When it comes to submarine action during World War II, there are a number of standouts, and among them is the submarine USS Barb (SS 220). But what makes Barb unique? No other submarine can boast a train on its battle flag.
There can’t be a story about USS Barb without mentioning one of the submarine’s main characters: commanding officer Lt. Cmdr. Eugene B. Fluckey. The Washington, D.C.-native was to Barb as chocolate is to peanut butter.
While there are many fascinating tales about Barb during World War II, this one, in particular, is during the sub’s 12th and final war patrol that began in June 1945. The sub, crew and her skipper were still basking in the glow of Barb’s 11th war patrol that earned Fluckey the Medal of Honor and the Presidential Unit Citation for the crew of the submarine. He had previously earned four Navy Crosses.
But Fluckey wasn’t about to rest on his or the sub’s laurels after bargaining a fifth war patrol from Adm. Charles A. Lockwood, Commanding Officer of Submarine Force Pacific Fleet. The Gato-class, diesel-powered submarine was soon sinking Japanese supply transports off the northern coast of Japan in the Sea of Okhotsk. The submarine also fired the first sub-launched ballistic missiles onto Japanese soil, thanks to a request by Fluckey to add that weapon system during the submarine’s overhaul.
Fluckey had observed trains bringing supplies and materials to enemy ships on the northern Japanese island of Karafuto. They were already successful in stopping supplies getting to the fleet by transport ships. Why not keep the supplies from even getting to the transport ships, he thought.
The crew began to ponder how to take out the train. Placing charges under the tracks and detonating them as the train went by was too dangerous, Fluckey determined, because it put the shore crew at risk.
But Barb’s crew had taken to heart Fluckey’s mantra: If there is a problem, find the solution.
According to Fluckey’s book “Thunder Below!” Engineman 3rd Class Billy Hatfield offered that solution. The Ohio native recalled as a young boy placing nuts between the railroad ties. When the rails sagged as the trains rolled over them, the shells cracked. They could devise a micro-switch, tie it between two ties and the train would detonate its own bomb, just like cracking shells on a nut. Hatfield asked to lead the shore party.
There was no shortage of volunteers, including a Japanese POW onboard the Barb, Fluckey recalled in his book. First, they had to meet Fluckey’s criteria: The remaining seven volunteers had to be unmarried, a fair mix of regular Navy and reserve, represent all departments, and at least half were former Boy Scouts. Why Boy Scouts? As a former Scout, Fluckey knew they had been trained for medical emergencies and what to do if they got lost.
Four days later, the weather provided enough cloud cover to darken the moon and Barb inched to within 950 yards of the shore.
At just after midnight on July 23, 1945, Fluckey’s commandoes slipped into their small boats. Fluckey advised the crew what to do if things went wrong, according to a passage in his book: “Boys, if you get stuck, head for Siberia, 130 miles north, following the mountain ranges. Good luck.”
Less than a half-hour later, Navy Sailors were the first American combatants to set foot on one of Japan’s homeland islands:
Chief Gunners Mate Paul G. Saunders, USN
Engineman 3rd Class Billy Hatfield, USNR
Signalman 2nd Class Francis Neal Sever, USNR
Ship’s Cook 1st Class Lawrence W. Newland, USN
Torpedoman’s Mate 3rd Class Edward W. Klingesmith, USNR
Motor Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class James E. Richard, USN
Motor Machinist’s Mate 1st Class John Markuson, USN
Lt. William M. Walker, USNR
As with most missions, this one had its fair share of unplanned moments. The men were off on their bearings and landed near the backyard of a Japanese home. Although dog prints on the beach had the crew on high alert, luckily both human and canine occupants remained asleep.
The eight men plowed through rustling waist-high bulrushes crossed a highway and with their path obscured by darkness, took a tumble or two down unexpected drainage ditches. Upon reaching the tracks, three men set up guard stations. Markuson climbed a water tower to assess the landscape only to discover it was a lookout post. He silently crept back down, never waking the sleeping guard.
Alerted to the snoozing sentry above, the train crew worked quietly to dig the holes for the 55-pound explosive charge and detonator switch. Before they finished, however, an express train bore down the tracks, forcing the crew to scatter into the brush until it rumbled by.
