The Day They All Should Have Died | The Apache Blues

Kregg Jorgensen and platoon: the day they all should have died
| October 28, 2021
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If you’re interested in the Vietnam War, you may have seen this footage. The images of this platoon in combat are what we picture when we think of Vietnam: a bare-armed M60 gunner on his knees spraying suppressive fire, a lieutenant calmly calling for support over the roar of combat, a medic yelling “Gimme some covah!” before sprinting into the open to treat a casualty, a brave grunt half-carrying, half-dragging a casualty to safety.

The casualty is the story’s focus. A very young man, helmetless and shirtless, M-16 at the ready, barely managing to limp out of the kill zone at his comrade’s side, returning fire even as he’s laid at the medic’s feet. Before the ambush, Richard Threlkeld of CBS News informed us that the casualty had been wounded earlier in his tour and was nicknamed “Hero.”

Afterward, the casualty calmly explains that he killed the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldier who shot him, and jokes “I’ve already got three Purple Hearts, I don’t need a fourth.” Later, he’s shown grimacing in agony as Threlkeld explains that the shock had worn off and “Hero has stopped making brave jokes now.” Then, as the casualty is lifted out of the jungle by a medevac chopper, Threlkeld informs viewers that Kregg Jorgenson, AKA “Hero,” has his “one-way ticket out of the Vietnam War.”


A wounded Kregg Jorgenson returns fire

If you talk to Jorgenson he’ll tell you that after he was shot, a South Vietnamese scout whose life he’d previously saved placed his own body between Jorgenson and the enemy. And that Jorgenson had traded places with Dennis Henderson on point; Henderson later ran through enemy fire to half-carry Jorgenson out of the kill zone. Jorgenson will also tell you he “only” had two Purple Hearts, and when he said three “it must have been the morphine talking.”

He’ll laughingly say he didn’t grimace because the shock wore off, he grimaced because another Soldier accidentally slammed his hand onto one of Jorgenson’s wounds. He’ll also set the record straight about that “one-way ticket out of the war” nonsense; not only did he not go home, he actually checked out of the hospital way early to get back to his platoon.


Dennis Henderson rescuing Jorgenson from the kill zone

Then you talk to others from the platoon and learn that Lieutenant Jack Hugele didn’t want to be a businessman instead of a Soldier; Threlkeld somehow extrapolated that when he asked “What was your major in college?” and Hugele answered, “Business.” Doc Del Valle will explain that as he moved toward Jorgenson he almost tripped over the CBS News people, then gave them a blank look until one of them said “Well, say something.” Doc, who insists that “We were more nervous about the news crew than we were about the enemy,” couldn’t think of anything else so he yelled “Gimme some covah!” He also doesn’t know where “Del Valle is scared on every mission” came from. “Those guys barely even talked to us,” he said. “And I didn’t say anything like that.” Platoon radioman Jim Braun will also tell you the CBS sound man was scared shitless, and when Threlkeld told him to go toward the gunfire he answered, “Fuck you, not moving!”

And you find out that the nickname “Hero” wasn’t exactly a compliment toward Jorgenson. Jim Braun, a wise old man at 21.5 years old, said, “I hung that moniker on him. I had been in country for quite a while when Kregg joined the Blues, and he was a bit too adventurous for me, so I was always on his butt to not take unnecessary chances. On his first mission, we paused at one spot but he said he wanted to push about a hundred meters further. I just looked at him and flatly asked, ‘Why?’ He didn’t wander far after that.”

But calm, level-headed Braun is still pissed at the late Threlkeld, and thinks they were sent out solely to impress CBS News. “We were pretty protective of each other, and that mission almost got my close friend Kregg killed,” he said. “It’s not on the news footage, but after they brought Kregg back Threlkeld asked him ‘What’s it feel like to get shot?’ Kregg answered, ‘What the fuck do you think it feels like?’ When Threlkeld asked that, I almost took his microphone and shoved it up his ass.”


Richard “Doc” Del Valle, March 25th 1970

But what we saw on CBS News was only one part of a much larger story about a unit that deserves far more attention than it received. And for all the excitement of that ambush, it was actually a much less intense fight than one that occurred six days earlier.

Jorgenson had sent me a photo from that previous fight, showing him holding a position with an M-16 in his hands, a backup M3 Grease Gun laying by his head, and a dead NVA within arm’s reach. The photo had been taken inside an enemy bunker complex on March 19th 1970, six days before the CBS News footage, when his platoon held their ground against hundreds of enemy during an hours-long engagement. He said the platoon called it “The Day We All Should Have Died.” I saw the photo and thought, I gotta hear this story. And I have to learn about this platoon.

So I called Jorgenson, a happy warrior who still loves his Vietnam comrades like brothers. He led me to his old platoon leader Jack Hugele, who led me to machine gunner Duane Bloor, and Richard “Doc” Del Valle, and radioman Jim Braun, and team leader Ed Beal, and former Captain Paul Funk, and others. Their memories painted an incredibly vivid picture of what should be remembered as one of America’s great feats of arms. The fact that so few of us know about it is an embarrassment, and even worse, a missed opportunity to pass hard-learned lessons to today’s generation of warriors.

1/9 Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division, Vietnam

Alpha Troop 1/9 Cavalry

Apache Blues

As with any story about a battle that occurred over fifty years ago, told by veterans who were very busy trying not to get killed, and whose vision was often limited to the few feet and few men around them, accounts will differ. One of those vets is 87 now and apologized repeatedly for his fading memory. Some vets said they remember very little about the fight, but recalled specific details after careful prodding. Some merged memories of other missions into this one. Piecemeal recollections by some men are contradicted by others. This isn’t the least bit surprising; I last heard shots fired in anger in 2009, and only a few years later my memories of battle already conflicted with others who were right beside me. For this article, unless I confirmed a memory was wrong, I’ve left it as-is. Even if these men’s recollections of battle are hazy after half a century, this is still their story.

The Apache Blues, 1/9 Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Squadron, Vietnam

Top row: Platoon Sergeant Aldo Andreu, Staff Sergeant Kenneth Yeisley (with a Browning Automatic Rifle), Lieutenant Jack Hugele: Bottom row: Sergeant Fox, Staff Sergeant Roberts Burrows, Sergeant Ed Beal: [Unless otherwise noted, all photos are courtesy of the upcoming documentary Apache Blues: Welcome Home www.ApacheBluesFilm.com]

Jorgenson and his comrades belonged to the “Apache Blues” of Alpha Troop 1/9 Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division, a small infantry platoon whose job was reconnaissance, recovering downed aircraft and their crews, and serving as a quick reaction force (QRF). Regular grunts went out for days or weeks at a time in huge numbers that made stealth impossible, but the Blues would insert, quickly move to their objective under cover of Loach (light observation chopper) noise, do what they had to do, and move back to a Landing Zone (LZ) for extraction. They rarely spent a night in the bush.

“As far as I was concerned,” Jorgenson said, “the Blues were fighting the war the right way.”


Military article about the Blues, who averaged 25 missions a month

On March 19th 1970 the mission was to check out a suspicious area near newly-established Firebase Illingsworth in the “Dog’s Head” area of Tay Ninh Province. “Our scout pilots saw something,” platoon leader Jack Hugele said. “They didn’t know what it was, it just didn’t look right.” Apache Troop commander Captain Paul Funk added, “Almost all our missions started with a scout helicopter either getting shot down or shot at. I’m pretty sure that at least one of our birds was shot at that morning, and the pilots probably spotted the bunker complex. There were no villages around that area, and the Vietnamese had been fortifying the Dog’s Head since they were fighting the Japanese. They had bunkers, tunnels, and on one mission we even found an underground hospital.”

Early that morning, the Blues clambered aboard three helicopters and headed out. They were roughly twenty men, organized into four teams plus a command element. The headquarters element consisted of Hugele, radioman (also called a Radio Telephone Operator, or RTO) Jim Braun, Doc Del Valle, and platoon sergeant Aldo Andreu (Kenneth Yeisley is positive he was platoon sergeant on March 19th, but everyone else says he took over that position later). A Japanese United Press International photographer also accompanied the Blues that day.

