Examining the Myths of the Vietnam War

War Stories I -- The View From the Field

Steve Sherman: I was hoping to take the morning off over here, but that is not to be. You are stuck with me again. This morning, we have got two topics in sequence that we can’t cover in about two years of conferencing. So what we are going to do is to go over things extremely quickly by some anecdotal presentations. The first topic that we have titled as the view from the field and what we are going to do is ask specific people we have sequenced here to come up and talk for a few minutes, probably 5 to 7 minutes about their summer vacation in Southeast Asia. Now, again, bear with me these next two sessions. There is no way we can encapsulate the physical aspects of the war and the strategic aspects of the war, the tactical and strategic aspects of the war in two sessions over here. What we are going to do is try and hit the high points and we have got some people here who had some pretty interesting high points during their tours. At some point, one of our guests will finally show up after he was sabotaged last night by one of our other guests and at that point, I will depart and watch this from the other room so I can try to catch up on all the phone calls I missed yesterday because I had no reception in this building. Fred, we want you to start it off over here. You can use that mike.


Fred Rice: I guess the reason that Steve asked me to start off was that I was probably deployed as early, maybe earlier than most folks were and I told Steve I would help him out by telling it. The way I am going to do this is I am not going to tell war stories. If everybody comes up here and does this, in this sequence, tell war stories, we are going to be here for the next three weeks. I am going to try and keep it to objective things that we did. Here is what we did, here is how we did it, here is where we did it and so forth and not I remember one time when Joe went over; I am not going to get into that stuff because that is going to get us so distracted, so the rest of you that come up here and do this, please do the same; let us keep it to what you did, what your unit did, where you were and so forth and keep it to operation, so we can get some value out of the history of this thing and I think that is what Steve’s intent is, that we go with the history. So, I deployed with an A team, as an A team exec [Special Forces “A” Detachment Executive Officer] in January 1963. There were two rotations of teams that went in there or there were several rotations, I believe four that Steve has documented in his books, but I was on the, this was probably the second rotation, second or third rotation, I am not sure. There were six months’ rotations at the time, 12 man A-teams and we went into an area in Long Khanh Province. We flew into Saigon, went up to the MAAG headquarters, the MAAG detachment up there and we spent about two or three-four days with them getting a little bit of briefing, some orientation, then went out looking for camp sites. We were up farther in, about 80 clicks northeast of Saigon along the main highway up there. We ended up in a village called Tuc Trung, just outside of it. We were adjacent to a French rubber plantation. We were on the southeast edge of War Zone D and our job was to recruit and train CIDG forces and then take them out on reconnaissance and, if necessary, combat patrols to keep track of the traffic in and out of War Zone D because it was a real safe zone and then, if necessary, interdict any of that traffic that came along. So it was pretty interesting doing it. It was extremely rustic; it was extremely rudimentary. There were about 8000 Americans in the country at the time and during the time that we were there, there was actually a move, we were making success, we were going to start pulling people out and I remember distinctly that they pulled a 125 MPs that were in the greater Saigon area, but at that time, there were maybe a total of 50 Special Forces Teams, about 600 people.


Audience: What time, when did this _____.


Fred Rice: January to June of 1963, and so we went in, we searched for areas to put in the camp. We finally found one. We went to the French plantation owner; there was a French family there that had lived there all their lives. We pulled in one day to meet with them and found out that they spoke only French. Fortunately, I spoke French, so I became the interpreter for our team. They lent us bulldozers; water trailers, some tools and so forth, but they told us that they could not provide us with any intel information because if they did the VC would burn them out. They knew that, and so they said, we will do everything we can, but we cannot collaborate with you and provide you information about the VC, we have to protect ourselves, and we understood that. We were about 20 kilometers north of Xuan Loc and the Xuan Loc plantation was down there and it had this huge beautiful complex of dormitories and multiple story buildings, stucco buildings. I think there were villas that the plantation owners owned. There was a big pavilion with a swimming pool out there and they told us that from ‘54 to ‘57, when the French were out and before the VC started, it was the absolute highlight of the time in Vietnam. Nothing had touched it in time and there sere beautiful, beautiful grounds. We lived up near a smaller branch of this plantation and it wasn’t quite as elaborate, but was still a pretty damn nice villa. When we got there we were provided with, once we selected the site we built a pentagon shaped facility like most people did with the block house of each one, because you could protect each other in both directions and then we received a kit, a camp kit. This is the funniest damn thing in the world. It had three World War II Timken dump trucks; that is what we got for our vehicles and one jeep, the jeep so that we could carry radios on and so forth. We have to cannibalize one dump truck to make the other two work. We early on found that we had to sandbag the bottom and everything, because we had to travel from where we were back down to Xuan Loc to their airstrip twice a week to catch the milk run, a Caribou that came in and supplied the MAAG compound and we would take different roads every single day, we would take different times, different people, everything we could to vary it. Basic lessons that they are saying, gee, we need to change the route; we are going from Baghdad to such and such now. Well, that is nothing new; that is just a basic tactic. We go down there and pick up the mail or whatever and two of us would get a chance to go Tuesday to Saigon, come back on Thursday or, if we were really lucky, we would get on the one that will go down Thursday and come back the following Tuesday, then you get a weekend in Saigon and that wasn’t bad, and we each got three or four rotations like that for a couple of days off. We would go down to the B team in Saigon, the Provisional Headquarters, and we would carry all the reports, this, that and the other, and get the information coming back out. We would also receive once a month a cold pack. It was a palette, it was wrapped in big insulated blankets with dry ice, we get fresh meat, a lot of steak and stuff like that came from the Navy commissary, because that was the only commissary set up in the country at that time and when we ran out of that, we had to go native, but we solved the problem. We told the Province Chief we needed a cook, some kind of a cook. How much are you willing to pay? 1,500 piastres a month. He went down to the Caravel Hotel and got the head cook from the Caravel, best French restaurant in town, who was making a 1000 piastres a month and he said, sure I’ll go up there for another 500 and when we ran out from steak from the Navy commissary, he would go into the village and get water buffalo and the way he prepared it was French cooking and everything else, it was as good as the other stuff, so we never noticed. We had a kerosene refrigerator, which was marginal for keeping stuff cool, but it worked. We recruited the troops; they were pretty much recruited for us. We taught them how to fire weapons, how to march a little bit, just for the discipline of it, how to do squad tactics, we didn’t not take them anything above a platoon; we taught them how to fire fairly accurately, how to move quietly, how to do a little bit of hand and arm signal, because we had two interpreters, but we had a language barrier between us. Some of them spoke a little bit of French and that helped a little bit and we took them out on to patrols and so forth. We get hit in the camp, probably a couple of weeks after we finished construction; thank God, they let us do that. We got hit several times in the camp. Our biggest problem early on was getting the troops that we had just recruited to stop firing. One round from outside the camp and everybody starting firing and they shot up all the ammo they had, so we had to discipline them when to stop firing more than anything else. So it was an early discipline problem, I think a lot of the camps had that same problem. We finally started taking them out on the patrols. We went locally, took them out into recon patrols along the Dong Nai River, yes, there was a lot of traffic that came down to Dong Nai River. It was in little rafts and scows and stuff like that and you get two or three people with a big something in the middle of the boat and a little lantern, so they could kind of see where they were going. We never took them on because that wasn’t our job at that time. We wanted to count and see what was going. There was only one bridge into War Zone D and it had been blown up by the Viet Minh and there was one span had dropped into the water. We tried to go into War Zone D one time and had an armed patrol going in there and we were cut short. [Map displayed] There it is, this is the camp right here, we originally look at the camp up here, it had been mined so we couldn’t use it, but we used to go into here. Right here was a bridge somewhere over this river, right here, the Dong Nai River and our camp sat right here, the plantation was right here. We tried to go in over here. We found that this was all War Zone D up in this area, up in here. Everything northwest of the river was all War Zone D. It is a good thing we didn’t get in there because we found out later that there were two NVA divisions had been in there for several years and they were actually the base that came out and did a lot of the other damage down in throughout the central III Corps area through that. This highway right here, it is the highway all the way up to Da Lat up here, the main one right here. Our camp had a unique name. Our team leader was Captain John Anderson, so we named the camp “Andersonville.” That is how I first met Steve. He called me one day, and I said, ‘who in the hell are you?” And he says, well, you were there in ‘63 and you were in a camp called Andersonville and I thought, anybody that can find out that little bit of trivia, I will give him whatever extra information he wants, so I gave him all the info on the rest of my team members and so forth, but we were there for the six months. The camp was closed out and moved by the team that followed us. So we had six months, we had another six months after that and they moved the camp, I don’t recall where it was. But during that time, there was a team exchange that was taking place some place else in the country. There were five people riding in a jeep, three from the incoming, two from the outgoing team. They hit a mine and three guys were killed and the other two very seriously wounded. That was in 1963. I go down to the Wall in Washington and I look, and the guys that I knew during that tour including the guy that lived across the hall from me at West Point, was a helicopter pilot who went down, Clay Fannin, his name was on the first panel about ten rows down. Everybody else was looking at the rest of the stuff, way the hell over here and toward the end and I look at the top ten rows here and I can't believe that I’m that damned old, but that was where that period was. It was very, very, very early on up there. The headquarters in Saigon was Provisional. One time when I went down there, I was at the headquarters, two blocks away from when one of the first Buddhist monk set himself on fire. I was two blocks away from that. Interesting time to be there.


