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.
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PLEASE DESCRIBE WHO OR WHAT INFLUENCED YOUR DECISION TO JOIN THE ARMY?
My decision to join the military was formulated as a teenager as WWII was raging. I was old enough to understand that many of my friends and neighbors had fathers and brothers serving in the Armed Forces. My father who at age fifteen served in the British Army in WWI was too old but I had three uncles which made this personal to me.
The many gold star pennants hanging in the many homes of those serving further amplified this; and those framed black for those who gave the ultimate sacrifice were too many. This would have a lasting effect on what I thought “patriotism” to be regardless that these men were mostly drafted.
When I attended Oklahoma State on a football scholarship I immediately enrolled in the Army ROTC program. I was designated a distinguished Military Graduate (DMG) and offered a Regular Army commission upon graduation in 1952. I was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant Infantry.
Photo was taken when I first arrived at Ft. Benning Georgia.
WHETHER YOU WERE IN THE SERVICE FOR SEVERAL YEARS OR AS A CAREER, PLEASE DESCRIBE THE DIRECTION OR PATH YOU TOOK.
When I was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in May 1952 I was assigned to the 9th Infantry Division, Ft Dix, NJ with orders to the Korean Replacement Center in Seoul, Korea, with a reporting date in January 1953 with TDY en route to the Infantry School, Ft Benning, GA to attend the four month Officers Basic Infantry Course starting in September. Upon arrival I married Lois in the Post Chapel.
Until now I had no particular ambitions but was merely following the course the Department of Army Infantry Branch had laid out for me. But that would soon change.
About two months into school a fellow student, Lt. Reid, asked if anyone was interested in volunteering for parachute training? I thought who is this guy but re-actively raised my hand as did about eight other guys with little hope that this would be approved. After all we were all on orders to Korea where officers, especially Second Lieutenants, were in short supply.
Little did I know at the time that Lt. Reid’s father worked in the Officers Branch in the Pentagon and just prior to graduation my orders were changed to the 82nd Airborne Div with TDY to attend “Jump School” while at Ft. Benning.
The Airborne is an elite force which earned its battle indoctrination during WWII. The heroics of the 11th, 17th, 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions are renowned. They fought in Europe, Africa and the Pacific; while the 187th Airborne Regiment fought in Korea. This is when I realized that this type of duty was for me.
In January 1953 I headed for Fayetteville, N.C. and Ft Bragg. For the next year I would experience that which was expected of a Platoon Leader of an airborne unit.
Since this was my first troop unit assignment I had nothing to compare it with. The moral, esprit, the gung-ho attitude and yes the elated-ness of being a “paratrooper” further convinced me that this is where I wanted to be and that I would strive for such assignments in the future.
In January 1954 I was assigned as XO, Company B, 1st Bn, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, Korea; and then CO, Company L, 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division. During this period hostilities had been suspended pending peace negotiations. Due to hostilities in Vietnam my 12 month tour was extended to 16 months.
In July 1955 I was devastated when I received orders to ROTC duty at Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA. I tried feverishly to have my orders changed to a line unit but to no avail.
In 1957 I was surprised that while on ROTC duty my application to attend Ranger School at Ft. Benning during the summer recess period was approved; and once again my spirits were lifted.
Like the Airborne the Rangers have a storied history dating back to the French and Indian War where Roger’s Rangers aided the British in defeating the French. Rogers also joined the British to fight against our forefathers, the American “rebels.”
Morgan’s Riflemen and Marion’s Partisans inflicted heavy casualties among the British during the Revolutionary War.
Morgan’s Rangers and Mosby’s Rangers fought for the South during the Civil War bringing havoc among Union forces.
During WWII Darby’s Rangers operating in Europe and Merrill’s Marauders operating in the Pacific contributed many daring and courageous exploits that have become an important part of American history.
I wanted to be a part of expanding this legacy if given the opportunity.
I graduated from Ranger school in August and was awarded the prestigious black on gold Ranger Tab. I was further designated the “Distinguished Graduate.” From what I learned in Ranger school I concluded that as a green lieutenant, I would never have survived combat in Korea without it.
