From the Stars and Stripes, 1967 (publication date unknown)

 

"This Kid Was Fantastic"

 

Seven Man Recon Patrol Fights Off NVA Company

 

By: Cpl. Ray Wilkinson

 

KHE SANH – A seven-man Marine reconnaissance patrol aided by an armada of gunships, fixed-wing fighter bombers, and heavy artillery fought off an estimated North Vietnamese Army reinforced company for 12 hours in the heavy jungle west of here.

The NVA, operating from well-concealed bunkers, at times within two feet of the marines, were constantly driven back by the ring of fire.

After three unsuccessful attempts the beleaguered patrol was lifted out by a Huey-helicopter.

Four members of the patrol were killed, and three seriously wounded. A CH-46 pilot tried to extract the team and was also killed. Several crew members of other helicopters were wounded.

Although wounded four times, first time at the beginning of the fire fight, 18-year-old Pfc. Steve P. Lopez, of Silver Springs, Md., maintained unbroken radio contact with his parent unit of the 3rd Force Reconnaissance Bn., and also directed air and artillery strikes.

"This kid was fantastic," said the company commander, Capt. A.B. Crosby of Annapolis, Md.

"He was the coolest individual I have ever seen. He kept calling in artillery closer and closer to his position. Back here they were actually scared to drop them closer. But he kept repeating, ‘drop it closer, drop it closer.’

"Throughout the fire fight Lopez never once mentioned that he had been hit. He kept saying, ‘I’m alright.’

"The first thing he said when he arrived back here was, ‘check my camera I took some good flicks out there, and want to get them developed.’ It was amazing."

Lt. C.A. Mumford, Francesville, Ind., pilot of the Huey gunship who patrolled the skies over the besieged Marines constantly for 12 hours, except for refueling, said, "Lopez was unbelievable. For 12 hours he was cool, calm, and never got excited. He told us where to shoot and passed on information. The whole mission would have been impossible without him. He was the only one who could fight down there for several hours.

"He kept telling us he was alright and wouldn’t admit he’d been hit in the head. He coordinated the whole mission."

The patrol was inserted about 4:50 p.m. on May 9, eight miles from Khe Sanh, to check out trails in the area. The Marines found several NVC (sic) bunkers, then returned to a nearby hill to look for the enemy. The patrol came under heavy fire for the first time around midnight.

At first they estimated the enemy strength at 30 to 50, but later increased their estimate to a reinforced company. Lopez, on his fifth patrol, said he was hit in the head as soon as the action began.

"I then received wounds in the chest, leg and head again," he said. "The enemy was about two feet from us at times. There was at least a company out there. They walked right up to us."

"I shot the first NVA and the last one. One of the ones I shot looked very young, like in his teens. He walked right up to me. I looked at him and knew if I didn’t shoot him he would shoot me.

"I was laying down on the ground and he didn’t see me until he was right on top of me.

"They were all over the place. I saw at least 15 dead NVA in front of our position. A lot of credit goes to my M-16, it worked fine and never jammed once," he said.

Crosby said at one time Lopez thought all his buddies were dead, but checked and found four of them still breathing.

For several hours Lopez was the only member of the patrol able to fire his rifle. At about 2:30 a.m. the patrol ran out of ammunition. Gunships had to drop bandoliers (sic) of ammo to the fighting Marines.

The first gunship to arrive over the area was piloted by Mumford who pounded the hill with machinegun and rocket fire. At 2:45 a.m., a CH-46 made an unsuccessful attempt to recover the trapped Marines.

"But the ship took a tremendous battering," according to Mumford. "Several crew members received shrapnel wounds. Every time we stopped firing, the enemy would start moving up on the Marines."

"When we opened up again they would retreat back to their bunkers. They were underground all over that hill. All they had to do was retreat into those bunkers. We couldn’t kill anyone there."

Several hours after the first rescue attempt, a second CH-46 tried to pick up the Marines. It was waved off, but still took numerous rounds flying away, and the pilot was killed. The two crew members were wounded, but the co-pilot managed to bring the crippled chopper back to Khe Sanh.

When daylight came, fixed wing fighters were called in and they plastered the hill with ordnance.

At midday, as several Huey gunships continued to hit the hill with rockets and machinegun fire, another Huey landed beside the Marines and extracted them.