Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Revealed: 50 Years Ago, a Top-Secret U.S. Base Was Overrun By VC

Fifty years ago on March 12, 1968, a top-secret U.S. base on a mountain top in Laos was overrun by an elite force of Vietnamese commandos. Only six of the eighteen CIA and Air Force personnel manning the remote outpost escaped with their lives in an incident that would remain veiled in secrecy for three decades.
This was because the U.S. military was legally prohibited from operating in Laos. The southeast Asian nation had been wracked by a civil war pitting right-wing royalists against Pathet Lao communists—the latter backed by North Vietnam, which used Laotian territory to clandestinely funnel troops into South Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh trail. However, in 1962 Washington, Hanoi and Laotian factions all signed a peace treaty in which the foreign powers agreed to withdraw their forces from the country.
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However, North Vietnam only withdrew a minority of its forces, and the United States continued transferring extensive military aid to the royalist and instead began a secret but large-scale aerial bombing campaign in the kingdom known as Operation Barrel Roll. Though warplanes based in Vietnam and Thailand flew missions into Laos, CIA-run mercenary contractors and ‘airlines’ such as Air America flew transport and observation aircraft from Laotian bases.
CIA personnel also recruited local Hmong, an ethnic minority present in several southeast Asian states, to fight a guerilla war against the Pathet Lao. It was with this purpose in mind that CIA personnel first established a base atop the steep cliff of Phou Pha Thi mountain, a sacred place in the Hmong’s animist faith which happened to be strategically located near the border with North Vietnam.
This base was one of many ‘Lima Sites’ in Laos intended to facilitate aerial supply of U.S.-allied forces. The main facility was at the peak of the 5,600-foot high mountain surrounded by steep cliffs; you can see the base’s layout in this photo. A path wound downslope to a short 700-meter long airstrip at the base of the mountain was used for resupply and staff rotations, delivered in covert weekly flights by CH-3 helicopters of the 20th U.S. Air Force helicopter squadron.
In the summer of 1966, the U.S. Air Force decided to adapt the base with a new purpose—to serve as radar-navigation system, a or TACAN, by installing a power generator and first a transponder. In the era predating GPS, TACAN sites helped warplanes find their targets, especially, while flying under low visibility conditions or at night. (The first radio navigation system, known as Knickebein, was developed by Nazi Germany, to enable more precise night bombing of England.) In 1967, this was further upgraded to a TSQ-81 antenna and remote bombing system that allowed the base to remotely control U.S. bombers.
Hanoi was only 135 miles northeast of Lima 85, so the clandestine base was able to direct very precise coordinates for U.S. aircraft bombarding the North Vietnamese capital. Because those strikes could involve anything from F-105 fighter bombers to dozens of huge B-52 bombers, this made the base a deadly force multiplier. In just six months, Lima 85 directed between 25 and 55 percent of the air strikes pounding North Vietnamese and Laotian targets.
Because Laotian Prince Souvanna refused to accept U.S. military personnel in Laos, U.S. Air Force personnel deployed to Lima 85 had to sign papers temporarily discharging them from the U.S. military before deploying to Lima, a farcical process known as ‘sheep dipping.’ These technicians were supposed to go unarmed, though they did eventually end up acquiring a handful of small arms. Instead, the base’s security was supposed to be assured by a battalion each of Hmong militia—advised by CIA agents—and Thai Border Patrol policemen deployed around the base of the mountain.
However, Lima 85 may have been concealed from the U.S. public, but it’s presence and purpose were not a secret to the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Scouts probed the base’s defenses in December 1967, and on January 12, 1968 a flight of four An-2 biplane transports attacked Lima 85 using underwing 57mm rockets, and 120mm mortar shells dropped out the side doors, killing four Hmong. An Air America UH-1 helicopter was scrambled to intercept the slow transports shot down one of the transports using AK-47 fired out the side—one of very few helicopter-on-airplane kills on record. Another An-2 crashed, either due to ground fire or a failed evasive maneuver.

The base was subsequently hit by a mortar barrage on January 30, then on February 18 Hmong militia ambushed and killed a team of NVA artillery observers near the mountain and recovered plans for a coordinated bombardment of the facility. American military leaders knew the isolated base was surrounded by stronger enemy forces and likely to come under attack, but the base’s TACAN support was considered so valuable that Amb. William Sullivan resisted evacuating the site. Unable to deploy significant defenses, the base’s technicians instead began dispatching hundreds of airstrikes against nearby communist forces to secure their position.
Elite North Vietnamese commandos from the 41st Special Forces battalion had already scaled the seemingly impassible cliffs on Phou Pha Thi’s northside without being detected on January 22 and reconnoitered the most feasible infiltration routes. Early that March, a thirty-three man platoon under the command of Lt. Truong Muoc assembled near the mountain, where they were reinforced by a nine-man sapper squad. The commandos were equipped with AK-47s, SKS carbines, explosives, hand grenades and three rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
At 6PM on March 11 an artillery bombardment gave cover for Truong’s pathfinders to clear out mines and secure the infiltration paths to Lima 85. A few hours later, regular troops of the 766th Regiment of the NVA and a Pathet Lao battalions launched an attack that pinned down the Hmong troops in the valley around the mountain. Finally around 9 PM, Truong’s men began scaling up the cliff, the operators splitting into five “cells” to launch a multiprong attack. Cells One and two would concentrate on the command post, cells three and four would seize the TACAN equipment and airstrip respectively, and the fifth cell would remain in reserve.
The base personnel reported the artillery bombardment, but Ambassador Sullivan decided not to order an evacuation unless the attack proved to be overwhelming. Only by 8 AM the following morning did he dispatch helicopters and air support to cover the personnel’s escape.
This was far too late. The Truong’s infiltrators were in position by 3 AM that morning and knocked out Hmong guard posts and the base’s TSQ-81 radar and power generator using rocket propelled grenades. When base commander Maj. Clarence Barton and several Air Force technicians rushed out to assess the situation, they were gunned down by the commandos. By 4 AM, the first three cells had captured all of their objectives. Some were captured and then flung over the cliff on Truong’s orders. Only cell 4 was forced to disengage from its objective, unable to dislodge a superior Hmong force of two infantry platoons and a mortar squad deployed around the airstrip.
Surviving U.S. personnel had fled to a ledge on the side of the cliff, where they were trapped as grenades and small arms fire rained down upon them. Firing back with their assault rifles, they attempted to call down an airstrike nearly on top of their position.
Finally at dawn, Air America helicopters covered by A-1 Skyraider attack planes swooped down upon the mountain. Hmong troops, led by two CIA agents and supported by Skyraiders, engaged in a fierce firefight as they attempted to dislodge the NVA commandos from the TACAN site. Though North Vietnamese platoon held its ground, the fracas provided a distraction for five surviving Air Force technicians and two CIA agents to be extracted.
Chief Master Sergeant Richard Etchberger, one of the airmen trapped on the cliff, refused to board a rescue chopper until he had loaded three of his injured comrades on the Huey’s rescue sling. As he was being lifted away, the Pennsylvanian was mortally wounded by a parting burst of assault rifle fire. Communist forces would retain control of Phou Pha Thai mountain and later repel a Hmong offensive to seize it back.
Muoc’s assault on Lima 85 had significantly weakened the U.S. air campaign over North Vietnam and Laos. According to Vietnamese accounts, he lost only one commando and killed at least forty-two Thai and Hmong troops as well as a dozen U.S. airmen. However, Truong would return home to a court martial rather than a hero’s welcome; his superiors were outraged that he had destroyed the valuable TACAN equipment and killed the technicians instead of capturing them.
Ironically, both Washington and Hanoi collaborated in preserving the secrecy of their war in the Laos. North Vietnam needed to maintain and secure the Ho Chi Minh trail’s route through Laos, while the U.S. military was compelled to try to stop them there. That both were violating a treaty they had signed was merely something that had to be concealed from the public.
In a tragic postscript, Etchberger would be posthumously nominated for the Medal of Honor, but would have the request denied by the Air Force due to the need to maintain the secrecy of the U.S. air war in Laos, which would actually escalate under the Nixon administration and be exposed with the release of the Pentagon Papers. The United States dropped one ton of bombs for every person living in Laos, delaying but not preventing, the eventual communist victory in 1975.
Only thirty years later did the United States officially acknowledge the battle at the clandestine site. Etchberger would finally be awarded the Medal of Honor in a ceremony on September 1, 2010. Earlier in the 2000s, Vietnamese veterans of the battle helped U.S. military personnel locate the remains of airmen that had been cast over the side of the cliff, and later those of Major Barton as well.
Preserving the memory of shadowy episodes like the battle of Lima 85 may not heal the wounds of the past, but it can help bring about an honest reckoning of the mistakes that were made and inspire reflection as to how to avoid repeating them in the future.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Wednesday, June 9, 2010



Name: Russell Peter "Pete" Bott 
Rank/Branch: Master Sergeant/US Army 
Unit: Detachment B-52 DELTA, 
5th Special Forces Group

1st Special Forces

Date of Birth: 05 September 1936 (North Easton, MA)
Home of Record: Worchester, MA
Date of Loss: 02 December 1966 
Country of Loss: Laos
Loss Coordinates: 165048N 1063158E (XD634633)
Click coordinates to view (4) maps

