Wild Card Six

In the late fall of 1967, 1st Lt. James Marvin Stone joined the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). He was a “mustang,” having served as an NCO for 12 years previously and was a recent graduate of Officer Candidate School (OCS) at Ft Benning, GA. He had been commissioned an infantry officer at “the school for boys!”

Viet-Nam

After completion of the division’s five-day training school at its base camp in An Khe, Viet-Nam, in the fall of 1967, 1Lt. Stone caught a C-130 flight to Da Nang where he was scheduled to join the 2nd Battalion, 12th Regiment in the Que Son Valley at LZ Ross. (The USMC formerly knew LZ Ross as Hill 51; LTC Pete Hilgartner named it, not because it was 51 meters high, but because that was his football jersey number while at the naval academy.) The Que Son Valley had been the scene of numerous pitched battles between the USMC and elements of the 2nd NVA Division. Approximately seven to nine Medals of Honor had been awarded to Marines in the valley from 1965-67. The most recent, posthumously awarded to Father Vincent Robert Capodanno, the grunt padre, for his actions on 4 September 1967.

In early October 1967, the 1st Cavalry’s entire 3rd Brigade was airlifted from II Corps to I Corp by C-130 arriving at Chu Lai and then being moved by 2½ ton trucks to Da Nang in the vicinity of the airstrip well inside the perimeter. That night there were multiple probes of the perimeter, which resulted in rear echelon personnel firing handheld parachute devices and calling for 81mm illumination rounds. Four GP medium tents, in the vicinity of the battalion, subsequently caught fire from friendly “see-at-night” devices.

The following morning B/2/12, commanded by Cpt. Phil Pons, Jr., was airlifted to Nui Loc San, a fixed USMC outpost located on a steep and narrow hill. USMC Huey B models were utilized for the movement, which could only carry three to five fully loaded-down infantrymen. The 1st Cav. had H models that could carry six to eight fully-loaded infantrymen, depending on the heat and maximum lift capacity, so this was a shock to me as the XO of the unit in dealing with the S-3 air of the USMC. Furthermore, the 1st Cav. Div. had in excess of 440 helicopters, organic to the division, whereas the entire USMC couldn’t muster that number.

LZs Ross and Leslie

On 24 Oct 67, 1Lt. Stone became the S-4 (supply officer) for 2/12 at LZ Ross. In the latter part of November, WO Larry Brown, B/1/9 within the 1st Cav., located a major ammo and weapons cache approximately eight to ten “clicks” south of LZ Ross. On 5 Dec Major George Burrow, 1/9 commander, was engaged via small arms fire from a hilltop while returning from a troop mission. The troops subsequently engaged multiple NVA targets on the hilltop and then landed a small recon party that stormed the hill, killing all known enemy forces. It was determined that several dead NVA were only carrying pistols and one appeared to be a regimental commander. Subsequent examination of documents and material seized from the hilltop indicated that this was a recon party for a coordinated attack against LZ Ross and LZ Leslie, located farther southeast of LZ Ross.

LZ Leslie, at 138 meters high, was in a dangerous location. Surrounded by high ground on three sides, a gentle sloping finger on the fourth side provided easy access from the floor of the Que Son Valley. The position was filled by a single rifle company on the perimeter, a 105 artillery battery, a quad 50 and a searchlight crew. The landing zone was a one-ship affair with a wooden touchdown pad and had a full time Pathfinder from the division’s “black hat” unit. Whenever B/2/12 rotated for its week of Leslie duty; Cpt. Pons always insisted that the nighttime LP on the finger consisted of a minimum of two M-60 machine guns and, in the event noise was detected, the machine guns would cover the withdrawal of the remaining LP force and then withdraw itself to the safety of fixed sand bagged bunker positions. LZ Leslie was put in place by the 1st Cav. Div., not the USMC, to expand H&I fire into the mountains to the south and west of the outer limits of the Que Son Valley.