The platoon leader, Lieutenant Jack Hugele, was a Special Forces officer who’d been drafted out of college in his “junior and a half year.” He went through basic training, infantry school and Officer Candidate School, was selected for SF, earned his beret, was assigned to the 10th Special Forces Group, and immediately received orders for Vietnam. He expected to be assigned to an A-Team working with local forces, a situation his instructors had described as “twelve men against twelve thousand.” “But when I arrived in Vietnam there were no slots for SF teams,” Hugele said. However, the Apache Blues platoon leader, Lieutenant Gary Qualley, had just been seriously wounded and evacuated. “So I wound up assigned to the Blues,” Hugele said. “I was pretty mad about it at the time, but looking back on it, leading that platoon was probably what I was made to do.” On March 19th, Jack Hugele had been in Vietnam for about four months.

Lieutenant Jack Hugele

Lieutenant Jack Hugele

One of the platoon’s four teams was led by 20-year-old Sergeant Kregg Jorgenson. Jorgenson came to the Blues from Hotel Company, 75th Ranger Regiment. He was on Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP, or “Lurp”) team until one particularly awful day when two from his five-man team were killed and another seriously wounded, leaving only Jorgenson and team leader James F. McIntyre to face a much larger enemy force. In one of the most influential moments of his military career, they were ordered to abandon their dead and evacuate their casualty. “Mack was a genuine hero,” Jorgenson said. “He told whoever was on the other end of the radio that we weren’t abandoning our dead. No other statement I ever heard in my entire life made me feel more proud, or more frightened. It was something I carried long afterwards.”

Kregg Jorgensen: Apache Blues

Kregg Jorgenson

After that mission, his leadership offered him a cake job as a jeep driver. Jorgenson, not real savvy back then, said, “I turned it down because I couldn’t drive a stick. Can you believe that I did something that dumb?” Instead, he went to the Blues.

Sergeant Ed Beal, another Blues team leader, had been a dog handler and was attached to troops who broke the siege of Khe Sanh during his first tour. He came back for a second tour determined to serve in a high-speed unit. “As a dog handler I worked with a lot of regular infantry units,” Beal said. “And man, I saw some horror stories.” When I asked what he meant he quickly answered, “Drugs. And I mean needles. Most of those Soldiers were professionals, but you always heard stories of guys shooting up in the field. I even had one guy bring me a loaded syringe and ask me to try it. I met guys who wanted to get into a firefight so they could get revenge on someone in their platoon and claim the enemy did it. I saw people freeze up in combat. When I came back for my second tour I didn’t want nothing to do with that, so I went to the Rangers and then the Blues.” He had served with Jorgenson in the Rangers, and the two were inseparable and highly aggressive in the field. Former Blues radioman Paul McCord recalled that “Jorgenson and Beal would almost fight over which one of them got to walk point.”

Ed Beal during his time in Hotel Company, 75th Ranger Regiment

Ed Beal in tiger stripe camo during his time in Hotel Company, 75th Ranger Regiment.

Beal had already had at least one hell of close call while serving with the Blues. “On one mission I was on point and came to an intersection of two trails,” he said. “I looked one direction and it was clear, then looked the other, and right there was an NVA pointing a rifle at me. He had a bead on me, and I thought he was gonna shoot, but instead he just took off running. I figured I could catch him, and took off after him. But a little ways down the trail I realized how far I was getting from the platoon, so I gave up and went back. And there in the grass, right where that guy was laying, was an SKS rifle. I picked it up, and saw that it was jammed.” The SKS went back to base camp with him.

The other teams were led by Staff Sergeant Roberts (not Robert) Burrows and Staff Sergeant Kenneth Yeisley. “Burrows was 26, single with no kids, and had been in Vietnam three years,” Hugele said. “All he wanted was to be a Soldier in combat. When we’d get into a contact everyone would instinctively duck down, but Burrows would do the opposite and stand taller to look for the enemy.” Yeisley added, “Bob had a bad habit of exposing himself to enemy fire way too often.” Jorgenson remembered that “Burrows listened to opera music, played chess, and read books like a son of a bitch. He was a professional, a great guy, and was insufferable when he was right and we were wrong. And he was usually right.”

Burrows made himself the platoon weirdo by telling everyone he was a reincarnated Roman legionnaire. Yeisley recalled, “He’d say that, but I don’t know how anyone could believe it.” According to others, however, Burrows was serious. Jim Braun remembers when they first met: “We were walking across the camp talking,” Braun said. “And Burrows says, ‘You know I was in the Legion?’ I asked, ‘The French Foreign Legion?’ He said, ‘No, the Roman Legion. I was a Soldier in ancient Rome, and Patton’s Army during the Battle of the Bulge. I also served in some other armies, but I can’t remember those clearly.’” Braun thought, Crap, this guy is crazy.

But as Braun got to know Burrows, he came to respect him immensely. “Burrows was a true contradiction,” he said. “He wasn’t like the lifers who stayed in the Army because they couldn’t make it on the outside, he was an educated, professional Soldier who just wanted to be in combat. He used to say that he wouldn’t be finished until he’d killed ‘every last stinking commie.’” Hugele remembers that Burrows, a big man, squatted like the Vietnamese when he was in the field, ate without utensils like the Vietnamese, and seemed to want to stay in Vietnam forever. “Between tours, he’d go on leave, then come right back.” He thinks Burrows intended to die in Vietnam.

Roberts Paton Burrows. The S on the end is supposed to be there.

Fellow team leader Staff Sergeant Kenneth Yeisley remembered something else about Burrows. “In a Cavalry unit it’s a big deal to have a Cav hat,” he said. “Well, they cost 40 bucks back then, and I had a wife and five daughters to support back in Japan, so I couldn’t afford one. Then one day Burrows walked into the hooch with a new hat in a box. He threw the box and hit me with it, and announced, ‘No son of a bitch without a Cav hat is going to lead me into battle!’ And to this day, I still have the hat.”

Yeisley, who had also served in Hotel Company 75th Rangers, wasn’t the typical Vietnam Soldier. He was 36, far older than almost all the other Blues, and had served in eleven months of combat with the 5th Regimental Combat Team in the Korean War. “Our unit symbol was a red pentagon, and we called it the red shithouse,” he said. “It kinda looked like one.” Yeisley had been stationed in Japan, had a family with a Japanese wife, had already been in Vietnam for well over a year when Hugele arrived, and eventually spent three years there. “Bob Burrows and I really liked getting into combat,” he said. “We found it invigorating.”

Apache Blues: 1st Cavalry in Vietnam

Kenneth Yeisley with a captured enemy weapon in Korea (from Yeisley’s personal photo collection)

“Yeisley was a character,” Hugele recalled. “He was Scottish, grew a big red moustache that he’d twirl the ends of, and even brought bagpipes to the base camp. He didn’t fit with the culture of the young guys in the platoon.” Some Blues remember Yeisley as a hard-drinking NCO who’d been busted a number of times, and say he had a rocky relationship with the troops. He was proficient, though; “I never had to write up any of my NCOs for failure to perform,” Hugele said. Jorgenson and Yeisley bumped heads more than once, but Jorgenson remembered, “Yeisley definitely wasn’t afraid in a firefight.”

Yeisley wishing his wife a happy birthday, just after a rocket hit his unoccupied hooch and destroyed some of his possessions (from Yeisley’s personal collection)

Their four teams were heavy on weapons, partly because of the Blues’ aircraft recovery missions. “Aircraft recovery missions were rough,” Jorgenson says. “We often had to recover remains of helicopter crewmen, and they were usually guys we knew.” But there was a bonus to recovering downed aircraft: the Blues managed to salvage several M60 machine guns from wrecked helicopters. Each team wound up with its own machine gunner, but not a standard machine gun team. “Our platoon was small and our goal was to move fast, so we didn’t have gun teams with assistant gunners,” Hugele said. “Each machine gunner was the man, handling that weapon on his own.” Paul McCord, who rotated out of the field before the March 19th mission, said “When we’d get into a fight, the fire from all those machine guns made the NVA think we were a much bigger unit than we actually were.”


Jack Miller and Leggett, two Apache Blues machine gunners

Besides the extra M60s, the Blues carried an unauthorized weapon or two. Yeisley sometimes carried a Browning Automatic Weapon, just like he’d carried in Korea, “because it spoke with authority.” Another Soldier carried a Thompson Submachine Gun, Jorgenson carried an M3 Grease Gun, and others were spread throughout the platoon. Since their missions were generally brief and their movements short, the Blues had the luxury of dragging along extra firepower.


Tommy Chambers with a Thompson submachine gun

Maybe because of his SF training, Hugele didn’t worry much about unauthorized weapons. “Sergeant Yeisley could scrounge anything, and somehow got ahold of all these old weapons. I didn’t know where they came from, and I didn’t want to know. The only important thing to me was that they worked for us in that environment.”