Steve Sherman: I don’t think that is the right place for the camp.


Fred Rice: Say again?


Steve Sherman: I don’t think that circle is the right place for the camp; I think it was over here.


Fred Rice: The camp was down here, it was in this…


Steve Sherman: Did you put that airfield there?


Fred Rice: No, that must have been much much later. That doesn’t even look like, because there was no corner like this or anything out in through here that I recall.


Steve Sherman: These are ‘65 and ‘68 maps.


Fred Rice: Yeah, there could be. There was an airstrip in the middle. That is a pretty big village right there. There was a village, the whole village was on the right side of the road and I would have said that the airstrip was some place up in here. But anyway…it is probably changed a lot because there was a lot of activity later. We were in nowhere. We had a little rifle range out there to teach them how to fire. Our weapons, let’s see we had the three trucks, we had a 5 kw generator, all of our communications with the headquarters was with hand crank generator and Morse code and our call sign was UU2 and we had a guy from Jamaica who was our number 2 commo guy and UU2 as you know is tatada, tatada, tatada dat dat dat and he played the Lone Ranger tune every time he called in. So he was very recognizable and he was able to get in, so we did a lot of communication traffic back and forth. Basic weapons were M14s that we went over with. We saw an armalite AR15 when we were over there. We saw a Huey and thought that was a great machine. We usually carried one of the automatic weapons. We carried a carbine with strapped banana clips on it. Everybody carried a personal side arm. I carried a .38. Most people carried a .38, some were .45, but nobody carried the heavy weapons except for the heavy weapons guy would have a machine gun with him, but that was about it. I don’t know what else on it, but if you have questions about that period in time.


Steve Sherman: We will have the questions later. Let us move along here on the next one.


Fred Rice: Okay, but that was it during the first round in ‘63. Steve tells me to skip my next tour. I will just say I served with the 25th Division in ‘66; it was a totally different perspective, totally different aspect. Go on. Who’s next?


Steve Sherman: Jack Spey. Actually McLeroy is not here, so I don’t know what we planned last night. I am winging this one.


Jack Spey: We are winging.


Jack Spey: My name is Jack Spey. Without going into what I am going to cover this afternoon, I joined Operation Ranch Hand when the unit was first formed at Pope Air Force Base in the summer of 1961. We were the first of Air Force C-123 to fly across the Pacific. The first airplanes in the Ranch arrived in Saigon in 1961 in December of that year after the flight across the Pacific. I was a young lieutenant at the time -- brown bar. I am proud to be able to say that every promotion I received, I was in Southeast Asia during that period of time. The Ranch flew for nine years, Operation Ranch Hand, and I was with it for three and a half years. I got to Saigon in January of 1962 and left in May of 1966. During the early period of Operation Ranch Hand, it was largely growth, of course, an entirely new mission. If you wanted to drop a nuclear weapon, there is all sorts of books that you could read about how to drop a nuclear weapon or if you wanted to fire an artillery piece, why there are all sorts of people to give you instruction on how to do that. There wasn’t anybody available, there were no source material available to learn how to be combat crop dusters; we had to learn that on our own. The United States Air Force didn’t have any crop dusting pilots. It had a small cadre of about 6 people that had experience in flat land mosquito spraying and a little bit of granular dispersion in later years and that was a cadre upon which those of us who had C-123 experience joined that particular unit. We had to learn by mistakes, we had to go out and make mistakes, none of which at that time were life-threatening, and learn from them and pass that information along to those of us who followed, and we didn’t have time to write anything down either at that time. The unit was manned for the first three years by rotational TDY people from the Special Aerial Spray Flight at Pope Air Force Base, where I originally went to after graduation from pilot training. In 1964, the unit’s evaluation period was all complete; we had already gone into crop destruction targets, enemy crops in the An Lao valley. I spoke to one gentleman who knows a little bit about the An Lao Valley. I know a little bit about the An Lao Valley as well. We started crop destruction work and the demand from the field through the Provincial Chiefs and our military advisors to them, we started picking up more and more aircraft and it exceeded the ability of the Special Aerial Spray Flight to continue to man the organization on a TDY basis and the Air Force came in and cranked in a year tour for the pilots. The pilots were all volunteers, all the aircrew were volunteers that flew the Ranch mission, because as you can imagine during the nine-year period, we sustained over 6,000 hits from the ground and lost seven airplanes and 26 men. So, there was some risk involved. As the mission grew, of course, organizationally, the unit finally became a squadron in October of 1966 and moved from Saigon to Bien Hoa, the first of that year, the first of 1967. It was a very unique mission as you might imagine. We started having reunions in 1967 when those of us that had been there originally came back to the States to become instructor pilots to those who were going to go over and replace ourselves in that unit and we’ve had reunions every since for the past 35 years and the next one would be this October. We don’t talk much about Herbicide Orange. We talk a lot of war stories and they get less truthful as the years go on. Our mean average age now is about 65 years old and basically, that is it sir.


Steve Sherman: Thank you. I have heard brief records of your second career over there in Laos.


Jack Spey: Oh, well, after Vietnam, I went to Hurlbert Field and I was an instructor pilot there instructing pilots to go to Vietnam in Operation Ranch Hand. I flew the C-123 for about 11 years. Some people say I have more time in that particular airplane than anyone else in the Air Force. I can honestly say that everything had happened to me in that airplane except to die in that airplane. I finally got into the T-28 program and then as a result the T-28 of course was one of the early aircraft in Vietnam in Farm Gate back in 1961 and 62 at Bien Hoa, but it was also given to the Royal Thai Air Force and the Royal Lao Air Force. In 1971, I went into the T-28 program and then started going TDY into Laos on Project 404. I was the AOC Commander at Pakse, down in the southern panhandle of Laos, on the Mekong side. On the west side of the Continental Divide and the Annamite Range which would with the Lao. I spent about three years in Laos. Married an American girl that was a secretary for CIA and we married there and some of you may know we were married by an Air America pilot of all people. Yes, it was, actually. It was blessed by the church and my wife was a Mormon and she wanted a Mormon ceremony. And worked with the Lao up until May of 1975 and when the ceasefire was obviously going to hold because all the sides had been told to relieve and they retired, we retired, blah, blah, blah, why we left from there. And I spent my last tour with the Royal Thai Air Force detachment in Tachikawa, Japan before retiring in 1977. So it was quite an interesting career. Southeast Asia. I love particularly Vietnam, as most of you, well, all of you know it is a very beautiful country and so is Laos except we were so busy in Laos, we didn’t have a chance to enjoy it that much really. I will talk to you later.


Steve Sherman: Logan?


Logan Fitch: I am Logan Fitch. I spent about two and a half tours in Vietnam, all three of them very very different. My first tour I was enlisted, I was 25 and I was a clerk. I was assigned in 1965 to MACV Headquarters and I happened to have top-secret clearance, so I was the Documents Control Officer for the J-6, the Communications Electronic Director. Well, it wasn’t much of a war at that time although it had starting to heat up. I think the 173rd had just come, the Cav was coming maybe a little bit later, but it was just starting to get an influx of American troops. I remember the Marines coming up in the northern part of the county. My life was exclusively in Saigon. I learnt to water ski on the Saigon River. I was not issued a weapon. Sometimes you could hear artillery and stuff going off in the far distance, but for me it was not a war. I wore khakis; that was the uniform, I didn’t have any fatigues, and I didn’t have a weapon issued. I think the greatest danger I faced was a bar fight or getting some sexually transmitted disease from some gal in one of the bars. But an interesting thing as a TS control officer for the J-6 directorate, I kept reading all these code words about; I remember the names now, and of course I know about them now, didn’t then, Shining Brass, Rolling Thunder, and those kinds of things, which of course were some of the cross border missions and the bombings and so on into Laos and so on. So for me, it was not a war at all. It was a pretty neat adventure. I seldom saw a combat soldier. Later on would begin, late in my tour, in mid 66 or so we began to see some of the people from the Big Red One, the First Infantry Division coming in Saigon on R&R but we tried to keep all those trash outside the city and it was not a bad war, not a bad war at all. I left there, went to Officer Candidate School, I was commissioned later in 1966 as an infantry officer, went to Europe, spent a couple of years of Special Forces, went back to Vietnam, assigned once again to MACV and my assignment was the, I think I was the, assistant headquarters company commander at Da Nang for the Corps up there. I went to there screamed and hollered, “I am a combat soldier, I am an infantry officer, I got to get out there” and so on and so on and once MACV got its hands on you, they pretty well kept you. I did finally convince a crusty old warrant officer to send me out to an RF/PF as advisor, that was the Regional Force/ Popular Force; it was an advisory position and our headquarters was in Xuan Loc. And we were familiar with that area, spent a lot of time up there, so I advised; the Regional were basically villagers that were militia more or less. I spent several months with that, the Province S-3 [Advisor] left, I took his place. There was a parallel structure there. They had the Vietnamese civilian government and they had a Vietnamese military organization and I was the advisor to the operations officer on the military side. We had a big COORDS influence, we were not too far from Bien Hoa, we used to drive back and forth from Bien Hoa quite often. My impressions of that time was everybody was in sort of a holding pattern maybe. The Vietnamese were…. I beg your pardon?