Status in 1973: Missing In Action 
Category: 2
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: Ground
Other Personnel In Incident: Willie E. Stark; Daniel A. Sulander and Irby Dyer III (missing) 
SYNOPSIS:  When North Vietnam began to increase its military strength in South Vietnam, NVA and Viet Cong troops again intruded on neutral Laos for sanctuary, as the Viet Minh had done during the war with the French some years before. This border road was used by the Communists to transport weapons, supplies and troops from North Vietnam into South Vietnam, and was frequently no more than a path cut through the jungle covered mountains. US forces used all assets available to them to stop this flow of men and supplies from moving south into the war zone.
Oscar Eight was the code name given to a sector of eastern Laos located in rugged jungle covered mountains approximately 25 miles northwest of the infamous A Shau Valley, Saravane Province, Laos. The area encompassed the junction of Highway 92, which was a primary north-south artery of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and Highway 922, which branched off and ran directly east where it crossed into South Vietnam at a strategic point near the northern edge of the A Shau Valley. Oscar Eight was also located at the southeastern end of a large and narrow jungle covered valley that had two primary roads running through it, one on each side of the valley. Highway 92 ran along the west side and Highway 919 along the east. A power line ran parallel to Highway 92 and sometimes crossed it. In addition to the roads and power line, the Hoi An River also flowed through the valley passing the road junction roughly 1 mile west of it.
More American aircraft were downed in this sector than any other place in Laos. This was because burrowed deep in the hills of Oscar Eight was North Vietnamese General Vo Bam's 559th Transportation Group's forward headquarters. It was also the Ho Chi Minh Trail's control center and contained the largest NVA storage facility outside of North Vietnam.
On 29 November 1966, SFC Willie E. Stark, team leader; then SSgt. Russell P. "Pete" Bott, assistant team leader; and four Vietnamese Special Forces (LLDB) "strikers" comprised a 6-man reconnaissance team, call sign "RT Viper." The team was to be inserted into the jungle covered mountains along the border in extreme western Quang Tri Province, South Vietnam. Their mission was to gather intelligence concerning enemy troops and supplies being moved along one of several arteries of the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. However, because of poor weather conditions at the time the team was inserted, it was inadvertently dropped into eastern Laos, far west of its intended landing zone (LZ). Weather conditions in the entire region did not improve until mid-December.
Shortly after being inserted, the team was ambushed by elements of the 325B NVA Division. Over the next two days a running gun battle ensued as RT Viper moved toward the northeast in an attempt to break contact. Late on the second day, Pete Bott made radio contact with Lt. John Flanagan, pilot; and Tommy Tucker, observer; who comprised the crew of the onsite Forward Air Control (FAC) aircraft, call sign "Snake." SSgt. Bott reported he was down to one grenade and one magazine of ammunition. He also stated that several of the Vietnamese team members were dead or wounded, and that Willie Stark had sustained wounds to his chest and leg, but was alive. SSgt. Bott requested an immediate emergency extraction. At the same time Pete Bott stated he ordered the two surviving strikers to escape and evade (E&E), he was staying with SFC Stark and would destroy the radio since he believed capture was imminent.
The team's location was in heavily forested mountains located just south of a large populated valley laced with a variety of trails through the entire region. Further, this sector was also considered to be in the northern portion of Oscar Eight, approximately 2 miles west of the Lao/South Vietnamese border, 2 miles east of Route 92, 4 miles west of the Lao/South Vietnamese border, 11 miles south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separated North and South Vietnam, 20 miles northeast of Tchepone, Savannakhet Province, Laos. This location was also 25 miles northwest of Khe Sanh and 55 miles northwest of the A Shau Valley, South Vietnam.
At 1000 hours on 2 December 1966, seven UH-1D Huey helicopters had  already been scrambled from the 281st Assault Helicopter Company stationed at Khe Sanh, for the extraction attempt and were orbiting  nearby. All of the helicopters were assigned to the 281st Assault  Helicopter Company. WO1 Daniel A. Sulander, aircraft commander; WO1  Donald Harrison, pilot; SP4 William J. Bodzick, crewchief; SP4 Lee J. Boudreaux, Jr., door gunner; comprised the crew of the lead extraction  aircraft (serial # 65-10088). Sgt. Irby Dyer III, a Special Forces medic  from Detachment B-52, was also onboard the lead helicopter to care for  the wounded on the return flight.
The Huey's aircrew located RT Viper near Route 1036 and initiated their approach. As the Huey neared the team's position, it came under intense ground fire. In spite of this, the Huey successfully landed in a small clearing near RT Viper's position. The crew of an accompanying gunship observed one of the Vietnamese strikers run toward the helicopter. As intense enemy ground fire drove the gunship off, the extraction helicopter took off toward the south-southwest, instantly go out of control, and descend in a nose-low attitude. They continued to watch in horror as it crashed into the village of Ban Taha roughly 250 meters away from RT Viper's position, burst into flames and continued to burn for approximately 15 minutes. An immediate search of the crash site was impossible because of the loss location and the intense NVA ground fire. In addition to the extraction helicopter being shot down, two gunships working the area sustained battle damage, but were able to return to base.
Concentrated and accurate hostile fire, along with bad weather, severely hampered rescue efforts until 10 December 1966. At that time a search and recovery (SAR) team was inserted into the battle site. They photographed the wreckage and the bodies of the crew, which had been horribly mutilated. The bodies also appeared to have been booby-trapped by the communists. It addition, numerous boot prints were seen around the aircraft wreckage. Only the helicopter's tail boom was recovered. At this time the SAR personnel concluded their mission, all five men on the Huey, including Irby Dyer and Daniel Sulander, were listed Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered.
On 11, 12 and 13 December 1966, the crash site was subjected to heavy American air strikes. On 15 December, another recovery team reached the crash site and retrieved all the partial remains that could be found and took them to a US mortuary for examination. Those remains were later identified as the Huey's pilot, crewchief and door gunner. Each man was returned to his family for burial.
Of the four South Vietnamese strikers assigned to RT Viper, two were killed and two successfully made their way back to American forces. The escaping strikers heard no shots emanating from the American's location as they continued to E&E NVA troops. However, both of the survivors reported clearly hearing North Vietnamese soldiers yell, "Here you are! We've been looking for you! Tie his hands, we'll take him this way."
Sometime afterward, SFC Norman Doney, the Operations Sergeant for B-52 headquarters at Khe Sanh, overheard the Intelligence Sergeant on the "52 Desk" reviewing recently collected intelligence about SSgt. Bott. SFC Doney states that it was reported that Pete Bott was seen with his arms tied behind his back being lead through a village 3 days after being captured. There was no mention of Willie Stark, or his fate, in this report. When the formal search effort was terminated for Willie Stark and Pete Bott, both men were reported as Missing in Action.
For every insertion like this one that was detected and stopped, dozens of others safely slipped past NVA lines to strike a wide range of targets and collect vital information. The number of reconnaissance missions conducted by Special Forces teams in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were part of the most sustained American campaign of raiding, sabotage and intelligence-gathering waged on foreign soil in US military history.
Willie Stark, Pete Bott, Irby Dyer and Daniel Sulander are among nearly 600 Americans who disappeared in Laos. Many of these men were known to be alive on the ground. The Laotians admitted holding "tens of tens" of American Prisoners of War, but these men were never negotiated for either by direct negotiation between our countries or through the Paris Peace Accords that ended the War in Vietnam since Laos was not a party to that agreement.
If Daniel Sulander and Irby Dyer died in the Huey's loss as reported, they have a right to have their remains returned to their families if at all possible. Likewise, if Willie Stark died of his wounds, he also has a right to be returned. For Pete Bott and Willie Stark, as well as for other Americans who remain unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, their fate could be quite different. Either way there is no doubt the Vietnamese know what happened and could return them or their remains any time they had the desire to do so.
Since the end of the Vietnam War well over 21,000 reports of American prisoners, missing and otherwise unaccounted for have been received by our government. Many of these reports document LIVE America Prisoners of War remaining captive throughout Southeast Asia TODAY.
American military men were called upon to fly and fight in many dangerous circumstances, and they were prepared to be wounded, killed or captured. It probably never occurred to them that they could be abandoned by the country they so proudly served.

Spike Team Delaware at FOB 4, Kontum, Apr 68-Nov 68

By Gene Williams

Spike Team Delaware at FOB 2, Kontum,
Apr 68-Nov 68

I was at Duke University in the early 60?s; Jack at Stetson. To buy some time, grow up a bit and for a whole complex series of the above reasons, I elected to drop out of school. I joined the army in January 1965 as a volunteer, volunteered for Airborne, volunteered for Special Forces, finally volunteered for my first tour in Vietnam (July 66-July 67 in the Central Highlands at a small Special Forces “A” camp located at the Rhade Montagnard town of Ban Don. I went to Germany in August 67 just as my twin brother Jack, who had also joined Special Forces about six months after me, shipped out for the war. In February 68 as the Tet Offensive crashed into the headlines, I again volunteered to return to Vietnam. Following is a summary of this second tour before I got back to Tuscaloosa.

