Echoes from the Regiment’s Service in Vietnam 1966 – 1972
Don Snedeker, 11th ACVVC Historian
1st Qtr 2017
Blackhorse Medal of Honor – Corporal Jerry Wickam
Since starting Operation Fargo in the middle of December 1967, Second Squadron Troopers had been looking for the enemy around Loc Ninh. But the recon troops and tank company just couldn’t seem to pin the enemy down. There had been plenty of mines, RPG teams, and sniper fire, but nothing substantial. The Hotel Company commander, CPT Don Saari, recalls that “we had contact on a daily basis”, but these did not develop into major contacts. The intel specialists kept saying that there were at least three regiments of the 9th (VC) Division out there – somewhere. But day after day, in unrelenting heat and choking dust, the sweeps kept coming up empty.
On the 5th of January 1968, Echo Troop was the latest to move through an area that looked promising; it turned out to be another dry hole. The area was near a small village near the Cambodian border. But the Battle Squadron commander, LTC Garland McSpadden, was determined. He knew there was something in there; his gut feeling was confirmed by the results of an airborne radio direction finding flight that same day. So he told his operations officer to work up a plan for the whole squadron to search the same area the following day.
Team Hotel (one tank platoon and two recon platoons) was selected to lead the 2/11 advance on the 6th. The team’s mission was to move down an old French colonial outpost trail in the direction of the Cambodian border. This was the area – based on the previous day’s radio intercept – that held the suspected enemy base camp. CPT Saari decided to let his organic tank platoon (three M-48s) lead the column. He placed his own and the first sergeant’s tanks behind the lead platoon, followed by the platoons of ACAVs from Fox and Golf Troops.
First Lieutenant Ed Jones’ 1st Platoon, Fox Troop was cross-attached with Hotel Company for the mission. Eight of the platoon’s ACAVs were operational on 6 January. Two scout ACAVs led the platoon, followed by the LT in his ACAV (F-16). CPL Jerry Wickam was the track commander (TC) of ACAV F-10 immediately behind the platoon leader.
About three-quarters of an hour into the mission, the second M-48 in the column was hit by an RPG-7 just as it entered a large clearing. The enemy gunner’s aim was true; the rocket entered the turret on the left side – just below where the loader was standing. He was killed instantly as the warhead penetrated the turret and sent shrapnel bouncing around inside. The TC was severely wounded (but survived). The undamaged tanks immediately returned fire, as LT Jones’ ACAV crews visually searched the tall grass. The RPG team was, however, long gone.
The contact ensured that everyone was alert and looking for bad guys left and right as they moved out again. Past the clearing, the vegetation grew right up to the edge of the trail. Visibility was cut to no more than 10-15 feet, giving the enemy a decided advantage; they were experts at camouflage. Nonetheless, the lead tank crew spotted another enemy position about 200 meters further down the trail. A sharp-eyed Trooper saw movement in one of the small bunkers that were located along the trail’s edge. First Sergeant Macon Haynes directed his driver to crush the bunker with his 50-plus ton tank, which he proceeded to do.
CPT Saari herringboned his M-48s on the trail and told LT Jones to dismount some scouts to check out the area to the north. CPL Wickam dismounted, then said to SP4 Charles Henry: “‘Let’s go Henry, let’s go check out this bunker.’” They found an enemy soldier who had been killed apparently trying to exit the bunker. They pulled his body from the hole. That’s when they heard, in Charles Henry’s words, “a popping sound and a sound like a fuze burning”. Jerry Wickam recognized it as the sound of a Chinese grenade being charged. Someone was still alive inside the bunker. Jerry yelled “‘Get back Henry, he just pulled a grenade’” and pushed his buddy out of the way. He threw his own body across the entrance just as the grenade went off. Fortunately, neither Trooper was wounded by shrapnel, but the same could not be said of the enemy soldier. He unwittingly committed ‘grenadacide’.
About the same time, a side gunner on F-12 noticed a second bunker on the south side of the road. He fired a magazine’s worth of M-16 ammo into the hole. Jerry Wickam came running and added another clip’s worth from about six feet away. LT Jones and SSG Don Carter dismounted and joined them on the ground. Jerry pulled one body out, only to discover a second enemy soldier playing possum inside. As SSG Carter covered him with his pistol, Wickam pulled the enemy soldier – an assistant RPG gunner from the 2nd Battalion, 88th (NVA) Regiment – out of the hole by his collar and made sure he wasn’t armed. They found an RPG launcher and four live rounds inside the position; these would never be used against a Blackhorse tank or ACAV.
