As reported last week on Vietnam combat veteran Robert Good, when the 9th Infantry Division reactivated for combat in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta in the spring of 1966, Southern California was hit hard with draft notices. This held especially true in the San Fernando Valley, where many 18 – 20 year old young men were instantaneously thrust into the United States Army. Many newly minted soldiers ended up in basic training with their high school and neighborhood buddies. It was a crazy time, but for us, sons of World War II Veterans, we were simply summoned to do what our fathers had done before us.
Such was the case of my good friend Stan Cockerell, who was drafted out of North Hollywood on May 17, 1966; he went through basic and advanced infantry training at Fort Riley, Kansas. At age 18, Stan was a bit younger than many of us but he was fit as a fiddle and tough as nails – he proved to be a brave soldier.
Fast forward to our June 19, 1967 Battle Near Ap Bac Village just south of Saigon, our battalion was to conduct a search and destroy mission to locate and eliminate the 5th Nha Be Viet Cong Battalion. Intelligence pin-pointed their exact location, so off we went at zero dark thirty via Navy landing craft not knowing what a horrific experience was ahead.
It was mid-morning as we trudged from rice paddy to tree-line to cross yet another rice paddy, when another intelligence report said a large VC force was seen nearby. We boarded those landing craft and moved further up a narrow winding river where we unloaded mid-morning.
Our 2nd Platoon was lead element when all hell broke loose. We quickly realized the Viet Cong were entrenched in heavily fortified bunkers to our immediate right across a small stream. They opened up with everything they had… 50 Cal machine guns, RPG’s and automatic rifle fire. It was loud and chaotic as we all scrambled for cover behind a low berm bordering that stream. In the opening burst we soldiers were falling left and right. That afternoon, we all for fought for our lives and for each other.
Meanwhile back at our Navy barracks ship, USS Benewah, Sergeant Dan Kerr had just returned from R & R and Stan Cockerell was hospitalized and bedridden due to a mild case of malaria and cellulitis. He was to be prepped for surgery when suddenly the medical staff rushed about preparing the ship’s hospital for incoming wounded soldiers…. not to mention preparing the morgue for our dead soldiers. The call sounded for all volunteers to grab their gear, weapons and ammunition to promptly go to the ship’s helicopter pad to join the fierce battle being waged near Ap Bac Village.
Stan & Sergeant Kerr did not hesitate. Soon, they were dropped just to the rear of Charlie Company when suddenly they witnessed one of our Medevac choppers shot down from 100 feet in the air. What they saw horrified them and all of us… that chopper got hit and it rocked and lurched and out fell our buddy Forrest Ramos with the chopper coming right down on him. Stan said: “At that moment they knew they were in the fight of their lives”.
With bullets flying everywhere, Stan and Sergeant Kerr maneuvered forward with much needed ammunition for their Charlie Company troopers. Late that afternoon, Captain Herb Lind ordered his remaining troopers to board a Navy Landing craft to assault the VC on the other side of that narrow stream. It didn’t take long to rout the beleaguered VC fighters and those who were still alive ran like rabbits. Little did we know during that fierce battle, Alpha Company was literally wiped out with 31 KIAs and almost all others wounded; Charlie Company lost 11 KIAs with too many wounded.
Stan said: “To this day, I feel guilty for not being there with my buddies when the fighting began and for not being wounded like everybody else.”
Stan experienced more firefights and several more battles earning him a Bronze Star for Meritorious Service, along with his Combat Infantryman Badge. When our 2nd platoon arrived in Vietnam in January ‘67, we had 40 troopers; by September ’67 we were down to 13 of those original soldiers.
After the Army, he became a Prop Master with Paramount Studios. His assignments were primarily on location. Movies he proudly worked: “We Were Soldiers”, “The Natural”, and “Geronimo” that featured Wes Studi who also served in the 9th Infantry Division in the Mekong Delta. Stan retired from the Motion Picture Industry in 2008.
On September 13, 1969, Stan married his neighborhood sweetheart, his beautiful Linda Walters. They have two sons, one daughter and six grandchildren that keep Stan and Linda very busy.
Bill Reynolds is one of the “Boys of ’67,” Charlie Company, 4th/47th, 9th Infantry Division and is the Director of Veterans Affairs for The Signal.