Dawn broke cool and wet on November 8, 1965. Pfc. Gary Elmore threw back the damp poncho from his body, shivered, knuckled sleep from his eyes and scratched mosquito bites on his ears. He had slept fitfully. The jungle was wet, dark and the air thick and putrid. No sunlight penetrated the triple-canopy trees that were home for chattering monkeys, croaking frogs, exotic birds and buzzing insects. The queasy feeling that rested in his gut the previous day was still there, even more so. Fear was growing. He checked his body for leeches.
Bravo Company was waking. Paratroopers roused and slapped at mosquitoes and swore.
“Another day, another dollar,” said one
“Yeah, all we do is hump through this stinking jungle and scratch,” another trooper replied. “I’ve a good mind to file a complaint with General Westmoreland.
Elmore grinned slightly. He loved these guys. They were his family. When he had been given the option to remain stateside after breaking his ankle or go to “’Nam,” he chose the latter and had never regretted his decision. He tightened the laces on his paratrooper boots as his doctor advised. This gave more support to his weak ankle.
Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade, 503rd Infantry had dangerous work to do today – locate and kill Viet Cong. Elmore checked his M-16. It was fully loaded with a 20 round clip, and he had another 600 rounds stored in his rucksack.” He re-bent the pins on his hand grenades to prevent them from falling out.
At 0730 hrs, (7:30 a.m.) Company Commander, Captain Lowell D. Bittrich deployed two rifle platoons consisting of 44 men each to range out a half a mile or so from base, and search for two reported Viet Cong cache points along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The jungle area known as the “Iron Triangle,” was sparsely populated and honeycombed with enemy tunnels, bunkers and spider holes.
Charlie Company had previously moved out at 0600 headed in a northwest direction toward Hill 65.
Elmore’s 3rd Platoon, 1st Squad pushed through the dense, tangled foliage, eyes alert for movement, ears attuned for any strange noise. The only sound was the squeak of rucksacks, occasional slap at mosquitoes, and the grunt of men as they proceeded higher toward Hill 78. Elmore was tense. Charlies could pop out of a spider hole and shoot a man in the back and disappear without being seen. You didn’t see Charlie in the jungle. The first you knew he was present was staccato firing of an AK47. Suddenly, Elmore heard firing in the distance on his left. Shortly before 0800, Charlie Company had run into a sizable enemy force dug into the south face of Hill 65, armed with machine guns and shotguns. They had walked into a killing zone. Elmore and the two rifle platoons were pulled back, and Bravo Company was ordered to wheel left and go to the aid of Charlie Company. They were now fighting for their lives and about to be overrun at Hill 65.
The rata-tat-tat of enemy machine guns, the roaring boom of shotguns, and the answering fire from M-16s grew louder. A hot firefight was under way. In a letter written by Captain Bittrich to Clarence Elmore two weeks later, he described what happened next. A sizable Viet Cong force was attempting to completely surround Charlie Company, when Bravo reached the scene and made contact. Bravo fought its way through the Viet Cong force and tied in with Charlie Company’s right flank. Both companies were about to be surrounded. The paratroopers fought for their lives. Two companies – some 176 plus men – heavily outnumbered were fighting 1,200 Viet Cong.
The fighting was vicious. To prevent being surrounded, Captain Bittrich decided to scale Hill 65, high ground and a good place to take a stand. “It appeared to be now a question of securing our own force,” he wrote. “The fight to take Hill 65 developed into hand-to-hand in an extraordinary dense jungle area. The fight was close and the paratroopers used bayonets.” It was belt buckle to belt buckle, so close that desperate Americans could smell the enemy, but couldn’t see them until face to face. Bravo Company took Hill 65 and reached Charlie Company’s right flank. The battle intensified. Charlie Company was about to be overrun. A third company was called in to assist. Bravo counterattacked and broke the encirclement twice. Captain Bittrich called in artillery fire on the Viet Cong. Exploding white phosphorous shells scorched the foliage and set enemy fighters ablaze, causing their ammo and grenades to explode. It was a hellish scene. Screaming Viet Cong ran toward Elmore’s platoon trying to escape the incoming artillery, their flesh on fire. Elmore, according to Captain Bittrich, was in the “hottest portion” of the battle. His platoon was holding the right flank of the company and led the attack to stop the Viet Cong encirclement.