High alert

Based on the discovery that the 2nd NVA Div. was planning coordinated attacks against LZs Ross and Leslie, the battalion went on a high state of alert. LZ Ross was immense; being a forward operating base that included a 105 battery, a 155 battery and two 8-inch guns, three rifle companies on the perimeter, the BN tactical operations center, a helicopter refueling point, the battalion mess and the battalion aid station. Furthermore, the battalion became augmented by members of B/1/1, which included six M-48A1 tanks and 15 to 20 APCs under the command of Cpt. John Barravetto, who was serving his second tour of duty in South Viet-Nam.

During the day, aggressive patrolling was done around both landing zones searching for the enemy, as it was a certainty that the attack would occur some time in the future. At night it was standard SOP for 50% alerts and occasionally it was not unusual to schedule a “mad minute.” In preparation for the attack, a deep drainage ditch that led up to LZ Ross from the south was filled in by a bulldozer, vendor booths to the west of LZ Ross were flattened by bulldozer and a small collection of buildings was razed, including a church with steeple that frequently was used by the enemy to snipe from in the wee hours of the morning.

Command changes

On 20 December 1967 C/2/12 commanding officer Cpt. William I. Scudder was promoted to Major and became 2/12’s S-3. At that time, 1Lt. Stone got his personal and professional wish and became C/2/12’s CO (Wild Card 6); A/2/12 (Ace High) was commanded by Cpt. Robert L. Helvey; Cpt. Pons was promoted to Major on 28 Dec 67 and was transferred to 3rd Bde Htqtrs.

I then became B/2/12 CO as a first lieutenant using the calling sign “Bad Deal 6.” Cpt. Richard C. Kasprzyk was the CO of D/2/12 (Stacked Deck), and the battalion commander (Roving Gambler 6) was LTC Bob Gregory, an armor officer. At a command meeting in December, LTC Gregory made the statement, “I’ll either earn the Medal of Honor here or die here!” which shocked many in attendance. LTC Gregory had the bad habit of using his C&C Huey, a light skinned vehicle, as though it were a tank in the sky, often engaging enemy troops with his M-16 out the window and then landing nearby to recover any documents and/or weapons the individuals may have been carrying.

At that time, a great portion of area around LZ Ross was a “free fire zone,” as its inhabitants had been evacuated with all their worldly possessions. Many battalion staff members were afraid to fly with the battallon CO. LZ Ross was frequently mortared and the subject of 120mm and 140mm artillery fire. On 22 Dec B/2/12 member Sp/4 Dennis P. Wood was KIA under a barrage of fire in the wee hours of darkness.

On 2 Jan 68, as part of the aggressive patrolling theme of 2/12, C/2/12 air assaulted to the base of a significant mountain range in the extreme southern end of the Que Son Valley. In the afternoon, while crossing a small stream, the unit was ambushed and several individuals were wounded. PFCs Frederick Andrew Pine and Henry Valenzuela, Jr. were killed, and their bodies had to be left behind during the company’s withdrawal. (Their bodies were recovered on 22 Jan 68, by B/2/12.) In addition, Cpl. Jerry Larson, CO C of the 8th Engineers, attached to C/2/12 was KIA.

LZs attacked

On the morning of 3 Jan, at approximately 0120, LZ Leslie and Ross were attacked simultaneously. Ross held and Leslie was overrun. Ross suffered a single KIA, MSG Edward Robinson of B Battery, 1/21st Artillery. Leslie suffered 12 KIAs. As I was formerly a member of the unit (Feb. to June 1967, when I was hit at Dak To), I personally knew several of the KIAs — SSgt. Juan A. Guzman, Sgt. Jerry Smith, Cpl. Darwin E. Ray and Cpl. Melford W. West. At LZ Ross that morning, 243 NVA bodies were recovered along with over 150 individual AK-47s and SKSs. The same bulldozer that razed buildings and filled in the drainage ditch fashioned a mass grave at the south end of the landing zone for the enemy dead.

An early morning search of the battlefield found three to six enemy POWs who appeared terrified upon being discovered. They were loaded aboard a Huey and sent somewhere to the rear for interrogation and B/2/12 discovered some interesting things. Sometime during the evening of 2 January, villagers were forced to dig fighting foxholes for the NVA. This was because three day’s earlier the NVA kidnapped several women and children from their village with the express purpose of using the remaining villagers to help dig foxholes.

