By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
The North Vietnamese soldiers were so close that Pasqual Gutierrez could see their eyes and faces as they darted among the bunkers in front of him.
Bullets banged off the armor of his tank. Rocket-propelled grenades had just cut down Sgt. Foreman, and wounded Capt. Poindexter. The fighting was so fierce that machine gun barrels overheated, and one comrade stuck cigarette filters in his ears to keep out the noise.
It was March 26, 1970. Location: A few Godforsaken acres of jungle, pocked by B-52 bomb craters, and now a stage where American tanks fired blasts of sharpened buckshot at an enemy who fought back from subterranean bunkers and could not be dislodged.
Tuesday in the White House Rose Garden, almost 40 years later, President Obama is scheduled to pay tribute to Gutierrez and about 80 other Vietnam veterans who fought in the savage, unnamed battle, which resulted in the rescue of a company of trapped fellow soldiers.
Gutierrez's outfit -- Alpha Troop, First Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment -- has been awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for its "extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry" in the fight, and the soldiers have been summoned to be honored.
A truck driver from Harrisonburg, an architect from California, a businessman from Texas, they have come from across the country, many having only in the last few months reopened that harrowing chapter of their lives, when as scared, young soldiers they stood face-to-face with the enemy, as Gutierrez says, in a kind of deadly prizefight.
"The analogy for me has always been: These two heavyweights stepping into the center of the ring," he said. "And then just going toe-to-toe, and pounding on each other . . . The first guy that connects, wins."A 'mad minute' of fire
The Presidential Unit Citation, which was awarded to Alpha Troop in April, is the highest honor given to a military unit, and has been issued since World War II.
It was delayed in part because the unit's old commander, Houston businessman John Poindexter, said he realized only recently that many of his men had gone unrecognized. He compiled a book about the battle and used it in 2005 to file for the honor.
The award stems from an action in which Alpha Troop, under the command of then-Capt. Poindexter, volunteered to rescue about 80 American soldiers who were pinned down by an enemy battalion, according to official accounts. The battle took place along the Cambodian border, northwest of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City.
Poindexter had about 100 men in Alpha Troop, along with six light Sheridan tanks and about 14 Armored Cavalry Assault Vehicles, or A-cavs, bristling with machine guns. He had an additional 100 infantrymen assigned to him.
Gutierrez, now a 60-year-old California architect, was then a 21-year-old welder's son from East Los Angeles, and the commander of one of the lead tanks. A platoon sergeant, he sat in the turret hatch manning both a .50 caliber machine gun, and the tank's 152mm cannon, which he said he operated with his feet.
The battle began when Charlie Company, a separate group of American infantrymen, stumbled on the enemy bunkers the morning of March 26, took heavy casualties and were quickly surrounded.
Based a few miles away, Poindexter, then 25, volunteered to take his outfit through the jungle to rescue the trapped "grunts." He did so, although his troop was exhausted from weeks in the field, and still in shock from an accidental mortar explosion the night before that had killed several men.
As Alpha Troop pushed through the jungle, its men could see in the distance helicopters swooping low over the battlefield, Poindexter and Gutierrez said, and soon they could smell the smoke from the fighting. "It was pretty slow going," recalled Floyd Clark, 60, of Harrisonburg, a machine gunner. "You had a lot of time to think."
They arrived on the scene with a suddenness that surprised both sides, Poindexter said last week.
Gutierrez recalls being stunned by the sight of dead American soldiers, their bodies wrapped in ponchos, with their boots sticking out. "That . . . instilled in me that we were going to get in some serious business here," he said.
Poindexter ordered everyone to open fire with all weapons for a "mad minute," Gutierrez said, "just to kind of turn the flame on the kettle and see what comes to a boil, see what comes back."Jungle went 'dead silent'
Plenty came back, he said.
Alpha troop answered with a burst of counter fire, Gutierrez said, and Poindexter ordered an advance. "Essentially, I don't ever remember not firing from that point on until the battle was over," Gutierrez said It was "punch for punch," he said. "Back and forth . . . Rockets are going everywhere . . . we're shooting at everything that's moving. They're shooting at everything that's moving."
He saw a rocket-propelled grenade strike and kill Robert Foreman Jr., 32, a fellow sergeant and tank commander who had a wife and three children back in California. Another blast wounded Poindexter.
Gutierrez, who was awarded the Silver Star for his actions in the battle, thought about his family back home, and wondered if he would survive.
He was not sure how long the fight went on. But it ended abruptly. "Just like that, the jungle had gone dead silent," he said. "It was over."
Alpha Troop loaded the survivors, and the dead and wounded, on its vehicles and headed back through the jungle to safety, and, for most, the rest of their lives.
"The men of Charlie Company who are alive today understand that we owe our lives" to Alpha Troop, said the company commander, then-Captain George Hobson, who planned to be present Tuesday.
Sgt. Foreman's widow, Gert, 75, who never remarried, will also be there with her daughter Bernadette, 43, who was 3 when her father died. Gert Foreman said the ceremony should not be about loss.
"It's a celebration," she said. "It's a celebration . . . for the people who are here. . . . My daughter doesn't know much about her father. And she can listen to these guys here, telling what a wonderful person he was."