Shortly after noon, his throat parched, heart thumping and adrenaline gushing into every cell of his body, Elmore heard the sound of bugles.
“HERE THEY COME AGAIN!” a trooper yelled.
A hoard of Viet Cong charged through the dense jungle and was suddenly in Elmore’s face, AKk-47s blazing. Bullets snapped past his ears. The Paratroopers fought like demons. Some were hit and fell over dead. It looked for certain they would be overrun. Then Elmore caught a bullet. He was bleeding, but alive. The Viet Cong fell back, leaving their dead and wounded strewn on the ground. Elmore was bleeding, reloaded his M-16 and caught his breath. Around him lay dead buddies. Thank God he was alive.
The Viet Cong charged again for the third time in a suicidal wave. It was there in the beautiful green jungle with the acrid stench of cordite in his nostrils and 10,000 miles from home, that Gary was shot in the head. He died fighting for himself and his buddies. Gary, “Winky Dink” Elmore had come to full measure. He died a hero’s death.
The Viet Cong made five successive assaults and were repelled each time. Only three of the 18 men in Gary’s squad survived.
The Viet Cong were defeated in detail. The following morning, a body count was taken and 48 paratroopers were dead, and 82 wounded. The Viet Cong took a beating, with 403 dead and a multitude wounded.
“I can but sum up my feelings for Gary,” wrote Captain Bittrich, “and those other magnificent American soldiers who gave of themselves for their country in their actions by quoting the words of a reporter after discussing the action with Sp 4, Jerry Langston, a member of their unit.”
“There were 18 good men to start with, now there were only three. The others,” Langston feels, “they will at least go to heaven, they had already been to hells.”
Two days later, Gary’s father received a Western Union telegram notifying him “that your son Private First Class Gary L. Elmore died in Vietnam on November 8, 1965 as a result of a gunshot wound to head…”
Gary Elmore achieved an unsought recognition. He was the first Limestonian to die in Vietnam.
Meanwhile, back in Detroit, Gary’s younger sister, Diane Meffer came home from work in good spirits. She resolved to write a letter to Gary. She had a lot to tell him, and wanted to clear up their misunderstanding. The last time they had spoken was when he had invited her to his going away party and she refused to attend, telling him, “You’re not my brother.” It was just a sibling squabble and she loved him very much. Now, she would set matters right. She sat down and began writing, but kept getting interrupted. Her letter was going slow.
“Finally, it was bedtime,” says Diane. “So I set the letter aside, and I was walking down the hallway toward the bedroom and thinking, heck, he’ll never get this letter anyway, and I thought, now why did I say that?”
“About two in the morning my sister called and told me that Gary had been killed. I was in total shock, I just didn’t believe it,” says Diane.
After funeral services in Livonia, Michigan, Gary’s body was brought to Athens and buried in the soil that he had trod as a boy. “Tears flowed freely Friday morning,” reported the Athens News Courier. “As the sound of a young soldier played Taps on a trumpet, echoed through a crowd estimated at 400 as the body of a 23-year-old former Tanner High School student who is believed to be the area’s first known victim of the Vietnam War was lowered into the ground.”
Paratrooper Shelby Huey, assigned to the 173rd, S. Vietnam as a radio telegraph operator, got access to the list of dead and wounded. “I knew he got killed right away,” he said, dropping his head. “I always smile when I think of Elmore.” Then he adds, “The American soldiers are the most resilient bunch in the world. They will roll.” Huey spent 10 years in the Army, then went to work for the Resolution Trust Corps. “I was up to the Limestone County Courthouse to file a UCC statement and turned around and saw Gary Elmore’s plaque on the wall. It gave me cold chills.”
Gary Elmore was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star Medal with “V” for heroism; Military Merit Badge, the Gallantry Cross with Palm, and the Purple Heart. Vietnam Veterans of America, Post number 511 in Athens is named in his honor.
By: Jerry Barksdale