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--a 20,000-man force with 450 helicopters. 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. LZ Betty's water tower outside our north perimeter. The tower was from the French Indochina War and was inoperable but it did serve as a valuable observation and fighting position during the Tet Offensive. The First Cav patch faced south and Quang Tri City was several hundred meters north.
Same date. My team leader, Sergeant Douglas Parkinson, manning the .50-caliber heavy-machine gun atop our water tower at LZ Betty, just days before the 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, Wednesday, January 31, 1968, and the biggest battle of the Vietnam War, the Tet Offensive, has just been launched by 84,000 enemy soldiers. Our .50-caliber is silhouetted as massive flashes light 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. The odd light at left is an incoming 122mm-rocket. My first shots fired in combat were from this .50-caliber against allied South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) soldiers in a hospital compound. For some reason, they had fired on us first, perhaps mistaking us for the enemy, or they really were the enemy dressed in ARVN uniforms. Whatever the case, they lost.
Same date, the Vietcong and Peoples Army of Vietnam (North Vietnamese) routes of attack against American and South Vietnamese forces.
Same date but dawn. The rising smoke is from the Marine combat base at Dong Ha, eight miles north, after their ammo dump was hit by an enemy rocket during the night. At this moment five enemy battalions and a platoon of sappers were attacking Quang Tri City and our landing zone. To stop allied troops from intervening, three other enemy infantry battalions deployed as blocking forces, 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 with members of my platoon atop our water tower. Using my twenty-power spotting scope, I spotted for my company commander, Captain Michael Gooding, as he picked off advancing enemy troops with a 7.62mm M14 selective-fire rifle with a 2.5-power scope.
Friday, February 2, 1968. The Tet Offensive ended as suddenly as it began. 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.
Hundreds of men were pinned in the open between powerful First Cav and ARVN forces and were destroyed by an array of weapons, including .50-caliber M2 heavy machine guns, a hailstorm of air bursting mortar shells, and a US Air Force AC-47 gunship that circled at night for hours 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 had 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, 914 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, centipede, and cockroach infested hooches prior to my second patrol. I'm on right, leaning over from my 90 pound gear. The two men on left, Pong and Puk, are indigenous Montagnards and served as front and rear scouts. In Parkinson's left hand is a sawed-off 40mm M79 grenade launcher and slung over his right shoulder is a 5.56mm XM-177 Colt Commando, commonly called the CAR-15. Our muzzles marked the line in the field where communism stopped and the freedom we loved began.
Same date. Sgt. Parkinson center, Cpl. Puk right, and me. Radios were in short supply so we carried only two. The twenty-three pound PRC-25 in my rucksack and the small emergency URC-10 Parkinson carried that could only transmit a location signal. Our operations tent and ammo bunker is in the background.
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 a command-and-control ship, three gunships, and another slick in case ours was shot down. Since no civilians lived in our AOs, all AOs were considered free-fire zones, and all unknowns, even women, 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 US 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 but we were rescued to fight another day.
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.
Two members of Charlie Company, Second of the Eighth Cavalry Regiment, First Cavalry Division, holding captured weapons from the Vietcong bunker we discovered. The US .30-caliber M1 rifle and carbine were most likely acquired from South Vietnamese soldiers.
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 more than 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 suffered 10,000 men killed, Khe Sanh became the most heavily bombed area on earth, and President Johnson chose this war winning moment to order an air and naval bombing halt to most of North Vietnam as a gesture of peace.
Sunday evening, April 7, 1968. Outside our operations tent at LZ Stud. Sgt. Doug Parkinson in foreground; me left; Bruce Cain right; and Bob Whitten with blacken face and hat, far right.
Same date, waiting choppers at LZ Stud for our Khe Sanh patrol. Cpl. 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 climbed from bottom to top of Dong Tri Mountain, an eight-mile-wide, 3,300-foot mountain in search of the enemy. We didn't find any, but 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. 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." One month later, Whitten was promoted to sergeant, made a team leader––and killed in action.
Our next operation, attacking the 25-mile long A Shau Valley. It paralleled the Laotian border and Ho Chi Minh Trail and was a vital NVA supply route and sanctuary.
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 other teams 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. Since satellites were still a thing of the future, my platoon seized the peak and paid a steep cost.
Wednesday, April 24, 1968. That's me in the machine gun dugout atop 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. The same dugout with A Shau Valley and the mountains of Laos beyond. That's me in tiger fatigues leaning over a 7.62mm 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 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, 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 130 dead and 530 wounded.
