Very few people really know just how much I respected and admired Jim Towns. He was, in my opinion, a true hero and someone that always held others feelings above his own. I also know that only a few realize what I truly felt about his continuous bravery while under my command. Likewise, I accept that others may not agree with my memory of the accomplishments and heroics of Jim but few can deny that Jim was a key player in creating the legacy of the 2nd Battalion's Old Guard Recon Platoon during 1966 and 1967. As such, and with Jim's passing, let me share some of my thoughts about him.
More than 50 years have elapsed since I witnessed Sergeant James L. Towns’ incredible and heroic acts on that fateful day in April 1967. Even more amazing is that over these last 50 years I sat idle and wrongly ignored what most other people would have immediately done after observing what Sergeant Towns had accomplished on that unforgettable and eventful day. For certain, very few people have ever personally experienced and observed, as I did, what Towns achieved on that astonishing day in 1967.
Today, however, and especially after looking back and hearing or reading the seemingly countless courageous stories that other individuals have performed, I now realize just how wrong I was for not recommending Towns to be recognized for an award that reflects his unselfish and extreme courage. Hopefully, one day Towns will be recognized for what he accomplished. For today, I sincerely believe that Towns should be recognized for an act of true heroism found only among those very few soldiers already known for their unparalleled achievements, especially those that served our nation during the Vietnam War. Likewise, I realize and acknowledge this failure of recognition of Towns is something that is totally my fault. I sincerely regret not submitting my recommendation for him shortly after he displayed this highest degree of heroism I ever personally witnessed. At the same time, I am confident that even after the delay of my recommendation about Jim, Sergeant Towns will one day be the proud recipient of the highest award for heroism our nation can bestow – The Medal Of Honor.
Let me explain why.
As the Platoon Leader of the Reconnaissance (Recon) Platoon, Echo Company, 2nd Battalion 3rd Infantry, 199th Light Infantry Brigade (Separate), in April 1967 I was given orders to perform a screening mission with my platoon for one of the other companies within the Old Guard, Alpha Company. This mission was simple in that both Alpha Company and the Recon Platoon would conduct an early morning airmobile assault into an area of operations that was approximately one thousand yards north of a Vietnamese hamlet called Ap Nam, in the province of Long An, South Vietnam. After the air assault, both units would then perform a one day operation by proceeding south with Alpha Company conducting a search and destroy operation while the Recon Platoon would protect the left flank of Alpha Company by conducting a screening mission. After the missions, both units would then be extracted by helicopters back to their respective base camps.
As planned, the following morning both units conducted the air assault and after several hours had passed, the 3rd Squad of the Recon Platoon led by Sergeant Bruce Hull (Deceased) called me over the platoon radio network and reported that he had lost sight and contact with Alpha Company’s left flank. I had given the 3rd Squad the task to keep in sight of Alpha Company but when they could no longer be seen Sergeant Hull called me. He estimated that Alpha Company was no more than 15 to 30 minutes behind and recommended that we wait in place until they caught up. As such, I decided to hold the Recon Platoon in place and notified each of my three squads to halt their advance. I also instructed my radio operator to notify all of the squads to stop for a quick lunch. The 3rd Squad was also instructed to notify me when Alpha Company had regained its normal position and were back in sight. I likewise mentally noted the physical location of each squad before sitting down myself for lunch.
What happened over the next few minutes was the beginning of one of the most intense battles, if not the worse battle, ever faced by the Recon Platoon during my time as its leader.