Audience: When was the second tour?


Logan Fitch: This was in 1968-69. The Vietnamese certainly were not anxious to get out there and tangle. We did have in incursions from time to time from the Viet Cong and certainly time to time from the NVA. There was also an ARVN Division there, I think it was the 40th Division [18th], I am not sure, so we had all kinds of people. We had AID and COORDS there, we had our team which was the Provincial Advisory Team and then we had Advisory teams which were advising the regular South Vietnamese division and by the way, just south of there was headquarters of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment and we conducted joint operations for them from time to time. Tet of 69, I didn’t make Tet of 68 and I am not sorry, but Tet of 69 came along and it was pretty interesting. We did get incursions from, I believe, the 33rd NVA Division. We really beat them up pretty bad with the help of American artillery and air and so on, so it got interesting from time to time. I still wanted to get with an American unit and so I extended my tour essentially, conditional on getting assigned to either the 101st, 5th Special Forces Group or 173rd. I was fortunate enough to go to the 173rd. So I am Commander, B company, Second Battalion, 503rd in I think August or so of 1969. At that time, once again, I think the attitude across the senior leadership in the country was mostly sort of to hunker down and wait things out. This fine combat battalion, fine combat brigade with a lot of history and a lot of glory was running a pacification mission. What did that mean? I had a company headquarters in a small village, I had a platoon in another village, and a platoon in this village and a platoon with me I guess. So for several months there, it was just horrible. We seldom saw any enemy, but the booby traps were eating us alive. I had to travel from one platoon to another and so on, and either go through the rice paddies or on the paddy dikes and the booby traps just ate us alive. The morale was awful. We didn’t have a lot of drug use out there in the field, but if you get back to the Battalion headquarters or Brigade headquarters, At LZ English at Bong Son, there was an awful lot of drug use back there and lot of insubordination. It was a pretty nasty situation. Not too long after that, our battalion deployed up into the An Lao Valley, which was Indian country and things cleaned up pretty good there. We spent most of the time up in that area, some also a little bit south of there; we go into some pretty heavy stuff from time to time and the troops were great out there, but I tell you, you get that same great troop back in the rear and you have problem and one of the biggest problems I had as a company commander was keeping troops in the field. There were times when I dealt with 60 people in a company, in a company, which should have had 130-140-150 people. All my people were still airborne qualified at that time. I think a lot of senior officers, and to me a senior officer was a Battalion Commander, a Lieutenant Colonel or above, were mainly trying to play the CYA game, for example, we would be out in the An Lao Valley, been up there for weeks at a time, eating C-rations, and once every four or five days they would bring in some hot chow and in mermites. Troops got nasty, as we all did, lot of disease, skin disease, leeches and so on, and it is a beautiful place, the An Lao Valley. it is and there are a lot of creeks and rivers through there and so, but we could not be seen. If my Battalion Commander flew over in an helicopter and saw me, I was in trouble, and how the hell the VC or the NVA in the area up in a helicopter looking at us from above, but I could not let my guys take a bath in the river. I did it, of course, but when I got caught, I was in trouble.


Steve Sherman: That’s the An Lao Valley here. [Map Display]


Logan Fitch: Yeah, the An Lao Valley is right here, Steve is pointing out the An Lao Valley. I was there in 1969 and 70, it was a pretty bad place earlier on. The 1st Cav went in there and just got the shit kicked out of it and I remember we would go into combat assault, that area, right up there, we called the “Crows Foot.” You can see those three things and I think that’s the I CTZ border right in there and that was the one time I personally ever got into I Corps. We did a combat assault up in this area and came south. You could fly over that area and you would see where Jack had been and killed all the vegetation and everything with his Ranch Hand Operation, you could see a lot of burned out tank hulls and APC hulls from when the 1st Cav had been in there and it was a bad place and pretty much after that, the An Lao Valley flows down and goes through Bong Son which is north of Qui Nhon which may be a more familiar landmark for some of you, flows into the South China Sea over there. We later conducted some operations south of Bong Son and for some reason, this was in early 1970, it got pretty hot and heavy, not only in that isolated area up in the An Lao Valley, but also closer to the coast and closer to the population centers. We encountered an awful lot of NVA regulars and did a good job, we did a good job when we did encounter them, but again, I think my impression again is sort of that some of the senior officers and maybe the whole mandate was just to sort of keep a low profile and let’s just serve our time and get out and for someone who was all full of piss and vinegar and wanted to get out and mix it up because it was all frustrating at times. Later on, of course, I got a little more of that mixing up than I really wanted or needed, but that pretty much is my story in Vietnam, Steve.


Steve Sherman: All right. Let’s get a short word from the Navy over here and see what is going on out at South China Sea.


Tom Hudner: I guess my closest contact with the war out there was in a carrier. I finished at the Air War College in June of 1963, got orders out to San Diego at Miramar to transition into jets, FA-8 Crusaders that did quite a bit of flying over there. The Navy Crusaders and the Phantoms, the F-4s, that did most of the fighter work and the A-4s and the A-6s did the bombing work.

My eyes got bad before I could even deploy [with a squadron] and I stayed home for about a year and then got orders out to [USS] Kitty Hawk, one of the big carriers, and picked her up in Tonkin Gulf on station in April of 1966. I was first the ship’s navigator and then executive officer.

Ships were deployed [from the States] for about six months, The time on the line then was about 30 days at a time and we’d usually go into Cubi Point in the Philippines at Subic Bay.

The general thing was for about two or three of us carriers, (the first carriers we had out there were Essex class carriers, which were late World War II ships and later the newer big carriers of which Kitty Hawk was one. Kitty Hawk, Constellation, and Independence) would fly 12 hours a day and staggered our operations so we would have 24-hour coverage (over the target areas, as required). Normally we [each carrier] would launch about 80 aircraft throughout the day. We could easily surge up to 100 if we had to. The ordinance they carry was anywhere from 2000 (bombs) to 500 pounds. We had a lot of missile work for the fighters and conventional weapons for the attack aircraft.

We operated probably anywhere between about 40 or 50 miles out at sea, to 125 to 150 miles. We had as many ten aircraft go off at a time. Every hour and a half we had to recycle, that is, every hour and half we turned into the wind to launch a new flight of aircraft and recover those that were already in the air.

Every three or four days, we pulled off the line for the better part of the day to replenish forces to get ammo and fuel. The fuel we got, incidentally, was also conventional fuel for the destroyers that we had with us.

We had just finished up a tour on the line of just about 30 days at the end of January [1968]. Within a day of the time when we would go back to the Philippines , Tet broke out. We stayed out there for a couple of days longer, then had to go back home, that is, go back into port for a couple of days. We rushed back to the Philippines then sent our A-6s [back] out [to Vietnam]. A-6s were [sent back out because they were] a very capable aircraft for the ordnance they carried with the electronics equipment they had. Probably one of the most significant things the A-6s did for the other aircraft was they were great radar busters, and they had pretty long-range missiles, so that once they heard that a missile was warming up to be fired, A-6s would fire at them which sort of sanitized the area for awhile.

A ship would be out for about a year’s cycle: deploy [to WestPac] from either San Diego or Whidbey Island, which is not too far from Seattle, Washington, and stay there for six months, then come back home. For the five months remaining in the year, we did a lot of work on the ship, got new aircraft, trained the pilots coming in, and then start the same thing over again six months later -- deploy to WestPac.

