Skip to main content

What It Was Like To Be There

March 2023
4min read

WHAT WAS IT like to have been cut off and surrounded like that platoon of Company B? A similar experience was vividly described by then Army Specialist Jack P. Smith, the son of the ABC news commentator Howard K. Smith. Smith was assigned to Company C, 2d Battalion, 7th Cavalry, part of the relief force that replaced the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, on November 16. The next morning his battalion was moving overland to Landing Zone Albany, some six miles northeast of Landing Zone X-ray, when they ran into an ambush. Like his political and military leaders in Washington and Saigon, who failed to make the critical distinction between the Southern Viet Cong guerrillas and the North Vietnamese regular army, Smith uses the terms Cong and PAVN (i.e., North Vietnamese army) interchangeably. The enemy unit that ambushed his company was, in fact, a battalion of the North Vietnamese 66th Regiment that was retreating from the earlier battle at Landing Zone X-ray. Smith relates:

MEN ALL AROUND me were screaming. The fire was now a continuous roar. We were even being fired at by our own guys. No one knew where the fire was coming from, and so the men were shooting everywhere. Some were in shock and were blazing away at everything they saw or imagined they saw. The XO let out a low moan, and his head sank. I felt a flash of panic. I had been assuming that he would get us out of this. Enlisted men may scoff at officers back in the billets, but when the fighting begins, the men automatically become very dependent upon them. Now I felt terribly alone …

A rifleman named Wilson and I removed his gear as best we could, and I bandaged his wound. It was not bleeding much on the outside, but he was very close to passing out. Just then Wallace let out a “huh!” A bullet had creased his upper arm and entered his side. He was bleeding in spurts. I ripped away his shirt with knife and did him up. Then the XO screamed: A bujlet had gone through his boot, taking all his toes with it. He was in agony and crying. Wallace was swearing and in shock. I was crying and holding on to the XO’s hand to keep from going crazy.

The grass in front of Wallace’s head began to fall as if a lawnmower were passing. It was a machine gun, and I could see the vague outline of the Gong’s head behind the foot or so of elephant grass. The noise of firing from all directions was so great that I couldn’t even hear a machine gun being fired three feet in front of me and one foot above my head. As if in a dream, I picked up my rifle, put it on automatic, pushed the barrel into the Gong’s face and pulled the trigger. I saw his face disappear. I guess I blew his head off, but I never saw his body and did not look for it…

THEN OUR ARTILLERY and air strikes started to come in. They saved our lives. Just before they started, I could hear North Vietnamese voices on our right. The PAVN battalion was moving in on us, into the woods. The Skyraiders were dropping napalm bombs a hundred feet in front of me on a PAVN machine-gun complex. I felt the hot blast and saw the elephant grass curling ahead of me. The victims were screaming…

No matter what you did, you got hit. The snipers in the trees just waited for someone to move, then shot him …

I don’t know why, but when a man is hit in the belly, he screams an unearthly scream. Something you cannot imagine; you actually have to hear it. When a man is hit in the chest or the belly, he keeps on screaming, sometimes until he dies. I just lay there, numb, listening to the bullets whining over me and the 15 or 20 men close to me screaming and screaming and screaming. They didn’t even stop for breath. They kept on until they were hoarse, then they would bleed through their mouths and pass out. They would wake up and start screaming again. Then they would die. I started crying…

All afternoon there was smoke, artillery, screaming, moaning, fear, bullets, blood, and little yellow men running around screeching with glee when they found one of us alive, or screaming and moaning with fear when they ran into a grenade or a bullet. I suppose that all massacres in wars are a bloody mess, but this one seemed bloodier to me because I was caught in it.

At dusk the North Vietnamese started to mortar us. … Suddenly the ground behind me lifted up, and there was a tremendous noise. I knew that something big had gone off right behind me. At the same time I felt something white-hot go into my right thigh. I started screaming and screaming. The pain was terrible. Then I said, “My legs, God, my legs,” over and over.

