To the Crew Members of the PURPLE FOXES;
July 24, 2005
Hello, my name is Curtis Batten, and finally after 37 years; my life has once again come full circle. This photo was taken a day or two before I was exposed to the courageous Purple Fox crews of HMM-364. I now have the honor to thank those Marines for the heroic actions of May 9th through about the 16th or 17th of 1968. I was one of the grunts on the ground on Hill 1192 at Hai Van Pass. I was one of the very lucky and also one of the very few that was not tagged as wounded, although I do not remember a man up there that was not wounded to one degree or the other. The loss of life on that hill was tremendous, with causalities being even worse. We went up that hill on what we had been told would be a short two day recon mission. We were told to leave our packs and flak jackets behind, and to only bring two days rations. Mike Company was drastically under strength; there were only 83 of us. Of course we were all instructed to carry a full load of ammunition with us.
Because of the dense undergrowth and extreme steepness it took us the majority of one and a half days to reach the crest of Hill 1192. Upon reaching the crest a squad was sent over the top. Hill 1192 was so steep that one could literally stand with one foot one each side, it was almost like climbing over a knee high wall. The squad that had been sent over the top to do the recon, very quickly encountered a small, or so we thought at the time, number of N.V.A. They had cooking fires and clotheslines strung between trees. There were a number of hooch’s scattered about the hillside. Weapons were in stack-arms positions all around the fires and hooch’s. It was easy to identify them as N.V.A. because of their uniforms. Our guys quickly brought them under fire killing several, while at least one was able to make it to a tunnel. Within a matter of a few minutes (and I really mean within a minute of two) the squad came under very intense enemy fire, which wounded several of the men and probably killed at least one in the first flurry of gunfire. Now they were hopelessly pinned down with wounded and dead and it rapidly became apparent that we would have to get to them very quickly, or they would not be able to survive. It was starting to get dark, and in the mountains under dense triple canopy overhead foliage it gets dark very quickly.
Our C.O. Capt. Frank Pacello (now Col. Pacello) aided by GySgt. Lawrence Harville quickly started the company over the crest in an attempt to join up with what was left of our squad. As the company spilled over the top the battle began in earnest. There was a small ridge line running down the hill, which was steeper than anything I can ever remember being on. It was very difficult to stay upright. The pinned down squad was somewhere to the left of the ridge, but we were not able to actually see them. The dense vegetation kept vision to a minimum, and the diminishing light made it even harder to see. The intense enemy fire was forcing us to the right of the small ridge, placing it between the squad and us. One of the members of this squad was Rocco “Rock” Giambrocco. I later found out that up to this point Rock was not wounded. As we came over the crest it was a surreal scene, tracer fire both red and green was ricocheting in all directions, it appeared as if there were millions of angry fireflies, grenades were exploding everywhere. The gunfire and explosions was deafening. The brilliant light caused by the explosions was so rapid and bright, that it caused everything to appear to move in slow motion, much like a disco light does to a dance floor. It quickly became apparent that because of the intense enemy fire and the deep chugging sound that is produced by a heavy caliber machine gun, we had walked into a very well placed ambush, or so we thought at the time. Because of the intense gunfire pouring into our ranks the wounded began to fall at a frightening pace. The sound of CORPSMAN could be heard from every quarter. Our dead and wounded was everywhere. As we spilled over the top, the tremendous volume of firing was beginning to force us to the right side of the small ridge line into a small depression. I remember seeing a small stream in this hollow. Each of us would grab a wounded comrade, and then either pull, drag, or carry him with us. I don't really remember how far down the hillside we moved but it was not very far. There was not anyplace to go, so we began to pile the wounded in one spot to the right side of the ridge line. We then fanned out and all of us began to find cover any place we could. Cover was sparse at the best. I noticed right away that the vegetation to the right side of the ridge line was considerably less.
I have no idea how many dead and wounded we took in that initial burst but it was staggering. The events over the next few hours and days become kinda blurry as to the sequence of timing. Sometime during that first night or maybe early the next morning I remember Capt. Pacello hollering to Giambrocco, telling him to make his way to us, and that we would lay down covering fire for him. Just as distinctly, I remember hearing Giambrocco adamantly holler back, “Can't do that Skipper, I have wounded over here, and I ain’t leaving them.” That was the end of that, it was two or three days before we were finally able to get Rock over to us. By this time he was the only one alive, every one else had either died of wounds or had been killed outright, with the exception of one guy that he drug back with him, who was critically wounded. By this time Rock himself was also wounded, he had been shot in the ankle. His protection, just like the rest of us that first night had come down to hand to hand combat. The next morning after it began to get light, is when the true impact of the ferocious fight that had taken place the night before. Wounded and dead enemy lie beside wounded and dead Marines. It was a true testament to the enemy's tenacious attempt to overrun our position, and our tenacious fight to stop them. I remember the helicopter coming in late in the evening of May 9th (I think) and lowering a jungle penetrator to where we were. I think I remember the penetrator being a bright color, either yellow or orange, maybe. We loaded one man onto it; he had a very severe head wound. We were later told that this chopper took so much incoming fire from the ridge above us that it was forced to make an emergency landing while en route back to DaNang. But now, from reading your stories I don't see any mention of that action, other than that written by Cpl. Cohoon. Maybe the emergency landing we had been told about was in DaNang. Although we also learned later that the wounded man had been shot so many times on the way up, that he was dead as they pulled him into the chopper.