In September 1958 I received orders to attend the Infantry Advanced Course and once again back to Ft. Benning. I was also promoted to Captain. My daughter Jana was born shortly after arrival.
While in school I became friends with a fellow student, John Keefe, who mentioned his assignment in the 77th Special Forces Group at Ft Bragg; and that there was the 10th SFG in Germany.
This was the first I heard of these units (first established in 1952) but the mere title had my adrenalin in high gear. I asked if he thought I would qualify for acceptance. With jump wings and Ranger Tab on my uniform he didn’t see why not. He asked if I spoke a foreign language but if I didn’t that wasn’t a disqualification in itself; but being accepted was very demanding.
Since I was a Captain, airborne qualified, ranger qualified, Prefix 5 CBR qualified, commanded an Infantry Company in Korea and soon to be a graduate of the Infantry Advanced Course with a Top Secret clearance I thought I was well suited to apply for Special Forces.
Not so fast! In 1959 I was simply rejected as “not qualified” without any further explanation; and placed on orders to take command of Co B, 54th AIB, Ft Knox, KY. However, I would not be deterred and decided to make Special Forces my goal.
My first initiative was to take the Language Aptitude Test which I passed. I then was tested and received the Expert Infantry Badge (EIB), I resubmitted my request for SF and once again was denied as “not qualified” w/o further explanation.
In Feb 1960 I attended the USA Cold Weather and Mountain School at Ft Greely, Alaska and upon graduation resubmitted my request for SF and once again “not qualified” w/o further explanation.
In May I attended the Jungle Operations Course at Ft Sherman, Panama and graduated with the designation of “Jungle Expert.” I resubmitted my request but was again denied as being “not qualified” w/o further explanation.
I had basically given up when In April 1961 an article appeared in the Army Times seeking combat arms Captains for assignment to SF. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had been applying for over three years w/o success and now this.
I resubmitted my request citing the Army Times and was quickly assigned to the 1st SF Group, Okinawa with TDY to the JFKSWC, Ft Bragg to attend the Special Forces Officers Course. I graduated with the designation of Prefix 3. I had finally arrived.
In 1962 I led my A Detachment on my first SF deployment on a covert mission in Vietnam for the CIA; in 1969 I was CO of the C-Detachment (Battalion) in I Corps (Danang) Vietnam. I was a student at the National War College when in Apr 1972 I was contacted by the Colonel’s Division that I was requested by name to assume command of the 7th Special Forces Group upon graduation. I immediately accepted when I was counseled that this might not be the right course for my career advancement but I did not back off.
I now understood why my previous requests were denied.
In between these assignments I graduated from C&GSC; served on the Presidents National Emergency Command Post Afloat (NECPA); commanded the 1st Bn, 3d Infantry at West Point; served with the 4th Armored Div, Germany; graduated from the National War College; and served as the XVIII Airborne Corps G1.
My last assignment from where I retired in 1982 was Deputy Commandant Defense Institute if Security Assistance (DISAM), Wright Patterson AFB, OH.
Deep caves meander through the interior in a vast, connecting network of tunnels. At the entrance of some caves are statues of Buddha. Occasionally North Vietnamese and Vietcong soldiers hide in the caves to rest or reorganize following a battle. Yet in spite of the inherent danger of sharing the mountain with the enemy, Army and Marine recon and observation teams routinely maintain a watchful eye over American units dotting the coastline below. Two of these units, MACV SOG’s CCN’s Forward Operational Base (FOB) 4 and C Company of the 5th Special Forces Group, share a strip of beach just north of the mountain
On August 21, 1968, a team from CCN, Spike Team Rattler, begin a long arduous trek up the rugged face of Nui Thuy Son in search of a worthy place to setup a listening and observation post overlooking the basin. The team, seven Chinese ethnic Nung mercenaries led by team leader Special Forces Sgt.1st Class Ames and squad leader Staff Sgt. Larry Trimble, move methodically, expertly up the mountain until they reach an overhang among the rocks. Without a word spoken, a hasty defensive perimeter is established. Ames and Trimble look down the cliff at a small clearing hidden by foliage and rocks. This is a perfect place for an observation and listening post with a panoramic view of two Marine outposts, their CCN compound, C-Team Headquarters, and other units below.
