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War Stories

Return to the Devil’s Playground - Jan 1967

The Death of James Spencer - Centaur KIA #2

Robert "Bob" Graham

This article records the memories of D troopers who experienced the actions on the day of door gunner CPL James Spencer’s death.
Some of the recollections are of second hand conversations with those present during the days combat action. John Alto and Herb Beasley provided written accounts plus phone and email interviews in the collection of many of the details. Other Centaurs involved: James Pyburn, James Peterson, Gene Prosser, Roland Petty, Mike Squires, Amadeo Lara, Mike Vaughn, Al Nixon, David Horner, Joe Lacy, Ed Risner.


Checking the personal identification documentation of the local Vietnamese had become a Centaur routine. It was a mission that helped in maintaining stability in the 25th Infantry Division area of operations (AO). The highly motivated Viet Cong (VC) constantly pressured the Vietnamese population to cooperate and capitulate. We could not tell them apart and neither could the Vietnamese authorities without checking their identification. These frequent checkmate operations were routine, but risky.

Due to their mobility, the D troop aero rifles with their supporting helicopters excelled at this mission. Vietnamese police in white uniforms, “white mice,” the affectionate term of reference, preferably loaded up with the D troop aero rifles at the Centaur Corral. Coordinating for meeting in a village or hamlet posed additional risk due to the ease of the events being compromised by agents of the VC within the population.


From the viewpoint of First Lieutenant (1LT) John Alto, the aero rifle platoon leader, one thing different this January 24, 1967, checkmate operation was that one of the two white mice with an attitude was wearing a bus driver’s hat. Worn at a jaunty angle, John could tell he was an actor of sort. Another difference was that the ironies of the troop duty roster put Corporal (CPL) James Spencer as James Pyburn’s door gunner. SP4 Herb Beasley, the assigned door gunner, was burning shit again and would not be riding shotgun that day on slick 661.

AeroRiflesMAJ James Peterson, the D troop commander, truly enjoyed these miniature airmobile operations as they were a dynamic battle drill with all the combat elements of his troop. The troop had achieved a high level of operational skill, and the various elements just clicked tactically, and he really liked that. He habitually stayed out of the way, usually circling in his command and control (C & C) slick watching events unfold on the ground below. Peterson could be a fix-it man in the flash of an eye, but he normally preferred not to micromanage the process of an ongoing operation.

With the troop’s 26 aircraft, each day’s combat mission extended throughout the division AO and involved nearly every flyable machine. This morning he remained in the troop operations listening to the tactical radio as the actions of the day unfolded. Behind the operations bustle it was the executive officer, MAJ Gene Prosser, who double-checked the operational plan to insure there were enough flyable choppers with crews for the missions. First SGT Roland Petty insured that all the enlisted crew positions were covered for such additional necessary functions ranging from KP to the daily burning of shit which still had to be performed 24/7 year around.

The Departure, Slick Lead and one Light Fire Team

My plan was to begin the day’s checkmate operation around 10:00 AM when indigenous Vietnamese activity could be expected in the open areas east of Cu Chi. MAJ Mike Squires in slick 661 would begin with 1LT Alto, SGT Nixon’s squad and the two white mice. A light fire team would support. The remainder of the platoon with PSGT Horner were assembled in the corral on alert near their D troop slicks.

squiresMAJ Squires began the recon of a cultivated field bordered by a narrow heavy trail near sugarcane fields five kilometers east of the Cu Chi base camp, an area that became known as The Devil’s Playground. LT Alto and he were looking for small groups or individuals working or moving along the many trails and had selected the area for the initial checkmate. They preferred open areas without cover, but they quickly spotted a small group of suspicious individuals working the cultivated area who were selected for the first checkmate. I monitored the operations radio as MAJ Squires gave the direction of landing to the light fire team leader. The battle drill was set to go.

The Initial Landing and Fatal Event

The approach to the impromptu Landing Zone (LZ) from a low 100 foot recon was short. MAJ Squires landed with a slight skid to the right to give his port door gunner CPL Spencer a better field of fire.

The checkmate team quickly exited, but the individuals have disappeared from view in nearby shoulder-high grass as the slick hovers away. LT Alto hustled to quickly get his few men into a search formation. In mere seconds, but before they can move forward, there was a distinctive burst from an AK-47 rifle and a short burst by door gunner Spencer.

