WARNING: Some images may be disturbing to some viewers.
Viewer discretion advised.
Friday, January 26, 1968. That’s me when I was 19 at LZ Betty, 16 miles south of the DMZ, just south of Quang Tri City, Vietnam. I was our team’s radio operator on a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol attached to the First Air Cavalry Division. The war had reached its peak and the North Vietnamese siege of the Marine combat base at Khe Sanh was underway just miles behind me. For once I knew I was finally in the right place at the right time.
Saturday, January 27, 1968. My team leader, Sergeant Douglas Parkinson, manning an M2 .50 machine gun on top of our water tower at LZ Betty, just days before the Communist Tet Offensive. I’m a very lucky man to have had Doug as my leader and mentor. He had a quiet strength of character, sound thinking, and a kind, fatherly manner, all of which made me feel safe. Note, the LAW next to Doug’s side. Ten days later members of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) overran the 5th Special Forces camp at Lang Vei, 35 miles west, with flamethrowers and eleven Soviet PT76 tanks.
Early morning hours of Wednesday, January 31, 1968, and the largest battle of the Vietnam War, the Tet Offensive, has just been launched by 84,000 enemy soldiers. Our .50 is silhouetted as massive flashes lit the horizon 15 miles northwest—batteries of long-range 175mm cannons at Camp Carroll, firing on NVA forces attacking the Marine combat base at Khe Sanh. My first shots fired in combat were from this .50 against allied South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) soldiers. For whatever reason they fired on us first, perhaps mistaking us for the enemy, or they really were the enemy dressed in ARVN uniforms. In either case, they lost.
Same date but dawn. The rising smoke is from Marine Base Dong Ha, eight miles north, after their ammo dump was hit by an enemy rocket during the night. At this moment five enemy battalions were attacking Quang Tri City, approaching our landing zone. To stop allied troops from intervening, three other enemy infantry battalions deployed as blocking forces, all supported by a 122mm-rocket battalion and two heavy-weapons companies armed with 82mm mortars and 75mm recoilless rifles. I had a front row seat on top of the water tower with a twenty power spotting scope and I felt as if the enemy were close enough to talk to. Instead I spotted for my company commander, Captain Michael Gooding, as he shot the enemy with a four powered M14.
Friday, February 2, 1968. The Tet Offensive has ended and our medic, Cpl. Johnny Suggs, is standing in the cemetery just north of our LZ next to remnants of the 812th NVA Regiment, 324th Division, who attacked the southern fringe of Quang Tri City and us.
Same date. A local Vietcong (VC) scout who guided North Vietnamese forces to designated objectives.
Another NVA soldier by a tombstone.
During lulls in the battle shouts and faint cries could be heard from the enemy as their attack came to a halt.
Hundreds of men were pinned in the open between powerful First Cav and ARVN forces and were destroyed by an array of weapons, including a hailstorm of air bursting mortar shells and a U.S. Air Force AC-47 gunship that circled for hours at night firing solid streams of red tracers that sailed out of the sky and splashed against the earth like water from a fire hose.
The ARVNs were given the task of recovering the dead. They accomplished this by driving APCs throughout the city and cemetery, where they tied the enemy’s feet to the rear with ropes and dragged them in groups of ten or so to collection points along the road. By afternoon they were finished, and we watched huge CH-47s fly in to retrieve the dead. Once thirty or so bodies were piled below in nets, each helicopter flew off as others returned for more. On takeoff, human limbs slipped through the nets and waved eerily toward the ground. Yet none of us spoke, watching the CH-47s fly west and dump their loads of once valiant soldiers as if they were so much rubbish.
The enemy hoped to take over a number of cities and spark a popular uprising by launching this massive coordinated attack. Instead, in this short two day battle, 900 NVA and Vietcong soldiers were killed in and around Quang Tri City and our LZ. However, across South Vietnam, 1,000 Americans, 2,100 ARVNs, 14,000 civilians, and 32,000 NVA and Vietcong lay dead.
Monday, February 12, 1968. Sergeant Parkinson making a commo check with his team at LZ Betty in front of our rat, snake, and cockroach infested hooch prior to my second patrol. I’m on the right, leaning over from my 90 pound gear. The two men on left, Pong and Puk, are indigenous Montagnards who served as front and rear scouts. In Sergeant Parkinson’s left hand is an M79 40mm grenade launcher. Our muzzles marked the line in the field where communism stopped and the freedom we loved began.
Same date, our six-man reconnaissance team boarding a UH-1 ‘Huey’ in front of our LZ. After lifting off we were escorted to our 4,000 by 4,000 meter area of operation (AO) by three gunships and two slicks. Since no civilians lived in our AOs, all AOs were considered free-fire zones, and all unknowns, even civilians, could safely be considered hostile.