Finally, all that was left was the most dangerous part of the mission – setting up the detonator switch. Fluckey ordered only Hatfield to be on the tracks during that procedure, but all seven crewmembers disobeyed as they nervously peered over the engineman-s shoulder as he connected the pressure switch.
Ninety minutes from when they left, the shore crew signaled they were headed back. Fluckey had eased Barb to within 600 yards of shore. Fifteen minutes later, with the crew halfway to safety, another train thundered down the track toward its final destiny. The need for stealth evaporated.
“Paddle like the devil!” Fluckey bellowed through a megaphone to his men. At 1:47 a.m., the 16-car train hit the detonator. The explosion sent pieces of the engine into the sky like a fireworks display. Five minutes later, all of the men were back on Barb. Upon reaching deeper water, Fluckey ordered all non-essential hands on deck to witness their achievement – “sinking” a train on Japanese soil.
Barb’s final patrol ended Aug. 2, 1945, at Midway. A few days later, the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought about the Japanese surrender and the end of World War II.
The submarine’s battle flag reflected Barb’s remarkable accomplishments: 12 war patrols, five in the European Theater and seven in the Pacific; six Navy Crosses, 23 Silver Stars, 23 Bronze Stars and a Medal of Honor earned by members of the crew; a Presidential Unit Citation, a Navy Unit Commendation, and eight battle stars; 34 merchant ships damaged or sunk; five Japanese warships damaged or sunk, including the 22,500-ton escort carrier Unyo; rocket and gun symbols to denote shore bombardments, and ever so improbably, a train to commemorate Barb’s final war patrol.
Yet if you asked Fluckey which of the awards and recognitions represented on Barb’s battle flag he was most proud of, he would say it was the one medal not on the flag “the Purple Heart. Despite sinking the third most tonnage during World War II. ” 17 enemy vessels, 96,628 tons and a 16-car train – not a single Sailor’s life was lost or wounded on USS Barb.
A remarkable feat that earned the submarine, skipper and her Sailors their share of World War II fame.
To read more about Admiral Fluckey, go to http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/02/us/02fluckey.html
View the service history of actor/activist:
Sgt Wes Studi
Short Bio: Wes Studi served with A Company, 3rd Battalion, 39th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam.
He recently appeared on the Oscars presenting a montage of military themed films.
Humans have been leaving mementos on and within the final resting places of loved ones almost from the beginning of the species. Excavations of even the earliest graves uncover goods meant to serve the deceased in the next world, such as pottery, weapons, and beads.
The earliest known coins date to the late seventh century B.C., and as societies began embracing such monetary systems, the practice leaving of coins in the graves of citizens began yet another way of equipping the dear departed for the afterlife.
Mythologies within certain cultures added specific purpose for coins being left with the dead. In Greek mythology, Charon, the ferryman of Hades, required payment for his services. A coin was therefore placed in the mouth of the dear departed to ensure he would ferry the deceased across the rivers Styx and Acheron and into the world of the dead rather than leave him to wander the shore for a hundred years. In England and the U.S., pennies were routinely placed on the closed eyes of the dead, yet the purpose of that practice was not clear – some say it was to keep the eyes of the corpse from flying open (even though the eyes, once shut by the person laying out the body, do not reopen).
In these more recent days, coins and other small items are sometimes discovered on grave markers, be they plaques resting atop the sod or tombstones erected at the head of the burial plot. These small tokens are left by visitors for no greater purpose than to indicate that someone has visited that grave. It has long been a tradition among Jews, for example, to leave a small stone or pebble atop a headstone just to show that someone who cared had stopped by. Coins, especially pennies, are favored by others who wish to demonstrate that the deceased has not been forgotten and that his loved ones still visit him.
Sometimes these small remembrances convey meaning specific to the person buried in that plot. For more than twenty years, every month someone has been leaving one Campbell’s Tomato Soup can and a pocketful of change on the plain black granite tombstone that marks the grave of Andy Warhol. The soup can is easy to explain, given Warhol’s iconic use of that commodity in his art, but the handful of change remains a bit of a mystery. In a similar vein, visitors often leave pebbles, coins and maple leaf pins at the grave of Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, the man who replaced Canada’s Red Ensign with the Maple Leaf flag.