(* = see footnotes)

I arrived in Vietnam from the 10th SFG (Special Forces Group) in Germany for my second combat tour in March ‘68 and after some delay (*1) was assigned in April to (Forward Operational Base) FOB-2 of a Special Forces special unit called “Command and Control North” (CCN) based in Kontum in the II Corps area, The Central Highlands (*2). A personnel sergeant in Danang gave me this post because Jack was then based with a Special Forces “A” camp called Dak Pek, part of a net of camps controlled by a “B” camp based also in Kontum. CCN was running reconnaissance and raids over the border into Cambodia and Laos and in the north into North Vietnam itself to gather intelligence on and if possible disrupt huge concentrations of North Vietnamese regulars in these base areas and interdict their supply line, the “Ho Chi Minh Trail.”

I was put onto RT (Reconnaissance Team) “Delaware” (*3) as the deputy commander. Delaware was commanded by a SSG (he was called the “1-0” -one-zero) (*4). The #2 was called “One-one” (“1-1”). Another American sergeant served as the “one-two” (radio operator) (*5). The team had some 9 Montagnard troops, mostly from the Jarai tribe. My first duty? - to be the catcher on the FOB2 fast-pitch softball team which was leaving that day in an old refurbished French Renault armored car to play B-24, the Special Forces B-team across the river (*6). The opposing pitcher? Turned out to be twin brother Jack in for a day from his A-camp (I hit him pretty well that day as memory serves).

Within 72 hours of my arrival a U.S. convoy was ambushed between Kontum and Pleiku and a portion of our team on very short notice was put into the mountains along the Cambodian-Vietnam frontier, west of the highway to try to find the ambushers (*7). We succeeded in doing this, lying all night while squads of the ambushing unit passed within 10 yards of our position on their way to the rendezvous point. On this mission I learned again the incredible power of adrenalin; under stress powers of hearing and smelling can become enormously enhanced; I could smell the NVA squads long before they passed in front of us. Adrenalin is terribly addictive (*8). Incidentally, I actually got out of the army while I was on this mission and came back to camp a civilian; I had forgotten to extend my enlistment.

As soon as we got back and I had extended (Jack and I planned to get out of the Army at the same time) (*9) the “1-0” of the team was transferred to Danang and at his recommendation I was made “1-0.” Before he left he fired the interpreter so essentially I was a new, virtually unknown face to most of the Montagnard team members (only four had accompanied us on the first mission above). (*10)

The second phase of the Tet Offensive was underway and the FOB was running recon operations at full tilt. Within 5 days of our return we were helicoptered (“lifted” or “inserted”) into a mountainous area north of Ben Het near the Laotian frontier where we were to monitor an infiltration route. Ben Het was a small Special Forces “A” camp 7 km from the junction of the Laos, Cambodian and Vietnam borders, right at the end of the “Ho Chi Minh” trail (known as highway 96 to us); my twin brother was temporarily assigned to the camp. B-52’s planned to pulverize the area; there was a reported NVA tank regiment preparing to attack Ben Het and intelligence wanted to know whether the enemy was reinforcing or withdrawing troops from the area during the strikes. We left in the Choppers with myself as “1-0,” the radio operator (combination “1-1”/”1-2”) (*11) and five Montagnard team members who had not been with us on my first mission. (*12) On the way to the LZ (landing zone) for the insert we flew directly over Ben Het; I was able to talk to Jack on the radio briefly as we went in.

We were inserted into very rugged terrain and almost immediately ran into trouble. The second slick refused to land on the LZ and our team members had to jump in from about 10 feet up. The other American badly sprained his ankle and couldn’t move far--we had to remain near the LZ and call in a medevac the next morning. It didn’t arrive until around 1630 hours. The replacement American radio operator was newly arrived in country and, with a .38 revolver in a western holster held on by a black tooled leather cartridge filled belt, quite obviously knew next to nothing about operations in Vietnam; but he proved solid enough. (*13) Anyway, we had already lost 24 hours by the time we were able to leave the LZ area. The only recompense was the picturesque; in investigating suspicious noises near our hiding place, I found 12 wild elephants bathing in the mountain stream.

We bivouacked that night part way up the mountain and the next day made it to the summit by ascending some very difficult climbs. (*14) The trail we were to watch was in the river valley on the other side of the mountain. We were halfway down the ridges on the other side when night fell and we went into RON (an overnight hiding place called “rendezvous overnight”). About 2200 hours, I heard movement just in front of me and deduced it was a team member relieving himself who had lost his way back to his blanket. He struck a match and simultaneously a CAR-15 fired, the bullet passing about 2 inches above my nose. The Montagnard team leader had shot his own man in the leg, thinking no doubt (in light of later events) it was me. The next morning we climbed back to the top of the mountain where we waited another 7 hours for a med-evac to lift the wounded man out on a rope (between enormous branches of triple canopy jungle). (This man later became the Indigenous team leader of Delaware).

After the med-evac we hurried down the mountain, moving some 3 kms (a long distance for recon teams in mountains) in 3 hours. We had brought supplies for 5 days and this was already our fourth night. We arrived in the vicinity of the trail and set up in a very secure RON. All that night we listened to the B-52’s pounding the huge jungle quadrangle with “arclights” (bombing runs). Ben Het was some 20 km to the south. The huge bomb sticks came down with a thundering howl, a noise something like standing next to the tracks as a gigantic steam locomotive approaches or hearing a giant plane nose over and head straight down to earth; then the ground would start shuddering like an earthquake and the clouds would be lit by huge flashes, like the old Bessamer furnaces in Birmingham, even though we were a good 8 km from the nearest bomb. (Jack told me later that the bombers caught the NVA tank battalions and annihilated them).

The next day we watched the trail and towards evening myself and two Montagnards forded the river (about 50 meters wide, running clean and swift with many rapids) and investigated the far side. There was no sign of any activity along the trail; we were looking for tanks and were carrying “Light Anti-Tank Weapons” (rockets or “LAWs”) just in case. (*15)

The following day we were scheduled to be extracted (pulled out of the area). Around noon, however, we were told by radio to remain where we were another five days. This precipitated a very tense scene. The Montagnard team leader refused to stay, mutinied and drew weapons on the two Americans. The other Montagnards, a total of 5 men, backed him. (*16) Finally working through the interpreter I got them to leave behind all their heavy weapons, the claymore mines, LAWs, etc., and to take off. Choppers came to extract the two Americans around 1800 hours. The next day they found the team some 10 kms away and extracted them on “strings” (ropes lowered from the helicopters with “D” rings to hook onto using a mountain rappelling harness) (*17). They were sent to prison I believe. (*18)

In the post-action report it was obvious what had happened. To Montagnards war is a very personal thing. Their team leader (the former American 1-0) had suddenly shipped out firing the interpreter who was de-facto head of the group. Without time for me to get to know the team, we were put into the field into very difficult terrain. The mission was extended 5 days, apparently arbitrarily, because someone at the FOB never understood that we had moved 7 kms over the top of a 4,000 foot mountain essentially in one and one-half days because of the casualties. And finally the indigenous team leader was half-crazy and may have borne a grudge against Americans; I am convinced, for instance, that he shot his own man during the third evening because he thought it was me. (*19)

I then reconstituted the team using the four men who hadn’t gone into the field as a base, hiring five more and training them. They came from five different tribal groups and were a diverse and interesting lot with a lot of combat experience. The most fascinating of them was a young Rhade named Y Yuk Ayun. Yuk was 18 years old and was a sorcerer who could foretell the future. We came to believe his predictions by the way, another story for another time.

Anyway, after some three weeks training (*20) we went into a mountainous area east of Kontum where we were nearly hunted down by our own spotter planes. Someone forgot to tell people we were there and when a plane drew AA from the area, dozens flew in to try to find the guns. They were obviously ready to shoot anything that moved on the ground so we lay low under triple canopy for several hours. Incidentally the S-3 for the operation was SFC Fred Zabitosky, a CMH winner who had been shot up very badly in Laos 5 months previously. We did find a base camp, large well maintained, thatched bamboo cottages on stilts, built into the side of incredibly jungled hills, the only access to them being via a stream bed, bicycles stashed under the floors; totally quiet, totally deserted, utterly still, absolutely beautiful, green on green on green, bamboo and towering jungle, totally stocked and ready for its owners to return. (*21) .

Then, three days after our return we went into “X-3” (Xray three), a quadrangle in Laos along highway 96 to mine the road. (The Laos and Cambodian operational areas were divided into target quadrangles, some 8 km on a side. These were given grid coordinate names such as X-1,2,3, etc, H-1,2,3 etc. The higher the number, the further into Laos and Cambodia the target area). (*22). I was still feeling quite upset about the desertion of my team so after making the ops plans, I asked a SFC, who supposedly had had much experience in Thailand and who talked a good game, to head the mission as “1-0.” I also had a new radio an, Jimmy Marshall, an ex-pitcher for the Pirates organization and part Seminole Indian.

We took off carrying four 26 lbs anti-tank mines meant for the road. The Insert went smoothly, the two slicks fluttering down like giant dragonflies while below us the gunships made swooping “X’s” over the LZ. From my viewpoint, standing on the chopper runner on the last slick, the LZ was incredibly green with new grass, lincoln green surrounded by black-green jungle, a whole world of green--the rains were just starting, and then we were down in a small short grass clearing in Laos between towering jungled mountains, sudden silence after the thumping, whine of the choppers.