Just as I sat down on a covered Viet Cong (VC) bunker, that was located adjacent to a large and open rice patty, I instantly heard the sound of automatic weapons fire. Looking up from a can of “C” rations that I was opening, I could see the rush of bullets coming towards me as they splashed into the partially wet rice patty. Immediately, I rolled backwards behind the covered bunker for protection. I then began hearing a second large volume of automatic weapons fire all along the vegetation and nipa palm tree line to my left, where Sergeant Towns and the 1st Squad were located. Unknowing at the time, Sergeant Towns and his 1st Squad had stumbled upon a number of VC and where heavily engaged with them. I was somewhat surprised since Towns and his squad had continued to move forward after being told to stop for lunch. Anyway, my new estimate was that the 1st Squad was now only approximately 100 -150 yards away from me on the other side of the open rice patty. Regardless and given the large volume of fire, it was apparent to me that Sergeant Towns and his 1st Squad were heavily engaged with an enemy force far greater in size than his own small squad of men.
Next, I could hear blaring over the radio speaker carried by my radio operator Sergeant Towns request for artillery support. My immediate reaction when hearing Towns voice was to shout at my Artillery Fire Forward Observed (FO), Lieutenant John Hall, to begin his request for fire support. I also had my radio operator call the battalion’s tactical operation center and report our situation and request immediate helicopter gunship support. Shortly after the artillery and gunship support began, a lull of the enemy’s heavy weapons fire occurred giving me the sense that some of the men from the 2nd Squad, led by Sergeant Roy Bottoms, could cross the open rice patty and help recover Towns and his squad. This was a poor decision on my part since each time the two men from the 2nd Squad attempted to across the rice patty they began jumping from one side to the other of a patty dike, in fear of being shot themselves, as they too began receiving heavy automatic weapons fire. Realizing the danger they faced, I was able to stop their attempt to cross the patty and have them safely return back to their squad. Over the next few minutes and after the gunships had arrived on the scene, my FO adjusted his supporting fire, thus allowing the gunships to strafe the nipa palm line where the 1st Squad was located. Amazingly, this gun ship fire support suppressed the enemy’s fire just long enough for Sergeant Towns and his squad to safely withdraw and join the remainder of my platoon.
An enormous sigh of relief rushed over me knowing Towns and his men were now reasonably safe. Seconds after arriving at my position, Sergeant Towns hastily reported the traumatic experience that he and his men had just gone through. Per Towns, they had stumbled upon several VC who were equally surprised and startled to see them. As such, both the VC and the 1st Squad began shooting at one another, and at a very close range. As reported, Towns had even fired an M-79 Grenade Launcher he had gotten from one of his squad members at a VC soldier. This VC soldier was so close to Towns that the 40 mm round hit him in the throat but did not exploded, since the round had traveled less than the required arming range of 16 feet. To everyone’s surprise the round knocked the enemy soldier down instantly killing him. More amazing and despite the heavy weapons fire they faced, Towns continued to lead his men as they assaulted and annihilated most of these enemy soldiers.
During the same time the preceding actions were taking place, Alpha Company, led by Captain Lewis Johnson, maneuvered along the southern or right side of the now reassembled Recon Platoon. The next series of events quickly began after Johnson and I discussed what actions we would take next.
Suspecting that some of the VC’s were still entrenched across the rice patty, we both agreed to assault the area where Sergeant Towns and his squad had previously been located. This assault called for 3 platoons, including the Recon Platoon, to align abreast of one another with the remaining platoon from Alpha Company to act as a reserve. Moments later Captain Johnson and I gave our attack orders and we then began moving slowly and cautiously forward with our men across the open rice patty toward the enemy, all the while the supporting artillery fire continued.
Heading in an easterly direction, our units gradually and carefully began their entry into the thick nipa palms where Towns and his squad had been located. Almost immediately the sound of automatic weapons fire again began, but this time it was being directed toward the left most flanked of Alpha Company, a platoon led by Lieutenant James P. Thomas. Immediately I, and other members of my command group that were standing in the middle of a small stream, could hear the voice of Lieutenant Thomas shouting for help as he realized that he and his platoon had been pinned down by weapons fire coming from over lapping enemy bunkers.
And now the most astounding feat by Sergeant Towns commenced.