While visiting some cemeteries you may notice that headstones marking certain graves have coins on them, left by previous visitors to the grave.
A coin left on a headstone or at the grave site is meant as a message to the deceased’s family that someone else has visited the grave to pay respect.
For Military, leaving coins of different denominations denote their relationship with the deceased. Leaving a penny at the grave means simply that you visited. A nickel indicates that you and the deceased trained at boot camp together, while a dime means you served with him in some capacity. Leaving a quarter means you were there with them when they took their last breath.
The earliest reference to this practice we’ve found so far dates only to June 2009, when it appeared as a website post. A version now commonly circulated an e-mail appears to have been drawn from it, albeit some changes have slipped in, such as, “A buddy who served in the same outfit, or was with the deceased when he died, might leave a quarter”, becoming “By leaving a quarter at the grave, you are telling the family that you were with the Fallen when he/she was killed”.
According to tradition, the money left at graves in national cemeteries and state veterans cemeteries is eventually collected, and the funds are put toward maintaining the cemetery or paying burial costs for indigent veterans.
In the U.S., this practice became common during the Vietnam War, due to the political divide in the country over the war; leaving a coin was a more practical way to communicate that you had visited the grave than contacting the Soldier’s family, which could devolve into an uncomfortable argument over politics relating to the war.
Some Vietnam veterans would leave coins as a “down payment” to buy their fallen comrades a beer or play a hand of cards when they would finally be reunited.
Today, military folk do sometimes leave very special remembrances at the graves of deceased servicemen: challenge coins. These tokens identify their bearers as members of units and are prized and cherished by those to whom they have been given; thus, any challenge coins found at gravesites were almost certainly left there by comrades-in-arms of the deceased.
Next time you visit a cemetery, leave a coin. And now you know.
View the service history of singer/songwriter:
View Cpl Johnson service historyTogetherWeServed.com
Corporal Jamey Johnson served his country as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves prior to his days chasing the country music dream in Birmingham, Ala. and then Nashville. He speaksfondly of his days in the military, and even makes mention of it twice on his debut album.
“I’m very proud to have served in the Marines,” he told CMT in 2010. “I respect the Marines. They gave me guidance and stability. I’d wake up every day and have a purpose.”
Johnson was a mortar man, and while in the service he made friends with a number of other musicians. They’d sing and write songs together and many keep in contact with him today. At the time of the CMT interview, Johnson’s road manager was a man he served alongside
Vincent Hichiro Okamoto – featured in the PBS film ‘The Vietnam War’ by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick – was born November 22, 1943, in Poston, Arizona, War Relocation Center, where his family was interned during World War II. He was the youngest of the ten children of Henry and Yone Okamoto.
Following the family’s release in 1945 at the end of the war, they moved to South Chicago, where his parents ran a small grocery store. The family later moved to Gardena, California, when he was twelve years old. He attended Gardena High School, where he served as senior class president. He was a three-year letterman in track and football and belonged to the Men’s Honor Society.
Okamoto attended El Camino College from 1962 to 1965. From 1965 to 1967 he attended the University of Southern California receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations in 1967. He enrolled in Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) and was the first non-UCLA student to be commissioned through the UCLA ROTC program. He earned his commission as a U.S. Army 2nd Lieutenant.
Serving in the military was an Okamoto family tradition: All six of Okamoto’s older brothers served in the military. Two fought in Europe during World War II with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and another brother served with the First Marine Division during the Korean War. This family trend of serving in the armed forces would later influence Okamoto’s decision to volunteer to go to Vietnam in the late 1960s.
After receiving his commission in the infantry, Okamoto went through fourteen months of intensive combat training – including parachute and Army Ranger training at Ft. Benning, Georgia.
In 1968, he went to Vietnam, where he served in various capacities as an airborne ranger, infantry platoon leader, rifle company commander, and battalion intelligence officer, before he came back to the United States in 1970.