Within 30 minutes it became obvious that the SFC didn’t know what he was doing and would likely get us killed. Fortunately he caught malaria and was med-evaced after one day. (*23).

X-3 was a very hot area; no team had ever survived there longer than 36 hours. The last to try had been run out in 27 hours with the death of the American “1-0.” (He got out of his own sling (on the end of the evacuation chopper’s ropes) to give it to one of his men who showed up late on the LZ. The team that later retrieved his body reported he had tried to bury his maps and code books before he died. He won a Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) and may have been proposed for a CMH. The team sent to retrieve his body lasted less than 24 hours in the area.) (*24).

During the first night we were awakened by tremendous booms. It was artillery firing and since we were 30 Kms from our nearest fire base (around Ben Het) it wasn’t ours! A very loud boom would be followed shortly by a more muted one. I reported two guns firing, one close by and one further away. We were ordered to chase the artillery the next day but after the medevac of the SFC, abandoned it to go back on the mining mission. Later that evening, as the artillery continued to fire, we were awakened again by what appeared to be a spotlight. We grabbed arms and prepared to fight. After about 30 seconds of high tension we realized it was the moon rising over the mountain summit, by far the brightest moon I have ever seen!

The next day we got the SFC lifted out by “strings” (ropes), under fire as it turned out, a very fortuitous happening. He was a sad case; he just didn’t know what he was doing; he was long on talk, short on knowledge. Jimmy Marshall won the bronze star in this short action. We then took off for the road after first losing the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) pursuers and trackers. I had read all the after-action reports about this section and knew that every day a NVA company or battalion swept the trail for 1,000 meters on either side of the road around 0800 hrs and again at 1600 hrs and had planned the mission accordingly. We holed up 1,200 meters from the road on the side of a mountain until 1700 hrs, then went for the road following a newly broken elephant track for part of the way. At one point Yuk (who the Montagnards said couldn’t be killed), acting as point-man, had us stop for 20 minutes for no apparent reason. When he motioned us onwards we found a machine gun emplacement 100 meters on with sand still falling into the holes where the tripod had been.

We arrived within 30 meters of the trail about 2000 hrs just as it got dark and bivouacked. We mined the trail at 0400 hrs, Jimmy Marshall booby-trapping the mines with “mousetraps” (devices designed to trigger the mine if someone tried to dig them up) in the dark. (*25). Just as it began to get light we left the area and pulled back some 2 kms where we found a decent LZ from which to be extracted. (*26). About 1000 hrs while waiting for the choppers we heard a mine go off. A “FAC” (Forward Air Controller, a small spotter plane who directed the large air strikes and generally watched over us) later said he saw a huge hole in the road but no armored vehicle. We assumed someone had tried to dig a mine up and had paid the price.

It seemed pretty evident that the balloon was about to go up. Within another 45 minutes we heard a toe popper we had put down on a trail we had used go off about 400 meters from our position. There was whispering in the undergrowth below us. When the choppers arrived we were lifted out on strings (four ropes per chopper/three lifts), the last two lifts drawing very heavy fire from the NVA regulars hunting us. Dangling 70 feet below the last slick (*27) I could see the whole hill and jungle go up in smoke as everything in the air starting with old A-1 Spads, pounded the area. (and I was told later that a B-52 flight called in to ask if they could help); Must have been a lot of opportunities for promotion in that particular NVA unit guarding the trail. (*28) We had some people grazed and holes in various items of equipment but nobody was hurt. Several of the choppers had windscreens shot up.

I was pretty proud of the whole operation, the first successful mining operation by the FOB in two years. When the commendation came down though, who do you think was commended? Yep, the SFC who was medevaced.

During the next few weeks there was a break in the weather as the rains began to come in earnest and we did a lot of training. I also thought up an idea for making a special unit patch for RT Delaware. I proposed a design to the team, a shield with three broad stripes, three lightning flashes across it and in the middle a blue circle with a skull with a green beret on it with them a choice between red-green-black background stripes or one with the old Hollenzernum colors red, yellow and black. They chose the red- green-black as I knew they would. Of course these were the colors of the FULRO flag (long before they became fashionable as an expression of Africanness in America). FULRO was the Montagnard independence movement. No, I wasn’t pushing the movement but was well aware of it as all second tour Special Forces soldiers in Vietnam were and had had numerous contact with FULRO members during my first tour 1966-67 at Ban Don, an A-camp near Ban Me Thout. I had 20 patches hand-embroidered by a Vietnamese lady in Kontum for I think 400 piasters (about 3 dollars) each. I have one, Jimmy Marshall has one, all 9 Montagnard members have one and the other eight I gave to my successor, SSG L.M. Dove in November ‘68 for his use with the team. (There are several examples of these hand made RT patches in the definitive edition of patches of the Vietnam war; I’ll try to get this patch into the next edition.) (*29).

After our return the team had five days off so I took the opportunity to take a short trip up to Ben Het to see Jack. I hitched a ride on a chopper out of the FOB to an airstrip north of Kontum where the old Dak To Special Forces camp was located (there were ferocious battles fought around Dak To in 1967; the 173rd Airborne got especially chewed up in one battle made famous as ?Hamburger Hill?). From the airstrip I tried to hook up with a convoy going to Ben Het but It was during the annual “siege” of the camp and the road was blocked. I went back and hung out by a giant chopper refueling point, talking to each gunner as they came in to refuel. The air looked like spring in Alabama with dragon files, choppers humming by the hundreds, the thumps of their rotors mixed with the smell of rain and aviation fuel and always the color green--dark, light, yellowish, blackish--with overhead scudding dark gray and black clouds, and a pervading sense of melancholy. The aviation fuel smell, the thumping sound of a Huey and the smell of drying new-poured concrete and air conditioning is very evocative to this day. I finally managed to hitch a ride on a chopper to Ben Het where I spent the night. A year later back in the States at the University of Alabama with Jack, we read in the papers during the May-June ‘69 siege of Ben Het that “nobody was getting into or out of Ben Het except for one Green Beret sergeant who hopped off a chopper saying he had come to visit his twin brother.” Hummm.... this story seems to have circulated for a year.

We prepared for several missions during this time including one wire-tapping mission into Cambodia and flew up to Dak To and sat on the launch air strip at least 16 times during June and July without being able to get over the mountains along the border because of cloud cover.

Then in mid-July ‘68 we went into H-3 (Hotel 3) target area, another very “hot” area along highway 96, again on a mining mission.

A word on my thinking on these reconnaissance mission: First, I always read every word of every report we received on my target area--signals intercept, debriefings from previous missions, aerial photography, etc., and did a thorough map study. In addition, the more missions we went on the more we employed classic army patrolling techniques. These were distilled from a long history of warfare and from a large body of very practical knowledge; they are worthwhile. (*30).

However, I also, designed a few strategic ideas into my mission planning which may have kept my men alive and let us accomplish our missions. Some of my “hot shot” colleagues were exasperating, bragging over beer about how many areas they had been shot out of (and how many decorations they had gotten for this). My feeling was that we were reconnaissance teams with only an occasional “active” mission. We were to look and observe, not to shoot. If we made physical contact with the enemy, had a fire fight, got people shot up, it meant the mission was not accomplished and that the “1-0” had failed somehow. It’s ironic, however, that many of the “1-0”’s who were rewarded were those who got the publicity from their mistakes--men killed, missions incomplete.

Anyway, I divided the recon missions into two types, “active” and “passive.” An active mission, a general area reconnaissance, required us to “GO WHERE HE IS” (the enemy); that is patrol the most likely base areas until contact was made. Passive missions required us to go to a particular point and to make sure that any initiation of any contact with the NVA was on our terms. These included point reconnaissance missions such as watching a particular trail or road, putting mines on a road, snatching a prisoner, tapping a wire, etc. Here the object was to avoid all contact until you got to the point you selected. Thus we were required to “GO WHERE HE ISN’T” while walking into the area. In my mining missions, I, therefore, decided to walk the sides of the mountains, reasoning that trails and base camps were likely to be on the ridge tops and in the stream bottoms.

Secondly, we went into an area as far away as possible from the target and walked in. (*31). Once on the ground we really were hard to find. I also relied heavily on the FACs for LZ selection. They were flying that area daily and knew which areas were hot. We always discussed the LZ at length but in the end after telling them what I was looking for I would usually defer to them. The toughest part of the mission was getting off the helicopters. If this could be done, your odds improved dramatically. Anyway, my system worked; we never lost a man and completed every mission we went on, an exemplary record and one continued by my successor.

