I came into the tent one afternoon on the second or third day we had been there and Mike was busy writing a letter. I casually asked who he was writing and he said, “Bobby Kennedy.” “As in Senator RFK?” I asked “Yes.” I said I didn’t think we had been here long enough to complain to our Senators. He said he was asking for a New York state flag. I stated that it was unfortunate that he came from a state with so many people that his pleas would never be heard. He made some disparaging remarks about the remoteness and backwardness of Arizona and the race was on. He wrote to Sen. Kennedy and I wrote to Sen. Carl Hayden of Arizona.
I had my reply in a mail cycle plus a few days. Nothing from New York. I wrote back to the Senator to thank him for his efforts. He was unable to fill my request through his office, but he pointed me in the direction of the state official who could. In my correspondence with his office, I kept referring to the secretary who was really opening the mail assuming that she was a lovely example of the girl next door. He mentioned her name and after I quit writing the Senator, I started writing her. In the meantime crickets from New York. I wish I had Mike’s later letters to the Senator because they were pretty caustic. Need I mention that my flag arrived before Mike heard from Kennedy? He finally mailed his driver’s license to Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and said he would not be returning to New York.
Then the press got a hold of it and flags came to Mike from everywhere. From the selectmen in Schenectady, and, finally, Bobby Kennedy’s office.
It is a silly little story but it was a great diversion and made for a war story that involved no violence. Suddenly it was the big thing in several squadrons – get your state flag and hang it up. There were a lot of them.
There are two interesting footnotes to this story: after the assassination of MLK there was much tension everywhere in Vietnam and the air wing was no exception. It was decreed that all flags would come down rather than removing just the ones that involved a Confederate motif.
The other is my continued correspondence with Ann, the secretary. After extending our tours, Mike and I came home on leave and I found myself in Washington DC and reached out to Ann. Her parents informed me that she was in Chicago at the convention. I finally reached her there (by this time she was Walter Mondale’s secretary) and she said stop by the Hilton, so I did. We got into the convention to hear Mayor Daley let the rest of the Dems know how it is done in Chicago. Had the joy of sharing tear gas with the hippies being pounded on by Chicago’s finest in Grant Park. Wined and dined on the finest the Hilton could send up paid for by the DNC. Livin’ large. Twenty or so very exciting hours in my life.
One other note – Mike never did go back to New York as promised. Instead, he married a Flagstaff girl and stayed.
The citation which Mike received stated that his actions took place “deep within enemy-controlled territory.” While this is factually correct, it is also misleading. Staff Sgt. Fred Zabitosky received a Medal of Honor with the same notation (DA GO 69-27). After some time and, I believe, court intervention, the awards was reissued with a change reading “within enemy-controlled territory in Laos” (DA GO 91-23). Why is this important?
In 1962, Averell Harriman, Ambassador at Large in the Kennedy Administration, negotiated an agreement meant to establish the neutralization of Laos. The United States withdrew the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group in Laos 666 military advisors from Laos in accordance with this agreement. The North Vietnamese ceremonially withdrew 25 personnel, leaving well over 10,000 North Vietnamese troops in Laos. The United States failed to respond strongly to this total negation of the agreement and, for many years, pretended to accept the myth of North Vietnamese withdrawal. When it was required to act out of due diligence against those forces, it established elaborate ruses to do so; Project 404 (sheep-dipped military personnel acting as Assistant Military Attaches) and CIA-led Hmong and other elements in Laos, and cross-border operations by MACV-SOG from Vietnam. The consequences of this facade were well-documented in Norman B. Hannah’s “The Key to Failure: Laos & the Vietnam War” (Madison Books, 1987).
GI’s in Vietnam usually attributed it to an effort by the State Department to preserve Harriman’s historical legacy, dubbing the Ho Chi Minh Trail as “The Averell Harriman Memorial Highway.” The U.S. denied it had any military forces in Laos, when, in fact, the small numbers of military personnel engaged in Laos were there solely because of a much larger, and also denied North Vietnamese presence. Thus, in 1969, Fred Zabitosky’s Medal of Honor and other awards to SOG personnel engaged in cross-border operations were written up with the phrase “deep within enemy-controlled territory.”
