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[This section covers a tour with the 1st SF Group including TDY trips to MACV-SOG in Vietnam, Korea, Taiwan, & Philippines Oct 1967-April 1970]
Within twenty four hours after I arrived on Oki, I learned "the other half of the story.” It was true that the 1st Group no longer sent teams TDY to the 5th Group — they only sent teams TDY to MACV-SOG [Military Advisory Command Vietnam-Studies and Observations Group]. I went ballistic.
If you wanted to commit suicide, SOG was the place to be. In fact, that’s what the enemy called their RTs, "Suicide Squads.” I forget who, but someone told me the SOG lurps "averaged" 200% casualties annually at that time. Back then SOG and Project Delta lurps were simply referred to as "RT’s" which was a nickname for "Recon Teams.” Officially, SOG was an acronym for "Studies and Observation Group," but that was just its "cover" name. Actually, SOG was really a Special Operations unit. I seem to recall our orders read that we were assigned to 5th Special Forces Group [Abn], C&C Detachment. C&C in this case being Command & Control which was another name for MACV-SOG.
SOG casualties were so high by1968 that SOG was taking anybody from any outfit who was dumb enough or brave enough or crazy enough to volunteer regardless of their age, rank, experience or training. They just had to volunteer for SOG and lurp duty. [About four months later, I learned that you didn't even have to volunteer for SOG duty. Almost all of the special forces men who are still listed as MIA were on SOG RTs and there are a lot of them in that status, about 25, especially when you consider how few Americans served in that tiny outfit. About 30 years later, after this was all de-classified, I learned that SOG was the most decorated unit in the war, maybe of any war.]
The 1st Group assigned me to Master Sergeant George "Pappy" Townsend’s A Team. Captain Bauer was the Team Leader and Lieutenant Purdy the Executive Officer. The other enlisted men were Max "Fat Max" Recod, our Light Weapons Man, Jesse Simmons, our Operations Sergeant, Dale Jennings, our Assistant Medic, Doug "Doc" Hardy, our Medical Supervisor, Larry D. Jenkins, our Heavy Weapons Man, Joe Payne, our Demolitions Sergeant, John Gilgren, my radio man, and David B. "Big Dave" Taylor, our Assistant Demo man.
The company sergeant major several of us to be an instructors in a three week Basic Airborne Course that the 1st Group was about to conduct. They assigned me to be a platoon cadre and I also worked the 34 foot tower during tower training and acted as jumpmaster during jump week. Most of the students in my platoon were Marine Force Recon troops from Vietnam, I only had a handful of army soldiers and one air force captain. Those poor marines came straight from Vietnam wearing filthy jungle fatigues. The clothes they wore was all they had with them. They had no spare uniforms nor helmets, packs, etc. Jump school administration guys saw to it that they got the clothing and equipment that they needed to attend the course. How, I don’t know. Like everything else in SF they just somehow managed to do it.
Naturally, I went at being a Jump School Cadre the same way I went at being a Drill Sergeant. During Tower Training, a student in my door kept hesitating in the door when I slapped him on the butt and commanded him to, "Go!” The student was a lieutenant. Regardless of what I did, and I tried every trick that I knew to get him to overcome his fear of that tower, he would not jump. He ended up quitting!
One day during jump week while flying to the drop zone, I noticed one of my students who was a young army enlisted man — his expression told me that he was going to freeze in the door when he reached it. He had that 1,000 meter stare, his face was paper white and he was chewing his gum about a-mile-a-minute. They were already standing and hooked up, just waiting for the green light so I walked back to him, got nose-to-nose with him, and screamed, "When you hit the ground, go directly to the sergeant-in-charge of the DZ and tell him to give me ten pushups for laying out such sloppy panels.” He stared at me in sheer disbelief. Still nose-to-nose, I yelled as loud as I could, "Is that clear?” "Clear sergeant," he yelled back. That poor dumb-ass knew that the sergeant down there would make him pay dearly for telling him to do pushups. He had other problems on his mind now besides going through that damn door and when it came his turn, out he went just like he had been taught. When the class met the following morning, that same young soldier came up to me and said, "Sergeant Valentine, I was so damn scared yesterday, I was going to quit. But when you ordered me to deliver that message to the Sergeant on the DZ, I forgot all about being afraid of jumping.” [Maybe I missed my calling — maybe I should have been a mind-reader.]
Before that course ended, they selected some of the instructors, me included, to stay there and conduct a two week Jumpmaster Course. The marines stayed for this course also because in order to get the navy parachutist badge they had to make ten jumps. So we helped them out by putting them through the Jumpmaster Course. That course had no physical training and no harassment, it was just one week of academics, practicing from the tower, and then jump week.
At the end of the Jumpmaster Course, my team was designated for pre-deployment training which was commonly referred to as "mission training.” Seven A Teams from the 1st Group, they were going to MACV-SOG in Vietnam for six months. We used the Jump School Area as our training headquarters. We got plenty of physical training, which didn’t bother me. I had just spent three weeks as a jump school cadre and three weeks preparing for jump school. Some of the older sergeants were dropping behind on the runs. One morning after we had finished a run, the Major, who was in charge of our training, commented on the men lagging behind on the runs and said, "When I drop out, you can drop out.” Snuffy Smith, who was suffering from the "Queen of All Hangovers," was one of those who had lagged behind on that particular run. [Remember this, you will see this again later.]
We also spent a week or two training at Camp Hardy, our training camp on the beach in northern Okinawa. We came in to the beach by rubber boats and ran through a demolition obstacle course with guys on the hills shooting over our heads and setting off C-4 explosive charges along the way. We trained in tracking people and we ran five miles each day. The training camp commander, Lieutenant Colonel H., reminded me a lot of Charging Charlie Beckwith. Colonel H. must have thought that we were Navy SEALs because we dressed like SEAL students and we even used the same exercises they used during PT. That is a bit stupid. SEALs work mostly in water, we walk, climb, crawl and run — wearing boots and carrying rucksacks or field packs. That tidbit of information didn’t seem to sink into that Light Colonel’s head so we wore tennis shoes for PT instead of jungle boots, we did the "dying cockroach" exercise instead of our normal routine and we ran through the surf before we headed out for our daily five mile jaunt down the highway in our wet tennis shoes filled with sand. That guy definitely impressed me as having one loose rafter in his attic. Latrine rumors had it that colonel was addicted to pep pills and while we were there I saw nothing that would dispute that rumor.
The very best all-around physical training exercise for conditioning Grunts to be Grunts, is cross-country speed marches with each person carrying a minimum of 50 pounds in their rucksack. With the Proficiency Course in Thailand, the 1st Group had access to the best lurp training available to the SF community outside of Vietnam, but for some strange reason they chose not to send their troops to that course in Thailand or to the lurp school at Nha Trang, Vietnam. There was no school to train SF men how to be efficient Hatchet Force leaders or A Camp members either for that matter.
In early 1968, I think it was late February, we shipped out to MACV-SOG duty in Vietnam. The specific unit was known as Detachment B-50 which was also known as "Omega Projects" or "Project Omega.”
This super secret stuff gets very confusing so bear with me. Don’t be intimidated by it. It is intentionally designed to confuse you. As you may recall, I mentioned earlier that I was told that Project Omega troops were the ones that the CIA used to instigate the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. To many people, the date of the Gulf of Tonkin incident officially marks the beginning of the Vietnam War so far as the involvement of American forces is concerned. That is baloney. American forces had been involved in Vietnam affairs for many years prior to that incident. Colonel Aaron Bank, the father of Special Forces, as a captain, parachuted alone into Vietnam for the OSS back in the 40s and met with Ho Chi Minh. Colonel Bank recommended that the USA support Ho Chi Minh because he was primarily a nationalist who was forced to rely on the communists for support. Had we heeded Colonel Bank's advice, we could have avoided the most costly war in our history and in my opinion, the most senseless war in this century with the Korean War running a close second.
The Major who had been in charge of our mission training was not going with us to SOG. He and the Group commander stood together and waved bye-bye as the big C-130s slowly pulled out from the marshaling area at Kadena Air Base. The tailgate was still down when Snuffy Smith got up and walked back to the very rear of the plane and yelled, "Can we quit now, Major?” The major’s face turned beet red and everyone on the aircraft broke out laughing.
My services on a SOG lurp were requested, but I refused to volunteer. I figured that Hatchet Force duty would be tough enough. After serving a year with Project Delta and Charlie Beckwith, I knew better than to volunteer for the lurps.
We were stationed at three different SOG FOBs [Forward Operations Base] during this tour. We were first stationed at the FOB in Ho Nhoc Tao which was located in III Corps. Then we were at the Khesanh FOB which was located immediately south of the DMZ [demilitarized zone] in I Corps [we referred to it as " Eye core" instead of "first core"] where the NVA had just introduced tanks into the war. When our tour ended, we were at the Marble Mountain FOB in Danang on China Beach, still in I Corps. The last FOB was also known as CCN and also had a FOB number which I forgot.
The US Army’s largest base in Vietnam at that time was Long Binh which was located about halfway between Saigon and Bien Hoa. Ho Nhoc Tao was located about halfway between Long Binh and Saigon. Three of our team members volunteered to go on Recon Patrols while we were stationed there. It was obvious to me by their preparations that none of them had any prior lurp experience or training.
At night we could sit outside and watch the gun ship known as "Spectre" work. This gun ship, formerly known as "Puff the Magic Dragon," had been up-dated since I had last been in Vietnam and was now a C-130 instead of a C-47. Spectre was armed with two 7.62mm mini-guns, one 40mm chain gun and one 105mm cannon that was mounted on the tailgate or at least that’s what I heard. Puff had only been armed with six 7.62mm mini-guns. It was hard to believe that they were firing a 105mm cannon from a damn plane. It was still "Puff" to me. "Spectre" just didn’t sing, if you know what I mean. It didn't sound right. Now, "Puff," that fits perfect.
While we were still at Ho Nhoc Tao, I dislocated a toe while jumping from the bed of a 2 ½ ton truck to a paved road. At the time, I was on the Saigon-Bien Hoa Highway at the main entrance to the main army camp at Long Binh. I had just hitch-hiked there from Ho Nhoc Tao. After I was injured, I hobbled over to the MP at the gate and asked him where the dispensary and the NCO Club were located. He told me and I hobbled to the NCO Club because it was the closest. There I had about four or five bourbons and then hobbled to the hospital. That was a very busy hospital. Seeing all of those kids torn up so badly, made me feel guilty being there with something so simple as a dislocated toe. It didn’t take them but about an hour total to xray it and then pop it back in place. The doctor gave me a shot of lime-green liquid and said he would be back in a few minutes to pop that toe back in place. I do not know what he gave me, but when he came back, he asked me if it still hurt and I said hell yes, but I don't care. Now I could understand how people could become addicted to dope. Later, I asked the nurse if I could get a gallon of that lime-green stuff To-Go. I hobbled back out to the main gate and thumbed a ride back to our camp.
During the rest of that tour in Vietnam, I hobbled, especially when I was on a hard surface. In sand, I didn’t have any problem walking, but I couldn’t walk on a hard surface without limping. [When we finally got back to Oki, the hospital there put a support bar across the sole of my left jungle boot and that’s when it finally healed. It took almost 18 months for that foot to fully heal.]
After about a month at Ho Nhoc Tao, we were transferred to the Khesanh FOB to reinforce it in March 1968. They also sent every A Team that had left Oki with us to SOG. Things were really getting hot there. The 5th SF Group had an A Team camp just west of a small village called Lang Vei which was a few miles west of Khesanh. Lang Vei and Khesanh were located in the Northwest tip of South Vietnam. Lang Vei was the end of the American supply line in I Corps. The SF camp at Lang Vei was the farthest American-manned post from Saigon. Lang Vei was situated right smack in the middle of the huge trail network that we called the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Khesanh was located on a nearby plateau. Westmoreland obviously hoped to draw the NVA into massing their troops to attack Khesanh so he could bring our fierce air power to bear on them.
France had their French Foreign Legion try this tactic at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. It turned into a disaster and cost them their colony in Indochina. Unlike the Americans at Khesanh, the French did not have sufficient air power to support their camp. However one thing the Khesanh Combat Base had in common with Dien Bien Phu was neither camp occupied the dominating hills in the immediate vicinity. America was supposed to provide the air power, but President Eisenhower backed out of the agreement after it was too late to save the French paratroops.
I don’t know for certain why Westmoreland thought Khesanh was so critical, but the answer has to be — location. Khesanh was located near the Ho Chi Minh Trail network and the border with North Vietnam. Khesanh had a good airfield. Mr. Pisor, author of The End of the Line ,wrote ”The marines very strongly resisted moving into Khesanh. One marine general said, 'When you’re at Khesanh, you’re not really anywhere. It’s far from everything. You could lose it and you really haven’t lost any damn thing.’ “ Much of the following information on Khesanh and Lang Vei was taken from Mr. Pisor’s excellent documentary, The End of the Line.
Originally, only a 5th Special Forces Group A Team was located at Khesanh. Then SOG put an FOB there near the airfield in an old French concrete bunker. A large part of the US Marine 26th Regiment was moved in later in 1966 under the command of Colonel David E. Lownds. He immediately applied the RHIP [rank has its privileges] principle and commandeered the bunker. The SOG FOB eventually took over the 5th Group camp and 5th Group relocated their A Team to a Bru village called Lang Vei about 6-8 miles farther west.
Any SF in that area now had more to worry about than the enemy. They also had to hide from the marines. The marines had a nasty habit of firing on anything that moved that wasn’t wearing a marine uniform and sometimes those that did wear their uniform. SF was accustomed to operating in small units without artillery support. Now they had to dodge "friendly" artillery. Marines fired artillery and mortars at random with no regard for the local natives in Khesanh. Marine aircraft killed100 Bru natives in Lang Vei with air strikes.
One day Sir Charles decided to kill a few marines at Khesanh and get rid of the SF camp at Lang Vei at the same time. He started out by probing the marine OPs [outposts] on the hills west of Khesanh. While everyone was concentrating on saving those OPs, he mounted a massive attack against the SF camp at Lang Vei and completely destroyed it. The next A Team re-built the Lang Vei camp, but this time they built it atop a knoll about four miles west of Lang Vei.
This time SF built a fortress at Lang Vei. SF soldiers were infamous as scroungers and apparently the Lang Vei team had recruited one of SF’s finest scroungers. Their scrounger somehow found and imported some high quality large teak timbers from somewhere out of country to use in their bunkers. They could not cut local trees with a chain saw because they were so full of shrapnel. But even if you felled local trees with axes, the timbers would quickly rot in the humid climate or the termites would make short work of the wood. Either way, the timber and your bunker would soon crumble and cave-in.
SF and the Navy Seabees had a great mutual respect for one another. Probably because they both respected job performance and courage. So, like many other SF Teams before them, they got the Navy Seabees to construct their defenses at Lang Vei. Their command bunker was made of reinforced concrete and it is still intact today. They also erected a chain-link cyclone fence and installed powerful flood lights and generators. Of course the team house was well furnished and properly equipped with a wet bar. The typical SF camp in Vietnam had fighting positions along the wall, trenches that connected these positions, sleeping and ammunition bunkers on the backside of this trench, and mortar and recoilless rifle positions in the middle of the camp.
Someone once asked an SF sergeant, "How does special forces build their fortified camps in South Vietnam?” The sergeant replied, "Well, first you select a good spot for a bar. Next, you build the bar and stock it with the best booze and beer that your team can afford. Then you build the rest of the camp to best defend your bar.” Of course, he was joking. At least — I think he was joking. I am almost positive some consideration was given to tactical location before building the bar. Perhaps the exact site for the bar was based on the view.
The straight-laced marine officers despised special forces soldiers. They considered them to be an undisciplined mob that had no respect for rank or rules and no morals. They considered them to be "a bunch of geeks that drank rice wine and ate rats and snakes with the natives.” Colonel Lownds hated special forces. He called the SF at Lang Vei "hollow-eyed wretches" who were "high on something," and added, "Those miserable wretches are a law unto themselves."
On the other hand, SF considered the marines to be "a bunch of dumbasses that blunder around in the jungles and mountains like a herd of wild elephants and shoot each other in the ass more often than they shoot Sir Charles.”
I strongly suspect that the "hollow-eyed" look was the result of prolonged stress. Every front line, combat-hardened infantryman has had that "look." In this case, part of that stress may have been due to having to avoid marine friendly fire.
Lownds probably felt the way he did about SF partly at least because of what he had seen at the SF camp when he had visited Lang Vei earlier. He had been very shocked by the quality of their defenses and their living quarters which always included a bar. He was especially upset with the quality of timber that the SF camp was getting. None of the marines could figure out how to get that kind of timber. [All they had to do was send a marine enlisted man, preferably their supply sergeant, to the SF camp to ask how he could get such timber for his guys.]
