Mike Lester realizes that he could have easily been one of the more than 58,000 US fatal casualties of the tragic Viet Nam war. He is a very grateful man who has experienced the extremes of combat and the terrible rejection upon return by family, friends and the nation he fought for. “They didn’t know what to do with us…It is a miracle that my life has turned out like it has – married for forty years; two daughters and two wonderful grandchildren.”
Three days out of high school, in 1966, Mike enlisted in the United States Army. His brother was a couple of years older and had married immediately after graduating high school and had a child when Mike graduated. The military was drafting married guys then, but likely would not accept two brothers in combat at the same time. So, Mike joined to make sure that his brother did not have to enlist.
“I went downtown and saw this poster of an airborne trooper with tailored pants, jump boots and glider patch,” Mike remembers. He knew then that he wanted to be an Army paratrooper.
Basic Training was at Fort Knox, Kentucky; Advanced Infantry Training at Fort Gordon, Georgia and he graduated from Jump School at Fort Benning, Georgia on December 20, 1966. On Christmas Day, he was headed to Viet Nam. Merry Christmas.
Mike was first assigned to the 173rd Airborne Long Range Reconnaissance Infantry Headquarters Company. They were stationed at an airbase close to Saigon. It was this unit’s duty to patrol, screen and bring back information.
In January, 1967 Mike was wounded for the first time. His platoon was on an ambush patrol and slept in a rice paddy all night. They had engaged the enemy and had taken three of them out.
The next morning, Mike and two others were assigned to go out and check the dead bodies. He said, “You must be very careful of booby-traps on the bodies.” The enemy would do that when they retreated to kill and maim those that came to search the bodies.
Mike was trailing as the rear guard as the lead soldier turned the body over. His two friends were killed instantly and the blast knocked him into a rice paddy, where he said, “I almost drowned.” He suffered ruptured ear drums and shrapnel in his right side. He was in the hospital until February.
Then he got word that his unit was assigned to make the first combat parachute jump since the Korean War. Well or not, he checked himself out of the hospital and returned to the 173rd Airborne base camp to ensure he was airborne certified for this combat jump.
On February 22, 1967, 778 airborne paratroopers jumped into War Zone C in the “Junction City 1 & 2” operation. This conflict lasted almost three months. Then it was back to base camp, north of Dak To.
On November 18, 1967, a Special Forces patrol detected a well-entrenched enemy on Hill 875 at Dak To on the Cambodian border. Mike’s unit, 2/503rd, received orders to move to 875. A forced road march brought the men to the bottom of the hill where they dropped their ruck sacks and commenced the assault to take Hill 875 on November 19th. The staff of the 173rd had figured that the contact was against remnants of North Vietnamese Army 66th Regiment which had been bloodied by recent fights with the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
What the staff did not know was that the 174th NVA Regiment was on the hill and had been preparing defensive positions for quite some time. Their objective was to allow the rest of the NVA to slip into the protection of Cambodia while drawing a major American unit into a devastating battle. 330 men in three companies, A, C and D, were given the mission to take the NVA enemy in a frontal assault. (Some information in section obtained from Wikipedia)
The combat formation was a typical assault formation with two platoons on the battle line and one in the rear. They began their assault up the steep hill from the south and Mike says, “Halfway up, all hell broke loose! We walked into two North Vietnamese regiments, an infantry battalion and a regiment of artillery. In other words, it was a whole lot of them for us 330 men to handle.”
Alpha Company, in the rear, was sent back down the hill to set up a landing zone for helicopters. They would realize that would be impossible as the NVA would eventually cut them off from behind and surround the entire battle zone.
Mike carried an M-60 machine gun. As he began firing, a concussion grenade exploded next to him. He was immediately blinded and blood was streaming from his head. His weapon was bent and unusable. He sat beside a tree until a medic arrived, gave him initial first aid and told him to stay there until he returned.
He was blinded for about thirty minutes and he, “heard all the shooting going on around me. I got to the point where I said, ‘The hell with it.’ I took the bandage off, wiped the blood from my eyes and waited for a little while my vision came back. There was a machine gunner lying dead beside me. I picked up his gun and joined the assault.” They didn’t know it then, but for the next seventy-two hours they would be in mortal combat.
As they continued up the face of Hill 875, they were stopped dead cold. “The enemy was in fortified bunkers and were using RPG’s, mortars, machine guns, artillery and small arms fire and they hit us all at once.”
They stopped and formed a perimeter and A Company was calling for help from down the hill. A Company was surrounded now and under severe fire. “Out of a company of 70, only 10 made it back to our perimeter. A young machine gunner stayed behind and fired until he was eventually killed. He received the Medal of Honor. There were wounded down the hill, but we could not evacuate them up to the perimeter.”
Very emotionally, Mike says they could hear the shooting from the rear. The ones that escaped told them that the NVA walked through all the wounded and shot them.
Mike remembered, “The first day, they kept coming at us and we beat them back. We began running low on ammunition, food and water. But there were many weapons laying around – AK-47’s and M-16’s. We just picked one up and fired until it was empty.”
The first night, a Marine Phantom jet came up the wrong way and dropped a 500-pound bomb in the middle of the position. The bomb crater could have accommodated four semi-trucks. There were 45 killed including most of the officers and Chaplin Waters, who Mike respected very much. Chaplin Waters received a Medal of Honor posthumously because, as Mike had observed, “during the day he would go out and bring in the wounded, then return for another one.”
Mike was on the perimeter when the blast occurred and it blew him out of his foxhole onto the ground and for about thirty seconds everyone was knocked unconscious. As they regained their senses, the sergeants began to reestablish the perimeter.
They held out the next day and that’s when the enemy penetrated the perimeter. Now they were in hand-to-hand combat and amid all the confusion, Mike says that it was difficult to determine who was NVA and who was American.
But they held on like this for seventy-two hours, all the while receiving incoming mortars. They called for helicopter evacuation, but those were either shot down or crippled. They were unable to send any more for rescue.
The North Vietnamese Army now had them surrounded, and finally the 1st Battalion of the 173rd Infantry broke through their lines and rescued them. They saw that only a handful of the original 330 remained.
Again, very emotionally, Mike said, “I either forgot or blanked out a lot. It’s hard for me…It brings back memories…”
It took until Thanksgiving Day for the 1st Battalion to retake Hill 875. When done, there were almost 170 out of the 330 that had been killed. But Headquarters learned the NVA battalion and regiments had been damaged severely by these brave 330 soldiers, many of whom paid the ultimate sacrifice, and had to be taken out of action. Mike said that they all had agreed, “We all committed to each other that we would not be taken alive.”
After discharge from the Army Mike returned home, but it was different than when he had left. He had changed, matured, and his friends had not. He says, “I could see that my family loved me, but they didn’t know what to say or do.”
The Viet Nam era was a struggling time for our country. Veterans were not welcomed home as heroes as they are today. In my next post, I want to expand on Mike’s return home and his journey to where he is today.
Thank you, First Sergeant Mike Lester, for your brave service and dedication to this country. We are still a free nation today and you have had a part in securing that freedom.