Lake Fong/Post-GazetteVietnam veterans Ray Tarr, left, of Kittanning, and Donnie Colwell, of Emerickville. For a video of the interview, go to post-gazette.com
Sunday, August 30, 2009
By Torsten Ove, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ray Tarr, 59, has a fake eye, a dent in his head, a withered arm and wince-inducing scars on his back, all courtesy of a rocket-propelled grenade that slammed into his tank in Cambodia in 1970.
"We had a saying in Vietnam," he shrugged last week in recollection. "When someone died or something bad happened, we just said, 'It don't mean nothing.' "
But the actions of his unit on March 26, 1970, a few months before he was wounded, did mean something -- resulting in a Presidential Unit Citation issued in March, 39 years after the fact.
Now the veterans of that battle are asking President Obama to present the citation to them personally in the East Room of the White House this fall. It could happen as early as October.
With a First Cavalry infantry company pinned down, outnumbered and out of ammunition, Mr. Tarr's Alpha Troop of the 11th Armored Cavalry rushed to save 100 men.
"I'm proud that I'm an American and could serve my country and that I could help those guys," said Mr. Tarr, of Kittanning, who was a 20-year-old tank loader.
"They were not going to live through the night," said his friend, Donnie Colwell, 61, of Emerickville, Jefferson County, who won the Silver Star for gallantry as commander of the unit's medical armored-personnel carrier.
"There were some other things that happened [in the war] that we could have gotten awards for. But the point is, we saved 100 grunts. They would have been massacred."
Alpha's commander at the time, Texas multimillionaire John B. Poindexter, 64, wrote a book about the rescue in 2004 called "The Anonymous Battle" and pushed for the citation.
The White House won't comment on whether President Obama will make the presentation. Presidents rarely do. Usually, another official does the job, typically at the unit's base, which in this case is California.
But Mr. Poindexter, owner of J.B. Poindexter & Co. in Houston, said all of his men deserve the honor of a White House ceremony. He said he'll pay for the trips for the 100 or so men who want to go.
"The Presidential Unit Citation is a tiny affirmation of my obligation to those men," he said. "On an institutional level, I feel the men who served in Vietnam, like those who served in Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq, fought a particularly unpopular war. This is a much-belated gesture of great importance."
Months in combat
Ray Tarr and Donnie Colwell first met in the motor pool at Quan Loi in 1969 and learned that they had lived near each other before they were drafted and sent overseas. Ray had been an apprentice bricklayer with his own car; Donnie had been attending Allegheny Technical Institute for electronics.
Times were turbulent and they knew the war was going badly, but they were too young to think much about it.
"We had no idea what we were getting into," Mr. Tarr said.
When they met, Mr. Colwell was commander of the unit's armored carrier that transported the chief medic, Gary Felthager, and had already earned two Purple Hearts for injuries suffered in mine explosions. Mr. Tarr became a loader in a Sheridan tank.
The men served under Mr. Poindexter, their bright, aggressive 25-year-old captain.
By March 1970, Alpha Troop had been in combat for months near the Cambodian border, where construction battalions were building a road through the jungle in anticipation of a May invasion of Cambodia.
The 11th Cavalry's job was to seek out North Vietnamese Army units in the region and destroy them.
They endured numerous firefights, and each evening parked their tanks and armored vehicles in a ring to protect against attack or infiltration by highly trained troops, who crept up at night.
But one of their worst episodes was an accident. On the night of March 25, three men died and five were wounded in explosions that also destroyed one of their armored carriers.
The soldiers initially thought the blasts were the result of enemy action and braced for combat. They later learned that one of their own mortar shells had detonated inside its tube and set off other shells.
Mr. Colwell tried to help the wounded. One man, he recalled, had lost both arms and both legs. He died a short time later.
'Get ready, let's go'
When morning came after a sleepless night, the Alpha platoons moved out on reconnaissance patrols. By late morning, everyone heard sounds of a battle in the distance.
They learned from the radio that Charlie Company had wandered into an elaborate hidden North Vietnamese bunker complex and had come under heavy fire. U.S. fighter jets swooped in, dropping bombs in support of the trapped company, while Cobra helicopter gunships fired rockets and machine guns at the North Vietnamese.
But C Company was outnumbered 3-to-1 and taking heavy casualties. Its men were also out of water and ammunition.
Capt. Poindexter knew what he had to do.