I remember the choppers circling over our position constantly. Then we had one that passed right over our heads and Jim Blankenheim the radio operator yelling at him that he was directly over us. We were not able to see this chopper, or any of the choppers overhead, we could just hear them. The chopper began to push supplies out of the door, some fell to us, and some fell to the enemy. But we were able to get the majority of the items dropped. One of the most important items was C-4 explosive and det cord, which we needed to blow the LZ. The chain saw that got to us was virtually useless. The blade was just too small for the massive trees around us. It really looked rather puny. The first attempt at blowing the L.Z. was a failure. We did not place enough explosives around the trees, as none of us were engineers, the most that any of us had handled explosives was during AIT training. When we blew the LZ on the second try, the explosion was massive, but we blew them suckers. It looked like a jumble of matchsticks.
I now after all these years know the name of that pilot, Maj. Howard S. "Hoss" Lowery, Jr. I would love to meet (AGAIN---we met once, on the side of a mountain—sorta that is) each of the men onboard that chopper. The heroism that was displayed on that day was overwhelming, and is still just as fresh in my mind today over 37 years hence. I remember watching that chopper as it came into sight and then began to hover downwards. I can still to this day remember seeing the crew chief and door gunner as they hung out the side. When he finally pulled up into the parking spot, (not like he had a whole bunch of choices) we were ready for him. I will concede to Cpl. Steinberg on this one, but after all of these years I would have sworn that it was 16 not 17. But anyway it was one of the two, besides what's one more or less. I was one of the Marines stationed directly below the side door that we used to hand the wounded in through. I remember that there were four or five of us, bunched up standing on the blown logs, taking the wounded as they were carried to us, and then handing then up over our head to the men in the chopper to pull inside. These Marines were the critical wounded, but yet I do not remember hearing any of them get mad because of the way we were forced to grab them to raise them up. I remember putting two of my best friends on board Jerry Lomax and Rock Giambrocco, I also remember putting Art Diabo and Willie Rivera, just to name a few.
The other contention I have with Cpl. Steinberg is the amount of firing that was pouring into our ranks. It is my contention after contemplating this happening that the UH-1s had silenced the guns on the ledge, which had shot at the first chopper to come in. After we finally were able to move about on the hillside many days later we found the remains of several heavily constructed bunkers with fixed firing slits. These slits allowed firing from side to side but very little, if any up and down movement. That also explains why we were able to survive after we left the ridge and moved down into the slight depression where the stream was located. The enemy was not able to bring their weapons to bear on us as long as we stayed on the ground. Because anytime someone would get up he would be the immediate recipient of two, if not three machine guns at once. Back to Cpl. Steinberg’ statement concerning the lack of incoming fire, he may not have heard the firing. The noise the chopper produced under the trees was deafening, I know I was directly under it, and if Cpl. Steinberg was in the rear of the chopper then he was facing downhill and was already 15 to 20 feet in the air due to the steepness of the terrain. The machine gun emplacements were to the left and to the right of where the chopper was hovering. We had a number of men to be wounded while we loaded the wounded.
After we finished loading the wounded, I took off uphill because the chopper was backing - I love it – "OUT OF THE GARAGE” downhill. I moved up to where our Company C.P. was to retrieve my rifle, which all of us had left while moving the wounded. I remember squatting there watching the chopper as it began to hover upwards. I also remember thinking how I wish I could have been on board to be able to get off that hill. I was too young (18 at the time) to understand what I was witnessing. I saw the chopper struggling to rise, but did not understand that it truly had a problem. Then I heard the Skipper hollering, “You're going to hit the trees”, then I could hear our radioman Jim Blankenheim right behind me holler on the radio, trying to tell the pilot that he was about to hit the limbs. Then it happened, I grew up in a second. I watched that chopper as it began to fall, pieces of the blades was flying everywhere. It fell in slow motion, and in super speed all at the same time. I had never seen anything like it. It scared me as much a being in the ambush did. None of us knew where to hide; there was not any place to hide; besides it all happened far too fast. The chopper rolled onto its right side while it was still in the air, once it hit the ground it did not slide downhill very far because of the logs it was jammed up against. I don't remember putting any kind of conscious thought into the image I had just witnessed. I don't remember having any type of conscious thought of what I should or should not do, I just realized that I was in the cockpit helping the pilot or co-pilot (I don't remember which), then just as quickly I remember being inside the troop area helping others pull mangled bodies out of the wreckage. The one thing that sticks out most in my memory of this time is someone, who, I don't know shouting, and then the word being repeated by everyone, “EXTINGUISH ALL CIGARETTES----I SMELL GASOLINE”. That is the first time I remember feeling panic as we continued to help the wounded out. I heard a few saying don't leave me in here to burn.
The next chopper to come in and I don't remember if it was that day or the next, but I do remember that it was dark, or at least it was dark under the canopy. It did not land but it lowered another penetrator and removing several wounded. I remember Jerry Lomax as being one of those.
And that my friends, is as they say the rest of the story. It is now illuminated from both sides. Thanks so very much for your courage then, and on all of the previous and subsequent flights that were made to render aid to help these helpless GRUNTS….. The GRUNTS of Mike Company 3d Battalion 5th Marines. I also wish to personally tell the pilot, whoever he was, and whatever unit he was with, on Oct. 18, 1968 at about 2:00p/m, west of An Hoa combat base, in the middle of the Arizona Territory, THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart. Someone flying a CH-53 Jolly Green came in and picked me up and then flew me to Charlie Med.
Other Perspectives of the Hai Van Pass Shoot Out
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