As a misty rain fell on the morning of Jan. 28, 1966, the drone of a hundred helicopters, carrying soldiers from the 7th Cavalry into the southern end of the Bong Son Plain, pierced the silent gray skies. This movement was the opening for Operation Masher (later continued as White Wing), a determined effort to eliminate the enemy presence in the fertile An Lao Valley.'Graveyard' at LZ 4: Battle of Cu Nghi: on the Bong Son Plain between Jan. 28-31, 1966, battalions of the 7th and 12th Cavalry, 1st Cav Division, won a hard-fought round with the NVA and VC - Deadliest Vietnam Battles
At a meeting held on Jan. 13, top American, South Korean and South Vietnamese commanders had devised a classic hammer and anvil operation to rid southern Quang Ngai Province and the northeast quadrant of Binh Dinh Province of Communists.
Binh Dinh was a hotbed of enemy activity. The South Vietnamese had just about given up on ever pacifying the area. That was the main reason why the joint allied operation was formulated--to gain control of this important region.
On Jan. 25, three days prior to the start of the operation, Col. Harold Moore's 3rd Brigade of the 1st Cav Division (5,700 men) prepared to strike at its objectives. However, tragedy beset the cavalrymen. A C-123 Provider aircraft mysteriously slammed into a mountainside near An Khe, killing all aboard. All told, 46 men, including the entire crew of the plane, were lost. "The bodies were badly torn," said Lt. Col. Kenneth Mertel. "It was not as bad to get killed on the battlefield, if one had to."
Meanwhile, Moore met with Special Forces Project Delta leader Maj. Charles "Chargin Charlie" Beckwith to discuss the operation. Beckwith's all-American teams were to patrol northwest of the 1st Cav, in the An Lao Valley.
In a 'Hornet's Nest'
On Jan. 28, soon after takeoff, enemy gunfire struck a C-47 Chinook, causing it to crash at Landing Zone (LZ) Papa. A company from 1st Bn., 7th Cav, responded to protect the downed bird. When it encountered heavy fire, the remainder of the battalion entered the fray.
To the southwest, the 2nd Bn., 7th Cav, was on the move. Two rifle platoons (minus one because of the plane crash a few days earlier) landed at LZ 2 and linked up with C Company, which had been lifted into LZ 4.
LZ 4 was close to the villages of Cu Nghi and Phung Du, which were both surrounded by palm trees, hedgerows, rice paddies and paddy dikes. Also nearby was a cemetery. Numerous mounds (the Vietnamese bury their dead in a sitting position) dotted the burial ground. Because the LZ was so close to the villages and the cemetery, there was no preparatory artillery fire.
As the first helicopters neared, the enemy let loose automatic weapons fire. The remaining choppers began to land in various locations to avoid being hit. With the company scattered, fire intensified. The cavalrymen had run into elements of the two battalions of the 22nd NVA Regiment.
Firmly entrenched in earthworks, palm groves and bamboo thickets, the NVA had C Company in a murderous crossfire. The unit was so fragmented that soldiers had a difficult time finding each other. Driving rain made air and artillery support impossible.
"We're in a hornet's nest," screamed Capt. John Fesmire on the radio to battalion headquarters.
Indeed they were. With remnants of the company strewn all over the LZ, Fesmire's troopers were cut off. A Company came to the rescue. But the NVA began pouring automatic weapons fire at the troopers as they attempted to cross a rice paddy.
"Every time you raised your head, it was zap, zap, zap," remembered 2nd Battalion commander Lt. Col. Robert McDade. "The dirt really flew."
A half dozen helicopters attempted to reinforce the beleaguered men. As the birds neared LZ 4, local Viet Cong (VC) concentrated their firepower on the vulnerable choppers. All six sustained hits; only part of one platoon of B Company could land.
As darkness approached, rain fell in *******s. The poor visibility was ideal for the enemy, who tried to infiltrate the perimeter throughout the night. "We captured two VC that night trying to breach our lines," said Pfc. Jim Hackett, A Company medic.
McDade told his men to consolidate their positions and regroup. "Sgt. Bill Bercaw went out looking for the Charlie Company guys," Hackett remembered. "He went out numerous times to find and bring them back. That was the bravest thing I saw at LZ 4. He was a real hero for doing that." Bercaw would be awarded a Bronze Star with V device for his bravery at Cu Nghi.
The next day, the rain subsided and A1-E Skyraiders and B-57 Canberra bombers struck enemy positions, relieving the pressure on McDade's men. By late morning, Moore, with a company from the 2nd Bn., 12th Cav, arrived on the scene.
As they pressed forward, the infantrymen bogged down in a deadly duel with a Communist machine gun. "My gun is jammed!" hollered Spec. 4 Steve Young. Racing back to the trench under heavy fire, he cannibalized parts from another M-60 machine gun to get his operating again. He then ran back to provide cover for the advancing soldiers.
Napalm finally eliminated the threat. "When we finally reached the machine gun, we discovered it was a .50-caliber, probably stolen from us or the French," Hackett explained. "Also, the VC manning it was an old man who had been chained to it."
Soon, elements from the 1st Bn., 7th Cav, linked up with other 3rd Brigade troops and completed the sweep of the area. Most of the heavy fighting was over.
During the three-day Battle of Cu Nghi (LZ 4), 77 cavalrymen were killed and another 220 wounded. Including the 42 men of A Co., 2nd Bn., 7th Cav, and the four crewmen, 10 helicopter pilots and seven Green Berets, the grand total came to 140 Americans killed. LZ 4 rated its reputation as the "graveyard."
Maj. Bruce Crandall, commander of A Co., 229th AH Bn., earned a Distinguished Flying Cross at the LZ. His respect for the men he saved was clearly evident. "You always had great confidence in the infantry," he said.
Though the cost was high, the 1st Air Cavalry Division had driven the VC from the region. Yet as author John Prados wrote in his article "Operation Masher" (The Veteran, February/March 2002): "Within a week ... intelligence reports mentioned the adversary returning to the sector. It was no wonder that Binh Dinh Province remained problematic throughout the war?