In 1970, when the Government of Cambodia permitted U.S. and South Vietnamese forces to enter its country and engage the North Vietnamese forces that were occupying vast tracts of Cambodia, they also closed the port of Sihanoukville to the transshipment of supplies to those North Vietnamese forces. It became evident that the bulk of the Communist material was coming through Cambodia. The North Vietnamese recognized this and determined to expand and secure their supply route through Laos on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. One of the actions they took, in September 1970, was to attack Laotian and CIA forces on the Bolevens Plateau in order to expand their control westward. MACSOG personnel conducted Operation Tailwind at the request of the ambassador in Laos, to distract the North Vietnamese and relieve the pressure on units on the Bolevens. Mike Rose received his award for actions in Tailwind that received attention because of the totally bogus story aired by CNN in 1998.
By denying an American presence in Laos, the historical record has been misconstrued, beyond the operational aspects that affected the outcome of the war. In the recent Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary, episode 2 (1961-1963) states that “Kennedy sent the Green Berets to the Central Highlands of Vietnam to organize mountain tribes to fight the Viet Cong to undertake covert [emphasis added] missions to sabotage their supply bases in Laos and Cambodia,” as though this was an illegitimate action undertaken by the U.S. Ken Burns accepts the presence of Communist sanctuaries in those countries without questioning the self-imposed restraints by the U.S. Later, in discussing the failed ARVN Operation Lam Son 719 in Episode 9 (May 1970-March 1973), he points out that “by the end of 1970, both houses of Congress had barred all U.S. ground personnel, even advisors, and special forces, from crossing the border,” but he fails to chastise Congress for its one-sided proscription.
In the time frame of the Vietnam War, it may have been useful to designate operations as being “deep within enemy-held territory,” under a flawed diplomatic policy. But in the context of history written post-war, that terminology is not only inappropriate, but it perpetuates misperceptions that color the public understanding of that history. It might be useful to find out who and why this terminology was used in Mike Rose’s award citation, but it would be even more useful to correct the record. No one was shy about talking about Laos in the award ceremony, only in the award itself.
Stephen Sherman served with 5th Special Forces Group (ABN) in Vietnam. He is presently the editor of a series of books on the Second Indochina War and a principal contributor to a website devoted to correcting the Burns/PBS documentary of the Vietnam War, which can be found at http://wiki.vvfh.org
An interview with Stephen Sherman can be found at https://www.sofmag.com/special-forces-and-special-operations-activities-in-southeast-asia-from-1954-1976/
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
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
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick say their multi-part PBS documentary about the Vietnam War, which concluded at the end of September, was intended to unpack a complex conflict and to embark upon the process of healing and reconciliation. The series has catapulted the Vietnam War back into the national consciousness. But despite thousands of books, articles, and films about this moment in our history, there remain many deeply entrenched myths.
MYTH NO. 1
The Viet Cong was a scrappy guerrilla force fighting a superpower.
“Vastly superior in tools and techniques, and militarily dominant over much of the world,” historian Ronald Aronson wrote about the hegemonic United States and the impudent rebels, “the Goliath sought to impose on David a peace favorable to his vision of the world.” Recode recently compared the Viet Cong to Uber: “young, scrappy and hungry troops break rules and create new norms, shocking the enemy.”
In reality, the Viet Cong, the pro-North force in South Vietnam, was armed by both North Vietnam – which planned, controlled and directed Viet Cong campaigns in the South – and the Soviet Union. According to the CIA, from 1954 to 1968, communist nations (primarily the Soviet Union and China) provided the North with $3.2 billion in military and economic aid, mostly coming after 1964 as the war accelerated. Other sources suggest the number was more than double that figure.
The Viet Cong had powerful and modern AK-47s, a Soviet-made automatic rifle that was the equivalent of the M-16 used by American troops. Its fighters were also equipped with submachine guns, grenades, rocket launchers and an array of other weapons. By contrast, the U.S. military gave the South Vietnamese armed forces old World War II-era castoffs, such as M-1 rifles, until the late 1970s.
MYTH NO. 2
The Vietnamese refugees who came to the United States represented the elite.
As the Immigration Policy Center’s Alicia Campi has put it, the 130,000 Vietnamese who came to the United States at the end of the conflict “were generally high-skilled and well-educated” people. Sociologist Carl Bankston described this group as “the elite of South Vietnam.”
Although the group that fled in 1975, referred to as the first wave, was more educated and middle-class, many who arrived through the U.S.-sponsored evacuation efforts were also people with close ties to the Americans in Vietnam whom Washington had promised to rescue. They were not necessarily “elite.” These included ordinary soldiers of South Vietnam as well as people who had worked as clerks or secretaries in the U.S. Embassy.