His first assignment was the intelligence-liaison officer for two months for the Phoenix Program while attached to Company B of the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry 25th Infantry Division – based at Cu Chi Chi, some 14 miles northwest of Saigon, an area honeycombed with miles of Vietcong tunnels. Following his two months with the Phoenix Program, he was assigned as a platoon leader in B Company.
During the conduct of a village search, his platoon didn’t find any weapons or communist literature. Since it was a particularly hot day and his men tired, Okamoto ordered a prolonged lunch break and then moved his RTO, platoon medic and interpreter into a particular house. There were three women inside and a babe in arms, including a kid about four years old. In one corner, an elderly woman was cooking rice. Okamoto’s attention was drawn to the hot, steaming rice – something he had not eaten for months – wanted some. He got his interpreter to ask the grandma that they will give her a pack of cigarettes, a can of C-Ration turkey loaf, and a can of peaches for some of that steamed rice and fish and vegetables. When asking for seconds, Okamoto’s RTO said, “Damn, ain’t these people poor enough without you eating their food?” Okamoto responded, “They’ve got enough rice here to feed a dozen men” And then it dawned on him: they did have enough rice to feed a dozen men. He hurriedly asked his interpreter to find out why so much rice. The interpreter turned to the old women, demanding to know ‘Who is all this rice for? And she said, ‘no biet, no biet, no biet – I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.’ That was enough for the Americans to look around more carefully. The search uncovered a tunnel entrance hidden beneath straw matting.
Okamoto threw a phosphorous grenade into the tunnel. After the smoke cleared, seven or eight bodies were pulled from the tunnel and thrown out into the town square. The bodies were so charred they couldn’t be identified. The women that lived in that house with all the rice were squatting down, wailing.
“I think that was the first time I knew that I personally had killed people. I got an ‘Atta boy’ from the company commander. It wasn’t something that had any glory in it, or made me feel a real sense of accomplishment” said Okamoto.
Over that summer, Okamoto was wounded twice and made 22 helicopter combat assaults, four of them as commander of Bravo Company. The success or failure of a given mission was measured by enemy body count. “Field commanders were told very succinctly,” Okamoto recalled. “We needed to rack up as much body count as we could. How many enemy did you kill today? A kill ratio determined whether or not you called a firefight a victory or a loss. If you kill twenty North Vietnamese or Vietcong and lost only two people, they declared it a great victory.”
On the morning of August 23, Okamoto made his 23rd combat assault. 19 helicopters ferried the first and second platoons to a new landing zone (LZ) just 13 miles from the Cambodian border near Dau Tieng district of Binh Duong Province in the Southeast region of Vietnam. Their task was to do again, stay put, and somehow block a battalion of some 800 North Vietnamese troops who were trying to escape back across the border.
Okamoto’s company was reinforced by a platoon of mechanized infantry, three APCs, and a tank, but they were still badly outnumbered. He and the fewer than 150 men under his command spent the rest of that day and all of the next preparing for an attack as best they could – setting Claymore mines and hanging coils of razor wire.
At about 10 o’clock on the night of August 24, Okamoto remembered, “We got hit with a very heavy mortar barrage. Within the first 10 seconds, all three of those armored personnel carriers and tanks were knocked out with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).
Trip flares briefly lit up the landscape. Scores of enemy troops were running at the Americans through the elephant grass. Enemy mortar shells blasted two gaps in the razor wire. If Okamoto and his outnumbered men couldn’t plug them, they were sure to be overrun. He and the four men closest to him held their M-16s above their head and fired blindly.
The enemy kept coming. “I had my four people. And through the light of the flares, I yelled, ‘a couple of you guys go in man the machine guns on those APCs.’ The response I got was like ‘screw you, I ain’t going up there.’ That was enough for me to run to the first armored personnel carrier, pull out the dead gunner out of the tournament. I jumped in there, manned the machine gun and fired it until I ran out of ammo.” Okamoto moved to the second disabled APC, then the third, emptying their guns.
