I arrived in Vietnam in February 1968. American's counteroffensive to the infamous Tet offensive was fully engaged. I was assigned to the mostly volunteer 101st Airborne Division's Screaming Eagles as an infantry platoon leader. Reading about this time, you find little about the war other than the communist offensive. Yet although poorly chronicled, the fighting in 1968 was substantial. I turned 21 a month after arriving and found myself leading a platoon of mostly younger men through the jungle 12,000 miles from my home. This is how it looked to us.
We thought constantly about the world, calculated daily our Deros (date eligible to return overseas) and dreamed of the girls back home. There were two seasons-rainy and dry. During the rainy seasons we were always wet; during the dry season we were always thirsty. The insects were incredible. Bombarding flies, swarming mosquitoes, leeches everywhere, and two-foot-long centipedes. The jungle was beautiful, but at times you couldn't see 10 feet in any direction. We encountered what we called wait-a-minute vines, which would grab you and could suspend you in the air.
We became accomplished cooks, combining C-rations and LRRP-rations (long-range reconnaissance patrol) with sauces sent from home. We sealed envelopes, whose glue had become useless from dampness, with peach jam. We warmed our meals with fuel made by combining peanut butter with insect repellent. Our faces were an unpleasant combination of whisker stubble, insect repellent, sweat and grime. We buoyed our morale by describing our favorite meal or our favorite car back home, and always talking about our favorite girl. We lived for letters and "care packages" from the U.S.
Fire fights were intense, horrific and terrifying--explosions so close you would lose your wind or water. The sights and smells would make you retch. Within hours a dead body would be crawling with maggots, and a day later it would be black, bloated and unrecognizable. Your body rebelled under the weight of a 40-pound rucksack, eight canteens of water, ammunition, a weapon, helmet and other equipment necessary to survive. Comfort, privacy and security were nonexistent. A sound night's sleep was only a memory, a dry pair of socks a luxury. We matured quickly even as our youth allowed us to carry on.
Images became seared into the mind for life as surely as the names of fallen comrades were to be engraved forever on a wall in our nation's capital. The sight of a tank commandeer machine-gunned to death as he surveyed the area, partially exposing his body out of the protection of his turret. The image of a tall Louisianan dying in your arms, his stomach blown away. The look of horror on the face of an enemy soldier as he is confronted at a bend in the trail, realizing he did not have his weapon ready. Seeing a terrified soldier propped up on his remaining arm, having lost the other and both legs. Time and relationships would help, but still the inexplicable fall into the wracking sea of numbing images occurs with warning. You understood the speechlessness; the emotional paralysis was incomprehensible.
We chased the North Vietnamese army from the outskirts of Hue, through the jungles of northern South Vietnam, through the A Shau Valley and into Laos. We stopped at the border waiting for the order to continue fighting. The order never came. We knew we were winning our battles against those with names like Daun, Thanh, Giap and Bui Tin. We did not know we were losing the war to those with names like Jane, Tom, Bill and Ramsey. Our leaders in the field fought side by side with us.
We talked tough. Conversations were laced with terms like "widow maker", "strike force"; and "reconnaissance in force." "Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death..." the little ditty would begin. But God knew the truth, because it was to him we talked, praying with each breath. We had not heard of male bonding but survived because of espirit de corps. We trusted each other with our lives. We needed to be alert, so we did not take drugs, saving our intemperance for beer in the rear area. It has been said that there are no atheists in foxholes. We discovered there were no racists there either.
We were surprised by our bravery and equally surprised by how scared we were. We were profoundly changed. Some of us were changed by torn bodies, crushed psyches and broken spirits. Some of us were changed by what we learned. We learned about courage, determination, camaraderie, selflessness and an appreciation for living.
Returning home brought another, disappointing lesson. We were, it seemed, not welcome. In college a fellow student told me she did not date Vietnam War veterans. I did not expect a hero's welcome, as I was not a hero. I did expect an appreciation for the willingness to endure the ordeal of combat. Rightly or wrongly I believed we were in a mortal fight against the world-wide threat of communism. The "domino theory" made sense to me, and if I hadn't been willing to fight, millions of people might fall under the domain of what Ronald Reagan would later call the "evil empire." I left Vietnam 28 years ago and still doubt that most Americans understand what we went through. I pray that my children will never have to take up arms to protect the liberties they and I cherish. But if they do, I hope they will be welcomed home with respect.