I left in April of 1968. I went from there to the Joint Staff [in the Pentagon] and was in Air Operations for Southeast Asia and was in on a lot of the planning. One of [the operations] was for destroying the anti-air sites up on North Vietnam which were firing at our aircraft directly in contradiction of some agreements we had, and we spent weeks planning on dropping those anti-air sites. At the same time the operation went off, we heard about a lot of activity going on -- helicopter activity. We found out that the Son Tay operation was being planned exactly the same time as ours was. We didn’t even know what the other was doing, and ours was a complete failure [1] in that the weather was too bad to see the targets. As everybody knows about Son Tay, the only good thing about it was it was a tremendous morale booster to the people who were in prison. But, that’s about it I think.


Steve Sherman: All right. Mike Benge?


Michael Benge: Well, unlike all of you here, I went to Vietnam as a civilian after doing tour in the Marine Corps as an aviation metalsmith and I went to Vietnam with an organization called International Voluntary Services that was a forerunner of the Peace Corps. The letter of acceptance that I received from them said, “You are going to build up a great nest egg for your future.” We were getting $77.10 month. I spent most of my time in the Central Highlands working with the Montagnards, ethnic minority groups of Malayo-Polynesian and Mon Khmer descent, akin to the Native Americans here in the US. I was an education and agricultural advisor and we were building elementary schools in villages throughout the province. I was assigned to Darlac Province in a place called Ban Me Thuot. Those of you who will know where Pleiku was a little more, oh there we go. [Map Display]

For those of you know where Pleiku is, Ban Me Thuot is just to the south and Darlac province borders Cambodian on the west. I covered the whole province, all the way over to the Cambodian border, north up to the border of Pleiku province, south to Quan Duc and east to Khanh Hoa province. I even got over into Cheo Reo on a flood relief operation.

Probably one of my better qualifications was that of a cumshaw artist; I was very good at it. I used to go down to Saigon, and found out that USOM (United States Overseas Mission, now called the United States Agency for International Development) had a lot of warehouses full of all kinds of goodies, and Ilicanos from the Philippines ran all the warehouses. I spoke a little Ilicano and I would go up to the warehouse guy and say to him, “Mnong, casino ti biag?” which basically translates out to, “Hello, older brother, how are you?” Hell, after that, they would let me have anything in the warehouse.

I provided civic action support to Special Forces camps, materials to a technical vocational school for ethnic minorities and to an agricultural extension team, and to anyone else who might make use of all kinds of good things in the warehouses that didn’t seem to get out into field. After my raid on the warehouses, I’d then go to Catholic Relief Services; they were always good for a soft touch, and I would ask them, “Hey, you have anything that you need to go to Ban Me Thuot?” They might answer, “Oh, yeah, we have got a couple of caskets of altar wine that we can't get up, because the roads are closed.” And I said, “Good, You can assign them to Mike, Ban Me Thuot, and label them as liquid soap.” “I’d then say, “Oh, by the way, I don’t have a truck or any laborers to get these and some other items I picked up out to the airport; can you guys do me?” And they would answer, “Yeah.”, and so they would give me a truck and laborers. Then I would call Air America, I had the operations number for the CIA aircraft, and say, “Hi, this is Mike from Ban Me Thuot, I have got about 8000 pounds to go, can you do me?” And they would say, “Yeah, be out on runway so and so Tuesday morning at 6 o’clock so we can load the airplane.” We’d load the plane and fly to Ban Me Thuot and offload the supplies, and I would just sign the manifest as “Mike from Ban Me Thuot.“ It was as easy as that.

Well, this went on for much of my two years with IVS and just about at the end of my tour, I was wondering what I was going to do next. I was down in Saigon one day and went over to USOM. They had a special Rural Affairs unit that was pretty darn innovative, and was doing some great civic action and pacification work out in provinces. General Ed Lansdale, who many of you may have known was with the CIA, had worked with President Magsaysay in the Philippines and had put down the Huk Communist revolution. Another guy working in Rural Affairs was Colonel “Sam” Wilson, who was later promoted to General and became the head of DIA. He headed the pacification program in the big province right below Saigon.

Anyway, I walked into USOM Rural Affairs office and this guy hollers at me and said, “Hey, Mike, come in here, we have got a problem.” I walked in and the guy says, “Mike, we got a call from CIA the other day. It seems like you have been stealing their aircraft for the last year and a half.” And I said, “I don’t know what you are talking about.” “Whoever told that is a big liar.” “Oh, I may have borrowed a few, but I always gave them back.” The guy then said, “Well, looks like there are three options.” And I said, “What are they?” He replied, “Well, number one is, the CIA could prosecute you but that might be a little embarrassing for them.” “Number two is, the CIA thinks that you are pretty innovative and probably wants to hire you.” “Number three is, we think you are pretty damn innovative and we would like to hire you.” And I said, “I will take number three option, where is the contract?” He hollers to the guy across the hall to bring over the contract. I signed on with USOM.

I went back to the U.S. for a short time and returned in March of ’65 and was assigned as the Prov. Rep. up in Kontum Province. After turning over to the Vietnamese about 5 kg of opium that we had scared up from an airdrop it disappeared into the system. No too long after that, I reported a big rice scandal that was happening in the Province. All at once, I was replaced by a ex-CIA guy that USOM had hired. The CIA had actually kicked him out for he was a little whacked out. We had a few differences so it was either I would end up punching him out or I would be transferred, so I asked for a transfer. I was then assigned to Phu Yen Province for a short period of time and was the assistant Prov Rep working for a Filipino-American, who had actually carried the message from the Philippines down to McArthur in to Australia informing him that the resistance was organized in the Philippines. I worked in Phu Yen for a while and ended up flying a couple of missions with Ranch Hand while there.

I took a break and went to Saigon for a little R&R and I popped into a bar for a beer. It was dark in the bar and after sitting down at the bar and ordering a beer, I heard a voice that I thought I recognized. I looked over and the guy sitting on the other side of the bar turned out to be a guy I went to high school with. The high school was in a very small town and had only 45 kids total, both guys and girls. I played right guard on the football team and he was right end. I hollered at him and said, “Jesus, this is unbelievable.” He was flying C-123s for Mule Train, one of the first Air Force cargo units in Vietnam. I ended up flying around with him for a week.

I had a bad habit of getting shot at on my birthdays and don’t ask me why. While in Phu Yen on my birthday, we had a mission to air drop USIAChieu Hoi” [crossover] leaflets, and a plane load of dignitaries had come up from Saigon to witness the drop. We went up in a C-47 and this fool, this Air America pilot was doing slow circles over this area that had been under VC/Communist control since Ho Chi Minh was a kid. There we were, a great big target flying in slow circles and everybody cut loose firing at us. There were flack jackets on board and I hollered, “Everybody put on their flack jackets.” Everybody was putting on the flack jackets and I took mine and wrapped it around the family jewels and sat back down. Everybody on the airplane was looking at me like, what in hell am I doing, and all the time I was making gestures with my hand pointing up. All at once they realized that rounds were coming up, and they hurriedly took off their flack jackets and sat on them. We took 27 hits before I told the pilot, “let’s get of here” and we did.

I was then transferred to Ban Me Thuot because I was known to the Montagnards and I had lived with them and learned their language. I became the Provincial Representative there. I was the advisor to the Province Chief. I advised him on everything except CIA (intel) and military matters. I had an agreement with the Province Chief that there would be no free fire zones, and we both had to first clear all bombings in the province. I got a lot of air time, and flew a lot in L-19s to check out reports of things that had been sighted but the military didn’t know what it was. Again, being a cumshaw artist, I developed a very good relationship with the folks at the two companies of 155 Aviation Helicopters. They knew that I had a warehouse full of cement and roofing, so they asked me if I could give them some to build an officers club. Although USOM wasn’t supposed to support the American military, I told them I’d make them a trade. I had a bunch of Montagnard refugees who weren’t doing anything, so I would set up a manual skills training program to build the club, but they would have to hire a Vietnamese carpenter and brick mason to train the refugees, and pay everyone. It worked and we built both an officers and an EM club and some other projects, and I got their reserve helicopter when ever I needed one. We all made out.

So I had my experiences and USOM that became part of a larger CORDS (Combined Operations Rural Development Support) multi-agency/military organization and I became the senior civilian CORDS representative. As such, I had responsibility for the District Military Advisors; a MILPHAP unit (military medical assistance program) with 35 Army guys; a military civic action unit; eight civilian nurses who taught at a training school for Montagnard nurses and they also worked at the hospital; and a number of people working in other disciplines such as education and agriculture. All total, I was responsible for 75 Americans, and a staff of about 120 locals, mainly Montagnards but some Vietnamese.

