Fifty years on, a battle in South Vietnam remains unknown

Operation Junction City, South Vietnam 1967.
Operation Junction City, South Vietnam 1967.

A hammer struck a golden bell during a recent memorial ceremony as the name of each soldier killed in action at a little-known battle in South Vietnam was called out.

Three former vets, all Minnesotans, were among the 100 people gathered together for the final reunion of veterans who survived one of the nastiest and all but forgotten firefights of the entire war at an abandoned village named Soui Tre.

Two soldiers in his gun section, David Rodgers and Willie Grant, died that day and he can still see their faces, said retired tool-and-die worker, John Barr.

He was operating the artillery guns when approximately 2,500 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese threatened to take control of a landing zone in a clearing in the bamboo jungle near Soui Tre approximately 30 miles northeast of the capital, Saigon.

In the early morning assault, enemy forces pounded the landing zone with 650 rounds of rocket and mortar fire to break the perimeter of the base.

Grenades exploded, guns roared and helicopters crashed prior to a U.S. ground-and-air counterattack which reversed the four-hour battle.  Accounts differ, but the Army tallied about 650 enemies dead. Thirty Americans were killed, and about 200 were wounded.

Chaotic is a poor adjective, said Barr, who to the present day can recall the foul odor of corpses in the days that followed the battle on March 21, 1967.

Barr, attending his first Vietnam veteran’s reunion, turned 70 in April.

All the vets are aging, and it is beneficial to hash over these memories, he said.  It brings up a lot, but he is glad he came.  It is good for the soul.

As with many of the veterans at the reunion, Barr said he hung up his uniform when he returned home in 1968 and said little about his experiences for 40 years.

He never talked to his parents about Vietnam, but one night his brother got him drunk, and it all came pouring out.

That occurred in 2011.  A couple of years later, Barr made a customary stop at the Department of Veteran’s blood lab in Minneapolis.  By chance, he bumped into Vietnam vet George Dahl, a retired school teacher from Woodbury, who was sporting a Soui Tre cap with a crest of the 22nd Infantry.

You rescued us that day, he said to Dahl.

As with most the veterans at the reunion, Dahl was drafted to supply a troop surge in 1966.  He is now 70, and was a 20-year-old squad leader in an armored personnel carrier at the Vietnamese village. He recalls scooping out a foxhole, which promptly filled with water and striking a deal with God: Get me out of Vietnam intact, and I will do something decent. He became a teacher, instructing at Maplewood, Eagan, and North St. Paul for just over 36 years.

Dahl returned to college at St. Cloud State following attendance at Bemidji State, but attempted to keep his Army service confidential.

He had nightmares and would scream, he explained.  He awakened once to see his roommate leaning over him, brandishing his fist and telling him he was crazy and required help.

One day at the recent event, the veterans were permitted to operate video-game-based training equipment at Fort Carson, driving improvised vehicles with machine guns on top and expansive video screens encompassing them with interactive images of urban Afghanistan.

The men readying themselves for the gunner’s seat were informed they had 200 simulated rounds of ammo and could click a tray for additional 200 rounds.

That would have been wonderful, remarked John Mersinger, who at Soui Tre aimed his real gun from the rear of his armored vehicle, Star Tribune reported.

His wife, standing nearby, said the soldiers had each other’s back 24 hours per day. They were packed into the vehicles and became more than blood brothers.

Barr agreed, saying they were a small band of brothers.  No one is aware of Soui Tre and civilians can see all the war flicks, but they still will not fully realize combat.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE