Stalactites of Fire

Posted on November 15, 2010
By Larry Gwin

Close Air Support at LZ Albany, November 17, 1965

(with an excerpt from Baptism: A Vietnam Memoir)

On the morning of November 17, 1965, Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, received orders to spearhead the battalion out of LZ (Landing Zone) X-Ray, where we’d been fighting for two days, to a previously-unreconnoitered clearing in the jungle designated “LZ Albany,” 5 kilometers to our north. B-52’s were going to carpet-bomb the Chu Pong Massif, which loomed over X-Ray, so we had to move quickly. Our orders were simply to move overland, secure the new LZ, and wait. Captain Sugdinis, the Company Commander, was concerned. The company had been on 100% alert for two days; the temperature was over a hundred degrees; and we’d seen the enemy up close. They were hard corps regulars of the People’s Army of Vietnam, a/k/a PAVN— tough and determined. And they were still out there, somewhere.

We managed the long hot trek to Albany okay, but everyone was exhausted by the time we got there. Then, just as we began securing the LZ, with most of our 400-man battalion still strung out in a long column behind us, we were suddenly attacked by the 8th Battalion of the 66th Regiment (a reinforced PAVN battalion with more than a thousand men). They had also been alerted to our approach and had 30 minutes to prepare a hasty “L-shaped” ambush.

Larry GwinTheir initial onslaught was devastating. During the first hour of furious, close-in fighting, Alpha Company lost two of its four platoons, completely overrun by the enemy, but we managed to form a defensive perimeter with the Recon Platoon and the battalion command group in a small clump of trees in the middle of the LZ. Everywhere we looked, we could see PAVN in the tree line around us. (See the diagram below, of our “last-ditch perimeter.”) Completely surrounded and desperate to fend off their attacks, we called for close air support. It arrived in the form of Air Force and Navy A1-E “Skyraiders” armed with napalm and 20 mm cannons.

Here is my recollection of the air strikes (from Baptism: A Vietnam Memoir):

“. . . The radios soon crackled for everyone to throw smoke, any color. I dodged about ten yards to the left, positioning myself to hurl a smoke grenade into the high grass to our front. When I heard Joel [Captain Sugdinis] yell, I popped red smoke and threw it as far as I could into the open. I saw Captain Fesmire, to my left, throw one, too. It surprised me to see him there. What the hell was he doing in our perimeter? The grenades popped and hissed all around us, spewing smoke into the air, marking our position with a ragged circle of red, green, yellow, and white smoke, billowing from canisters, its acrid smell mixing with the haze of cordite.

“I was crawling back to our anthill when I heard the first plane. I couldn’t tell how high it was, or how far away, but its engine droned louder and louder. Salvation was at hand. I rolled over on my side and peered through the branches overhead. There it was, an A1-E Skyraider, diving toward the tree line.

“Down, down, down it roared, closer and closer. All the firing was drowned out by its roar. Then, about a hundred feet up, it let go of the silver napalm canister it carried under its belly and climbed sharply back into the air. I watched the canister tumble slowly downward, end over end, then crash into the treetops, breaking apart and exploding in a ball of roiling flame. Blazing napalm rolled into the trees and began to seep downward, slowly, like stalactites of flame. A dozen shadowy figures suddenly rose as one from the jungle floor, PAVN trying desperately to flee, but the flaming jellied gasoline engulfed them all.

“Suddenly I was on my feet, fist clenched, cheering. Everyone around me was cheering, too, laughing, yelling, clapping their buddies on the back—‘Oh, man, it’s beautiful.’ ‘Fry the little bastards!’ ‘Kill the fuckers!’ ‘Yeah, kill ‘em all!’—venting our pent-up rage at what we’d seen.

“A second Skyraider followed close behind the first, dropping its two canisters slightly to the left of that first deadly strike. They were right on target, hitting the spot where we’d first exited from the forest. Dead on! The napalm burst into the treetops and filtered downward, all in a matter of seconds, engulfing everything underneath it. Bull’s-eye!

“I sat back down, in numb fascination and horror, and watched as the bombing continued unabated for about twenty minutes. I saw a canister crash into the treetops over the place where the first PAVN rush had come from, where I had killed my first man, and the jungle floor seemed to writhe as at least twenty PAVN, lying hidden in the tree line, tried to flee. A billowing gasoline fireball swept over them all, roiling with thick black, tiger-striped smoke, leaving the small patch of jungle charred and smoking. I saw the same scene repeated a half dozen times. The napalm was devastating, utterly terrifying, effectively clearing out hidden enclaves of PAVN poised around us. And each aircraft seemed to come a little closer, fly a little lower, and drop a little more accurately. And each pass seared a swath of safety around us.

“It was beautiful.

“When the napalm finally struck what had been the 2d Platoon’s position, first one canister, then another, about a hundred yards away from us, it was as if all sound had been blotted out for a moment, as if I’d suddenly gone stone deaf. After the orange-black flame ball rolled over the place where our men had been, we sat there, too stunned to move. Then my hearing came back. I could hear the Pop! Pop! Pop! of unexpended ammunition burning in the flames. It sounded like popcorn popping on a stove.

“I looked up once more. A Skyraider was diving right at us, its propeller coming head-on, the roar of its engines deafening. The jungle behind me was still spitting small-arms fire, all the PAVN guns blazing away at it in defiance. I watched the Skyraider coming right at us, realizing, almost sadly, that it was going to drop its canister right on top of us. I was frozen to the spot, unable to move, thinking what a horrible way this was to die.

“The plane released its bomb. I watched it fall away from the plane’s belly and begin its ineluctable tumble toward our position. It was coming right at us. I stared at it, mesmerized by its strange sad beauty, the awful fascination of its flight. I watched it tumbling closer, and closer. I could see the rivets in the aluminum along its side as it passed overhead, so close I could almost reach up and touch it. I buried my head in the ground.

“It KAAARRRRUUUMMMMPPED in a huge ball of flame and seared the air around me. Then I looked up.

“As if in a dream, I saw a young PAVN soldier pop out of the grass—about thirty feet away— and charge right at us. He was trying to flee the fire. Someone screamed, bullets tore into his chest, and, horribly riddled, he crashed headfirst into the grass at my feet. He looked about ten years old. . .”

The air strikes forced the PAVN to break off their attacks and back off, giving us half an hour of breathing room. Then 80 men from Bravo Company flew into the LZ to help us out, in one of the most courageous air assaults I’ve ever seen. PAVN was still around us, though, so we consolidated, dug foxholes, and waited. They came back that night, to retrieve their wounded and execute ours, but by dawn, they had faded back into the jungle, leaving us with 155 Americans dead on the field, and another 124 wounded.

Though we held our ground that day and killed a lot of PAVN at LZ Albany, our battalion suffered 70% casualties. It was the most vicious one-day battle of the Vietnam War, I’ve been told, and a fight I’ll never forget.



LARRY GWIN was the XO (Executive Officer) or CO of Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 7thCavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) from mid-October ’65 to early-July ’66.

After coming home, he went to law school, practiced law for 30 years, wrote, and taught. He is the author of Baptism: A Vietnam Memoir and more than a hundred freelance pieces. He lives in Marblehead, MA, with his beautiful young wife, and continues to write every day.

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