The mining mission in H-3 was like the others only this time we planned to put down four anti-vehicle mines and two anti-tank mines arranged like this:

x = anti-vehicle mine

O = anti-tank mine

- - - - )- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - river bank - -- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -


x x

O Highway 96 O

x x

_scty__________________________________________________ scty

//// ) ///////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

/// ( ///////////////////////////////// road cut //////////////////////////////

// ) /////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

/ ( ////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

small access command 1-0


This was to insure that if a tank came along we’d get it without alerting him by letting him run over the truck mines. If a truck came along, he would hit the truck mines after passing over a tank mine, which might insure its survival during the subsequent sweep. I planned to do as before; go into an LZ several kms away from the Ho Chi Minh Trail, walk mountain sides into the road area, go down to the road at dusk, RON there, mine the road at 0400 hrs and be out of the area by 0800. The target files noted an active foot trail running along a ridge top near the road. We were going to go over a ridge near the trail on our way out and I decided if possible to mine the trail with toe poppers (small anti-personnel mines) as an added mission benefit.

One other thing, on mining missions the Ho Chi Minh Trail (Highway 96) in this area of Laos/Cambodia followed river beds heading east into the tri-border area and directly towards Ben Het. It was usually dug into mountain slopes bordering the river. Given this it was quite possible to arrive at the road and find yourself perched on top of a 10 foot embankment making easy access to/from the road impossible. To handle this, I always planned to go to the road at a point where it crossed a small stream tumbling into the river. This would insure no embankment and a quick exit point in the event of trouble. (*32). Also, I wanted the river to be as close as possible to the road to prevent the possibility of there being a base camp on the other side of the road. This bit of pre-planning always worked.

This mission started out like clockwork (the team was starting to get really good, we could almost read each others? minds). We left the FOB at 0700 and flew to the launch site at Dak To. At 1000 hrs, we went into the LZ located in a series of open prairies in a stream bottom about 3 km from the road. We moved off the LZ immediately into the mountains, passing through an old NVA base camp built in the heavy jungle on the steep lower slopes bordering the stream valley (I photographed a NVA grave there dated 1964). We moved 2 kms (a very fast pace) along mountain sides to the first RON some 1,000 meters from the road.

It poured steadily all night but we managed to get some sleep; then stayed hidden all the next day, listening to shouts of NVA soldiers using the high speed trail about 400 meters from our RON. At 1600 hrs we went for the road, crossing another trail on the ridge directly above the road and in a driving rain bivouacked on the side of the mountain not more than 30 meters from the Ho Chi Minh Trail just as night came on. At 0400 hrs we mined the road, Jimmy Marshall booby-trapping the mines with mouse traps, sitting in the middle of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the dark and rain and mud playing with 26 lbs of C-4 as if it was a teddy bear, twice the mouse traps snapped on his coat hanger safety wire as he dug the mines in--Some Partner!!

We got out of the area in 30 minutes and walking mountain sides came near to our first RON by 1000 hrs. I then decided to mine the foot trail. I left Jimmy with 4 team members and took six with me 500 meters along the ridge crest to the trail I’d read about. It was farther away than we thought but we found it. It was broad and worn smooth, passing along the ridge crest leading up from the main road (and probably a base camp) under triple canopy jungle. I put out security and started to dig in the toe-poppers.

Then Yuk, the left security, caught my attention. He was looking at me and pointing up the trail. I was angry because the trail had been further away than expected and paid him no heed. He shrugged, smiled, shouldered his weapon (a silenced Sten gun) and began firing. (*33). He had spotted a NVA patrol coming up the trail but did not use the agreed upon signal (hand over forehead) to warn me. Yuk claimed he dropped three or four of the NVA. However, none of the rest of us knew what he was doing because of the silencer until the NVA returned fire.

All hell broke loose for 30 seconds with automatic fire coming hot and heavy from both sides. I ran through a magazine, dropped the second out of the CAR-15 while looking to put off the safety, pitched a grenade in the general direction where I saw smoke rising from bushes and then it was all over. The NVA ran, crashing down the mountainsides like bulls. You could hear them breaking timber for 400 meters down the mountain.

We got out as quickly as possible. (The choppers had been alerted by Jimmy -- the AK-47 bullets were passing over our heads but were breaking bamboo around Jimmy and the rest of the team further back, leading him to shout into the radio that a .50 cal was firing at us). We broke clean, doubled over two ridges to free ourselves from trackers and were picked up neatly three hours later. A very good feeling and successful mission but one which came near to grief because of ambition and impatience. Good lesson.

One other thing came out of this mission. On the X-3 operation I had heard artillery firing over our heads west into Laos, one loud boom followed by a softer boom. Back at the FOB in Kontum I started listening to American 175’s firing from a 4th Infantry camp 4 kms down the road. When the shells passed directly overhead I’d hear a loud crash (from the shell breaking the sound barrier I suppose), then afterwards the more muted sound of the gun itself firing. I realized this was what I had heard and by reviewing the azimuth I had drawn on the more muted artillery sound in X-3, I got at least the direction in which the NVA gun (or guns) lay. From the sound of the various artillery pieces I heard and from the distance it was firing, I figured it had to be a Soviet designed 130 mm gun. Why it was firing west back into Laos over our heads as we lay in X-3 I never knew.

Well, during this mission in H-3, I again heard two guns firing, again towards the west in Laos but no shells were passing overhead this time; I was due south of them. Upon my return to the FOB I drew the two azimuths on a map (one north trending out of H-3 and one east out of X-3) and pinpointed the guns’ probable location. I later talked the Colonel into sending a mission to look for them. He sent my team with Jimmy Marshall and another friend as team leader (Mike Williams) five days before I left country in late October ‘68. They found the guns and counter-battery fire from 175’s around Ben Het, firing at extreme range, ignited over 100 secondary explosions. The team arrived back in the FOB after being chased out of the area 3 hours before I got onto the chopper to leave for home. Made me feel pretty darn good, even if I only S-3’d the operation.

In early August a RT from the FOB was put into H-1 just across the Laos border in a very mountainous area carrying the usual 5 days of supplies. Then the rains and clouds came in and no one could get over the Ammanite Cordillera to them for 14 days. The last word sent from the team was that they were out of supplies and were climbing the mountains along the border looking for an American unit that supposedly was in position nearby (it turned out to be 40 kms away!). Then their radio batteries gave out.

After two weeks when the clouds began to clear Delaware was given the mission of going to look for them or what was left of them. Six of us went in, Jimmy, myself and 4 Mountagnards loaded down with as much ammo as we could carry including extra M-79’s and a M-60 machine gun. We cleared out of the Dak To launch site around 1400 hrs, passing directly over Ben Het toward the jungled border ridges, still swathed in wisps of mist and fog from the rains. As the choppers crossed the border, a red pencil flare came up through the trees. It was the missing team. Down went the ropes; We rappelled into the triple canopy and there was the team sitting on a high speed infiltration trail, starving and pitiful and just generally unable to take care of themselves. (*34). Jimmy blew some trees down and we all were pulled out on strings an hour later. God knows how that other team survived for that length of time just sitting there. (*35).

On the way out the interpreter’s harness came undone for some reason (*36) and he started to fall out. I wrapped my fist around the knot and managed to hold it closed dangling at 3,000 feet altitude until the chopper could land us at Ben Het. Jimmy was carrying the radio as always and, therefore, was sagging lower on his rope. The chopper pilot bounced him along the runway while we had a very nice landing, thank you. Incidentally, Jimmy Marshall was an ex-baseball pitcher. He had a great fastball; He loved grenades and could throw one an incredible distance. When he emptied his pack after the mission, I found he was carrying 26 grenades in addition to his PRC-25 radio. No wonder he was always riding lower than we were!

I then managed to sneak away to see Jack again who had gone back to Dak Pek from his temporary duty in Ben Het, hitching a ride to the camp with a FAC. It was incredible. We flew for 45 minutes between mountain ridges following the Dak Poco river, a swirling, rapid strewn mountain river and suddenly there it was set in a huge bowl surrounded by 8,000 mountains, green upon green upon blue upon mauve upon purple. Surely Shangri-la must look something like this from the air. The floor of the bowl was covered with small hills and the camp was built on 7 of them. Six years of labor had turned the hills into honeycomb of tunnels. The site was so isolated and it took so much labor just to climb out of the valley that it basically just protected the people living in the dale itself. It was an amazingly beautiful setting but Jack can tell more about it.

In late August Delaware was tabbed to go in on a 10 day operation, get down to the junction of the Ho Chi Minh and Sihanouk trails (where Highway 110 coming north out of Cambodia carrying supplies to the NVA coming through Cambodian ports joins Highway 96 going south through Laos and both turn east to Vietnam) and sit there to monitor NVA road traffic. We flew up to Dak To for 11 straight days and sat on the runway but every day the mission was rained out. I was scheduled to go to Bangkok on R&R. Finally, after talking to the meteorologist I left on leave with the assurance the weather wouldn’t break for another week. But, in Danang before leaving for Bangkok, I heard my team had just been inserted with Jimmy in command. I was so mad I could hardly enjoy my leave. Jimmy did a great job. They got to the road junction, sat there for six days counting NVA stragglers coming back from the battles in Vietnam (third stage of the Tet offensive) then got out without losing a man. Jimmy was debriefed by the commanding general of military intelligence in Vietnam himself (he tried to intimidate Jimmy but Jimmy backed him down with facts) and won a second bronze star. (Note: Jimmy was flown to Ton Son Nut to meet the LTG.) Jimmy gave me some credit for training him and we were both proud of our team that did the work. Great mission.

