|Friday, January 29, 1999
Orange County Edition
Unfinished Business in a War Zone
Vietnam: Soldier from Garden Grove is one whose remains are sought
as a veteran keeps his pledge.
By: H.G. REZA
TIMES STAFF WRITER
More than 30 years after Barry Lee Hempel died in one of the Vietnam
War's least known but most disastrous battles, he is still waiting to come
The Garden Grove man was among 200 Americans killed or wounded in the
battle of Kham Duc--and one of dozens whose bodies have not been recovered.
But a first-of-its-kind task force plans a return to Vietnam early this
year with hopes of finding the soldiers' remains in the tangled jungles
where they fell.
The senior photo in Garden Grove High School's 1965 yearbook shows
a smiling Hempel, looking like the quintessential Southern California teenager
of the time, dressed in a white jacket and dark bow tie. His hazel eyes
are bright with promise.
On May 10, 1968, Marine Pfc. Hempel found himself trapped with other
Americans at Ngok Tavak, a jungle outpost near the Vietnam-Laos border.
The early morning attack triggered three days of carnage.
Thirteen Marines in Hempel's 33-man platoon died in the North Vietnamese
assault at Ngok Tavak. Twelve more Marines, including Hempel, and two Army
Special Forces troopers, including Army Sgt. Glenn E. Miller of Oakland,
were listed as missing in action. Their remains were never recovered.
At Kham Duc, a Special Forces camp five miles away that gave the battle
its name, 18 more soldiers and airmen were left missing in action.
The MIA count of 32 was the largest of any battle in the war, according
to Vietnam Veterans of America. Four of the missing were from California,
including Air Force Lt. Stephen C. Moreland of Los Angeles, who was co-piloting
a C-130, and Army Spec. Richard Bowers of Long Beach, whose remains were
recovered in 1970.
Last year, new hope arose that Hempel, Miller and some of the missing
from Ngok Tavak might at last be found.
But while searchers are optimistic about their chances of eventual
success, one Army veteran of the battle who returned to Kham Duc as part
of the task force described the effort last year as a microcosm of the
war itself: an optimistic beginning with a bitter ending.
"In Vietnam, you planned everything that was supposed to happen on
a mission. But nothing ever turned out how it was planned," said Bill Wright
of Moore, Okla. "That's what happened here. . . . I feel like I've failed
them again." Big Buildup, Big Toll
Despite its obscurity, the battle of Kham Duc was extraordinary for
its bloodshed. Army and Air Force reports show 10 aircraft were shot down,
including two C-130 transport planes. One of those carried more than 150
Vietnamese civilians and crew--making it the worst loss of life in aviation
history at the time.
Many wonder whether the staggering toll could have been avoided. Senior
U.S. commanders in Saigon and Da Nang knew months before that the North
Vietnamese army was building roads in Laos and stockpiling equipment for
an attack on Kham Duc but vacillated on how to counter the enemy threat,
For Wright, 50, the return trip evoked terrifying memories of a battle
that was among America's costliest defeats in Vietnam. In a frantic effort
to evacuate survivors through a gantlet of antiaircraft fire, U.S. commanders
abandoned the bodies of dead soldiers.
Wright, a postal employee, has relived the battlefield nightmare for
About 3,000 enemy troops surrounded Wright's reconnaissance platoon
of 35 soldiers strung out on three hilltops above Kham Duc, where about
750 U.S. troops reinforced by about 200 South Vietnamese militia defended
the camp below.
Night after night he sees the terrified faces of men barely out of
their teens screaming for help and dying on a fog-shrouded hilltop. They
are the ghosts of U.S. soldiers whose faces have not aged with time. Their
futile screams, muffled by gunfire and the frenzied shouts of victorious
North Vietnamese soldiers, still resonate in his mind.
Wright, a radio operator with the 2nd Battalion 1st Infantry, and another
GI escaped from a hilltop where other members of a 10-man squad were holding
out, wounded but alive. Already two squad members had been killed in the
Then came an order for Wright to do the unthinkable: Call an airstrike
on the hill, allowing U.S. warplanes to bomb everyone in the area, including
their own troops. Just 20 years old, Wright begged his battalion commander
to rescind the order.
"My protests didn't make any difference. I radioed the guys in a bunker
to tell them what was going to happen," Wright recalls. "They started yelling
and screaming, 'Don't do it! . . . You've got to get back and help! We're
all wounded!' "
The airstrike began, and two F-4 Phantoms flew out of the clouds, dropping
bombs on the hilltop observation post.
Wright shudders at the recollection.
"There was smoke and debris all over," he said. "Then I didn't hear
from them again."