It seems like yesterday that my friend Don and I were walking down the street checking our girls and cars like we did everyday after junior college classes. A year later, I was a 21-year-old infantry platoon leader, part of the famous 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles, and Don was back home dying from injuries he received a year earlier in that same place. Don would be forever assigned his destiny as a casualty of war.
Being in the infantry is difficult and the Vietnam War was as bad as any. At its best we were uncomfortable, and at worst our lives threatened. Mostly we did what we had to and hoping just to get home some day. But once in a while something would happen that you sense would change you forever.
For me, that was the rescue of Dustoff 65. It was a rainy, foggy night on April 3, 1968, when my platoon came under attack. A savage firefight followed, which lasted most of the night. Two of the several men who got hit were critically wounded. We needed a medivac if their lives were to be saved. With no place to land a helicopter, it was necessary to use a device called a jungle penetrator to lift the injured men through the triple canopy jungle.
That was a dangerous mission as the aircraft needed to hover for several minutes as the evacuation took place. First Lieutenants Mike Meyers and Ben Knisely of the 498th Medical Company accepted the assignment. At first light they headed for us.
Using radio contact, Meyers and Knisely got close and identified the purple smoke we had put out to help locate our position. Coming in at treetop level and just before they got to us they were hit by a North Vietnamese Army rocket, which blew away their tail section. They managed a controlled crash some distance away from us. We quickly put together a search party and set off to, at least, find and secure their bodies. With a little help from God, we might even find survivors.
Finally, we smelled smoke and knew we must be close. We were in a race with the enemy to get there first. The terrain was rugged and hostile. It took four hours, including a brief firefight, but we were successful. We found three of the four crewmembers alive. The crew chief had been killed and it would be weeks before another unit is able to find and recover his body.
It took the rest of the day to move the injured back to our company’s position, and another three days to secure an area suitable to carve out an LZ (landing zone) large enough for another medivac to land. It was three days of being constantly wet, covered with muck, eating cold C-rations, unable to sleep. We were unable to move to a more secure position due to the need to protect the wounded. We used plastic explosives to blow trees for an LZ. The hole we created in the jungle was barely large enough for the rescue helicopter and we marveled at the skill and courage of that crew. Eventually we were all taken out to safety.
The entire mission took five days.
It is now difficult to explain those five days. They were not the most remarkable of my Vietnam tour. That mission won’t be mentioned when great books of the era are written. Few will know the lousy food, lack of sleep, being scared or being brave. Most of the world will never know what happened on that mountain. The one thing that cannot be changed is that three brave men were saved because a band of mostly teenage soldiers persisted in a dangerous jungle search to find them.
This Memorial Day, I placed the American flag in front of my house in honor of my friend Don and the crew chief who died in that crash. The apologists for that war can say what they want, but I will never forget the sacrifice these men made to the cause of freedom we enjoy. I am proud to have served with them.
U.S. Army Sgt. James Richardson of Deville, La., and U.S. Marine Sgt. Don Barrington of Pasadena, CA. - I salute you.
There is actually a little more to this story if you are interested. For reasons that I do not now remember I wrote down the surviving crewmembers names and ranks. Unlike us grunts, they were wearing uniforms with their names and rank on them. After we got them back to our company position I was pretty much busy with providing security to our position. Our medics took over taking care of the crew. My CO had suffered a serious injury. He was shot in the shoulder and pretty much out of commission until we got him medivaced with the crew. In addition to the three crewmembers, my CO, the two original wounded we also took several more casualties including one killed.
By the time we could get in another helicopter it was several days. Last year I learned that the two pilots of the second medivac, were also from the 498th. I discovered this at a reunion of the Dustoff Association in San Antonio last year. The Association had invited me as their guest and made me an honorary member. They were Knisely’s and Meyer’s commanders and had taken it upon themselves to get Dustoff 65 out. Their names are Byron Howlett and Joe Brown. In my story I mentioned how we marveled at the skill and courage of that crew.
