DEXTER — Their ranks shredded by several days’ combat with enemy troops, the weary, hungry, and tired men of Alpha Company, 3/21, never mutinied on Nui Lon Mountain 45 years ago, despite press accounts to the contrary.
Rick Batchelder of Dexter knows the truth. He was there when the so-called “Alpha Incident” took place.
After graduating from Dexter High School in 1966, Batchelder studied Building Construction Technology at Eastern Maine Vocational-Technical Institute (now Eastern Maine Community College) in Bangor. He was part of the school’s first graduating class in 1968.
Within a few months, when “I was working for Eaton W. Tarbell, an architect here in Bangor,” Batchelder received a career-changing message.
“Uncle Sam came along and said, ‘I need you,’” he said.
Joining the Army on Dec. 4, 1968, Batchelder completed basic training at Fort Dix, N.J. “in the wintertime” while living in “old barracks, no windows in them, the snow blowing through them.”
He took additional training in the field artillery before heading off to war.
He arrived at Bien Hoa Air Base, Republic of Vietnam, in spring 1969. “The night before, LZ [Landing Zone] Center, a fire base out there on the Laotian border, got overrun,” Batchelder said. “They needed replacements in a hurry. Me and a half dozen other guys were sent immediately up to Chu Lai, just south of Danang on the coast.”
After assigning Batchelder to B Battery, 3rd Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment, the Army tapped him to be a radio operator supporting a forward observer, “an Army lieutenant attached to a company of infantry,” he said. That officer was Al Freeman of Chula Vista, Calif.
That outfit was Co. A, 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 196th Light Infantry Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division (also known as the “Americal Division”). With that company Batchelder was struggling through the dense Vietnamese jungle when the “Alpha Incident” occurred.
According to Batchelder, LZ Center “was about 35 miles southwest of Danang,” and “the first branch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail came into that valley” where the fire base was located. In July 1969 he participated in a night ambush along a branch of the trail.
“We ambushed NVA (North Vietnamese Army) soldiers in brand new uniforms, coming down from the north. We killed several of them” and captured “a black triangle flag with a red ‘1’ on it,” Batchelder said. “We reported it to Army intelligence.”
In August, a CH-47 Chinook helicopter “came out with a big [cargo] net” slung beneath its fuselage, he recalled. “We put our packs in this net.
“There were 109 of us” headed to Nui Lon Valley, where South Vietnamese refugees supposedly lived in two villages, Batchelder recalled.
“We were told it was going to be a one-day sweep,” he said. Pausing a moment, Batchelder added that Army helicopters “inserted us into this valley … into the middle of a very large NVA force.”
During the next 12 days, “we were in a battle for survival” against “at least two NVA battalions” (about 1,200 men, he recalled. Another Army company might have been involved; Batchelder cannot recall for sure.
Essentially surrounded by enemy troops, the Alpha Company soldiers staved off NVA efforts to destroy them. “I was up all night for three nights,” Batchelder said. In conjunction with the Army forward observer, he maintained contact with LZ Center, from which American artillery provided fire support. At night “we had to keep it illuminated [with star shells] so we didn’t get overrun,” he said.
Rather than extricate Alpha Company by helicopter, senior Army officers ordered the infantrymen to walk out of the valley. “The ‘Alpha Incident’ got started here,” Batchelder said. He and his comrades “tried to hike out on a trail covered by a large NVA machine gun” that opened fire whenever American soldiers appeared.
“We were losing too many people up front, shot up,” Batchelder said.
On Aug. 19, a UH-1 Huey carrying the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Eli P. Howard Jr. of Woodbridge, Va. and Associated Press photographer Oliver Noonan landed amidst Alpha Company. Noonan “interviewed us guys,” Batchelder said. “He said to me, ‘This is a great story. You guys are going to be on the front cover of ‘Life Magazine.’ I shook hands with him.
Chuck Hurley, a grunt who was Batchelder’s good friend, “gave Oliver a drink of water, which we were low on,” Batchelder said.
Howard and Noonan boarded the Huey, which lifted off. “We stood there and watched them explode. There was eight or 10 on that helicopter; down they went in a ball of fire,” Batchelder said.
Howard was replaced by Lt. Col. Robert C. Bacon of Falls Church, Va.
The hot, thirsty, dog-tired infantrymen kept asking why air support was not immediately available; it was made available later. The 26-year-old company commander, 1st Lt. Eugene Shurtz Jr. from Iowa, “was inexperienced in battle,” said Batchelder, himself then a combat veteran at age 21.
While communicating with his superiors, Shurtz “intentionally made it sound, talking on the radio to the commanders in the rear, [like] we were refusing to fight,” Batchelder stated. “He made it sound like there was a mutiny” under way.
This was the “Alpha Incident.” Press reports indicated that Shurtz told his superiors that “my men refuse to move out. We cannot move out.”
Bacon, who was speaking by radio with Shurtz when he alleged a mutiny, quickly responded. A command UH-1 Huey flew to the valley and landed amidst Alpha Company’s worn-out troopers. Aboard the helicopter were the battalion’s executive officer, Maj. Richard Waite; Capt. Bernard Wolpers, designated as Shurtz’s replacement; and Sgt. Okey Blankenship.
Waite and Blankenship encountered worn-out, shot-up troopers who got up and moved when ordered to do so. Wolpers replaced Shurtz, and the Alpha Company soldiers continued fighting.
To this day, Bascon has refuted claims that the mutiny took place, according to David Venditta, writing at http://warstoriesandveteranshistories.wordpress.com/2012/09/24/was-it-mutiny-among-u-s-soldiers-in-vietnam.
And so does Batchelder. The story about the so-called “Alpha Incident” developed legs when two Associated Press reporters, Peter Arnett and Horst Faas, filed a dispatch claiming that Alpha Company soldiers had refused an order to advance on NVA positions. The New York Times printed the article on Page 1, and the story quickly appeared in other newspapers.
Back home in Dexter, Batchelder’s mother saved newspaper clippings about the battle. In his letters to her, Batchelder denied that a mutiny had ever taken place.
“It’s time to explain to the public that we didn’t refuse to fight. There was no mutiny,” Batchelder stated. He stressed that fact in letters written home in late summer and autumn 1969; he stresses that fact today.
“We lost half of our guy. We were decimated; we were damn near overrun and wiped out” before the “Alpha Incident” occurred, Batchelder said. “I called in air strikes. I had jets dropping 250-pound bombs and napalm close to us.
“Much of my time was spent calling artillery in all around our perimeter,” he said. “We were fighting for our lives.”
After completing his Vietnam tour, Batchelder soon left the Army. “I got home, and my parents met me here at the Bangor airport,” he said. He has lived in Dexter ever since; “I was born there and will probably die there,” he commented.
On Feb. 4, 1974, Batchelder started working for General Electric at its Bangor plant. He retired from there 30 years later.
His thoughts often return to Vietnam, not only to the day when Army commanders decided that Alpha Company had mutinied, but also to the comrades with whom he served. He fondly recalls Chuck Hurley.
They served in the field together until the day that “a booby trap exploded” and injured both of Hurley’s legs. “I put him on a medevac ‘dust off’ helicopter. That was the last I ever saw of him,” Batchelder said.