As Lieutenant Thomas continued to scream, “Help, Recon, Recon, Recon”, I then witnessed Towns begin wading toward the direction of Lieutenant Thomas’ voice. This was a typical reaction of Towns since hearing anyone calling for help it was his character to respond. He was soon followed by Specialist Davis Drew (Deceased) and one other man from the 1st Squad. As I and my command group stood in the middle of the stream, Towns soon disappeared around the bend in the stream. Several minutes clicked away before I heard a couple of loud explosions followed again by short bursts of small arms fire. To my surprise, Lieutenant Thomas stopped screaming for help as yet another explosion could be heard followed again by small arms fire.
As quickly as this particular action had begun, suddenly Specialist Davis Drew reappeared before me. As he waded toward me he was shouting for more hand grenades. He was excitingly yelling at me that Towns had come from behind an enemy bunker complex and was crawling from bunker to bunker tossing grenades inside them. One VC had in fact tossed a grenade back outside his bunker before it had exploded. Anyway, Towns had quickly ran out of grenades and needed more and seeing Drew, Towns sent Drew back to fetch more grenades. Giving Drew all of the grenades we had in my command group, I shouted to Drew to tell Towns to cook-off the grenades before throwing them inside the bunkers. Drew, then returned back to Towns with the extra grenades, thus allowing Towns to continue crawling from bunker to bunker destroying them one at a time.
It was at this point and to everyone’s amazement, Sergeant Towns continuingly exposed himself to heavy small arms fire while he methodically moved from bunker to bunker throwing grenades inside each of them. Astonishingly, Towns continued with these heroic actions until the very last one of the bunkers were silenced. After the last bunker was eliminated by Towns, and the sound of this fierce battle faded, I realized just what Towns had done. I am equally confident that Lieutenant Thomas and his men, who remained unharmed until Towns had finished demolishing all of the bunkers, are likewise extremely grateful for Towns’ heroic and gallant actions. For they, as me, had witnessed an example of a highly uncommon heroic feat not often seen by anyone. It is without question that for those of us that were there that day, Sergeant Towns’ deserves the credit for saving the lives of Lieutenant Thomas and his entire platoon plus protecting his own Recon Platoon from harm. We all owe Sergeant Towns a debt we can never repay.
As fast as this particular battle began it came to end. The next steps taken were for me to reassemble the Recon Platoon and then withdraw from our fighting position. This step would also allow Lieutenant Thomas and his platoon the ability to continue their forwarded advance and the freedom of firing their weapons without the fear of shooting into the Recon Platoon. Surprisingly, both Johnson and I were directed by our commander, Lieutenant William Healey (Deceased), to immediately disengaged and prepare our units for extraction. It was later explained to me that this decision was made based on the concern of an enemy counterattack by a force far greater in size than the our own. There was also concern that the loss of airlift was imminent and we would not be able to extract our units. Whatever the reasons, both Alpha Company and the Recon Platoon stopped their engagement with this considerable larger enemy force and were subsequently airlifted back to their respective base camps.
In summary, I am sure much more details could be recalled about this operation by each of the men that were there. However, to measure the intensity of this battle one only has to refer to the battle damage report that followed. Per the verbal after-action report given to me, this operation action not only accounted for the five enemy killed by Towns but an additional 100 – 150 enemy killed by the supporting artillery fire and gunships. Debatably, this report was conveyed by the 199th Brigade Commander, Brigadier General John Freund (Deceased) after he flew over the battle area the following few days and saw an estimated 100 – 150 freshly dug graves. It was his conclusion these graves were the result of previous battle between the Recon Platoon and Alpha Company against the VC. Whatever the true and end battle damage report states, the true results still missing is one important detail. That is, it fails to include the recognition of the real hero of this mission, Sergeant James L. Towns. For without his unselfish act of bravery, many of the men from both the Recon Platoon and Alpha Company would not be here today. For this act alone, I humbly submitted and hoped that my recommendation of recognition for the Medal of Honor would be approved. I am still waiting.
Major Wayne L. Williams (US Army Retired)
112 Blue Sage Rd.
Panama City Beach, FL 32413