First Lt. Daniel Hennessy was a tall, lanky soldier from Pennsylvania in his early 20s.
The year was 1966. The place was Vietnam, and heavy fighting for young, American soldiers was becoming an everyday occurrence.
For Hennessy, a security platoon leader in 1st Cavalry Division’s 1st Brigade, he wanted to be a part of that action; providing security at the brigade’s headquarters had gotten old. He wanted to be in a rifle platoon out on patrol with the other guys.
“He had asked for the transfer,” said Raul Villaronga, 77, a Killeen resident and former mayor.
In 1966, Villaronga was the commander of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division.
The transfer was approved, and before long, Hennessy was a platoon leader in Bravo Company.
“When he came to us he was the happiest man in the world,” Villaronga said last week from his home in Killeen. Even though the events were 49 years ago, he remembers them clearly.
With Hennessy, Bravo Company continued its mission of hunter-killer and patrol missions in Vietnam, going place to place quickly with help from Huey helicopters. Most of the time, however, Villaronga and the nearly 200 infantry troops he commanded were on the ground.
“We stayed in the field,” said Villaronga, who retired as a colonel in 1985.
The fighting was brutal. The enemy was smart, and to counter the Americans’ advantage of artillery and air superiority, would often engage in close combat, Villaronga said.
Masters at camouflage
The North Vietnamese were masters at camouflage.
“You could almost walk up to a position and not see them,” he said.
On Dec. 28, 1966, Bravo Company was approaching a village known as Gia Duc.
“It was a nice, quiet, little village,” Villaronga said. “We had been there before.”
But unknown to Bravo Company, some North Vietnamese troops had since moved into the village, digging in and fortifying defense positions.
Still, Villaronga cautiously approached the village, using his platoons to approach from multiple sides. Hennessy’s platoon was moving through a rice paddy.
Then, all hell broke loose.
“When his platoon received intense hostile fire from a nearby village, Lieutenant Hennessy dauntlessly led an assault on the (enemy) positions,” according to a citation that honored Hennessy. “Maneuvering through a hail of bullets, he moved to the head of the platoon and was the first man to enter the hamlet. Unmindful of his vulnerable position, Lieutenant Hennessy fearlessly engaged the enemy with his rifle and hand grenades. He then called for artillery strikes within ten meters of his own position, which allowed his platoon to reach cover at the edge of a rice paddy. As he shouted orders and pointed out hostile emplacements, Lieutenant Hennessy was critically wounded by (enemy) fire. Realizing that his wounds were fatal, he courageously continued to direct his men, until finally turning over command to his platoon sergeant with his last words.”
For his bravery, Hennessy received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second-highest award for valor, behind the Medal of Honor.
Bravo Company lost 10 men in the battle, eventually setting up a perimeter around Gia Duc while artillery and air power slammed the North Vietnamese defensive positions. By the next day, the remaining enemy was gone, having slipped out in a network of tunnels.
Years later, Villaronga visited Hennessy’s hometown in Pennsylvania.
“We met the whole family,” he said. “Unfortunately, his mom had died the year before.”
Hennessy was the first soldier killed in Vietnam from his high school, and was hailed as hero.
Hennessy was one of about 1,050 of U.S. service members to receive the Distinguished Service Cross for bravery during the Vietnam War, many of them posthumously. He was one of the more than 58,000 U.S. service members to die in Vietnam. All told, 246 Medals of Honor were earned by U.S. troops for actions during the war, including 160 to Army soldiers, 57 Marines, 16 seamen and 13 airmen, according to the U.S. Army Center for Military History. Thousands of Bronze and Silver Stars were also earned by soldiers during Vietnam.
American soldiers, especially scouts, were fired upon almost daily, said retired Lt. Gen. Paul “Butch” Funk, who served in Vietnam as a troop commander in 1st Cavalry’s 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment.
“It took a lot of very, very brave men to do the scouting,” said Funk, a Gatesville area resident who was the III Corps and Fort Hood commander in the 1990s.
From his time in Vietnam, Funk remembers men like Spc. David Ham, who not once, but twice, took over the controls of a Huey after the pilot had been shot and killed, and flew the helicopter to safety.
And then there’s Spc. Shwenke, who charged an enemy machine gun nest after his platoon leader had been shot in both legs, saving his platoon leader’s life, Funk said.
Warrant Officer Ordeen Iverson, a pilot, who despite being wounded, under fire and having a red smoke grenade going off in the helicopter, guided the Huey to a nearby clearing, Funk said.
They were “incredibly brave young Americans,” Funk said.
While Funk questions the purpose and cause of the war today, the bravery of American troops during the war is “unquestioned,” he said. “We were fighting for one another.” Funk added: “The longer I am away from it, the more I admire them.”
In addition to the troops he lived and fought with on the ground, Villaronga, a Silver Star recipient, said he takes his hat off to the 1st Cavalry Division helicopter pilots, who were a sight for sore eyes on more than one occasion.
“Those guys were fearless.”