Sgt. Joseph E. Engles was just a young man when he found himself in one of the deadliest battles in Vietnam, The Battle of Soui Tre.
Originally scheduled for March 18, 1967, plans had to be scrapped due to “obstacles” which prevented the 2nd Battalion 22nd Infantry and the 2nd Battalion 34th Armor from securing the landing zone as planned, according to www.118ahc.org, the official page of the 118th Assault Helicopter Company.
After rescheduling the assault, at a different location, Engles found himself in the middle of a firefight in an unsecured landing zone March 21, 1967. The battle, which was part of the U.S. Army’s Operation Junction City in the Tay Ninh Province in the Republic of Vietnam, took the lives of 51 soldiers. Engles was one of the lucky ones, getting out with only injuries.
But the story is so much more than that of a soldier in the U.S. Army fighting for his country, as retired Maj. Gen. Julian “JB” Burns recalled during a ceremony honoring Engles at Murrieta’s Town Square Park Monday, March 20.
“In talking to those who witnessed that ferocious battle, in the space of two football fields where 197 men were wounded and 51 killed in just three hours, we came to realize Joe was more than just a gunner,” Burns said. “Joe was also much, much more. Mr. Engles was a hero and worthy of commendation for valor.”
According to Burns, before his death the former Chief of the Staff of the Army Gen. Jack Vessey asked Burns, his former aide, to ensure Engles was honored for his role in The Battle of Soui Tre. As a lieutenant colonel, Vessey served as commander of the battalion in which Engles served during the battle.
A total of 363 Americans fought in the battle, 197 were wounded and 51 were killed when they found themselves in a ground assault from all directions by 2,800 north Vietnamese regulars, Burns said, adding that Engles was listed in his retirement papers as a cannoneer but that he wanted to be listed as a gunner. A simple administrative error that could be corrected with “some white-out,” Burns joked.
When the fight was over 647 enemy soldiers were buried in a mass grave at Fire Base Gold. As the week went on and more bodies were discovered a total of 831 Vietnamese were killed in the fight.
“The title ‘gunner’ was important to Joe. Soldiers serve as Coast Guard, Marines, Airman and Navy under some appalling conditions. Appalling conditions,” Burns said. “They do so without complaint, seeking no reward for themselves but a place to bury their comrades.”
Burns said that every man who is an artillery man knows that the gunner is the man who commands a firing piece and must stand up exposed to enemy fire at “great risk” and is a “favorite target to enemy fire, grenades, bullets and bombs.”
“Very often they are wounded or killed,” Burns said.
“As the battle commenced with intense rocket and grenade and sniper fire, Engles manned the gun and commanded his team to return fire,” the official history of The Battle of Soui Tre reads. “When a rocket landed close, without regard for his personal safety he neutralized the enemy ordnance and continued the mission. … Though Specialist Engles was wounded in his left arm, he remained in command of his gun. As the blood loss worsened, he reported to the battalion aid station. With the shrapnel removed, he returned immediately to the battle as gunner.”
Engles was then shot in his armored vest, as he searched for a gun when his became unserviceable. Finding no working guns, he joined the firing line and fought alongside his band of brothers, in spite of being hit in the arm with shrapnel and shot.
Nearly 50 years to the day after The Battle of Soui Tre, Engles was recognized by the U.S. Army when he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for Valor for courage under fire as a gunner with no regard for his own safety in the face of the enemy during The Battle of Soui Tre.
“His gallantry and that of his comrades guaranteed, at great cost, an American decisive victory at Soui Tre,” Burns said. “After 50 years, we are going to make some real history today and correct the record.”
After Burns awarded the Bronze Star of Valor to him, Engles took to the stage and addressed the crowd that had gathered, calling the battle “indescribable.”
He thanked the Lord, his wife, his friends and family, and said he could now make peace with the past. Engles said the day would not have been possible had it not been for the support of Vessey and Burns. He recalled the battle and said that Vessey was in the dirt with the rest of the soldiers that fateful spring day in March 1967.
“There will never be another like him,” Engles said. “I gotta say, I kind of anticipated what this ceremony could look like, but I had no idea what it would feel like, and I gotta tell you, it’s a bit overwhelming. If I had one wish right now, it would be that every soldier, Marine, Airman, Sailor and Coast Guardsmen could be standing with me right now.”