LURPS small cover

LURPS: A Ranger's Diary of Tet, Khe Sahn, A Shau, and Quang Tri

 

REVIEWS

"From a blue-collar neighborhood in southwest Detroit to the badlands of northern I Corps. Ankony's memoir is a vivid and unusually honest tale of one man's journey to war in South Vietnam and back...From his remarkable eyewitness account of the North Vietnamese attack on Quang Tri City during the 1968 Tet Offensive to his description of the equipment and skills a soldier in Vietnam needed to survive, [Ankony] has given us a highly readable tale that is sure to entertain and inform anyone who has an interest in the war."

DR. ERIK B. VILLARD, U.S. Army Center of Military History, Washington, D.C. 

"Dr. Robert C. Ankony has written a fascinating, highly readable memoir of his distinguished military career. Following him from the decision to join the Army at 17 through the difficult task of becoming a member of the 75th Ranger Regiment, we experience some of the most significant battles of the Vietnam War...By giving the work a sense of immediacy that many autobiographies lack, this approach allows the reader to live the experiences as Ankony remembers them. But the book is more than a combat diary; it also contains frank discussions, from a soldier's perspective, about the turbulent political and social aspects of the war. These elements combine to make the book a unique addition to the growing field of Vietnam literature...The book is not, however, about [Ankony's] own heroism so much as what his service meant, as well as a tribute to those men who helped make him who is is. A pleasure to read, Lurps is among the best war diaries available."

 Jason Foster, Vietnam magazine

 

PREFACE

We all reach certain crossroads in our lives—junctures where a single decision sets the course for all that follows, perhaps making us a part of something larger than ourselves. Often we experience this life-changing moment without even knowing it at the time. I came to such a crossroads in the summer of 1967, when I gave up a safe posting as a soldier in Germany and volunteered for Vietnam. It was, in essence, a march to the sound of the guns.

Vietnam was a tremendously controversial, divisive war. It was a time of great rage, which I witnessed again and again, whether among friends or as a cop on the streets of Detroit. It is not the purpose of this book to advocate, condemn, or justify any particular viewpoint about the war. I only wish to bring home the reality that many men served their country during that conflicted time, that some volunteered for several tours of combat duty, and that more than 58,000 Americans gave everything.

I did nothing extraordinary in the war; I merely responded to the call to do my duty and managed to have some fun while I was at it. But I did serve with some extraordinary men. One was my commanding officer, Captain Michael Gooding, and another was my platoon leader, Lieutenant Joseph Dilger. But the one who stands out most to me was my team leader, Sergeant Douglas Parkinson. He had a quiet strength of character, sound thinking, and a kind, fatherly manner, all of which made me feel safe.

There is another purpose to this book. Coming of age amid the general turbulence of the mid- to late 1960s, I was a troubled youth, and at the time of my enlistment I had accomplished little more than a junior high school education and many run-ins with the police. Yet I am convinced that my experience in the military, and especially in Vietnam, gave me the inner strength to move on rather than languish, and to become a responsible citizen, husband, and father. It is my deepest hope that this book might inspire other young people who find themselves at a similar crossroads. But even more important, I hope this book can provide readers with a better historical and personal sense of these major battles and the men who fought them.

This is how it was:

 

EXCERPTS

 I turned and waved and walked inside the gate where I was stopped by an MP wearing a dress green uniform and a shiny black helmet. I showed him my papers, and he waved me on to a row of buildings. I looked around, thrilled that I was finally part of the military—not quite sure where I was going, but confident that wherever it was, it would be good.

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In the tradition of the airborne, I pinned the wings above my left breast pocket, wore a parachute glider patch on my folding dress hat, and tucked my trousers above new spit-shined jump boots. I was then placed on jump status…  Satisfied, I put my orders in my pocket and walked away, feeling proud, strong, and that I was part of something great.

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Though it was where I had always wanted to go, Germany wasn’t where I wanted to be. Living on our safe, manicured little Rhineland kaserne, I had the sneaking feeling that the real military life was quietly passing me by—six thousand miles away in Vietnam.

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Before my eyes, a dozen helicopters took off, loaded with infantrymen. As the birds climbed, heading west, I realized I was in the real Vietnam now.

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One evening Sergeant Parkinson was in my hooch talking with Whitten and me, when a rat suddenly made a dash across the bedsheet we had stretched across our ceiling to reflect the feeble light from the hooch’s single bare bulb. Glancing up as he spoke, Parkinson snatched up one of my boots and slammed its heel hard against the rat.

