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Team Box Score

Team Box Score
From “Inside Force Recon, Recon Marines in Vietnam”
by Michael Lanning and Ray Stubbe

see also KIA Incident 680216

Team Box Score of the Third Force Recon Company reached its assigned recon zone six miles northwest of Dong Ha on 15 February 1968 by walking from the nearest firebase. Composed of eight men including patrol leader Second Lieutenant Terrence C. Graves, six enlisted Marines, and a corpsman, Box Score had a rather typical mission, to determine enemy activity, engaging what enemy they found with supporting fires, locating landing zones and trails, and attempting to capture a prisoner.

By the afternoon of the 16th, the team had reached an area overlooking a small stream pocked with bomb craters. Hearing voices in the thick brush across the waterway, the team crossed the stream to set up an ambush in a bomb crater alongside a trail. Within minutes seven NVA walked down the pathway. When the enemy was within five meters of the ambush, the recon men opened up, killing all seven. In the brief firelight, the NVA were barely able to return fire; however, two of the rounds they managed to get off struck Corporal Danny M. Slocum, tearing away shin and muscle from his thigh but not producing life threatening wounds.

While the team medic, HM3 Stephen R. Thompson, was treating Slocum, Graves hastily searched the bodies and found a diary along with other documents. The patrol leader then called a med-evac for the wounded Marine and began moving the team to a better point to bring in the helicopter. Box Score made it only a few meters before the team was raked by automatic weapons fire from two different directions. Graves ordered the team into a hasty perimeter as the Marines returned fire. Several of the NVA machine guns were knocked out by accurate M-79 grenade launcher fire by Corporal Robert B. Thomson, though Thomson had been unable to spot the exact position of the automatic weapons until Private First Class Michael P. Nation exposed himself to mark their positions with tracer rounds for Thomson to zero in on.

The silencing of the enemy machine guns brought only a brief lull to the fighting. Every minute, more NVA joined the battle, until at least two companies were ringing the eight-man patrol. Despite the number of NVA, Graves had to move his team to a better position from which to fight and hopefully be extracted. As the lieutenant directed in air strikes and gun ships to cover their movement, the team began inching its way to the top of a small knoll. At one point a CH-46 attempted to land near the team but took several hits and had to lift off.

As the CH 46 flew out of range, the NVA again concentrated their firepower on the recon team. Graves took a bullet in the thigh, but an inspection by Doc Thompson revealed that the bone was not broken. After a quick bandaging, Graves was back on the radio coordinating the supporting fires. No sooner had the corpsman finished with the lieutenant than Corporal Thomson yelled that he too had been hit. A bullet had penetrated the Marine’s left side and shattered the pelvic bone before lodging in the abdominal cavity. Doc Thompson recalls, “He said, ‘I’m blacking out, Doc, I’m blacking out. ‘ Then he passed out on me, and I think at that moment he died. I started closed-chest cardiac massage and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. While I was doing this, Lopez, Private First Class Adrian S. yelled, ‘Doc, Emrick’s (Lance Corporal Steven E.) hit, I think he’s dying.‘ I looked over and said, Nation [who had been cross-trained by Thompson in medical procedures], just do what you can.”

Nation alternated between treating Emrick and doing his best to fight off the NVA. According to Nation, “Emrick kept saying, ‘Get the radio off.’ That was what he was talking about; he wasn’t worried about himself. Lopez finally got it off by snapping off the bottom of the pack. Then Emrick said, ‘Oh my God,’ and that’s the last thing he said. I started to give him mouth to mouth. Lopez said he could still feel a pulse.”

There was no letup in the NVA fire despite the repeated runs by fixed-wing aircraft and helicopter gun ships. Graves continued to fight as he directed the team to make another attempt to move to higher ground. With Doc Thompson and Private First Class James E. Honeycutt dragging Thomson and with Nation and Lopez carrying Emrick, Graves and Slocum provided covering fire despite their wounds. A few minutes later Box Score reached the low grassy ridge that was large enough for a set down extraction. Although the patrol was then in a good position for extraction, the ridge they occupied was paralleled by two higher hills, both occupied by the NVA only 100 meters away.

The fight by the eight Marines against several hundred NVA had been going on for over an hour and a half. Another CH-46 made an attempt to reach the team but took heavy fire and had to regain altitude. Captain David Underwood, orbiting the fight at 1,000 feet in his H-34, radioed that he was coming in to make the extraction. Flying behind a Huey gunship for covering fire, Underwood came in at treetop level through a gauntlet of small-arms and machine-gun fire, touching down only a few meters from the team. Intense fire immediately centered on the H-34, shattering the side windows and some of the pilot’s instrument panel gauges. More rounds were slamming into the fuselage and fuel pods. Although practically every warning light was lit up on the still operational parts of the instrument panel, Underwood stayed at the controls, waiting for the recon team to climb aboard.