That environment, and the Blues particular mission set, led them to adopt tactics that were different from the average infantry platoon. “We didn’t carry rucks,” Hugele said. “We pretty much just carried water, tons of ammo, and maybe C-rations if we hadn’t eaten. We’d insert into an LZ, Loaches moved out ahead to scout, we’d get in and out fast, and if we got into a fight we’d have overwhelming firepower and instant gunship support. And it worked very well for us.”

 

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March 19th, 1970

Shortly after insertion on March 19th, with buzzing Loaches covering the sound of their movement, 24 year-old Hugele led his platoon toward the suspicious area. Minutes later, the Blues realized they had found a bunker complex. Ed Beal was on point, and said, “We ran across the first bunkers very soon after leaving the LZ. They were only maybe a hundred feet inside the treeline.” The bunkers looked hastily abandoned, which was to be expected; the complex was near Cambodia, and the NVA often fled to safety across the border when Americans approached.

Braun recalled that “Beal and Jorgenson were fantastic on point, and they were the first ones to spot the bunkers. The jungle was really thick so my view was limited, but the bunkers I could see were maybe twenty to thirty feet apart, staggered for mutual support and overlapping fields of fire, and laid out in an irregular pattern. I’d guess there were at least multiple dozens of them spread throughout the complex, maybe a hundred or more.”

The platoon had entered the treeline in a file but once they encountered bunkers, Beal’s and Jorgenson’s teams spread out in front. Burrows and Yeisley moved their teams up behind them. Hugele and RTO Braun stayed roughly in the center of the four teams, Doc Del Valle a short distance to their rear. The men slowly moved through the thick, triple canopy jungle encompassing the complex, passing dropped enemy equipment and stepping over fresh footprints, looking for any remaining NVA troops. All was quiet.

The men cleared one part of the complex and held up. Jorgenson took a position beside a seemingly-empty bunker, well away from the firing port. The platoon’s Kit Carson Scout, a former Viet Cong who went by the mythical, historical name “Nguyen Hue,” spotted a “spider hole” ahead. Making sure Jorgenson was covering, he went forward to inspect it.

Gunfire exploded from the hole. “Green tracers were suddenly flying at Hue,” Jorgenson said. “And Hue was firing back.”


Nguyen Hue, a former VC who became the Apache Blues’ beloved scout

Twenty year-old Duane Bloor, the sleeveless M60 gunner from the CBS News report, was on Beal’s team. “Rounds went flying at the guys up front, and I saw them falling back,” Bloor said. “I think Kregg shot that first enemy who opened up.” Enemy troops suddenly popped up around the platoon, and Bloor instantly started dumping rounds on them. He carried a modified, lighter M60 with a shorter barrel and a recoil spring that had been cut to reduce the rate of fire because “I didn’t want to burn out a barrel in the middle of a fight.” Beal had nicknamed Bloor “Porky” because he ate so much, and said, “Porky opened fire, and I just dropped flat beside him so he could work.”


Duane “Porky” Bloor with his customized M60 at top, and in action at bottom

As the point teams returned fire, Jorgenson was startled to see the tip of a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) come out of the bunker he was beside. “He was going to hit Hue,” Jorgenson said. “But I knew he had to get the RPG out of the bunker to fire it, or the backblast would kill everyone inside.” Jorgenson waited a moment for the enemy Soldier with the RPG to emerge, then shot him and pulled the RPG away in case he wasn’t dead. Hue scrambled back beside Jorgenson, yelling, “You save me! You save me!”

As Jorgenson took out the RPG gunner, the complex came alive with enemy. “NVA started climbing out of bunkers in front and around us,” Jorgenson said. “This was a jungle basecamp and there were dozens and dozens of bunkers and fighting positions.” Through the thick vegetation to his front, Beal saw scores of NVA scurry through the complex. “I was ducked down and it was hard to tell, but there were probably sixty or more.”

The lead teams dropped behind bunkers they’d just cleared and opened up on the enemy who were rushing their position. Jorgenson, Sergeant Beal, Hue, Bloor, another grunt named Tony Cortez, and the others beside them formed their own little perimeter and mentally dug in for what must have felt like it would be their last fight. Based on the size of the bunker complex, the men later estimated they were facing an NVA battalion with several hundred enemy troops.

Near the middle of the platoon Doc Del Valle, in country only a few months at this point, heard the sudden roar of gunfire ahead. He knew Jorgenson’s and Beal’s teams were up front, in the thick of it. At that moment all he could do was stay low, engage any enemy he saw, and prepare for the inevitable cries of “Medic!”

“All I’d been in before this were a couple of minor skirmishes,” he said. “But they were nothing like what we got into that day. I mean, all hell broke loose.”


Doc Del Valle at right, “Bean Picker” (real name unknown) at left

An NVA machine gun team flanked the point teams, but Jorgenson was so preoccupied with the enemy right in front of him that he didn’t even notice. In fact, the thickness of the jungle prevented him from seeing anything other than the few men around him. Fortunately, Duane Bloor cut the enemy machine gunners down before they caused any American casualties. “I was holding pretty much a 180 field of fire,” Bloor said. “After those first shots, hundreds of enemy just started coming at us.”

Jim Braun said of Bloor, “You have to understand what kind of a guy Duane is. We’d been in some bad fights before, and when the shit hit the fan Bloor would instantly head toward the action and start putting rounds on the enemy. He did that same thing in this fight. As soon as the shooting started, he moved up to cover the men on point.”

As Bloor held the right flank, Lieutenant Hugele pulled the platoon tighter behind NVA bunkers and called for helicopter gunship support. “Beal and Jorgenson’s teams couldn’t move, so I pulled the other teams closer behind them,” Hugele said. “We were taking fire from every direction to some degree, but the bulk of the enemy was ahead of the point teams.” Before gunships could start their runs, the NVA tried to overrun the eight or ten men in the lead.

“We were using their own bunkers for cover,” Jorgenson said, “and they couldn’t charge full speed because they had to run around trees to get to us. But they were so damn close, and there were so many of them, even a Soldier who couldn’t shoot worth a damn couldn’t help but hit some. I mean, they were coming out of the trees twenty yards away.”

Most of the Blues’ previous fights had been sharp but relatively brief, pitting small unit against small unit, but this one was clearly different. The enemy force massed against the Blues was huge, and after realizing the gravity of their situation Jack Hugele thought, None of us are walking out of this. Ed Beal said, “This was one of very few times I was sure I was going to die, and I decided to take as many of them with me as I could.” Jorgenson thought, “We’re dead. There are just too many of them.” Even Duane Bloor, probably the least emotional guy I’ve ever met, said, “That was the first time in Vietnam I thought that, without a doubt, ‘I’m going to die today.’”

Everyone up front was as low as possible ducking NVA gunfire, but “I glanced back, and there was Burrows, standing up,” Jorgenson said. “In training they taught us that if we had to fight our way through an ambush, fire every time our left foot hit the ground. That’s exactly what Burrows was doing. He wasn’t wasting ammo, he was moving from one spot to another and taking aimed shots with every other step.”

Within the first minutes of the fight gunships got to work. Hugele and Beal explained that the helicopters worked in “Pink teams” of one Loach and one Cobra. Captain Funk said they were also called “Hunter-Killer teams” and were overhead on every mission. Bloor called the Loaches “low birds,” as opposed to Cobra “high birds.” “The low birds had three-man crews, two pilots and a guy sticking an M60 out a side door,” Bloor said. “When we’d get hit on a mission, the low birds would immediately mark the enemy with white phosphorous and get out of the way. Above them we always had two high birds, and they’d roll in and hit the smoke. Those choppers kept the enemy off us.”

As helicopters tore into attacking enemy with guns and rockets, and the Blues dumped rifle and machine gun fire into waves of NVA, Jorgenson was shocked to see an AK jut from the firing port of the supposedly-empty bunker beside him. He jumped on top of the bunker, grabbed the AK by the wooden handguard, and yanked it out of NVA’s hands. Jorgenson didn’t see the enemy’s face, but I’m willing to bet he was more than a bit surprised.

“I was on top of this bunker, and I knew NVA were inside,” Jorgenson said. “So I grabbed a frag, pulled the pin, let it cook off three seconds so they couldn’t throw it back at me, and tossed it into the aperture.”

