This story was written by Ron Albers for Motts Military Museum and is reprinted here with permission.
Eldon H. Erlenbach was born on September 1, 1945, in New York City. Although his parents had lived in Columbus, Ohio, his mother moved to NYC to live with relatives while his father was serving with the U.S. Army in Europe during WW II. Even though Eldon’s parents already had two children, his father was drafted in late 1944 and served as a combat rifleman in central Europe. As soon as the war was over and his dad was discharged, the family moved back to Columbus, living in the “Greenlawn Projects,” which were created as inexpensive residences for returning veterans. They were four-family unit flats built just south of downtown Columbus, where Berliner Park now sits. These projects were a town unto themselves with perhaps 500 families living there. Eldon lived there for about eight years before the family could afford a bigger house. His father worked for Jeffrey Manufacturing Company, the huge manufacturer of mining equipment.
In 1954 the Erlenbach family moved to the west side of Columbus, where Eldon and his three siblings attended St. Aloysius grade school. While growing up, Eldon recalls that he played a lot of baseball and had a normal, uneventful childhood. After graduation from Holy Family High School in 1963, Eldon went to work for Middleton Printing Company. Of course, the draft was in full swing at that time to fill the military for the Vietnam conflict. When Eldon received his first draft notice, the printing company offered him an apprenticeship, which in essence gave him a four-year deferment. When those four years were up, however, the draft board hadn’t forgotten Eldon. He was ordered to report to Ft. Hayes for a draft physical on June 19, 1969. Believe it or not, when he passed the physical examination, he was immediately flown from Port Columbus to South Carolina that very day and then bussed to Ft. Jackson for in-processing into the U.S. Army. He then completed eight weeks of basic training and Advanced Infantry Training at Ft. Gordon, Georgia, knowing full well that he would be going to Vietnam.
Following two weeks of leave back in Columbus, Eldon was sent to Oakland Army Terminal and then to Travis AFB, where he was transported by a contract air carrier to Ton Sanut Air Base, South Vietnam, on December 2, 1969, and then finally flown to Long Bin. There he was assigned to Bravo Company, 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry (the unit that was defeated with General Custer at the Little Big Horn.) He would spend the next 11 months and 10 days “in country.”
In May of 1970 President Nixon ordered American troops into Cambodia to locate and destroy North Vietnamese command centers, supply depots, and weapons caches. For a long period of time, our troops had not been allowed into Cambodia, and it had become something of a safe haven for the enemy. The North Vietnamese Army could simply cross the river into Cambodia from South Vietnam to rest, regroup, and rearm without fear of attack. Eldon’s unit was one of the first ones flown by helicopter into Cambodia on May 6th. Their mission was to look for a fight and then try to follow the enemy, hopefully to their source of supplies. In their first 14 days they had 20 encounters with both the local Viet Cong villagers and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA ). After routing the Viet Cong from one village, one of the soldiers adopted a mutt that had been left behind. Not only was he a lovable mascot of the men in the company, he seemed to dislike the enemy as much as our troops did. He was eager to go ahead of the Americans and could actually smell where the Viet Cong were, thus warning our soldiers of perhaps an impending ambush. The dog was appropriately named “Lifesaver.”
During this period in Cambodia, the soldiers of Bravo Company truly bonded with one another. They totally depended upon each other for survival. Ever vigilant, 24/7, they developed animal instincts as they searched for the enemy through thick jungle and over hills and mountains, never following trails or paths. Caution was the watchword at all times, and everyone’s senses were keenly alert. There was absolutely no drug or alcohol usage by any of the troops. They couldn’t and wouldn’t allow a single man to compromise anyone’s safety.
Although Bravo Co, 5th Batt, 7th Cav was in Cambodia for nearly eight weeks (not leaving until the end of June) the first two weeks were the toughest as far as combat and casualties. 7 of their soldiers were killed and many more wounded in the fierce, sometimes hand-to-hand, combat. During these two weeks, Eldon’s platoon was reduced from 27 men down to 12, and a recon company was flown in to join them in what was to become the signature battle for these troops. They were to take one particular hill, Hill 423, and the four platoons fighting the battle were in constant combat for more than 24 hours, taking tremendous casualties. Eldon was among them, getting sprayed with shrapnel from a hand grenade or mortar round just before they reached their goal. He was airlifted by a Huey back to safety. Although losses were severe to the Americans, the North Vietnamese suffered even more deaths and wounded. Ultimately, the hill was taken; and what the men discovered was nothing short of incredible. At the top of the hill were enormous underground bunkers the size of houses. It took the men more than a week to load up the more than 2000 weapons and 200 tons of ammunition that they had captured. It was probably the largest NVA cache captured in the Vietnam war. Although the troops suffered major casualties, they had a sense of satisfaction in knowing that the arms they captured probably saved many more American lives and casualties. 124 of Eldon’s fellow soldiers entered Cambodia, but only 52 of them made it to the top of that hill.
After a three day rest at Fire Base Neal - with some hot food, baths, and cold beer - Eldon and his unit were returned to Cambodia for an additional four weeks. Fortunately, there were fewer contacts with the enemy this time, perhaps owing to the enemy’s loss of supplies from the Army’s first two weeks there. Not only were they among the first to enter Cambodia, they were the last to leave when the mission was completed.
