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At Long Last, Honors for 12 Fallen Men

A bugler at Arlington National Cemetery plays taps during a service for 12 U.S. servicemen who fought at Ngok Tavak, a remote hill in Vietnam, in 1968.
A bugler at Arlington National Cemetery plays taps during a service for 12 U.S. servicemen who fought at Ngok Tavak, a remote hill in Vietnam, in 1968. (Photos By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

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By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 8, 2005

They had waited 37 years for this moment, but family members of 12 U.S. servicemen honored yesterday at Arlington National Cemetery approached the grave site cautiously, under a shield of umbrellas. Behind them, 12 soldiers stood in the rain, each holding a flag folded just so, the blue stars just visible.

For years, relatives never knew exactly what happened that day in 1968 at Ngok Tavak, a remote hill in Vietnam, after the North Vietnamese closed in. Some got out, led by a wild Australian Army captain on a trail blazed by napalm.

Others weren't so lucky.

For years, their families heard conflicting stories about what happened to them. They were missing. Out on a search party. Or dead.

Official documents listed Marine Lance Cpl. Raymond T. Heyne of Mason, Wis., with a string of inconclusive letters after his name -- KIA, MIA, POW -- his sister, Janice Kostello, said yesterday.

But after a 12-year investigation that included interviews with Vietnamese and U.S. soldiers and three excavations of the jungle site near the border with Laos, the Department of Defense recently was able to identify the remains of five servicemen who died during the 10-hour battle, as well as the remains of seven others who were interred in a single coffin yesterday. Heyne was buried privately in a separate grave yesterday, and four others were to be buried in their home states.

When the Defense Department finally called with the news that it had identified Heyne's remains this spring, Kostello said she was relieved.

"Because you always wondered," she explained. "It was closure. It was joy and it was relief and it's sad. You're elated because you can finally bury him."

She is 71 now, her hair curly and white. Her adored little brother was 20 when he disappeared.

Among the men who died with Heyne that day was Marine Cpl. Gerald E. King of Knoxville, Tenn., who was injured early on but continued to fight; Lance Cpl. Joseph F. Cook of Foxboro, Mass., a comedian-tough guy who died along with his best friend, Pfc. Paul S. Czerwonka of Stoughton, Mass.; and Pfc. Thomas J. Blackman of Racine, Wis., a lanky redhead who had talked about how he wanted to ride his bicycle from coast to coast after he got home.

Also honored yesterday were Lance Cpl. James R. Sargent of Anawalt, W.Va., Lance Cpl. Donald W. Mitchell of Princeton, Ky., Lance Cpl. Thomas W. Fritsch of Cromwell, Conn., Pvt. Barry L. Hempel of Garden Grove, Calif., Pvt. Robert C. Lopez of Albuquerque, Pvt. William D. McGonigle of Wichita, and Army Sgt. Glenn E. Miller of Oakland, Calif.

After the ceremony, more than 150 attendees and veterans who fought at Ngok Tavak and at a base nearby gathered at a hotel off Interstate 395 in Alexandria and swapped stories about their lost colleagues.

"Just say they took part in a major military action that was a total fiasco . . . 200 men, in the face of a [North Vietnamese] division of 8,000, who were told to stand and fight. Their chances were pretty slim," said John White, a retired Australian military officer who commanded the troops -- a mix of Marines, Australian soldiers and Chinese mercenaries -- on the hill at an abandoned French fort.

White, 63, said he can still remember the feeling of being trapped with his men and the sound of the enemy, their mess kits clanking as they stealthily surrounded the soldiers over several days. Finally around midnight one night, White warned the troops that they would be hit and hit hard.

"The moon went down at 3:15, and after that, all hell broke loose," said Greg Rose, 56, who was then a Marine private and now is a federal employee in Canberra, Australia.

The battle raged until dawn, with heavy casualties on both sides. During a brief respite in the fighting -- as they rushed wounded soldiers onto a medivac helicopter -- White decided to take a desperate measure to save his remaining men, who were surrounded.

He called in for airstrikes of napalm and led out the remaining 40 or so soldiers along a trail of burning chemicals. The foolhardy plan worked: "It was absolutely brilliant," Rose said.

But they had to leave the dead behind, and some have never forgiven themselves for that, or for the fact that they lived.

"Why me and not them?" Rose asked, tears in his eyes. "This has been the greatest day of my life and the hardest day. They've finally come home."


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