Tuesday, March 5, 1968, my 4th patrol. Our two Montagnards, Cpls. Pong and Blo, are scanning an area where we just saw a number of NVA soldiers emerge from a tree line in search of us after hearing our insertion. The lead man wore a U.S. Air Force flight jacket, a red and yellow checkered scarf, and carried a shiny new AK47. We radioed for help and on hearing two scout helicopters approach the enemy fled into the tree line as the lead man hid inside thick bushes thinking he was safe. That is, until we directed a chopper directly above him that blew the vegetation down with the wind from its overhead rotor. Forced into a deadly duel with the helicopter gunner, each man fought with skill and determination and long bursts of automatic weapons fire, but the enemy soldier lost the struggle just seconds after it began. Once the helicopters were gone, the enemy encircled us.
Monday, April 1, 1968, my 9th patrol. One Huey gunship and two OH-13 scout helicopters rocketing and machine gunning an area where we spotted several North Vietnamese soldiers and one woman. They found and killed two but while they were at it a door gunner mistook us for the enemy and fired a long burst, striking the dirt all around us. By the end of my tour I was shot at more by our own forces, artillery and mortars included, than by the enemy.
The next day, still my 9th patrol. First Cav infantry piling on where we just discovered a large bunker half-buried in the ground stocked with weapons and food cooking. Luck was on our side when we found this as the enemy saw us first, crossing a clearing heading directly at them. Apparently thinking we were the point of an infantry company in the vicinity, they ran.
Thursday, April 4, 1968. LZ Stud, the First Cavalry Division’s staging area for Operation Pegasus to break the siege of the Marine combat base at Khe Sanh—the second largest battle of the war. All three brigades from our division participated in this vast airmobile operation, along with a Marine armor thrust. B-52s alone dropped 75,000 tons of bombs (that’s like five Hiroshima bombs) on North Vietnamese soldiers from the 304th and 325th Divisions encroaching the combat base in trenches. As these two elite enemy divisions, with history at Dien Bien Phu and the Ia Drang Valley, depleted, President Johnson ordered an air and naval bombing halt to most of North Vietnam as a gesture of peace. His gesture, our blood.
Sunday, April 7, 1968. At LZ Stud waiting our patrol at Khe Sanh. Corporal Dish, our Montagnard front scout, is in foreground; then me; our medic, Bruce Cain; and lastly my hootch mate and assistant team leader, Bob Whitten, who volunteered for Vietnam while serving in the Berlin Brigade. On that patrol we were nearly killed by a stray artillery shell; had a tiger stalk us; and Cain, Whitten, and I almost fell 1,000 feet to our deaths when a helicopter hurriedly extracted us on long emergency ropes known as McGuire rigs and we collided midair. Once we finally got back to LZ Stud, Whitten, who had experienced the worse, said, “I know I’m gonna make it now, because if God wanted me he had his chance, so I must be on the bottom of his list.” Four weeks later, Whitten was promoted to sergeant, made a team leader—and killed in action.
Friday, April 19, 1968. The First Cavalry Division just broke the 77-day siege of Khe Sanh. As our Second Brigade pushed west to the Laotian border, our First and Third Brigades (about 11,000 men and 300 birds) swung southwest and air assaulted A Shau Valley, commencing Operation Delaware. This chopper crashed that morning when Sgt. Larry Curtis’s team and four others rappelled onto the 5,000-foot peak of Dong Re Lao Mountain (“Signal Hill”) to secure this vital radio relay site for our troops in the valley. There were no satellites, so we had to take this peak the hard way...a very hard way for a number of men from my platoon.
Wednesday, April 24, 1968. That’s me in the machine gun dugout on top of Signal Hill looking down into A Shau Valley with my twenty power spotting scope. Sometimes life gives you a beautiful chance to visit heaven and hell at the very same time.
The business of killing people. Another view of the same dugout with A Shau Valley and the mountains of Laos beyond. That’s me in tiger fatigues leaning over an M60 machine gun. Note, all the bomb craters from our B-52s. At this moment we’re directing artillery on enemy trucks rolling on Route 548 in the valley, as the bulk of our division was still slugging its way south toward us. A Shau Valley was no cake walk. The North Vietnamese Army was a very well-trained, equipped, and led force. And they considered A Shau their turf, turning it into the most formidable enemy sanctuary in South Vietnam—complete with PT76 tanks, powerful crew-served 37mm antiaircraft cannons, twin-barreled 23mm cannons, and scores of 12.7mm heavy machine guns. War is a shooting gallery that shoots both ways. Despite hundreds of B-52 and jet air strikes in this operation, the enemy shot down a C-130, a CH-54, two Chinooks, and nearly two dozen Hueys. Many more were lost in accidents or damaged by ground fire. My division also suffered more than 100 dead and 530 wounded.
My commanding officer, Captain Michael Gooding, standing on the far left, talking on the radio on Signal Hill. Captain Gooding, and my platoon leader, Lieutenant Joseph Dilger, led from the front and were both outstanding officers and leaders of men. Lieutenant Dilger was the first man out on our Signal Hill assault and was shot through the chest by enemy snipers.