“They were still coming at us. I crawled out there, till I was about 10 meters from them. I killed them with hand grenades.” Two enemy grenades fell near him. He managed to throw back both. But a third landed just beyond his reach. Shrapnel fragments peppered his legs and back. “I just knew for sure I was going to die. I thought, ‘Hey Okamoto, you’re not going to make it out of here. Mom’s going to take it hard, but you’re not going to make it out of here.’ That’s liberating. When you know you’re going to die, the fear leaves. At least in my case, I was no longer afraid. I was just mad because here are all these little guys trying to kill me. If that’s the case, then I’m going to make it as tough on them as they possibly can before I go down. I killed a lot of brave men that night. And I rationalize that by telling myself, ‘well, maybe what you did – just maybe – saved the lives of a couple of my men.'”
During the night the enemy slipped over the border into Cambodia, dragging as many of their dead with them as they could. A third of Okamoto’s company had been lost.
For his efforts that day, Vincent Okamoto received the Distinguished Service Cross, the U.S. Army’ second highest honor. He also received a Silver Star Medal and two Bronze Star Medals for valor and several Purple Heart Medals. By the end of the war, he was the most highly decorated Japanese-American to survive the Vietnam War.
For Okamoto, the real heroes were the men who died – nineteen, 20-year-old high school dropouts. Most were draftees. They didn’t have escape routes that the elite and the wealthy and the privilege had. They looked upon military service like the weather: you had to go in, and you’d do it. But to see these kids, who had the least to gain – there wasn’t anything to look forward to. They weren’t going to be rewarded for their service in Vietnam. And yet, their incident patients, their loyalty to each other, their courage under fire was just phenomenal. And you would ask yourself, “How does America produce young men like this?”
Following his discharge from active service in 1970, Okamoto began giving thought of going to law school. “I really did say to myself – and it sounds kind of corny – that if I am fortunate enough to live through this experience, then when I get back to the world – to America – I’d like to go through something that has rules, where people don’t throw grenades at each other and shoot at each other,” Okamoto said. “So I gave law school a shot.”
On the whole, law school proved to be less than enjoyable for Okamoto. But that did not deter him from going on to establish himself as a lawyer and, later, a judge.
“I hated law school,” Okamoto said. “In fact, I still look back and think law school was, other than Vietnam, probably the most unpleasant period of my life.”
For him, law school proved to have its own challenges and shortcomings. Coming back from three years in the U.S. Army – two of which were spent overseas – to law school at USC took some getting used to.
“I certainly didn’t set the legal academic world on fire when I was in law school,” he said. Having never associated with “study-mongers” in a classroom context, he “really had to work his tail off to survive academically.”
There was also the issue of the disparity he felt between himself and his classmates, who were usually several years younger and had never served in the military. “It was hard for me to come back from Vietnam and then listen to some young, twenty-four-year-old prodigy out of Harvard or Yale who’s talking about life experiences,” Okamoto said, recalling that disconnect with his law school peers when it came to lived experiences.
Though there were relatively few trial lawyers who were role models for Japanese Americans in the early 1970s, the few who were around helped the up-and-coming wave of young Japanese American attorneys.
“There were a few, and fortunately, those few worked hard, were well-thought of, so new guys like me were the beneficiaries of their positive appearances,” Okamoto said. “I look back on being a deputy district attorney as some of the better times of my life.”
In the mid-1970s, as a young deputy district attorney, Okamoto took part in the founding of the Japanese American Bar Association (JABA). Speaking to the reasons for his role in the formation of JABA, Okamoto emphasized the need for role models for the younger people in the community.
“At the time, I thought, in the event that more Japanese Americans become attorneys, we’re going to need some kind of organization – some mentoring if you will. And that’s what JABA started out to be,” Okamoto said.
“I think at the first or second installation dinner, we had a total turnout of forty people. And that’s with families and spouses, and all that,” Okamoto said. “You go to the JABA installations now, and multitudes and legions of people come out – some very, very prominent in politics, some in the legal community.”
JABA installation dinners now boast attendance in the hundreds and prominent guests from the legal community. Speaking to the growing ranks of JABA and its accomplishments since its inception, Okamoto lauded the direction of the organization.
Okamoto prosecuted criminal cases under the aegis of the deputy district attorney until 1978, when he started practicing private law with a former law school classmate.