LZ Leslie was subsequently closed and all four 2/12 rifle companies operated from LZ Ross. One stayed “home” during the day for security protection; the other three operated independently but close to each other as the NVA were known to operate in large units.

On 7 Jan, A and C Companies were engaged in a mutual search-and-destroy operation. Around 1240 hours both units began receiving intermittent small arms fire. A/2/12 also reported receiving incoming mortar fire. Within 15 minutes the fire had increased and there were reports that it appeared that NVA units were attempting to encircle both units now located close together. LTC Gregory had lifted off from LZ Ross earlier in the day at 1012 hours in the C&C Huey, flown by WO1s Marshall H. Ford and Robert F. Bahl, Jr., with Sp5 Arthur L. Lauderdale as the crew chief/door gunner and Pfc. Lloyd E. Knake as the other door gunner.

Mayday

At 1313 hours LTC Gregory was heard over the battalion net calling “mayday” from the 2/12 C&C. Also aboard were the battalion’s brand new XO, Major Larry Malone, and the S-2 NCO, MSG Richard Keefe. An aerial rocket artillery Huey reported a potential location for the downed C&C based on black smoke upon impact.

B/1/1 was ordered from its location in the Que Son Valley area of operations to come to the aid of A and C Companies and B/2/12, minus one platoon that LTC Gregory had ordered back to LZ Ross at 1230 hours, was ordered to close with the two companies and provide flank security to the west as the units withdrew back to LZ Ross. At 1335 hours B/1/1 closed with A and C companies in combat confusion. The initial targets engaged were the A and C Company field aid station with friendly fire. Cpt. Baravetto jumped down from his APC at 1400 hours to restore order and was killed via small arms fire. His body was loaded aboard the APC and each member of the unit became individual fighting machines, actively engaged across the battlefield by NVA troops armed with RPGs. All M48A1 tanks were disabled. Then NVA troops began to engage the APCs in the open rice paddies with accurate recoilless rifle fire.

At approximately 1500 hours, 1Lt. Stone was mortally wounded by small arms fire alongside an APC. Both his medic and RTO were also wounded. Five separate eyewitness statements indicate that he suffered a fatal head wound. Because of the chaos, his body was not recovered at that time.

At 1515 hours D/2/12 departed LZ Ross to form a safety net entrance for A, B and C Companies to enter the landing zone. They engaged a mobile NVA unit trying to establish a blocking action and killed several NVA infantryman. By 1550 hours A/1/35th (from the Americal Division) is OPCON to the 3rd Bde and was airlifted to LZ Ross. At approximately 1600 hours a determination was made that during the withdrawal of A and C Companies, 35-45 soldiers had been left behind on their own in the vicinity of the original ambush site. Included among them were 2Lt. George Ring (C/2/12) and 2Lt. Ronald S. Taylor (C/2/12). Although Taylor had seniority, it would be Ring who managed to save the group from certain annihilation during the night by calling in artillery in conjunction with Major Scudder. Both Ring and Taylor received DSCs.

Recovery

On 8 Jan, between 0012 hours and 0712 hours, LZ Ross — where all four rifle companies, along with remnants of B/1/1 were located — received heavy mortar and artillery fire. At 0820 hours several “arc lights” (B-52 bombing runs) occurred in the mountains to the west of Ross. Shortly thereafter, all four rifle companies departed Ross with the objective of reaching the cutoff element of 2/12 soldiers from the previous day and to police the battlefield of American dead and equipment. No one had been able to get anywhere near the downed C&C, and several over flights indicated that all aboard had probably perished upon impact.

Days later, all the bodies were discovered buried nearby, with the exception of MSG Keefe. His body was located 100 to 150 meters away from the helicopter; it was thought that he survived the crash, only to be killed by small arms fire.