“How’s that shoe fit?” Parkinson snapped.

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 With everything in place—other than a solid supply line to our rear—we waited for the enemy to come.

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I flipped the butterfly trigger down with my thumbs, and the weapon started jerking back and forth, firing seven rounds per second, every fifth one of them a tracer. Continuing to fire, I saw tracers riddle the roof and ricochet inside….At that instant five ARVNs staggered out of the building with their arms raised high in the air...As they quickly vanished into another building, I released my grip on the machine gun, proud that we won the battle, yet baffled that the first shots I fired in combat were against our allies.

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Acquiring targets through infrared scopes and by dropping parachute flares, it unleashed a torrent of fire that sounded like the growling of a monstrous tiger. Since the aircraft had plenty of fuel and ammo, it circled the cemetery for hours as the enemy hopelessly sought shelter in foxholes. As it found one target after another, solid streams of red tracers sailed out of the night sky and splashed against the earth like water from a fire hose.

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On that cloudy Friday afternoon the three of us walked back to LZ Betty knowing that most of the battle was over. However, across South Vietnam, 1,000 Americans, 2,100 ARVNs, 14,000 civilians, and 32,000 NVA and Vietcong soldiers lay dead.

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We sat in the wet elephant grass, and soon we heard the sounds of our helicopters approaching. Miraculously, the clouds started to break, exposing pockets of rich blue sky. As bright rays of sun began to warm the earth and dry the sodden leaves and grass, Sergeant Parkinson grinned and said, “I think the monsoon might be over, lads!”

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In a sudden whirl of activity, the rotor sucked in smoke from above and spun it out below, blasting down vegetation, exposing the lone enemy soldier. Forced into a deadly duel, 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.

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I glanced at the column ahead snaking its way through the jungle, and felt safe yet strange. Seeing so many men armed with M60s, M79s, LAWs, and two or three bandoliers or belts of ammunition slung over their shoulders, I realized that their level of confidence and the nature of their mission were different. They were here to engage the enemy. And once they made contact, they didn’t retreat but attacked.

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I had heard nothing of its approach, thanks to the incline of the ground and the warm, rising air currents. My heart stopped as it headed directly at me and came to a hover fifty feet away. Since it was obvious I had been spotted, I stood up without my weapon so they could see me clearly. As the Huey faced me with its four side-mounted machine guns, fourteen rockets, automatic grenade launcher, and two door gunners leaning out with their M60s trained at my chest; I finally heard the heavy whump, whump, whump of the main rotor. With no other option but to await my fate, I stretched out my arms and stared at the black sun visors concealing the crewmen’s faces, thinking, Shit, did I screw up.

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Once we reached the middle of the field and were completely exposed, I thought, Well, if anybody’s there, this is when they’re gonna open up.

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As the two gunships flew back and forth, constantly working the area, one of the door gunners saw us from afar and fired a long burst from his M60, somehow mistaking us for the enemy. An instant later the bullets sailed over our heads and struck the soft, moist ground behind us, spitting up dirt and making a sound like rifle shots coming from the earth.

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Soon we were a thousand feet over Dong Tri Mountain, heading northeast above ravines brimming beautifully with soft, white morning fog. Taking in the view, I kept my legs tight around Cain and Whitten. But after bucking ninety-mile-an-hour winds for a minute or so, straining all the while to stay upright with the heavy load on my back, I couldn’t make my legs hold on any longer. Immediately we were swinging wide apart and spinning like dervishes. Clutching the rope in a death grip, I looked up at the helicopter, praying one of the door gunners would see our plight, but nobody looked down…As we continued to swing wildly past one another like fairgoers on a carnival ride gone amok, through the wind blast I could hear Cain and Whitten screaming, “Stop! Stop! Stop! Help! Oh, God, please help!"

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As the fighting raged far to the north in the valley, Sergeant Lambert––just one day short of completing his two-year tour––clung to life for six long hours before dying in the arms of his comrades. Soon after Lambert died, a lone Huey approached from the north to remove the wounded and the stranded aircrew left on Signal Hill. The dead would have to wait.

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Early the next morning, Sunday, April 21, a medevac, already crammed with wounded infantrymen and the badly burned pilot of a downed helicopter, landed on Signal Hill to pick up Corporal Hand, whose condition had worsened. He was put inside on a stretcher, beneath the screaming, burned pilot, and as the medevac lifted off, the men on the ground could hear the burned man pleading again and again in his agony, “Shoot me! Somebody, for God’s sake, please shoot me!”