“I wanted to make some money,” Okamoto said, explaining why he eventually decided to start his own practice. “Another former deputy DA that I’d gone to law school with, we left the DA office together, opened up shop and put out a shingle.”
As relatively new and young lawyers with their own practice, they struggled initially to find clients and to establish themselves. Eventually, though, they made a name for themselves as a firm and went on to represent notable clients like the port of San Pedro.
“It was a learning experience, starting down at the bottom rung of the ladder and having to climb up,” Okamoto said. “It took us a couple years before we actually made a profit, so it was tough on us, it was tough on our families, but it’s a rite of passage.”
Okamoto’s military service continues to inform his community involvement. He has served in the past as president of the Japanese American Vietnam War Veterans Memorial Committee. In the late 1980s, he led the committee to establish plans for the Japanese American Vietnam Veterans Memorial at what is now the National Japanese American Veterans Memorial Court, located at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC) in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. The black granite memorial lists the names of 114 Japanese Americans who were killed in action or are missing in action in Vietnam.
Speaking to the valor of the Japanese Americans who decided to fight for the United States during World War II, Okamoto highlighted the fierce patriotism that led them to fight for a country that had placed nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans into inland concentration camps. “Having been denied due process, having been imprisoned behind barbed wire stockades, they still felt a love of country and felt it was their duty to go serve and fight for the very country that had confined them,” Okamoto said. “That’s part of the Japanese American experience in this country. It’s something that’s unparalleled.”
“I consider the Japanese American Vietnam Veterans Memorial one of my more noteworthy accomplishments,” Okamoto said. “And once we did that, then the Korean War vets said, hey, we should do the same thing. So two and half years later they put up their monument. Then the World War II guys said, hey, here are these little punks from Vietnam, and our younger brothers from Korea, we should have one for our people.”
With the addition of a memorial for the Japanese Americans who fought in the Korean War and in World War II, the National Japanese American Veterans Memorial Court features the name of all the Japanese Americans who were killed in the conflicts of the United States.
“To me, the significance of that is the Japanese American community, their loved ones, and friends can go there to commune with those that died in the war. But it tells America, and the public at large – hey, all Japanese Americans didn’t go to pharmacy school, or become dentists, or doctors, or engineers,” Okamoto said. “The Japanese Americans paid with their life’s blood to be able to live in mainstream American society, and if you don’t believe me, go on down to the JACCC and look at the names of over twelve hundred Japanese Americans who were killed in America’s wars.”
In 2002, California’s Governor Gray Davis appointed Okamoto to the Los Angeles County Superior Court bench. Okamoto had submitted an application for a judgeship at the encouragement of his mentors, role models, and friends in the Japanese American legal community.
“I was fortunate enough to get an exceptionally well-qualified rating, and then I had to go to Sacramento to be interviewed,” Okamoto said. “I think I just lucked out, or maybe I fooled them. I’m not quite sure. But after about four or five months, it was kind of neat. I get the call from Burt Pines, the appointments secretary, then he says the governor’s on the phone, and bingo, with a stroke of his pen, I’m a judge.”
Davis personally swore Okamoto in as a judge on August 26, 2002, at the Nisei Veterans of Foreign Wars facility in Gardena. Since then, Okamoto has enjoyed his role on the Superior Court bench. “I’m a fan of trial courts, and what I’m doing now as a judge is probably the best job I ever had in the world,” Okamoto said.
Among Okamoto’s other achievement are two books documenting the stories of veterans. The first, ‘Wolfhound Samurai’ (2008), is an autobiographical account of the Vietnam War in novel form to minimize the hurt to actual people, according to Okamoto. The second, ‘Forged in Fire’ (2012), tells the story of Hershey Miyamura, a Japanese American Medal of Honor recipient and distinguished Korean War veteran.
