April 9, 1968, in the evening, Sergeant Doug Parkinson’s six-man long-range reconnaissance patrol (LRRP, or “Lurps”) team scrambled aboard a UH-1 Huey. They had just climbed Dong Tri Mountain outside the Marine combat base at Khe Sanh in search of the enemy. Although they never saw the enemy, a stray artillery shell nearly killed them all, and a Bengal tiger stalked them for several nights. Then, with B-52s set to bomb their position in preparation for a Marine sweep of the mountain, they almost fell 1,000 feet to their deaths as helicopters extracted them on long emergency ropes known as McGuire rigs. As Parkinson’s helicopter started up and its rotors began to spin, he glanced through the dust at dozens of other helicopters lifting off and said, “So much for Khe Sanh, lads. . . . I’d say we got off easy!”
But Parkinson’s long-range reconnaissance patrol team from Company E, 52nd Infantry, commanded by Captain Michael Gooding, would soon find itself in the thick of one of the most daring airmobile operations of the Vietnam War: an air assault into the A Shau Valley, the most formidable enemy sanctuary in South Vietnam. Company E would play a key role in establishing a stronghold in the valley—and it would pay a high price.
By early April 1968 the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) had just suffered two of the most catastrophic defeats of the war: the Tet Offensive and Khe Sanh, which cost them more than 50,000 men killed. But the NVA still had an ace in the hole to regain the initiative in the northernmost part of South Vietnam, designated I Corps Tactical Zone (ICTZ). That ace was the sparsely populated A Shau Valley, running north-south along the Laotian border 30 miles south of Khe Sanh, where troops and supplies were pouring into South Vietnam as the NVA geared up for another battle at a time and place of its choosing. The A Shau, a lovely mile-wide bottomland flanked by densely forested 5,000-foot mountains, was bisected lengthwise by Route 548, a hard-crusted dirt road. A part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the valley was a key NVA sanctuary.
The NVA seized A Shau in March 1966 after overrunning the isolated Special Forces camp there. They considered A Shau their turf and had fortified it with powerful crew-served 37mm antiaircraft cannons, some of them radar controlled. They also had rapid-firing twin-barreled 23mm cannons, scores of 12.7mm heavy machine guns, a warren of underground bunkers and tunnels, and even tanks. Because of this formidable strength on the ground, the NVA were left pretty well alone except for jet attacks, but given the steep, mountainous terrain—often cloaked under clouds and prone to sudden, violent changes in weather—air strikes were few. And because of the very limited airmobility of the Marines in ICTZ, no ground operations of any significance had been launched in the A Shau.
In January 1968 the situation changed. General William Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. military forces in South Vietnam, ordered the 1st Cavalry Division to move north from the Central Highlands to support the Marines. The 1st Cav, an airmobile division with 20,000 men and nearly 450 helicopters, had the most firepower and mobility of any division-size unit in Vietnam. When it arrived in ICTZ the 1st Cav fought toe-to-toe with the enemy during Tet. It was fully engaged with the NVA at Khe Sanh when its commander, Maj. Gen. John Tolson, unveiled plans for the air assault into the A Shau Valley: Operation Delaware.
Two brigades—about 11,000 men and 300 helicopters—would assault the north end of the 25-mile-long valley and leapfrog their way south, while another brigade would stay at Khe Sanh, continuing the fight from there to the Laotian border. Since satellite communications were still a thing of the future, a mountaintop in A Shau had to be secured to serve as a radio relay site for the troops, who would be slugging it out hidden deep behind the towering wall of mountains, to communicate with Camp Evans near the coast or with approaching aircraft. On the eastern side midway up the valley was a perfect spot: the top of a 4,878-foot peak known as Dong Re Lao Mountain. Headquarters dubbed it “Signal Hill.”
Since the mission required specially trained and equipped men who could rappel from helicopters, clear a landing zone with explosives, and hold the ground far from artillery support, the Lurps were the logical choice. As a result, the task of securing Signal Hill fell to Parkinson’s unit, Lieutenant Joe Dilger’s 2nd Platoon, Company E, 52nd Infantry.
Friday, April 19, dawned calm and sunny, and the assault operation began. The 30-man Lurp platoon gathered with several engineers and signalmen at Camp Evans, awaiting flights to Signal Hill, 19 miles away. The troops heard the rumble of five slicks from the 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion approaching, then saw the trademark yellow lightning bolts symbolizing the swiftness of their strikes, emblazoned on their sides.