The second wave of refugees who left Vietnam after 1975 numbered approximately 2 million. They came from rural areas and were often less educated. Most escaped on rickety wooden boats and became known as “boat people”; they deluged neighboring countries of “first asylum” – Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Indonesia – at a rate of 2,000 to 50,000 per month. More than 400,000 were admitted into the United States.
The third wave of refugees, of which an estimated 159,000 came to the United States beginning in 1989, were offspring of American fathers and Vietnamese mothers, as well as political prisoners and those who had been put in “reeducation camps.”
MYTH NO. 3
The American fighting force in Vietnam relied on the draft.
Popular culture is rife with examples of poor and minority soldiers arriving in Vietnam via the draft and then dying. The idea runs through the heart of Robert Zemeckis’s “Forrest Gump,” Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” and Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter,” among other movies and books. Vietnam was “the most blatant class war since the Civil War,” as James Fallows put it in his 1989 book “More Like Us.”
The facts show otherwise. Findings from the Report of the President’s Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force in February 1970 show that 78 percent of active-duty troops in 1965 were volunteers. Nor did the military rely primarily on disadvantaged citizens or African Americans. According to the commission’s report, African Americans “constituted only 12.7 percent of nearly 1.7 million enlisted men serving voluntarily in 1969.” Seventy-nine percent of troops had at least a high school education (compared with 63 percent of Korean War veterans and 45 percent of World War II veterans). And according to VFW Magazine, 50 percent were from middle-income backgrounds, and 88 percent were white (representing 86 percent of the deaths).
MYTH NO. 4
Communist forces breached the U.S. Embassy in Saigon during the Tet Offensive.
One of the most pivotal events of the Vietnam War was the attack by the Viet Cong on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon in 1968. Retired ambassador David F. Lambertson, who served as a political officer there, said in one account that “it was a shock to American and world opinion. The attack on the Embassy, the single most powerful symbol of U.S. presence signaled that something was badly wrong in Vietnam. The Tet Offensive broke the back of American public opinion.” Early reports by the Associated Press said the Viet Cong had occupied the building. UPI claimed that the fighters had taken over five floors.
In fact, communist forces had blasted a hole through an outer wall of the compound and hunkered down in a six-hour battle against U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. The embassy was never occupied, and the Viet Cong attackers were killed. The Tet Offensive’s other coordinated attacks by 60,000 enemy troops against South Vietnamese targets were repelled. Don Oberdorfer, writing for Smithsonian Magazine, observed that Tet was a military disaster for the North, yet it was “a battlefield defeat that ultimately yielded victory” for the enemy.
In part, that was because the erroneous reports about the embassy assault were searing and humiliating to Americans, and no subsequent military victories during Tet could dislodge the powerful notion that the war effort was doomed.
MYTH NO. 5
South Vietnamese soldiers were unwilling and unable to fight.
Some contend that the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), the South’s army, was not up to the job. Andy Walpole, formerly of Liverpool John Moores University, wrote that “they were unwilling to engage in combat with their guerrilla counterparts and were more interested in surviving than winning.” Harry F. Noyes, who served in Vietnam, complained about this widespread belief: “Everybody ‘knows’ they were incompetent, treacherous and cowardly.”
But those who fought alongside the ARVN tell a different story. Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, an adviser to the South Vietnamese Airborne Division, bemoaned that “the sacrifice and valor and commitment of the South Vietnamese Army largely disappeared from the American political and media consciousness.” He wrote of the tenacious fighting spirit of those troops, particularly at the Battle of Dong Ha, where they were charged with supporting American Marine units. “In combat, the South Vietnamese refused to leave their own dead or wounded troopers on the field or abandon a weapon,” he recalled.
South Vietnamese forces also fought off the surprise communist assaults on Saigon and elsewhere during the Tet Offensive of 1968. In August and September of that year, according to Gen. Creighton Abrams, commander of U.S. military operations from 1968 to 1972, “the ARVN killed more enemy than all other allied forces combined, and suffered more KIA, both actual and on the basis of the ratio of enemy to friendly killed in action,” because it received less air and other tactical support than U.S. forces. In March 1972, during the Easter Offensive, South Vietnamese forces, with American air support, also prevailed against a conventional enemy invasion consisting of 20 divisions. And in April 1975, the 18th Division defending Xuan Loc “held off massive attacks by an entire North Vietnamese Army corps,” according to one report. In the end, those soldiers had even more at stake than the Americans did.