Satisfied no enemy are in the area, ropes are thrown down and one-by-one team members carefully ease down the craggy, weather-beaten face of the cliff, quietly setting into what will be their lair for the next few days. As dusk turns to night, no enemy has yet been seen or heard. The same is true the following day. What the team doesn’t know is elite NVA Sappers and VC units are quietly hiding in caves below preparing for a major assault on American units on the coast.
Sometime after midnight on August 23, 1968, the team isalerted by the sounds and sights of explosions and green and red tracers lighting up the darkness – the NVA and VC are attacking the two Marine outposts. Trimble grabs the radio, desperately trying to contact the Marines but fails. Quickly changing the radio frequency, he calls his CCN compound just as they too are attacked. Spike Team Rattler has no choice but to helplessly watch in horror at the certain death and destruction unfolding before their eyes. But within minutes they too are under heavy attack by enemy soldiers.
In one section of the perimeter, the enemy mounts a ground attack, threating to overrun the team’s position. Trimble hands the radio to Ames and rushes forward to organize a defense from the assaulting enemy. In the midst of throwing grenades and laying down continuous fire on the advancing enemy, a Nung points out a nearby enemy mortar dropping rounds on the CCN compound. Raising and firing a M79 rocket launcher, Trimble destroys the mortar position. Enemy fire becomes more sporadic as flares coming from the basin, light up the darkness, casting eerie shadows on the mountain and the fierce fighting below.
Fifteen minutes after the initial attack on FOB 4 and the C-Team, a Spectre AC-130 gunship arrives over the battle area, hosing down the attacking NVA and VC with a steady stream of deadly fire from its 25mm Gatling-type rotary cannon. The fight continues inside the CCN compound, small arms fire and satchel-charges explode everywhere as the enemy and Special Forces soldiers fight hand-to-hand in deadly combat.
After what seems like forever, the rising sun from the South China Sea pushes back the shadows on the beach as surviving NVA and VC escape along the South China Sea beach.
In the growing daylight, the terrible bloodbath is overwhelming for both battle harden warriors and those with little or no experience in war.
But the fighting is not over for Spike Team Rattler.
Wanting to check how vulnerable the team might be, Trimble and several of the Nungs leave their perimeter only to run into an enemy patrol. Following a short firefight, with Ames and the other Nungs from inside the perimeter providing covering fire, a second enemy 82mm mortar is captured along with other enemy equipment and documents. A helicopter flies out and takes the enemy equipment and documents. Ames accompanies the documents back. Some shots are fired at the hovering helicopter just before it climbs away. Trimble, the only American on the ground, is now the team leader. Among the captured papers was a detailed plan for a second attack on the Marine amphibious unit, which was thwarted.
Still surrounded on the mountain, Trimble learns from his interpreter the Nungs intend to sneak through the enemy lines and return to the compound. Refusing to abandon his post, the Nungs leave him behind. But moments after leaving, a firefight erupts bringing them running back to Trimble. With no hope of escaping and too much enemy fire for a helicopter extraction, the team stays put.
That night the enemy tries twice to overrun the perimeter only to be turned back by the team’s ground fire and gunships firing danger-close to the team’s perimeter. So close, the team is peppered by shrapnel, flying rocks and debris. One Nung is so severely wounded in this fight, he surely would have died if not for Trimble, a trained medic, stopping the bleeding.
On the morning of August 24, a relief helicopter drops in supplies to the beleaguered team as it reorganizes for a breakout. A Special Forces Hatchet platoon is dispatched to assist in the breakout but has to retreat after taking heavy casualties from an enemy determined to prevent Spike Team Rattler’s escape. Miraculously, that night is quiet. (Photo is Trimble carefully surveying the area)
In the morning when a helicopter flies in to evacuate the wounded, it receives no enemy fire nor were any enemy spotted. Trimble and the remnants of Spike Team Rattler hold out for another day to ensure the enemy is gone. But none were seen. It seems the NVA and VC have left the mountain.
