the Army overlooked the clash that became known as the Anonymous Battle. President Obama on Tuesday gave about 100 veterans of Alpha Troop the Presidential Unit Citation, the highest award for valor that a military unit can earn.
Pfc. Paul Evans was rocking and rolling on his M-16 on a long-ago afternoon in Vietnam, spraying fire toward an unseen enemy deep within the jungle. He was a terrified 18-year-old who knew, as other men fell around him, that he was about to die.
U.S. tanks then thundered out of the jungle, he recalled. Alpha Troop had arrived.
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The men of Alpha Troop, 1st Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, rushed in to rescue Evans’ infantry company, pinned down for most of the day after wandering into a cluster of North Vietnamese bunkers near the Cambodia border.
For two hours, Alpha’s tanks exchanged fire with the enemy. Then, as night fell and the Americans feared being surrounded in the dark, everyone fled through the blackening foliage.
Many of the soldiers tucked away their memories for years, only now describing the day’s horror.
Kenny Euge, of Belleville, Ill., drove one of the tanks that barreled to Charlie Company’s aid. He recalled a rocket-propelled grenade flying overhead, like a flaming basketball.
“It was all scary,” Euge said, his voice breaking. “Even the drive back was scary.”
Yet, the Army overlooked the clash that became known as the Anonymous Battle. When one man ended his tour and was asked about major battles in which he’d participated, the soldier who was processing the paperwork shook his head. There’d been no significant battles on March 26, 1970.
The veterans — and now everyone else — know differently. President Obama on Tuesday gave about 100 veterans of Alpha Troop the Presidential Unit Citation, the highest award for valor that a military unit can earn.
Old soldiers in dark suits or dress uniforms — some wearing old medals pinned to their chests, some lean and ramrod straight, others leaning on canes — listened in the White House Rose Garden as birds chirped and the commander in chief praised their valor.
“Some may wonder: After all these years, why honor this heroism now?” Obama said. “The answer is simple. Because we must. Because we have a sacred obligation.”
Little felt sacred to Alpha Troop at the time. The tank company had lost several members the previous night when a mortar round accidentally exploded in one of its vehicles. The men were exhausted after removing charred bodies.
But they could hear gunfire in the distance. They learned Charlie Company, a group of infantry troops from the 1st Cavalry Division, was in trouble. Capt. John Poindexter, Alpha Troop’s 25-year-old commander, volunteered his men to go fetch the grunts.
“It’s a story of resolve,” Obama said. “For Alpha Troop could have simply evacuated their comrades and left that enemy bunker for another day — to ambush another American unit. But, as their captain said, ‘That’s not what the 11th Cavalry does.’ “
They steered their tanks through 2 ½ miles of jungle, mowing down trees at a pace slower than a man can walk. “It was pretty slow going,” recalled Floyd Clark, 60, a machine gunner from Harrisonburg, Va. “You had a lot of time to think.”
They arrived with a suddenness that surprised both sides, Poindexter said.
Sgt. Pasquel Gutierrez recalls being stunned by the sight of dead American soldiers, their bodies wrapped in ponchos. “That … instilled in me that we were going to get in some serious business here,” he said.
Poindexter ordered everyone to open fire 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.”
Plenty came back, he said.
Alpha Troop answered with a burst of counterfire, Gutierrez said, and Poindexter ordered an advance.
Euge, who had become a driver because he didn’t want to fire a gun, had to pop out of the hatch and change the tank’s gun barrel, bullets whizzing past him.
“Why wasn’t I killed, you know?” he asked. “You had to crawl up, unscrew a barrel that’s white-hot. You’re supposed to have an asbestos glove, but in the middle of battle, you don’t have a glove. You can barely keep your wits together. So a dry white towel was the best you had.”
Said Gutierrez: “Essentially, I don’t ever remember not firing from that point on until the battle was over. … Punch for punch … 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 Sgt. Robert Foreman Jr., 32, a tank commander who had a wife and three children back in California. Another blast wounded Poindexter.
Gutierrez, awarded the Silver Star for his actions, said he thought about his family back home and wondered if he would survive.
The fight ended abruptly. “Just like that,” he said, “the jungle had gone dead silent. It was over.”
Two of Alpha Troop’s men were dead. Forty were wounded. Alpha Troop loaded Charlie Company’s survivors, and the dead and wounded, and headed back 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-Capt. George Hobson.
Three decades after the battle, Poindexter learned that men for whom he’d recommended medals never had received them. So, beginning in 2003, he gathered documents and interviews, wrote a book called “The Anonymous Battle” and agitated at the Pentagon for recognition.
“I feel as though these men are receiving the recognition that they are entitled to, and that they felt, like I do, deeply fulfilled to be recognized in such a public and conspicuous way at long last,” Poindexter said.
The owner of a successful truck-manufacturing business in Houston, he offered to pay for any veteran who couldn’t afford the trip.
They flew into Washington, D.C., on Monday, gathering at a suburban hotel, struggling to recognize one another beneath sagging jowls and crinkled eyes.
“You know, this is crazy,” Euge said. “Thirty-nine years later, someone tells you that you did a good job? It’s just odd.”
Foreman’s widow, Gert, 75, who never remarried, also attended Tuesday’s ceremony 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.”