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'To Honor the Guys That I Lost' 

  • Michael Heaney, 65, shares his experience from Vietnam with an interviewer on Oct. 22, 2008, at his home in Hartland, Vt. (Valley News - Jeffrey Porter) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, September 14, 2017

Originally published Nov. 11, 2008

Hartland – On a gloomy, overcast day in May 1966, 1st Lt. Michael Heaney and a 10-man Army infantry squad headed out on a "milk run," a routine mission on a hillside in South Vietnam to scatter a rag-tag bunch of local Viet Cong fighters.

   Instead, the men on point, at the front of a 120-strong company, walked into what soldiers call the killing zone. Three-hundred North Vietnamese soldiers were waiting for them at the top of a hill in a village called Vinh Thanh.

   In two minutes, Heaney's men were dead.

   "My radio operator, the guy who carried my radio so that I could keep in touch with the units, was killed. Our medic was killed. Our mortar forward observer was killed. Everybody else around me was killed. I don't know why I survived. I was the only one," said Heaney, 23 at the time of the ambush.

   Now a 65-year-old retired lawyer, college professor and historian, Heaney is in the middle of a 26-day trip back to that hillside. It's a journey he's planned practically since he returned home from Vietnam, a wounded, highly decorated and angry young man.

   In an effort to fill his head – and his heart – with another memory from Vinh Thanh, Heaney left Hartland on Oct. 30 for Ho Chi Minh City, the first stop on his trek back to the hill. He arrived in Qui Nhon yesterday and plans to find a guide who can travel with him, possibly today, to the site of the ambush.

   In the week before he left, Heaney talked in the Hartland home he shares with his wife, Lucia Jackson, and their two young sons, the youngest of Heaney's five children, about his time in Vietnam, his return to the country and what he hopes to accomplish.

   "It's a story I want to tell, because I think it's one of the ways" – here Heaney stops, starting to cry – "to honor the guys that I lost. They didn't have a chance to tell their stories. They didn't have a chance to live their lives, like I had. And it pisses me off. A lot. I try to put it aside because I don't want to go through life as a bitter person. I think about it every day." 

   He said he "wants to give (himself)  a new alternative experience of a place where I and a lot of others suffered a lot and lost a lot and did a lot of damage." He pauses, "and killed people." 

Operation Crazy Horse 

   A fierce firefight the Army called Operation Crazy Horse followed the ambush of Heaney's squad. As the other platoons in Bravo Company pushed forward to help the stranded Heaney, a 20-hour battle ensued on May 16-17, 1966.  They would be Heaney's last days of active duty in Vietnam.

   "Even then it was regarded as a pretty horrendous action," said Heaney, who taught courses on the war at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., before moving to Hartland in July 2007, so Jackson could become minister of the Congregational Church in town.

   Heaney was among the ground troops President Johnson sent to Vietnam in late 1965. A young junior officer a year out of Middlebury College, where he received ROTC training, Heaney remembers himself as a "gung ho young lieutenant" trained as an Army Ranger, trained to parachute out of helicopters. He recalls wanting to do more than sit around while noncommissioned officers did all the work at Fort Dix, N.J., where he was stationed.

   He arrived in Vietnam on Christmas Day to find palm trees strung with tiny lights in his suffocatingly humid barracks. He was assigned to lead the third platoon in Company B -- Bravo Company -- the 2nd of the 8th Battalion, First Brigade of the First Cavalry Division. The division was based in An Khe, in the middle of South Vietnam, the Central Highlands.

   Months later, Heaney found himself alive and alone at Vinh Thanh.

   The North Vietnamese had massed on the hill, infiltrating down from the north. They had been resting in the mountainous area and watched as Company B took all morning to helicopter in troops and start marching up the ridge, Heaney and his men in the lead.

   It was his platoon's turn to be on point, the assignment that rotated among the four platoons of Company B. The company had a new commander and that day was to be a "shake-down cruise" with the new boss. It turned out to be anything but ordinary.

   "They scouted us out. Figured out how many guys we had, figured out that they outnumbered us quite a bit and they set up an ambush. ... One of the lead guys of my first squad saw one of the soldiers and shot at him and that sprung the ambush."

   His squad was in what infantrymen call the killing zone. "They were taking a lot of fire," Heaney said. "Guys were getting hit, calling for help, then starting to scream, moan, all awful things that happen in combat."

   Heaney called the company commander, 75 yards back, to recommend that the platoons behind his squad form a defensive perimeter -- in a Western it's called circling the wagons. Heaney told his commander he would call for his squad to drop back.