The typical SF soldier knew that any dumb-ass can suffer and live a miserable existence when he’s stuck in a place like that, but with a little extra imagination and effort and a couple of extra bucks, you could live relatively comfortable wherever you were — so they did. Each SF Team improved upon their camp during their tour.
The marines at Khesanh lived like animals, which is normal for any infantry unit, and built shoddy, shallow defenses. They dug shallow holes and many times no holes. Instead of digging, they would pile sandbags up atop the ground and form a very weak bunker or fighting position. Their heavy mortars and artillery pieces used a ring of 55-gallon barrels filled with dirt instead of digging holes to protect their gun and crew. The defenses at Lang Vei were ten times better than anything the marines built at Khesanh. In fact one marine general remarked, "They built the most magnificent bunker you ever laid eyes on.” He was referring to the command bunker at Lang Vei. After the marines had been at Khesanh for a couple of months, they looked a lot worse than the SF troops at Lang Vei or Khesanh. The marine camps became a rat-infested garbage dump. The SF camps had rats, but the Yards considered rats a delicacy so that helped keep our rat population down. The poorly constructed sandbag bunkers were rotting and crumbling. Their camps stank from garbage, urine and feces. The marine combat base at Khesanh was a "Hell-on-Earth."
Lownds was envious and jealous of SF. He hated the idea of risking any of his marines to help SF, if Lang Vei came under siege. So far as that ass was concerned, the SF at Lang Vei were on their own.
Lownds sent out one company on a practice relief of Lang Vei. He instructed them to not use any roads or trails. Actually that made sense because they would almost certainly be ambushed, if the camp were under attack. It took them 19 hours to reach the camp.
On February 7th, 1968 at 0042 hours, the NVA attacked the new SF camp at Lang Vei. Their attack was spearheaded by several light tanks. By 0300 hours Sir Charles had taken the camp. From all accounts that I have read of this action, it was one hell of a fight, but Lang Vei hadn’t been really ready for tanks. I doubt if any SF camp was at that time. They did have two 106mm Recoilless Rifles and several LAWs. LAWs were lightweight, disposable, one-shot rocket launchers, that were supposed to be an anti-tank weapon. Sergeant Holt used one of the106s to knock out three of the tanks and then went for more ammo and just disappeared. He was never seen again. Most of the LAWs malfunctioned. None of the LAWs that worked knocked out a single tank. Not one stinking tank and one of those tanks was hit at least nine times by LAWs. They also had about four 57mm Recoilless Rifles, but they are not effective against a modern tank’s armor.
When one of the SF at Lang Vei radioed that tanks were attacking the camp, he was told by his headquarters that the NVA did not have tanks. He told them, "Wait!” and kept the mike keyed but didn’t say anything. When he took his finger off the key, they asked, "What the hell was all that noise?” He replied, "That’s one of those damn tanks that they don’t have. Its spinning around on top of our bunker trying to crush us!” Sixty percent or more of the indigenous troops were lost and 81 percent of the SF troops were casualties with ten killed and eleven wounded in the battle for this camp.
At the time of the attack, their C Team Commander was visiting Lang Vei. They also had 6 - 8 additional SF troops camped outside their camp working with the thousands of refugees from Laos. These refugees included the armed survivors of a Lao Infantry Battalion that the NVA had forced to retreat out of the Laotian mountains into Vietnam. Six of the SF men outside the camp were medics who were sent to help the ailing refugees. Three of these SF somehow managed to convince the Laotian soldiers to counterattack and led them into the camp, three times. Based on my experience with the Laotians as soldiers "for their government," getting that battalion to "attack" a superior NVA force not just once, but three times, makes all three of those men worthy of a medal for valor.
One of these three SF men was killed on the first attack and another was wounded on the last attack. The wounded SF man was later killed while being driven to Khesanh by the third SF man. Enroute there, a mortar round landed in the vehicle with them. The driver survived the explosion. An ARVN Special Forces officer saved him and the wounded C Team Commander. He got them to the marine combat base at Khesanh where he was disarmed by the marines, as ordered by the camp commander, and turned away from the camp along with the rest of the 5,000 to 6,000 helpless refugees. The survivors of the Lao Battalion and the Bru Soldiers from the Lang Vei camp received the same treatment when they reached the marine combat base. These pitiful masses of unarmed people were sent away to wander around between the opposing forces in No Man’s Land without food, water or a means of defending themselves. Their situation was worse than hopeless because many of them had just fought against the NVA and VC. There would be no mercy for them.
A Marine General, a General Cushman I believe, had been in command of I Corps, but General Westmoreland replaced him with a US Army General the day after Lang Vei fell. As I understand it, Westmoreland had replaced General Cushman, because marine commanders had a very bad habit of under estimating the enemy and because Cushman had personally refused to reinforce the SF defenders at Lang Vei.
After much criticism because there were no Vietnamese troops at Khesanh, which they expected to be the biggest battle of the war, General Westmoreland decided to put the 37th ARVN Ranger Battalion in Khesanh in late January. The marines attached their wire to the SOG Camp’s wire where the two camps joined. They did the same to the wire at the Ranger Battalion camp. No one in either the SOG or the ARVN Ranger’s camp were allowed to cross that wire into the marine camp during a fire fight. Only Americans from the SOG camp could enter the Marine camp at any time and no one from the ranger base could enter it. If the SOG camp or the ranger camp was overrun, it was just tough. The marines had orders to shoot anyone approaching that section of wire during a fire fight. They issued this order because their troops couldn’t tell one of our indigenous troops or the rangers from an NVA, especially at night and during the excitement of a fire fight. Colonel Lownds also stationed all six of his tanks behind the SOG camp. He was very uncomfortable with having 400-500 natives practically inside his camp. The marine artillery and heavy mortars were also spread out along the SOG side of their camp. When Sir Charles and the marines got into an artillery dual all shells passed over one edge of the SOG camp. Of course many of the in-coming rounds always fell short and hit the SOG camp.
A few marines were inside the SOG camp. They were CATs [Civic Action Teams] who were working with the local villagers trying to make life easier for them. When the NVA moved into the area and the air force really began bombing, these villagers were brought inside our camp for protection from the bombing and the marine CATs stayed with them, besides the guys in the SOG camp got a beer ration which they shared with the CATs. The other marines did not get any beer. After the CATs received their first beer ration, they adapted to their new environment with gusto.
Everything outside the Khesanh Combat Base for miles around had been declared a "Free Fire Zone" and SOG lurps had stopped patrolling a long time before. In other words anything that moved outside the marine wire was fair game. If any nearby aircraft had any ammo or bombs left over from their original mission, they flew into this area and unloaded it anywhere they so desired.
Since SOG could no longer run recons out of Khesanh, I thought they should have relocated that FOB. I suspect that SOG’s commander kept them there because he didn’t want to pull out until the marines did. This was some more of that Marine vs SF mentality.
En-route to Khesanh, we stopped over at the marine base in Phu Bai. Several of the marines came up to me and called me by name. At first, I thought that we were about to have a brouhaha, but they were some of the Force Recon troops that I had just put through jump school on Oki. They were friendly and wished us the best of luck.
We took choppers from Phu Bai to Khesanh. About halfway there, the door gunner started firing his machine gun at the ground. We weren’t taking any hits from ground-fire that I knew so I looked out the door to see what he was shooting at. That idiot was firing at everything that moved. Unfortunately, the only targets that I saw were women and children working in rice paddies. This must be what they called a "Free Fire Zone.” No wonder so many Vietnamese sided with the VC and NVA even when they slaughtered entire villages. At least they were Vietnamese slime balls and not round-eye slime balls.
As we neared Khesanh, we did start taking some ground-fire, but not really that much. I noticed that our guys appeared to have dug a lot of trenches all over the area. The trenches looked like a giant spider web with the main camp right in the middle so I mentioned this to the door gunner. He told me, "Those spider web-trenches aren’t yours. They belong to the NVA.” That made my day.
As soon as we hit the ground in the SOG camp, we ran to the command bunker with bag and baggage. This was the largest deepest bunker in the SOG camp. Major David 'Bull Dog' Smith then "lectured" us for almost two hours. The only subject of that lecture was that he, Major Smith, was the Camp Commander and the highest authority. After his tirade finally ended, I whispered to Joe Payne, "Hey Joe, who do you reckon is in charge of this damn place?"
The very next morning after we arrived at Khesanh, our young A Team Executive Officer, Lieutenant Purdy, called me aside. Purdy told me, "Val, I think I heard tanks last night out to our front just beyond that knoll. I think you and I should go out tonight and snoop around.” I said, "That’s okay by me, just make sure I know exactly where the land mines are.” He said, "What land mines?” I told him, "I’m talking about our land mines, Lieutenant. I know in a predicament like this, we must have already planted land mines somewhere outside all of this wire.” "I’ll check on that," Purdy said. I never heard anymore about his idea. I also had not heard any tanks and at that time I could hear a mouse fart a hundred yards away.
As it turned out, the base at Khesanh was encircled by air-dropped seismic/acoustic sensors. The sensors transmitted every sound that the enemy made to airborne communication centers. They forwarded it to a ground-based commo-center who interpreted the information and targeted enemy positions. There really wasn’t much need for one young dumb-ass lieutenant and one old sergeant sneaking far from camp on a dark foggy night.
The NVA had dug trenches right up to the barbed-wire in places, mostly at the ARVN Ranger Battalion positions. No trenches were anywhere near our wire. Regardless, we knew how good Sir Charles was at tunneling and every now and then one SF Sergeant would get the tunnel probe detail. This detail required one man to go through our trenches and at predetermined intervals he would drive a long metal rod into the ground and then retrieve it and repeat that act the entire length of the trench.
Sir Charles never once assaulted our camp while we were there. Hell, they didn’t even probe us. The corpses of some NVA that had tried it earlier were still scattered in a small ravine just about a hundred yards down the road towards the village of Khesanh from our front gate.
The first evening that I went out on a listening post, I spotted one of those bodies. It moved and I almost shot it. It didn’t take but a couple of glances to figure out why the body had moved, a horde of maggots were working on it.
Sir Charles probed the ARVN Rangers almost every night. Maybe they figured the Rangers were the weak link. Maybe they were, but they held and you can’t ask anymore than that.
The camps at Khesanh were located on bald clay hills. The SOG camp was on the southwest side of the combat base near the main gate or at least I think that was the main gate. All of the digging, shelling, and traffic had killed all of the vegetation within the wire. Everyone and everything, except for our weapons, was covered with a thick coat of red clay.
Our camp sent out listening posts at night now and then, but I got the distinct impression that the marines weren’t allowed to do that. Long before we arrived, they had sent out a platoon during daylight hours and they got their clock cleaned and withdrew leaving several dead marines behind. That ticked their CO off, so he sent in a company to get his dead and they again withdrew leaving behind even more dead marines. They decided to leave their dead where they lay and that’s what they did.
While we were there, I only know of one excursion outside the wire in our area by the marines. That marine patrol went out at the crack of dawn on one very foggy morning and walked right in front of our position on its east side where we had a .50 caliber machine gun. They had a problem: someone in the chain of command forgot to inform our troops. An SF sergeant spotted movement out front and opened fire with that big fifty. When he heard all of the yelling and cursing in English he ceased fire. So far as I know, the marines never patrolled outside the wire again. At least they never patrolled outside our wire again.
Our latrine and our shower stall were above ground and peppered with shrapnel and bullet holes. No one ventured to either place during daylight hours. George "Pappy" Townsend, our Team Sergeant from North Carolina, never used either facility day or night. He used an empty ammo can for a latrine. When it was full, he latched the top and threw it outside the wire. George took a whore’s bath out of his steel helmet. Most of us only tried the shower once. When I tried it, the instant that I was completely lathered, the enemy started firing rockets and artillery at us. I ended up being dirtier than I had been before I showered because I dove into a nearby foxhole to duck the shrapnel. That damn clay was hard to wash off in the dark. Using the latrine was at best scary and always done at night. We ate nothing but C-Rations so it wasn’t hard to control your bowels. After a few days of rich C-Rations, your bowels locked-up anyway. No one dilly-dallied in that latrine to read or gab.
I believe there were a couple of 5th Group camps in addition to the SOG camp in Danang. These guys took up collections at their camp clubs [bars] and we were air-dropped a regular supply of soft drinks and beer along with our food and other supplies. As I recall, one can of beer per trooper per week was their minimum goal. Not much, but it beat what those poor marines got, which was nothing! I’m no doctor, but I think the beer ration helped to loosen up our bowels.
All aircraft drew fire. One ground crew counted over two hundred bullet holes in one C-130 that returned from Khesanh. Other than parachuting supplies, the air force used drag chutes to jerk supplies out of the plane while flying only a couple of feet above the airstrip and they also air-landed supplies. When the cargo planes did land, they never stopped. They just whirled around, dropped their tailgate, pushed their cargo out the back as they turned and immediately taxied for take-off with the tailgate still down. They raised the tailgate just before they left the ground. It was all non-stop. If anyone wanted to catch a flight out, that’s exactly what they had to do, catch it on the run before that tailgate went up. Several skeletons of planes littered the area and they tended to encourage the air crews to land and depart hastily. They started landing mostly C-123s instead of the C-130s because the 123 required considerably less airstrip. The 123s flew high almost to the edge of the strip then they dove down to the strip. When the 123s took off, they went almost straight up using jet assists.
One day we heard about a group of marines that were due to leave on the next plane. Some were due for discharge, some were going on R&R, some were due to return home, some were wounded, and of course some were in body bags. They had both walking-wounded and some that were confined to stretchers. They all crouched in the trenches dug along the airstrip for that purpose. A lieutenant that was going on R&R was in the bunch and he took charge. He told the marines when the plane landed they were to load the wounded first, followed by the walking wounded, then the dead and then everyone else could get aboard. When their plane took off and the dust had cleared, on the ground lay a pile of body bags, several wounded that were confined to stretchers and one trampled lieutenant. When choppers landed, the door gunners held their pistol on anyone trying to get aboard until they were satisfied that they were authorized to leave Khesanh.
When Sergeant First Class Richard B. "Bear" Shorten went on R&R from Khesanh, he flew out with some marines. He said that they were hit several times by ground fire as they took off. The aircraft took so many hits all of the passengers stood up at attention to make a smaller target because the rounds were entering from the floor in the cargo bay. A .50 caliber round dropped the marine standing next to Bear. The huge bullet penetrated the floor, went up the side of the leg of the marine, burning his trousers. Then the bullet penetrated the marine’s gas mask carrier that was strapped to his waist and rattled around inside his gas mask carrier but it never came out. Bear said that gas mask carrier jumped and jerked like it was alive. The young marine watched that and then feinted dead away. Bear said, "Hell, I thought that kid was shot dead for sure.” Bear swore that it was true. Strange things happen in war.
The marines provided the drop zone details at Khesanh. The DZ detail recovered all bundles that were parachuted into us and loaded them onto trucks. As soon as a bundle hit the ground, the marines would swarm over it, free it from the parachute harness, and load it on the awaiting trucks. Also as soon as it landed, the NVA mortars would open up. The DZ detail had high casualties.
We were shelled night and day. Some days we received as much as a 1,000 rounds of in-coming rockets, mortars and artillery. GIs in other wars have experienced more in-coming rounds in one day, but none had ever gone through as heavy an artillery, rocket and mortar attack for as long as the one at Khesanh. Sir Charles had to hand carry every single one of those shells all the way from Haiphong Harbor. When interrogators asked one NVA deserter why he had deserted, he said, "I carry two mortar rounds all the way here from Hanoi. It take many, many days. When I hand them to the sergeant, he dropped them down the mortar tube and told me to go back for two more.”
One night after I had hit the sack in our tiny bunker, our 175mm guns zeroed in on our FPL [final protective line] for our camp. Those guns were located on the "Rock Pile" or at "Camp Carroll" maybe ten to twelve miles away East of the Khesanh Combat Base. Somebody forgot to notify us. They just starting firing those big guns. I didn’t even know that we had big guns anywhere nearby and had never heard of the "Rock Pile" or "Camp Carroll.” I thought that the marine artillery was all that we had. Those guns were so far away their sound of their muzzle blast reached us a split-second before the round exploded. It sounded more like direct fire than indirect fire. Bang-Boom! Bang-Boom! Bang-Boom!