Source: Lan Cao
Kurt Chew-Een Lee is believed to have been the first Asian-American officer in the Marine Corps, rising through the ranks beginning his career from World War II to the Vietnam War.
Lee was born in 1926 in San Francisco and grew up in Sacramento, California. Lee’s father was M. Young Lee, born in Guangzhou (Canton), emigrating in the 1920s to the Territory of Hawaii and then California. Once established in America, M. Young Lee returned to China to honor an arranged marriage. He brought his bride to California and worked as a distributor of fruits and vegetable to hotels and restaurants. Two of his brothers, Chew-Fan and Chew-Mon, became Army officers who also served in the Korean War. Chew-Mon received the Distinguished Service Cross and Chew-Fan the Bronze Star.
Eager to fight in World War II, Kurt Chew-Een Lee joined the U.S. Marine in 1944. Instead, he was based at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego as a language instructor.
From October 1945 to April 1946, Lee was enrolled in The Basic School, newly reactivated for USMC officer training. Second Lieutenant Lee graduated to become the first non-white officer and the first Asian-American officer in the Marine Corps. He deployed to Guam and China to interrogate Japanese prisoners of war
He was the only person of Asian ancestry many of his fellow Marines had ever met. Behind his back, some called him a “Chinese laundry man” and questioned whether he was ready to kill Chinese soldiers. Some even questioned his loyalty as U.S. forces were battling Chinese forces, which had joined the conflict on the side of North Koreans
But as his unit faced the intense enemy fire, rugged territory, and brutal weather, he won his men’s loyalty as he repeatedly put himself at risk to protect his unit and others.
When the North Koreans attacked across the DMZ in June 1950, Lee’s unit was shipped out to Korea on September 1, 1950. For two weeks he drilled his machine-gun platoon day and night on the deck of the ship, enduring derision from the other platoon leaders.
After arriving in Japan for final battle preparations, Lee’s superiors tried to reassign him as staff officer handling translation duties. Lee insisted that he was only there to “fight communists,” and allowed to retain command of his machine gun platoon.
The 1st Battalion 7th Marines, including Lee, landed at Inchon on September 21, 1950, to attack the North Koreans and force them to retreat northwards. The People’s Republic of China sent troops to stiffen the North Korean fighting response. On the night of November 2 – 3 in the Sudong Gorge, Lee conducted a sole reconnaissance mission in heavy snow, moving well ahead of his unit. He fired rounds and threw grenades to make it sound like the Marines were advancing.
When Lee reached the outpost where the Chinese forces were hiding, he employed a ruse no one in his unit could’ve done. “Don’t shoot!” he yelled. “I’m Chinese.”
Hearing Chinese confused them and the temporary distraction proved crucial as the Marines launched a counterattack.
During the attack, Lee kept his men focused by directing them to shoot at the enemy’s muzzle flashes. Following this, Lee single-handedly advanced upon the enemy front and attacked their positions one by one to draw their fire and reveal themselves.
His men fired at the muzzle flashes and inflicted casualties, forcing the enemy to retreat. While advancing, Lee shouted to the enemy in Mandarin Chinese to sow confusion and then attacked with hand grenades and gunfire. Lee was wounded in the knee and in the morning light was shot in the right elbow by a sniper, shattering the bones. He was evacuated to an army field hospital outside of Hamhung. For bravely attacking the enemy and saving his men, Lee was awarded the Navy Cross, the second highest honor given for combat bravery.
“Despite serious wounds sustained as he pushed forward,” the citation read, “First Lieutenant Lee charged directly into the face of the enemy fire and, by his dauntless fighting spirit and resourcefulness, served to inspire other members of his platoon to heroic efforts in pressing a determined counterattack and driving the hostile forces from the sector.”
Some who either served with Maj. Lee or knew of him said they believed he was deserving of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award.
Less than a month later, while Lee was recovering in a field hospital from a gunshot wound to an arm, tens of thousands of Chinese forces surged into the region, overwhelming 8,000 American troops fighting as United Nations forces.
His arm was still in a sling when he and a sergeant left the hospital against orders, commandeered an Army jeep and returned to the front. Over the next two weeks, Lee helped lead his unit of several hundred Marines across snowy mountain passes at night, using only a compass to find and reinforce smaller groups that had been surrounded.