In October of 1968 I was recuperating from wounds in a hospital in Japan when I remembered the piece of paper with the Dustoff 65 crewmembers names. I checked with the hospital administration and found that Knisely had been there following his evacuation from VN. They had a forwarding address for him.
Back in 1996 I wrote a story about my tour in VN for the Wall Street Journal. It was published on November 11, 1996. It was because of this story that I learned about Internet searches and a friend did a search for Ben Knisely. There were two and one of them was the right one. We made contact by phone and e-mail and then saw each other again at the reunion. That inspired me to write the story of Dustoff 65.
I still have a copy of the letter I wrote to Ben back in 1969 and his response as well as a letter he sent me in 1997 after we made contact again. Pretty amazing when you think about it. In any event here is the Dustoff 65 story in its original manuscript form. Tim
Tim was most gracious to give me his permission to put the above moving accounts of his experiences while in Vietnam here. Thank you so very much Tim as I'm certain many others will appreciate your experiences as well! You can email Tim by clicking the below email icon|
AMERICANS IN VIETNAM THE TIME LIFE EXPERIENCE
On March 8, 1965, men of the 9th Marines splashed ashore at Red Beach 2, northwest of DaNang. Meanwhile other marine units in the region prepared for possible deployment as reinforcements. In March, men of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, participated in a training exercise in Thailand named Jungle Drum III. On April 4, while returning from Thailand to the Philippines aboard ships of Navy Task Group 76.6, the task group commander received orders to steam to an area eighty kilometers east of Da Nang, one day's voyage away. But the ordinary enlisted men, who lived aboard the ships and slept in berthing spaces upon bunks stacked eight high did not learn why they had changed course.
After arriving in position on April 5, the troop-laden ships loitered off the coast for six days. The men below decks grew anxious. Rumor said it was just another exercise; rumor said it was the real thing. Constant drills, endless inspections, the bad food of the ships' messes, seasickness, and the threat of combat caused anger to mix with anxiety. When at last on April 9 officers passed the order to land the next morning, the tense marines at first felt relieved. Warned to expect a "hot" beach and ordered to prepare for combat, the men grew anxious again. American forces already held the beach, but the 4 enlisted marines who rocked in the holds geared up to defend themselves if necessary.
Richard Ogden, then a nineteen-year-old private, remembered the 2nd Battalion's last night at sea. As he wrote later, some of the men were quiet, others exuberant. As they sharpened and re sharpened the bayonets or stripped and reassembled rifles, they bragged about the feats they'd perform the next day. No one appeared afraid of what might happen. But for Ogden "the thought of killing someone terrified the hell out of me."
On the morning of April 10 the sea was calm as the ships of the past group anchored in Da Nang harbor. Married to the hulls of their mother ships, utility landing craft (LCU's) loaded equipment, and personnel landing craft (LCP's) loaded troops. Then they broke away and turned toward shore. When the LCP carrying Pvt. Ogden and other men of Hotel Co., 2/3 Marines, reached shallow water its heavy gate slammed down on the white sand of Red Beach and the Marines scrambled out. Fearful yet excited, they scanned the horizon, watching for any sign of the enemy. "I see something!" came a Marine's muffled shout. Without taking his eyes from the horizon shivering in the heat, Ogden snapped open his M-79 grenade launcher, felt around in the chamber, and snapped the breach shut. Then he squinted at the blurred shape of a man struggling toward him. The next moment a staccato thwacking, thudding sound erupted. Another, then another human shape, each burdened with equipment swam into view. Ogden picked a target. But then an order came up the line; "hold your fire!" The twacking sound increased in intensity; more shapes advanced. Again the order came; "hold your fire!"
Abruptly the source of all the thwacking and thudding, a brand-new, turbo-powered UH-1E Marine helicopter, leaped into sight. Unaccustomed to the chopping sound made by the new aircraft engine, some of the Marines had mistaken it for hostile machine-gun fire. And as the indistinct shapes of men came nearer, what had looked like weapons on their shoulders and in their hands took on the appearance of television cameras and microphones. Ogden was able to make out the logos of ABC and NBC and the staring eye of CBS. A marine shouted, this time in a tone of startled disbelief; "it's the press corps!"
