The Vietcong came running out of the jungle, screaming. Sitting behind his .50-caliber machine gun on top of an M-113 armored personnel carrier, Army Spec. Jim Neeley could hardly believe his eyes.
To the left and right of him, U.S. soldiers were fighting the VC hand-to-hand. On his own track, the Aberdonian fought off enemy troops trying to pull themselves up on top of his troop carrier with one hand, while firing his .50 cal with the other. Neely didn’t have to aim his weapon, everywhere he looked all he could see was VC. The rounds flew downrange toward groups of enemy soldiers, cutting through two and three men at a time. His machine gun was so hot from the continuous firing that he didn’t have to hold the trigger down, the bullets started to “cook off” as soon as they entered the barrel.
In a clearing in the distance, an Army unit about to be overrun had shot flechette rounds out of 105mm howitzers, point-blank at the enemy. With each shell, thousands of deadly miniature darts swept through the bush, cutting down dozens of VC.
But they still kept coming.
“They had called on the radio and said they were under attack and needed help,” Neeley said about the artillery unit under fire. “Our company and Recon Company were the closest ones to it. So we took off through the jungle and we could hear on the radio all the fighting going on and that they were shooting beehives and having them explode point blank and we thought, ‘Man, this is bad.’ And when we broke out of the jungle, we were surrounded by thousands of them. I’ve never seen so many NVA in one place in my life.”
March 21, 1967, in Tay Ninh Province was no ordinary day, even by the standards of Vietnam.
Two days before, the Army had airlifted an artillery section into a clearing near the Suoi Samat River to set up a fire support base for local operations. Enemy resistance was not expected, but no sooner had a group of Huey helicopters set down into the clearing, a group of command-detonated mines exploded, taking out three helicopters. But the U.S. forces stayed and set up Fire Support Base Gold. Unbeknownst to them, they had done so in the middle of a VC-held area that was home to at least 2,000 well trained, heavily armed troops.
On the morning of the 21st, Vietnamese forces surrounded the base and attacked en masse. The Battle of Suoi Tre, as the fight became known, was one of the bloodiest in the war. For four hours, isolated U.S. forces running short of supplies and ammunition fought off a force that outnumbered them by at least three to one. When the smoke cleared, roughly 850 VC soldiers were dead. U.S. losses amounted to 33 killed and 187 wounded. Neely’s unit, C Company, 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry, is credited in part with preventing the fire base from being overrun and all the soldiers there being either killed or sent to POW camps. Because of their role in changing the tide of the battle, President Lyndon Johnson awarded the men of “Triple Deuce” the Presidential Unit Citation, the highest unit award our country has to offer.
“We made quite a show there,” said Donnie Crawford, a member of Charlie Company from Mossyrock. “In the morning on the 21st we could hear the shelling in the distance and someone came and said, ‘Mount up, we’re going to Suoi Tre.’ The closer we got the louder it got and, personally, it scared the hell out of me. Once we got in there it was over because we had so much fire power, when we came there it was like the cavalry coming to the rescue.”
De facto advocate
Now 66 years old and back in Aberdeen for 45 years, Neeley is still fighting. But now, his enemies are time and government bureaucracy. Despite Charlie Company being awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, only four men have received it.
Neeley has become the de facto advocate for the unit, helping members apply through the Army and the Department of Veterans Affairs to obtain the award. But surprisingly, after they applied, some veterans were told that not only did they not rate the award, but that they had never actually served in Vietnam, according to Neeley. In short, an award meant to honor the sacrifices of the men of Charlie Company has instead left them feeling forgotten.
Neeley was drafted for service in Vietnam in 1965. He grew up in Grays Harbor County and was working at Hoquiam Plywood when he got his draft notice. Nine other men were drafted from the county with him and all went to Fort Lewis for basic training and infantry training, after which they were all placed in a mechanized infantry battalion. Finally, in October 1967, after a year of preparation, Neeley’s unit boarded a troop transport in Tacoma for a 28-day transit to Vietnam. Neeley said it was a very tense trip over.
The ship docked at the port of Vung Tau. Neeley’s first impression of Vietnam was the smell. He said, “it smelled like something rotting,” but clarified that it was actually the smell of unprocessed sewage and human waste running down the streets of the villages. “But after you were there a couple of days you didn’t even notice it anymore,” he said.
The same day they arrived, Neeley and his company were put on trucks headed to a base camp 25 miles inland. Two days later, they would be walking patrol in the bush. A few days later, the men in Charlie Company had their first fire fight. And three months after that, one of the ten men from Grays Harbor, Pfc. Johnny Chambers, was killed on Jan. 8, when a grenade landed next to the driver’s hatch of his M-113 and critically wounded him.
The M-113 had advantages and disadvantages when it got into a fight. With an inch and a half of aluminum “armor” it was capable of protecting its crew from most small arms fire. But that same inch and a half armor didn’t protect against anything bigger. Crew members had to carry fuel, explosives, .50 caliber rounds, anti-personnel grenades, white phosphorus grenades and anything else that goes “boom” in a combat zone inside their tracks. The .50 caliber was a powerful machine gun, but any time anyone took a M-113 into a fight, Neely said, they knew they were a well-placed shot and a split second away from dying a fiery death.