When the first round hit, the ground shook and I bounded out of bed, grabbed my rifle and headed for my fighting position yelling, "tanks!” It wasn’t just me, everyone was yelling tanks. Finally some one told us what was going on. Those big rounds were landing about a hundred yards to our front. Trust me, 175mm rounds make a big bang when they explode. We started getting secondary explosions from our mine field. There was a mine field out there after all. We still had no idea where our mines were planted.
When this happened, someone at the main bunker said they were 8" guns, but Mr. Pisor, in The End of the Line, said they were 175mm. I’ll take his word for it. Actually, I think 175mm is pretty darn close to 8”. We obviously didn’t know what was going on. Air support and those damn big guns were what Westmoreland relied on to save Khesanh should Sir Charles try to take the combat base.
War is a lot of noise and mayhem concentrated into one place. Really, I should say that war is one heck of a lot of noise. One old sergeant once described war to me as "organized chaos" and another described it as "endless hours of extreme boredom sprinkled with a few seconds of absolute terror.” They were both right, but it was 'noisy' chaos and 'noisy' terror. Very noisy!
If you could adequately hear instructions, warnings, or an enemy soldier trying to sneak up on you while wearing earplugs, every soldier should be required to use them during bombardments and fire fights. But that is impossible. Earplugs would reduce fear and shock by 99% because the noise of a battle is absolutely maddening. That hellish racket causes as much fear as anything else does, maybe more than everything else combined. If you haven't experienced it, you can’t even begin to imagine how loud it gets and if that isn’t bad enough, the first couple of times you are in a fire fight all of the bad guys seem to be shooting at you, only you. Combine that with the screaming of the wounded and dying and you have a man-made nightmare that you can not wake up from. The only thing that saves a green unit is repetitious, realistic training and a deep trust in, and loyalty to, their buddies.
After years of exposure to loud noises, I now draw compensation from VA for loss of hearing. I'm told, of all types of noise, a muzzle blast has proven to do the most damage to our hearing.
The SOG camp at Khesanh was shaped more or less like a square. The four sides faced to the Northeast, Southeast, Southwest and Northwest. We only manned the Southwest and Southeast sides. The other two sides of the camp joined the marine camp. My team was on the Southwest wall. Every fighting position in our camp that was manned by SF troops had several LAWs. Since the poor performance of the LAWs at Lang Vei, no one trusted them to stop a tank even if they didn’t malfunction. So that meant that the SOG camp had absolutely no defense against a tank attack, except for the marine tanks that were located to our immediate rear and anti-tank mines. Because of the terrain, the marine tanks could not effectively engage the enemy tanks until they were practically on top of our camp. One marine SPAT [self-propelled anti-tank] parked at nights on the marine line to our right. It had a Starlite scope for its 90mm cannon.
While we were at Khesanh, I manned a .30 caliber light machine gun. That had been my assigned weapon for about two years when I was in the 11th Airborne Division during my first hitch. That had been 1955-1957 and I had been 18-20 years old. At Khesanh I was a 31-year old Sergeant First Class and still a machine gunner, well temporarily anyway.
I kept thinking that I had not advanced very far since 1957. Maybe I started my mid-life crisis right then and there.
There was also an M-79 Grenade Launcher in my position along with several rounds of grapeshot [buckshot] for that big sucker too. The grapeshot was in case they bunched up when they came at us. A 40mm grapeshot round cuts a very wide swath. In addition, to those weapons, I also had two or three LAWs [whoopie] and the individual weapons that every A Team man was issued at the time, an M-16 and a .45 automatic.
I manned what was supposed to be a two-man position, but we just didn’t have enough Americans to put anyone else in there with me. Except for the crew served weapon positions, there was only one American per fighting position. If I had another American with me and I out-ranked him, I would probably have assigned him the job of guarding my rear.
We knew from experience how long it took the artillery shells and rockets to reach us once we heard them fired from Co Roc Mountain where they were located. It took from 10 to 12 seconds for them to hit, depending on exactly which cave their gun was in. So we had plenty of time to find a hole. Mortars were a different matter altogether. They were more mobile and fired from a different site and distance each time so there was no timing it.
Like good GIs, we figured out a system. The roof of our tiny sleeping bunker protected us from air bursts and direct hits by small mortars but they were no protection against a direct hit by the rounds larger than 82mm. The larger sleeping bunkers were much wider than a trench and therefore much more likely to take a hit so we ducked into the narrow open trenches when the big guns fired. When the small mortars fired, we jumped into our sleeping bunker.
Khesanh was the only place in Vietnam that I know of where SF always wore flak jackets and helmets. We were fined $500 if we were caught outside without either.
A combat veteran quickly learns to identify the various types of weapons by the sound of their muzzle blast. An M-1 Garand, a BAR and an A-6 all fire the exact same bullet, but they do not sound alike. There was a big difference between the sound of an AK-47 and that of an M-16 or any other weapon. That’s one reason it was not a good idea for one of our guys to use a captured AK-47 in combat, especially in thick undergrowth or at night. His buddies would automatically fire at the sound of the enemy — an AK-47. They also used green tracers while our rifles and machine guns all used red tracers.
One day while I was walking along the top of our parapet and my mind was a thousand miles away, the NVA fired their big guns on Co Roc Mountain. I heard the gun fire, but my mind was on my problems with my wife, and the guns just didn’t register in my brain. The round exploded inside our camp back near the marine’s camp boundary about 100-150 yards behind me. Instead of dropping into the trench when I heard the shell pass overhead, I whirled around and saw it explode. As I stood there watching it, a large piece of shrapnel left the blast and flew right at me. That shrapnel was going to hit me and I knew it the instant that I saw it. No one had ever told me that you could see shrapnel before it hit you. It seemed like an eternity before it reached me and I seemed to be frozen in place, but it was only a split second at most. The shrapnel caught me in the left side of my chest right under the breast, knocked me down and rolled me into the trench, where I should have been in the first place. That piece of shrapnel was about the size of the first joint of my thumb and it was red hot. If I hadn’t been forced to wear a flak jacket that day, the shrapnel would have went straight through to my heart, instead it slightly scarred my flak jacket and knocked the breath out of me. My helmet also stopped a smaller fragment.
A couple of days later, I went over to where some of our Bru soldiers were digging a hole to be used as an ammo bunker. When I approached their 55 gallon water drum, I heard a "Snap-Ping!” and water began squirting out of a small hole that had suddenly appeared in the can. Sniper! The only thing that I had ever been taught about sniper fire came back to me in an instant. That old sergeant had said, "If they miss you, do not let the sniper see you react to his shot and use that to correct his aim. Don’t jump away from where the bullet hit, don’t even glance at where it hit.” So I continued to walk at the same pace, I just changed my course slightly and passed the Bru as I headed for the trench. The Bru thought this was very funny and they were doubled-over laughing. Well, I have to admit that I ran the last ten feet and dove into that trench.
My SF buddies also thought it was great fun. From then on, every time I was above ground, they would pop up like prairie dogs and salute me as if I were an officer — big joke. Any sniper worth his salt will shoot leaders and radiomen first. The next morning when I was walking above ground, almost in the same place, another bullet snapped by my me. That ticked me off and I began ranting, "Ok, you SOB, that did it! You asked for it, now you’re gonna get it. Of all the guys in this freaking camp, you had to pick just me to shoot at. You sorry m.......er, I’m going to shoot you in the ass.” It required me searching bunker-to-bunker looking for a sniper rifle, an M-1 Garand or any heavy caliber long range rifle, but I finally found one. There was only one in camp. One of the marine CATs had an M-14 that had a scope mounted on it and I borrowed that beauty and a pair of binoculars too. I thought, "Now, I gotcha. I’m going to shoot you in your fat little ass.” Meanwhile, all of my buddies were doubled up with laughter.
The next morning before daylight, I bedded down atop the .50 caliber machine gun bunker under some empty sand bags so I would blend in with the bunker. I had already told the SF sergeant on the fifty what I was up to. If I spotted the sniper, I would warn him before I fired. Then when he saw where I was firing, he could also open up with the fifty.
I lay under burlap sacks atop that damn bunker in the hot sun all damn day searching for that asshole-of-a-sniper. I was waiting for him to shoot at someone else or to move so I could spot him. Nothing. The sniper never fired another shot at anyone in our camp. To say that I was disappointed and disgusted would be putting it mildly because I dearly wanted to shoot that SOB. The guys had a big laugh out of this also. I had become their favorite source of entertainment.
We kept open 55 gallon drums scattered along behind our trenches full of water for our Bru soldiers to use as they saw fit. Each SF man got one canteen of water a day. We mostly drank it and brushed our teeth with it. One day some general in starched jungle fatigues toured our camp. He walked along above ground and peeped down into our holes, trenches, and bunkers. He commented on how filthy and unshaven we were to our Team Sergeant, Pappy Townsend, and Pappy replied, "Yes sir. I’ve been on them boys about that. I really gave them hell. I tried and tried to get these boys to clean up. We give these big dummies one whole canteen of water every day General and do you know what they always do with it?” "What sergeant?” "They drink it sir. Every damn drop of it. What am I going to do with them sir?” The general turned beet red and walked off.
One night while on guard duty, I saw some strange lights off to our southeast. The lights were constant, they never blinked or flickered, they never went out and they all constantly moved in a single file. There was no end and no beginning to the line of lights because their line of movement formed a perfect right triangle. Starting at the top of the triangle, they moved fairly fast straight down. From there, they moved at a slightly slower speed to my right and then they moved at an even slower speed back up to my upper left to the point of beginning. Well, at least it was the point of beginning as I am describing it. As I said there was no beginning or no end because it was constant. You could not see them with the naked eye. You had to use either binoculars or a star-light scope. There were many, many lights and they followed very close behind one another. There was no hill in that direction for the lights to climb, at least none that high.
At this time, I had been in the regular army 13 years. Since basic training, all of that time had been spent in paratroop units. Anyone with that kind of experience is very familiar with how aircraft appear day or night, all kinds of aircraft. These were not aircraft — at least as I know aircraft. Because I was beginning to think that I was a shell shock case for sure, I called the sergeant in our 4.2" mortar pit and asked him to take a peek that way with his binoculars and tell me what he saw. He described the same lights. We decided that it had to be VC hauling ammo or some kind of gear and using flashlight, even though I had never before heard of them being bold enough to use flashlights in the open. He fired a couple of rounds just to see what would happen — nothing happened. The lights continued as before. We couldn’t tell, if the rounds were short or over. At any rate, they had absolutely no affect on the lights. Finally, I just stopped watching the lights and I never mentioned them to any of my team mates either. That sniper had already made me their number one source of entertainment anyway. They were still saluting me trying to draw some more fire so they could watch me fuss and fume. Like I said, SF had a rare sense of humor.
Much later at a Special Forces Association reunion at Fayetteville in 1996, I told Max Recod about this light and he told me about a strange light he too had seen at Khesanh. He said, "Val, I saw a weird light one night when I was on guard duty too. I was watching through the Starlite scope and spotted this ball of light come over the ridgeline to our front. It came slowly straight toward me. I thought that it was a VC with some kind of night vision scope. I was going to open up on him when he reached our wire. When that light reached our wire it came right straight through it without hesitation. I could see right through the ball of light and no one was there. Just as it reached our trench line it went straight up and disappeared.” Max had also kept his experience a secret. Now I strongly suspect that what we had seen had something to do with some kind of gas mixing with the atmosphere. Maybe, the VC were eating C-Rations too.
I thought that every A-Team that left Oki with our team was at Khesanh, but I was later proven wrong. One of our young demo men was a Specialist Fourth Class that was on his first hitch in the army. The young demo man went on listening post one night and decided to take a claymore mine with him. That’s okay, but he armed the Claymore before he stuck it inside his shirt. By armed, I mean he had inserted the blasting cap into the Claymore and attached a blasting machine to the other end of the wire. All it needed was just a little pressure on the grip-type of handle on the blasting machine or a blow to the blasting cap. The first time he hit the dirt, he disappeared from the waist up in a big blast and scared the living shit out of the rest of the guys on the listening post detail. He wasn’t on our A-Team and I can’t even remember his name for sure. He was married and I believe he had a kid and they were awaiting him on Oki.
One day while we were still at Khesanh, the NVAs big guns began to fire. Per our unofficial SOP, Jesse and I grabbed a bottle of Old Grandad and dove into the open communications trench. Big Dave and Fat Max also dove into the trench, but then they both decided to dive into the nearest fighting position. The entrance to the fighting position from the trench is through a small portal that connected the two. Dave and Max jammed belly-to-belly in the portal. Their chest was stuck with their shoulders and heads inside the fighting position and their body from the waist down was out in the trench. When the shells were flying, they struggled to get into that damn position with those legs just a-wiggling and them cursing to beat-the-band. During lulls in the shelling, they relaxed and laughed until the next shells started falling and then it began all over again. Jesse and I laughed so hard at those two fools that we almost cried.
When I was with SOG at Khesanh, my anger and frustration at the way we were fighting that stupid war came to a head. Maybe I actually was going through my mid-life crisis, maybe it was the problems with Fran or maybe it was a little of both. Whatever the reason, I was not my normally happy go lucky self.
We heard one day that one of SF’s very best sergeants — a master sergeant, had been killed on patrol. One bullet, just one, had hit him in the right spot and he was dead before he hit the ground. That was when I knew that I had to do something, take a stand, say something, do anything, or I was going to emotionally bust.
That team sergeant had been the epitome of the word "soldier.” SF had many NCOs who should have been officers. In fact most of them could have made good officers, except they weren’t butt-kissing politicians, they weren’t tin soldiers, and they were smart enough to know it. He was one such NCO. He was the perfect image of what everyone expects a special forces soldier to look like and he was also very intelligent, experienced and very team-oriented. He was a professional in every true sense of the word and very popular within SF, enlisted and officers alike.
[When I wrote this, I could not even remember the man's name and that hurt. How stupid and forgetful can a guy be? A buddy of mine recently told me that sergeant’s name. He thought his last name was Manuel and I think he is right.]
One day Captain Bauer stuck his head into our sleeping bunker and asked who wanted to go on R&R first. Jesse Simmons, a slim wiry white man of average height from North Carolina, Big Dave Taylor, a heavily muscled black man from Binghamton, New York, Max Recod, a heavy built Hispanic who was originally from Puerto Rico, and I shared that bunker with a young SF second Looie who was not on our team. Big Dave was the only bachelor from our team that was in our bunker. The only one that raised his hand was me, but I think I was also the only one who was on his third Southeast Asian combat tour and I had learned a long time ago not to let my ego get me killed.
[Usually, I held to that rule, except sometimes when my mind was pickled with booze and we had run out of Old Grandad a long time ago.]
For R&R, they sent me back to Okinawa for a total of five days, including travel time. Fran and I were headed for a divorce and of course that wasn’t helping my emotional situation a bit either. The reason I raised my hand to go back to Oki wasn’t so I could see Fran and it wasn’t just to get away from Khesanh or SOG either; it was so I could speak to my company commander. Right then, I had an irresistible urge to express my opinion about our involvement in that stupid war, especially about the 1st Group’s involvement with someone higher in rank than a major. If the only thing I accomplished was making sure that they knew that we weren’t stupid just because we always did their bidding, I would be happy. I was very angry and frustrated because there was no way to change what was going on.
The 1st Group commander on Okinawa always replaced the 5th Group commander in Vietnam because the 1st Group Commander was the only other SF Group commander who always had troops in Vietnam. Being the Commander of the 5th Group could also make you a general or like one commander, it could break you and get you thrown into the stockade and forced out of the army. That particular commander was one of the best Group commanders that 5th Group ever had.
When I went on R&R, I packed up everything I had brought with me, except for my combat field gear, and took it with me because I wasn’t sure what the outcome of my R&R would be and I didn’t want my buddies to have to pack all of my crap up and ship it to Okinawa. For all I knew, I could have ended up in the stockade on Oki. Besides, I didn’t need all of the crap that they made us take with us to Vietnam anyway. At any rate, I intended to let them know that we weren’t stupid. To phrase it nicely, I was very ticked-off. If you phrased it in SF terminology, I had a bad case of the red-ass. I wasn’t angry at the VC or NVA, I was angry at our stupid, self-serving politicians and generals for the way they were mis-managing that war. I had already learned not to put any faith in the corrupt two-faced Vietnamese officials.
