Today I am veering from my typical topics to bring you a very special story about this day in history. December 2nd has always been very significant to my family because it was on this day in 1969 that my dad experienced the most significant battle of his tour of duty while serving in the Vietnam war.
My brother wrote this beautiful account of this battle for his blog several years ago and agreed to let me share it with you today. He is a very talented story teller and I tear up reading any part of this account. Without the valor of the men described below, my father, or my family, literally would not be here today.
By sharing this with you today, I am honoring these men and all the other men and women who have bravely served our country. Thank you!
Written by John Houmes, a PCA pastor who is in the midst of planting a new church in the Hollywood/Hallandale area of South Florida. Please read about his ministry at hhchurchplant.com
On December 2nd, 1969, in the jungles of Vietnam, the soldiers of Company B, First Battalion of the Eighth Cavalry in the First Cavalry Division displayed exceptional bravery during a battle with North Vietnamese troops. During the six hour battle, the men of Company B, nicknamed “Pigiron”, displayed such courage that they were later given every medal for valor that the Army awarded.
At 1340 hours, the second squad of the second platoon of Company B under the leadership of Sgt. Bob Credit found a North Vietnamese regimental under-ground base camp and immediately engaged the enemy. The rest of the second platoon came to their aid as the battle raged. Company B was still outnumbered 300 to 25.
During this time, 2nd Lt. Robert Leisy saw an enemy sniper ready to fire a rocket propelled grenade at his radio operator, Pfc. Bernie Baillargeon. Leisy, knowing that the platoon was doomed if the radio went out, jumped in front of the grenade and absorbed its full impact. Mortally wounded and refusing medical attention, Leisy continued to command the platoon and direct a strategic withdrawal from the battle. Leisy would die later that day.
The battle continued on and a withdrawal was ordered. Pigiron was heavily pinned down and uncertain whether they would be able to get out alive. Artillery was called in, but the range of the guns was limited to right about where Company B was located. Lt. John Eckhardt, forward artillery observer, called in and directed over 600 rounds of artillery anyway.
Capt. Jerry Fitzgerald, pinned down by overwhelming fire power, coordinated more artillery, gunship support, tactical air strikes, medical evacuation and commanded the rest of Company B. As the company withdrew, Pfc. Baillargeon, while injured himself, carried 3 wounded soldiers out of the battle area to safety. Each time that he returned to the battle area, he faced machine gun fire and grenades. Baillargeon nuetralized a machine gun nest and a sniper. His last act of heroism that day was to return to the battle field and retrieve a radio that had been left behind.
Pfc. Robert Dalton, the ammo carrier for M-60 machine gunner Pfc. Al Pickard, repeatedly exposed himself to deadly enemy fire to provide ammunition necessary to protect the company as they withdrew. Pickard provided covering fire as the company retreated. He was wounded twice, but continued to operate his machine gun. He died after he was shot a third time.
Pfc. Rueben Valencia, second platoon point man, saw various enemy firing positions while under withering fire and engaged the enemy. His accurate assessment of enemy positions lead to the neutralization of those positions facilitating the strategic withdrawal.
Sgt. Bill Nichols, second platoon squad leader, displayed unswerving leadership and courage against overwhelming enemy forces. His calm and clear leadership gave his squad the ability to safely retreat from the deadly battle.
Pigiron withdrew to a hill to wait out the night. Most of them thought that they would not live to see the morning, believing they would be overrun. The next morning, there was a cease fire, and they returned to their previous day’s position to retrieve the bodies of two of their men. Al Pickard’s body had been booby trapped. Still injured, Bernie Baillargeon was able to safely insert the pin back into a grenade that had been set under Pickard’s leg to explode when his body was moved.
There was another small fire fight and several booby trap explosions. Some men were injured from these explosions. They left the valley and returned to the hill again for the night. Cobra helicopter gunships flew over Company B’s position during the night to protect them from the North Vietnamese. The next morning, the Air Force dropped “daisy-cutter” bombs to clear the foliage so that helicopters could land and extract Company B. The “daisy-cutters” cleared an area approximately the size of two football fields. Pigiron was extracted from their position and returned to Firebase Ellen.
For their courage displayed on December 2nd, the men of Company B were awarded the Medal of Honor (Lt. Leisy), the Distinguished Service Medal (Al Pickard), three Silver Stars, and three Bronze Stars, as well as numerous Purple Hearts. Although I was born ten years after that fateful day in 1969, it holds a special place in my mind and heart. My dad was a member of Company B. He was part of second platoon that came to aid once the battle had started. He was 20 feet away from Lt. Leisy when he saved Bernie Baillargeon and the radio from the rocket propelled grenade. My dad was pinned down in the rear of Company B’s position. He had been ordered to hold position near a large tree while others slipped around the tree to communicate with the rest of Company B. The North Vietnamese had formed a “V” that Pigiron had walked right into. My dad was eyeing Pigiron’s right flank, fearful that the North Vietnamese would close the “V” and overrun them. With the other men who were able to make it out, he withdrew to the hill carrying his friend Jessie Cornelison. That day is burned into my Dad’s memory.
Dad in front of the company B sign.
I grew up hearing stories about December 2nd. Lt. Leisy, Al Pickard and Jessie Cornelison were all familiar names to me. They were just names until 2001, when after months of research on the internet, phone calls, and letters, my dad was able to make contact with the men of Company B and plan a reunion for the following year. I was honored to be able to attend.
The men of Company B met in Fort Lauderdale in March of 2002. Some of them had not mentioned Vietnam since they got on a “freedom bird” plane in Saigon to return to the US. Others were uncertain how they’d feel after 33 years. The men got together. They talked. They listened. They cried. They hugged each other. They met each other’s wives and children. They toasted their fallen brothers. They told stories. They looked at old photos. They filled in missing details. They healed.
I was humbled as I watched this unfold and saw my Dad in the midst of this. The events of December 2nd and the stories he told about Vietnam had become such a big part of my family, and more personally, me. My Dad and I are very close, and I could not help but be filled with pride as I met the men that my Dad served with. Before then, they had just been names in stories. After that, they were my friends. They told me if I ever needed anything just to let them know and they’d take care of me. They said my Dad was their brother, and that made me family.
Several years ago, I was honored to attend the fourth annual reunion of Company B. The men told more stories. They honored their fallen brothers again. They looked at more pictures. They hugged each other’s wives. They healed.
I can’t help but think that the events of December 2nd, 1969 were tragic. But Pigiron is tough, and they are brothers. They always will be.