The grenade worked perfectly, kind of. “I didn’t think about the fact that this was the same bunker the RPG gunner had come out of. He had more RPG rounds in there, and my grenade set them off. So the entire bunker went up and came down, and I went up and came down with it. When I came to I was in a shallow depression, my ears were bleeding, and I couldn’t hear.”

Others rushed to Jorgenson’s aid. Within a few moments his hearing came back, and he realized he better get his ass in gear; his little platoon was in the middle of an NVA base camp, outnumbered and on the verge of annihilation. His choices were fight and probably die, or give up and definitely die. Jorgenson got back on the line and kept putting rounds into the enemy.

“You heard the movement in front of you first, then saw the shape of the charging enemy troops,” Jorgenson said. “Eventually you’d see their faces, if they didn’t immediately fall because you didn’t shoot them enough. It’s hard to take down someone charging at you and they don’t always fall when you hit them, so you shoot them again before turning to the next ones. Some of them dropped within five yards of us.” But if you imagine that the Blues were fearlessly mowing down the enemy, think again. “There was no bravado, no John Wayne moments,” Jorgenson remembers. “Only scared shitless reactions, mostly.”

Maybe an hour into the fight – keeping track of time in combat is difficult – Ed Beal had his own surprise encounter. He saw gunfire from a closeby bunker, moved up to it, and tossed in a grenade. “I was out of frags by this point,” he said, “so I threw in a concussion grenade because it was all I had.” The grenade blew, and Beal figured it had killed the men inside. “But I heard someone back by the platoon command post yelling something about checking the dead NVA to figure out what unit they were from. The entrance to this bunker was tiny, and I was positive the guys inside were dead, so I set my weapon outside and squeezed through.”

Two NVA were inside, and Beal was unpleasantly surprised to discover they were very much alive. “They were pretty well stunned, and their ears were bleeding, but they fought,” he said. Beal had salvaged a .38 pistol from a fallen helicopter pilot at some point, but doesn’t remember if he had it on March 19th. Either way, he never thought to grab anything but a knife. “I always carried two survival knives, one on my web gear and one strapped to my boot. Well, I left both of those knives sticking in those guys, and came back out.” After that, he never left his M-16 behind when he entered a bunker.

Jim Braun, beside his platoon leader Hugele as always, worked the radio and did his best to stay calm. Each of the platoon’s four teams had its own radio and was relaying urgent information to Braun. Braun was relaying all that info to Hugele, giving the teams his responses, communicating with Captain Funk, and talking to the Loach and gunship pilots. All that communication took place on the same channel. But even with the platoon surrounded and badly outnumbered, even with constant gunfire, near-constant Loach and gunship runs, countless grenade and RPG explosions around him, and multiple voices shouting on the radio over it all, Braun maintained the herculean struggle of keeping his voice steady.


Jim Braun working the radio on an aircraft recovery mission

“The best thing you can do in a situation like that is keep your cool,” Braun said. “If I’d panicked and started screaming, all the radiomen, team leaders, pilots and company commander would have heard it. But I made sure I spoke clearly and calmly, relayed the right information, and tried my best not to sound scared.”

Hugele has one very distinct memory of Braun during the fight. He and Braun were beside a tree, laying low in the center of the perimeter as the fight raged around them. Braun, to Hugele’s right, held out the radio handset and yelled “This team needs to talk to you!” Hugele leaned right, away from the tree, to grab the handset. Just then, a burst of enemy fire went over his head and tore up the tree.

In the midst of all that chaos, one particularly brave, or stupid, NVA Soldier managed to dodge the platoon’s massed fire and helicopter gunships to mount a one-man bayonet charge, but fell dead just short of the platoon. “Ed Beal and I must have shot that guy sixty times,” Jorgenson said. “Every time he’d twitch, we’d shoot him again” (he’s the dead man laying within arm’s reach in the photo). Later, during a quiet moment, Jorgenson checked the man’s AK. “There was a round in the chamber, and rounds in his magazine,” he said. “He could have shot me, but I guess he just really wanted to bayonet someone.”

Shortly after Jorgenson killed the aspiring bayoneter, he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned around to see the embedded Japanese photographer offering him a fresh magazine he’d just loaded. Jorgenson gratefully took the magazine from that photographer, who had at some point taken that incredible combat photo of him beside the dead NVA. Beal, not bitter at all, pointed out, “I was right next to Kregg when the photographer took that picture, but he didn’t get me.”

Doc Del Valle recalled that before the fight started, Yeisley tried speaking Japanese to the reporter. Doc also remembers that someone offered the reporter a rifle, and he refused. Captain Funk said the photographer changed his mind once rounds started flying: “I was told that he was at least throwing hand grenades during the fight.” I haven’t been able to identify the photographer, but he may have been renowned UPI photographer Kyoichi Sawada, who was killed not far away in Cambodia, probably by the Khmer Rouge, later that year.

At some point in the fight, Ed Beal had yet another of his many close calls. “Someone yelled, ‘Sergeant Beal, your head is bleeding!,’” Beal said. “I reached up and sure enough, my hand came back bloody because I’d been grazed and didn’t even know it.” Jorgenson said, “Ed was yelling at us ‘I’m fine, I’m fine!’ But head wounds bleed a lot, and I told him, ‘Ed, you’re a bloody mess.’” Doc Del Valle moved up and put a bandage on Beal’s head. “I tried to leave it on,” Beal said, “but it was in the way so I tore it off just a little bit later. I couldn’t fight with that thing on, you know?”

Doc Del Valle, only nineteen years old that day, had treated only one other casualty by this point, a man nicknamed Red who had taken a minor shrapnel wound to the leg. Doc bandaged him up and sent him back to the perimeter, then went back to what he felt was his primary duty: being a rifleman. “Everyone’s infantry in a situation like that,” he says. “I didn’t just lay back and say, ‘Wake me up when there’s a casualty,’ I fought just like everyone else.” Besides bandaging wounds, Doc also had to move around the perimeter making sure Soldiers didn’t become heat casualties; that day was hot as hell, and the fight went on so long that troops were in danger of going down with heat exhaustion.

Yeisley may have barely dodged death during the fight. “I got hit right in the forehead by a grenade, and I dropped,” he said. He didn’t mean he got hit by grenade shrapnel, he meant an entire grenade bounced off his head. “It was a ChiCom [Chinese Communist] grenade with a stick handle, and smoke was coming out of the stick. I was on my hands and knees just looking at this grenade, waiting for it to blow, and instead it just went shoop and burned out with a puff of smoke.” Yeisley said it’s possible this incident occurred on March 19th, but he can’t be sure if it was that battle or another. Jorgenson couldn’t see Yeisley during the fight, but said, “It’s definitely possible that happened during the bunker complex fight. The enemy was close enough to do it.”

The battle eventually stabilized into a pattern. “There was no maneuvering,” Hugele said. “The fire was so heavy that all we could do was hold our ground where we were, with minimal movement.” Every man in the platoon huddled behind enemy bunkers dumping magazine after magazine or belt after belt into attacking enemy, Lieutenant Hugele continuously called for help from above, and the Apache 1/9 commander Captain Paul Funk hovered above them coordinating air support. Enemy rifle and machine gun fire constantly snapped over or landed around the platoon, concussions from RPG and grenade blasts thumped through their chests, volleys of aerial rockets shrieked in and exploded just outside the perimeter, and their own rifle, machine gun and M79 grenade launcher fire ceaselessly roared outward.

But as terrifying and overwhelming as the fight must have been, tactically it was fairly simple: all the men had to do was keep shooting NVA as they came through the trees, all Hugele had to do was keep calling in air support, and all the pilots had to do was keep making gun and rocket runs within mere yards of their comrades below. And if anything went wrong at any level, from the lowest enlisted infantryman to the most senior gunship pilot, the entire platoon could be overrun and wiped out.

I mentioned earlier that the Blues carried extra M60s, but I didn’t mention their ammo loadout: every rifleman in the platoon had to carry at least twenty 20-round M16 magazines, plus a couple M60 ammo belts. Jorgenson carried thirty magazines, plus another four for his backup M3 Grease Gun. Beal carried 32 magazines for his M16, plus an M79 grenade launcher and grenade vest, and sometimes that .38. But as the fight dragged on, even with Soldiers hauling at least 400 rounds in magazines plus ammo belts, even with Soldiers grabbing AKs and magazines from dead NVA, the Blues still needed resupply. Loach pilots ran two “ammo kickouts,” throwing ammo boxes into the Blues’ perimeter during low-altitude high-speed passes.