The surviving members of Wright's squad were trapped in a bunker and
made it through the bombing, but three were later killed by Communist troops
while trying to escape to U.S. lines and are listed as MIAs. Two others
were luckier, making it back. Another man was taken prisoner and repatriated
U.S. government officials would not address the circumstances of what
happened at Kham Duc because it occurred three decades ago. Many of the
men who played a key role in planning the battle are dead.
But history professor James R. Reckner, director of the Vietnam Center
at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, said it was not uncommon in the Vietnam
War for battlefield commanders to order air or artillery strikes against
the enemy when they were atop U.S. troops.
The strategy of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army "was to get
as close to our lines as possible. There were a number of incidents throughout
the war when this happened, and U.S. casualties resulted from friendly
fire that was called on the enemy," said Reckner, also a Vietnam veteran.
Feeling 'Tons of Guilt'
In June, the Pentagon's Joint Task Force-Full Accounting returned to
Kham Duc to comb the battlefield for the missing Americans' remains. But
the area, now overgrown with thick jungle greenery, could not be excavated
because the Vietnamese authorized the Americans to remain in the area for
only a limited time.
In September, the group had better luck at Ngok Tavak. Task force spokesman
Lt. Col. Franklin Childress said the team recovered teeth, bone fragments
and personal items including wallets, a watch and three pairs of U.S. jungle
The unidentified American remains were returned Nov. 6 to the United
States. A more thorough excavation is scheduled at the site in the next
two months, Childress said.
Formed in 1992, the task force investigates cases of Americans missing
from the Vietnam and Korean wars and World War II. The group--160 men and
women from all branches of the military, along with civilian archeologists
and anthropologists--excavates old battlefields for the remains of American
There are still 2,078 Americans missing from the Vietnam War. Since
U.S. involvement ended in 1973, 505 missing servicemen have been identified
through DNA testing and dental records. Childress said the task force schedules
five missions annually in Vietnam and Laos and one in Cambodia.
Among those on the Pentagon team at Kham Duc and Ngok Tavak last summer
were Wright and Jim McLeroy of Scottsdale, Ariz., also an Army veteran
of the battle. They were the first civilian Vietnam veterans to accompany
the task force overseas, guiding it to the battlefield where U.S. soldiers
Wright, who earned a Silver Star for bravery in the battle, made himself
a promise after the battle of Kham Duc: He would return and find the remains
of the men from his platoon who died on that night, May 12, 1968.
"I always knew I was going to go back there, to that place," Wright
said. "I felt tons of guilt. I had run off and left them. The battalion
ran off and left them, and then the country ran off and left them."
Wright remembered Kham Duc as a village of grass huts and 200 people.
But when he returned in June, he was shocked to find a town of 5,000 and
electric power lines strung over the mountains. A giant poster celebrating
the 30th anniversary of the Communist victory at Kham Duc hung from a wall.
He met with Vietnamese veterans of the battle, including an old man
who had operated one of the many Communist mortars that killed and wounded
dozens of Americans.
Wright wondered the inevitable as he faced the ancient Vietnamese warrior.
"Was I looking at the man who killed some of my friends? I didn't have
any animosity for him. But I wanted to know," said Wright, who had no way
to find out.
If the Pentagon will allow him, he will go again to join in the search
because he got so close the first time. The ghosts of Wright's buddies,
he said, were there.
"I could feel their presence, but I couldn't touch them. It was so
frustrating." A Mother's Wounds
Pentagon officials said they are optimistic about finding the remains
of Hempel, Miller and other Americans who died at Ngok Tavak.
Hempel, who was 20, had been with the unit--D Battery 2nd Battalion
13th Marines--only about three months, but he had seen enough of Vietnam
to know that he probably was not coming home.
"Barry didn't have a lot of confidence about returning home. He talked
about that a lot," said Dell Scott of St. Cloud, Minn.
Hempel, 6 feet tall and 185 pounds, was muscular and athletic. He had
been a starter on the Argonauts football team his junior and senior years.
"Barry was a good-looking kid with huge arms. Looked like a jock who
high school girls go for," said Tim Brown of Dallas.
Hempel's mother, who lives in a group home with Gold Star mothers--women
who lost sons in the Vietnam War--said talking about her son stirred too
many painful memories.
"Barry was adopted by us. . . . Nobody ever loved a son more," she
said in a brief conversation last year.
Chicago resident Dave Fuentes remembers seeing Hempel lying in a pit
during the battle. Fuentes, who had lost his helmet, put on Hempel's and
retrieved his dog tags.
"Barry was lying there so still. . . . I took his dog tags off and
brought one back to [Da Nang] when we were evacuated and turned it in.
I put the other one in his mouth," Fuentes said. "I spent a couple of nights
[in a fighting hole] with him. He was like the rest of us. Scared."
By: H.G. REZA
TIMES STAFF WRITER