The Battle of Xom Bung

This photo, taken from the air, shows the battlefield site where Dick Wolfe perished. On January 6, 1968, Alpha Company came out of the rice paddies in the lower part of the picture and proceeded up the narrow trail that winds into a wood line in the upper right portion of the photo. They continued forward until they stumbled upon a well-hidden and heavily defended system of VC bunkers.

Putting together all the information we had gathered about the battle in a coherent manner—personal letters, diary, and journal accounts, personal interviews, and official document narratives was like trying to solve a detective mystery. Different stories of how the battle unfolded varied. One of the most mysterious and debated aspects of the engagement concerned the circumstances of Dick Wolfe’s death and his whereabouts during part of the battle. Different official records and reports listed different causes of his death—from small arm gunshot wounds to rocket-propelled grenade injuries. Reports were also wide-ranging regarding the types of wounds he had and which were fatal. For some time, Dick was also reported as missing in action during the frenzied conditions of that day. The story of the discovery of his body and the discussion of how he may have died, based on the circumstance of his body’s discovery, also varied greatly. We discussed all these elements to a great degree in our book, Summer Wind.

Recently, yet another firsthand account of the discovery of Dick Wolfe’s body was sent our way by a former Alpha Company soldier, Steve Koester. We wish to share his story.

I was the RTO (radio telephone Operator) for the 2nd platoon leader, 2nd Lt. Shepard. The 2nd made the initial contact [at Xom Bung] and managed to disengage and pull back and in doing so, we passed by the 3rd platoon to which Dick’s small group of 4th platoon people was attached to for the day. The VC moved around on both sides of us and were trying to encircle us to eliminate artillery and air strikes on their position. We managed to get back into some open rice paddies where we were pinned down. The group Dick was in apparently was engaged before they got out of the woods. After artillery and air strikes, the 2 platoon again was ordered into the woods where Dick’s group was at the last time I saw them. We entered the wood line and found Dick shortly thereafter. I can still see him as I write this. He was sitting with his back against a tree and with his legs stretched out like he was resting. The 2nd platoon medic examined him and thought he was still alive, but a senior medic came and pronounced him expired. I was only a few feet away when all this took place as I had the radio they were communicating with. I saw no wounds at all, and Dick appeared to be just sleeping up against that tree but I noticed immediately his rifle wasn’t there when we found him, so I assumed he was dead and the enemy had taken it. As I said, I saw no visible wounds and always assumed it was small arms fire but I guess I don’t really know. I do know he looked at peace, not sprawled on the ground or anything like that just sitting up against that tree like he never knew what hit him. It was a terrible battle with many casualties. I received a purple heart back in August and was sure this time I wouldn’t make it. This day is always remembered by us just as the BATTLE OF AGINCOURT in Shakespeare’s works was by that band of brothers.

Steve Koester’s memories of the battle, shared recently, were not included in our book, but the memories of several other participants in those events were. Many details will simply never be definitively known about the battle of Xom Bung—forever lost in the fog of war.