Alpha Company didn’t mutiny, says officer who was there

Lt. Alan Freeman in Vietnam, 1969

Much has been written about the reported mutiny of soldiers in the 196th Light Infantry Brigade on August 25, 1969, in Vietnam’s Song Chang Valley. I learned about it in the 1990s while interviewing retired Lt. Col. Bobby Bacon for my book Tragedy at Chu Lai, about a grenade accident in an Army classroom that killed my cousin Nicky Venditti and two other newly arrived Americal Division soldiers. Bacon had briefly headed the replacement and training unit at Chu Lai before taking command of the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment.

I previously blogged about Bacon’s account of the supposed mutiny and also presented a version by James Dieli, a soldier who was there. Now here’s another account, this one from an artillery officer who served in the unit’s headquarters.
It comes from Alan Freeman.

As Freeman sees it, Alpha Company’s headline-making troubles in Vietnam began with a brawl that had nothing to do with fighting the enemy. Company A, 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry had seen a month-and-a-half of intense combat in the mountainous jungles south of Da Nang. The Americal Division, as it did occasionally with other units under its command, pulled the soldiers out of the field and brought them back to the coastal base at Chu Lai for rest and recuperation, R&R.

Lt. Freeman, a 21-year-old artillery forward observer detailed to Alpha Company, was with them. “We went to shows and drank a lot of booze,” he told me. “I think the second day we were there, we were watching a show and this chair came flying over my head.” A brawl had broken out with the men of another company. The battalion commander, Lt. Col. Eli Howard, took action over this breach of discipline. “We got kicked off R&R and got helicoptered the next morning into a really bad situation.”

It was a U-shaped ambush, with the enemy firing from both sides on the Americans caught in the middle. Freeman landed with the company commander, Capt. Dennis Chudoba. Mortars hit around them. Freeman saw the dirt kicking up next to him and couldn’t figure out why. He turned and saw there was someone shooting at him. “If he’s a good shot, I wouldn’t be here,” he said.

Freeman had been dodging bullets since arriving in Vietnam in May 1969 after completing a six-month officer candidate program at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He had been working closely with Chudoba even though they were in different units. An infantry company typically had two field artillery men – a forward observer and a radio operator. Freeman was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment at Landing Zone Center and was immediately sent out with Alpha Company as its forward observer.

That spring, the company came under fire almost daily. In June, Freeman said, he was wounded by a couple of Chi-Com (Chinese Communist) grenades.

Freeman was glad that Chudoba was in charge. A West Point graduate on his second tour of duty, he was the ideal company commander, Freeman said. He had fought the enemy, he knew tactics, he was “really sharp” and, on top of all that, he was a nice guy. Freeman, as forward observer, was almost always at his side. “We respected Chudoba, we trusted him.”

The U-shaped ambush lasted a few days, after which the inexplicable happened. Lt. Col. Howard, the 3rd Battalion commander, flew in by helicopter and replaced Chudoba with a young first lieutenant, Eugene Shurtz Jr. Shurtz had gotten his commission through ROTC and had no combat experience. Freeman said the move deprived Alpha Company of a “great leader.”

“We had been through 40 days of hell, and we held together. But after we lost Chudoba, there was no continuity with the company.”

With Shurtz in charge, Alpha Company got orders to scout a part of the Song Chong Valley, about 30 miles south of Da Nang. “It was supposed to be a one-day in-and-out,” Freeman said. “We didn’t bring any food. All we brought was water and ammo.”

They were helicoptered in and took fire as they landed. They came to a village, where the company’s Kit Carson scouts – former Viet Cong who scouted for U.S. infantry units and served as interpreters – spoke with villagers and returned to report there were no Viet Cong in the area. Alpha Company’s grunts started walking through the village in single file.

“Our first five or six people got through to the other side and then all hell broke loose,” Freeman said. The next several men in line were gunned down. The unit was under attack.

Freeman was astounded that the enemy had fired .50-caliber guns at the helicopters. In his four months of combat, he had never come across an enemy unit that was firing guns of such large caliber. It led him to believe that Alpha Company was up against a large outfit.

They later found out it was a North Vietnamese Army regiment of about 10,000 soldiers who were planning to overrun a couple of U.S. batteries, including the one at LZ Center. “How our intelligence didn’t know they were there, to me is mind-boggling,” Freeman said.

Alpha Company got cut off and took heavy casualties. “We just started getting slaughtered, and so we finally pulled back. I was calling in artillery like crazy to try to help us.”

The men clustered in one area, not realizing the size of the NVA force pitted against them in the jungle. The enemy kept probing as artillery shells screamed in. An Associated Press photographer, Oliver Noonan, was with Alpha Company’s headquarters section with Freeman, Shurtz, the radio operators and a sergeant-major. Noonan had accompanied the unit from LZ Center. He told Shurtz to get him out.

