By W. Wayne MarlowApril 29, 2015
ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. -- A Rock Island, Illinois, native who received three Silver Stars for heroism in the Vietnam War enthralled First Army leaders here Monday with his firsthand account of a five-day firefight in the Vietnam jungle.
"I've never been so scared in my life," said William L. Albracht, author of "Abandoned in Hell: The Fight for Vietnam's Firebase Kate". "But, once I realized I was going to die, I didn't have that fear."
Albracht spoke during a professional development session that was part of the First Army Commanders Conference being held this week at the unit's headquarters. First Army leaders participating in the session read Albracht's book before his presentation.
Albracht was serving as a Special Forces captain in 1969 in Vietnam when Firebase Kate came under heavy, incessant fire. His quick thinking and decisive actions led to the rescue of 150 American and indigenous Montagnard Soldiers.
Immediately after graduating from Alleman High School in 1966, Albracht and a friend had joined the Army. "We told the recruiter we wanted to join the Airborne infantry and go to Vietnam. He looked at us like we had two heads and said, 'You know what, I've got a couple places for you."
Eventually, Albracht found himself at Firebase Kate, a remote hilltop outpost with just 27 U.S. Soldiers and 150 South Vietnamese militiamen. In late October of 1969, 6,000 North Vietnamese Soldiers surged across the Cambodian border and launched a dawn attack with rockets, mortar, artillery, machine guns and small arms.
Albracht and the other Soldiers fended off relentless ground assaults despite being outnumbered nearly 40 to 1.
In addition to engaging in hand-to-hand combat, Albracht continually exposed himself to enemy fire to direct air strikes, guide helicopters, distribute supplies, and rescue the injured. After being wounded, Albracht refused medical evacuation and continued to fight 24 hours a day. After five days, with the water gone and ammunition running low, Albracht led a gutsy night march through enemy terrain.
Albracht explained to the assembled leaders that Army training had prepared him for this. "In Officer Candidate School, they really did their job well, then I went to Special Forces training and that was like getting a doctorate in leadership," he said. "The final decision is yours, and you have to live and die by it."
That decision-making ability is among the reasons First Army commanding general, Lt. Gen. Michael S. Tucker, asked Albracht to address First Army leaders.
"Lt. Gen. Tucker wanted me to talk about making decisions when you don't have a lot of information. Things have to be decided, men have to have orders, and they have to go forward," Albracht said. "You, as a junior officer, are right there on the lead and you have to assess the situation and make a decision. I led from the front, so I always knew what was going on and I wasn't waiting for reports to come back. If one of my elements was in trouble, I would go out and find them."
With his training and status as the only infantry officer on Firebase Kate, Albracht knew what he had to do when they ran out of water, had nearly exhausted their ammunition, and knew no air support or reinforcements were coming.
"It was up to me," he said. "We got ambushed. We knew we were going to die that night. I made my peace with the almighty and said, 'Let me get as many men out as I can before you take me.' We had to traverse the jungle, and they were out everywhere looking for us. If there was ever a perfect ambush site, that was it."
Against amazing odds, Albracht and his Soldiers made it out of danger. "We left there about 8 o'clock at night on Nov. 1 and got to safety at 11:30 the next morning," he said.
During his presentation, Albracht raised the question of whether leaders are born or made. He believes the latter.
"I was no leader in high school. The most important thing I did was play football and, as I get older, I get better," he joked. "I had no leadership skills whatsoever. But the Army, especially OCS and Special Forces, taught them to me."
His Army training included the "three m's of leadership" -- mission, men and me, in that order of importance. He applied that principle, he said, when braving enemy fire to rescue wounded Soldiers, and when refusing medical evacuation after being hit in the firefight.
"When you lead from the front, Soldiers know you're going to be with them, and they know you're taking the same gambles as they are," Albracht said. "You must consult your subordinates, but the end result will be your decision, and you will live and die by that decision. I never engaged any operation without consulting my senior noncommissioned officers and drawing on their vast knowledge. But I didn't consult them when the shots started firing.
"I knew what to do because I had been trained and knew I needed to make quick decisions under pressure. When you get ambushed, you have to keep moving. You can't sit there and fire from the kill zone."
After leaving the Army, Albracht served as a Secret Service agent, guarding four U.S. presidents. He later managed executive security operations for the Fort Motor Company. "It was Detroit; I got out of there as quick as I could," Albracht said. "I had already done a combat tour."
The session with Albracht left a strong impression on attendees. Command Sgt. Maj. Kevin J. Greene, senior enlisted advisor for the Army's Reserve's 85th Support Command, said he admired the heroism and leadership that Albracht displayed
"I thought it was a great presentation and really compelling," he said. "One of the things that amazed me the most was that he was not a bitter man after being hung out to dry like that. I can't even comprehend what that man went through."