The hill that they had conquered was immediately named “Shakey’s Hill” after one of their younger troops, a baby-faced, 18½-year-old draftee they had nicknamed Shakey, who had been killed in the battle there. There is an award-winning DVD available for sale at Motts Gift Shop [or on-line] called “Shakey’s Hill.” With Bravo Company during this fierce battle was an imbedded cameraman for CBS news who documented the action with live movie footage. In 2004 he purchased his films back from CBS, interviewed the troops of Bravo Company at a reunion, and created his documentary. Norman Lloyd has spent more than 34 years filming for CBS News and 60 Minutes but thinks this is his best work of his career. Eldon Erlenbach is one of those interviewed and featured in the film.
In a related note, Joe Sepesey, pilot of the Huey we have on display in our museum and featured in an earlier edition of “From the Trenches,” has mentioned to Eldon that he recalls landing a Huey on Shakey’s Hill. Also, during one particular incident aboard a helicopter that Eldon was a passenger on, just prior to takeoff on October 27, a squad leader accidentally fired his M-16 (in full auto,) wounding both the pilots. W/O Sepesey was right next to Eldon’s helicopter waiting to takeoff in his Huey. When he saw the problem, Sepesy shut down his Huey and came to the aid of Erlenbach’s pilots. Only in a chance meeting at Motts some 36 years later did the two discover how close they’d been to one another during that particular accident. Had that M-16 been fired a few moments later, the results would have been catastrophic. The Huey would have been airborne, and probably all nine aboard would have died in the resulting helicopter crash. Less than a week after that close call, Eldon was shipped back to CONUS. He had seen and done enough these past eleven months.
One of the sad but true realities for a unit like the 5th/7th which saw so much combat is that there was nobody to write citations and input paperwork for these heroes. Many of the men were deserving of awards for gallantry, but only one received the silver star. The reason was simple. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the officers and senior NCOs who could submit these soldiers for awards were killed.
A not-so-fond but vivid memory of Eldon’s was the reason why our American troops in combat often looked disheveled, like a ragtag militia. Every three to six days, helicopters would drop a supply of “new” uniforms. While shipment may have been laundered, they would simply dump a pile of clean but often well-used clothing, whereby the troops fended the best they could at getting items from the heap that fit. If a guy happened to be out on sentry duty when the “uniforms” arrived, he might be forced to take whatever was left after the others had scavenged what they wanted from the pile. There were no nametags or rank, and often guys had to cinch up trousers that were several sizes too big. None of the clothing was new; and it sometimes showed extreme wear and tear. But it was clean.
The “whop-whop” of helicopters was always a wonderful and reassuring noise to the troops out in the jungle. Even if the soldiers couldn’t see them, just that welcome sound alone made the GI’s feel more secure and immediately confirmed they had not been forgotten. And, of course, those same Hueys brought them food, supplies, news, and sometimes mail. The helicopter pilots were worshipped by these troops for all the support they provided. The helicopters were literally the grunts’ lifeblood.
The 5th Bat, 7th Cav, was returned to Ft. Hood TX in early 1971 and deactivated. It has been activated once again for Iraq & Afghanistan, where its soldiers have served admirably. Meanwhile Sergeant (E-5) Eldon Erlenbach was transferred back to CONUS where he served for a number of weeks with the 15th Cavalry at Ft. Knox, KY, before being transferred to the 454th Mechanized. Here he became licensed to drive APCs. He recalls that various college ROTC units would train using the 454th’s equipment during bivouac. At the end of the training day the trainees would be hauled off for a hot meal, hot showers, and a warm bed that evening, while Eldon & his fellow soldiers remained out in the cold with the tanks & APCs.
Eldon Erlenbach was honorably discharged on June 18, 1971, as an E-5 (Sergeant) having earned a Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal w/V Device, Air Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, w/60 device, and the Combat Infantryman’s Badge.
It was while stationed at Ft. Knox and making frequent trips to Columbus during his free time that Eldon met his soon-to-be wife, Gail. They were married in 1972 and have raised two daughters who have made them the proud grandparents of four granddaughters and a grandson.
Upon his discharge Eldon returned to his job at Middleton Printing and spent his entire working career in the printing business, retiring on August 31, 2007, from another company, Excelsior Printing. He and Gail now enjoy traveling and spending time with their daughters and grandchildren, sometimes taking the grandkids with them on trips. Most recently they visited Gettysburg and Washington DC with a granddaughter. They have been to several reunions of the 7th Cavalry together, the first being in 2004 in Texas. Each Veterans Day they try to attend functions in Washington DC with his combat buddies, presenting a wreath at The Wall to commemorate their lost brethren.
Eldon Erlenbach is a frequent visitor to our museum, a gentle and humble man who did what he was asked to do for his country (and more.) He returned from Vietnam proud of what he and his fellow soldiers had accomplished. He has no regrets. He’s no doubt more patriotic than the majority of Americans, because he knows first hand the sacrifices that have been made for our freedoms. We are honored to have him as a member and part of our Motts Military Museum family. Thank you for your service, Eldon. And “Welcome home!”
I never knew about the uniform situation- how they were given old uniforms and of course they usually weren't the right size. My guess is most Americans don't know that about Vietnam veterans, and may not be as critical of their appearance if they did. God Bless those who served in Vietnam, and thank you for what you went through!