While I was on R&R, I met privately with my Company Commander. I have forgotten his name, I just remember that he was a Japanese-American and a good officer. When I set out to put the bad stuff out of my feeble mind, boy I sure did a good job. I told him, that it was stupid for the US to be so heavily involved in that stupid war and it was even more stupid for the 1st Group to be there. The only reason the 1st is involved in that stupid war is to justify our group commander replacing the 5th group commander. The teams from the 1st Group are not really needed in Vietnam at all, much less in SOG. The 5th Group has enough people assigned to get the job done. The SOG RTs did not need to be manned by SF soldiers. That was a LRRP or Ranger type mission. That type of mission was a waste of special forces troops not to mention the taxpayers money that was spent on all of their lengthy specialized training, especially the SF medics that served on lurps. The members of a SOG RT only needed Basic Combat Training, Advanced Infantry Training, and 3-6 weeks of LRRP training. They also needed more courage than a normal man possessed, a death wish or maybe they needed to be crazy as bed bugs. The one thing no one could find fault with those guys about was courage. If anything, they had too much courage. SOG has plenty of permanently assigned troops to do the job, if they just used them effectively. They were literally wasting the fighting troops we had.
We had a decent company commander and that was rare because officers were the "weak link" in SF at that time. With the patience of Job, he listened to my every word. When I was finally finished ranting and raving while blasting everything and everybody that had anything to do with that war except the field troops, he asked, "Sergeant, what do you intend to do about it.” I told him, "Well sir, just talking to you took care of part of it, at least somebody knows that I’m not a total idiot and neither are any of the other guys. But it just doesn’t seem to be enough. I’m a professional soldier so I can’t do an expose, but I have to do something. I have decided that a "sacrifice" is required to get my emotions back under control. I decided that I am going to "sacrifice" my jump pay. I want to terminate my jump status.” He didn’t get upset at all. He just told me, "You will still return to your team in Vietnam and you probably won’t leave SF.” I told him, "Sir, that’s fine by me, I don’t want to desert my team, I just had to do something or bust.” The guy who prided himself on controlling his temper, let his emotions cost him $55 per month.
I believe that most of SOG’s problems originated with its organization. Many of its operations were centrally controlled from Washington, D.C. Depending on who was in charge of SOG and the FOBs at the time, a SOG FOB commander sometimes could not extract a team under any circumstances without prior approval from MACV-SOG Headquarters in Saigon. I suspect, they dreaded the thought of contacting whoever in Washington had conceived, approved, and tasked SOG with that mission to ask permission to extract the team before they had completed that particular mission. I don't know this for a fact, this was the impression I got. If the decision was made that high up the chain of command, the people that made the decision would usually have no field experience in that type of operations and weren’t SF. I recall being told that the TOC [Tactical Operations Center] maintained charts showing how many teams they had infiltrated during each month and the results of each mission such as enemy losses [body count], number of air attacks called in, results of bombings, etc. I am leary of officers that are chart lovers.
The FOB commander’s OER [Officer’s Efficiency Report] was at least partially based on how successful his operations were. This was sometimes based on information he and his staff reported to Saigon. If those reports didn’t reflect well on the performance of his unit, that might result in a poor OER and a poor OER could be cause for him to not be considered for promotion. If they weren’t promoted by a certain number of years of service, they were discharged or reverted back to enlisted men.
Back to Vietnam, my team, and SOG I went, a little lighter in the wallet, but believe it or not, I felt better because I had managed to pop my "emotional bubble" before it popped me. It may sound stupid, but that’s what happened. Psychologists might swear on their diploma that would never work, but it did for me and I didn’t even get court-martialed. How lucky can one dumb-ass be?
Meanwhile, while I was gone on R&R our great leaders gave up on their brilliant plan to trap the enemy at Khesanh. They called in the 1st Air Calvary Division instead. Every squad in the 1st Air Cav must have had their own chopper. We now had gun ship helicopters called Cobras and the enemy quickly learned to stop shooting at passing choppers because it might be a Cobra or a Cobra might be covering it. The 1st Air Cav descended on that area like a cloud of locusts and killed or chased off all of the NVA in a very short time, all to the complete amazement of the marines. One marine sergeant, who was sitting atop his bunker watching the show, said, "We don’t have that many choppers in the whole damn corps.” I understand the 1st Air Calvary turned into a fine combat outfit.
If the truth was known, I would bet that the enemy commanders knew before hand that the 1st Air Cav was coming and had already relocated most of their troops. If any Vietnamese military or civilian personnel knew about that operation, I promise you the enemy commander also knew.
Also while I was gone on R&R, Big Dave and Jennings were wounded while making a water run. We had a water truck on our camp and we had to make a water run over to the water point on the main marine base every couple of days. We took turns going on the water run because it was dangerous. That truck was full of shrapnel and bullet holes. The holes in the tank had improvised plugs. Jennings was replaced by Sergeant Steven R. Schofield. Big Dave’s wound was just a scratch and he was deaf as a stump for a day or two so he stayed at Khesanh with our team.
As soon as the NVA had departed our area, I Corps sent a re-supply convoy in on the road from the coast. An SF supply officer, a Lieutenant as I recall, accompanied this convoy. He brought us a brand new water truck to replace our old one that was full of holes and plugged with gum, sticks, cloth, etc. However, the new water truck wasn’t empty. Our enterprising young lieutenant had filled it with ice and beer. He also was accompanied by a couple of very pretty Danang whores in the front seat who were dressed in camies. As soon as the Lieutenant hit our camp, he set up shop selling ice cold beer and well, you know what else. Within 30 minutes Major Smith had the young, enterprising lieutenant and his two pretty ladies on a chopper bound for Danang. At least that is the story I heard. So much for business for profit in the DMZ. Ever since then, I have wondered what a water truck full of iced-down beer costs at the PX. Hopefully, that officer had bought the beer he was selling out of that water truck with his own money and it wasn’t donated by the SF and SOG camps in Danang. We never heard what happened to that lieutenant.
When I was enroute back to Khesanh from R&R, I stopped briefly at Danang. While I was there I made a trip to the Class Six store and bought a bottle of bourbon which I stuffed into my duffle bag. As soon as I landed at Khesanh, I made a mad dash to my old bunker and met my whole team racing towards the very same choppers that I had just left. They yelled, "We’re leaving this hell hole Val. Come on, get back on the chopper!” On the way back to the chopper, I removed the booze from my duffle bag and tossed it to one of the unlucky bastards that we were leaving behind [I think it was one of the CATs] and yelled, "Share it with a buddy. Good luck.” He asked, "How much?” and I answered, "No charge! Just don’t get too drunk to fight!” and I kept running. I wasn’t about to miss that chopper.
Now, every officer and politician seems to have a different opinion about the effectiveness of the Khesanh operation. Both sides claim victory. The simple truth is, the NVA never mounted the massive assault on Khesanh that Westmoreland wanted. Meanwhile, the VC had infiltrated every major city in Vietnam and won the "propaganda war.” If there was a winner, it sure wasn’t the American GIs who served at Khesanh and Lang Vei, unless you considered just surviving – winning!
I got these figures from "The End of the Line:" The "official" body count of American KIA for the battle for Khesanh was set at 205. However, that figure is a tad misleading, which is normal for the body count game. That figure doesn’t include any of the marine casualties on the outposts around the Khesanh Combat Base. It also doesn’t include the US Special Forces casualties at the two Lang Vei Camps or the SOG camp on the Khesanh Combat Base. It doesn’t include any casualties taken by the ARVN Rangers that were also stationed at the Khesanh Combat Base. It doesn’t include the casualties suffered by the ARVN Special Forces team at Lang Vei. It doesn’t include any casualties suffered by the Bru soldiers in the Lang Vei and SOG camps. It does not include any casualties suffered by the Laotian battalion. Nor does it include any of the thousands and thousands of casualties suffered by the civilians. Out of the original 6,000 refugees, the marines finally airlifted a little over a thousand of them out of the area. Probably, Sir Charles, true to form, slaughtered the rest.
In May of 1968, our A Team bid a not so fond farewell to the mountain resort of Khesanh and flew to the SOG FOB at Marble Mountain on the beach at Danang. That FOB was located about a half mile North of Marble Mountain and, at the time, adjoined the South side of a MASH compound. Me, I was assigned as a Hatchet Force Platoon Leader and Steve Schofield, who had replaced Dale Jennings, was my Assistant.
As soon as we reached Danang we showered and scraped off the Khesanh clay. That night Jessie Simmons, Joe Payne and I headed for downtown Danang. Danang was off limits, but we did not know this at the time or at least I don't recall knowing it.
Jessie and Joe wore their regular jungle fatigues and beret. They looked sharp, but I wore the SOG sterile jungle fatigues [no patches or insignia] and my floppy GI field cap. Compared to them, I looked like warmed-over poop. What the heck, I was comfortable.
We found a restaurant that was open and ordered three cold beers. We had not even tasted our first beer and up drove two jeep-loads of Marine MPs. They called us outside, informed us that all of Danang was off limits, and then one-by-one they shook us down. Perhaps they had not heard how nice we had been to their CAT Marines at Khesanh. While I waited my turn to be searched, I noticed a copy of the Stars and Stripes newspaper dated that same day laying on the jeep’s front seat. We hadn’t seen a paper that was less than a month old in a long time so I sat down on the seat and begin reading. You wouldn’t believe how much this upset those damn prissy ass MPs. They really got bent out of shape. After we were all searched, those shit heads hauled us to their Headquarters and enroute one of those prissy asses asked Jesse, "Is that big guy really a Green Beret?” Jesse laughed and told them that I was. Nothing came of this innocent incident.
The very next night, Fat Max Recod and I decided to buy a case of beer and christen our new camp plus celebrate being out of Khesanh. About two thirds of the way through that case, we began taking incoming small arms fire. Tracers were flying all over the damn place. Max and I grabbed the remaining beer and raced to our assigned fighting position which was the 4.2" mortar pit. [One comment here, until this night, I can not recall ever seeing Max take one sip of any kind of alcoholic beverage. I also never knew of Max or any other member of our team seek the services of a hooker.]
The heavy mortar was back near the beach and the 95th Evacuation Hospital fence. As soon as we reached the pit we toasted ourselves for our "excellent performance under fire. I mean after all we were still breathing and in our assigned fighting position.” That was when we noticed that we had completely forgotten to bring our weapons and web gear. All we had carried with us was our beer. Back to the barracks we raced to get our combat gear. When we finally were back in our mortar pit and ready to blow the whole world away with that big mortar, we toasted ourselves for our "efficiency in correcting defects.” the operations bunker called and ordered, "Put up some flares over the west wall.” We pondered, this new problem" Which way was west?” We weren’t sure so I spit in the palm of my hand, smacked it with my other fist and pointed the way the biggest blob squirted and yelled, "That-a-way Max.” Max aimed that big mortar and told me what charge to set on the round while I grabbed a flare and prepared it to be dropped it down the tube. When Max sounded, "Up," I let it fall. When the flare popped, operations called and said, That’s just where we wanted it.” So naturally Max and I once again toasted our efficiency. We were put off alert shortly afterwards. It seems all of that firing was by some drunk soldiers just letting off a little steam.
Hatchet Forces were organized into platoons, companies and battalions. This particular battalion was all Chinese, who were called "Nungs.” Nungs were famous for being good combat soldiers. It would surprise me if SOG ever used the entire battalion [600-800 troops] on one operation. They usually went on platoon or company size operations. They were called Hatchet Forces because they were used like you and I would use a hatchet. When a lurp found a suitable target they radioed the information to the FOB and the Hatchet Force swung down out of the sky and whacked the target — or at least they tried to. Sometimes it didn’t quite work out that way. Sometimes the enemy force was too big to handle or they had reinforcements too close at hand.
They gave me a platoon of raw recruits and I had to give them their basic training which usually consisted of only four weeks. No American commander in a conventional US outfit, who was in his right mind, would consider taking troops with that little training into combat. But I think that was SOP [standard operating procedure] for the indigenous troops under SF. Our indig learned the rest of their combat skills by OJT, all they had to do was survive long enough.
Later, our FOB operations "volunteered" my platoon to become the only paratroop platoon in our battalion so I had to give them parachute training also. This had absolutely no noticeable affect on my little China-boys and they all jumped. I was very impressed. You sure couldn’t get a qualification percentage that high, if you "volunteered" a typical American platoon to be paratroops. All of my troops were Chinese and all but three were teenagers. Those three soldiers were in their twenties and one of them was a combat veteran. One of those three landed in the mine field around a POW camp that was two camps North of us. Only the 95th Evacuation Hospital, which adjoined our camp on the North side, was between us and the POW camp. When we finally got him out of there alive and still in one piece, he came to me and said, "Sargie, I no jumpee no more!” I didn’t hold it against him, we just transferred him to one of the other platoons. If I had been in that same situation, I may have done the same thing. In fact, I figured he probably was the smartest one of the bunch. I could not in my wildest dreams imagine parachuting with that platoon into a combat situation in that war and on that terrain.
While at that camp, I saw how heavily armed the recon guys were when they went out. They were so heavily laden, they could barely walk. One man would have an M-16 with 30 or more magazines of ammo plus spare ammo in their rucksack, a 45 pistol, a hideout pistol, a sawed-off M-79 with a sack or two of 40mm grenades, two or three claymores, as many grenades as they could carry, a half dozen plastic foot mines [toe-poppers], at least two different types of radios, sometimes three, and food, water, and spare batteries for at least seven days.
The recon teams were so heavily armed because they knew they were going to make enemy contact and that they would be vastly outnumbered. Many teams never made it off the LZ - they had to dig in and hold off the enemy until they could be extracted or they died. They had to last long enough for someone to get them out of there. In the beginning, Delta lurp members had carried only 13 magazines for their AR-15, a 45 pistol with two extra magazines, and a hideout pistol. For grenades, they mostly seemed to prefer Willie Peters [White Phosporous] grenades over fragmentation grenades [frags] because they tended to shock the enemy and made it easier for our guys to break contact. "Break contact" is recon talk for "haul butt."
I know that couple of SOG teams waited for a week to be inserted into a hot LZ because of fog in the area of the LZ. A hot LZ is an LZ that is known to be under close surveillance by the enemy. A hot LZ is almost always guarded and may be mined and booby trapped.
Knowingly putting troops into a predicament like that was insane — but they did it anyway. The SOG leaders at the FOB were just waiting for enough of a break in the fog to quickly insert that team. I couldn’t help but wonder, if it took a week to find an opening in the weather to put that team in, how long would those poor guys have to hold out before the weather would clear up enough so they could be extracted.
During this period of time, SOG RTs almost never found a ‘dry hole’ [no enemy covering the LZ]. I think it was because the enemy knew every detail about every mission before they ever left base camp. The enemy simply did not have the manpower to cover every single tiny clearing in Cambodia and Laos within ten miles of the Vietnamese border twenty four hours a day. It was pretty obvious that there was a VC in the SOG chain of command somewhere. And he had to be higher up the food chain than the FOB level. SOG continued to send teams on those crazy missions as if there wasn’t a problem.
I later learned that the enemy knew even more than the objective and proposed LZs, they knew every detail about the members of that RT, including name, rank, and MOS. As I recall, they also knew their assigned radio frequencies and call signs.
I also discovered that the local commander or S-3 or even MACV did not task SOG teams for many of their missions. The President of the United States, the CIA, the National Security Council and other rear echelon armchair warriors did that from 10,000 miles away. That was sheer lunacy and explained a lot about why everything was so damned screwed up and why our RT’s casualty rate was so high! When a mission comes down from that high in the food chain, it is very rare to find an officer at the bottom of the food chain that would stand up and tell them their mission is a mistake. That it should be cancelled and why. SOG had the best combat men in the army on their recon teams. When it comes to guts, nobody and I mean nobody was braver than those SOG recon guys. They weren’t the problem, but they were the ones that had to pay the fiddler. Normally, the guys at the FOB level really weren’t the problem either. The problem was everyone higher up the food chain. The problem was centralized control. When the FOB Commander tried to direct every action of the recon team while it was deep in Cambodia or Laos, that would be a serious problem. When the President of the United States of America or someone immediately under him is trying to direct every movement in the combat zone, as was the case in SOG, it isn’t just a problem, it is just plain lunacy. The exact same kind of lunacy happened again in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia during Clinton’s Administration.
Before my platoon had finished training, they were all issued Swedish K’s but no ammunition, no magazines and no magazine pouches. A Swedish K is a decent weapon, but it is a fully automatic sub-machinegun and it was dangerous to everyone, not just the bad guys. They tended to fire, if dropped. The next day, Captain Bauer came to me and said, The FOB Operations wants you to take your platoon out on patrol and sweep the peninsula north of Danang.” I told him, "Captain, you can tell them for me that they can kiss my big airborne ass. I’m not taking my platoon on an operation until they are properly armed." Then I told him what they had issued my troops.