The movement from Ross to the encircled troops had been the “brainchild” of Major Scudder. Through a thorough analysis of the surrounding map features, he had selected a route into and out of the area that he felt the NVA had left unguarded. The linkup occurred at 1530 hours. Throughout the day B/1/9 reported spotting enemy NVA through the entire western AO of the Que Son Valley in numbers never seen before. They either called in artillery and/or ARA to suppress enemy movement heading toward 2/12. At 1900 hours all units had closed Ross. Many recovered KIA had been carried away from the site of the prior day’s battlefield because non-gunship Huey’s had been told not to fly the AO due to NVA concentrated anti-aircraft weapons in the area.

The battle of 7 Jan resulted in seven members of Headquarters and Headquarters Co. KIA aboard the C&C, 10 KIAs from A Company, seven KIAs from C Company and 11 KIAs from B/1/1. Furthermore, PFC Robert S. Trujillo (A/2/12) and 1Lt. Stone (C/2/12) were, respectively, listed as MIA and KIA/body not recovered.

Inaccuracies

In the summer of 2002, I learned that Lt. Stone’s official status was still KIA/body not recovered. This shocked me, as I always believed that his body was among those recovered from the battlefield on 8 Jan 68. Upon contacting his daughter, Renee Stone Jarvines, I was able to obtain and review all the paperwork and documentation she possessed about this matter. Upon reviewing the battalion board, which changed his status from MIA to KIA/body not recovered, I was amazed to learn that his last known location (as officially reported) was off by nearly 10 “clicks.” The Department of Defense wanted me to send the “correction information” for review and, after many phone conversations about the matter, I was told that, upon review of the 2/12 Battalion logs I had submitted, analysts had officially changed the location where it was assumed 1Lt. Stone had died.

Using the office of US Senator Carl Levin as a buffer, from 2002 through today, I have been in contact with the Department of Defense, Department of the Army and JPAC (Joint MIA/POW Accounting Command) about this matter. Collectively, the government has chosen to drag its feet on this particular case for reasons unknown. Based on investigations of the Vietnamese government over the past five years, multiple Vietnamese nationals, all unknown to each other, have indicated an American soldier is buried face down in a former communications trench less than one “click” from where 1Lt. Stone died. Pfc. Trujillo was last seen charging a NVA machine gun position by himself at an unknown location, never to be seen again.

The curator of “The Wall” since its inception, Duey Felton Jr., a Viet-Nam veteran himself, advised me that it was common custom, if given the opportunity, for the NVA to change dog tags on American dead and to remove them from the immediate area where they died. He learned this from many individuals who fought on both sides. Edward Murphy wrote in “Dak To: The 173rd Airborne Brigade in South Vietnam’s Central Highlands” about the dog tag story in his chapter about the battle on 22 June 1967 in the mountains of Dak To involving A/1/503 whereby the airborne unit, at the end of the day, was nearly 100% destroyed as a fighting unit.

In “Vietnam, Now: A Reporter Returns” by David Lamb, US Senator John McCain offers the opinion that spending money to locate remains is basically a waste, as opposed to using the same monies at the VA level for the living. I believe Senator McCain’s view is tempered by the fact that he survived the war and, furthermore, that the deaths he witnessed involved pilots disappearing alongside him with their planes, rather than what infantryman live with as regard to the close up and personal death of their buddies and friends.

Although the motto of the American military is “leave no man behind” it happens. The cases of 1st Lt. James Marvin Stone and Pfc. Robert Trujillo are perfect examples. From my personnel dealings with DoD, DoA and JPAc I get the feeling that far too many non-military personnel are involved in day-to-day decisions, which adversely affect searches for remains. At the time of his death, 1Lt. James Stone was survived by a wife (who never remarried) and four children aged 4, 6, 7 and 9.

In 2007, during a return to Viet-Nam, I would learn from three individuals that had participated in that battle they fully expected the American troops to utilized the roads and trails to enter and depart the area. That’s where they had established multiple ambushes, none of which were sprung on 8 January 1968. Major Scudder also blanketed the area with continual artillery fire when jet aircraft weren’t dropping ordnance in the immediate area. The individuals I had spoken with in 2007, two former NVA and one former VC, stated there was so much artillery fire, bombs and napalm in play that day that all they could do was hunker down.