pondered the "comment" option - once only available on blogs and bulletin boards, now ubiquitous on almost any web site - will appreciate this:
The so-called faculty of writing is not so much a faculty of writing as it is a faculty of thinking. When a man says, "I have an idea but I can't express it"; that man hasn't an idea but merely a vague feeling. If a man has a feeling of that kind, and will sit down for a half an hour and persistently try to put into writing what he feels, the probabilities are at least 90 percent that he will either be able to record it, or else realize that he has no idea at all. In either case, he will do himself a benefit.
That's wisdom from the past, captured for posterity at the US Naval Institute, shared via the web on the institute's 137th anniversary.
From their about page:
"The Naval Institute has three core activities," among them, History and Preservation:
The Naval Institute also has recently introduced Americans at War, a living history of Americans at war in their own words and from their own experiences. These 90-second vignettes convey powerful stories of inspiration, pride, and patriotism.
Take a look at the collection, and you'll see it's not limited to accounts from those who served on ships at sea, members of the other branches are well-represented.
I'm fortunate to have met USNI's Mary Ripley, she's responsible for the institute's oral history program (and she's the daughter of the late John Ripley, whose story is told here). She also deserves much credit for their blog. ("We're not the Navy nor any government agency. Blog and comment freely.") We met at a milblog conference - Mary knew (and I would come to realize) that milbloggers are the 21st-century version of exactly what the US Naval Institute is all about. Once that light bulb came on in my head, I mentioned a vague idea for a project to her - milblogs as the 21st century oral history that they are.
"Put that in writing," she said (of course - see first paragraph above!) - and here's part of the result.
Shortly after the first tent was pitched by the American military in Iraq a wire was connected to a computer therein, and the internet was available to a generation of Americans at war - many of whom had grown up online. From that point on, at any given moment, somewhere in Iraq a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine was at a keyboard sharing the events of his or her day with the folks back home. While most would simply fire off an email, others took advantage of the (then) relatively new online blogging platforms to post their thoughts and experiences for the entire world to see. The milblog was born - and from that moment to this stories detailing everything from the most mundane aspects of camp life to intense combat action (often described within hours of the event) have been available on the web...
And et cetera - but since you're reading this on a milblog, you probably knew that. And you know that milblogs aren't just blogs written by troops at war, that many friends, family members, and supporters likewise documented their story of America at war online in near-real time, as those stories developed.
The diversity in membership of that group is broad, the one thing we all have in common is the impulse to make sense of the seemingly senseless, and communicate the tale - for each of us that impulse was strong enough to overcome whatever barriers prevent the vast majority of people from doing the same. Everyone at some point has some vague idea they believe should be shared - we were the people who, from some combination of internal and external urging, found and spent those many half hours persistently trying to write it down.
But where will all that be in another 137 years? Or five or ten, for that matter. That's something I've asked myself since at least 2004 - when I wrote this:
Membership in the ghost battalion has grown in the years since, and an ever growing majority of those abandoned-but-still-standing sites are vanishing. Have you checked out Lt Smash's site lately? How about Sgt Hook's? If you're a long-time milblog reader you know the first widely-read milblog from Operation Iraq Freedom and the first widely-read milblog from Afghanistan are both gone from the web. If you're a relative newcomer to this world you may never even have heard of them - or the dozens upon dozens of others who carried forth the standard they set down.
If you have a vague notion that something should be done about that, (a notion I've heard expressed more than once...) then you and I and the good folks at the US Naval Institute are in agreement. Preserving the history documented by the milbloggers is just one of the goals of the milblog project, the once-vague idea that we're now making real.
And it's a big idea, if I say so myself - too big to explain in one simple blog post, so stand by for more. Likewise, it's too big a task to be accomplished by just one person. So if you're a milblogger (and exactly what is a milblogger? is a topic for much further discussion on its own) I'm asking for your help. All I'll really need is just a little bit (maybe just one or two of those half hours...) of your time, and your willingness to tell the tale.
We've already made history, it's time to save it.
(More to follow...)
The Mudville Gazette is the on-line voice of an American warrior and his wife who stands by him. They prefer to see peaceful change render force of arms unnecessary. Until that day they stand fast with those who struggle for freedom, strike for reason, and pray for a better tomorrow.
Furthermore, I will occasionally use satire or parody herein. The bottom line: it's my house.
I like having visitors to my house. I hope you are entertained. I fight for your right to free speech, and am thrilled when you exercise said rights here. Comments and e-mails are welcome, but all such communication is to be assumed to be 1)the original work of any who initiate said communication and 2)the property of the Mudville Gazette, with free use granted thereto for publication in electronic or written form. If you do NOT wish to have your message posted, write "CONFIDENTIAL" in the subject line of your email.
Original content copyright © 2003 - 2011 by Greyhawk. Fair, not-for-profit use of said material by others is encouraged, as long as acknowledgement and credit is given, to include the url of the original source post. Other arrangements can be made as needed.
Contact: greyhawk at mudvillegazette dot com