“I usually kept my weapon on semi instead of full auto because I wanted to be more accurate,” Beal said. “Don’t get me wrong though, when they were charging trying to overrun us I was on automatic just like everyone else.” Despite his mostly slow, aimed fire and ammo resupply, by the end of the fight Beal was down to his last few magazines. Bloor, on the other hand, remembers his weapon staying well fed. “During another fight I’d wound up on my own and was down to my last fifty rounds before someone got to me with more ammo,” he said. “But in that bunker complex fight I was pretty well supplied.”

The platoon’s heavy fire, combined with ceaseless gunship runs, kept the enemy off them. “I had twelve or fourteen smoke grenades lashed to the back of my radio,” RTO Braun said. “Every time we called in a gunship we’d throw a smoke grenade to mark our position, so that hopefully they’d hit the enemy and not us. Most of the guys also carried one or two smokes. During that fight I used every last one calling in gunships, and I’m pretty sure everyone else did too.”

Beal remembers enemy so close that the gunships were hitting them with 2.75 rockets no more than forty yards away. That was “danger close,” and the Blues were almost as likely to catch rocket shrapnel as the enemy. To make matters worse, “The NVA got smoke grenades from the ammo kickouts,” he said. “We’d throw smoke to mark our positions, and the NVA would throw smoke too to try to confuse the gunship pilots.” Hugele remembered the same thing. As he described the fight to me, he chuckled quietly and asked, “You know they got our smoke grenades too, right?”

Even so, “Those gunships really, really helped,” Jorgenson said. “They were crucial in holding back the tide of attacking NVA.” Beal added, “That was the closest our air support ever came to me in Vietnam, and we needed it that close.” And surprisingly, despite the image most of us have of the hapless lieutenant struggling to direct artillery fire in Vietnam, Hugele didn’t request artillery during the bunker complex fight (although Captain Funk is almost certain someone else did). “I never called in artillery during my entire tour,” Hugele said. “It was all helicopter support.”

Captain Funk didn’t just direct that support from above. I initially thought he rode in the back of a Huey frantically working multiple radio nets, but he was actually a Cobra attack helicopter pilot making gun runs himself. And while he was incredibly busy coordinating support for his men below, he “also spent a lot of time shooting that day.” March 19th was memorable for Captain Funk for another reason: he briefly thought he’d been shot down. “My cockpit filled with smoke, and I thought we’d been hit. I had to put the Cobra down and call for help. It turned out to be a mechanical issue.” Even with all the chaos going on around them, even with the threat of enemy attack to the aircraft, Apache troop mechanics were flown out, got the aircraft flyable again, and eventually got him back into the air in a different Cobra. The fight was a team effort, from the Blues on the ground to the pilots above them to the support troops.


Apache Troop door gunner Danny Rojas and Troop Commander Captain Paul Funk pose beside a Cobra

Part of that team was a fixed-wing attack aircraft that Del Valle remembers dropping napalm and a bomb onto the enemy. “Napalm sucks all the oxygen from the air, and I remember hearing it rush past us toward the fire,” Del Valle said. “And when that bomb exploded, it was raining shrapnel. That was the only time I experienced an air strike.” Others don’t remember that air strike, although Hugele recalled flechettes, basically “nails with fins” contained in some rockets, hitting the trees above them and falling onto the platoon.

Del Valle recalls that the fight started around 7:30 am, and lasted until around 6:30 pm. Hugele remembers it starting around 9:30 or 10:00. Captain Funk thought the insertion was around 7:00, and the fight started almost immediately afterward. Paul McCord, back at base camp receiving relayed calls from the platoon, thinks the fight lasted six or seven hours. Others just remember it was sometime in the morning until almost nightfall. “We were fighting that entire time,” Del Valle said. “It wasn’t like other fights where there were long lulls, or an hour of quiet. NVA were constantly coming through the trees trying to get to us.” Bloor said the same thing: “The battle lasted all day, and they just kept coming.”

Eventually, regular infantry inserted nearby and tried to reach the Blues. Exactly when and how that happened is in dispute. “The infantry ran into heavy contact as soon as they moved out of the LZ, “Beal said. “It took them hours to reach us.” Bloor said, “After the reinforcements arrived, the enemy pretty much gave up and went away.” Beal disagreed and said, “When they got to us the firing lessened, but didn’t stop.” Jorgenson and Del Valle also said an infantry platoon reached them, and their combined force was about fifty strong. “But the NVA was still shooting at us,” Jorgenson said. “It really made me wonder just how many of them were out there.”

Hugele remembers it very differently. “The infantry never reached us,” he said. “Before they inserted, the enemy figured they weren’t going to beat us and backed off. Once that happened, I was able to pull everyone back and head toward the LZ. I remember the infantry inserting on the LZ as we were heading toward it.”

Captain Funk recalls the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) was for a QRF infantry platoon to land and reinforce the Blues, followed by the rest of a company which would then take over responsibility for the fight. Different Blues might be remembering different pieces of the same relief operation.

However it was that the Blues disengaged from the bunker complex, Beal was the man who led them out. “I figured, I got these guys in here, and it’s up to me to get them out,” he said. “So I took point again.”

Beal found a high-speed trail back to the LZ. A short distance down the trail, he saw a head pop out of the brush about thirty yards away. “One guy stuck his head out,” Beal said. “He was looking to see if we were coming, so he could signal the other NVA who had set an ambush for us. I stopped the platoon, dropped to a knee, fired one round, and killed him.” Jorgenson says Beal actually took out a machine gun team setting up to ambush them, and Hugele remembers the platoon spraying fire into the area and calling in a gun run before the platoon moved through. “It was another fight,” Beal said, “maybe an hour, before we got through that area and reached the LZ.”

Del Valle remembered that it was “a really bad ambush, with enemy on both sides of the trail. We were prone and could see the enemy’s feet as they came at us through the jungle. There were also a few snipers in the trees, and a Soldier nicknamed ‘Eagle Eye’ yelled, ‘I’ll spot them, you shoot them!’ He’d point, and Beal and Jorgenson would take them out.”

In the chaos of the ambush, Staff Sergeant Burrows acted like his usual self. “I looked back and there was Burrows, sitting on a log eating a can of peaches,” Del Valle said. “A burst of fire hit near him. He threw down the can, shouted ‘You motherfuckers!’, and started shooting.” Doc also remembered a hard lesson: “During the ambush I found out why they’re called ‘baseball grenades.’ Jack Miller threw one that hit a bamboo stalk, and it was just like it got hit with a baseball bat. That grenade bounced back almost into our kisses.”

Bloor remembers that Loach pilots also spotted the ambush before the Blues reached it; the combined firepower of the Blues, their infantry support, and gunships above destroyed the enemy force. Without Beal’s shooting and the sharp eyes of the Loach pilots it seems fairly certain that the long, brave stand of the Blues would have ended with a tremendous loss of American lives, and Beal has been keenly aware of that for more than fifty years. “That’s on my mind a lot,” Beal said. “All the ‘what-ifs.’ What if I hadn’t spotted him before they hit us? What if I’d missed? Those questions have kept me up a lot of nights.”

Just as the Blues reached the LZ, Bloor, spraying suppressive fire to cover their movement, managed to finally burn out his M60’s special short barrel. But the platoon safely scrambled onto three Hueys for extract.

“We had an SOP for extraction under fire,” RTO Braun said. “We’d engage until we got in the Hueys, then everyone would cease fire and the door gunners would take over and pour suppressive fire into the treelines as we took off. But this fight was way more intense than others we’d been in, and we were so hyped up, I said ‘Fuck it’ and started shooting with my M16 as soon as we were in the air. I think everyone in my helicopter did the same thing.”

That final bit of gunfire sounds almost celebratory; the Blues were happy to be leaving, and knew that if they’d been pinned down until nightfall, they most likely would have been overrun. “I guarantee you,” Del Valle said, “if we’d gotten stuck out there that night, we’d have all been killed.” Bloor backed Doc up on that too. “If we’d been out there at night, they would have wiped us out.”

In the grand tradition of the American fighting man, the Blues brought all their casualties out with them. Fortunately for the Blues, they didn’t have a single KIA or serious injury. Despite being outnumbered probably more than a dozen to one, despite the hours-long fight in the middle of an enemy base camp, and despite them referring to it as “The Day We All Should Have Died,” the Blues didn’t lose a man. “All we had were minor shrapnel wounds, concussions, little stuff,” Hugele remembers.

