Last week, I wandered through Golden Gate National Cemetery and took photos of the markers around me. I’m still on a research trip, now down in Southern California, but I have been slowly researching the men and women whose headstones I photographed. Each one has a remarkable story, which is easy to forget when the headstones stretch for acres in all directions.
Tonight, I want to tell you about Private First Class Steve Lopez.
On March 19, 1967, the hundred and twenty-nine men of Troop A, 5th Cav rolled into Fire Base 20, a 1st Brigade, 9th Infantry position about a mile from the Vietnamese town of Ap Bau Bang. Troop A included six tanks and twenty M-113 armored personnel carriers. They set up a 360 defensive perimeter around the fire base, and that night at least two battalions of the 273rd Viet Cong Regiment struck the Americans with a massed infantry assault. The fury of the initial assault was so intense that even an AC-47 Spooky gunship, massive artillery support and the combined firepower of the 5th Cav’s tracks could not break it up.
The VC reached the perimeter and swarmed over some of the APC’s. The tracks buttoned up and their commanders called for “dusting”–canister shots directed at their own vehicles by their fellow troopers. The idea was these shrapnel shells would kill the VC around the tracks but be unable to penetrate the M-113’s armored hulls.
The Americans fired at their own vehicles as the VC hit others with mortars and RPG’s. The tactic worked, but just as the canister shots cleared one M-113, a VC mortar hit it and caused it to explode. The wounded crew managed to escape and get back inside the perimeter as the rest of the troop retreated back and established another fighting line.
PFC Steve Lopez was part of the stricken track’s crew. His Brothers were able to get him out of the burning M113, but he died of his wounds a short time later. Steve was from Fremont, California. As a kid, he used to bring a sack lunch with a can of tuna in it. He’d open the can and eat the tuna straight out of it to the astonishment of his friends. Later, one of his classmates visited the Wall and left cans of tuna in his honor on the ground before his panel.
Steve was twenty years old when he died of shrapnel wounds. He’d been in the Army less than a year.
The Americans held through the night with the help of air strikes, artillery and reinforcements. When the fighting ended, sixty-three Americans had been wounded and three killed. The two battalions of the VC’s 273rd Regiment suffered around two hundred and thirty killed in action. It took twenty-nine air strikes and almost thirty tons of bombs and rockets, plus three thousand artillery shells and the sheer determination of Troop A to hold Fire Base 20.
Though the Battle of Bau Bang II, as it was called, has been virtually forgotten by Americans, Steve Lopez will not be.
-John R. Bruning