With every unit requesting lift ships, many of which were undergoing repair or still at Khe Sanh, not enough birds were available to bring in the entire platoon, so Sergeant Parkinson’s team was told to stand aside until later. The helicopters landed, and everyone else clambered aboard, heavily laden with gear. The slicks rose into a clear blue sky and vanished in the west, reaching the mile-high peak of Signal Hill some 20 minutes later.
As planned, the small force of helicopters came to a hover 100 feet above the dense jungle, and the men, led by Lieutenant Dilger, started rappelling down to clear a landing zone. But in the thinner atmosphere at that altitude, the helicopter engines had less oxygen for power, and the rotors less air to bite into for lift. As a result, seconds after Sgt. Larry Curtis and his assistant team leader, Cpl. Bill Hand, had jumped off the skids, their helicopter lost control while they were still 50 feet in the air.
Once unloaded, the four helicopters still in the air quickly flew away to avoid further engine strain, and Corporal Hand and the others could now finally mount a belated rescue. After digging Sergeant Curtis out from beneath the skid and removing the injured on board to safety, they began at once the grueling task of clearing an LZ, using chain saws, machetes, and long tubular explosives called bangalore torpedoes. There in the middle of enemy territory, the insertion and clearing work had not gone unnoticed, and soon enough the troops were battling against more than just nature.
By the next morning there still wasn’t an adequate clearing for a helicopter to land, so the injured Sergeant Curtis had to be lifted out on a McGuire rig. As the assault force toiled away clearing an LZ, NVA soldiers made the long, arduous climb up from the valley floor, reaching the mountaintop at noon. Hidden by dense foliage and blown debris, and with the sounds of their approach masked by the din of explosives and chain saws, they roamed the perimeter at will, shooting at members of Dilger’s platoon who were still struggling to make a clearing.
Unable to see the snipers, yet compelled to finish an LZ, the assault force threw grenades down the slope and fired their weapons at suspected targets, keeping the enemy at bay. As this battle with the unseen enemy dragged on, men charged forward through mud, debris, and deadly sniper fire to rescue the wounded and dying and carry them to the top of the peak and the protective shelter of a bomb crater. Those in need were given plasma expanders to replace lost blood, cloth-wrapped plastic bandages to cover sucking chest wounds, or morphine injections to ease the pain. Radiomen made desperate calls to Camp Evans for helicopters to evacuate the wounded, but with several waves of choppers still making assaults far north into the valley, and nearly a dozen shot down on the first day of the operation, none were available for Signal Hill.
By late afternoon a functional LZ was finally cleared, but at a steep cost. Snipers had killed Cpl. Dick Turbitt and Pfc. Bob Noto, mortally wounded Sgt. William Lambert and combat engineer Pfc. James MacManus, and gravely wounded Cpl. Roy Beer. Lieutenant Dilger was shot through the chest and close to death.
As fierce battles 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 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.
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!”
At about that time, Captain Gooding and Sergeant Parkinson’s six-man team arrived. Since no patrols had yet been made to clear the peak of snipers, Captain Gooding ordered Parkinson to make an immediate patrol around the peak. Once Parkinson had notified everyone on the LZ of their planned route of departure his team mounted their gear and slogged through the mud to the western side of the mountain, where they came to the crashed helicopter, lying on its side on a steep embankment. Then, stepping over an enemy fighting position where cartridges and two grenades had been left abandoned in pouches, they pushed through a dense wall of mud-covered branches and trees, twisted and broken from the blasting to clear the LZ.
Once through the thick mat of debris, they entered dense virgin forest swathed in a thick blanket of fog—the clouds surrounding the peak. Bracing their feet on tree roots and the stems of huge ferns, they groped from stalk to frond to keep their balance, slowly maneuvering through the fog and undergrowth that limited their visibility to the men immediately in front of and behind them. Suddenly, after an hour of this slow, painstaking, and uneventful climb, a lone NVA soldier stood and called to Parkinson’s front scout—an indigenous Montagnard named Dish—thinking he was a fellow soldier. Instantly realizing his mistake, the soldier stood shocked, arms at his sides, mouth and eyes open, as Dish and Parkinson raised their rifles and shot him.
Parkinson’s team made another patrol around the peak while, with the LZ now operational, hundreds of scout helicopters, slicks, gunships, and powerful CH-47 Chinooks laden with troops flocked in from the east. Reaching the Lurps’ mountaintop stronghold, they plunged deep inside the valley to search out and destroy the enemy with airpower and overwhelming infantry assaults. As large and small battles raged farther and farther south, streams of tracers could be seen flying skyward. The effectiveness of the enemy antiaircraft was obvious as massive CH-54 Skycranes could be seen from Signal Hill, returning to Camp Evans with one or two destroyed helicopters slung beneath them.