In early October, I turned the tables on Jimmy, leaving him behind because the Colonel wanted me to train two new men, a newly arrived SSG and a Lieutenant who had been serving in our “Hornet Force” (a platoon sized reaction force). Delaware flew further into Laos than any RT team had ever gone, nearly 45 kms from Ben Het. We were to get down to Highway 110 and report on the condition of the road. The lieutenant was the 1-2 and the SSG the 1-1. As usual we went into the area a good distance from the road and made it to the vicinity of the road on the second day walking very steep mountain sides. As we neared the road we hit some NVA trackers who scared us off by banging on bamboo clackers, apparently signaling each other. (This was something I don’t understand to this day; why didn’t they just shoot us?). We cleared out meaning to try to get onto the road at another place.

That night two grenades went off within 200 meters of our RON as the NVA apparently looked for our hiding place. There was not a sound of a bird in the area...always a danger sign. The next day we followed the mountain slopes above the road for a kilometer then tried to get onto the road again. This time we got to within 30 meters before the bamboo clacking started up again. We pulled back and called in an airstrike which cleared the area. (the first strike came in so close to us it singed our clothing; we had to ask them to hold off on follow-up while we ran further up the mountain).

The next day we were to be pulled out. We tried the road again and this time actually got down onto it and walked for a kilometer along it taking pictures and tossing out various bits of propaganda (annotated NVA booklets, letters supposedly written from the front, etc.) and some booby trapped ammunition.

The lieutenant was frankly a dilettante. He had been serving in the Hornet Force, a unit of notorious unreliability. That day his buddy, another lieutenant, was to leave for home and he was worried about making the going-away party. After we got off the road and were headed for a LZ he fired a round at a bush then called in the choppers saying we were under fire. He expected all my men to start firing and running around like his Hornet Force people. My men, to their credit were disciplined. The front three (me included) went to ground, the back five came on line with the SSG and maneuvered to free the front men. The lieutenant just stood there stone upright with his weapon smoking, then started berating one of my men because he hadn’t “returned fire.” I felt like returning fire...at him...for pulling a stunt like that 200 meters from the Ho Chi Minh Trail! He did make it back in time for his party; he did not get a RT job.

I was scheduled to leave Vietnam the last week in October 1968. Jimmy and another friend (Mike Williams) led the mission to look for the guns as I mentioned earlier. The Colonel wouldn’t let me go because of the short time remaining in my tour. In addition, I had found a good man, SSG L.M. Dove, to take over the team, had brought him into the team two weeks before my departure, let him work with the team, talked tactics, my theory of operations, generally trained him, etc., so that the men knew and trusted him. He accompanied this operation as 1-1. I wasn’t going to have a reoccurrence of what had happened to me in May. (*37). Jimmy Marshall left Vietnam two weeks after I did. Dove led the team until at least the following May or June when he transferred to become a FAC rider. He told me in a letter that Delaware had gone on some 10 more missions, again completed them all and had not lost a man. Summer ‘69 was the last word I had of them. (*38).

I feel that Delaware RT had a record second to none and am proud to have been associated with them.

On my way out of country I spent several hours in DaNang FOB with a high school friend also in Special Forces. Two weeks later at home I found he had been killed. (*39).

I mustered out of the Army in Fort Lewis Washington, took a flight to Atlanta, then a four engine turboprop into Tuscaloosa airport. On the plane were four Tuscaloosa boys returning from basic training in New Jersey. One was asking another whether he would kiss the ground when he got off the plane--A large crowd was there to meet them in the dark. I stepped off the plane behind them wearing (for the last time) my jump boots, green dress uniform, green beret and war decorations; one of the crowd shook my hand saying a little embarrassed--not knowing who I was, “welcome back,” and then I was with my family. It was November 4, 1968. Jack had preceded me by two days; We were both home in time to watch Richard Nixon’s election.


RT DELAWARE HISTORY, Apr-Nov 1968: Notes and errata:

By: Gene Williams (dated 27 Sep 2006).

Notes: I wrote the history of RT Delaware on 17 June 1985 for Col. Cecil Smith, US Army (Ret), whom I had met at the Memorial Day SFA gathering in Arlington, Virginia. The internet was unknown at the time and I wrote the story from memory. Here are a few additional notes which add to the story somewhat. I’ve added them as footnotes to keep the original as authentic as possible:

(Note 1: All arrivals at 5th SFG in Nha Trang, no matter what their experience, were being put through a week’s “training” in Nha Trang by this time in the war. I met a bunch of buddies at the NCO club, including Louis Ira (Lonnie) Holmes, a medic in from 46th Company, (now one of the chief surgeons at USC hospital), with whom I had ridden motorcycles at Ft. Bragg. Abba was pop group of the day and its music was blasting from the sound system. All of us were told to wait for a week at 5th SFG Hqs for the course to start. Well, we weren’t stupid. Knowing what awaited us had we stayed on the base, 4 or 5 of us bugged out and ensconced ourselves in a hotel in Nha Trang by the South China Sea. We showed up 8 hours before the course was to start)

(note 2: MACVSOG was reorganized in November 1968. FOB2 at Kontum up to that time was under CCN. After November 68 it became CCC with its Hqs based in FOB2

(note 3: also known as “Spike Team” or “ST”)

(note 4: The 1-0 of Delaware when I arrived was SSG Terry Dahling. See his website www.tadahling.com for his experiences with the team and for information on the death of RT Delaware 1-0 SFC Linwood Martin on 22 March 1968).

(note 5: At the time the 1-2 was SP4 Richards; he had been wounded during the Tet offensive in Nha Trang in January

(note 6: I’m told this was a “White” armored car with a Renault engine).

(note 7: Dahling was 1-0, I was 1-1 and Richards 1-2. There was no outbrief; I didn’t even know where we had landed but figured it out on the map segments from the lay of the land during the mission. I carried a .22 cal silenced pistol for some reason. 30 years later I found out with Dahling had been through with the team with the death of Linwood Martin. It’s sobering)

(note 8: We were pulled out on strings. I had scrounged a BAR belt to use as my harness; all of us tried to do so; it was far more comfortable than the standard pistol belt. I had my hand-made Randall Knife on the back portion of the belt. The belt broke in mid-flight and the knife fell 3,000’. Randall sent me a replacement by express APO mail.)

(note 9: I went to Nha Trang to extend; the office for the paperwork was closed when I got there; on the door stuck with a steak knife was a hand written note in “Ozark style” hand lettering addressed to the SFC who ran the office, “I kum hyar to re-up; You ain’t hyar..next time I see you I gonna kik you”)

(Note 10: The interpreter was known as “Johnny.” He had been once wounded in the face and as a result always work a steel pot..the only soldier I ever saw at the FOB to do this. I was never sure about the reasons for firing “Johnny.” I had a feeling the interpreter wanted to follow Terry Dahling…I think this might be true; I understand that he wound up with Terry at the Yard camp later on.)

(note 11: Sp4 Richards. Richards was 1-1; 1-2 for the operation. After he was medevaced, I never saw him again. I don’t know whether he was sent to a hospital or what happened to him.)

(note 12: One of these was a brand new indig interpreter, a very intelligent Rhade who I felt subsequently was trapped into treason).

(note 13: I never saw the replacement 11-12 with the cartridge belt and revolver again after this mission.)

(note 14: To climb from the LZ area to the top of the ridge, we had to go about 200m outside of our ops quadrangle; I reported our position with precision reasoning that hqs would look at the map and figure out we really couldn’t scale a 500’ shear rock cliff just to accommodate a line on the map. Wrong! We received a screaming radio message to get back within our ops area..we already were at the summit of the ridge by that time, though, and were within our map area again.)

(note 15: We had been led to believe this trail was an extension of the Ho Chih Minh road complex, which might be use by Tanks. In fact, however, it was just a high speed foot trail. There was no way any motorized vehicules could have used this path.)

(Note 16: As I said, the new interpreter was probably coerced into this mutiny.)

(note 17: McGuire rigs had a harness at the end of each rope to get into, 4 ropes per chopper. On this extraction 4 ropes went down, 5 Montagnards came out; we had worked on how to do this just before going on the mission. It involved one Yard putting on a rappelling harness and hooking himself into the ring on one of the McGuire rigs; one rope would then support two persons.)

(Note 18: I got off the chopper soaking wet from wading through a river to the LZ we’d selected, carrying 4 LAWs, claymores, etc; and was immediately conducted to an “interrogation.” It resembled a court martial of some sort. I was put in a chair, still wet, with a circle of hostile officers in a semi-circle around me to “go over the mission.” I felt it was something like a “Star Chamber.” I felt as the procedure began that I was already judged to be guilty of something or another. As the questioning proceeded, however, it became clear none of the persons present had read the radio dispatches from the mission. They hadn’t even understood the problem of the two casualties, which had inhibited our movements, causing 3 days of delay, etc. At the end of the interrogation, I mentioned Montagnard psychology, the personal loyalty they build up towards a leader – as detailed on Bernard Fall’s book “Hell in a Very Small Place” and recommended that new 1-0’s be introduced to the team well before their first mission. I went over the history of the mission using a map and the radio situation reports. Then it was all over. I assume this “Star Chamber” “acquitted” me. This would be a great scene for any novel on SOG by the way.)