Late on December 2nd after several days of exhausting combat during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, Lee’s platoon was given the task of spearheading a 500-man thrust against the Chinese forces to relieve the outnumbered Fox Company of 2nd Battalion 7th Marines trapped on Fox Hill, part of Toktong Pass and strategic to controlling the Chosin Reservoir road. Lee’s relief force was given heavier loads to carry through the snow, up and down lightly wooded hills, through the extreme cold (-20 F, -29 C), and under the very limited visibility of snow blizzard and darkness. Lt. Col. Ray Davis, Commanding Officer of 1st Battalion, had no instructions for Lee on how to accomplish the mission except to stay off the roads with their heavily reinforced roadblocks.
As point man of 2nd Rifle Platoon in Baker Company, Lee used only his compass to guide his way, leading 1st Battalion in single file. Suddenly pinned down by heavy enemy fire coming from a rocky hill, Lee refused to be delayed in his mission. He directed the men to attack the hill with “marching fire”, a stratagem used by General George S. Patton in which troops continue to advance as they apply just enough suppressive fire to keep the enemy’s heads down. Upon reaching the rocky hill, Lee and the battalion charged, attacking enemy soldiers in their foxholes. Lee, with his right arm still in a cast, shot two enemy soldiers on his way to the top. When he reached the top, he noticed that the other side of the hill was covered with enemy foxholes facing the other way in expectation of an attack from the road, but the foxholes were now empty and the enemy soldiers were over 400 yards (370 m) away in rout because of the fearfully sudden 1st Battalion attack from their rear.
Following this success, communication was established with nearby Fox Company on Fox Hill. 1st Battalion directed mortar fire against the enemy and called in an airstrike, then Lee led Baker Company forward in an attack which forced a path to Fox Company. During this attack, a Chinese machine gunner targeted Lee, wounding him seriously enough to end his Korean War service. Regrouping his men, the badly wounded Lee led Baker Company in more firefights against pockets of enemy soldiers in the Toktong Pass area, securing the road. Lieutenant Colonel Davis received the Medal of Honor for commanding the relief of Fox Company. For this action, Lee was awarded the Silver Star.
“First Lieutenant Lee’s platoon was pinned down by intense hostile fire while attacking south on the main service road from Koto-Ri,” the citation said. “Observing that the heavy fire was inflicting numerous casualties, he exposed himself to the deadly fire to move among his troops, shouting words of encouragement and directing a withdrawal to covered positions. Assured that the last of his wounded was undercover, he was seeking shelter for himself when he was struck down and severely wounded by a burst of enemy machine-gun fire.”
In addition to the Navy Cross and the Silver Star, Maj. Lee received many other military honors, including a Purple Heart. While serving in the Vietnam War, he received his second Purple Heart. He also received the Legion of Merit.
Slight of build at 5 feet 6 inches tall and 130 pounds, he brought outsize determination to the battlefield, and his heroics have been recounted in books and a documentary film, “Uncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin,” shown on the Smithsonian Channel in 2010.Among books written featuring his exploits is “Colder the Hell: A Marine Rifle Company at Chosin Reservoir” (1996) by Joseph R. Owen.
Lee retired from military service at the rank of major in 1968 and worked a civilian job with New York Life Insurance Company for seven years. During this period, Lee’s mother died in Sacramento, and Lee’s brother Chew-Mon Lee died at the rank of colonel in the US Army while serving as an attache in Taiwan. His brother Chew-Fan Lee advanced in his career as a hospital pharmacist. In 1975, Lee began working as a regulatory compliance coordinator for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association; a position he held for almost two decades.
His first wife, Linda Rivera, died. His second marriage, to Helga Schneider Lee, ended in divorce. Neither marriage produced children. He had a step-daughter from his second marriage.
Kurt Chew-Een Lee died on March 3, 2014, at the age of 88.
Survivors include a stepdaughter, Nicole Ashley; and three sisters: Faustina Lee, Betty Mar and Juliet Yokoe and his brother Chew-Fan.
Retired U.S. Army Capt. Gary M. Rose was presented with the military’s highest honor for heroism by President Donald Trump at an Oct. 23rd ceremony at the White House.
Congress authorized the Medal of Honor for Rose, who will turned 70 on Oct. 17th, last summer after years of lobbying by the military on the California native’s behalf for his actions in saving and caring for dozens of fellow Soldiers during the so-called “Secret War in Laos.”
