John Eade: “I Am Going to Die Well”

Posted on November 15, 2010
By Jules Crittenden

There are people who have the ability to surprise you with the evidence, against long odds, that it is possible to retain a sense of wonder, some ideals and even wistful dreams, when cynicism, demons and nightmares should have won out a long time ago.

John Eade is like that, the kind of person you’re always glad to see. You know you’ll walk away with a little of that energy he barely manages to conceal behind a quiet façade, still retaining in his 60s—despite severe war wounds—an infantryman’s ability to walk 25 miles on short notice.

And you know Eade will always leave you with something to think about—like what he had say about the Spartans at Thermopylae, when the movie “300″ came out a few years back.

It came up in one of our late-night phone conversations. Eade said he had been captivated by the story when he was in high school in Toledo, Ohio. Forty-odd years later, he was still.

“I don’t think anyone who studies war doesn’t get stuck on Thermopylae. It’s that thing of standing your ground to the last man,” Eade said. “Three days of fighting set up the Persians for their ultimate defeat. It changed history. It has taken on mythic proportions. You want to be one of the 300. If you had your chance to cut out or stay, you’d have stayed.”

Photo by: John Wilcox, Boston Herald

Photo by: John Wilcox, Boston Herald

Eade said it almost casually, like any of us would do that. Most people can only wonder if they would. But Eade knows what he is talking about. He’s an authority on the subject.

In November 1965, Sgt. John Eade, then 21, was in Vietnam, among the first American regulars there, a fire-team leader in 2nd Platoon, Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion of the historically ill-fated 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. They had already seen some combat, and as former paratroopers turned Air Cav, were a confident, well-trained and cohesive unit.

Over Nov. 14, 15, and 16, elements of 2/7 Cav were sent in to reinforce its sister battalion, 1/7 Cav, in the heavy fight at Landing Zone X-ray in the Ia Drang valley, where a reconnaissance in force had encountered a large force of North Vietnamese regulars. On the 16th, with the enemy at X-ray destroyed and the worst seemingly over, 1/7 was choppered out, along with 2/7’s Bravo. The rest of 2/7, with a company of 1/5 Cav, left X-ray the morning of Nov. 17, marching 10 kilometers to Landing Zone Albany. Just short of Albany, the lead elements captured a couple of North Vietnamese soldiers. There was debate about whether they were deserters or an outpost.

Still mulling the implications, they moved on, the battalion CO calling his company commanders ahead for a conference. In Albany’s clearing of grassland and anthills, surrounded by forest, 2/7’s Alpha Company began establishing a command post and a defensive perimeter within which the helicopters could land and take them home. The battalion’s Delta, Charlie and Headquarters companies were still coming up the trail behind them, with 1/5’s Alpha company bringing up the rear. Eade, with Alpha’s 2nd Platoon, was sent into the trees to the left, while 1st Platoon went right. That’s when the two North Vietnamese regiments encamped nearby attacked, along the length of the column.

Eade discussed his experience with me five years ago for a Boston Herald article. It was the first time he had done so in a public venue. He recalled that his platoon was immediately pinned down in ferocious fighting as the North Vietnamese swarmed on them through the trees.

“For the first hour and a half, it was intense hand-to-hand,” Eade said. “It was like a gang fight. It was small groups of us versus small groups of them. It got down to knives. It got down to choking people.”

First and 2nd platoons were taking the brunt of the attack on the landing zone’s perimeter. Delta, Charlie, HQ and 1/5 Alpha companies, strung out along the trail, were also under heavy attack, with similar scenes of desperate combat playing out as hundreds of men, American and Vietnamese, engaged among the trees. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese who had cut off the column were directly assaulting the Alpha’s command post among some anthills in the middle of the clearing.

Eade said he and his fire team, Wilbert Johnson, Barry Burnite and Oscar Barker Jr., had some freedom of movement along a line of brush and tried to flank the attacking Vietnamese.

“We wanted to hunt them down and give the platoon a chance,” Eade said. “We bit off more than we could chew.”

Burnite, a machine gunner, was hit in the chest by shrapnel and his gun was disabled. Johnson, his crewman, dragged Burnite 30 meters back to a position of cover in an effort to save him.

“It was the greatest feat of human strength I have ever witnessed,” Eade said. “I don’t know if Burnite was still alive.”