(note 19: See Terry Dahling’s account of the fight which killed Linwood Martin 6 weeks previously - about which I knew nothing at the time; this might explain the hostility to outsiders felt by the team.)

(note 20: The team was scheduled for jump training; they got in one jump..then the rest of the jumps were cancelled so they never got their wings. We also conducted two short training reconnaissance ops in the area; the second was a night mission. The RT Company had a new C/O, Capt. Ernesto Gayola. Gayola was Cuban and had been at Bay of Pigs. He really knew the book on ground reconnaissance. He accompanied us on both training missions and I learned a great deal from him as he recounted, almost by rote, how to cross a trail, etc. He didn’t know much about Army protocol, but he was a tough and charismatic man and a committed anti-communist. Several years later I came to understand he likely was working for US Intelligence using his position at FOB2 as “cover.” He was quite a remarkable man.)

(note 21: The original final training mission was to watch a trail in a mountainous area southeast of Kontum. It was changed by someone at the last minute..I don’t think Zabitowsky was even aware of the change of plans. I had a 1st Lt. with me as 11 to “be an advisor.” Well, we screwed up; We left our long PRC-25 radio antenna behind when we went in and thus couldn’t talk to the Facs. When the sky filled up with Facs looking for something, we were in deep kimshee. As the 5 Facs above us kept turning on their wings looking and looking, the Lt. kept trying to signal them with a mirror; I finally had to tell him to cease and desist…those guys were surely looking for something, they likely weren’t aware we were in the area, and it appeared they would shoot first and ask questions later. We just stayed hidden under triple canopy and ultimately they went away. After our return I found out a Fac in the area had been shot at by some NVA AAA. The 3 stocked long houses we found were in a very inaccessible area. To this day I worry that my report of them wasn’t acted on or was ignored.)

(Note 22: I did a lot of research planning on the X-3 mission and discussed past attempts by the FOB to mine the trail; the FOB had tried everything, from landing by the trail and quickly emplacing a mine to more traditional ops; the intel sgt said nothing seemed to have worked so I opted to go for a very traditional long-range patrol effort).

(note 23: I may have been too hard on this SFC in the original story; I went to Nha Trang after the mission and visited him in the hospital; he indeed had a very bad case of malaria…probably had it before leaving on the mission. I never saw him again and assumed he was medevaced from RVN.)

(note 24: 15 years after writing this account, with the advent of the internet, I now realize that I was talking about the death of John Kedenburg, CMH. The “Bright Light” team was RT Illinois. I read the after-action reports on both the Kedenburg mission and the Bright Light before going into X-3.)

(note 25: There was a NVA bunker located right by the road in the tiny gully, which we used to access the road; I don’t know whether it was for defense of the road or simply a place to take refuge; I think the former. We put a toe popper in the bottom step of the bunker before leaving the area. To get to the road we went over a high ridge, very narrow but relatively flat on top. I had marked every radio intercept point on my map with a “lightening bolt.” We got to one intercept point and the area was littered with yellow bomblets from an airstrike; one of the yards came carrying one to me which cause a major pucker. Down the other side we passed a know truck park which had been bombed and bombed. Craters were everywhere. We holed up in brush before finding the elephant track).

(note 26: We were low on water by the time we left the road; Just in case we had to run, I filled a canteen just in case from a bomb crater putting purification tablets into the red mud-colored water; when I sip from it an hour later, a couple of dead leaches wound up in the mouth).

(note 27: I’ve been corrected; the lengths of the McGuire Rig ropes were 150’)

(note 28: In two weeks this NVA unit had engaged Kedenburg’s RT, the Bright Light of RT Illinois and RT Delaware and each time got hammered from the air).

(note 29: There are a lot of “Delaware” patches on the internet which I never saw in Vietnam; these patches may have been some sort of “official-unofficial” patch issued to the team by Macvsog. However, if so, it was after my time with the team. I never saw any team member wear any patch. Dahling never mentioned a patch to me. Thus, to my knowledge we had no patch until I designed one.)

(note 30: See comments on Capt. Ernesto Gayola above)

(note 31: I adopted this strategy after extensive talks with S-2 on past FOB2 attempts at mining the road).

(note 32: Still, care had to be taken when approaching the road by a gully; see the X-3 mission comments on the NVA bunker guarding a gully).

(note 33: RT teams sometimes carried the silenced Sten gun on prisoner snatch missions; the silenced sten gun can be seen on the internet; I don’t remember why I had Yuk carry the weapon on this mission; it’s the only mission we took it on. Perhaps I hoped we could add to the mission by ambushing this trail).

(note 34: We rappelled down McGuire rig ropes; one team member got tangled up in a tree with a knot on his D ring; I had to cut the McGuire Rig rope which led to a lot of bitching by the guys who had to re-rig the chopper.)

(Note 35: SFC James McGlon told me in 2001 that there were several teams stranded in Laos by the weather at this time; this team was first to be pulled out because it had been out the longest.)

(note 36: We had put on rappelling harnesses to permit us to hook into the Mcguire rigs quickly rather than getting into the seats themselves..the interpreter hadn’t fastened his harness correctly)

(note 37: Upon reflection this is in error; Dove went on a “shakedown” familiarization mission with RT Illinois or RT Ohio (I forget which); the Delaware mission which found the guns was led by Mike Williams, assigned as 1-0 of Delaware for this mission only away from his normal team, with Jimmy as 1-2 and possibly a 3rd newcomer being given a familiarization mission. I had a great deal of respect for Mike Williams; he was quiet and modest and very good in the field. He once expressed some disgust at a silver star being handed out for political reasons at the FOB, an opinion I shared.).

(Note 38: Luke Dove may have transferred to the Facs as early as January or February; his place as 1-0 of Delaware may have been taken by Fitzgerald).

(Note 39: see the references in the “in memoriam” section to Richard “Dickie” Golding, murdered in Kontum by an ARVN ranger on 22 Nov 68. I attended his memorial service at the 1st Baptist Church in Gainesville, Florida, 1st week of December 1968).

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

First Flight Squadron

Cliff/Tom/Ray: Gentlemen - Good Morning.

Attached find a picture that I received from a member of First Flight Squadron, (Roger Gibson) that supported 5th SFGp and MACVSOG in Vietnam. They are conducting a Reunion at the Orleans Hotel/Casino in April 2010 and are attempting to contact the CWO who assisted them in supporting us in order for him to join them.
I would appreciate it if you could place this picture on your respective nets and query folks to ascertain the whereabouts of CWO Jaznick (sic sp) and either have them contact me, or go directly to Roger.
Ray: Request you provide Roger a copy of our SOA Membership Application and Criteria for Membership. I understand in talking to Charles that First Flight is already on the SOA approved list, but with limitation on time, date, and area of support. He will pass to those eligible for SOA membership.

I enjoyed talking with you today and appreciate you returning my call. I will contact the Nevada State Tax people as you suggested. Attached is the picture of most of the officers assigned to First Flight. Some were on duty somewhere when this November 1968 picture was taken. The officer in question is third from the right, second row. The only one in the Army uniform. He was a CWO and I believe his last name was Jaznick. This was taken on the roof of our villa in Nha Trang.
The Special Operations Command official magazine "Tip Of The Spear" can be seen at www.socom.mil.
The article on first Flight is on page 34, titled. "Vietnam's Most Secret Squadron". Let me know if you are unable to download it and I'll get you a copy. I would think that these people would be interested in joining your unit.
Talk to you later, Roger Gibson

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Colonel Robert L. Howard MOH

Capt. Robert Howard is awarded the Medal of Honor by Pres. Richard Nixon at the White House - 2 March 1971

Col. Robert Lewis Howard, Retired US Army
Wednesday, December 23, 2009, in in Waco

Col. Robert L. Howard, Retired US Army, 70, of Waco and formerly of San Antonio, and who at the time of his death was the most decorated American soldier, passed away Wednesday, December 23, 2009 in Waco.

Full military honors are pending and will be held at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., and will be announced by OakCrest Funeral Home of Waco. His flag draped casket will be in state from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday, December 30 and Thursday, December 31 at the funeral home.

Col. Howard grew up in Opelika, Alabama and enlisted in the US Army in 1956 at the age of 17. He retired as a full Colonel in 1992 after 36 years of service.

During Vietnam, he served in the US Army Special Forces (Green Berets) and spent most of his five tours in the super-secret MACV-SOG.

Col. Howard was nominated three times for the Medal of Honor, his first nomination being downgraded to the DSC.

His second and third nominations were simultaneous for two separate actions and the Medal of Honor was awarded for the first of them and was presented to him by President Richard M. Nixon at the White House in 1971.

The other nomination was downgraded to the Silver Star.

Col. Howard was wounded 14 times in 54 months of combat duty in Vietnam and was awarded 8 Purple Hearts.

Col. Howard is survived by his children, Denicia Howard of Florida, Melissa Gentsch and husband, Asst. Chief of Police Frank Gentsch of Waco, Rosslyn Howard of California and Robert Howard, Jr. and wife, Tori of California; and his grandchildren, Victoria Batey and husband, Luke of Denton, Holley Gentsch of Waco, Trey Howard of California, Isabella Gentsch of Waco and George Harris of Florida.