Researcher and Army veteran Neil Thorne, who has drafted a number of medal applications for members of the secret Studies and Observations Group in which Rose served, told the New York Times last year that his was the first Medal of Honor to expressly acknowledge the heroics of a Soldier on the ground in Operation Tailwind, which played out from Sept. 11-14, 1970, in Chavane, Laos.
At the time, President Richard M. Nixon was denying that American troops were even in the South East Asian country bordering Vietnam. The secrecy surrounding America’s classified operations during the Vietnam War continues to this day; the White House announcement about next month’s medal presentation does not mention that Rose was ever in Laos, in describing his heroics on the battlefield.
The statement says Rose “received the Medal of Honor for voluntarily risking his life on multiple occasions during combat operations while serving as a Medic with the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne). From Sept. 11 through September 14, 1970, while his unit was engaged with a much larger force deep in enemy-controlled territory, then-Sergeant Rose repeatedly ran into the line of enemy fire to provide critical medical aid to his comrades, using his own body on one occasion to shield a wounded American from harm.
On the final day of the mission, although wounded himself, Sergeant Rose voluntarily exposed himself to enemy fire while moving wounded personnel to the extraction point, loading them into helicopters, and helping to repel an enemy assault on the American position. As he boarded the final extraction helicopter, intense enemy fire hit the helicopter, causing it to crash shortly after takeoff. Again, ignoring his own injuries, Sergeant Rose pulled the helicopter crew and members of his unit from the burning wreckage and provided medical aid until another extraction helicopter arrived.”
On his second day in Laos, Rose was aiding a wounded Soldier when he “had a hole blown through my foot about the size of your thumb,” he told USA TODAY. “That night I took my boot off to see how bad it was. My index finger, my whole finger, slipped into the hole. So I took my finger out. I remember putting my sock back on. I remember thinking, I’ll worry about that later.”
The meritorious conduct “must involve great personal bravery or self-sacrifice so conspicuous as to clearly distinguish the individual above his or her comrades and must have involved risk of life. There must be incontestable proof of the performance of the meritorious conduct, and each recommendation for the award must be considered on the standard of extraordinary merit.”
Rose, previously was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the country’s second-highest award for valor.
After 20 years in the Army, he worked as a technical consultant in the defense and auto industries, developing user and maintenance manuals and training programs and materials.
The father of three and grandfather of two is now retired and lives with his wife, Margaret, in Huntsville, Alabama, where he is active in a number of charitable organizations.
By Darryl Elmore, U.S. Army (Ret)
In June 1964, I was part of an operation designed to intercept a VC propaganda team reported to be parading a small group of U.S. Prisoners of War along the border between Cambodia and Vietnam. The purpose was to show the locals and the VC units that the Americans were easily beaten in combat. In charge of this operation was Saigon based, Maj. LaMar and the 1st SFG A-Team at Trang Sup, a camp about 12 kilometers north of Tay Ninh.
The operational plan LaMar designed was to employ the classic military hammer and anvil tactics used successfully by Alexander the Great in his conquest of the known world. The first element of his plan was a superior infantry force setting up a blocking position. The second element was an airmobile cavalry using armed helicopters to drive the enemy out of hiding into a clearing into the waiting friendly infantry units ready to blow them away.
Several American Special Forces personnel with a company of Vietnamese CIDG moved to the northwest with the mission of establishing a blocking position. During the planning, the intelligence and terrain dictated that a river crossing was going to be unavoidable. What was missing was a rope long enough span the river. The only possible source to get such a rope was in Saigon. So Maj. LaMar, having no transportation and being a man of personal drive, went to Tay Ninh where he obtained a ride on a local civilian truck. Unfortunately, it was dark and he started the wrong way; he was 20 kilometers into Cambodia before he discovered the mistake. He quickly turned around and made it to Saigon that night.
A day later we were still planning for the operation when a C-47 transport arrived overhead and started circling the camp where the forces involved in the mission were staging. We had no ground to air communications but we figured something was up. The cargo door was open and we could see people standing in it.
So the team sent a jeep with some smoke grenades to the fields a kilometer or so from camp. They got there and popped a couple of white smoke grenades. They had guessed right because the plane made another pass and out popped a man who had a duffle bag dangling from his parachute leg straps. It was Maj. LaMar with the rope we needed for the operation in the duffle bag.
The overland element departed camp and patrolled for two days until they reached the river they had to cross in order to reach the blocking positions. The river spanned over 100 meters and it had a fast current, offering real obstacles.