FOB Operations then saw fit to issue each of my troops one 30-round magazine and 120 rounds of ammo to go along with their handy-dandy sub-machineguns. One magazine of ammo for a fully automatic weapon would have lasted those green recruits all of ten seconds. After that, they would be using those nice new sub-machineguns for clubs. Shortly afterwards, Captain Bauer relayed the same message to me again. They still got the same response. "Until my troops are properly armed, they’re not going on an operation, at least not with me as their leader.”
They then suggested that I borrow another platoon’s weapons and ammunition. I told them, "Neither me nor my men know how well those weapons and magazines have been maintained. They’ve never fired them. I think not." I was trying to get that outfit to arm my troops, the only way I knew how.
The FOB S-3 sent word that there weren’t any VC on that peninsula. I told Captain Bauer, "I’m glad we have the only American officer in this freaking world that knows where the VC aren’t!"
I dreaded the thought of going into combat with those kids even after they were properly equipped because they had minimal training, no experience, some of the members of my platoon thought that one of their own was a VC, and when it came to marksmanship, they couldn’t hit a bull-in-the-ass with a bass fiddle. Only the interpreter spoke English and I didn’t speak Chinese or Vietnamese. If anything happened to the interpreter that was with an SF unit, that unit was in serious trouble.
Special Forces combat units were intended to be used for "specific and very limited" combat assignments, such as raids, ambushes, sniping, mining, sabotage, intelligence gathering, and establishing and operating Escape and Evasion networks for downed air crews. And their troops were only trained and rehearsed in what they needed to know to accomplish that one specific mission. I think the only reason they were used for this type of work was because SF were triple volunteers and held high security clearances, and in the case of SOG lurp duty, quadruple volunteers. I also believe that none of the brass and politicians at the top of our food chain got overly concerned about what happens to a quadruple volunteer. And they certainly did not get concerned about the loss of indigenous troops.
Our Chinese Battalion Sergeant Major married a beautiful Chinese lady while we were there. All of the SF assigned to the Hatchet Force and my entire platoon were invited to their reception. At least I think they were all invited. Maybe my platoon was invited because they were the only parachute unit in the battalion and they had just finished all of their training.
At any rate, the reception was held at a restaurant in downtown Danang. I believe that Schofield and I took our platoon down in 2½ ton trucks. Danang was off limits to US personnel at the time except for official business. How this party qualified as official business, I didn’t know. Anyway, things in that restaurant got mighty drunk and mighty loud. One of my little Nungs filled a small plastic glass, about 3-4 ounces I guess, and a tall 16 ounce glass with whiskey and handed the large one to me. He toasted the couple and downed the whiskey in the smaller glass and told me to toast and drink up. But I toasted and only sipped. The little soldier said, "Oh, no Sargie, I drank all, you drink all.” They all had a good laugh when I laughingly told him, "F--k you, you little s--t, I’m not that much bigger than you."
It was very late by the time I finally got my troops out of that restaurant. Maybe I was drunk, but I wasn’t nearly as drunk as they were. Most of them had to be drug out and tossed on the truck, but while I was back inside getting some more, some of those little dudes that I had already put in the truck would wake up and crawl back off the truck. it reminded me of my Advanced Infantry Training unit when the cadre tried to round up a detail. What a mess that was and loud, boy were those little devils loud.
They were so loud, someone called the White Mice [Vietnamese Police] down on my noisy, little drunk Chinese. The Viets and the Nungs hated each other. The Viets also hated all of the mountain natives and I know the feeling was mutual there also. My boys were not armed. The White Mice were armed with clubs, pistols and M-16s. They bad-mouthed and threatened my China-boys. A White Mice poked one of my China-boys in the stomach with the muzzle of his rifle. My little Nung quickly disarmed him and threw his rifle away. Maybe his daddy had taught him that trick, I didn’t recall teaching it. I thought for sure he was going to blow that cop away and get us all slaughtered.
Suddenly a miracle happened, I finally got all of my China-boys on those trucks without anyone getting shot and off to camp we went. Of course, I was unaware of it at the time, but the White Mice had arrested our Chinese Battalion Commander, who was also at the party, and had taken him to jail. As I lay on my bunk, I felt very proud of myself, even though I was as drunk as a skunk, my common sense and military bearing had prevailed. My little Nungs had followed their great white leader home.
Shortly after I had hopped into bed, I heard my loud, drunk little Nungs chattering and the trucks cranking up again. I staggered to the door just in time to wave goodbye to my little Nungs who were in full battle garb with, grenades, machine guns, M-16 rifles and M-79 grenade launchers as they headed back downtown to settle their dispute with the White Mice. My brain just refused to process what my eyes were seeing. My little devils were armed to the teeth and grinning from ear-to-ear. The only reason they had returned to camp with me was to get their weapons. So much for my inspirational leadership.
The next morning I found out what happened. Our troops had gone straight to the source of the problem, the Police Chief. They surrounded his home and demanded the release of their Battalion Commander and immunity from prosecution. Apparently negotiations did not proceed fast enough to suit them, so they fired an M-79 grenade through the window of the house to speed things up. The grenade blew off the leg of the Police Chief’s wife. The two sides soon reached an agreement. Our Nungs got their commander back, but they could never again enter downtown Danang. The White Mice erected a sign on the bridge between the beaches and the mainland that warned our Nungs that they would be shot on sight, if they were found downtown. White Mice also manned a roadblock at this bridge from then on just to enforce this new law.
A couple of our guys complained that one of our guys wasn’t showering and changing underwear regularly. I do not recall who they were. One of them bought him a bar of soap and a stick of deodorant. They had it gift-wrapped, then left it on his bunk. How the man reacted, I never heard. A little later, a couple of guys, I believe it was the same two, conspired to pull another joke on the same guy. The man was a life-long bachelor. They submitted his name to a pin pal club and the poor guy began receiving letters from lonely women everywhere. Max is the only one that I remember being involved in these pranks and I didn't remember that until he reminded me.
One day, Captain Bauer gave Doug a mission. Doug was a Kentucky boy and a veteran of the Korean War where he served with the 187th Regimental Combat Team. He was to accompany a Hatchet Force Platoon just across the border into Cambodia. It seems that a very large operation was about to begin by inserting a US division, maybe two, into the eastern end of a valley that was known to be alive with NVA and they were going to push the enemy out of that valley from East to West. As I recall, it was the Ashau Valley. I do remember that the western end of the valley was inside Cambodia or Laos. A small hill was located in the middle of the western end of the valley. That hill was where our Nung Hatchet Force was going to dig in; their mission was to create a "bottle-neck" by causing the enemy to bunch up so our fly-boys could then bomb and strafe them to their hearts content. There would be about 50 of our troops there and literally thousands of NVA that wanted to by-pass them.
SF special operation units, like SOG, were selected for such jobs. An all US unit would without a doubt have been more effective because they were better trained, more disciplined, and all spoke a common language, but all of their casualties would have to be reported and, if too high, explained. American commanders were only required to report American casualties. We could lose an entire battalion of our natives and Saigon would only have to report maybe six or at most twelve American casualties. The chart-watching SOBs that roosted high up in the food chain loved those figures. That meant they could do almost anything with SF units like SOG regardless of how stupid it was, and never be held accountable to anyone for causing all of those deaths.
We always operated in pairs. Captain Bauer gave Doug his choice of any member of the team to be his partner. Pappy Townsend relayed this information to Doug. I felt sorry for Doug and dreaded being picked for his partner, but I knew Doug would pick me because we had became pretty darn close since being assigned to that team. Instead, Doug picked our Team Sergeant, Pappy Townsend. Pappy nearly choked.
I learned later, this was a prank cooked up by George and Hardy was in on it. Other team members besides George and Hardy were going on that operation. As I recall, in addition to those two, Schofield, , Purdy, Taylor and Bauer went also.
The first place Pappy went was to the FOB Supply Sergeant where he got three sandbags. He took these and his entrenching tool which no SF soldier ever takes with him on operation. Doug later told me, "As soon as we got on that hill, Pappy found a spot and dug himself a slit trench. Then he filled those three bags and placed them in a U-shape on the edge of the hole so he could get his head and shoulders inside the "U" and face out towards the approaching enemy. Old Pappy Townsend crawled into that hole and stayed there until we were picked up."
While they were still at their launch site, Dave Taylor came down with a bad case of diarrhea and sought help from Schofield, our team's Assistant Medic. Schofield treated him and advised Dave to stay behind because he was so dehydrated. Big Dave told him to keep his problem a secret or suffer an ass whipping because he was not staying behind. Dave went on the operation.
The Marble Mountain SOG camp offered their indigenous troops Sex chit books at payday. Personally, I do not know who was directly responsible for paying our China boys because I was never physically present when they were paid so I can’t actually swear that they were offered these chit books, but I can swear that such chit books did exist because I saw one of them. On its front cover was a sketch of a nude female lying on her back with her legs spread and her feet in the air. Because the print wasn’t in English, I couldn’t read what was written on the package, but like the saying goes, "One picture is worth a thousand words."
While we were at Danang, two members of our team along with their platoon of Nungs took turns pulling guard on the camp perimeter at night. We kept one platoon on guard every night. We also started keeping a small outpost atop Marble Mountain which was about ½ mile south of us. Only sand dunes separated our camp from the mountain. It looked down on us and onto a marine base that was even farther to the south. The only other thing to our south was a fishing village on the beach between Marble Mountain and the ocean. We tried to get permission from the FOB commander to search that village, but he didn’t want us to disturb them.
Before we returned to Okinawa, Pappy Townsend tried to convince the FOB Sergeant Major that they should keep at least a platoon of Nungs with US SF on the wire at night and an outpost with US SF on Marble Mountain. He laughed and said, "If you’re concerned about our security, you should extend for another six month TDY tour and guard the fence yourselves.” According to rumor mongers, the FOB Sergeant Major stayed drunk most of the time we were there.
An SF second looie replaced me when I left. I can not remember his name. After we were back on Okinawa a week or so, I heard that my platoon of China-boys were wiped out on their very first field operation.
When a camp or unit was hard hit, rumor mongers used 'wiped out' rather loosely. It made the story easier to tell without dealing in specifics and facts.
Rumors said when the platoon became surrounded, the Lieutenant called in supporting fire from the big guns on the battleship USS Missouri. He apparently gave them his position instead of the enemy’s position and their big 16" guns blew our guys away or he could have known he was calling it in that close. Most firefights in that war, unlike all of our previous wars, were at very close range. The enemy, especially the NVA, would keep very close contact, measured in feet, so you couldn't call in artillery or air support without bringing it down on yourself. As I understand it, the second looie survived the barrage as a quad-amputee. Each of those big rounds is pretty much equivalent to a 2,000 pound bomb. New soldiers, especially if they are also second looies, don’t last very long in combat under the army’s "Individual Replacement System. In fact the survival rate for all individual replacements is very low and it seems like the first 30 days or major battle is when most of them are lost. If they survive that, their chances of surviving improve greatly.
When Major Riggs was doing the "hiring and the firing" for the 7th SF Group, second looies weren’t even allowed in the unit. When the army would assign 2d Looies to the 7th, Riggs would immediately have them shoulder their bags. He would then double time them out of the unit area "before they got somebody killed" and tell them, "Go find yourselves a home somewhere else.” They should have kept it that way except for 2d Looies that were mustangs. A mustang is an officer that was formerly a sergeant.
In late August 1968, Sir Charles attacked and over ran that same SOG camp on Danang Beach. The FOB Sergeant Major appears to have been the first KIA. Reportedly, the FOB commander wasn’t even there. Everyone figured he was probably off somewhere on a toot.
[I learned many years later that was just a rumor and the FOB commander was there that night. Many years later, I learned that they did have a security team atop Marble Mountain the night the sappers hit the Danang FOB. How regularly they had an outpost on the mountain I do not know. But I still haven't heard or read anything about them keeping troops guarding the perimeter at night. Sir Charles came from the beach side and I do not recall anyone, even us, manning the beach wall at night.]
Here’s how a sergeant who was there when the camp was hit said Sir Charles did it. Several VC got jobs working inside the camp as carpenters repairing some of the buildings. Each day Sir Charles infiltrated a few pieces of explosives, ammunitions and/or weapons and stored them overhead inside the latrines. The main enemy element, including a dispensary, were poised nearby in a support base in a tunnel system that they had dug beneath that fishing village that they would not let us search. This is one story, another story says the VC had used several caves on Marble Mountain as their support base.
On the eve of the attack, instead of leaving at the end of the day with the rest of the work force, the sappers that worked inside the camp slipped beneath one of the buildings, I believe it was the camp club. When everyone in the camp went to bed, Sir Charles crawled out and retrieved his weapons and explosives from their hiding place. Some of the sappers cut the camp wire to let their VC buddies from the main element enter the camp while others started heaving satchel charges into the barrack doors and machine-gunning anyone who tried to escape. All of the sappers reportedly died inside the camp, but they killed 21 US SF soldiers and I have no idea how many Nungs because, to the best of my knowledge, the indigenous losses were never included in any body count report to commands above Westmoreland. This turned out to be the highest number of special forces soldiers lost in one battle during the entire Vietnam War.
In the late 1980s, there was a television series about that MASH unit on Danang Beach that shared one fence line with us called, "China Beach.” Trust me, except for the care of the wounded and the pretty beach, it was nothing like the TV show, absolutely nothing. The MASH unit was not in the same location during the entire war. For some reason it seems to have relocated every now and then. It was relocated shortly after the sapper attack on the CCN camp. The rest of that show was the figment of someone’s ripe imagination. The term "fantasy" may be more applicable, much like a movie that was very popular in the late 1970s or early 1980s, its name was "Apocalypse Now.” That movie starred Martin Sheen and an old and very fat Marlon Brando. The movie was about SOG. Martin Sheen played a non-special forces officer who was sent to kill a renegade Special Forces Colonel (Brando) who had deserted and was operating on his own.
As I recall, there were only five things in that entire movie that were realistic:
1. There really was a MACV-SOG;
2. There really was a special forces;
3. MACV did have what could be called an assassination unit by enemy propagandists, BUT it was not an SF unit and there was very little, if any, assassinations. (As I recall, that unit was once called the "Phoenix Program.” The American members of that program were "assigned" to the unit, not just used on a "job-to-job" basis as implied by the movie and they were never targeted against Americans and the indigenous troops were the field troops. The program was designed to get villagers to rat out the communists in their midst);
4. The French-style hotel where Sheen stayed before the mission was realistic; and 5. One statement that Martin Sheen’s character made about being addicted to the adrenalin high caused by immense fear was realistic. The statement went something like this: "When I am here, I wish to God I was somewhere else, anywhere else, but as soon as I leave here, I begin to miss it.” I am very familiar with that feeling. Other than those few points, that movie appeared to be the Vietnam War as seen through the eyes of a soldier that was continuously high on LSD or heroin.
The communist murdered millions just because they were well educated, because they were teachers, or because they held leadership positions and Vietnam and Cambodia are literally covered with secret mass graves and probably Laos also.
Special Forces teams worked only with indigenous troops. The men on the A Teams had learned from experience that they should always consider 30% of their troops, including the interpreters, to be either VC, VC sympathizers or someone who had a close relative who lived in an area that was controlled by the VC and who could be taken hostage in return for cooperation. That was the only way to survive, "Never trust anyone, except another SF man.” There were usually only two US SF on a patrol or with a platoon or company sized operation. Some of our A Team guys were shot in the back while on an operation. Some teams secretly "mined" the key weapons positions inside their own camp in the event that one of the VC inside the camp gained control of that weapon and turned it on the camp defenders.
During 1964-1965, Delta Project's recon guys learned the hard way that you do not travel the trails and you do not travel at night in the jungle. If you use the trails long enough at any time of day or night, sooner or later you will collide head-on with Sir Charles [VC]. If you moved at night, it would just tend to happen sooner. We did not have the night vision equipment or navigational aids then that SF has now. Many times, when reporting their position, the two SF team members would agree on which grid square they were most likely in and then report the coordinates to the center of that grid square. Each grid square was a 1,000 meters by a 1,000 meters. [Now, the A Team both communicates and navigates via satellites.]
One RT leader was ordered to use the trails because his patrol was moving too slow through the brush. After he and his team had "run" on the trails for half a day to make up time and distance and they were still not to their objective by dusk, they were ordered to keep moving at night until they reached their objective. When the team got to where their leader thought they were supposed to be, he halted the team and they settled down for what was left of the night. A short time later one of his Vietnamese team members gently awoke the team leader and whispered, "Sargie, VC wake me up to pull guard.” The patrol had bedded down right amongst the enemy. How they got out of that predicament alive, I don’t know.