Shurtz called battalion headquarters and explained the situation to Howard, who said, “We’ll come in and get him.” One of the officers with Shurtz told him, “Do not bring that helicopter in here. It’s too hot.” But Shurtz let the UH-1 Huey from the 71st Aviation Company come in. It arrived safely with Howard aboard and picked up Noonan. But as the chopper left, it was “blown out of the sky,” Freeman said. Everyone aboard was killed.

Alpha Company was surrounded for several days. “Sometimes we dug as much as we could into the ground. We’d try to fortify as much as we could, because every time we moved in a different direction, people would get mowed down. I thought I was going to die.”

Eventually, the firing stopped. Battalion headquarters determined that the NVA had left the area and ordered the men to move up to the top of a hill, where they regrouped. They figured on spending a couple of nights there before returning to LZ Center.

But then the new battalion commander, Lt. Col. Bobby Bacon, ordered Alpha Company to go back down the hill to recover the bodies from the helicopter wreck. Shurtz got the order and held a briefing with his remaining officers – Freeman and one platoon leader, a lieutenant. (Of the two other lieutenants, one was killed and the other wounded. Sergeants had replaced them.)

When the word got out, five men said they weren’t going to go. They came to the command post where Shurtz, Freeman and the one other lieutenant were. “They told Lt. Shurtz that they weren’t going, that they had like five days left in the country and they’d had it. They weren’t going down the hill.” Freeman said Shurtz was so green, he didn’t know what to do. Shurtz called back to battalion HQ and told Bacon: “My company refuses to move.”

Unfortunately, Freeman said, Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett, who was covering the death of Noonan, was standing right next to Lt. Col. Bacon. Soon after, Freeman said, Arnett “notified the world” that an Americal Division company had refused to move.

While Shurtz was on the phone, Freeman and the other lieutenant told the men who had spoken up, “If you don’t go with us, we’re taking your guns. You can stay up on the hill without any guns.” That changed their minds; they agreed to go.

Freeman said Shurtz’s report to Bacon “blew me and the other lieutenant away.” When Shurtz got off the phone, Freeman asked him why he’d said that to the battalion commander. “He just had this shell-shocked look on his face.”

Soon after that, the company started down the hill. But Shurtz didn’t call Bacon back and tell him that they were now on the move. Meanwhile, Bacon was flying in his executive officer and a sergeant to deal with the recalcitrant soldiers. “We get halfway down the hill and we have to turn around and go back up the hill to secure it so the helicopter can come in,” Freeman said.

Several days later, what remained of Alpha Company went to a secure area. Freeman guessed the unit was down about 40 soldiers out of more than 100. It was replenished with 50-60 soldiers who had not been involved in the battle.
“All these reporters come in – ABC, NBC, Time, Newsweek – and they start talking to everybody about what went on. You can imagine the stories they got when they talked with people who weren’t even there. For some reason, the reporters did not ask anyone who had actually been there during the firefights. Not one talked to me.”

After six months in the field as a forward observer, Freeman ran a battery at LZ Center, then returned to the field with an air cavalry unit – tanks and armored personnel carriers.

The so-called mutiny has stuck with him all these years. “It’s always bothered me that that’s what our company was noted for – and it was not true.”

Freeman laid the blame on a “tremendous failure of leadership,” starting with Howard, the battalion commander. “One time, Howard flew in to observe our company and decided he would walk point. It struck us all as very odd for him to do this, almost like a death wish.”

Shurtz was young and inexperienced, and “should never have been put in the position that he was put in.” As a result, he didn’t know what to do when the five soldiers said they wouldn’t go down the hill.

“If Chudoba had been with us, we’d have taken casualties but it wouldn’t have been nearly as bad,” said Freeman, a retired engineer in San Diego. “He would have known how to handle the soldiers when they did not want to go back down the hill.”

Freeman described a run-in he’d had with Howard, described as a “hot-tempered taskmaster” in Keith William Nolan’s 1987 book, Death Valley, about the summer 1969 offensive in northern South Vietnam, the I Corps tactical zone. Freeman said that when he was in the field, he didn’t wear his rank and didn’t shave, because he wanted to look like the guys he was with. They didn’t call him Lieutenant; they called him Arty, for artillery. Howard overheard that one day, “and he called me in and he raked my ass over the coals for not having their respect.”

But it wasn’t about respect, Freeman said. It was about the forward observer and his radio operator fitting in with the other soldiers so they wouldn’t stand out as targets. “When we went out, we had three antennas. The Viet Cong and the NVA weren’t stupid when they saw the antennas. Who do you think they were shooting at?” Howard, he said, should have known that, just as he should have known the risk of putting a green lieutenant in charge of a company.

Freeman said Alpha Company doesn’t deserve a bad rap, especially in light of the heavy fighting it faced in the Song Chang Valley – fighting he said is glossed over in the record-keeping at the time. He said he has seen some of the unit daily records supposedly showing what was happening hour by hour, and they don’t reflect the intensity of Alpha Company’s contact with the enemy. He also has copies of citations for medals awarded to soldiers who were with him in the battle.

“When you look at the number of medals awarded versus the daily reports, it’s mind-boggling. It’s as if nothing was going on.”

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