One of the Special Forces NCOs swam the river to take a line across so they could drag the heavier rope across. Others covered him with fire and several swam to join him and help establish a position on the far bank. Shortly they established a single rope bridge and the entire force crossed to continue the mission.
The same morning the blocking force crossed the river, an H-21 helicopter arrived and parked along the road leading into the camp. Shortly after the Command & Control element flew in from Saigon with a colonel and some staff. Their arrival was almost tragic.
As the Command & Control ship approached, we popped a smoke grenade and I was directed to provide guidance. As is common, the pilot decided that he would land where he wanted to land so he over flew us and landed in the old French mine field left over from 1954. The chopper landed and the colonel and some of his staff started to walk over. We started yelling and finally, I fired a few round over their head with my carbine. That got their attention and finally, they stopped and did their best to retrace their steps back to the Huey. Once on board, the chopper lifted off and the rotor wash detonated two anti-personnel mines. Fortunately, the aircraft did not suffer much damage and was able to continue the operation.
During the days prior to the operation all of us not designated to go on the operation were fully employed in support. We had several missions besides this one and sleep had been mostly absent. I was not scheduled to go but at the last minute, I was detailed to replace a guy who was sick. Otherwise, I would not have been part of the heliborne element.
Finally, we loaded the H-21 helicopters and launched. Shortly after we inserted, my first real combat assault and only one I ever made in an H-21. I was glad I never made another in one. That model was designed for operations in Alaska and did poorly in the heat and humidity of Vietnam. It just performed poorly in high-density altitudes. That poor performance made the pilots fly a long slow approach and shallow glide angles for landing. Take offs were equally poor, slow lift off and flight to climb out from an LZ.
Anyway, we acted as the maneuver element or hammer, our mission to push the enemy until they ran up against our blocking force or the anvil. As it turned out we only encountered small delaying elements; contacts were short lived and designed to make us deploy while small enemy elements evaded us. We would reform, and continued to sweep the area until linking up with the blocking force. We had not found the POWs.
The main target, the VC and the U.S. POWs had left the area. (A decade later I learned that the operation had been compromised in Saigon days before we deployed our forces).
So after linking up, the entire force reformed and began a search mission. We moved parallel to the river and moved down river towards Tay Ninh.
We continued to move down river on foot but late in the day, some Vietnamese Higgins boats arrived to pick us up. We had three Higgins boats but we had over two hundred troops. To accommodate the entire force, the Vietnamese had brought some smaller civilian craft, big sampans actually, which we ended up securing alongside the Higgins boats for the ride back down river.
We loaded the Higgens boats and sampans just as dark settled in and started slowly down river. I was in the lead Higgins boat with the other two following at about 100-meter intervals.
It was a very dark moonless night, visibility was limited which also dictated slow movement. The move was slow and with nothing to do, I stretched out on the deck for a bit. For some reason, I decided to get up and leaned against the starboard bulwark. Sgt. Snyder and I just stood there staring off into the dark.
Shortly after, the VC set off a mine in the river. It was pretty powerful. The mine detonated just off the port bow, the plume of water shot up and the boat heeled over a bit from the shock. Immediately the VC opened up with automatic weapons fire from the shore to our right. The enemy troops were located only a few meters away.
When I went to basic training we learned night fire. They explained that most people shoot high in the dark unless trained otherwise. After the night fire class; another class in night vision and some exercises how to successfully apply the newly learned techniques, we went to the range with our trusty M-1s. We were to engage man sized silhouette targets at about 30 meters distance.
We went on line, assumed the prone position and on the command to commence to an 8 round clip, reloaded and fired a second clip. I was amazed at the results. I got 16 hits on my target just by doing what I had just been taught! All the bullets had hit in the lower chest or lower.
So when the Vietnam Cong opened up on us, Sgt. Snyder, attached to the team for the A-Camp at Go Dau Ha, we were the only guys on that side capable of firing. We immediately opened fire on the enemy as they fired back. I estimated the range to be about 10-15 meters: muzzle flashes and noise!
All their fire went high, every round they fired went above the boat. Not one round struck the boats or personnel. Snyder and I went through several magazines and we were so close we even heard someone on shore cry out followed by a lot of yelling. About the time we heard all the yelling, the enemy fire stopped. Either we had hit some of them or they ran out of ammunition.
