By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Helicopter pilots William Meacham and W.T. Grant finally returned to survey the dire situation from the air. Both men immediately returned to Camp Eagle to pick up an improvised, all-volunteer rescue team.
"I didn't even really think about it," Tony Tercero recalls. "When I heard what was going on, I had to go help those guys."
Still in shorts and shower thongs, Tercero sprinted to a supply store, picked up a new M-16 and ammunition, and headed to the helicopter pad.
Everyone at the base, including supply clerks who had seen little or no combat, was volunteering to help. But space in the helicopters was limited.
William Meacham wrote in his book Lest We Forget that he tried to persuade Tercero — whom he knew was about to leave Vietnam — to stay back.
"This guy had to be nuts," the pilot wrote. "I looked him square in the face and yelled for him to get off the aircraft. He smiled, then pointed his M-16 right between my eyes and said, 'You just take off.' Well, shit. His argument was much more persuasive than mine." (Tercero swears that he never pointed his weapon at Meacham.)
It was dusk when the helicopters arrived at besieged hill. According to Meacham (and on this point, he and Tony Tercero agree), Tercero was the first to jump off the chopper into the elephant grass.
Right behind him was Tim Coleman, a red-haired Lurp from Florida, who would suffer shrapnel wounds later that day.
"TT just happened to be on the lead — he didn't forcibly do it, and maybe he didn't want to do it," says Coleman, a retired firefighter who now lives in southern Illinois. "Maybe it was his moment to do what he had to do. I was on his heels. He was charging up the hill. It was by the grace of God that we made it up there. There were bodies everywhere, blood everywhere. We knew our guys had been hammered bad.
"A gook had Tony in his sights. I shot him. We started looking for the wounded and the dead, and doing the radio stuff and so on. Tony was leading the way, and anything that he told people to do, we did. Mind you, he was doing all of this under fire, which is courage in its essence. Tony shined that day so brightly. He deserves the credit for no one else getting killed or seriously wounded."
Riley Cox, the badly injured bull of a man who had refused to stop fighting, recalls the moment this way:
"You could hear them fighting to get up the hill, and there was a lot of firing . . . When Tony and a handful of others got to the top, there were only three of us still able to fight."
Cox says he saw Tercero render first aid, triage the wounded (including himself), and call in for friendly fire so evacuation helicopters could more safely move into the area.
The Colorado resident says he was getting lifted into a helicopter when an NVA regular aimed his gun at him: "I saw Tony move between the NVA and me and shoot him with a burst from an M-16. If he hadn't killed him, I wouldn't be here today."
Gary Linderer, who also was wounded on the hill, confirms Cox's account.
But Tercero won't go there.
"I don't remember shooting anybody up there," he says with a shrug and that wry grin. "I only remember sporadic fire by the time we got there. I do remember doing a lot of stuff. But me killing a gook to save Riley? I don't know about that."
Tercero stayed on the hill for what seemed like hours, still scantily clad. It was pitch black by the time he and the last rescuers were ready to leave, but a problem arose.
In their haste to leave Camp Eagle, Tercero's makeshift response team had jumped aboard the choppers with nothing but their weapons. How were the pilots to know where to pick them up?
It happened like this: Lurps usually carried Zippo lighters, and this day was no exception. An inscription on the standard-issue lighter said, "We are the unwilling, led by the unqualified, to do the unnecessary, for the ungrateful." The Zippos provided enough flickering direction for pilots Meacham and Grant to safely collect Tony Tercero and the other remaining Lurps.
Back at Camp Eagle, Tercero says he fell into bed, still hoping to head home, as scheduled, the next day. And he did.
The Army issued several "impact" medals within days after the events of November 20.
A Silver Star went to an officer from the cavalry unit that hadn't come to the rescue in time. Kenn Miller, who was with the first team on November 20, not Team 24, says he spoke later to that officer.
"He was actually bitter about it," Miller says. "He had seen Tony doing all this stuff out there after they finally showed up. Tony had showed him where to set up security when he finally got there. The guy told me, 'This is bullshit. Why me? I'm never going to wear that thing.'"