"A reporter with a very dark tan, clad in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts, and sandals, came over and struck and mike up to my mouth," Ogden recalled. "A cameraman went down on his knees and moved in close. ‘How do you like the Vietnam war so far, son?' the reported asked me." When Ogden recovered from his surprise, he asked the reporter where the war was. "There's fighting going on everywhere," the reporter answered, "but it's at night. The farmer's till the rice fields during the day and pick up weapons at night. Nothing ever happens during the day around here." But the days weren't safe for very long.
WHO THEY WERE
From 1965 to 1967 Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall, a veteran and a chronicler of combat during World War II and the Korean War, made several trips to South Vietnam. General Marshall thought that the soldiers he saw in Vietnam made up the best forces America ever fielded, anywhere, anytime: "My overall estimate was that the morale of the troops and the level of discipline of the army were higher than I had ever known them in any of our wars." General William C. Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, shared this view. "Having fought in three wars, I am convinced the United States never fielded a more professional force."
The American serviceman in Vietnam from 1965 to 1967 was sounder mentally and physically than any that came before him. Some 75 percent of all enlisted men were high school graduates, compared to 48 percent in 1952. A limited, selective draft allowed the military to adhere to strict physical requirements; most soldiers were very good physical specimens and well-motivated individuals.
Whether a serviceman spent his whole tour humping "in the bush" or had it easy as a clerk and "skated" back in the rear, he knew at all times when he was due to return home to "the world." Those in the army, navy, air force and Coast Guard were obliged to perform one year of duty in Vietnam, minus one week of R&R (rest and recuperation) leave in a neighboring country. Marines were required to serve thirteen months in the war zone and generally had only five days of R&R leave. But army or navy, air force or marines, any serviceman in Vietnam could say at any time exactly how many days he had left. Most soldiers started counting backwards soon after they arrived, and each day they subtracted one from the total days remaining to their DEROS--their Date of Estimated Return from Overseas. If a serviceman was "short"--if he had less than one month remaining until his DEROS--he probably could specify the number of hours he had left too. When the magic day arrived, he boarded the homeward bound jetliner, or "freedom bird," with few regrets about leaving. But when he arrived back home he found home hadn't changed much, though he had.
THE SIEGE OF CON THIEN
Early in September, 1967 the North Vietnamese intensified both artillery fire and ground attacks, and the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, under strength of perhaps 1,000 men; relieved its beleaguered colleagues of the 1/9 on the "Hill of Angels." At best a dismal outpost. Con Thien soon became a very public hell, and the isolation of the base and the combination of infantry and artillery tactics evoked the specter of Dien Bien Phu. Through the lenses of television cameras and in print, the world followed the marines predicament. "I hated every day, and every hour, and every moment of breath," said one marine.
Monsoon rains arrived in September, a month ahead of schedule, and the laterite soil of Con Thien turned into a red bog that was at least ankle--and sometimes knee-deep. The gray skies opened daily, and the rain fell with frustrating regularity. The mud was both friend and foe: It absorbed the shrapnel from high explosive artillery rounds, but it also pulled at the feet of men caught in the open running for cover at the cry of "Incoming!" In addition, the mud concealed dud rounds, and the marines' own base was a mine field of unexploded shells. The men suffered from trench foot, which caused feet to ache and to turn a shade of pale green, with the skin sloughing off . Armpits and crotches were rubbed raw from constant dampness, and most marines suffered skin rashes. They shared their bunkers with rats, drank rainwater collected in five-gallon cans, and ate but one or two C-rations per day, since priority went to shipments of ammunition and troop replacements. Fog sometimes closed in at night, obscuring any view beyond the barbed wire perimeter, and transforming every muffled sound into an enemy sapper for the anxious defenders.