By the time Charlie Company got to Suoi Tre they had been in country five months, almost halfway through their tour. No one in their unit was killed in Suoi Tre, but, working in the region known as the “Iron Triangle,” they had seen combat on a regular basis. Troops began marking off the names of the battles they had been through on the insides of their tracks. They had suffered numerous casualties and in one year went through five company commanders.
“We were in fighting for three or four days a week,” Neeley said. “I think the longest we were in fighting was 24 days, non-stop in the Iron Triangle. We lost over 150 people in our company out of 256, not including replacements.”
Back to “the world”
Seven months later, the ones that survived went back home to “the world,” as the U.S. was known to those fighting in Vietnam. Even that journey was hard, Neeley said. At the military exit processing station, they were told wearing a military uniform in public could cause problems.
“When we got out they told us that, ‘If you don’t want, you don’t have to wear your uniform out of here. You can wear your uniform if you want but if you don’t, it’s OK.’ I said, ‘Why?’ And they said, ‘When you go to the airport you are going to catch a lot of hell, and we don’t want you to get in trouble.’ We had no idea there would be problems in the airport and I said, ‘I am wearing my uniform.’ ”
The men were met at an airport by a crowd yelling that the men of Charlie Company were “baby killers and murderers.”
“I wore my uniform and we had an hour layover in Portland and there was a crowd there looking for military people to give them a hard time,” Neeley said. “And I was ready to fight, but there was just too many of them. So I went and changed. And I had to wear street clothes home from Portland to Seattle. We had no idea. People in Vietnam had no idea what it was like in the United States.”
All the troops put their efforts into adjusting back to normal civilian life. The ten who left Grays Harbor had come back eight. Dennis Thompson, a corporal, had been transferred to another battalion and was killed in combat in Feb. 21, 1967. Most of the remaining eight men have kept in close touch with each other. But some, for reasons unknown, have pulled away from others and have essentially no contact with others in Charlie Company.
Over the years, the men of Charlie Company began to hold reunions across the country. Neely saw a need to start compiling a unit history and establish a website where members of Charlie could exchange photographs and information in an open forum. Six years ago, while doing his research, he noticed mentions that units that fought in Suoi Tre had been awarded the Presidential Unit Citation. The award, General Order 59, was signed by President Johnson on Oct. 21, 1968, one year after all the troops of Charlie had completed their tour, returned to the U.S. and the draftees were released from active service. Members of Charlie had been told four days after coming back to the U.S. that they had been put in for the award, but no one in the unit, even the commissioned officers and career staff non-commissioned officers, had even been told the award was actually given.
“Apparently the government didn’t want to take the time or didn’t feel it worth the time,” Neely said. “We were discharged. We were used up. You’re done, you’re out of here so … too bad. We’re not going to go that extra mile to get you the medal.”
When Neeley started trying to get the citation, it seemed relatively easy. He filled out the paperwork, sent it in, and sometime later the award, without a citation, appeared in the mail. But when he tried to get the award for members of his company, he ran into road blocks. During one reunion, he brought a stack of forms for the veterans to fill out. Then men turned in the forms as instructed, but only three received the award. Some were even told they had never served in Vietnam.
Neeley had a copy of the text of the citation, which is in the public record. But in order for him to prove who was awarded the medal, he had to prove who was in the unit on the day of the battle. So he wrote the National Archives in Washington, D.C., to get a copy of the day report for C Company, 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry, on March 21, 1967. Among other things, the day report would have a list, by name, of all the men in Charlie at the time, plus any units attached to the company.
When the archives responded, they gave him what are commonly know as “after action” reports — a report commanders submit after any hostile engagement of note.
Though the report was useful on some level, it still didn’t give the proof on paper of who exactly was in Charlie Company on the date in question. When Neeley was more adamant that he needed the daily action report, he said he was told that the archives couldn’t release it because it would violate privacy laws. Neeley finds this puzzling, because the after-action reports all have names on them — at the very least, the name of the filing officer.
“Basically what they are telling me is that they have to die before they will give me the records,” Neeley said. “We fought the battle once, we got the medal, and now we’re having to fight it again. Why should we have to go through all these problems to get the medal?”
The National Archives could not be reached for this story. Neely enlisted the help of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray’s office, but he said Archives essentially told her staff the same thing.
Not giving up
Neeley has been left with few options in his fight to make sure his brothers-in-arms get their just recognition. But he hasn’t given up. He is in the process of writing to the National Personnel Records Center for some sort of daily action report, the key to proving who was in the battle so he can get the award.
His dream is to be able to confirm the names of everybody in his unit who was in the Battle of Suoi Tre and for the government to find them. He hopes the nation would provide them with a certificate for the award, and have some type of ceremony for the members of his unit.
“To me, I think it is important for that fact that they were awarded that,” Neeley said. “It’s the highest unit award there is. It’s a pretty big deal as far as in the rank of medals. And they earned it, they deserve it. And it’s something that can be passed down in their family.”