Eade said he, Johnson and Barker holed up among some trees and continued to fight. Johnson was killed, and Eade was shot in the gut and the right shoulder, forcing him to fire his M-16 left-handed. Under RPG and mortar fire, Eade said his legs and boots were sprayed with shrapnel that left a large piece stuck into his foot, so he couldn’t walk.

By about 3 p.m., much of the fighting had subsided around the fire team’s two survivors, Barker and Eade. Barker tended to Eade’s wounds in the lull, stuffing one of Eade’s dirty socks into his shoulder wound to stop the bleeding because they were out of bandages.

“I knew and he knew that everyone else was dead,” Eade said. He said he urged Barker to try to save himself and run for the command post, which Eade estimates was located about 50 meters of open ground beyond the woods, where the command element and mortars still held a perimeter.

“He refused to go,” Eade said. Shortly after that, Barker was shot, and Eade had to watch him die. It was a sucking chest wound, and it took a long time, Eade said.

After Barker died, Eade was alone.

“My whole life, I’ve missed the people I was with,” Eade said at that point in the conversation. “I just miss them a lot.”

I asked him what his thoughts and emotions were at this time, as the last surviving man in his position with every expectation that he would be killed as the Vietnamese moved through the trees finishing off the wounded. I was under the impression that Eade had played dead to survive, but he said that wasn’t the case.

“Playing dead was a way to die. It made no sense to me. Our job was to hold that position and kill the enemy,” Eade said. “I had this thing in my mind, part of the U.S. Army’s General Orders and the soldier’s code you learn in boot camp: ‘I will never forget I am an American fighting man. I will never surrender of my own free will. I will continue to resist to the utmost of my ability. I will not leave my post until properly relieved.”

Eade said he kept repeating it himself.

“I don’t think it was unique to me,” Eade said, citing the actions of men like Barker and Johnson. He said his seemingly hopeless position was made easier by his belief, established weeks earlier after several men in the unit were killed in other actions, that he would not leave Vietnam alive. What Eade says about that may sound familiar to other veterans of heavy combat:

“It wasn’t a matter of living or dying. It was taking care of each other and doing your duty. The anticipation of a future is what you give up. The question was not, ‘Am I going to die?’ We all know the answer to that. The question was, ‘How am I going to die? I am going to die well.’”

In the command post, Alpha Company’s executive officer, Lt. Larry Gwin, reports they saw large groups of the enemy moving through 2nd Platoon’s area. The command post remained under assault by waves of Vietnamese, still cut off from what was left of the rest of the battalion.

A couple of 2nd Platoon soldiers who had made it out of the woods and across the open grassland to the command post said they didn’t think any Americans were alive in there. Despite some misgivings on the part of some officers, the decision was made to thwart a Vietnamese attack on the command post by calling in a napalm strike on 2nd Platoon’s position.

“I think they made the right decision,” Eade said. He was on the edge of the A-1 Skyraiders’ napalm strike.

“It set me on fire, but I managed to roll in the dirt and put it out,” Eade said, adding that among his problems, the napalm proved inconsequential. In fact, he said, the napalm served a purpose. “It flushed them out and gave me an opportunity to reduce the numbers.”

Later in the afternoon, Eade said he was surprised by the sudden appearance of three enemy soldiers behind him.

“There were three North Vietnamese looking at me, one with a pistol.” Eade said he shot and killed two, but was shot in the face by the one with the pistol. The small-caliber bullet destroyed his right eye socket and shattered parts of his sinuses, making it difficult to breathe. He was knocked unconscious, and when he came to, the third Vietnamese was gone.

“I was angry at myself for being shot in the head. I was angry at myself for being careless. I was really pissed off at the North Vietnamese. It was probably the most maniacal moment of my life,” Eade said. He declined to elaborate.

Small groups of North Vietnamese continued moving through the area until about midnight, Eade said. He said he stopped using his rifle after dark so he wouldn’t give away his position. He said he managed to crawl around and throw grenades at some parties he assumes were removing their dead.

“There was no shortage of grenades lying around,” Eade said.

After midnight, the enemy activity ended. He recalls that it was a struggle to stay awake. He was on his third night without sleep, and believed that if he fell asleep, he would be found and killed.

Dawn came. He was alive, though severely wounded. Around 9 or 10 in the morning, Eade said he heard someone moving toward him. He prepared to shoot, but held his fire. Then he saw the shape of an American helmet.