In Tet of 1968, the town got overrun from three different areas. The next morning, our landline was still open to Province headquarters. I called up and talked to the American Senior MACV Advisor, the advisor to the Province chief. He was supposed to be over me, but because he was only in town for about six months, the Province Chief had him reporting to me in order to get an appointment to see the Province Chief. I asked him, “What in the hell’s happening?” He gave me a brief on the security situation and I said, “Let’s see evacuate all the civilians out of here.” He replied, “Well, I don’t know where my man is”, so I said, “OK, I am going to order an evacuation and call Nha Trang for an aircraft to come in for the pickup.” I then began going around, rounding everybody up sending them to my house. We were still taking a few heavy rounds and some small arms fire. I got hold of the Army guys and told them, “You guys are back in the army, go to the MACV compound and draw weapons.” and then continued going around rounding everybody up. I then went down into the middle of a North Vietnamese battalion and tried to rescue four young IVS kids who were living in a house down in a village on the outskirts of town. I got all the way down in the village and there were NVA running around shooting going on. I got to the house, met their housekeeper and she said, “Oh, they left two days ago.” I said, “Oh shit, thanks for telling me,” so I E&E’d back out and got up to my rig. There was a missionary compound up on the hill behind me. I didn’t want to drive around and try to get up into it because I would have trapped myself, so I got up on my rig, for I was at hollering distant, I yelled, “Hey you guys, come on up to my house by noon. I got an aircraft coming in for evacuation.” They were all going like this (waving me on) at me and I thought, “Well, these independent guys, they didn’t want to be evacuated; to hell with them.” I got down off my rig, and found out that they were watching 13 NVA come up a ditch toward me. I was only carrying a five shot police positive in a shoulder holster. These guys all at once popped up pointing guns at me. I was always very good in mathematics, 5 into 13 just ain’t cutting it and especially since they had to a B40 rocket launcher pointed at my vehicle I was in. They said, “Surrender, huruemane and renient treatment.” I happened to get captured by the NVA Psywar squad. They actually believed that I was going to get humane and lenient treatment, but it was so surrealistic because the squad leader had this Vietnamese hair cut at a 45 degree angle that was hanging down in his eyes and he had a little Hitler mustache. I said, “Shit, this guy is Hitler, where and the hell am I?”

Thus, I, like John Steinbeck, I too had my travels with Charlie. I think I am the one with the real dog -- Victor Charlie that is. There were two missionaries captured after me. I was captured by the North Vietnamese. When I first got captured they began talking to me and tried to convince me that they were VC. I said, “Why are you wearing North Vietnamese uniforms?” And they said, “Well, you know, we are really provincial people.” and I replied, “Then why do you speak North Vietnamese?” Then they said, “No, no, Vietnamese is all one language.” And I said, “Bullshit., you are speaking North Vietnamese.” I then threw some South Vietnamese terms at them and they couldn’t answer, replying in North Vietnamese, and I said, “Yeah, let’s play this game.”

That’s the way it went over the next 12 months, I was down in South Vietnam, and moved about once a month. We were being moved after the first month and walking along this ridge, saw North Vietnamese troops funneling down in this valley into a field of tall “elephant grass”. It looked like one of those cartoons, where all the ants are pouring down into it. All at once, there was an L-19 that popped over the ridge, he lays the plane over and looks right at me. I am looking right into the guy’s face. He wags his wings at us, turns around and went back. All at once comes in the fast-movers and they drop napalm in the valley, and I will tell you what, that was one giant barbeque. I don’t know how many NVA that they barbecued, but they set that field of grass on fire and I will tell you what, that was really some cooking going on there.

I was captured on the 28th of January 1968. Supposedly I was the first prisoner of war captured during the TET offensive. In July, this one missionary died. He contacted pneumonia because they left us all out in the cold rain while they were in a nice warm cave. They chained to poles and gave us only a small piece of plastic for shelter. The NVA brought a medical team in and examined and they said, yeah, “He has got pneumonia all right.” The camp cadre asked them, “Well, what prescription are you going to give him? And they replied, “Let him die.” And that is what happened; they ended up letting the guy die.

In November of that year, the lady ran out of juice and we told our prison chasers that we weren’t going any further. Actually, their orders were that we were we going to Hanoi. They said, “You know, we will kill you.” and I replied, “No, you can't kill us because you are under orders, and your ass will be grass with Uncle Ho because you are a bunch of bureaucrats.” They were locking and loading and had their AK’s up to our heads, and she said, “It isn’t up to you to decide when we die, it is up to God and you have no power over this.” These guards looked at us, “Dinky Dau!” (you are crazy as hell), but they did back off until the next day. We hadn’t had anything to eat, we were about five weeks, been traveling on a ball of rice with little salt. She was just totally wore out, so I told them that she had to have some food so she get enough strength to go. Well, they cooked up a very sumptuous meal the very next day for us, but a good part of it was bamboo shoots, which you have to boil them twice to get rid of the prussic acid. We were in deteriorated condition and that was just like poison. They knew what they were doing, they had been eating bamboo all their lives and they poisoned us. She died, took her three days to die and they would not let me feed or wash her or anything. They just said, “She has to go.” I later found out that the rules were, according to them, that they could kill you if you tried to escape, or if you died of natural causes it was OK. And that was a natural cause when they poisoned her and she died.

They moved me over into a camp in Cambodia, Ratanakiri Province. That was way before the US ever went into Cambodia. I was there for one year in a cage along with 12 other POWs. They then moved me up through Laos and I was in Laos in a hospital camp there for about three weeks. They then moved me all the way up to Hanoi, going through a Pass where we were getting bombed by jets that were coming out of Udorn. We were riding in the back of one of these big Russian Euclid trucks that they were using to repair the road. The driver was bombed, totally bombed, on marijuana; about every 15 minutes he would pull off side the road and toke up and off we would go again. We were bouncing off the walls in the back of the truck. They unloaded us into some anti-aircraft caves when the jets came in and the whole anti-aircraft crews were bombed out of their minds. You know, they didn’t want to really get killed either, which was interesting. They finally offloaded in the Hanoi, put me in an ambulance with a red cross on it that had been given to them by the Europeans and took me to a camp 35 klicks southwest of Hanoi. I spent one year in what I call a black box; a room that was about 7 feet long and about 4 feet wide with walls painted black. The only air hole in it was a little slot just big to let the rats in to come and just chew on me at nighttime. A couple of times a week they would let me out to empty my defecation bucket and that was it. I spent one year there, one year in a cage down in Cambodia, and a total of 27 months in solitary confinement.

After the Son Tay raid, they moved us out of this camp up in to the main part of Hanoi, and I spent one year there. I wrote an article called ‘The Christmas Lights in the Hanoi’ when the B52s came in, they knew exactly where our camps were. We used to have a recce do a fly by about once a week; he came right up the railroad tracks, pop his afterburner, and let us know they knew where we were. They leveled three sides of our camp. We were in this long room where they had moved us after the first bombing. We had to dig a trench down the middle of it to get in it during the air raids, and I will tell you this room wasn’t that long, I forget how many paces it was, but that trench would zigzag during the bombing. That is how close that they were; once killing a bird right in front of my room. The guards were scared shitless. They were nowhere to be found and we were in there, cheering like hell.

There were a lot of myths about what happened that I won’t get into, but the North Vietnamese had signed the Geneva conventions on the treatment of POWs. We were all tortured, but the guys from the South weren’t tortured as much as the pilots shot down in the North, but we had our own hell. A couple of the SF guys got it real bad; Dennis Thompson did; he was captured at Long Vei, I think. The Cubans had 20 Americans that they tortured, and I mean it was brutal torture, some of the worse torture in Vietnam. It was called the “Cuban Program.” Since then, I identified one of them, the leader of the torture who is now the Minister of Education in Cuba.

Recently, I saw Senator Biden on television and he said, “Oh, you know, the only thing that keeps our prisoners from being tortured is that we signed the Geneva Convention and we have to follow it.” I say, “Horse pucky.” But anyway, we were moved after the Christmas bombing, put in the infamous Hanoi Hilton. We were kept separate of the pilots. We were in a different part of the compound there and although I did hear about the signing of the Paris agreements over the Vietnamese radio, they didn’t inform us like they were supposed to. Col. Ted Guy, an Air Force pilot, supposedly captured in Laos but he wasn’t, was my camp commander. He and I cut off all our hair right at the last. It very much upset the Vietnamese because that is a sign that we were being punished or had lice, or were crazy, and of course, we never had any of that. The Colonel and I got locked up in solitary confinement. I was the one that instigated after I found out that the Vietnamese gave a couple of the other guys hell for getting “high and tight” haircuts. Guy and I spent the last week at Hanoi strapped down to a concrete bed. Guy was in a cell over on the other side of the isle and he yelled, “Benge, you son of a bitch, we will never get out of here.” I told him, “Don’t worry Ted, I told them that Nixon was going to come back and bomb them back into the Stone Age; they are going to let us out.” Everybody else was gone out of the prison, deadly silent and Guy is over there. “Are you sure? Benge, you son of a bitch.” They finally came in and unstrapped us, threw us in a dark room gave us some clothes and out we went.