One of my buddies who was awarded the Medal of Honor for action while he was TDY from Okinawa to MACV-SOG during 1969, was married to a North Carolina Indian gal. They began having marital problems. My friend and his wife apparently had separated, but he went back to the house one night drunk and was raising hell and she whipped out a pistol and shot him through the chest as he stood in the yard. My buddy looked down at his chest and then told her, "I have a sucking chest wound. Go in the house and get my poncho so I can wrap it around my chest.” She said, "You drunk son of a bitch you took all of your field gear to Fort Bragg with you when you left. I don’t have your damn poncho.” I don’t know how, but my friend lived to retire and for quite a while he worked as a counselor for the Veterans Administration.
I just received word as I wrote this paragraph that he died about a month or so before I finished the first draft of this story. They named a street on Smoke Bomb Hill area after my buddy. My buddies continue to buy-the-farm, while I just keep stumbling blindly along through this life. It’s enough to make a guy stop and think — even a knucklehead like me.]
Pappy Townsend retired and lives in Fayetteville, North Carolina with his wife.
Doug Hardy married and lives in the Freeport, Florida area.
Big Dave got out after one hitch and returned to his hometown, Binghamton, New York. Big Dave eventually became the owner of a plate glass company, but was forced out of business by federal government red tape and later applied for a job managing a "half-way" house for mentally impaired persons. Part of Dave’s job interview included a tour of the house. After the tour, Dave’s prospective boss asked Dave if he thought that he could handle working with those people. Dave told him, "No sweat. I spent three months pinned up in a tiny bunker in Vietnam with four guys that were crazier than these people.” He got the job. Big Dave made a good name for himself in his section of Binghamton and his brother did very well in business. They were very proud of their dad who had played professional baseball way back in the days of the old Negro Leagues. From 1996 to 2004, Dave and I always shared a room at the Special Forces Association's annual reunions. Apparently he was the only one that would put up with me. Dave died of liver cancer in May 2004. I miss Big Dave.
Dale Jennings retired and now lives in Oklahoma. Dale has made several trips back to Vietnam since retirement. Either Dale or I must have an emotional problem because I have absolutely no desire to return to Vietnam.
Gillgren got out after one hitch, but I believe he is, or was, an officer in the US Naval Reserve.
Max retired and lives in Fayetteville where he managed the Fayetteville Wells Fargo office for a while and worked part-time at Camp Mackall helping to assess special forces candidates. Max and his wife are born again Christians now so we don't get to see him much anymore. I miss Max.
Schofield got out and served in Laos for several years as a government civilian, became a Major in an SF Reserve unit in Illinois and retired to his lakefront home in Wisconsin.
Joe Taylor was medically retired and then died from chain-smoking. Joe continued to chain-smoke camels even after he had to carry a tank of oxygen around with him.
As for the rest of Pappy’s team, we have simply lost track of each other.
When we returned to Oki in 1968 after my third combat tour, I think it is safe to say that I was still angry, and maybe even a little crazy. Let’s face it, compared to the guy that I used to be, I was practically a raving lunatic. When you’re caught between a stupid war and a lousy marriage, that’s enough to drive anybody nuts.
If that wasn’t bad enough, my vision had consistently grown worse over the years. It had declined to 20/450, but it had leveled off at that point. A vision of 20/450 simply means, "What a person with 20/20 vision could easily see from a distance of 450 feet, I had to be within 20 feet to see clearly." A vision of 20/250 uncorrectable is considered legally blind. So without my eyeglasses, I was legally blind.
For years I had secretly practiced moving quietly through the boonies and my barracks while blindfolded and in the dark until I could do it without stumbling over everything or getting lost. I figured that this might give me the "edge" on those pitch-black nights — with my poor vision, I sure wouldn’t have the edge during the daytime. Also, I had practiced setting up and operating my radio while blindfolded and transmitting Morse code with my left hand and right foot. We could not always get help right when we needed it, but if we needed help, somebody had to use the radio to get it.
So far, I had been very lucky and I knew it. When it comes to women, I don’t know diddly squat, but I do know that the typical married woman expects to have a husband and they believe that a husband is someone who goes to work every morning, comes home every night, is with her when she has her babies, and he’s the guy that takes out the garbage or repairs the leaky faucets and takes the car to the mechanic. That certainly does not describe the typical guy on a special forces operational detachment. Mixing SF duty with marriage is like drinking alcohol and driving. It’s a disaster waiting for a place to happen.
The guys in SF had become more like a family to me than my own family was and I would rather be with an A Team than anywhere else in the world. Most of the enlisted SF men felt the same way. That, plus the SF training and experience, is what made SF so successful in tough situations and what kept our casualties so low even with the type of missions that we were given.
Shortly after I returned to Oki, I told Fran to forget our relationship; I was sending her home and she could get a divorce and find someone else. Then I made arrangements to ship her back to the states. Pappy’s team was split up and I was assigned to a B Team, but I can’t remember the name of anyone else that was on that B Team. For $600, I bought a lime green, 1960 Volkswagon Bug and found me a small two bedroom house off post. I later invited Big Dave Taylor to share it with me.
About a month after we returned from Vietnam, several of us from our company were at the Stag Bar in the American Legion and they announced over the public address system that we were to report back to our unit immediately. When we arrived at our company, we were told that the Okinawans were rioting. None of us had received any riot control training.
We loaded onto trucks and off we went. My truck went to a road intersection where the US camp bordered the civilian highway and out we hopped. They issued us live ammunition, but they left it in the wooden case on the truck. We did have our rifles and bayonets. A group of Okinawan men were standing on our side of the highway waving flags and shouting something in Japanese. Our officer jumped out of the cab of the truck, observed the situation, and told us, "Our orders are to eject any rioters from US property and those people are on US property.” Then he said, "Move them off of it!” Without a word spoken between us, we looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, fixed bayonets, and then, screaming like a bunch of blood thirsty maniacs, charged. Those protesters disappeared like a wisp of smoke.
Someone else radioed for help. According to the radio message, there was a huge mob trying to push their way onto the Sukiran Marine Base from Highway 1. So we loaded back up on our trucks and away we went. We were the first troops to arrive at the besieged gate. We already had our orders from the first job so as soon as the truck screeched to a stop, we leaped off, charged past the Marine MPs, and went after the mob with our bayonets. It was a race to see who would get the honor of drawing first blood. If you want to be a leader in SF, you must be fleet of foot. We were in pretty good physical condition and some of our guys were fast, but none of us could get close enough to a protester to stick him. We chased them across Highway 1 and through the alleys and side streets. In some cases men chased rioters into, through and out of houses. Those protesters scattered like a flock of geese. We couldn’t get within bayonet range so no one got stuck.
Our fearless leader received another radio call and we were ordered to the gate at the American Legion. Now that’s carrying things too far. The American Legion was one of SF's favorite watering holes on the island. This time it took us a while to round up our troops because they had chased protestors to the four winds and were reluctant to give up the chase. When we finally arrived at the American Legion, there were several trucks full of SF troops already there. Thousands of protesters were along the civilian highway, but outside our fence. Our company commander stationed one A Team outside our fence along our side of the highway right of way and told the rest of us, "Stack arms and take a break.” What better place to take a break than our favorite watering hole. We left one man to guard our weapons and the rest retrieved a cold drink. Of course we bought one for our guard also.
The size of the mob continued to increase. They began to Dragon Dance and the line of dancers started weaving closer and closer to our guys that were standing at parade rest on our side of the highway. To the best of my memory, the Island Commander at the time was a tiny general that the men had nick-named "Small Paul.” Anyway, Small Paul, the Island Commander, decided to intervene and interject his inspirational leadership and wisdom into the situation. The little general landed in the parking lot, hopped out of his itty-bitty "bubble" chopper and ran his itty-bitty ass towards our company commander. Our Colonel ran to meet the little general as if he was overjoyed to meet with his much-adored superior officer. The general observed the situation and noted the dragon-dancing protesters slowly working their way closer to the men we had stationed outside the fence. By this time the line of Dragon Dancers were weaving within three to six feet of our guys who were standing at parade rest — and practically defenseless in that position. The general made a command decision. He told our CO, "Move them out Colonel!” He later explained that he really meant for our CO to bring that A Team "back inside" the fence. However, what our CO heard was "Charge!" or "Move the demonstrators out!"
Our Colonel shouted, "Move ‘em out!” Our twelve men, brave and true, immediately "snapped to" and charged that mob with fixed bayonets. This time almost all of the protesters escaped, but at least one of that A Team drew blood. The protesters in the front of the mob literally climbed over the protesters behind them in an effort to avoid being stabbed in the ass. We snatched up our rifles and raced towards the gate to help our guys that were outside the fence. Before we could reach the gate those twelve guys had already broken that mob up and sent them fleeing in all directions trampling each other in the process. The itty-bitty general damn near had a heart attack. He quickly clarified his order, jumped back on his itty-bitty chopper and flew away as our company commander tried to call off our attack.
When the civilian paper hit the stands the next day, almost the entire edition was devoted to the protest and the brutality of the American forces. The very next day the entire 1st Group began mandatory riot and mob control training that was conducted by the local military police battalion. We were marched around in formation at a half-step with fixed bayonets while wearing helmets and gas masks for several hours.
Even after we had riot control training, from that moment on, SF troops were not allowed to directly confront protesters unless the protestors broke through the military police lines and actually entered a US base. When SF was called out for riot control duty, they would always place us in the center of the base that was threatened and we were told to stay there. They told us, "If the protesters jump the fence or overrun the MPs, we’ll radio you and tell you where they are. Then they belong to you. Until then, stay put." The protesters threw rocks of all sizes, shouted obscenities in English, and threw paper bags full of body waste at the riot control troops and MPs and they just stood there and took it. If they had put an SF unit in a situation like that, I think somebody would have been killed.
Using the approved and politically correct riot control techniques, the US lost control of Okinawa in a few short months and returned it to the Japanese Government who did not really want it because it would be a drain on their economy plus they had always considered the Okinawans to be inferior savages anyway. I don't know why, maybe an Okinawan stealie boy stole their emperor's skivvies. The US greatly reduced their "payments subsidizing the local economy" and prices have soared. How the typical Okinawan benefited from the Japanese takeover, is still a mystery to me.
I was put back on jump status with full pay a few months after we returned from Vietnam. They wouldn’t reinstate me immediately after we returned to Oki, I had to "pay the price" first and I had to request it in writing. All of my buddies teased me about that at every opportunity and some still do. While I was off jump status, I went on more TDY trips than I did when I was on jump status. That didn’t bother me one bit, in fact I preferred going TDY and to the boonies. To me, that beat garrison duty, even SF garrison duty.
Several of us from my company were sent TDY to the Philippines in January 1969 to participate with their troops in a guerrilla warfare training exercise. I left Big Dave in charge of my little VW bug and our house rent. The night before we were to depart, I went out with two lady friends. Well, one was a bed partner and the other was just a friend. The next morning we stopped by the barracks where I drew my weapon and packed my rucksack. Then we went to the American Legion for breakfast and a few more drinks before I departed. We lost track of the time and suddenly realized that I was running late so they drove me back to the barracks. As we pulled up at the barracks, my company was pulling out in trucks. When the guys spotted me just pulling in, they really got a kick out of that. They figured that this screw up would really make them look good in comparison to their latest fuck up. While the girls waited for me, I raced inside the barracks for my gear. The girls took off as fast as they could drive and we caught up to my unit before they reached the front gate of Kadena Air Base. We followed them to the marshaling area and all the way there my guys were giving me a hard time. They were really enjoying this. The girls let me off where our trucks stopped and then they sped away.
After we had moved inside the cyclone fence area adjacent to the terminal, we sat down to wait for our plane to show up so we could leave. About forty five minutes or an hour later, I heard somebody calling my name and turned around. There, on the other side of the cyclone fence, were my two friends and they were waving a thermos at me. The guys started laughing, whistling and kidding me in general. When I ran over to the girls, they tossed the thermos over the fence to me. We talked for a couple of minutes and then our C-130 taxied up and it was time to saddle up.
After our plane was in the air, I opened the thermos and sniffed its contents, it was gin and tonic. That was the same drink that the three of us had been drinking the night before and that morning at the American Legion. To this day, I still wonder how much those girls paid to have that jug filled at the local officer’s club. Of course I shared with my buddies.
We landed at Clark Air Force Base, but we only stayed there one night then we were trucked north. We stopped overnight at a Philippine Army Base on northern Luzon and then the next day we went out to our individual area of operations. Me, a USSF First Lieutenant, and one Filipino SF Master Sergeant, Sergeant Tosoc [prounounced TOWSOCK], took one 2½ ton truck and a platoon of regular army troops to act as guerillas and went to a large river near the village of San Mariano. [San Mariano is located in Isabella Province on the Pinacanauan River.] The river was very wide at the ford. I told the lieutenant that we were already out of range of our Prick 25s [AN/PRC-25 Radio Set]. I would probably have to improvise a special antenna in order for my signal to reach base station from where we were. If we go any farther, I doubt if I can do anything that will help us make radio contact with base because across that river is nothing but mountainous jungles.
The lieutenant decided to leave me and Tosoc there and we were to set up in the village. The lieutenant would take one of the radios with him and I would relay messages between him and base station. It was already getting dark when they dropped Tosoc and me off. We decided to camp along the riverbank for that night and go find us a place in the village to rent the next morning.
The next morning, I jumped up, stripped off my clothes and waded out into the river to bathe. Tosoc didn’t join me, instead he squatted at the edge of the water and sprinkled water on his face with his hands. The shores of the river were shallow so I had to wade quite a ways out into the river before the water was deep enough for bathing. While I was out there, I tried several more times to persuade Tosoc to join me, but he refused. Finally I asked Tosoc, "Why won’t you come into the river with me?” He just grinned and said one word, "Crocodiles!” I nearly had a stroke. Believe me, I came out of that river one heck of a lot faster than I went into it. En-route to the shore, I spotted what I thought was a croc and I cleared it and the knee deep water in one leap. It was actually a sunken log that was half imbedded in the sandy bottom that I hadn’t even noticed when I entered the river. After I reached the river bank and caught my breath, I asked Tosoc, "Why didn’t you tell me there were crocodiles in the river before I went in the water?” and he answered, "Oh Sargie, you no ask.” Well, I can assure you that I asked Mama Tosoc a lot of questions during the rest of our time together. Trust me, I had no desire to end up as a pile of crocodile poop or any other kind of poop for that matter.
As it turned out, we stayed in that tiny village for about the next three or four weeks. At the time, I smoked cigarettes and the pack in my shirt was empty so I rummaged around in my rucksack for cigarettes. That’s when I discovered that I had forgotten to pack any smokes. That didn’t upset me very much because I figured I could buy some in the village. Besides, I figured that I didn’t really need them anyway because I wasn’t hooked on them.
Tosoc and I rented the upstairs of a frame house that was built on stilts from the widow who owned it. The upstairs was just one large room with no furnishings. We slept on our air mattresses and in my case under my poncho liner. Electricity was the only utility that served the house. The hand-dug well was outside and so was the latrine. We bathed out of dish pans in the latrine. The first time, I tried to bathe in the daytime, it didn’t work so well because before I even got started about half the village had gathered there to watch the giant American wash his big white butt. It seemed that the local natives loved Americans, at least those villagers did, especially the kids. Wherever American GIs are stationed there is always a love affair between them and the local kids. Then I tried to bathe at night, but I really didn’t like that idea very much because there was no outdoor light and that place has too many poisonous snakes to be walking around bare footed at night. None of the natives seemed to bathe at night while we were there. So I started taking "sponge" bathes one or two nights a week. Since my tour in Thailand, I was a little more wary of snakes.
The first morning we were there, Tosoc and I went downtown to look for some cigarettes and to check out our new home. We had to pass the school en-route to the business district and the school yard was full of children and teachers. The teachers temporarily dismissed class and the children all swarmed around Tosoc and I. They were all eager to try out their English lessons on me so I had to stop and talk to every kid there and answer their questions. "Good morning.” "How are you?” "I am fine, how are you.” "My name is Don Valentine.” "What’s your name?” "Where are you going?” "Where are you from?” It seemed like it took forever because there must have been over a hundred kids, but it was fun and I enjoyed every minute of it. The kids really thought that was something. They made me feel like the king of their little village. This happened every time I walked by the school. Of course I always made sure to pass the school when I went downtown.
When I tried a pack of the local cigarettes. They were horrible and I nearly choked to death trying to smoke one. "Aw to heck with it, I’ll just do without, " I said. "Besides, I don’t really need those things anyway.”