   "Yeah, do that," came the commander's reply.

   "So I yelled out. I told everybody to pull back 20 or 30 yards," Heaney said. "It was then that I realized nobody else is coming back. I figured well, they've all gotten it."

   Here, the retired soldier pauses. "I've told it so many times, I can get through it OK. ... It's such a horrendous experience. It still is."

   "For the next 20 hours, we were constantly under siege. They were putting a lot of fire on us. We were shooting back. Every couple of hours or so they would launch an assault and try to overrun us. Some of their guys would actually get inside our perimeter before they were taken down. So it was really a desperate fight. Desperate. We all thought we were goners."

   "They killed a couple of our guys and took their weapons and used them on us. Machine guns. Grenade launchers. They took my radioman's radio and got on it and taunted us in Vietnamese," Heaney said. "It reminded me of those movies I would watch as a kid, the fighting in the Pacific, Marines versus the Japs, as they were always called, with the sides talking to each other. I said, 'That doesn't really happen. It's Hollywood.' " 

   But on that day, Heaney learned, it does happen.

   As the battle on the hill continued, another infantry company marched up from the valley floor. They thought they would have to fight their way in, in the dark, but they drew no enemy fire.

   "We don't know whether the enemy had withdrawn for a while and just didn't catch it or whether they said, oh, let them in, we'll have two companies we can annihilate. Because they had enough guys to do that," Heaney said. The Americans were outnumbered more than 2-1.

   In the predawn hours the next morning, commanders instructed the troops to fire "a final protective line," a maneuver that had the infantrymen fire a large amount of ammunition on signal then stop. The idea is to spook the enemy, get them to run away or launch a premature attack. But just before the signal was given, the North Vietnamese launched a mortar attack using 120mm guns, bigger than the 105mm Howitzers the Americans had. Heaney was hit in the barrage. A piece of shrapnel shot through his right calf, leaving a hole the size of a quarter.

   As he lay on the ground, "a North Vietnamese soldier in front of me jumps up and assaults our position. The guy next to me kills him. He falls down next to me. ... I couldn't see any wound on him ... I'm saying, 'What if he's faking it. I don't see any holes in him. Should I shoot him again?' ... But he was dead."

   Delirious, Heaney crawled into the perimeter for help and learned all the medics were dead. There was no more morphine and few medical supplies remained. "I found some poor GI ... and said, 'Cut my pant leg off and put this compress on my leg or I'm going to die.' "

   Meanwhile, the Americans fired on signal and the North Vietnamese soldiers "broke and ran," said Heaney. "The sun was coming up. They knew that on day two, with light, we'd be bringing in a lot more support."

   "Finally, after an hour or so, we realized ... it's over. It's hard to believe it for a while, because we were sure by this time that none of us was going to survive."

   The North Vietnamese left 75 bodies on the field, which they didn't often do, Heaney said. The Americans had 20 dead, half of them Heaney's squad. In addition, there were 40 wounded, including Heaney.

   After a few days in a field hospital, Heaney was flown to Japan for months of treatment for his wound, which would become badly infected. The injury got him sent stateside and then later, retired at 30 percent disability. Heaney rolls up his pant leg to show visitors the scars on his calf, a portion of which he lost. The thin leg is a shadow of his other leg.

   "Then I went on with my so-called normal life, which has never been normal," Heaney says with a wry laugh.

  'Profoundly Formative' Experiences

   In Vietnam, Heaney said he would look for some type of project he can organize in a village near where his company was stationed.

   "I couldn't hand somebody a hundred thousand dollars and say, go build a nice elementary school," he said. "But I may be able to spark something like that, with the help of others. It's funny how veterans are attached to the places where they've had their worst experiences."

   His time in Vietnam left Heaney with the most "profoundly formative" experiences of his life, he said. He took a lot with him from the hillside in Vinh Thanh, and in the next few days, the Army veteran expects to leave something there, too.

   During five months of combat, Heaney and 19-year-old radioman Terrence Carpenter were inseparable. "Sleeping next to each other, talking to one another, depending on each other all the time. ... You get close to people" in a way that doesn't happen outside of your closest relatives, Heaney said.

   He hopes to find a local artisan to make him a small trinket, maybe a carving, to take up the hill and tuck into the earth. There, on the hallowed ground where Heaney lost his men and almost his own life, he plans to honor those soldiers and especially the long-dead Ohio teenager.

   "I just want to say goodbye to him and put something in the ground where he died."