I was released in March of 1973, went back to the US for a short period of time, and I was asked by the Minister of Ethnic Minorities in Vietnam to go back over and help him. I paid my way, went back over to Vietnam, and I was in and out of there until the fall of Vietnam to the Communists in 1975. I was in the Philippines at the time and I was actually trying to catch a flight back in on what I didn’t know was the last aircraft that was going into Ton Son Nhut. I was trying to get on the plane a General said, “No freaking way you are getting on this aircraft.” I then said, “I need to go back to evacuate some of my friends.” and he replied, “No, you are not.” If I saw him today, I would kiss him, because I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for him, for I wouldn’t have never come back out. Thank you.



Steve Sherman: [I’m turning it over to] Jim McLeroy. Do we have Joe Parnar here?


Joe Parnar: Yeah, I didn’t know I was supposed to do.


Jim McLeroy: Well, that’s great, but we had you down there.


Joe Parnar: Right. I was only in the military for two years and eight months. Went through the Special Forces training after Airborne AIT when they tested us and graduated as a medic in early December of 1967. Out of my class of 45 medics, all of us volunteered for Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam, I Corps, II Corps, III Corps, or any combination thereof and not one of us got assigned to Vietnam. I was assigned to the 7th [Special Forces Group] with a bunch of other people and I bided my time there. Thanks to the blessings of Mrs. Alexander, I was able to get to Vietnam in April of ‘68 and when I got to Vietnam, I found out that my security clearance for Secret, at least an Interim Secret, was lagging. So I spent about four weeks in Nha Trang, working in the transient billets in the arms room, taking everybody’s weapons, so they wouldn’t shoot up the compound and it was about the middle of May, the 10th of May I think it was, we went to Da Nang, we were briefed down. I was assigned to CCC in Kontum. Basically as a medic at CCC, my job consisted of one day working in the dispensary and maybe doing sick call, doing malaria work in the lab, the next day I would fly Chase Medic. The Chase Medic’s job was basically to ride on one of the insertion or extraction ships that was designated the Chase Ship and we carried a backup PRC-25 radio in case a team had a radio go bad, we could swap with them. We also used that initially, back in May of ‘68 when we would get to Dak To where we launched from, we had no permanent facilities there. We would go up on a daily basis. We would launch the teams and then go back to Kontum in the evening; that changed later on. And one of the things a medic would do would be monitor the radio because when the helicopters would shut down, so would their radios, so the Covey pilot would call into the medic at that time and tell you to launch the assets and then we would go and launch or extract our teams. I don’t know, do they have a map at all of out in Laos? Probably not, I guess it would be steep, where we were launching ammunitions into was the tri-border area where Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam join up. We were going in, if I had to say, The farthest I ever saw us going with a recon mission, it was about 20 miles. There was a river out there called, I think it was the Dak Xou.


Steve Sherman: It all depends on what the name was.


Joe Parnar: Yeah, I think they had a different name for river in Laos and they did, so when you look at today’s map it does not say Dak, it says another word or something; I never was good in languages over there, but anyway I was able to fly Chase for about a month and my initial impressions were that nothing happened. I would fly one day, somebody else would fly the next day and they would come back saying, oh, our ship got shot up.

[Map Display] Okay, there is Kontum where our home base was. Daily we would fly up to Dak To here and then launch our missions out along this area. Is it possible to get further west on this? I can kind of show you where we were. There’s is Dak To, Ben Het should be maybe a little bit up north here and along this river here is where we were launching a lot of our missions. There were two branches of the Ho Chi Minh trail that came down through the Highway 96 and Highway 110.


Michael Benge: Right in that area, the road right up there, we were held in the camp right there.


Joe Parnar: Is that right?


Michael Benge: Yeah, right in that little tri-border area you know.


Joe Parnar: Where are we? We have to get back in this area. Yeah. That was a good one, right there. Okay.


Steve Sherman: right over there, you see that hump where Cambodia is?


Joe Parnar: Where in this area?


Unidentified Audience Member:: Down below the board, down, get a little further to the left now. Right down in that area.


Joe Parnar: Are we in this area here?


Unidentified Audience Member:Yeah, they have the _____.


Joe Parnar: Oh, okay, but anyway our missions went, the farthest I ever saw us do a mission was, boy, I am not familiar with the map that much, but we never got out to Attapou here. We were generally restricted right along in this area here as far as we went, and then we would go up north as far as landmark called Dollar Lake and there was an open area called the Golf Course.


Unidentified Audience Member: _____


Joe Parnar: Did you? And south we went down into Cambodia ways. Initially when I first got to Vietnam at CCC in May 1968, Command and Control Central. We were part of Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Observations Group and it started out as Special Operations Group, but some genius decides it is special operations, may be they will figure they are doing something special, so, by changing it to “studies,” we became bookworms I guess. But Chase was basically riding on a helicopter as a chase medic and if a team member was wounded on the ground, there was a good chance your ship was going to go in and make the extraction and then we would give first aid on the way back to generally the medical facility run by the 4th division at Dak To and on rare occasions, some of the medics would go to Pleiku. I personally never went to Pleiku. I wanted to get anybody wounded to the nearest doctor I could. Unlike a lot of the Special Forces medics, I never felt like I was really a doctor. So, to me, getting them to a real doctor’s hands, keep them alive, that was kind of my philosophy was to make sure no sure nobody died on me. That was my biggest fear in Vietnam -- not getting shot -- it was that I was going to have one of my patients die and feel responsible for it.

I spent three months on a recon team. I begged, pleaded, didn’t do anything nasty or make any offers to do anything like today the men marry men, I didn’t offer to do that to anybody to get on recon, but I did get on recon. I felt that I would be nothing, but more than like a cook or something like that, support people being a medic. I wanted on recon. I got on for three months. That was a waste of the Army’s time really, because I got trained; I was green, I got trained on walkout practice missions, we did do one mission out in the Plei Trap valley, which is out near Cambodia. That was a good mission, we found an enemy bivouac area, but I really wasted time because I got trained and I had flip flopped with another medic that was on recon. He wanted off, they said you can go on for three months, but it was a waste because I got trained, was ready to go across the border and I had to go back to being a medic again. But I will tell you the glamour of recon had left, after three to five practice missions. I only weighed about 160 pounds back then and carrying 85 pounds on my back, I used to feel like my sternum was going to separate. So I did get my recon experience.

About the end of September of 68, I got transferred back to the dispensary, and as a medic we got to go out on some, what we called, SLAM operations. They were company size operations in Laos. When a recon team would find a suitable target or they would find anti-aircraft guns, they had put in a company; it was about 110 people maybe they had put in.


Unidentified Audience Member: _____


Joe Parnar: Well, they are usually each squad. They were Montagnards mostly when I was there. Each squad had an American squad leader and the company commander; each platoon had an American in command of the squad. So there was maybe 12 to 15 Americans on one of these.


Unidentified Audience Member: Yeah, I know a friend of mine _____.


Joe Parnar: Yeah, a lot of the SLAM companies did not have a medic assigned to them. So as a medic in the dispensary, when a SLAM would come up, one of us medics would go out with the SLAM company. You never really knew many of the people there, so you just went along. But I will tell you the Americans, I swear that mostly the Americans would rather they got shot than the medic, and I really got that feeling; you know you would go out to get a wounded person and they were watching you like you were their pet canary or something like that. They did not want you to die, maybe they felt that you could keep them alive if they got shot, but I really got that impression that they really watched out for us medics out there. There were some tremendous people. Also, we would get to go out with smaller units. They called them Hatchet platoons, about 30-35 men and many times they didn’t have a medic on those either, so we would get assigned to go out with those. So those were our field operations, but most of that was either working in the dispensary; we got a lot of diseases, to contend with like malaria was one of the big things, and we learnt how to do blood smears and look for malaria, and so it was quite an experience and I will tell you, I wish I had appreciated the people I served with better when I was in. I didn’t realize, but those were the best friends that I was ever going to have. They weren’t the type of people who would stab you in the back, like many times in civilian life happens. But that was pretty much what it was like being a medic, a support person, but after getting my experience on recon I realized that support people can be very important too. So that’s about what my experience was like with CCC.