My commanding officer, Captain Michael Gooding, standing on 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. The NVA, realizing his mistake, stood there, arms at his sides, mouth and eyes wide open, as Dish and Parkinson in front of me raised their rifles and opened up on him.
Another view of Signal Hill and me left. The war and all its shattering noise has passed us for now.
Friday, April 26, 1968. Sgt. Parkinson atop Signal Hill.
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!"
Wednesday, May 1, 1968. A CH-47 Chinook retrieving the second crashed Huey. A week before a Chinook delivering a 105mm howitzer dropped the weapon because it experienced the same difficulty flying at that attitude. The engines had less oxygen for power and the rotors less air to bite into for lift.
Saturday morning, 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 who was shot by my front scout, Corporal Gair Anderson, and me.
A First Cav patched was pinned to his ear by the infantry so his comrades would know who killed him.
The Vietcong's AK47 and members of Delta Company, Second of the Eighth Cavalry Regiment.
I had gone into the field that morning without any socks because all mine were dirty. But in his belongings were two clean pairs of US military socks, so I sat down next to the body and slipped on a pair.
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 as always. I'm on the left waiting with my team and Sgt. 'Spanky' Seymour's team for our choppers and separate patrols. Seymour served multiple tours, completed over 50 missions, and is in front holding a CAR-15 with an M79 grenade launcher slung under his shoulder. We believed in what we were doing and had faith in each other.
Visible from left: Sgt. "Spanky" Seymour, Bruce Cain, me, Tony Griffith, John Bedford, and unknown.
All slicks and command-and-control ships have landed and we make our final weapons and equipment check. Three gunships would rendezvous with each team in the air prior to insertion.
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 a dozen 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. 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.
Monday, August 12, 1968. My assistant team leader and buddy, Corporal Bruce Cain, at LZ Betty on a M274 "Mule" in front of our hootches left. We had just driven to the Marine Air Base at Dong Ha to trade Marine cooks three cases of beer for steaks. I was a sergeant and team leader but I didn't know how to drive, so Bruce did.
Cpl. Bruce Cain at right and me inside our hootch at LZ Betty made of 105mm howitzer ammo crates filled with dirt. We covered the walls with pictures of women and cars.
Thursday, August 15, 1968. LZ Betty 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. Corporal Tony Griffith in lead, followed by me, John Bedford, and Bruce Cain. Patrolling in short vegetation with a mission to surveil three trails was especially dangerous because it clearly exposed us to the enemy, to booby traps, and to our own aircraft. Commanders were rotated too often, and some weren't familiar with the terrain or didn't understand the tactical use of Lurps. Making matters worse it was hot and arid and we had to hump all our water over these hills for a week with nothing to drink but what we carried and all of our rations were dehydrated.
Sunday, August 25, same patrol, From right: my front scout, Tony Griffith; my RTO, John Bedford; and me. I'm holding the radio handset after notifying helicopters they were entering our area of operation.
Same date. Waiting for sunset so we can move with concealment. I'm sitting to the right of John Bedford as Tony Griffith keeps watch. I dedicated my book Lurps to Tony who was a good friend and always had 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 me 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 at left; and my ATL, Cpl. Tony Griffith; and rear scout, Cpl. John Bedford, are at right. That same morning Radio Hanoi informed us that thousands of antiwar demonstrators in Chicago had ripped the American flag off General Grant's statue and raised Communist Vietcong flags.
Same date, at the tarmac before liftoff. Our operations sergeant, Staff Sergeant Bill Collins, is in foreground. He flew out for our insertion in the command-and-control ship.
Same date, en route to patrol as a door gunner keeps his 7.62mm M60 General-purpose machine gun at the ready.
Saturday, August 31, 1968. My front scout, Cpl. Tony Griffith, keeps watch with his CAR-15 next to a shell crater as it rains. Note, the LAW on his back.
Same date. My RTO, Cpl. John Bedford, waving from his observation position.
Wednesday morning, September 4, 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. I remember that exhaustion everyday. I was beat, really beat, but I learned. In that one year I learned more about life than I ever did in 28 years of college.
Tuesday, October 1, 1968. En route to Camp Evans and home. I'm on a CH-47 passing over a tributary to the Quang Tri River and a blown railroad bridge from the French Indochina War. At the south shore is a destroyed French 90mm M26 Pershing tank. A familiar sight as we flew over this bridge on most patrols.
Same date, another view. An M60 machine gun is sticking out the forward porthole.