Dragging, pulling, and crawling through the elephant grass, the Marines loaded the aircraft as Graves continued to return the NVA fire. Three long minutes passed as the recon men ensured that their wounded buddies were pulled onto the aircraft that was now profusely leaking fuel and was in danger of exploding. Nation later stated, “I guess Lieutenant Graves saw how bad the plane was hit and realized if the chopper didn’t leave then it wouldn’t be leaving at all, because I saw him waving at the pilot and yelling ‘get’ or ‘get out.’ He did this realizing that he might get hit again and his chances of getting back were pretty slim, but he wanted to make sure that the rest of us made it back. What Lieutenant Graves did is the bravest thing I’ve ever seen.”

As Underwood began to lift the crippled chopper, the NVA ran out of their protected positions for better shots. One burst strafed the bird, a bullet hitting Lopez in the thigh and glancing off the bone and into the Marine’s stomach. As the helicopter gained a few feet of altitude, Slocum and Honeycutt realized that Graves was being left behind, with no words exchanged between the two, both Marines jumped from the helicopter to help their lieutenant. With the loss of weight of the two men, Underwood was able to gain altitude quickly and nurse the bird to the nearest medical facility. More than 20 bullet holes were later counted in the aircraft.

Meanwhile, Underwood’s wingman, Captain Carl Bergman, was attempting to pick up the remaining recon men. Three passes through the NVA fire failed to find the Marines, but on the fourth try Bergman spotted the trio and set his H-34 down near them. The chopper immediately came under intense automatic weapons fire from NVA so close that initially Bergman could not distinguish between the sounds of the outgoing from his door gunners and the incoming from the enemy. A shout from the cargo compartment revealed that the crew chief had been wounded and that the fuel cells were hit and leaking. Bergman was forced to lift off before the remaining members of Box Score were able to fight their way to the helicopter.

Graves, Slocum, and Honeycutt continued to return fire as they made still another attempt to move to a more advantageous position. The NVA dropped two mortar rounds near the trio but did no damage. Suddenly a UH-1 pilot spotted an opening and swooped in almost on top of the Marines. The Huey hovered just off the ground as the recon men threw their gear aboard and pulled themselves into the aircraft. Cross fire from the NVA zeroed in on the chopper as it attempted to lift off. Graves was hit again, as was the copilot, who slumped over the controls. The Huey nosed over and crashed on its side into the jungle.

Slocum found himself on top of “a heap of bodies.” As he crawled out of the helicopter, 15-20 NVA were sweeping toward him on line. The enemy spotted the Marine and opened fire as he turned and ran toward a nearby stream. Hitting the streambed at a dead run, Slocum was able to elude his pursuers.

By then, darkness was closing in on the battle area. A reaction force consisting of a platoon of B Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines air-landed near the crashed Huey to rescue any survivors. Before they reached the downed aircraft, they too became engaged with the NVA from three directions and suffered one killed and four wounded. Unable to proceed, the platoon formed a defensive perimeter.

Slocum heard the firefight from his hiding place near the stream but decided to remain in place. He later recalled matter-of-factly, “I didn’t want to go back over there. There was a firefight going on and I didn’t want to get shot anymore.”

At daylight the next morning, the remainder of B Company was lifted in and finally reached the crashed chopper to report that Graves and Honeycutt were dead and Slocum missing.

The missing Marine‘s problems were not yet over. In his attempt to link up with B Company, the infantry Marines mistook him for an NVA and called in artillery on him. Slocum states, “It didn’t bother me; I got down in a hole.”

When the infantrymen started toward Slocum’s hole, not wanting to take any more chances, he headed in the opposite direction. Finally a chopper spotted him and coordinated his joining up with B Company. Slocum was evacuated to the Naval Hospital in Cam Ranh Bay where after two and a half months he recovered from his wounds and eventually rejoined the Third Company. Thomson, Lopez, and Emrick were not so fortunate. All three died of their wounds either aboard Underwood’s helicopter or within hours of reaching the evacuation hospital.

Slocum, Doc Thompson, and Bergman later received the Silver Star. Thomson’s Silver Star and Honeycutt‘s Navy Cross were both awarded posthumously. Underwood also had earned a Navy Cross. On 2 December 1969, in the office of the Vice President of the United States, Spiro T. Agnew presented the Medal of Honor posthumously to the family of Lieutenant Graves.