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Note: This salute to those who fell in Vietnam was originally published in November, 2005, and is re-posted today in honor of Memorial Day weekend.
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.
I was greatly honored by his decision to speak with me, but due to space restrictions was only able to get a few of his remarks into the newspaper article. My goal was to convey something of the reality and cost of combat to those who have not experienced it, and even in the Ia Drang battles about which so much as been written, there is more to be said. Everyone needs to know about people like John Eade, Wilbert Johnson, Barry Burnite and Oscar Barker Jr. So here is the rest of what Eade had to say:
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.
Tending Distant Fires
Far from hearth and home, watching
Cold alone but not alone
On distant shore and only wanting
Safe return and little more
What tales we'll tell
When that time comes
When tales can be told
When things grim
Seem far away
When other fires go cold
Some distant sunset, vision fading
And tired eyes gaze 'pon folded flags
While distant drums beat their refrain
Saluting fallen friends whose names
And youth will never fade
Here's to those on other shores,
for them live well, the price is paid
- Greyhawk, Baghdad, December 2004
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
Glad for the "heads up" to this post! Typical wondrous "Greyhawk" style and a gift for us all. Especially to my age group - the people who knew someone in Nam, someone protesting or actual heroes! Stories that remind us, and tell us the up-close and personal are living treasures. THANKS for this post!Posted by chrys at November 8, 2005 06:34 PM
Gwin is a good man....and I'm proud to call him a friend.Posted by Wallace-Midland Texas at November 8, 2005 08:16 PM
"The question was, 'How am I going to die? I am going to die well.'"
I knew other guys had most likely thought that, but its the first time I think I have seen it in print. In a way it makes me feel like I was not so vain in thinking that myself, so long ago.
Thanks for presenting this story. You did good, real good.
Thanks for steering me to this.Posted by A Military Mom at November 8, 2005 11:28 PM
At the risk of repeating what everyone else has already said- 'thanks'. I have read "We Were Soldiers" several times but was not aware of Gwin's book. I will be ordering it soon.
Outstanding work as usual.Posted by Buckley F. Williams at November 9, 2005 12:43 AM
Thanks Greyhawk. Great job. Your poem at the end said it well.Posted by Lucille at November 9, 2005 12:53 AM
Wow. Just wow.Posted by Nicholas at November 9, 2005 02:33 AM
Thanks, Greyhawk. Thanks, Jules. This so brilliantly captures it all. And Great Thanks to Gwin and Eade for their service.Posted by Some Soldier's Mom at November 9, 2005 04:34 AM
Thanks, Greyhawk and Jules, for a great post. I linked to it without trying to add anything to it.
(Either your trackbacks are messed up or TypePad is again. I find it suspicious that only 4 people, as of this writing, have left trackbacks.)Posted by Bill Faith at November 9, 2005 06:45 AM
I received my draft notice nearly two weeks to the day after this battle. We reported to Ft, Benning, where the First Cav had been based. We were standing in formation, still wearing civies, when rumors of many widows on post circulated amongst our ranks. If you think that didn't leave a lifetime impression on a kid who had turned nineteen a month and a half before...
I have posted part of this story on my blog and linked back to here. Thanks, Greyhawk, for posting this story.Posted by Griz at November 9, 2005 12:49 PM
I have read many of the stories and books from Vietnam vets. And, I am deeply proud of each of them as well. Thank you for this story. It's a reminder everyone needs. And, in the words of PFC Stephanie Spurs (during her trip to Iraq last spring): "Freedom is not free...but I will pay so you don't have to."
Thank you, one and all, for having paid so great a price.Posted by Mark Bell at November 10, 2005 03:32 AM
This is the most inspirational story I have ever read. Truly a testiment of the American fighting spirit!Posted by Mike Moore at May 28, 2006 10:10 PM
An astounding and humbling tale. Men like Eade and Gwin are giants, standing a mile high, and casting a shadow from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Growing up, the Vietnam veterans and other servicemembers, both active and Reserve, from various points in time, were my heroes. They still are, and become more so as I grow older. There are not enough thanks that can be said for such men, but I will say it anyway: THANK YOU!Posted by SPC Torgersen at May 29, 2006 07:59 PM Hide Comments | Show/Add Comments in Popup Window(13) | (Note: You must refresh main page to view newly posted comments here)