This site is dedicated to Robert L. Howard, one of America's most decorated soldiers. He served five tours in Vietnam and is the only soldier in our nation's history to be nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor three times for three separate actions within a thirteen month period. Although it can only be awarded once to an individual, men who served with him said he deserved all three. He received a direct appointment from Master Sergeant to 1st Lieutenant in 1969, and was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Richard M. Nixon at the White House in 1971. His other awards for valor include the Distinguished Service Cross - our nation's second highest award, the Silver Star - the third highest award, and numerous lesser decorations including eight Purple Hearts. He received his decorations for valor for actions while serving as an NCO (Sergeant First Class).

Robert L. Howard grew up in Opelika, Alabama and enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1956 at age seventeen. He retired as a full Colonel in 1992 after 36 years service. During Vietnam, he served in the U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Berets) and spent most of his five tours in the super-secret MACV-SOG (Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Observations Group) also known as Special Operations Group, which ran classified cross-border operations into Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam. These men carried out some of the most daring and dangerous missions ever conducted by the U.S. military. The understrength sixty-man recon company at Kontum in which he served was the Vietnam War's most highly decorated unit of its size with five Medals of Honor. It was for his actions while serving on a mission to rescue a fellow soldier in Cambodia, that he was submitted for the Medal of Honor the third time for his extraordinary heroism.

Robert L. Howard is said to be our nation's most decorated soldier from the Vietnam War. He was the last Vietnam Special Forces Medal of Honor recipient still on active duty when he retired on Sept. 29, 1992. His story is told in John Plaster's excellent book, SOG The Secret Wars of America's Commandos in Vietnam.

It is important for future generations that we remember our military heroes and the great sacrifices they have made for us in the name of Freedom.

Click to Enlarge
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Service Schedule 

Visitation Date: 
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Visitation Time: 
9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Visitation Location: 
OakCrest Funeral Home  [Map]

Visitation Date: 
Thursday, December 31, 2009
Visitation Time: 
9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Visitation Location: 
OakCrest Funeral Home  [Map]

Service Date: 
Monday, February 22, 2010
Service Time: 
11:00 a.m.
Service Location: 

Burial Date: 
Monday, February 22, 2010
Burial Location: 
Arlington National Cemetery 


Rank and organization: First Lieutenant, U.S. Army, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces. Place and date: Republic of Vietnam, 30 December 1968. Entered service at: Montgomery, Ala. Born: 11 July 1939, Opelika, Ala. Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. 1st Lt. Howard (then Sfc .), distinguished himself while serving as platoon sergeant of an American-Vietnamese platoon which was on a mission to rescue a missing American soldier in enemy controlled territory in the Republic of Vietnam. The platoon had left its helicopter landing zone and was moving out on its mission when it was attacked by an estimated 2-company force. During the initial engagement, 1st Lt. Howard was wounded and his weapon destroyed by a grenade explosion. 1st Lt. Howard saw his platoon leader had been wounded seriously and was exposed to fire. Although unable to walk, and weaponless, 1st Lt. Howard unhesitatingly crawled through a hail of fire to retrieve his wounded leader. As 1st Lt. Howard was administering first aid and removing the officer's equipment, an enemy bullet struck 1 of the ammunition pouches on the lieutenant's belt, detonating several magazines of ammunition. 1st Lt. Howard momentarily sought cover and then realizing that he must rejoin the platoon, which had been disorganized by the enemy attack, he again began dragging the seriously wounded officer toward the platoon area. Through his outstanding example of indomitable courage and bravery, 1st Lt. Howard was able to rally the platoon into an organized defense force. With complete disregard for his safety, 1st Lt. Howard crawled from position to position, administering first aid to the wounded, giving encouragement to the defenders and directing their fire on the encircling enemy. For 3 1/2 hours 1st Lt. Howard's small force and supporting aircraft successfully repulsed enemy attacks and finally were in sufficient control to permit the landing of rescue helicopters. 1st Lt. Howard personally supervised the loading of his men and did not leave the bullet-swept landing zone until all were aboard safely. 1st Lt. Howard's gallantry in action, his complete devotion to the welfare of his men at the risk of his life were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit on himself, his unit, and the U.S. Army.

Hero didn't forget the GIs of today

By Scott Huddleston - Express-News

Retired Army Col. Robert L. Howard, a Medal of Honor recipient who retired in San Antonio and was one of the most highly decorated soldiers from the Vietnam War, died Wednesday.

Howard, 70, died about noon at a hospice in Waco, where he'd been for about three weeks, suffering from pancreatic cancer, said Benito Guerrero, a close friend, Vietnam veteran and retired sergeant major.

Howard, a larger-than-life figure on the national military scene, appeared at many patriotic events in San Antonio and helped honor the wounded by attending Purple Heart ceremonies.

At his suggestion, the local Blue Star Mothers of America chapter began holding an annual ceremony in late December to remember the troops serving overseas.

“He said, ‘Don't forget the troops at Christmas.' He was very adamant about that,” said Chris Peche, who in 2004 helped organize the annual event, now held each year at the Alamo.

In April, Howard traveled, as he often did, to Iraq and Afghanistan to talk to U.S. troops about service. Just two months ago, he visited troops in Germany, Bosnia and Kosovo.

Howard, born July 11, 1939, grew up in Opelika, Ala., and served in the Army from 1956 to 1992. After retiring at Fort Sam Houston, he decided to stay in San Antonio.

Howard, who served five tours of Vietnam, was a sergeant first class in the Army's Special Forces on Dec. 30, 1968, when he rallied a badly shot-up platoon against an estimated 250 enemy troops in Vietnam.

Despite being unable to walk because of injuries from grenade blasts, he coordinated a strong counterattack while aiding the wounded and was the last man to board a helicopter, according to military records.

He was nominated for the Medal of Honor, the highest honor for valor, three times during a 13-month period. His long list of awards also included the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star and eight Purple Hearts.

At an annual convention for Medal of Honor recipients in Chicago in September, Howard said he and others wore the medal not to honor themselves, but for all U.S. troops past and present, including “those who stood beside us and for those who did not come home,” according to the Associated Press.

He also had been an advocate for troops missing in action. He told a Senate panel in 1986 that he believed there still were Americans, possibly more than 100, living in captivity in Southeast Asia.

Guerrero said Howard told him Sunday that military recruiters should give more waivers to young men “who've gone astray,” because they would “do better if given a second chance.”

“He cared about people, especially soldiers, and he loved his country,” Guerrero said.

Retired Maj. Gen. Alfred Valenzuela said he's been asked by the Pentagon and White House to coordinate funeral arrangements with Howard's family. He said he wasn't aware of any service-related connection to Howard's death.

While Howard's military record speaks for itself, Valenzuela said San Antonians need to know he served others while he lived here, whether working as a caseworker with the Veterans Affairs Department or speaking to teenagers about staying away from gangs.

“His forte was giving back. To him, it was never about Bob Howard. It was about helping others,” Valenzuela said.

Howard is survived by three grown children, including a daughter living in Waco, Valenzuela said. A memorial service in San Antonio and burial at Arlington National Cemetery are planned.

Peche said she feels a loss that's not only local and national, but also deeply personal.

“He was an extraordinary soul that I was blessed to know, not only because of our common support of our deployed troops, but also as a friend,” she said.


Medal of Honor
Distinguished Service Cross
Silver Star
Bronze Star for Valor, 3d Oak Leaf Cluster
Purple Heart, 8th Award, 7th Oak Leaf Cluster
Defense Superior Service Medal
Legion of Merit, 3d Oak Leaf Cluster
Bronze Star for Meritorious Achievement
Air Medal for Valor, 2d Oak Leaf Cluster
Army Commendation Medal for Valor, 3d Oak Leaf Cluster
Air Medal for Aerial Flights
Army Meritorious Service Medal, 2d Oak Leaf Cluster
Army Commendation Medal for Meritorious Achievement, 2d Oak Leaf Cluster
Joint Service Commendation Medal
Joint Service Achievement Medal
Army Achievement Medal
Good Conduct Medal 4th Award
National Defense Service Medal
Armed Forces Reserve Medal
PNCO Ribbon W/2 device
Army Overseas Ribbon
Army Service Ribbon
Expeditionary Medal, 2d Oak Leaf Cluster
Vietnam Service Medal
Vietnam Campaign Medal with 60 device
Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Gold Star
Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star
Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Bronze Star
Vietnam Honor Medal 2d Award
Vietnamese Wound Medal
Vietnamese Civil Action Medal 2d Award
Army Presidential Unit Citation, 1st Oak Leaf Cluster
Navy Valorous Unit Citation
Army Meritorious Unit Citation
Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Palm, 1st Oak Leaf Cluster
Republic of Korea Samil Medal
Combat Infantryman's Badge
Aircraft Crewman's Badge
MForces Qualification Tab
Thai Master Parachute Wings
Vietnamese Master Parachute Badge
French Parachutist Badge
Korean Master Parachute Badge
Thai Balloonist Badge
aster Parachute Badge
Pathfinder Badge
Air Assault Badge
Expert Infantryman's Badge
Vietnamese Ranger Badge
Army Ranger Tab