Just at that moment, Ed Jones remembers, “all hell broke loose”. The tanks and ACAVs came under intense automatic weapons, RPG, and 75mm recoilless rifle fire from the left (south). The response was instantaneous; 90mm canister, caliber .50, and M-60 machine guns blasted the jungle in all directions.
About this same time, the air support CPT Saari had requested arrived. Four F-4s dropped their bombs and napalm into the jungle, followed by a flight of Huey gunships, miniguns blazing. Artillery was next, although it hit so far in the jungle that it could not be seen, only heard. The jungle was so thick that even the accompanying Zippo could not burn off enough foliage to see what was hidden amongst all that green.
The Blackhorse Troopers had stirred up a hornet’s nest, and CPT Saari wanted to see what else was in there. LT Jones organized a 14-man dismounted patrol, with CPL Wickam volunteering to take the lead. Jerry’s father had taught him to hunt deer and pheasant while he was growing up in rural Illinois, so he knew what he was doing. He wasn’t about to let someone without the right skills be on point. For SP4 Phillip Parrish, who served with Wickam for five months, this was typical for Jerry. “He always was looking out for other people, to see that everyone was alright. He always took the most dangerous missions to protect his men.”
As they moved deeper into the jungle, they found numerous empty spider holes and fighting positions. Soon, however, the trees and vines and underbrush grew so thick that visibility was cut to a foot or two. Moving in a crouch with weapons at the ready, the dismounted Troopers advanced cautiously. The patrol came under small arms fire and went to ground. LT Jones moved forward to be next to his pointman.
Jerry’s eyesight was better than most in the jungle, despite the thick black-framed Army glasses he wore. He was the first to spot the two-man bunker about ten meters away. He pulled the pin on a grenade and let it fly into the entrance of the hole. LT Jones recalls counting the seconds, hoping that the enemy wouldn’t throw the grenade back at them. They didn’t. After the explosion, Jerry Wickam and Don Carter rose to charge the position. They immediately came under heavy and effective AK-47 rifle fire. Jerry Wickam was hit in the side, grunted, and fell to the ground. Don Carter rushed to his aid. His Silver Star citation relates: “Although only a few meters from the enemy positions, Sergeant Carter gallantly gave first aid to the dying man and began to pull him back to safety through heavy automatic and semi-automatic weapons fire. While engaged in his mission of mercy, Sergeant Carter was hit four times by sniper fire and seriously wounded.”
Other members of the platoon were able to rescue SSG Carter, but for Jerry Wickam it was too late. The medic tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but he was already dead.
Shortly after his death, MAJ Don Martin, the Second Squadron Executive Officer, began the process for the award of the Medal of Honor to Jerry Wickam. He interviewed some of the Troopers who had fought alongside him. Many years later, MAJ Martin reflected on what he learned.
My only knowledge of Corporal Wickam had come through hearing his fellow soldiers speak of his behavior on that fateful day. I can still hear the inspiration in their voices as they described his courage and leadership… I don’t know what went through Corporal Wickam’s mind as he faced a determined, well-armed enemy manning camouflaged bunkers only a few meters in front of him. I do know that he ran the race of a soldier with honor, leading the assault on bunker after bunker, even when severely wounded, until he collapsed on the field of battle… I do know that he exhibited at that moment of crisis the utmost faithfulness to his comrades-in-arms, to his unit and to his country.
When she was in Washington to receive Jerry’s posthumous Medal of Honor from Vice President Agnew on 18 November 1969, his widow, Suzanne Wickam, was quoted as saying that “‘even if the war came to an end today, I still would not feel that Jerry had died in vain. He believed in what he was fighting for, and that’s all that matters.’” She explained further that after Basic and AIT, Jerry was sent to Germany. The couple was childless at that point, but they both wanted to raise a family. “‘He asked God to give us a son’”, Suzanne told a reporter, “‘and he made a promise that he’d volunteer for Vietnam if the prayer was answered… I was for it. I knew how much it meant to him. He couldn’t have lived with himself if he hadn't gone.’” Four months into his Germany tour, their prayers were answered, and Jerry was true to his pledge. He volunteered for duty in Vietnam.
John Maville said of his best friend and high school classmate: “‘Jerry had what few young people have today, discipline and responsibility.’”