That afternoon two local policemen paid us a visit. One was the police chief and the other was his one and only police officer. The chief was armed with a .38 caliber revolver and his officer was armed with an M-1 Garand and had one bandolier of ammo strung across his chest. We invited them upstairs and sat on the floor and talked. They spoke pretty good English, but Tosoc had to interpret now and then. As soon as we were upstairs, I remembered the custom of the Filipinos that I had met in Laos and I brought out the bottle of Old Grandad that I had brought along. After I opened the bottle, I threw away the cap. They really enjoyed that and we sat and talked until we had emptied the bottle. As they were saying good night, the police chief told Tosoc something in Tagalog just before they left. When I asked Tosoc what they had said and he told me, "He say that we would not have to worry about thieves as long as we are in San Mariano.” I doubted that very much. After they left our house, we heard them going around to every house in the village banging on the door and yelling. Again, Tosoc had to interpret what they were telling the villagers. The policemen were telling the villagers, "If the American loses so much as one sock, we will shoot the thief on the spot.” It worked because we never lost a thing even when I washed some clothes and hung them on the line to dry and forgot and left them there all night. Everything was still hanging there the next morning — and that ladies and gentlemen was a miracle.
Tosoc was a Muslim. Muslim troops in the Philippine Army were allowed to wear a special hat. It was shaped like the issue hat, but it was furry. I soon nicknamed him "Mama Tosock" because he was so neat and nit-picking. It took that man forever to get cleaned up and suitably attired to go outside. He would spend at least thirty minutes picking invisible lint from his fatigues. Never have I seen a male go through a ritual like that. The only males that I had seen before who came close to being that egotistical were Mike Dirocco and Ron Chellman from my radio operator school days. Neither of those guys could pass a mirror or a plate glass window without stopping and admiring their reflection and flexing. Mike and Ronnie were good guys and I like them, but that was just the way they were and probably still are even today. Ronnie and Bob Kaszer even went so far as to have the pockets on their fatigue shirts and the front pockets on their fatigue trousers sewn shut! That was so they couldn’t put anything in those pockets that would make their uniform bulge.
Well, I was wrong about the cigarettes; I was addicted to them. For about three or four days, I constantly patted my pockets down searching for a pack of cigarettes and a box of matches that wasn’t there. Then I tried smoking a local cigarette again and I nearly coughed up a lung. After about a week, I was thoroughly ashamed of myself for what I was letting those little white sticks do to me. That was when I became angry at myself, very, very angry. In fact, I had never been that angry before at anyone or anything. It enraged me so much, I swore that I would not touch another cigarette as long as I live. Since that brief period of madness, I have never even wanted a cigarette. If you want to quit cigarettes, I guess all you have to do is just get good and angry at yourself.
One day Mama Tosoc and I went to the business district where we saw a Negrito family strolling down the main street. I did not have my camera with me and this was the only time I saw them. As I recall, all of the streets in the village were dirt. There was only that one Negrito family, a man, his woman, and the little baby. The woman carried the baby strapped to her chest. The adults wore only a loin cloth and the baby wore nothing. They were pitch black and he only stood about five and a half feet tall, but his body would have made Tarzan envious. He was very muscular and his body looked as if it had been chiseled out of black granite. He carried a very long knife in his loin cloth string and it looked razor sharp.
Mama Tosoc said that this tribe of Negritos were formerly head-hunting cannibals and their village was located in the mountains across the river a few days walk from San Mariano. That may have been true or it may have been a rumor. Apparently, they had already traded some of their goods for a very brightly colored parasol which the man carried. The native held the parasol over his head and spun it again and again. He and his woman both had wide grins, obviously spellbound by all of those spinning colors. As they passed slowly along the dirt street watching that spinning parasol some of the Filipinos slipped around behind the shops where they could stifle a laugh or giggle without being seen. However, not one Filipino laughed in the presence of those natives. Those natives were taken very serious by the local villagers and I made a mental note to do the same.
One day, my lieutenant radioed that a little boy in a nearby village had been snake bit and was in a bad way. He said that they were going to carry him out of the mountains and for me to meet them at the river crossing with transportation for him, the boy, his parents and a couple of his Filipino soldiers. That meant we needed a truck. We had no vehicles. What to do. Then I remembered my police buddies. Tosoc and I hot-footed over to the police station and explained everything to them. The police chief issued an order to his assistant and away he raced. The assistant commandeered an empty, flatbed, logging truck right off of the main street with the agreement that I would reimburse the man for the gas plus fill his tank when we were finished. That was okay by me. Hopefully, whoever was in charge of such things back at our base was a little flexible. Anyway, off we went to the river and after a few hours our guys waded across the river carrying the poor little boy. After a short discussion as to where was the best place to take the boy for treatment, the lieutenant ordered us to drive to the nearest civilian clinic which was several miles farther northwest. We were southeast of Llagan so that may have been where we took him.
When we arrived there, I sat up my radio on an open knoll near the hospital and erected an improvised antenna and tried to communicate with our home base to advise them of our situation. They did not answer, but I just knew that my signal was getting through because of the antenna that I had made and because we were on a high open knoll. The Filipinos in the clinic refused to help the boy. They said that he would live or he would die and that was the way it is. My lieutenant could not accept that answer so we loaded up and headed for our base camp which must have been at least 150 miles away. When we finally reached our base camp, I learned that they had heard me, but one look at their antennas and I knew why I had not heard from them. All they were using were the issue antennas. While the boy was taken to our medics for treatment, I escorted our magnanimous truck driver to our motor pool and had his gas tank filled with good old US of A gasoline. That truck driver was one happy camper — at least somebody was happy. There wasn’t much that our guys could do for the boy, but they did their best and somehow he survived. I suspect the snake was not venomous. We returned to San Mariano that night and the next morning, anyone of us three Americans could have been elected King of Northern Luzon for sure.
Shortly after that, we were trucked back to our base camp and the maneuver was officially over. We remained there for a couple of days before returning to Oki. Our commander lectured us on our military bearing while we were still in country, "Anyone who is drunk or rude, will be court-martialed.” The night before we left, we were all invited to a performance by the local military band. The band was very good and I tapped my foot to the music and patted my knee. One of the band members started motioning in my direction for someone to come sit beside him on the bandstand. Eventually, I figured out that guy was motioning to was me. It took several attempts by him and of course my fellow SF buddies before I finally relented and sat beside him in the band. That little devil handed me a tambourine and I had never played a tambourine in my life. I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but he insisted so I tried. Naturally I was terrible, but all of the band members pretended that I was doing great. Our guys got a big kick out of this and I thought, "Great, am I always going to be their favorite source of entertainment?” Not wanting to see the expression on my commander’s face, I never glanced towards where he was sitting.
Just before we loaded onto the trucks and headed back to Clark Air Base on the day that we left for Oki, the Philippine Commander thanked us for our efforts and then Mama Tosoc whipped out a very long switchblade knife and cut off every insignia that I had on my uniform and pocketed them as souvenirs. Moma Tosoc gave me a couple of his Muslim SF caps and a pair of his parachutist wings. Then he brought out a bottle of whiskey, opened it and threw away the cap. Come to find out, I was the only one to be so "honored."
When I unloaded from that bus at Clark Air Force Base, I looked like a blivet and I was walking on rubber legs. My jungle fatigues were stripped of any means of identifying me, only threads and shadows were located where my SF patch, US Army patch, Name Tag, and jump wings had been. My green beret was long gone and in its place I wore a tiny, furry Muslim Philippine SF Cap perched atop my big bald head. As I departed from the bus and staggered for the aircraft, I did my best to manage a proper soldierly appearance, but I have to admit that I didn’t do so well. When my company commander’s face turned beet red and he nearly busted a gut trying to hold his temper, I figured he would bury me under the stockade on Oki when we returned. Over the next few weeks, my buddies reminded me of my departure from Clark Air Base, but I never heard about it from my commander. That company commander left SF shortly after that. That’s good, he just didn’t have a sense of humor and apparently knew absolutely nothing about how to establish rapport with the local natives.
Shortly after we returned from the Philippines, I was selected to go on another field training exercise with the same lieutenant and I still can not recall his name. This trip was to Taiwan. During that entire trip, I never really knew what my particular team was supposed to be doing in Taiwan. We rented a couple of hotel rooms about 75 miles south of Taipei and that’s mostly where we stayed for the two or three weeks that we were there. There was a decent restaurant around the corner where we ate all of our meals. It didn’t matter to me which restaurant we chose because I love Chinese food and every restaurant in Taiwan is a Chinese restaurant. I couldn’t miss. As far as I was concerned, I was in hog heaven. There was only one small problem with the restaurant. They changed their prices for us Americans almost every meal. They kept raising the prices for us until we finally complained and then they dropped the price a little and that was the price for that meal whether breakfast, dinner or supper, for the rest of our stay.
Taiwan was where I learned the meaning of the term, "negotiation.” If you don’t haggle and then shake your head and walk away from the merchant and let him follow you and persuade you to do business with him by dropping his price, you will pay three or four times the market value.
Later, I discovered that the process was the same in Mexican towns on the US border.
One day our team leader had to go to an army base that was located about 25 or 30 miles southwest of Taipei and took me with him. That base was where the Taiwan SF troops were stationed, but I don’t recall why we went there. Neither of us spoke Chinese so we were pretty much flying by the seat of our pants. Anyway we thought that we caught the correct train because it was going to Taipei, but when it sped past that army base, we knew that we had caught the "express.” When we arrived at the train station in Taipei, we looked at each other, smiled and mutually agreed that fate had dealt us a great hand and we decided to spend the night there and try another train the next morning. Taipei seemed to have a thriving economy and the people were very friendly. While we were in town, I found the local bar where all SF hang out when they’re in town and made that my base of operations. We managed to catch the correct train the next day with no problem.
The only other thing that I can remember about my time in Taiwan was my getting involved in a teeny tiny, international incident. Believe me, as far as I could tell, it was a "nothing" that got completely blown out of proportion by "politics."
I had to pick up some US and Chinese A Team guys in a ¾ ton truck and haul them to an American air base that was about 75 miles farther south from our hotel. The driver, interpreter and truck were all Chinese. The driver was a sergeant and the interpreter was a captain. That driver drove like a damn maniac. While we were on Chinese highways, I didn’t say anything to him. After we entered the American base and he had roared through a couple of stop signs, I told the captain to tell him to obey the traffic signs while we were on that base. He ran another stop sign and I told the captain, "Tell this dumb m--------er to stop at every stop sign on this base!” and the captain translated it word-for-word. That truck screeched to a stop and the driver jumped out and walked over to the side of the road and squatted on his heels and crossed his arms over his chest. He puffed up like a toad. When I asked the captain about this strange behavior, he told me that the driver had lost face. I said, "Tell him to get back in the truck and let’s go.” "Oh no, he has lost face," he replied. That damn officer would not order him to get back in that truck. "Aw to heck with him," I said. "I’ll drive the truck the rest of the way and we’ll pick him up on the way back or leave him there whichever he wishes.” With that, I headed for the driver’s side of the truck. I thought the insulted sergeant must have found his lost face fast because he beat me to the driver’s seat and off we roared. We delivered the troops and the ride back to our hotel resembled something very close to a Demolition Derby back home.
About three weeks after we returned to Oki, I was called into our company orderly room to see the company commander. He passed me a letter that had been sent from the Commanding General of the Taiwan Army through the Commanding General of the Pacific Theater down through channels to my company commander. It spelled out in detail how I had insulted the soldier and demanded an apology. As it passed through each level in my chain of command, a letter was attached ordering me to apologize. My company commander informed me that an appropriate response would be prepared for me and I would sign it. It was and I did. Every commander in my chain of command also had to attach a "letter of condolence" to it as it passed through their office enroute back to Taiwan. That one document must have taken up an entire diplomatic mail pouch by the time it finally got back to that Chinese sergeant. That spoiled brat has probably shown that document to his buddies at the NCO club a few hundred times.
Shortly after we returned from Taiwan, I went on another TDY trip. This one was to South Korea. TDY trips, field training exercises, parachuting, firing on the rifle ranges, and similar duty made me appreciate a nice clean barracks, the mess hall, and the good life in general, so I loved them. Nothing made me appreciate being near headquarters, however so naturally I did not like CPX’s. A CPX is a Command Post Exercise. On a CPX, nobody actually goes into the boonies on maneuvers, everything is simulated. The base station radio operators encode, send, receive, and decode "canned messages" on "reduced distance radio nets.” One radioman will send the message to another radioman who is in the room, building or tent next door. The two radio operators might only be separated by a wall, but they have to go through the entire procedure for each message instead of someone just handing the message directly to the intended addressee.
The only things that I can remember about Korea is the kimche, which is the hottest food I have ever eaten; the multitude of whores, who pounced on every GI as soon they stepped off base begging for his "business"; the mountains, because they were very steep, rugged, and high; and the stink—that place is the latrine of the world. All in all, I was very thankful that our CPX in Korea didn’t last very long and that I wasn’t stationed permanently in Korea. Korea must truly be the anus of the world.
Big Dave had returned to the states to be discharged so I got another SF sergeant named Quiroga to move in with me. Quiroga and I came home early from the club one night to watch TV because NASA was scheduled to put men on the moon for the first time. The second guy to exit the landing craft had just dropped down to the ground when the first guy on the moon came bouncing into the background of the picture and Quiroga, who was drunk, leaped up from the couch and shouted, "Watch out behind you!” I rolled off the couch onto the floor laughing.
Early in the summer of 1969, I was selected to be the Assistant Camp Counselor for Summer Camp at Camp Hardy for some army brats [dependent children]. In this case it was boys who were between seven and fifteen years old. At least that’s the age bracket in which they were supposed to have been. One little squirt that I nicknamed "Pee Wee" had trouble walking with a full canteen of water on his pistol belt. Later, I found out that an exception had been granted for "Pee Wee" — he was only five years old.
A married master sergeant was originally assigned as the Camp Counselor, but two days after we arrived at Camp Hardy, he had family problems. He returned to base and I was promoted to Camp Counselor. Lucky me, a bachelor with no experience with kids, was left in charge of 80 boys at Summer Camp for the next three weeks. That was an experience I will never forget.
Camp Hardy was the pre-mission training camp for the 1st Group. We all slept in squad tents that were erected on concrete slabs. We began each day at the crack of dawn with reveille followed by breakfast and then we took a little time to clean up our tents before we took physical training. From that point on the curriculum varied from day-to-day. We put those kids through a "gentle" version of pre-mission training, but, I really worked their little butts off. I tried my best to wear those kids out so they would go to sleep at nights and not get into trouble. We had no television and very few of the boys even had a radio. There were also very few books available. But, regardless of how hard I worked them, you could hear them horse-playing until taps, and sometimes afterwards. Usually, I had to make only one visit to one tent to calm them down after taps because I was loud enough for all the tents to benefit from it. I was pooped and that saved me some time so I could get some sleep to. Riding herd all day on eighty young energetic mischievous boys can wear a person out.
We trained them in marksmanship using BB Rifles; we trained them in the art of tracking humans; we trained them in using little rubber boats; we ran them through a modified version of the Camp Hardy infiltration course; we gave them swimming lessons in the ocean; and most of the third week we spent camping out. The rest of the third week, we spent at the Basic Airborne Course at Sukiran where they got to exit the 34 foot training tower. We also offered scuba-diving lessons to any boy that could pass the swimming test, but no one passed it. Every kid tried their best to pass that swimming test, even Pee Wee. We had to pull some of them to safety because they would have drowned before they would have quit. If they were members of the boy scouts, they received credit toward merit badges for successfully completing the swimming lessons, weapons classes, erecting an emergency shelter and for cooking when they camped out.
If they did good with the BB rifles, they got the same training with a .22 caliber rifle. They were taught "Quick Fire" techniques. That is where you lift your rifle and fire without using the sights. Those little snot-nosed brats did pretty darn good. They put everything they had into it because they all dearly wanted to shoot the 22s. On the infiltration course blanks were fired over their heads instead of bullets and M80 type firecrackers were set off here and there instead of plastic explosives.
Survival training was included in the camping trip. After we arrived at our bivouac site, I assigned each squad a section of the woods and told them to build their shelters. On the very first day, we had assigned the oldest kids to be squad leaders and the next oldest to be their assistants and made them responsible for taking care of the younger members of their squads, just like in the army. They had hatchets, knives and army field gear. I told them, "I will grade each shelter tomorrow morning.” Also, I issued each squad their rations for that evening and the next day. They scurried off into the woods like a bunch of newly hatched chicks and pretty soon all you could hear was chopping and squeals of laughter all through the woods. Those little guys were having a ball. Most of the boys had built sleeping platforms off the ground in the trees. All during the night, you could hear a tree begin to crack, then a snap and crash as the platform came down amid cries of fear. No calls for help came so I knew nobody was hurt. Shortly after each platform crashed, you would see flashlights through the trees and the chopping and laughter would begin anew as the hapless camper and his team mates set about re-building his sleeping platform.