During the operation, jet air strikes came frequently. In clear weather they struck the valley and mountainside positions, at times screaming in just above the Lurps’ heads. Their bombs, along with the shells from the vast rings of artillery, shortly transformed the lush, green valley and mountainsides into a continuous wasteland of craters. Watching it all from their mountaintop position, the Lurps could see for miles in the cool, thin air, from the distant warships 30 miles east in the South China Sea to pristine towering green mountains in neutral Laos seven miles away, where silvery cataracts tumbled down cloud-wreathed cliffs.
The bombers could easily be identified by their running lights, V formation, and the faint drone of their engines, but by the time that identification could register, it was too late for the enemy to run. When the bombers reached the valley, the clouds below the Lurps’ 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 the Lurps’ feet, followed after a long lag by a deep rumbling that sounded as if the valley itself were moaning in agony.
In the following days, Signal Hill was secured, a battery of artillery was airlifted on top to support the infantry in the valley, and another helicopter crashed on the peak, its rotors narrowly missing two Lurps, 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.
The Lurps held that small green islet high above a vast ocean of clouds for close to three weeks, providing a vital fire support base and radio relay site for the troops in the valley to communicate with Camp Evans and with approaching aircraft. Their action saved American lives and helped ensure the success of Operation Delaware by allowing coordinated air and ground attacks, timely artillery strikes, and air rescues of wounded infantrymen and downed aircrews.
Despite hundreds of B-52 and jet air strikes to destroy the most sophisticated enemy antiaircraft network yet seen in South Vietnam, the NVA managed to shoot down a C-130, a CH-54 Skycrane, two CH-47 Chinooks, and nearly two dozen UH-1 Hueys. Many more, though not shot out of the sky, were lost in accidents or damaged by ground fire. The 1st Cavalry Division suffered more than 100 dead in Operation Delaware. Bad weather aggravated the loss by causing delays in troop movements, allowing a substantial number of NVA to escape to safety in Laos. Still, the NVA lost more than 800 dead, a tank, 70 trucks, two bulldozers, 30 flamethrowers, thousands of rifles and machine guns, and dozens of antiaircraft cannons. They also lost tons of ammunition, explosives, medical supplies, foodstuffs, and documents.
A week after leaving A Shau, Sergeant Parkinson’s assistant team leader, Bob Whitten, was killed in action. Three other Lurps from the Signal Hill assault force were also killed, and Sergeant Curtis lost an eye in a grenade blast. In the following days, Sergeant Parkinson returned home to work as a fish and wildlife specialist, Lieutenant Dilger recovered from his wounds and became a member of the Special Forces, Captain Gooding was promoted to major and assigned to Special Warfare Command, and Company E, 52nd Infantry (LRP), was redesignated Company H, 75th Infantry (Ranger).
Maj. Gen. John Tolson, in summing up why so many of the NVA were able to flee to safety in Laos despite his division’s huge airmobile force, said, “According to old French records, April was supposed to be the best month for weather in the A Shau Valley. As it turned out, May would have been a far better month––but you don’t win them all.” That lesson, however, would not be lost on the 101st Airborne Division, who, in May 1969, stormed Dong Ap Bia Mountain, commonly known as Hamburger Hill, on the opposite side of the valley, just southwest of Signal Hill. The NVA lost that battle, too, yet they returned to A Shau, prompting criticism of American tactics. But with South Vietnam’s wild and remote borders over twice as long as the trenches in France during World War I—which were manned by millions of troops—there simply were not enough allied soldiers to secure them. With that limitation in mind, airmobile divisions such as the 1st Cav and 101st Airborne demonstrated that a unit need not be based in the hinterlands to operate and destroy the enemy there.
Robert C. Ankony, PhD, is a sociologist who writes criminological, firearms, and military articles for scientific and professional journals and special-interest magazines. He served as an Army Ranger in Vietnam and is the author of Lurps: A Ranger’s Diary of Tet, Khe Sanh, A Shau, and Quang Tri, revised ed., (Lanham, MD: Hamilton Books, 2009). Nominated for the Army Historical Foundation’s 2006 and 2009 Distinguished Writing Award.
Originally published in Vietnam magazine, cover story, October 2008, 26--31.