Video on Vincent Okamoto found at:
Okamoto’s DSC award found at http://valor.militarytimes.com/recipient.php?recipientid=5126
View the service history of Gold Medalist:
Col Micki Hogue US Air Force (Served 1966-1992)
View her service history on TogetherWeServed.com
Short Bio: She was the dominant figure in women’s diving in the United States from 1965 to 1972, winning 10 national championships, including both springboard and platform events. At the 1968 Summer Olympics, she was in first place in the three three meter springboard event when she broke her left arm on the ninth dive; she completed the tenth dive, but finished in fourth place. In 1972, she made a comeback at the Munich Olympics, winning the gold medal in the three meter springboard event.
King was a career officer in the United States Air Force from 1966 to 1992, retiring in the rank of Colonel. She taught physical education and coached diving at the United States Air Force Academy, becoming the first woman to serve on the faculty of a U.S military academy and the first woman to coach a male athlete to an NCAA championship.
Tet Offensive. Siege of the Khe Sanh. Battle of Hue. Fall of Saigon. These are just a few of the names a person might hear when discussing famous battles of the Vietnam War. Less likely to be mentioned is the final high-casualty engagement between units of the U.S. infantry and the North Vietnamese Army. Taking place between March and July 1970, the Battle of Fire Support Base Ripcord would stay tucked into a hidden chapter of the war’s history for decades.
At the same time, President Richard Nixon was secretly withdrawing troops from Vietnam, leaving only the 101st Airborne Division fully operational which he tasked with regaining initiative of the A Shau Valley, a key strategic focal point for the NVA.
So it was that members of the 187th and 506th Infantry Regiments, along with supporting units under the command of 3rd Brigade, were sent to the abandoned Fire Support Base Ripcord to set the stage for the planned offensive ‘Operation Texas Star.’
The plan was to rebuild the abandoned fire support base set on four hilltops to be used as outposts for the planned offensive by the U.S. Marines to search and destroy the NVA supply lines in the mountains overlooking the valley.
The operation was held with as little press coverage as possible since it was happening during the time of the Cambodian incursion in May and June 1970. This was a series of 13 major missions conducted covertly in neutral Cambodia but Cambodian communists were helping North Vietnam with logistics and other types of support. It was also one year after the media disaster of Hamburger Hill, the battle known for its questionable use of infantry instead of firepower which led to 75 Soldiers losing their lives and another 372 wounded.
The Cambodian campaign was aimed to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh supply trail which spanned outside Vietnam borders, through Laos and Cambodia. The mission was of similar nature as the ‘Texas Star Operation’ and even though the latter was not secret, it was still on the certain level of “Need to Know Basis”.
While the members of the 101st Division were rebuilding the base and preparing the attack on the enemy supply lines, the NVA was secretly gathering intelligence. They also launched sporadic attacks from March 12th and lasted until June 30th. It is estimated that as many as 25,000 NVA troops were positioned in the A Shau Valley area at the time.
After weeks of reconnaissance, on the morning of July 1, 1970, the North Vietnamese started firing mortars at the firebase. The battle for the hilltops raged for days. The 101st was surrounded, outnumbered almost ten to one and running low on supplies. It was only the high ground and the bravery of its defenders that kept the enemy from overrunning the FSB Ripcord.
The heaviest of these attacks took place between July 1st and 23rd. During those 23-days, 75 U.S. Soldiers were killed in action, making the Battle of FSB Ripcord one of the deadliest battles in the Vietnam War for the United States.
Col. Ben Harrison (later Maj. Gen.), the Commander of the 3rd Brigade, claimed the NVA losses at Ripcord were one of the reasons why the North postponed their Easter Offensive that finally happened in 1972 since they had to resupply and reorganize after the attacks on the firebase.
Denny Kirkham was 18 years old at the time. Drafted only one month out of high school, he served in Vietnam as a Spec. 4 Radio Operator for 3rd Brigade’s Tactical Operations Center at Camp Evans. Working in the lines of communication, his MOS was to be picked up and placed where needed. This is how he came to be part of FSB Ripcord history.
“I woke up one night out of my bunk and was thrown into a Huey with a Spec 5 Radio Repairman,” reported Kirkham. “Next thing I know, we’re flying in the dark, jumping off and skidding onto the hillside. That’s how it all started. Tactical operations bunker on Ripcord had been partially hit, and there was some wounded personnel. A couple of those were signalmen, radio operators. We were there to resupply and support communications.”
