WASHINGTON — Pfc. Paul Evans was rocking and rolling on his M-16 on a long-ago afternoon in Vietnam, spraying fire toward an unseen enemy hidden deep within the jungle. He was a terrified 18-year-old who knew, as other men fell around him, that he was about to die.
Then out of nowhere, American tanks thundered out of the jungle, Evans later recalled. Alpha Troop had arrived.
The men of Alpha Troop, 1st Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry, rushed in to rescue Evans and the rest of his infantry company, which had been pinned down for most of the day after wandering into a cluster of North Vietnamese bunkers.
For two hours, Alpha's tanks suppressed fire enough to weaken the enemy. Then, as night fell and the Americans feared being surrounded in the dark, everyone fled through the blackening foliage.
Many of the soldiers tucked away their memories for years, only now describing the day's horror.
Kenny Euge of Belleville, Ill., drove one of the tanks that barreled through the jungle to Charlie Company's aid, closest to the enemy. He recalled a rocket-propelled grenade flying just over his head, like a flaming basketball.
"It was all scary. It was all scary," Euge recalled this week, his voice breaking as he spoke. "Even the drive back was scary. It didn't get un-scary until you got back."
However, the Army overlooked the clash that became known as the Anonymous Battle. When one man ended his tour and was asked about any major battles he'd been in, the soldier who was processing the paperwork shook his head. There'd been no battles that day.
The veterans — and now everyone else — know differently.
Tuesday morning, President Barack Obama gave about 100 veterans of Alpha Troop the Presidential Unit Citation, the highest award for valor that a military unit can earn.
Nearly 40 years after the battle, men with graying mustaches, growing paunches and weakening eyes were honored for that day of hell in March 1970.
Old soldiers in dark suits or dress uniforms — some wearing old medals pinned to their chests, some lean and ramrod straight, others leaning on canes — listened in the White House Rose Garden as birds chirped under a bright sky and the commander in chief praised their valor.
"Some may wonder: After all these years, why honor this heroism now?" Obama asked in his remarks to the soldiers Tuesday. "The answer is simple. Because we must. Because we have a sacred obligation."
Forty years ago, little felt sacred to Alpha Troop. The night before the battle, the tank company had lost several of its members when a mortar round accidentally exploded in of its vehicles. The men were exhausted and scarred after removing charred bodies from the scene of the blast.
"That morning, after I got up, there were chunks of flesh on my tank," Euge recalled. "How I rationalized that was, chunks of barbecue. ... At the battle, I rationalized, 'It's just a movie. Pretend you're making a movie.' "
A few miles off, they could hear gunfire. They learned that Charlie Company, a group of infantry troops from the 1st Cavalry Division caught along the border with Cambodia, was in trouble. It could be wiped out within hours.
Alpha Troop commander John Poindexter volunteered his men to go fetch the grunts.
"Let's go," he told them.
"It's a story of resolve," Obama said Tuesday. "For Alpha Troop could have simply evacuated their comrades and left that enemy bunker for another day — to ambush another American unit. But as their captain said, 'That's not what the 11th Cavalry does.' "
They steered their tanks through the jungle, mowing down trees at a pace slower than a man can walk. After pushing through two and half miles of jungle, they arrived at the battle.
The plan was to pick up Charlie Company's infantry soldiers and leave, but the North Vietnamese kept firing. So Alpha Troop stayed, and fired back.
Euge, who'd become a driver because he didn't want to fire a gun, had to pop out of the hatch and change the tank's gun barrel in the middle of the fight, bullets whizzing past him.
"Why wasn't I killed, you know?" Euge asked. "You had to crawl up, unscrew a barrel that's white-hot. You're supposed to have an asbestos glove, but in the middle of battle, you don't have a glove. You can barely keep your wits together. So a dry white towel was the best you had."
Rockets slammed into trees, Poindexter recalled. Men fell, and others leapt into their positions to grab their weapons. As the underbrush fell under the fire, the Americans could see bunker after bunker after bunker, with the North Vietnamese dug into them.
"There were smells of acrid smoke, the discharge of dozens of machine guns, main tank guns, occasionally something worse, something burning or the smell of blood," Poindexter recalled.
In the end, two of Alpha Troop's men were killed in the battle. Forty others lay wounded.
Three decades later, Alpha's Capt. Poindexter learned that men for whom he'd recommended medals had never received them. So beginning in 2003, he gathered documents and interviews, wrote a book called "The Anonymous Battle" and agitated at the Pentagon for recognition.
"I feel as though these men are receiving the recognition that they are entitled to, and that they felt, like I do, deeply fulfilled to be recognized in such a public and conspicuous way at long last," Poindexter said.
The owner of a successful truck-manufacturing business based in Houston, Poindexter offered to pay for any veteran who couldn't afford the trip.
They flew into Washington on Monday from all over the country, gathering in the lobby of a suburban Comfort Inn, struggling to recognize one another beneath sagging jowls and crinkled eyes.
"You know, this is crazy," Euge said of the commendation. "Thirty-nine years later, someone tells you that you did a good job? It's just odd."
Poindexter said he hoped that Tuesday's ceremony could serve as a stand-in for an entire generation of Vietnam veterans, men and women who — if called on — would have done the same thing.
"We are their surrogates in this matter," Poindexter said.
For Euge, the ceremony feels personal. He's spoken this week of moments that he hadn't described to anyone in his life.
He isn't sure what the recognition, four decades tardy, will mean for him now.
"I don't know how to answer that," Euge said. "Maybe, just a little bit of closure. Maybe. I don't know."
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