MAJ Squires recalled later to LT Alto, “As we began to hover away sideways, I spotted a VC with an AK-47 in the cane and alerted my substitute door gunner CPL James Spencer. Nearly simultaneously with my intercom check with Spencer, he was hit and tumbled forward out of the gunners’ seat, hitting the ground a short distance away from LT Alto. I immediately attempted to recover Spencer and had a fuel failure due to fuel system damage from that same single AK-47 burst.” The downed slick was quickly secured.

Crew Chief Pyburn related at their hooch that evening to Herb Beasely that the VC was first seen lying face down. As they started to hover away sideways he suddenly flipped over firing his AK-47 at Spencer. Spencer received multiple hits to his flak jacket from below that resulted in fatal ricochets strikes to his head. Other rounds hit the chopper fuel system. Spencer had failed to secure his monkey strap and fell out of the Huey and to the ground dead.

Back at the Troop Operations

opnsAt troop operations the initial action was monitored on the tactical command radio. Based upon the current situation of slick lead down, a door gunner killed in action and just one aero rifle squad on the ground, MAJ Peterson elected to take the remaining three slicks of aero rifles to reinforce LT Alto and recover the downed slick with the causality.

LT Alto, “In a brief minute or two the aero rifles captured a lone VC carrying an AK-47, who was suffering from a fresh gunshot wound. This was obviously the VC that had shot Spencer, so I initially planned to send him back as soon the C & C with the additional three squads landed.”

Reinforcements Arrive

The three squads were carefully landed at a position to support LT Alto, the white mice and his accompanying squad. All the slicks touched down lightly on their skids until unloaded and then concurrently did a high sideward hover, heading to a temporary standby position a short distance away. The sideward hover allowed each of the three slicks gunners a clear overview of the infantry formation they had just dropped off. The gunners could provide immediate close fire support as the slicks hovered away from the confrontation on the trail.

LT Alto, “In a flash I saw the C & C on final with an escorting gun ship. We still had the suspect, the obvious bad guy that had shot Spencer. To my surprise, MAJ Peterson exited the C & C near the downed slick and waved it off.”

Crew chief Pyburn had been busy working on 661 and had temporarily fixed the battle-damaged fuel system. When the reinforcements arrived, Squires completed an engine check and departed for the short flight to the corral with Spencer’s body.

The Three Slick Flight Returns to the Corral to Stand By.

peteLT Alto continued, “He [MAJ Peterson] was very agitated. Towering over the diminutive skinny VC he yelled, “You son of a bitch! You shot one of my men. Show us where the rest of them are.” The white mice knew he wanted to find out if there were any other VC around, but they were obviously not able to engage the prisoner in any interrogation while MAJ Peterson was so upset and aggressive.

“He also asked me for my AR-16 rifle. I felt a little uneasy, but did have the VC’s AK-47 and extra ammo magazines and besides MAJ Pete was totally “pissed off.” Although there was an obvious linguistic gap, Peterson continued aggressively demanding of the wounded prisoner that he reveal were his buddies were located. This gave the white mice, who were interpreters, a communications fit.”

The small single file formation, with the prisoner in the lead, followed by MAJ Peterson and LT Alto, proceeded along the dike trail next to the sugarcane. Alto remembers thinking that “This is not a good tactical formation!” After a short distance, MAJ Pete lets loose a half-magazine burst from the AR-16 just to the left of the prisoner’s knee. I could tell he was getting pretty fed up as he yelled at the guy again to show him where his VC unit was hiding. It was also obvious that the white mice wanted to get at the prisoner. “

Alto recalled. ”We had a very brief pause. The white mice were talking past Peterson to the wounded prisoner. Everyone was uneasy because of the nearby cover offered by the sugarcane right along the open dike trail. Again not good infantry tactics.”

Finally the wounded VC was quickly escorted to CPT Lacy’s slick, 660 (UH-1H #65-09660) by two of my 11B’s (Infantrymen) and returned to Cu Chi for interrogation.”

beasleyThis is what SP-4 Herbert D. Beasley related that he experienced at the Cu Chi flight Line! “We had heard (at troop operations) that the VC that had killed CPL Spencer was being flown back. We waited on the flight line. There was an ambulance with two men with a stretcher. As slick 660 arrived, it hovered at about 10 to 15 feet off the ground and out came the VC. As he was bouncing around on the ground, cheers exploded from the crowd. The two medics raced to the battered VC. They were not happy about what had just transpired. They loaded him up in the ambulance and made a few unfriendly comments to us. What had transpired in the field and in his helicopter ride back? Well, only those involved can answer that question. We didn’t really give two cents about that! The aircraft commander was CPT Lacy, crew chief was Lara, and Mike Vaughn was flying as the door gunner. I don’t know who the other pilot was.”