"He just told us, 'Get ready, let's go,' " Mr. Colwell said.
"There was no hesitation," Mr. Tarr recalled. "In the Army, you follow orders. But you could tell by the looks on guys' faces that no one really wanted to go."
They hadn't slept in 30 hours and they were scared, but they moved out. It took more than an hour for the armored column to plow 2.5 miles through the triple-canopy jungle.
"We broke into a clearing, and there they were," Mr. Tarr recalled. "I remember seeing the wounded men. I saw three soldiers lying under ponchos, obviously dead."
But C Company rejoiced as Alpha Troop opened fire with .50-caliber and M-60 machine guns.
"It was just relief on their faces to see us," Mr. Tarr said.
"We were fighting for our lives," recalled Paul Evans, then an 18-year-old private, in "The Anonymous Battle." "Then out of nowhere, the tanks and [armored carriers] came busting out of the jungle. ... For 34 years, they have been my heroes and always will be."
Mr. Colwell, whose job was to protect Doc Felthager as he worked on wounded men, was one of the first Alpha troopers on the ground. He saw one man who had been shot through the forehead and had died, and another who had been shot in the leg and later died of blood loss. At least 66 other men were wounded.
A mad minute
Waving his pistol, Capt. Poindexter immediately ordered his vehicles to line up in a row with the Sheridans in the center. Alpha then launched what the men called a "mad minute," in which every vehicle fired all of its weapons for 60 seconds. They moved ahead another 50 yards and did it again. The North Vietnamese fired back.
"It was pandemonium," Mr. Tarr said. "You can't believe the noise, the smoke, the confusion."
The Sheridans and the armored carriers advanced, crushing the underground bunkers under their treads while infantrymen hurled grenades and fired at enemy soldiers.
Alpha lost one man: Robert Foreman, Mr. Tarr's platoon sergeant, who was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade behind his gun shield on a Sheridan.
The North Vietnamese suffered at least 80 killed and an unknown number of wounded. The rest fled. After dark, Alpha Troop carefully backed out and evacuated the wounded to a landing zone, where helicopters carried them to safety.
All told, the two units lost seven men in two days. More than 70 were wounded, Capt. Poindexter among them.
But had Alpha not come to the rescue, the survivors insist, every man in C Company would have died. The North Vietnamese units were tenacious and ruthless.
The war went on for Mr. Tarr and Mr. Colwell. There were other battles, including the one that sent Mr. Tarr to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and earned him his Purple Heart.
They moved on
When the Alpha troopers came home, no one thought much about March 26. For them, it was like many other firefights, and Vietnam was a war everyone wanted to forget.
Mr. Poindexter did put in for individual medals for some of his men, but a unit citation didn't enter his mind for decades. He put aside the war, built a manufacturing empire and got rich.
In Pennsylvania, Mr. Colwell became a coal miner and Mr. Tarr a dental lab technician for the Veterans Affairs hospital in Butler. They raised families and moved on with their lives.
During his last days in Vietnam, Mr. Poindexter wrote a clinical account of the battle. After it was rejected by Armor magazine, he set it aside until 1999, when the regimental commander of the 11th Cavalry invited some veterans to discuss their Vietnam experience.
Mr. Poindexter revised the old manuscript, and Armor published it in 2000. He later developed the account into his self-published book, which included his recommendation for the Presidential Unit Citation and the recollections of his old comrades.
Mr. Tarr and Mr. Colwell both contributed.
Mr. Poindexter describes the book as a "faint eulogy for America's first wartime defeat." For him, the presidential citation is similarly symbolic.
There are veterans of Alpha Troop who don't see it that way. Some want nothing to do with reunions or commendations. Mr. Colwell said Doc Felthager, the medic who saved so many men before his eyes, has never responded to e-mails or calls.
Mr. Tarr and Mr. Colwell said they understand.
When Mr. Tarr was wounded in Cambodia, a young man on the tank behind him, Danny Ray Schmidt, of Indiana, took an AK-47 slug in the head and died.
"I was treated as a hero at Walter Reed and when I came home," he said. "What did Danny Ray Schmidt get? I think about that and I feel bad."
Mr. Colwell said he came home from the war an angry, confused young man. He struggled with bad dreams and a violent temper for years, and he drank too much.
It wasn't until a religious conversion a few years ago, he said, that he became a different person.
"I'm much calmer now," he said. "But the demons still chase me."
Torsten Ove can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1510.