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 – — – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
O Highway 96 O
//// ) ///////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////
/// ( ///////////////////////////////// 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).