Mortars, artillery, shells and rockets fell randomly but incessantly on the base. Rockets came in fast, providing but a second's warning. The high whine of artillery shells could be heard about three seconds before impact. Mortars were much preferred: On hearing the hollow steel "whump," a man had five to ten seconds to get under cover. The September bombardment ranged from 100 to 150 rounds per day to a maximum on September 25 of 1,190. When combined with outgoing artillery (the U.S. fired an estimated 6,000 rounds daily), occasional "mad minutes" (in which every U.S. weapon, including M16s, was fired) and bombing strikes on the enemy, the cacophony of war left the marines temporarily hard of hearing. Even in moments of calm, they often had to shout in each other's ears to be heard.
The marines called themselves "the walking dead." Hollow-eyed and shell-shocked, they hurried through the mud, bent over, carrying stretchers, dodging sniper fire, taking up posts, waiting for incoming rounds. It eroded the nerves. And the aimless pattern of explosions and casualties elicited superstitious responses. "Don't follows me when you see me running down the side of the hill," one officer lectured a visitor. "I like to be off by myself when the shells come in. I have this feeling that the round that has your number on it shouldn't kill anyone else- and I certainly don't want to get someone else's round." Another feeling running through the minds of the 3/9 Marines was pure befuddlement of the reason for holding Con Thien. That frustration was often expressed irrationally. "President Johnson must like to see marines get killed," said one.
"We all lost a friend there," David P. Martin, an artillery forward observer from New Jersey, later wrote of his days at Con Thien. "I lost a few boot camp buddies, due to rotate on the big silver bird home soon. Red, a forward observer with a silver star, from Georgia, died there. An artillery shell blew him in half. He already had to Purple Hearts. He had single-handedly wiped out a machine-gun next in early July and earned his medal. He was a bull of a man, strong, loud- mouthed, brave and he died. He died. And alone after the news, in my bunker twelve feet underground, I cried. He was blown in half for a shit-hold place that had no strategic value, no military value, no sense to it, save to prove to Russia or China or North Vietnam or God or somebody that nineteen-year-old low and middle-class Americans would die for their country."
General Westmoreland belittled the media's portrayal of Con Thien as a repeat of Dien Bien Phu, and he surely had no intention of allowing the outpost to fall. His means of breaking the enemy's attack was Operation Neutralize, a forty-nine day campaign that introduced SLAM (seek, locate, annihilate, monitor), a concept devised by 7th Air Force commander General William M. Momyer. SLAM involved a coordination of the entire spectrum of heavy fire support--B-52s, tactical air support, and naval gunfire--with artillery and other ground fire. To relieve Con Thien, this devastating concentration of firepower was directed into an area about the size of Manhattan
For seven weeks, Operation Neutralize pummeled known and suspected enemy positions, with B-52 Strato fortresses striking first, followed by tactical air, then naval guns, and artillery. Carrying nearly 60,000 pounds of bombs, B-52 bombers were the most awesome weapon used in Vietnam. In a so-called Arc Light strike, three planes bombed an area one kilometer wide and three kilometers long, causing a thunderous earthquake and throwing up a foundation of earth and trees in its wake. Of 820 B-52 sorties over Vietnam during September, 790 dropped their bombs in Con Thien's front yard, tearing the surrounding area into a terrain of water-filled craters ringed with collars of earth.
Operation Neutralize delivered from 35,000 to 40,000 tons of bombs in nearly 4,000 air sorties, and by early October, it had broken the enemy's siege. The SLAM strikes persuaded General Westmoreland that massed firepower could force a besieging enemy to disist it. It was, he later noted, "a demonstration that was destined to contribute to my confidence on a later occasion," that of the siege of Khe Sanh four months later in January 1968. With Con Thien relieved, Westmoreland could not resist poking a barb at pessimistic reporters as well as at his counterpart, Vo Nguyen Giap, whose concentration of heavy weapons and troops had provided SLAM such vulnerable targets. "If comparable in any way to Dien Bien Phuy," he wrote, "it was a Dien Bien Phu in reverse. The North Vietnamese lost well over 2,000 men killed, while Con Thien and Gio Linh continued to stand as barriers to enemy movement."
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 Roy E. Stanford.