Corporal Dish, our Montagnard front scout, standing on Signal Hill with an SKS rifle he removed from an enemy sniper. Note the bullet holes in the buttstock. When the sniper saw Dish pass him through the thick blanket of fog—the clouds surrounding the mountain peak—he thought Dish was another NVA soldier and set his rifle on the ground. Then realizing his mistake, he stood shocked, arms at his sides, mouth and eyes wide open, as Dish and Parkinson in front of me raised their rifles and shot him.
Another view of Signal Hill and me at left. The war and all its shattering noise has passed us for now.
Monday, April 29, 1968. The war just came back to Signal Hill as this second chopper lost control and crashed exactly on top of my position. I was able to dive out of the way, but three other young men were not so fortunate. One was crushed beneath the skid; another slammed in the chest by a sailing fuel can; and another, an Air Force meteorologist, had his leg and feet severed off. Still sliding through mud and debris, I heard the shrill of the engine mixed with screams of “My legs! My legs!”
Saturday, July 20, 1968. After completing the 5th Special Forces Recondo School I was made a sergeant and a team leader with a monthly salary of $335.00. This Vietcong soldier, viewed by First Cav infantry near the Quang Tri River, approached two team members and me the evening before as we set ambush at dusk. He saw us first. Not certain if we were friendlies, he raised his AK47 and paused. A decision that saved our lives, but cost his.
The same Vietcong with a First Cav patched pinned to ear so his comrades would know who killed him.
Friday, July 26, 1968. Stepping out of my hootch for my 18th patrol—a patrol in a rat and fire ant infested area we called “the golf course” for its sparse vegetation and small rolling hills. But the rats, ants, boiling heat, and lack of water was our least concern. Positioned one afternoon on both sides of a hill, one mortar shell, then another fell out of the clear blue sky and exploded between us. Uninjured, we moved through tall grass with me in lead when an enemy soldier jumped up in front of me holding a rifle. For a moment we stood facing each other, both frozen in fear; then I raised my CAR-15 and shot him.
Same date, LZ Betty’s tarmac. Two Ranger teams standing shoulder-to-shoulder. I’m on the left waiting with my team and Sergeant ‘Spanky’ Seymour’s team for our choppers and separate patrols. Sergeant Seymour served multiple combat tours and is standing in front holding a CAR15 with an M79 grenade launcher slung under his shoulder. We believed in what we were doing and had faith in each other.
Friday, August 2, 1968. Pre-extraction photo of me on my 18th patrol standing with just my CAR-15 and web gear feeling very grateful our birds were in the air and that we would be back at our LZ in minutes. At this point in patrolling I had reached my tolerance of eating dehydrated Lurp rations and was existing in the field primarily on compressed fruit cake bars and cocoa powder mixed with muddy stream water and dozens of packs of sugar and powdered cream.
Sunday, August 11, 1968. Standing at LZ Betty in front of our operations tent after my 19th patrol. On that patrol a Huey cruising just above the Quang Tri River nearly shot us when its door gunners randomly fired into the river banks where we awaited a medevac for my rear scout, Cpl. Angel Morales, whose arm had doubled in size after being bitten by an insect.
Thursday, August 15, 1968. En route to my 20th patrol. I’m at left; followed by my front scout, Cpl. Tony Griffith; and my RTO, Cpl. John Trumbull. Ordered one night by our brigade commander to move 600 meters and be there in an hour, an order that would have forced our use of enemy trails, I ignored the order and moved through thick vegetation at first light.
Saturday, August 24, 1968. My 21st patrol. I’m sitting to the right of John Bedford as my front scout, Tony Griffith, keeps watch. I dedicated my book to Tony because he was a good friend who always seemed to have a smile on his face—and because six days after this photo was taken, Tony saved the lives of my team and me when a helicopter gunship mistakenly thought we were the enemy and fired four rockets at us. Tony was later promoted to sergeant, made a team leader—and killed in action. When he died, he was wearing my old flop hat I gave him. Sorry, Tony, it didn’t bring the luck we hoped for.
Friday, August 30, 1968. My team and I at LZ Betty, just before my twenty-second and last patrol. I’m in center; my front scout, Cpl. Charles Williams; and RTO, Cpl. Bill Ward, are on my right; and my ATL, Cpl. Tony Griffith; and rear scout, Cpl. John Bedford, are on my left. That same morning Radio Hanoi informed us that thousands of antiwar demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago had ripped the American flag off General Grant’s statue and raised Communist Vietcong flags.
Tuesday, September 3, 1968. That’s me, still 19 years old, on the last day of my last patrol with my RTO, Bill Ward, after we were rocketed by a Cobra gunship; had spent five cold, wet, miserable nights with little sleep because two tigers kept stalking us; and after we were shot at by a Huey gunship with its minigun. War brutalizes everyone. And I remember that exhaustion everyday. I was beat, really beat, but I learned. In that one year I learned more about life than I did going to college for 28 years.
Wednesday, October 2, 1968. Sixty hours after saying goodbye to my teammates and friends in Vietnam, I was discharged from the Army and safe at home in Detroit. Well, not exactly, I soon became a cop during that insane time, in that city.