Though only there for a week and a half, Kirkham was inundated with the siege and all of the pandemonium that went along with it.
“It kind of just dragged on and on,” recalled Kirkham. “I was there for several of the attempts of the NVA to come through the wall. We were surrounded most of the time. It was my first time being under mortar and artillery fire. I witnessed several of the B-52 strikes.”
Kirkham was also there when anti-aircraft fire from enemy forces dealt one of the biggest blows to FSB Ripcord’s supply cache.
“A helicopter was shot down right above the ammo dump,” said Kirkham. “It was like the whole top of the hill was coming off. That hurt us for several days. We had to depend on other bases around Ripcord to really help cover us until we could be resupplied.”
Though young and in awe of his surroundings, Kirkham was aware that, like everyone else, he was placed on the hill to do a job.
“It was a counter-insurgency operation,” he said. “I was a radio operator with secure information. We had classified information coming in. At one time, my radio was the only one that was transmitting. I was able to keep it going, and I was kept busy for a little farm boy from Indiana. I stayed on my toes; leaning up against sandbags to sleep for an hour, then staying up for another 12. I don’t remember a bunk at all. I don’t remember sleeping.”
That feeling was echoed throughout the base, from the grunts in the foxholes working to diminish the strength of the NVA battalions to the “Shake n’ Bake Sergeants” who had risen through the ranks in the blink of an eye to satisfy a growing need for NCOs to lead the way.
As an offensive quickly dissolved into a standoff and a fight for survival, it was decided that defending the base was not going to accomplish anything in the long run. Immediate and swift lifeline withdrawals soon followed.
On July 23, after the helicopters withdrew the survivors under heavy mortar, anti-aircraft and small arms fire. After the evacuation, the U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers were called in for carpet bombing.
“The withdrawals began happening so fast that a specialist and I were put onto a Huey that had body bags on it that were filled. We were getting off that mountain any way we possibly could toward the end. I was glad to get off there, but riding off with the KIAs was hard. I witnessed several of the B-52 strikes” said Kirkham.
“With what was happening back in the states with the anti-war situation, they didn’t want to bring up another Hamburger Hill to throw into the mix,” added Kirkham. “Newspapers and TV back in the States didn’t want to see those body counts.”
When the FSB Ripcord Association emerged in 1985, the American public began to learn more and more about the battle. With the emergence of the story came a surprise for Kirkham: a Bronze Star in honor of his actions.
Following the war, Kirkham returned to the States and lived the civilian life for a few years. In 1975, he rejoined the Army voluntarily, serving until his retirement in 1993. He returned to his hometown of Corydon, IN, in 2005 after the passing of his wife. Though more than 47 years separate his initial connection to the Screaming Eagles, his ties to the community remain strong.
The final death toll of the FSB Ripcord battle from March 12 to July 23, was 138 American Soldiers. There were also 3 men missing in action. Among the men killed in action were the professional football player Bob Kalsu, who played for the Buffalo Bills, before being drafted and Weiland Norris, the brother of Chuck Norris.
Three Medals of Honor and five Distinguished Service Crosses were awarded to the men who fought at Ripcord. One of the Medals of Honor was awarded to Lt. Col. Andre Lucas, who died on the last day of the battle after directing the successful retreat of his men.
Lt. Col. Lucas on one occasion during the battle flew in a helicopter at a treetop level above an entrenched enemy directing fire for over 3 hours. He remained in an exposed position as long as he could, and after that swapped his damaged helicopter for another one, and immediately resumed his perilous mission.
On another occasion he attempted to rescue a crewman trapped in a burning helicopter, all by himself, risking his life under heavy fire.
The Battle of FSB Ripcord was not very known to the public, mostly because the Nixon administration wanted to avoid any media coverage of the last major battle in the Vietnam War. The memory of the battle was revived in 1985 when The FSB Ripcord Association was established to honor the fallen and remember the survivors.
“When a free nation sends men and women to war, their sacrifice must be honored and rewarded. Regardless of the outcome, these people deserve our thanks, respect, support and more importantly a place in our memories.”
~Martin Hinton on the Battle of Firebase Ripcord