The NVA, on the other hand, had a bad day. “The official enemy body count was 39,” Jorgenson said. “But there were a lot of blood trails. Who knows how many they dragged away, and how many were in bunkers we never cleared.” Del Valle recalls that the enemy KIA estimate was later raised to fifty, and said, “I saw bodies pulled from bunkers and stacked six or seven deep. I think we killed at least a hundred, maybe 150.” Beal remembers a count of 49, but doesn’t think that’s anywhere near as many as the Blues actually killed. Hugele doesn’t remember the final body count, and doesn’t want to. “I intentionally forced a lot of that day from my mind,” he said.

That last comment threw me. I’m a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, where clear-cut victories were hard to come by. And March 19th wasn’t just a victory for the Blues, it had to have been one of the most successful small-unit actions of the Vietnam War and one of the finest examples of the American Way of War. A small, well-trained unit, bristling with guns, ammo, and explosives, supported by effectively limitless supporting arms, with no collateral damage concerns, can, and did, walk into a much stronger enemy’s backyard, kick the shit out of them, and walk right back out. I didn’t understand why this incredible success wasn’t an intensely proud memory.

“Our feelings about that day are changing,” Hugele said. “You have to understand the reception we received when we came back home, how nobody really wanted to hear about Vietnam. We just put our experiences away and moved on. But now, we’re becoming more and more proud of what we did there.”

Jim Braun said he doesn’t remember much about that day either, although his memory loss doesn’t seem intentional. “For some reason, most of it is just a blur,” he said. “Maybe it’s a defense mechanism, or maybe it’s because we didn’t lose anyone. I have very vivid memories of other fights where friends were seriously wounded or killed, and I clearly remember every detail of the fight that CBS News recorded, but I only remember bits and pieces of the 19th.”

One interesting thing he did recall though, was the behavior of the men after they returned to base. “We were in a fog, wiped out. Kregg just silently went to his hooch and disappeared, and it wasn’t until later that I found out how close he’d come to getting killed. Others were quiet, just sort of dazed. Me personally, as soon as I dumped my gear I went to the little E-Club, and had a beer.” When I asked Kregg about that, he said, “To tell you the truth, I just went into my hooch, sat on my bunk by myself, and shook all over. I was like, ‘What the hell just happened?’”


Platoon sergeant Aldo Andreu and Lt Jack Hugele the evening after the battle, with a cake the cooks baked for the platoon. Hugele’s expression probably tells us everything we need to know about how the fight affected him.

Because the March 19th battle was so intense and lasted so long, it drew attention from company level all the way up to Division, if not higher, even before the fight was over. Because of all that attention, within days several Soldiers were awarded medals for valor. Jack Hugele, Ed Beal and Duane Bloor received Silver Stars. Kregg Jorgenson and a few others got Bronze Stars. “Kregg and the others probably should have gotten Silver Stars too,” Jim Braun said. “But we were told that there was an allotment of only so many per platoon. You know how the Army is.” Captain Funk still has regrets about troops not being properly recognized.

“We were in a very fast-moving war, and I didn’t always have time for administrative tasks like awards,” he said. “It bothers me that Soldiers didn’t get awards they deserved. Jorgenson, among others, should have gotten a Silver Star for his actions that day.”


Ed Beal and Duane Bloor with Silver Stars, Kregg Jorgenson with Bronze Star, a few days after the bunker complex fight

Doc Del Valle gave a little insight into why the fight went well for the Blues but so badly for the NVA. It wasn’t for lack of effort on the NVA’s part; they were brave, disciplined, dedicated troops who are still highly respected by many Vietnam War vets, including men who fought them on March 19th, 1970. But “The NVA didn’t have communication like we did,” Del Valle said. “Their guys thought they owned that complex, and for them it was just another day coming to work. They walked into the battle not knowing that we were dug in behind their bunkers and fighting so hard.” Bloor added, “The NVA were prepared to ambush us, but they set up the wrong direction. Their bunkers were built facing one way, we came from another.”

After learning so much about this fight I’m amazed that any of the Blues survived, much less all of them. When I asked Jack Hugele how the Blues were able to do that, his answer was simple: “We just got lucky.”

By all accounts, Jack Hugele was a hell of a leader. My own brief meetings with him reinforced that reputation; even today, over fifty years after The Day They All Should Have Died, Jack Hugele still comes across as the kind of guy I’d want to follow into battle. His wife Sharon cried as she recalled him walking into the first Blues reunion, hearing the men yell “Blue!” (his radio call sign), and rush to hug him. He was clearly a capable, highly proficient and respected infantry lieutenant. But he’s wrong. He and the Blues did not “just get lucky” that day.

The Blues survived, and beat nearly an entire battalion, because they were a damn good platoon commanded by a fantastic lieutenant, and led at the NCO level by highly experienced, intelligent, motivated sergeants. Beal and Jorgenson, young pipe-hitting Rangers who relished being on point and aggressively pursuing the enemy, were likely balanced out to some degree by the other two sergeants, Burrows and Yeisley, who were older and slower-paced. Among the lower enlisted were brave, dedicated men like Duane Bloor, Jim Braun, Richard Del Valle and Dennis Henderson, who could be counted on to do the right thing without having to be told to do it.


Dennis Henderson, who passed away a few years ago

 

Tango Yankee Chip animated

An attitude of gratitude is never a bad thing.

 

Solid Blue Leadership

The military impresses onto the troops the importance of trusting leadership, but trust going the other way is equally important; leaders have to trust enlisted men to do their jobs without needing their hands held. Hugele had faith in his men to do their jobs correctly, and they trusted him not to do anything stupid or, maybe more importantly, put concern for his career over concern for their lives.

Ed Beal still thinks the world of Hugele’s leadership, and alluded to the trust he had in his troops. “I love that man,” Beal said. “You know, he always let me and Jorgenson do our own thing up front.” Jorgenson similarly praised Hugele, and stressed his humility. “The day Hugele arrived he quietly went around to the NCOs, introduced himself and said, ‘I expect to learn a lot from you, and I’ll need your help.’ He was very, very humble.”

Former RTO Paul McCord served beside prior Blues platoon leader Gary Qualley, until an ambush wounded Qualley and another man named Joey Sanchez, and killed trooper Tim McCreight. McCord was right beside them when they were shot, but wasn’t touched. He clearly has great respect for his old boss Qualley. But when I asked about Hugele, McCord’s answer was instant: “He was the best of the best.”


Paul McCord, Lt Gary Qualley (wounded), Joey Sanchez (wounded), Tim McCreight (KIA)

When Jack Hugele and I met in Texas, he brought photos. As I flipped through his albums, I was struck by the pictures of him relaxing with the enlisted men; they look completely comfortable in each other’s company. While I was fortunate to serve with a great many officers who respected and even loved their troops, that’s not always the case.

On one deployment I had an arrogant, selfish, uncaring senior officer still hated by his men over a decade after we served under him. At the other extreme, I once got a new platoon leader I’d previously deployed with when he was an NCO. On his first drill with us, he fell victim to our unit tradition: he was ambushed, duct taped, dragged to the motor pool where we had two goats to keep the grass short (this was rural Texas), and photographed in compromising positions with the goats. When it was over and the tape was cut off, amid the laughter of the surrounding troops, the new lieutenant stood up, brushed himself off, smiled at us and said, “Well, I’m home.”

From the comments his men made and the pictures he showed me, Jack Hugele clearly respected his men, and felt at home with them. Maybe he wouldn’t have been okay with the goat thing, but he was still on the “I love my Joes” end of the spectrum versus the “I have to tolerate these idiots to get promoted” end. His troops knew it, and trusted him with their lives.

But trust didn’t just go up and down the platoon, it also extended sideways to the helicopter crews. “The crews knew that if they went down, we were coming for them no matter what,” Hugele said. “And we knew that if we were in a fight, no matter how bad, they’d do everything they could for us.”

Kenneth Yeisley’s actions on December 30, 1969, just before he came to the Blues, are a perfect illustration of that trust. A Loach was shot down that day, and Yeisley was part of the team sent to recover it. His Silver Star citation says that when his helicopter reached the downed aircraft, Yeisley leaned far out of the chopper to fire on nearby enemy, stood on the skid, directed the pilot to the right spot, and dropped twenty feet into bamboo. “We rappelled in,” he said, “and they were shooting at us when we were on the ropes.” He entered the chopper through its smashed canopy, brought out and treated a wounded pilot, helped load him into an evacuation sling, then went back in and recovered the fallen copilot, all while in danger of being attacked. That’s what was expected of the Blues on their aircraft recovery missions, and they lived up to the expectation.