Second Firefight

LT Alto recalled. “As CPT Lacy’s slick departed with the wounded prisoner, we moved on down the dike trail. Two steps, I swear just two, and a machine gun opens up on the lead squad at a relatively short range. A burst of fire passing just a few feet behind me smacked Specialist Ed Risner across the front of his flak jacket. The multiple bullet impacts to his upper body, spun him off the dike trail, dazed, but unhurt. This was Risner's first day with the rifle platoon. He was the only one wearing a flack jacket. He had it unzipped which allowed the machine gun rounds to pass through the front opening and hit the inside of the port side of the jacket which sent him spinning.

alto”To this day I feel that had not MAJ Peterson fired past the VC prisoner and moved forward a few steps, they both would have been hit by the nearby VC machine gun. The distraction of the VC gunner by his M-16 burst, a slight reaction, that delay saved both our lives.

“The whole platoon pulled the pins on their individual grenades and upon my command toss them toward the machine gun and flattened to the ground. Then without further command, after the last grenade blast, we all rushed the gun position. MAJ Peterson stuck to the dike trail during this quick fire fight.

“The action was fast for a short period. We found blood around a hasty gun emplacement and an abandoned highly polished 30 caliber US brand machine gun, but no bodies.

“I rushed to set up the four squads in a three-sided hammer and anvil formation around the nearly square cane field of about five acres. The squad on the up-wind side would torch the cane as soon as I got a few five gallon cans of gasoline or J-P4 jet fuel and torches from D troop operation to get the fire started. In the meantime, we set about stacking small piles of dry cane at intervals to be doused with fuel. This would get the VC clambake off to a roaring start as soon as the fuel arrived. The white mice, especially the bus driver, seemed to really enjoy anticipating this maneuver. MAJ Peterson was pacing on the dike trail and was as intent on the cane field as the rest of the troopers.”

The Burn Out

“After about an hour a lone slick was escorted in with all the supplies we needed to smoke and roast out the trapped VC. The prevailing wind had not changed so all the dry cane stacks were still located properly to get things roaring. Using the makeshift torches that accompanied the fuel supply, we ignited well over a hundred yard strip of cane. The favorable wind slowly advanced the burning wall of flame. The torching squad then followed the fire line at a safe distance as it slowly rolled downwind. We had to be ready for any VC that might burst out from this smoky inferno.

AeroRifleVC“This tedious roasting tactic quickly netted us three more prisoners. I noticed some light wounds, probably from our grenades. Now in the forefront, the white mice sprung into aggressive action. It appeared that they wanted to get to the new captives before MAJ Peterson could get started being aggressive again. Bus Driver, attempting to get one of the captives to talk, broke an old M1 carbine over the captives head. It didn’t seem to faze him at all.

“All things considered, I felt that we had a productive catch of a VC already at Cu Chi and three VC rounded up from the burning cane field for a single checkmate operation. I had a chat with MAJ Peterson, and it was agreed that it would best to do the interrogation back at Cu Chi.

Return to the Corral

MAJ Peterson had a quick chat on my radio-telephone operator’s PRC-25 with MAJ Prosser at operations and gave me that typical smile and a thumbs up. His C &C and three slicks would be picking us all up in about 15 minutes.

grahamPSGT Horner assigned each of the first three squads a VC prisoner and moved them to a pickup formation. MAJ Peterson, the white mice, the remaining squad and I would pile into the C &C. By the time I got the prisoners handed off to the 25th Division G-2 (Intelligence), it would be time for supper. It was a bitter day in the Devil's Playground loosing CPL James Spencer.”

It was MAJ Peterson’s policy to have interdenominational services right away so these personnel losses could be put behind us. MAJ Prosser and First SGT Petty would be making those arrangements. I was beginning my operational plan for Wednesday the 25th. Tomorrow would be another day in Vietnam

Robert L Graham Operations Officer 1966-67.


Copyright 2014 Robert L Graham