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I had just grabbed a slender tree trunk so I could step to the roots below, when rifle shots went off right in front of me. Raising my rifle and cautiously moving in that direction, I saw an NVA soldier lying on his back, and Sergeant Parkinson and Dish still shooting him, making his body quiver with every shot.

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Yet I couldn’t stop staring at their camouflage fatigues, knowing they were fellow Lurps just like me—who were dead.

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When the bombers reached the valley, the clouds below our mountaintop position suddenly started flashing bright orange as three lines of bombs merged to lay down a continuous swath of death and destruction that raced down the valley at five hundred miles an hour. In seconds the earth trembled beneath our feet, followed after a long lag by a deep rumbling that sounded as if the valley itself were moaning in agony.

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"Watch out!” someone yelled…. With the rotors slashing lower and lower, shooting high-velocity objects in every direction, the seven-thousand-pound aircraft suddenly changed from an object of hope to one of terror. Still sliding through mud and debris, I heard the shrill of the engine mixed with screams of “My legs! My legs!”

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At that second the hill we were sitting behind suddenly exploded with dirt and flying debris as hundreds of bullets and bright red tracers slammed into it or ricocheted high into the air. “Goddamn!” Cain shouted as we each dove to the ground. LZ Pedro’s quad-.50 had opened fire at the very hill we were hiding behind.

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Kneeling by the body, I pulled his backpack out from beneath his head, causing him to fall back, I opened the pack and found…two clean pairs of GI socks.

"Hey, look at this!” I said, holding up the socks. “They’re folded just like the gooks fold ours at Betty!”

“That’s something,” a soldier said. “It shows they’re all working together.”

“Yeah, all a bunch o’ two-faced motherfuckers!” the sergeant said as a lieutenant picked up the AK47.

“Well, he won’t be needing these anymore,” I said, sitting down to slip on the socks.

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Moving ahead slowly and deliberately, I kept my rifle at my hip and studied the vegetation on the far side. I reached the middle and most vulnerable part of the ravine, imagining as I went how it would feel to be hit with a sudden burst of bullets, when suddenly a VC wearing just shorts and an undershirt jumped up in the grass seventy feet ahead, holding a rifle. For a moment we stood facing each other, both frozen in fear; then I raised my CAR-15 as he made a mad dash toward the vegetation on the far side. Taking aim, I let loose a long stream of tracers that swept across his legs and shoulder.

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I knelt by a bush and scanned to the west, when suddenly I heard a dull whooshing sound as one mortar shell, then another fell out of the clear blue sky, as if aimed at me. Dropping to my stomach, I wrapped my hands around my head as each shell slammed fifty meters behind me, shaking the earth with loud, thunderous explosions and showering me with dirt and gravel. When silence returned I glanced to where the shells had hit, and saw a thin cloud of smoke rising in line with my team.

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I took my turn at watch again the next morning as the sun crept over the line of clouds on the horizon, firing them with bright pink and apricot. Pausing a moment and lowering my scope, I felt the temperature rise and the wind pick up, and heard the crickets fall silent as the birds woke and sang. Knowing that I had only a few patrols left to make… I thought about home and hoped my mom was seeing that sun through her kitchen window as it set.

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"See, now you understand what corrugated means.”

“Yes sir,” I said, and in my mind a light went on. I wanted an education—not so I could be in charge of other people, but so I could make sure that certain people weren’t in charge of me.

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But just as I grabbed the signal panel, with the Cobra three hundred meters away and closing fast, I saw puffs of black smoke on both sides of the fuselage. The worst of my nightmares was coming true, and I thought, Aw, shit, we’re gonna die!

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"Hold your fire!” I said as my mind raced with questions: How’d they see us? How’d they get here so quick? Is it just by chance they maneuvered around the reservoir and back to us? Are they coming because of the rocket attack? Did they see Bedford and me when we went to the trail? How many men are coming? Are they coming from other directions as well? Should I fire our claymores? Should I tell my team just to throw grenades so we don’t give away our position? If I do, will one of the grenades hit the vegetation and bounce back? If I tell ’em, will the enemy hear me? What should I do? Where in the hell did I go wrong?

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Apparently not satisfied with the skimpy meal Ward had left, it stepped toward me. Aware of every lump and contour of the ground after five days of stationary patrol in this spot, I knew there wasn’t another morsel of food between the big cat and my team—except me!