“I yelled at them, ‘Give me some water!’” Eade said. “I was really thirsty. He looked at me and said, ‘You’re shot in the stomach. I can’t give you water.’ I told him I had been drinking water all night, but he said no. So I asked him for some morphine. I told him I had used mine up on the other wounded. ‘It really hurts,’ I said. He said, ‘You’re shot in the head. I can’t give you morphine.’ So I said, ‘Well, then give me a cigarette.’ They gave me that.”

He said he had never smoked before, but hasn’t stopped since.

Eade’s experience was similar to what hundreds of men up and down the column experienced over the prior afternoon and night, though many did not survive the first few hours after the Vietnamese broke through and enveloped them shortly after 1 p.m. on the 17th.

Gwin, who remembers firing at the oncoming Vietnamese, and firing again to keep them down, has said he is haunted by the memory of the American dead that he saw strewn across the grassland and throughout the trees on the morning of the 18th. He reports that the discovery of Eade alive where 2ndPlatoon had been destroyed was a tremendous morale booster for the survivors. When the battle was over, Gwin said, the battalion that had marched to LZ Albany could fit into four deuce and a half trucks. Nearly three-quarters of them had been killed or wounded in a matter of hours. But he said that despite the trauma, morale was high and remained so in following weeks as replacements rotated into nearly empty platoon tents and the battalion prepared to return to the field.

“The survivors rallied and cheered the fact that we had held the ground. We knew that we had killed a lot of them. We had given as good as we had gotten,” said Gwin. “The morale was very high in a perverse sort of way, because we had survived it.”

Eade objects to the notion that his platoon, while largely destroyed, was overrun. He argues that he stayed alive, kept fighting, and remained in position. His platoon held.

Gwin, noting that 2/7 Cav held its ground in one of the bloodiest days any battalion has experienced in U.S. military history, said, “John’s platoon held. If they hadn’t done what they did, we would have been overrun.”

Eade was medevac’d, and none of his comrades saw him again for decades. Gwin said that years later after they were reunited, he and other Ia Drang vets tried to get a combat award for Eade. Gwin, who earned a Silver Star for his actions at LZ Albany and completed 45 combat assaults in his year in Vietnam, said he believes Eade’s actions merit a Distinguished Service Cross. But because there were no living American witnesses to Eade’s actions, Gwin said, the effort was unsuccessful. Eade himself has said, regarding decorations, he is satisfied with the Combat Infantryman’s Badge.

Eade spent 1966, the year after the Ia Drang, in the U.S. Army hospital at Valley Forge. That’s where the mother of his fire team’s machine gunner, Barry Burnite, came to see him.

“I don’t know how she found me,” Eade said. “She asked me, how did her son die? I kind of told her the truth and I kind of didn’t. I cleaned it up a bit. The uncontrollable grief of that woman has stayed with me my whole life. Her pain and her grief was more than I could bear to look at. I can never think about it without wanting to cry.”

Eade, though battered and disfigured, recovered and went to university in the late 1960s. He became an architect. He pursued a career through what he called “serial jobs,” staying only until he became restless or angry, and moving on. He was largely solitary, and to this day closely guards his privacy. Eade became chief of inspectional services for the City of Boston in the 1990s, which is where I first met him. A lightly built, soft-spoken man with an eyepatch, an unexpected character in City Hall, a little odd and engaging. Serious about his work, he had a reputation for toughness and honesty. I only learned about his history several years later, and then it was by odd coincidence, through Gwin, our mutual friend, by then the informal head of a small informal group of combat veterans, some Boston lawyers and investment bankers who form a sort of movable VFW down in the business district.
Gwin had seen Eade’s name in a local newspaper article and sought him out. Eade had been out of touch with his fellow Ia Drang vets for nearly 40 years, having made no effort to get in touch.

“You have to understand. All my friends were dead,” Eade explained.

It was one of those typical silver-bullet Eade statements. He has a gift, or maybe the curse for it. Unsentimentally, matter-of-factly plumbing a terrible depth of human experience in a few words.

These days, Eade seems to have friends everywhere he goes. There is always someone who walks up, glad to see him, when we walk through the city. They say little things about him in brief asides, something he did one time or another. I don’t know how many of them know that this quiet, gentle man is still a soldier, prouder of nothing more than to have been an American combat infantryman who held his ground.

JULES CRITTENDEN is a Boston Herald editor who has reported from South Asia, the Middle East and the Balkans. He accompanied the 3rd Infantry Division’s 4/64 Armor in the taking of Baghdad.

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