Those kids were having the adventure of their life.
None of their food was cooked for them. It was all raw. Sometimes they got hot dogs, sometimes it was hamburger meat and sometimes it was chicken. They had to prepare their meals themselves. While they were camped out, I was required to taste and hopefully approve one meal by each boy that wanted credit for a boy scout badge — that took guts. Pee Wee was too young to be in the scouts, but he wanted to do everything that the "big boys" did so I just had to eat a meal with him also. Pee Wee served hamburgers that meal and as he picked my burger off of his makeshift grill, he dropped it into the ashes. That little guy never blinked an eye, I thought sure he would break down and cry, but he didn’t. He plucked my burger from the ashes, wiped it off the best that he could, and proudly presented that little piece of charcoal to me. Boy, was he proud of that burger. Oh well, I like my meat well done anyway and besides, charcoal is a great remedy for the back-door-trots. Of course I didn’t have the back-door-trots yet, but you never know when they might strike and I figured it wouldn’t hurt to have a little extra protection already inside me, just in case. Also, I had to inspect and approve each shelter before the Boy Scouts would award them credit for that. Thankfully, I was not required to sleep in them.
We returned the boys home each Saturday afternoon and picked them up early each Monday. The second time that I picked them up, several of the mothers approached me and asked me what I was doing to their boy. I asked, "Why? What’s wrong?” The most common reply was, "Nothing’s wrong, he’s just changed. He’s not the same little boy that I sent to you. He’s independent now and wants to do everything for himself.” Well, it seemed that the mothers didn’t have as many kids to smother…errr…mother anymore and that bothered them. Well, I took it as a compliment, but I’m not sure that’s how it was intended. However, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was going to get another one of those "letters of apology" that I "must" sign and send back through channels, but I didn't.
There was a lot of hard things being said about American kids at that time because of the drugs, hippies, flower children and protesters. There wasn’t one thing wrong with any of those boys. They were all crackerjacks. All they needed was just a little leadership, a lot of challenge, and enough freedom to make mistakes. Hopefully, they also had enough wisdom to learn from their mistakes and I believe they did.
Believe me, I learned more from those kids than they learned from me — a lot more. For the first time in my life, I regretted not living a normal life and having a family of my own with my own kids, but that feeling wore off in about thirty seconds. Several times since then, I have wondered how those young men turned out and how their experiences that summer affected their lives. Well, if I had any sense, I would have kept a roster of their full names and their parents and I could have followed up on that.
Shortly after that while I was wandering around in downtown Koza bar-hopping, I spotted a plastic battery-operated dildo. Right away I decided that I could have some fun with that so I went into the store and bought one. At the time, I did not know how to dance. Some of the women at the base clubs always wanted to dance with me, but I always turned them down because I just did not know how to dance. One of the MPs that gave us riot control training had went out of his way to make friends with me and later on, he taught me one simple dance step that could be used in just about any dance. It was just a simple two-step. After that, when I went to the club at nights, I took the massager with me in my right front trouser pocket, but I never turned it on. When I slow danced I held the woman very close. I had those lovely ladies lined up waiting for another chance at a slow dance with me and my little dancing buddy. My buddies were amazed at my new found dancing success until I showed them my dancing buddy and then they cracked up. In fact, they laughed so loud and so long, the club manager made us leave.
Many of the Okinawan girls did not like SF because they thought that SF drank too much, cursed too much, fought too much, went off to war too much, bounced from girl to girl, and didn’t wear skivvies. Even some of the whores would not do business with SF. There was a two story cat house next to the army airfield on Highway 1. A bar was downstairs and the girls’ rooms were upstairs. It was not unusual to see some GI in civvies being chased down the stairs by a raving whore shouting, "Get out you hotdamn sumbitch. You say you no speshul hosses.” "But honey, I’m not. I’m a marine," the retreating GI would laughingly plead. "Bull s--t, you no good lying sumbitch. You be speshul hosses. You no habba skibbies.”
Lots of guys in SF had nicknames. Many radio operators were nicknamed "Sparky" or "Sparks" and most of the medics were naturally nicknamed "Doc.” Some other nicknames were :
Richard Shorten was nicknamed Bear because of the way he fought. Bear tended to maul an opponent instead of boxing him.
Snuffy Smith was called snuffy because his physical appearance and morals reminded you of the cartoon character.
Stick earned his nickname the hard way. "A husband came home unexpected and walked in on Stick and his wife in the bed and he picked up a handy mop or broom or cane or bat and commenced to beat Stick severely about the head and shoulders until he put Stick in the hospital."
Harold "Catfish" Dreblow was nicknamed Catfish because he would eat anything, but he wasn’t the only Catfish. SF had several of those.
I nicknamed Larry Dickinson “The Cook” because he was always cooking something and it usually tasted pretty good, but you soon learned not to ask too many questions about the recipe. If you were having some yummy pinto beans and felt a lump while stirring them, you might dip out a Snicker’s bar or two. At least one bar would still be in its wrapper.
"One Ear" lost one ear when an angry husband bit it off during a fight after he caught Jim in bed with his wife. At least that’s what Pete Garner told me.
Railroad Smith used a tad too much demolition to destroy a railroad track during training. A piece of track almost went into orbit.
Whispering Smith had a naturally weak voice and always spoke in a whisper.
John "One Eye" Riley had a glass eye in place of the one that he lost in Vietnam when the tip of a tiny antenna on an airplane wing plucked it out for him. One Eye Riley was a black-haired, chunky-built Irishman from New York City. I reckon John stood about 5’ 8" tall and he had a habit of sometimes dropping his glass eye in his drink when he went to the latrine so no one would steal a drink from it. John had one glass eye that matched his good eye and one that had a USA flag where the iris should have been.
One day One Eye, who was as drunk as a skunk at the time, drove into the Dixie Drive-in Restaurant in Spring Lake, North Carolina, which was located just outside Fort Bragg. Unwittingly, One Eye put the gear into "Neutral" instead of "Park" then passed out over the steering wheel and his car rolled back out into the middle of Bragg Boulevard. One Eye didn’t even realize that he was sitting broadside in the middle of the four lane highway. A highway patrolman arrived on the scene. The state trooper walked up to the car and tapped on the window. One Eye finally awoke, rolled down his window and said, "Two cheeseburgers and fries to go.” Needless to say, One Eye didn’t get what he ordered and he didn’t drive anymore that night either.
[How he did it I don’t know, but Ole One Eye made it to retirement and returned to New York. Rumor has it that One Eye died in 1995, but I do not recall hearing what killed him.]
John "Wild Dude" Wicker was nicknamed Wild Dude by Max Recod while they were on a field training exercise in Okinawa and Max saw Dude swinging on a limb high in a tree and making monkey-like noises. Wild Dude was just an average size guy who was a karate freak or "Jap Slapper" as some of the guys called karate students. Wild Dude studied karate while he was stationed on Okinawa and became a black belt. Dude was a real character who forever courted disfavor with his superiors, but his fellow enlisted men liked to have Wild Dude around, especially when the pollution hit the rotary blades.
One night on Oki when Wild Dude was downtown some local Okinawan street punks slipped up behind him and hit him across the back with a plank. Wild Dude leaped straight up, spun around, landed in a fighting stance and yelled, "Thank God, I didn’t think anybody was going to f--k with me tonight.” With that, Wild Dude charged his assailants, who immediately fled the scene.
On another occasion while downtown in Okinawa, Wild Dude unknowingly entered a bar where off duty MPs hung out. Of course he promptly got involved in an altercation with a couple of off duty MPs who were wearing civvies. The MPs did not allow any other soldiers to visit the bar that they picked as their hangout and they had told Wild Dude to leave, "This is our bar.” Naturally that’s when the disagreement began. A horde of off duty MPs poured out of the bar and began to chase Wild Dude after he had punched their two buddies silly. Wild Dude managed to lose them briefly and then he stopped at a pay phone and called the MPs to report that a bunch of idiots were chasing him.
After that every MP on Oki, whether they were on duty or not, knew exactly where to find Wild Dude and they descended upon him like a cloud of locusts. Wild Dude was badly beaten physically, but not in spirit. After Wild Dude was subdued and handcuffed, the uniformed MPs beat his back, buttocks and legs with their batons. When they finally stopped, Wild Dude told them, "Boys that’s the best damn massage I’ve had in years.” They gave him another one.
In my opinion, if you want to locate the majority of the worst criminals in the army, you need look no farther than the members of the Military Police and Criminal Investigation units. Trust me on that one.
Once while on patrol with a SOG recon team in Vietnam, Wild Dude’s team had to be extracted by McGuire Rig while under fire. Wild Dude did pull ups on his rope all the way back to base camp. When they finally arrived at base camp, everyone was worn out from the emotional stress of dangling from one thin climbing rope beneath a chopper for so long, everyone that is except Wild Dude. Wild Dude went skipping off to operations whistling and joking with his buddies.
Somehow, Wild Dude managed to last long enough to retire as a master sergeant. That in itself is a complete mystery to me. Anyway, the last I knew about Wild Dude, he lived in Fayetteville where he owned and operated a Karate Dojo and helped out part-time at the SF Assessment and Selection course at Camp MacKall. Wild Dude died in the late 1990s.
I have listed below additional nicknames of special forces soldiers that I collected from members of the Special Forces Teamhouse through their web site atwww.sflistteamhouse.com
Fly Face; Peg-leg; Half-head; Three-fingers; Long Nose; Rat Face; Filthy Fred; Hose Nose; Dirty Dick; VC-in-the-tree-line; Pinto; Bata Boots; Ranger; Patch; Dirty Shirt; Shaky; Blinky; Spear Chunker; Firewood; Dawg; S--t Face; Slats; Preacher; Trash Can; Snapper; Jumpy ; Black Jack; Fats; Small; Frosty Ice; Swede; Cheap; Greasy; Garbage Gut; Duffle Bag; Clean; Blind; Mad Dog; Babysan; Crazy; Good Deal; Lightning; Boom-boom; and Boar Hog.
Meanwhile, I decided to find a way to survive until retirement. Under the circumstances, that definitely eliminated SF field duty. That stupid war, politics, and the officer corps had changed SF too much to suit me any more. If I couldn’t believe in what we were doing and how we were doing it and if I couldn’t or wouldn’t give 100%, then I had no business taking up a slot in SF.
General Creighton Abrams had been assigned as Westmoreland’s replacement as Commander of all US Forces in Vietnam. Abrams was strictly a conventional army man — a tank and cavalry man to be exact. It was General Abram’s opinion that the only elite units in the army were the armored units. He saw this incident as an excellent excuse to rid the army of the irregular upstart called special forces. He put out the word to all commands in Vietnam to not have anything to do with special forces.
Shortly after that, the Commander of the 5th Group, Colonel Robert B. Rheault, and several sergeants from one of their special projects units had been arrested for murder while I was still on Oki. They were all placed in the stockade in Saigon while awaiting a General Court-martial and General Abrams placed a non-airborne, non-special forces, colonel as Commander of the 5th Group. This was the ultimate insult to any unit, much less a special forces unit. You just don’t place Colonels in the stockade while they are awaiting trial. This was outrageous treatment and it greatly angered the SF community. Such personnel would normally be placed under "house arrest" which is basically being restricted to your quarters except for meals and medical treatment.
It seems that the CIA had found evidence that proved that one of the interpreters that worked for one of the 5th Group’s Special Projects [Delta, Omega, or Sigma] was a spy for the VC and had caused the death of several SF on RTs and many more ARVN troops. The CIA also gave the special forces’ men specific instructions on how to deal with the spy. According to latrine rumors, they told them to take him out over the ocean and throw him out of the plane without benefit of a parachute. Apparently they decided to use a boat and several pounds of ballast instead. Somebody turned them in for killing the spy and that’s how they ended up in the stockade. No corpse was ever produced and of course the CIA had no knowledge of the affair. According to the CIA, sometimes referred to as "Clowns In Action," they had not passed any such information to Delta. Eventually the charges were dropped, but Colonel Rheault’s career was over. He retired shortly afterwards. He was one of the best SF officers ever, maybe the best. He had been with SF since its origin and was greatly admired and respected within SF. There was a rumor going around that the enlisted men in Project Delta or the Nha Trang Mike Force, had already planned to rescue them from the stockade. And it said that on the eve of the raid, Colonel Rheault got word about their plan and convinced them to abort it. I think it was maybe discussed around a fifth of scotch, but never went any farther than that.
I did not learn of the CIA involvement in this incident until much later.
Meanwhile back at the Puzzle Palace in Arlington, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, jumped aboard the "get-rid-of-special forces band wagon": He immediately began down-sizing SF world-wide and assigned a General to be the commander and "hatchet man" of all US Army Special Warfare units. This "hatchet man" had the SF enlisted men at Fort Bragg saluting any other SF enlisted men who was of a higher rank. If you have never served in the military, you can not possibly understand how stupid this is. That was one general that was definitely not playing with a full deck of cards. I’m not certain about that general’s name, but the name "Flannagan" comes to mind for some reason. The "5th Group spy fiasco" was to the conventional army as fresh blood would be to a shark. The generals went into a "feeding frenzy" and special forces was the main course.
SF enlisted men that were returning to the states from overseas were being reassigned to non-SF duty by the droves. Several SF enlisted men on Oki were reassigned to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the home of the military and federal prison. What they did there, I did not know and I definitely did not want to find out.
"It’s time for Old Val to make another brilliant career decision," I thought. Just the thought of leaving my special forces buddies for some other part of the army was more emotional for me than leaving my wife to go to combat or even divorcing her. Divorcing my wife was a relief, but leaving my SF buddies was heart-breaking.
Regardless of where I went in the army, I knew that I would never find another bunch of guys like them . If you’re ever in a root-hog-or-die situation, you can’t ask for a better bunch of guys to be with you. If I were picking the guys that I wanted around me when I die, regardless of how I died, I would pick all SF. Not my wife and kids, not family — SF! Because they would laugh, tell jokes, and pester me right up to the end. Also I could count on one of them to sneak me at least one cold beer before I checked out. Leaving them behind and not knowing whether I would see them again really hurt. They were family.
For me, it was simply a matter of survival because I just couldn’t see anyway that I could survive another trip to Vietnam with the new SF. So far, I had been very lucky and I was at least smart enough to realize it. Besides that, by the summer of 1965, I had already figured out that regardless of what our troops did, they would not be allowed to even accomplish the military's mission much less win that stupid war. Our mission wasn’t to win, it was to contain the enemy and preserve the government of South Vietnam. It made no difference how corrupt that government was or whether it deserved to be saved or that most South Vietnamese didn’t care whether it was saved.
After checking into one possible duty station after another with no luck, I just happened to meet a sergeant in the military intelligence detachment that was attached to the 1st Group. I don’t recall ever knowing we had an MI detachment attached to the group. His name was Smart; I remember his name because the TV show, "Get Smart" was popular in the states back then and that made the name stick in my mind. Sergeant Smart convinced me to volunteer for "special intelligence" duty with MI [Military Intelligence]. That seemed like it would be a good buffer between SF duty and civilian life.
First, I had to fill out a six-page personal history statement so MI could use it to investigate my background. Next, I had to write a minimum of 500 words about myself. Then I had to wait while MI spent about a year investigating me. They wanted to make sure that I didn’t lie, cheat or steal and that I preferred girls to fat little boys.
The funny part is, after I passed that test, they would then spend the next six months teaching me how to lie, cheat, and steal. They would also teach me how to locate and recruit perverts and hardened criminals to help me accomplish my assigned mission. That’s the "Intelligence" way.
I knew that intelligence duties and training would include typing and I could not type. So while I was waiting to be approved, I bought a cheap portable typewriter and a "Touch-Typing Made Simple" book at the PX and taught myself touch-typing while I was still on Oki. MI finally approved me for special intelligence training and assigned me to a 19-week course at the US Army Intelligence School at Fort Holabird, Maryland. It was February 1970 when I left Oki and the A Teams for good and I was thirty three years old.
General Abram's was a Class A, Certified S.O.B. The SF enlisted men never forgot what he did and they never forgave him. Not long afterwards, when he was lying in a hospital hacking and coughing and spiting out pieces of his lung while dying of lung cancer and barely able to breathe, he received a gift in the mail...a box of the most expensive hand rolled Cuban cigars money could buy with a card that read, "With the heartfelt wishes of the officers and men of the 5th Special Forces Group." Wish I could have been a fly on the wall of his room when they delivered it. It still brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it. You just gotta love guys like that.
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