Yeisley receiving a Silver Star, January 1970 (from Yeisley’s personal photo collection)

Beal had watched men freeze in combat before, but when I asked if any Blues froze up on March 19th, he flatly said, “No. Not that I saw.” When I asked Paul McCord about the Blues, his instant reply was “I was in the best unit in the Army. We were a true brotherhood.” Even Yeisley, who had a strained relationship with some comrades (and, as I’ll explain below, possibly had one try to kill him), quickly exclaimed “It was a good platoon!” when I asked about the Blues. He said not one negative word about anyone he served with.

That’s not to say the Blues were perfect. They weren’t, and even suffered two attempted fragging incidents (when troops tried to kill leaders with grenades). Roberts Burrows was slightly wounded in one of those attempts, but was back in the field not long afterward. The culprit was never identified, and Jack Hugele suspected a man from the platoon. Jim Braun, however, thinks it was a maintenance Soldier, the dope-smoking buddy of a squirrelly man who went on one mission with the Blues but was immediately kicked out. Del Valle, Paul McCord and Kregg Jorgenson also suspect the maintenance section. “Burrows was by the book,” McCord said, “and he must have pissed off one of the maintenance guys.”

Yeisley was there when Burrows was fragged, and later almost got fragged himself. “One day I went to get my bagpipes, and fortunately I opened the case before I picked it up,” he said. “A grenade was inside, with the pin pulled. If I’d picked up the case the grenade would have blown up right next to me. I was pretty mad about it, but never found out who did it. I’m sure it was someone in the platoon.” Both Jorgenson and Del Valle disagree: “Nobody in the platoon disliked Burrows or Yeisley enough to do something like that,” Jorgenson said. Del Valle said, “Things like that wouldn’t have been done by our platoon.” Whoever attempted those fraggings, whether it was a Blue or not, Yeisley is sure that his bagpipe skills weren’t the motive for his attempted murder.

A unit doesn’t have to be perfect to be great. Not all troops are heroes, and not every platoon is Delta Force. But Paul McCord and all the other Blues have every right to believe they were in “the best unit in the Army.”

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THE APACHE BLUES TODAY

Several members of the Blues are still tight, hold regular reunions, and are in constant contact. They haven’t been able to track down everyone, but are working on it. I hope this article brings a few missing Blues back into the fold, to share in the peaceful, postwar lives of their wartime buddies.

Apache Blues: the Day they should have died
Del Valle, Jorgenson, Hugele, Beal, and Bloor at a reunion

After leaving the Army, following a fairly turbulent civilian life, Kregg Jorgenson started a long career with Customs and Border Protection. He retired after 25 years, has written several novels and memoirs, is a happily married father and grandfather, and now spends his days locked in vicious combat with litter on Washington’s beaches.

Apache Blues: the Day they should have died
(Kregg Jorgenson’s personal photo)

By the way, he was fibbing when he said he refused the jeep driver job because “he couldn’t drive a stick.” Does Jorgenson look like a guy who wanted a safe job driving someone around a base camp?

Apache Blues: the Day they should have died

Jack Hugele came home from the Army, finished his business degree, and has had a long, successful career as a financial planner. He is also a family man who’s been married over fifty years, and enjoys the company of his children and grandchildren. His wife Sharon joked that “He was so elegant back when he was in the Army, I had to have him,” but since he started working from home during COVID “the nicest thing he wears is an Apache Blues polo.”

Apache Blues: the Day they should have died

Ed Beal finished his second Vietnam tour in a Japanese hospital, recovering from malaria. He was evacuated so quickly he had to leave his treasured SKS behind. After discharge from the Army he entered the construction business, but “needed that feeling I was missing.” While working and raising a family, he got into skydiving, camping, kayaking, “anything with adventure to it.” He also attended extensive, regular therapy at the VA for the demons he brought home, and was eventually rated 100% disabled. He lost his wife of 42 years to cancer in 2016, and is a newlywed who remarried last year. His main hobby now is metal detecting, which dovetails well with his realization that “I have a 25 year-old mind but a 72 year-old body.” He also keeps himself busy with projects at home, “just to keep my mind busy,” and has also been involved in numerous veteran organizations.

“And after I finally came home from Vietnam,” Beal added, “my buddy Kregg sent me my rifle.”

Apache Blues: the Day they should have died
Ed Beal in his “I Love Me” room, with the SKS that nearly killed him (Beal’s personal photo) 

Kenneth Yeisley finally retired from the Army in 1975, after a year of combat in Korea and three years of combat in Vietnam. For a time he grew his hair “longer than his daughter’s” and ran a lawncare service. He was off the radar for years, until I found his wife’s obituary and from there tracked down his daughter (“That’s how you found me?” he asked. “I thought maybe I owed you money or something.”). He lost his wife in 2016, is living his golden years with his devoted daughter Lillian, and is very happy to have finally reconnected with his old platoon leader.

 
Kenneth Yeisley wearing the Cav hat Burrows gave him. Just above him is his shadow box with Silver Star, three Bronze Stars for valor, three Purple Hearts, and “Red Shithouse” patch. (Yeisley’s personal photo)

Jim Braun, “the platoon voice of reason,” went to college after Vietnam, got a part-time job in a furniture store, and wound up in the furniture business for 45 years. He’s a busy, happily married father of five and grandfather of two who enjoys reading, daily workouts, walking his two dogs, watching movies, entertaining friends and family, and traveling with his wife Kathi. “Our life is awesome,” he said, “and we’re eternally grateful!”

Apache Blues: the Day they should have died
Jim Braun today 

Richard “Doc” Del Valle came home from the Army in 1971. He was in the wholesale flower business for almost a decade, then spent almost twenty years in auto repair, then went back to the flower business. During that time he lost his wife of thirty years, saw his second marriage fail after ten years, and was happily remarried in 2015, right around the time he finally retired. He’s the father of one son and grandfather to two girls.

Apache Blues: the Day they should have died
Richard “Doc” Del Valle

Doc had one special request during our interview: “Please give credit to our wives for everything they put up with. They went through hell back then, and they’ve been through a lot since.”

Apache Blues: the Day they should have died
(Richard Del Valle’s personal photo)

Paul McCord, already married with one child when he went to Vietnam, had a second child after coming home and has now been married 53 years. He’s a grandfather of seven and great grandfather of two, and worked for an electrical cooperative for 42 years before retiring in 2010. He feels a little unreasonable survivor’s guilt at having come home without a scratch, while friends were shot and killed mere feet away, but has finally started opening up about his experiences in Vietnam. “Ten years ago, I wouldn’t even have considered talking to you about it,” he said. “But I feel a lot more pride about Vietnam now.”

Apache Blues: the Day they should have died
Paul McCord

Duane Bloor returned to Wisconsin after Vietnam, married the girl he’d been with since high school, and struggled for quite some time with the war’s aftereffects. He worked a couple years for a company that supplied weapons components, until the company folded at the war’s end. He eventually became a trucker because the isolation suited him, and says “I still don’t feel real comfortable around people.” He’s now “VERY happily retired” and enjoys a relaxed life with Mary Bloor, the only woman he’s ever loved.

Apache Blues: the Day they should have died
Duane and Mary Bloor

Captain Paul Funk stayed in the Army, eventually retiring as a Lieutenant General. His son, Paul Funk Jr., is also a general. The elder General Funk commanded the 3rd Armored Division in Desert Storm, executed the famous “left hook” against the Iraqi Republican Guard, and took part in the largest tank battle since World War II. “We used lessons from Vietnam to train our 3rd Armored troops, and it worked,” he said. “Our first battle in Desert Storm was so successful it ended the war.” Retired Lieutenant General Funk manages a ranch near Fort Hood, Texas, and is still revered by the men who served under him in Apache Troop. “He was there waiting with beer and steaks when we came back in on the 19th,” Jorgenson said, “just like he was one of the first guys at the hospital when I was wounded. He truly cared about us.”


General Paul Funk during Desert Storm, and today

Jack Hugele was incredibly fortunate during his Vietnam tour: “I never had a KIA,” he said. “The worst casualty I ever had was Jorgenson.” But the Blues lost good people before Hugele was there, and lost people afterward. One of those losses won’t surprise anyone.