On August 26, 1968, Spike Team Rattler manages to make their way off the mountain on foot, leaving behind six days of hell none will ever forget. (Photo shows Trimble at base camp)
Eighteen American Special Forces warriors and over 80 indigenous mercenaries were dead, with scores more wounded. It was the deadliest attack on U.S. Special Forces in history. According to CCN members, had it not been for Trimble knocking out the enemy mortar, many more would have died. And so grateful for capturing documents that thwarted the attack on the USMC amphibious unit, the Marines threw a spur-of-the moment celebration for Spike Team Rattler on their return.
Neil Thorne, a MACV SOG historian and researchers, served 11 years with the Virginia and West Virginia Army National Guard as a Light Infantry Scout. His particular interest is working with the recovery of lost and missing recognition for members of Special Operations from recently declassified Vietnam War operations.
On April 2, 1972, the third day of the Easter Offensive, the largest combined arms operation of the entire Vietnam War, 53-year-old Air Force Lt. Col. Iceal ‘Gene’ Hambleton was a navigator aboard one of two United States Air Force EB-66 aircraft escorting three B-52s. Bat 21, call sign for Hambleton’s aircraft, was configured to gather signals intelligence including identifying North Vietnamese anti-aircraft radar installations to enable jamming. (Photo is Bat 21 in Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand.)
Midway through the operation, Bat 21 was destroyed by a SA-2 surface-to-air missile and Hambleton was the only survivor, parachuting behind the front lines into a battlefield filled with thousands of North Vietnamese Army soldiers. The bodies of the aircrew were never found.
Because of Hambleton’s knowledge of Top Secret Strategic Air Command operations and an expert in surface-to-air missile countermeasures, his rescue was crucial. If he was to fall in the hands of the North Vietnamese and then turned over to the Russians, it could result it irreparable damage to American national defense. Thus, it became the “largest, longest, and most complex search-and-rescue” operation during the Vietnam War. It was also one of the costliest. Five additional aircraft were shot down during rescue attempts, directly resulting in the deaths of 11 airmen, the capture of two others, and another airman, Lt. Mark Clark, trying to evade capture. Further air rescue attempts were called off and the two airmen, travelling separately, were then told that the next attempt would be a land rescue by Navy SEALS up the monsoon-swollen Cam Lo River.
On the night of April 10, 1972, more than a week since Hambleton had been evading enemy capture, Navy SEAL Lt. Thomas R. Norris, leading a handpicked team of five South Vietnamese Lien Doc Nguoi Nhia (LDNN), similar to Navy SEALs, set off down the Cam Lo River in a sampan to get Clark.
Clark’s trip to the pick-up point was a harrowing one. Twice he was almost spotted by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) patrols. At around dawn on the morning of April 11, Clark and Norris linked up and the sampan sped back down the Cam Lo River to their Forward Operating Base (FOB) and safety.
Shortly after Norris’s sampan returned, the FOB came under attack by a resilient, well-armed NVA unit that was only repulsed after numerous air strikes were called in. The attack caused several casualties, including the killing of two of the South Vietnamese LDNNs. Two other LDNNs refused to go on any more missions.
On April 13, a Forward Air Controller received a message from Hambleton that he was at the Cam Lo River pickup point. That night Norris and LDNN Petty Officer Nguyen Van Kiet, dressed as local fishermen, got into a sampan and headed upriver.
After several harrowing close calls with NVA troops, they found Hambleton; weak and delirious but still alive. Quickly they got him into the sampan and hid him under some bamboo. Now it was a race against time to get back before dawn. Twice they were discovered by North Vietnamese troops. The first time they managed to escape downriver before the patrol could fire at them. The second time they found themselves cut off by an enemy unit with a heavy machine gun. Norris radioed for an air strike. Soon seven aircraft from the USS Hancock arrived on target, killed a number of North Vietnamese troops and provided cover for Norris and Kiet, allowing them to continue their downriver journey with their high value cargo.