KILLEEN — As Richard Nunes tells the story, he was lucky to not be shot or killed in the Battle of the Ap Nha Mat on Dec. 5, 1965.
“I was fortunate,” said Nunes, 85, a retired Fort Hood master sergeant.
In early December 1965, a battalion of U.S. troops was on the hunt for a Viet Cong regiment near the Michelin Rubber Plantation in South Vietnam.
On Dec. 5, the two forces caught up with each other, and the ensuing battle in the big rubber trees turned into one of the bloodiest battles for the 1st Infantry Division’s 2nd Infantry Regiment.
Nunes. a longtime Killeen resident, was there as part of the regiment’s 2nd Battalion.
“Our mission was to go after a Vietnam regiment that had just killed” about 500 friendly South Vietnam troops, said Nunes, 85. “We chased them around the jungle for about five to seven days.”
What the U.S. troops didn’t know was the enemy regiment had set up an ambush as the Americans approached the plantation, about 70 miles north of Saigon.
“They had set up a big trap for us,” Nunes said.
According to a recent article on the battle in VFW Magazine, the “battlefield was characterized by dense jungle and 3-foot-tall laterite anthills. It was close-quarters combat as the VC resorted to their standard ‘hugging’ tactics to avoid pulverizing U.S. firepower.”
Nunes, a 35-year-old staff sergeant at the time, was part of Company B, which launched the attack and was driven across the main road near the plantation.
He said the enemy started firing on the U.S. soldiers who were bringing up the rear.
“The Viet Cong were famous for attacking you from the rear,” he said.
Part of his platoon, including squad leader Sgt. Oliver Fugere Jr., was cut off from the main force. After the battle, Fugere received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second-highest award for valor behind the Medal of Honor.
According to the award citation, Fugere set up his machine gun, resulting in the “repulsion of three insurgent attacks and approximately 50 Viet Cong casualties.”
A platoon sergeant sent Nunes and a radio-telephone operator, or RTO, to go find Fugere, who they didn’t know was dead or alive at that point.
Crawling through the jungle, they found dead soldiers from Fugere’s squad, but there was no sign of Fugure.
Then Nunes and his RTO began taking fire.
“My whole life came right before me,” said Nunes, who took cover behind a nearby 3-foot anthill. He credits that anthll with saving his life.
Soon, the platoon sergeant who was following Nunes started yelling “Cease fire! Cease fire!”
It turned out, Nunes said, that Fugere was probably the one firing at him. Fortunately, no one was injured from the friendly fire.
The battle raged for a good two hours. By the end of it, 43 Americans were killed and 119 were wounded, according to the report in VFW Magazine. About 300 Viet Cong were killed.
“Before we broke contact, Charlie had already taken off,” Nunes said. “If it weren’t for the Air Force dropping bombs so close, in my opinion, Charlie would have probably overrun us.”
Charlie, short for Victor-Charlie, is the designation U.S. troops called the enemy in Vietnam.
As one U.S. infantryman said of the battle: “God, they were firing from everywhere,” according to the VFW Magazine report. “The .50-caliber was the worst. But they were in the trees, in holes, everywhere. Some even dressed like trees, and we only knew what they were when they fell or fired.”
Nunes spent more than a year in Vietnam during his first tour, and ended up returning for a second tour in 1969. His experiences were filled with close calls, but none as hairy as Dec. 5, 1965.
“We were in Charlie’s backyard, and he knew more about his backyard than we did,” Nunes said.
The Hawaii native retired in 1978 and worked at civil service departments at Fort Hood for a number of years.
While Nunes didn’t talk about his experiences in Vietnam for years, he’s more open about them now.
Still, some of the memories don’t come easy.
“Every now and again, you dream about Vietnam,” he said.