James McLeroy: OK, I’ll make mine short. My name is Jim McLeroy. I went to I Corps in 1967 and was assigned to a Special Forces A-team, A-104, at Ha Thanh in Quang Ngai Province. I was the executive and civil action officer, and the team leader was a tall, young captain named Hugh Shelton, who later became the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In 1968 I volunteered for SOG and was assigned to CCN FOB 4 at Marble Mountain outside Danang as the assistant S-3 launch officer. It was a new FOB, and no one there knew how to do that complex job, so they sent me down to FOB 2 at CCC outside Kontum to learn it. Kontum was the big FOB where most of the action was happening then. FOB 1 at Phu Bai near Hue was a relatively small operation, and FOB 3 at Khe Sanh was no longer functioning as a cross-border launch base, so I spent a couple of months down at Kontum working with the S-3, Major Terry Ryan, and his assistant S-3 launch officer, Ken Etheredge, who was a good friend of mine from Basic, AIT, OCS, and Ranger school. They trained me by letting me observe their operations in detail. I attended their team and pilot briefings and observed their inserts and extractions from the back seat of another FAC plane that flew along with them, while I studied the maps and monitored the ground and airborne radios. After I learned how to do it, we set up the FOB 4 launch site at a remote Special Forces camp on the Laotian border of I Corps named Kham Duc. It had been SOG’s first launch site in 1965, but they moved it to Phu Bai the next year, because the weather was so unpredictable and bad for visual flying. It was constantly socked in there and was about the worst place for a SOG launch site. We ran a few missions out of there until May of 68, when it was attacked by two reinforced regiments of the 2nd NVA Division for three days and two nights. If the weather had not miraculously cleared up during those days, which is very uncharacteristic there at that time of year, we would not have been able to get out of there, but we just barely did in the biggest air evacuation of the war. One of the pilots got the Medal of Honor there, but in a nutshell, it was a very, very big and risky operation.


Unidentified Audience Member: Bernie Fisher?

James McLeroy: No, that was at the A Shau Special Forces camp in 1966. This was a C-123 pilot named Joe Jackson. But there were many, many stories of incredible heroism, as well as blunders and other things that I could go into, but I don’t want to take up other people’s time, so just suffice it to say that we barely got out of there by the skin of our teeth on the afternoon of Mothers’ Day, 1968 on the last C-130. The very last aircraft out was a CH-47 with LTC Schungel and his command group that came out about ten minutes after we left. One of the bad things about it is that there were more US MIA’s from that battle than from any other battle of the entire American Phase of the Second Indochina War. An Americal battalion was sent out there to reinforce us, and the Battalion Commander was incompetent. He put little squads on the hilltop outposts surrounding us, and of course they were just overrun by the NVA and captured or killed. Only one of those who were captured survived, a private named Julius Long, and he was a POW from 68 to 73. Did you know about him?


Mike Benge: Yeah.


James McLeroy: He was in Laos for several years as a POW before they sent him up to Hanoi, and he nearly died several times. I interviewed him; he lives in the mountains of western Virginia now. I went back to Kham Duc in 1998 with a casualty recovery team of the US Joint Task Force for Full Accounting to try to assist in locating the remains of the MIA’s there. The NVA attacked Ngok Tavak at the same time they attacked us, and there were some US MIA’s left behind there, too. I don’t know if it shows up on this map or not, but Ngok Tavak was about five miles south of Kham Duc. It was a little, abandoned French outpost right about there. I could go on and on about what happened there, but I don’t want to take up too much time, so maybe we can talk more about it later, if anyone wants to ask any questions. It was quite a story, but I think in the interest of fairness, I’ll just summarize with that. John, would you like to come up? You’re next, and your story is quite a bit more interesting than mine.


John Cavaiani: I am John Cavaiani, and I was a medic when I went to Vietnam. I have been right up in _____ as well. I got there and Sergeant Major Adrian Rodriguez grabs hold of me and, “come in, we are going to talk about your assignment.” I walk in and I am looking at him and my aspirations _____ came and I end up becoming the agricultural advisor and veterinarian for I Corp.

Delivered about 16 children, a lot more pigs, chicken, cows and the other kind of stuff. I basically worked the CA side of the house. I worked a lot with the Montagnards, lived up with the Montagnards, had an adopted son and he was one of the Sergeant Major’s, a Vietnamese Sergeant Major that I operated with up in I Corp and outside in Nong Son, I cannot remember, and I started an orphanage up down below Nong Sun. Had seven monks, they had about 37 kids plus my adopted son and I was apparently very successful in my area running all the stuff and Charlie decided I shouldn’t be there any more, so they killed six of my monks, 18 of the kids and then chopped my son up in pieces and said, “Tell, Bac Si John to stay out of the area.” So I kind of changed my opinion on North Vietnamese, whoever was just passing me by and I was perfectly happy with it, I loved what I did and so I did a couple of operations on my own. When I would go out into the areas, I would get an arm band and I had see North Vietnamese that walked by in Minet but I was treating as many are there, water buffalo for rinderpest, because they were South Vietnamese sympathizers. So they decided, well, we are thinking of sending John back to States and Colonel Hayes, says, “no, I think you ought to send him down the road to a place called CCN.” So I went to Command and Control North, went down to 1-0 School, came back, ran Anaconda with Keith Kincaid. Our primary mission was interdictions of Routes 922 and 9222, interdiction of different trials coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail complex and the biggest problem in the areas was that the Air Force should come in and seed the given area with either Mark 5s or other types of ordinance with delay in acoustics and all these different metallic detonation characteristics, and so we were getting ready to go into an area and I went in on my first mission; I had a couple of guys who I was attempting to carry a Montagnard, never saw him, but they would shoot up, but come back in, and one of the Sergeant Majors, can't _____ I did not exactly, I never fired my weapon, therefore I didn’t do something right. And I saved both my Montagnards’ lives, got them back to the hospital. I was only one praying to go back on the ground, and did you find 922?


Steve Sherman: No.


John Cavaiani: X-Ray Delta, a little bit up there in X-Ray Delta. It was a complex trail that came down and what would happen after they would go into all these different Mark type bombs with the devices, Charlie would have to re-route. So I picked up through some aerial image and area there at that time was specifically a cart trail and barely even a cart trail, that had actually gone in and did a circle. When I started looking at the pictures, the problems were that I saw a Russian helicopter, I saw a lot of things that your imagery people just did not have the time to look for when you are talking large mapping areas and I said, “this is where they are going to come through” and sure as hell we get there, they built an all weather road. I am talking timbers underneath and then building a surface on top of it, lots of rock baskets so when the Air Force comes in and blows up the road, they go filled it with rocks and dirt on top of them, it is filled in 45 minutes. I operated there and finally there was this guy who was going to be taking over Anaconda that I personally didn’t want to operate with, that was just me, and that was a choice that we had. I went down starting plotting all the bombing raids that were coming in in the TOC and the old man tried to get me in my commission, got me in my commission to Captain, I turned it down because the only thing permanent in Special Forces were non commissioned officers; nobody else goes back to their basic branch. The old man was kind of pissed. He said, “Well, then, you are taking over command of Hickory anyway.” So I went up there, I had Captain Belarski, had a number of other guys up on the hill with me and we got hit by a reinforced regiment. I had one young man, a very atypical big kid, heavy, coke bottle glasses, rather slovenly looking and that and I put him in for the Medal of Honor. Kid had had a set of cojones you couldn’t have carried in a wheel barrow. Finally got overran. Got most all of my people out. I had 17 people. Here comes the problem in a war that you have a little black square in a general officer’s AO. My citation reads “due to inclement weather and blah, blah, blah, no more helicopters.” Commander of the 101st, General Barry, decides he didn’t like that little black square and he was going to make an attempt. He went back channels when Heavy Hook launched CH-46 to come in and get us, he got to the border and the pilot got told to put his aircraft on the ground, or he would never fly again. Spent two years in North Vietnam because of that. Unfortunately, that’s the way it went. Petty jealousies at SOG, CCN, never used the 101st again and that was the primary reason why. I got back, I never confronted him, I have seen General Barry, but I have never confronted him. What I hated most about Vietnam was the fact the situation with the Montagnards. I think it was disgraceful, what our nation did and not accepting more and getting more of our Montagnards to support their guys. Vietnamese govt. still considers them “moi” which basically means “savage.” Donohue has done a lot of great work, going in and medical supplies. Not now, he has reached the point where the Vietnamese government won’t let him in any more, still able will go back in, get medical supplies, dig wells, provide water buffalo and got him to where they were able to have started in the coffee production. Unfortunately the Vietnamese government does not allow them to sell to anybody except themselves. It is needless to say the Montagnards aren’t even going to make any money of coffee either. Thank you.