Staff Sergeant Roberts Burrows survived an attempted fragging and countless firefights during his almost three and a half years in Vietnam. But he did finally get the death in combat he desired, during “a no-name battle in Phuoc Long province,” on October 14th, 1970. Doc Del Valle was assigned to the battalion aid station by then, and when he heard that Burrows had been killed he thought, That son of a bitch. He was a real pro.

Yeisley was still in the platoon, and was with Burrows when it happened. During our interview Yeisley spoke about Burrows’ injuries on what he thought was the day Burrows was fragged, but I later realized he was actually describing Burrows’ death. “He had a tiny wound on his left temple,” Yeisley said. “Literally, it was just one drop of blood and a tiny hole. I cleaned him up, and we thought it was nothing, but a little while later he said he was having trouble thinking. It turned out that a small piece of shrapnel had penetrated his skull.” Yeisley served in combat for four years in two wars, he’s approaching ninety, and his recall is understandably fuzzy. He remembers that Burrows was evacuated but eventually returned; in reality, Burrows died on the operating table from that “tiny” wound.

A guy like Burrows should have died jumping on a grenade, or charging an enemy machine gun; the way he died seems almost anti-climactic.

When Yeisley finally came home to his family, tucked away in his gear was his friend Roberts Burrows’ Cav hat. He kept it for years, until Burrows’ father came all the way from the east coast to Washington state to get it. Paul McCord didn’t find out about Burrows’ death until almost fifty years later. “When I was told he’d been killed in combat,” McCord said, “I said that was probably exactly how he wanted to go. That man was a Soldier to his core.” Jim Braun said, “That die had been cast. Burrows was going to kill all the communists in Vietnam, or die there.”

“Hell, maybe that reincarnation stuff is true,” Braun told me. “Maybe Robert Burrows fought beside you in Afghanistan.”

No one man speaks for all the Blues. Veterans, even from the same small unit, are far too diverse, with too many differing opinions and attitudes, to have any single representative. Every platoon has hard-charging studs born for combat, straight-arrow religious choirboys, guys who didn’t really know what they were getting into and don’t really want to be there but aren’t about to let their buddies down, wild partiers who can’t be allowed in town unsupervised or they’ll wind up in jail, dead, and/or married to a stripper, and complete oddballs. Each archetype is important as any other, and the Blues probably had them all.

Roberts Paton Burrows, official Platoon Oddball, reincarnated Roman Legionnaire, and survivor of The Day They All Should Have Died, can no longer speak for himself. But perhaps he once said something that represented all of his platoon, no matter how different they may have been from each other. Burrows’ words don’t represent today’s peaceful, easygoing, retired-grandfather Blues, but personified the hardcore, dedicated, adrenaline-addicted, disciplined band of warriors they were in their “fire-touched youth.”

“I was going home at the end of my tour in August 1970,” Jim Braun said, “and Burrows just happened to be going on leave before starting another six-month extension, the one he got killed on. We wound up at the San Francisco airport together. Remember, San Francisco was the center of the anti-war movement then.

“Burrows and I were hanging out in the bar, and I stepped out for a minute. When I came back two hippies were next to him at the bar, one on each side. They were glaring at him, but he was ignoring them. I stopped at the door, just to see what would happen. The hippies kept trying to stare him down, and he kept drinking his beer and pretending like they weren’t there. Finally one of them asked, in a sneering, smartass tone, ‘Hey man, what do you do in the Army?’”

Burrows set his beer down, turned, looked straight at the guy, and said what every Apache Blues Soldier probably wanted to.

“’I kill motherfuckers. Want a demonstration?’”


A photo of Staff Sergeant Roberts Paton Burrows hanging on the wall in Jim Braun’s home

To all the Blues, those still living and those who have fallen, thank you for all you did for us.

Chris Hernandez

 

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10 Comments

  1. Name Withheld

    My wife can’t understand why I don’t follow sports. I can’t understand why this country idolizes pro athletes. 603 touchdown passes juxtaposed to stories like the one above? 603 touchdowns is tantamount to the one time I took a crap and the turd was almost two-feet long.

    Reply
  2. Kregg P.J. Jorgenson

    Thank you, Chris for all of the great research you did on this. Still, too much of me and not enough on the other guys. I’m proud to have served with these great bunch of guys who looked after me, at times, when I was too young and dumb to look after myself. Again, thank you.

    Reply
  3. Daniel L Tigges

    Chris, thank you. To add some follow up, I arrived and was assigned as Blue in August of 1970. Yeisley, Burrows and Sgt Hue were still with the unit. In my time til early 1971, my log shows 127 combat insertions for rescue of pilots, LRRPS, Rangers , POW, and reconnaissance missions. We did medical missions for indigenous tribes, as well with our medic – Steve Pepin. My notes show that on October 6th we were tasked for a ground reconnaissance of our Scout Helicopter sighting of a freshly built and occupied bumper complex. This was in an area that the Squadron was assigned to look for elements of a new enemy division moving into the area. We were inserted, directed to a large trail, which we followed parallel to it for about 3000 meters. The enemy detonated a claymore mine booby trap on the trail at that point, very load, but we were not on the trail. We moved another 1000 meters and into a fresh bunker complex and found documents, orders, personal affects, military awards, and no personnel. We thought the enemy had left because of the helicopters etc. We walked out in a wide circle back to the LZ, and as we circled back about another 1000 meters walking on top of a ridge line, we sighted below us an enemy platoon or company, sitting and eating their meal/lunch. Their outpost must have been asleep or preoccupied, as our point man was 10-15 feet from him. Point opened up, we moved 2 squads including Burrow’s squad on top of the Ridge. I was next to Burrows, about 15 feet from the outpost. We, including Burrow, threw grenades into the outpost bunker, and despite the grenades, the outpost kept firing and even threw at least one grenade back at us. I believe that Burrows was up and moving at that time. The enemy was pinned down below us in bunkers and could not move. We could not move over the ridge because the remainder of the enemy unit was in protected positions and would kill us. We killed many of them and bodies were laying about the bunkers. It was later in the day and we did not have the manpower or artillery support or equipment to stay overnight and needed to evacuate and let the Reaction force of the 1st Cav take over. As we disengaged and returned to the LZ, I noticed that Burrows was moving slowly and seemed dizzy. I noticed what appeared to be a scrape/hole/wound on the side of his head, but he appeared ok, and never slowed down until later. I suspect this injury occurred from the grenade tossed back at us, but there was never any bleeding that I observed. Our guys walked him the last 100 yards and got him into the evacuation helicopter. He never regained consciousness again. A soldiers soldier, and a wonderful team member, had his light extinguished. His skill as the leader to have his men ready, quiet, and highly motivated helped to save many lives. As we all do, we remember these times and the soldiers, pilots and crew members, at their youngest and best. It will likely always be that way.
    As an aside, the 1st Cav inserted 3 companies and artillery into that location. A college classmate of mine lost over ½ his company in the follow up battles. Apache had found the enemy.

    Reply
    • Chris Hernandez

      Thank you very much for that account, sir. Do you know if anyone is in contact with Burrows’ family? Maybe they’d like to read the article, and your memories of him.

      Reply
  4. Robert Swain

    Absolutely great iteration of what the 1/9 Cav did after I left in May of 67. Not many histories tell it like it was for the 1/9th, but this one does. I wasn’t a blue but a huey driver that ended up in command of the blues for about thirty minutes when I got shot. Yep, i got a Silver Star and a Bronze Star with V device as it was a ground combat action. I was so proud to fly guns and lift for our Blues as they were my friends, and then to get to fight alongside them, if only for minutes, was my greatest thrill and honor!

    Reply
    • Chris Hernandez

      Mr. Swain,

      I’m planning on writing an article similar to this one, but about the helicopter crews. Would you be interested in participating?

      Reply
  5. Roger D Witt

    Thank you for putting this together.

    Reply
  6. Ed Shelnutt

    Great tale, Chris. I’ve know of Kregg Jorgensen’s actions from his books and from others that mention him. You’re a lucky man to get to meet him, his buddies and hear this story told in the first person. Thanks very much for sharing it with the rest of us. RLTW DOL

    Reply
    • Chris Hernandez

      Thank you sir. I was never a Ranger, but I hear that you guys do lead the way. 🙂

      Reply

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