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Ramon “Tony” Nadal can forget a lot of things in his life, but even the passage of half a century has not dulled the memory of three scorching days in the jungles of Southeast Asia during one of the most significant battles of the Vietnam War.
A mission to hunt down North Vietnamese troops who had attacked a military base in their area turned into a fight for survival as Nadal and his fellow soldiers quickly found themselves outnumbered 2,400 to 192. At least 79 men died as the Americans desperately fought their way out of the jungle in what would become known as the Battle of LZ X-Ray, one of the first major clashes in a war that would drag on into the next decade.
“I was ready to give my life for my soldiers,” said the retired U.S. Army colonel in a new short film released by AARP Studios for Memorial Day.
Nadal, a Georgia native and West Point graduate, says in the film that as a young soldier he eagerly jumped at the opportunity to volunteer in the Army’s Special Forces units, which were shipping out to Laos in the early 1960s.
“I always felt my duty was to move to the sound of the guns,” he said.
On Nov. 14, 1965, Nadal, then acting as a rifle company commander for the Army's 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry unit, was instructed by Lt. Gen. Hal Moore to inspect a mountain in Vietnam’s Ia Drang Valley for enemy troops who had attacked a military base weeks earlier.
Shortly after his company dropped into the 100-degree temperatures of the central highlands, Nadal recalls the Army capturing a prisoner, who said his unit – which was there to “kill Americans” – was taking up residence in the nearby Chu Pong Mountain.
“Col. Moore realized for us it would be a battle of survival,” Nadal said, noting that the Americans’ forces were heavily outnumbered at the time and having to shift their focus to protect LZ X-Ray, the landing site in the jungle.
Less than an hour later, heavy fighting broke out between the two sides. At one point in the first day of the battle, Nadal recalls running into a platoon sergeant lying in the grass, who said his leader was dead.
"I had told my soldiers we were not going to leave anyone behind"
Nadal, along with his communications sergeant, then decided to retrieve the lieutenant’s body amid the heat of battle, only to find another wounded soldier alongside the officer. Nadal first recovered the lieutenant's body, then went back a second time -- under enemy fire and grenade blasts -- to save the other soldier.
“I had told my soldiers 'we are not going to leave anyone behind',” Nadal said.
Amid the fighting, a platoon also became isolated from the rest of the American forces, and Moore instructed Nadal to lead his tired troops to rescue them.
"We have to go bring back a platoon from B company,” Nadal told FoxNews.com in an email, recalling the pep talk he gave to rally his troops. “They are your friends, your buddies. B Company will be with us. Check your weapons and fix bayonets. I then climbed out of the creek bed and said, ‘follow me.’”
In the charge to rescue the isolated troops, Nadal said three of his friends were gunned down to the left and right of him – but he was unscathed. He likes to think that he was spared due to a technical problem in the machine gun that was firing at him.
With the assistance of white phosphorous smoke that was shot at enemy positions from U.S. aircraft, Nadal and his company were able to rescue the isolated platoon -- but not without heavy losses. His company lost 15 men in the fighting at LZ X-Ray and the battalion had lost 79 men overall. North Vietnamese deaths totaled 834 and Nadal received a Silver Star for his efforts in the battle.
“I feel the loss of all my soldiers,” Nadal said. “When you get through all the bravado… what you are left with is anguish. I have found help -- and the help is that the soldiers that fought at LZ X-Ray have been gathering together for the last 22 years and we have annual reunions. We have gotten very close.”
The AARP video, titled, “The Battle I’ll Never Forget,” features rarely seen footage of LZ X-Ray, including scenes of Nadal himself.
Producer TJ Cooney told FoxNews.com that the search for actual battle footage was arduous as text descriptions of videos in Washington, D.C.’s National Archive initially were mislabeled.
After getting in touch with Joe Galloway, the author of “We Were Soldiers Once… And Young” -- which was later adapted into a movie starring Mel Gibson -- Cooney said he was mailed Galloway’s copy of video from the battle and was able to sync it up to footage from the Archives.
Cooney said during production of the film he showed Nadal the scenes of LZ X-Ray, and at one point, Nadal said “oh that’s me, that’s me right there.”
“He was so pleased to see that it was film of him,” Cooney told FoxNews.com “And it really brought him back to that moment in time. It was really great to have actual footage of Tony Nadal and Col. Moore.”
Cooney said the AARP, which featured Nadal's heroics in a magazine article, decided to make a film after seeing YouTube videos of him speaking online.
“We saw the passion and he had for his soldiers and thought he did a really good job articulating that passion he had,” Cooney said.
As for Nadal, this upcoming Memorial Day, his thoughts are “a sense of loss for the lives that could have been and pain at the loss of my soldiers.”
“I also think about the absurdity of war,” he told FoxNews.com. “There has to be a better way.”