Steve Sherman: I think what we will do is take a short break now, but we really haven’t done nearly justice to this topic in any way. Since we didn’t get our token Marine in here, I am going to give him five minutes to fly…

[Audio/Video Break]

R. J Del Vecchio: Overall the Marine Corp lost, I am trying to think, 6, 8, or 9 photographers [note: turns out the total is 12, all photographers] and correspondents in Vietnam including one of the guys in one of these pictures, who was my best friend. In fact, Gus Hasford, who wrote the book that was the background for ‘Full Metal Jacket,’ was a correspondent and, if you ever see the movie, the main character, Joker, is the guy Gus Hasford thinks he was. Not quite, and Gus is dead now, unfortunately. He drank himself under all the way, did a great job. If you have seen that movie, at the very end of the movie, the Joker is saved from the Vietnamese [Communist] woman sniper by the little character who hung around him during the trip, the photographer. That photographer in real life was a guy named Charles Pennington, who was a good friend of mine. After I was wounded, he went out on assignment to Khe Sanh without me and didn’t come back, unfortunately, and he is in one of these pictures here.

Anyhow, what we would do is, when we went out to the field, we’d get a call, somebody, actually the OIC of the photo unit would get a call saying, hey, the 7th Marines are having some kind of a slugfest at such and such a place and then we would get issued a Nikon F and a bunch of rolls of films and we were told, get down there and work with the guys. We had these permanent travel orders at the Division Photolab that let us go anywhere in I Corps. That little dot is a grenade in the sky that he is throwing into a tree line. The NVA broke and ran and these guys are following up on them and this whole sequence here; some of these are in the National Archives, and you’ll see them in some books on Vietnam. These guys are following up. I am running up behind them. It was kind of a damp day. That was September ‘68. At the end, they just stood at the edge of field, the fog came in and the sniper and the machine gun were picking off the last couple of NVA they could get.

That’s me at China Beach on a good day. That’s just thrown in there because the Marines have to have a flag and a couple of guys in procession somewhere. (That is actually downtown Raleigh where we have a ceremony every month.) This thing here real quick, there was an arclight in the area. You could see that there are craters in the back, we were crawled in there, that is John Charles Pennington, the guy who died later. And somebody tripped a booby trap and they sent in this chopper to get him. They couldn’t come over the mountain, it was apparently too high up. So this guy brought this CH-46 down this long narrow valley, it was like 6 feet of clearance on either side of the rotor blades, stopped, picked this guy up, did this very slow careful turn, and went back down and it is one of my interesting shots in that I didn’t usually get to take pictures of the helicopter looking down, as I did in the beginning of this one.

But anyhow, we worked with the units and I worked with a variety of Marine units, starting in, the first combat was in February ‘68, went up to Hue towards the end of that battle, was involved with some other operations in the summer. I was wounded in May. The black and white combat sheet, the ones that you saw; I finished that black and white roll film and this one right here and proceeded to put a color roll of film in and a lot of other stuff happened and it got very, very messy at one point. First, I got slowed down because, and it took our side to do it. A tank ran over my foot, okay, and then I couldn’t run anywhere near as fast after that. So I got up on one elbow, to take a picture because there were gooks in the tree line and, you never saw a gook, you seldom actually saw a gook. And so as soon as they said ‘gooks in the trees,’ I got up on one elbow to take a picture and the bullet came in from the other side of the crossfire smacking into my hand, smacking into the camera and sent it flying and I said something like, ‘oh shit.’

Actually the funny part, a quick historical note, two years ago, I was invited to a Marine Corps Reunion which happened to be outside of DC. I had been looking for my pictures and what happened after, in the summer of ‘80 is that, somebody in the national government said, we have got Marine Corps Archives, the Air Force Archives, we have the Army Archives; we are not to have any more; we are going to have National Archives, all the Services have to turn all their pictures in and the ones that College Park Maryland hadn’t accepted are out there some place. So I said, okay, and I was in DC and I went to look for them and I went and filled out about 15 tons of paperwork that qualifies research and I went up and spent four hours going through probably 4,000-5,000 images and I found a bunch of mine and I am rolling along. When the camera was hit, the bullet went through the side of the camera that the film is on, not the side where the film spools up when you take it. I had taken seven or eight pictures and I hung on to the camera and when I got back to the first aid station hospital, I gave to one of the other photographers that came up and said take it back because there is enough rolled up on that roll that maybe the stuff inside isn’t exposed yet. When I came out of the hospital, they said no, it is in DC [Marine Headquarters]. It is all gone, too bad. I said, damn, those were nice pictures on that. There I am in DC, in Maryland , going through these files and I come across a picture and it is “R. J. Del Vecchio, 7 May 1968 ” and I look down and it is in color. It is one of the pictures off the roll that for 34 years I did not know existed. And I just sat there and looked at it for five minutes like, you know, you got to be kidding me, and it is a picture of, I don’t show it because it is messy etc. In one of the sequences here you see machine guns that are firing along the side of the tank on the 7th of May, it is the same guy. After that part of the action, we were running across an open area and we finally got hit by machinegun fire. The open air was actually the field of fire for the NVA and as one of the cute little things like the movies, where the sand goes ‘poof’ all around you and this guy took one to the leg and thigh and went down. The assistant gunner ran back took the machine gun and kept on going which is what you are supposed to do and I took a picture of this guy lying there bleeding and other people behind him fighting, they are throwing grenades, and I am behind this tree hiding and the guy looks up and says something in the order of, “you have an unnaturally close relationship with your mother, I really think you should come out here and help me in.” And I replied gently as I could, “are you sure, sir, there is no one else you would prefer to have come and aid you?” He made further comments about my personal habits, ultimate destination and things like that and the Marine Corps used to train you to go out there bravely and grab the guy and pick him up and put him in a fireman carry and walk back out of the field of fire bravely, and I said, enough of that shit. I went out and I grabbed him by one wrist and dragged him back screaming because his shattered legs were hurting him but I was in kind of a hurry at that time and I got him back and he never thanked me. Unfortunately, he went into heat shock and we wound up in a bomb crater, a 500 pound bomb crater, actually that is where the tank ran over because as most of you might know the tank’s field of view is about 15 feet. Well, if a 500 pound bomb crater is 15 feet across, and we are in the crater sheltering from machine gun fire and we hear this tank coming, we are feeling good like, there is a tank coming, we will be better off. The tank is coming closer, and closer and really close and you look up and bow of the tank is coming over the lip of the crater, and as you know, the way the tank goes through the crater is up and then boomf; the boomf part is bad, you don’t want to be there for the boomf part, so that is when I pushed this wounded guy up from the side, there were two other guys in there and as I was pushing this one guy up, my foot went back just as the tank went over it. The only thing that really saved the foot is that there was soft sand at the bottom of the crater, and I heard somebody really screaming and then I realized it was me, and I must have screamed loud enough because they heard me in the tank which was a bad thing because the tank was three-quarters of the way off, they heard me screaming, so they stopped and backed up. It just was not a good day, any way you looked at it okay, but at least the camera is still working.

Anyhow, so we did a bunch of stuff and some of them was very routine in the back area and some of them was very hairy messy stuff and I came back and I didn’t bring a lot of the pictures with me. I look back now and if I had a time machine, I would go back and kick myself in the butt so goddamn hard, it wouldn’t even be funny because I left stuff behind. I wasn’t thinking of it back then. And like most of us, I came back, I had one real episode of feeling really upset when I was half drunk in grad school and then I took the war and I put it behind the wall, put a big barrier across the door and didn’t think about it for about 30 years okay. Now I do more talking, thinking about it because of being involved in educational programs and I think it is really valuable to talk to kids about it and try to get them to understand things, and especially things about the Myths of Vietnam because to me, the Myths of Vietnam have become larger than reality and they are hurting us and that’s why I think this is a great conference. That’s my short story, I was supposed to keep it short and that is as short as I can make it and if anybody has a question they can ask be later because I promised to turn the microphone over very quickly to the next speaker. Yes?

Unidentified Audience Member: Do you find out who the helicopter pilot was?

R. J Del Vecchio: No, and I sent these pictures in. There is a Helicopter Pilots Association, and they have a calendar thing, and they wanted these things and they built a calendar on a couple of these things and I said, you guys can see the aircraft marking, which they can, they are pretty clear, and they said, “we still can't get back to who that pilot was. We can tell what squadron it was,” and I said, “I can tell you when it was roughly in date,” and they said, “if you could tell us the exact day, we can may be find the guy” but I can only give them the markings, and they are like, “too bad, we can't find the guy.” Great flying though. And that’s it.

Audience: You ever find the tank driver?

R. J Del Vecchio: No, I did want to thank him for his, you know, skill.

[Further remarks were made without microphone and are unintelligible.]

[1] The airstrikes conducted at the same time as Son Tay were reported to be a cover and diversion from the Son Tay operation. Since the Son Tay Raiders made it back out, I would have to assess the cover raids as successful, rather than a failure. [See Benjamin Schemmer, The Raid, Avon Books, 1986, page 195ff, SGS]