When we had a chance to check on possible casualties, I was amazed that we had not suffered any. Later, I figured the reason none of our people were hit was the VC had missed that class on night firing.
While the enemy ceased fire, our boat moved on and as the boat navigated a bend in the river, the Vietnamese boat commander ordered cease fire. If we had continued to fire we would have been created a crossfire situation creating a condition of us firing at our own boats before they made the turn. He knew his business and kept everything under control.
After that excitement, it was a quiet trip to a Regional Forces/Popular Forces (RF/PF) outpost where we disembarked and cooled our heels until sunup when trucks arrived to take us back to our base.
That was my first close range exchange of fire with the enemy. My last close range exchange was in the summer of 1993. Good training works day and night.
View the service history of NFL Lineman
1stLt Bob Kalsu
View his Service Profile on TogetherWeServed.com
Short Bio: Bob Kalsu had just finished a stellar rookie year in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills when he chose to serve in Vietnam and became the only U.S. pro athlete to die there.
Kalsu’s story touching and tragic.
The Standard Times
New Bedford, MA
Bob Kalsu never reached All-Pro status in the National Football League.
Probably because he didn’t play long enough.
But the big lineman from the University of Oklahoma was voted the team’s top rookie in his first and only season with the Buffalo Bills.
That was back in 1968 when the American Football League was on the threshold of a merger with the rival NFL, and the 1-12-1 Bills were hoping to re-discover the glory days of mid-decade.
I was two years removed from Vietnam at the time and still trying to re-adjust to civilian life. Part of that re-adjustment centered around watching professional football, trying to convince myself that the AFL was not just a cheap imitation of the real thing (NFL).
A year later I finally became convinced when the Jets beat my beloved Colts in Super Bowl III.
But I had never even heard of Bob Kalsu until sometime last week, when I saw his story on television.
I can’t remember the exact night it was shown. It was mid- to late-week, I think. But I do know it was on the early version of ESPN’s Sportscenter.
It probably was meant to be a filler piece. You know, one of those five-minute mini-features that help fill the hour-long time slot when off-nights, Mother Nature or a combination of both leave the scoreboard virtually empty.
What it became was, quite simply, the most heart-rendering piece I’ve ever seen.
It was a story of life, love and devotion interrupted by an untimely death.
Bob Kalsu played the lead role.
On July 21, 1970, the Bills’ lineman became the only professional football player to be killed in Vietnam. Details of his death came from the lips of a teary-eyed former soldier who saw Lieutenant Kalsu fall while helping defend something called Ripcord Base on an isolated jungle mountaintop near the Ashau Valley.
All through his high school and college days, football was a big part of Kalsu’s life. So was the ROTC — Reserve Officers Training Corps. But the biggest part of Kalsu’s life was his sweetheart, Jan, who he married the day after his final college game in the Orange Bowl.
The Bills selected him in the eighth round of the ’68 college draft – after such not-so-notables as Pete Richardson, a defensive back from Dayton, running back Max Anderson of Arizona State and Mike McBath, a defensive end from Penn State. With the exception of first-round selection Haven Moses of San Diego State, the Buffalo draft list read like a roll call from the Society of Unknown Nobodies.
But Kalsu quickly became somebody in his first AFL season by earning the team’s Rookie of the Year award with his stellar play at guard.
Sadly it would be his final season of football.
His wife had recently given birth to a daughter, Jill, and the future appeared bright. But following the ’68 season, Kalsu began fulfilling his ROTC obligation with the United States Army and in November 1969, he received his orders to go to Vietnam.
He probably could have used politics to remain at home, but Kalsu said no.
After six months in Vietnam, 1st Lieutenant Bob Kalsu left his 11th Artillery unit of the 101st Airborne Division for a week of R&R in Hawaii.
There he was reunited with Jan, who was now pregnant with their second child.
Most of this information was recorded in newspaper articles – articles I never knew existed before watching last week’s riveting television piece.
But while the written words put a lump in my throat, the spoken words induced tears that flowed freely from my eyes.
I sobbed when Jan told of the day she received word of her husband’s death as she lay in her hospital bed after giving birth to her son, Bob Jr.
I sniffled when the young Bob revealed he had heard his father’s voice asking him to have the first dance with his sister on her wedding day.
And I cried when Bob Jr. relayed how he saw his father sitting and smiling as he and Jill moved gracefully about the dance floor.
But when all was said and done, I probably felt worse about myself for never having known Bob Kalsu had even existed.