Still screaming, I ripped the bandage off my face and tied it around my thigh. It didn’t fit, so I held it as tight as I could with my fingers. I could feel the blood pouring out of the hole. I cried and moaned. It was hurting unbelievably. The realization came to me now, for the first time, that I was not going to live…

All night long the Gong had been moving around killing the wounded. Every few minutes I heard some guy start screaming, “no no no please,” and then a burst of bullets. When they found a guy who was wounded, they’d make an awful racket.

They’d yell for their buddies and babble awhile, then turn the poor devil over and listen to him while they stuck a barrel in his face and squeezed. About an hour before dawn the artillery stopped, except for an occasional shell…

We were all sprawled out in various stages of unconsciousness. My wounds had started bleeding again, and ants were getting to my legs …

I heard the guys coming. They were shooting as they walked along. I screamed into the radio, “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot,” but they called back and said they were just shooting PAVN. Then I saw them: The 1st sergeant, our captain and the two radio operators. The captain came up to me and asked me how I was. I said to him: “Sorry, Sir, I lost my —ax.” He said, “Don’t worry, Smitty, we’ll get you another one.” …

The medics at the L.Z. cut off my boots and put bandages on me. My wounds were in pretty bad shape … I was put in a MedEvac chopper and flown to Pleiku, where … I learned that Stern and Deschamps, close friends, had been found dead together, shot in the backs of their heads, executed by the Cong .… Like most of the men in our battalion, I had lost all my Army friends …

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.


Stories published from "February/March 1984"

Authored by: John Kobler

The great tenor came to America in 1903, and it was love at first sight—a love that survived an earthquake and some trouble with the police about a woman at the zoo

Authored by: Richard D. Brown

The early years of our republic produced dozens of great leaders. A historian explains how men like Adams and Jefferson were selected for public office, and tells why the machinery that raised them became obsolete.

Authored by: John R. Stilgoe

Today more Americans live in them than in city and country combined. How did we get there?

Authored by: William B. Meyer

…And what’s more, the planet’s highly civilized inhabitants live together in perfect harmony. So argued an eminent astronomer named Percival Lowell, and for decades tens of thousands of Americans believed him.

Authored by: The Editors

The richly embellished account book of an eighteenth-century sea captain, newly discovered in a Maine attic

Authored by: Harry G. Summers Jr

The first major engagement of the U. S. Army in Vietnam was a decisive American victory. Perhaps it would have been better for all of us if it had been a defeat.

Authored by: Gregory Thorp

The largest Gothic cathedral in the Western Hemisphere has the strangest stained-glass windows in the world

Authored by: The Editors

The author of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ never set foot on our shores, but he had a clear and highly personal vision of what we were and what we had been

Authored by: The Editors

At one time or another, practically every American artist has brought forth a blossom.

Authored by: The Editors

For millions of women, consciousness raising didn’t start in the 1960s. It started when they helped win World War II.

Featured Articles

Famous writers including Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts turned Sleepy Hollow Cemetery into our country’s first conservation project.

Native American peoples and the lands they possessed loomed large for Washington, from his first trips westward as a surveyor to his years as President.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.

A hundred years ago, America was rocked by riots, repression, and racial violence.

During Pres. Washington’s first term, an epidemic killed one tenth of all the inhabitants of Philadelphia, then the capital of the young United States.

Now a popular state park, the unassuming geological feature along the Illinois River has served as the site of centuries of human habitation and discovery.  

The recent discovery of the hull of the battleship Nevada recalls her dramatic action at Pearl Harbor and ultimate revenge on D-Day as the first ship to fire on the Nazis.

Our research reveals that 19 artworks in the U.S. Capitol honor men who were Confederate officers or officials. What many of them said, and did, is truly despicable.

Here is probably the most wide-ranging look at Presidential misbehavior ever published in a magazine.

When Germany unleashed its blitzkreig in 1939, the U.S. Army was only the 17th largest in the world. FDR and Marshall had to build a fighting force able to take on the Nazis, against the wishes of many in Congress.

Roast pig, boiled rockfish, and apple pie were among the dishes George and Martha enjoyed during the holiday in 1797. Here are some actual recipes.

Born during Jim Crow, Belle da Costa Greene perfected the art of "passing" while working for one of the most powerful men in America.