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
By LtCol Mike Christy – Together We Served Dispatches
Kham Duc Special Forces Camp (A-105), was located on the western fringes of Quang Tin Province, South Vietnam. In the spring of 1968, it was the only remaining border camp in Military Region I. Backup responsibility for the camp fell on the 23rd Infantry Division (Americal), based at Chu Lai on the far side of the province.
The camp had originally been built for President Diem, who enjoyed hunting in the area. The 1st Special Forces Detachment (A-727B) arrived in September 1963 and found the outpost to be an ideal border surveillance site with an existing airfield. The camp was located on a narrow grassy plain surrounded by rugged, virtually uninhabited jungle. The only village in the area, located across the airstrip, was occupied by post dependents, camp followers, and merchants. The camp and airstrip were bordered by the Ngok Peng Bum ridge to the west and Ngok Pe Xar mountain, looming over Kham Duc to the east. Steeply banked streams full of rapids and waterfalls cut through the tropical wilderness. The Dak Mi River flowed past the camp over a mile distant, under the shadow of the Ngok Pe Xar. Five miles downriver was the small forward operating base of Ngok Tavak, defended by the 113-man 11th Mobile Strike Force Company with its eight Special Forces and three Australian advisors. Since Ngok Tavak was outside friendly artillery range, 33 Marine artillerymen of Battery D, 2nd Battalion, 13th Marines, with two 105mm howitzers were located at the outpost.
Capt. Christopher J. Silva, commander of Detachment A-105 helicoptered into Ngok Tavak on May 9, 1968, in response to growing signs of NVA presence in the area. Foul weather prevented his scheduled evening departure. A Kham Duc Civilian Irregular Defense (CIDG) platoon fleeing a local ambush also arrived and was posted to the outer perimeter. It was later learned that the CIDG force contained VC infiltrators.
At 3:15 am on May 10, 1968, Ngok Tavak was attacked by an NVA infantry battalion. First, the base was pounded by mortars and direct rocket fire followed by a frontal assault. VC infiltrators dressed as Kham Duc CIDG soldiers moved toward the Marines in the fort yelling, “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot! Friendly, friendly” before lobbing grenades into the Marine howitzer positions and ran into the fort, where they shot several Marines with carbines and sliced claymore mine and communication wires.
The defenders suffered heavy casualties but stopped the main assault and killed the infiltrators. The NVA dug in along the hill slopes and grenade filled trenches where the Mobile Strike Force Soldiers were pinned by machine gun and rocket fire. An NVA flame-thrower set the ammunition ablaze, banishing the murky flare-lighted darkness for the rest of the night. Sgt. 1st Class Harold M. Swicegood and the USMC platoon leader, Lt. Adams, were badly wounded and moved to the command bunker. Medic Spec 4 Blomgren reported that the CIDG mortar crews had abandoned their weapons. Silva tried to operate the main 4.2-inch mortar but was wounded. At about 5 am hours, Sgt. Glenn Miller, an A-105 communications specialist, was shot through the head as he ran over to join the Marine howitzer crews.
The NVA advanced across the eastern side of Ngok Tavak and brought forward more automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. In desperation, the defenders called on US Air Force AC-47 “Spooky” gunships to strafe the perimeter and the howitzers, despite the possible presence of friendly wounded in the gun pits. The NVA countered with tear gas, but the wind kept drifting the gas over their own lines. After three attempts, they stopped. A grenade fight between the two forces lasted until dawn.
At daybreak Australian Warrant Officers Cameron and Lucas, joined by Blomgren, led a CIDG counterattack. The North Vietnamese pulled back under covering fire, and the howitzers were retaken. The Marines fired the last nine shells and spiked the tubes. Later that morning medical evacuation helicopters supported by covering airstrikes took out the seriously wounded, including Silva and Swicegood. Two CH46’s were able to land 45 replacements from the 12th Mobile Strike Force Company, accompanied by Capt. Euge E. Makowski, but one helicopter was hit in the fuel line and forced down. Another helicopter was hit by a rocket and burst into flames, wrecking the small helipad. The remaining wounded were placed aboard a hovering helicopter. As it lifted off, two Mike Force soldiers and 1st Lt. Horace Fleming, one of the stranded aviation crewmen, grabbed the helicopter skids. All three fell to their deaths after the helicopter had reached an altitude of over one hundred feet.
The mobile strike force soldiers were exhausted and nervous. Ammunition and water were nearly exhausted, and Ngok Tavak was still being pounded by sporadic mortar fire. They asked permission to evacuate their positions, but were told to “hold on” as “reinforcements were on the way.” By noon the defenders decided that aerial reinforcement or evacuation was increasingly unlikely, and night would bring certain destruction. An hour later, they abandoned Ngok Tavak.
Sgt. Thomas Perry, a medic from C Company, arrived at the camp at 5:30 am the morning of the 10th. He cared for the wounded and was assisting to establish a defensive perimeter when the decision was made to evacuate the camp. As survivors were leaving, Perry was seen by Sgt. Cordell J. Matheney, Jr., standing 20 feet away, as Australian Army Capt. John White formed the withdrawal column at the outer perimeter wire on the eastern Ngok Tavak hillside. It was believed that Perry was going to join the end of the column.
All the weapons, equipment and munitions that could not be carried were hastily piled into the command bunker and set afire. The helicopter that had been grounded by a ruptured fuel line was destroyed with a LAW. Sgt. Miller’s body was abandoned.
After survivors had gone about 1 kilometer, it was discovered that Perry was missing. Efforts were conducted to locate both Perry and Miller, including a search by a group from Marine Battery D. They were searching along the perimeter when they were hit by enemy grenades and arms fire. Neither the men on the team nor Perry was ever found. Included in this team were Pfc. Thomas Blackman; LCpl. Joseph Cook; Pfc. Paul Czerwonka; LCpl. Thomas Fritsch; Pfc. Barry Hempel; LCpl. Raymond Heyne; Cpl. Gerald King; Pfc. Robert Lopez; Pfc. William McGonigle; LCpl. Donald Mitchell; and LCpl. James Sargent. The remaining survivors evaded through dense jungle to a helicopter pickup point midway to Kham Duc. Their extraction was completed shortly before 7 pm on the evening of May 10.
In concert with the Ngok Tavak assault, the Kham Duc was blasted by a heavy mortar and recoilless rifle attack at 2:45 that same morning. Periodic mortar barrages ripped into Kham Duc throughout the rest of the day, while the Americal Division airmobiled a reinforced battalion of the 196th Infantry Brigade into the compound. A Special Forces command party also landed, but the situation deteriorated too rapidly for their presence to have a positive effect.
The mortar attack on fog-shrouded Kham Duc resumed on the morning of May 11. The bombardment caused heavy losses among the frightened CIDG soldiers, who fled from their trenches across open ground, seeking shelter in the bunkers. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam Special Forces (LLDB) commander remained hidden. CIDG soldiers refused orders to check the rear of the camp for possible North Vietnamese intruders. That evening the 11th and 12th Mobile Strike Force companies were airlifted to Da Nang, and half of the 137th CIDG Company from Camp Ha Thanh was air landed in exchange.
The 1st VC Regiment, 2nd NVA Division, began closing the ring around Kham Duc during the early morning darkness of May 12. Between 4:15 and 4:30 am, the camp and outlying positions came under heavy enemy attack. Outpost 7 was assaulted and fell within a few minutes. Outposts 5, 1 and 3 had been reinforced by Americal troops but were in North Vietnamese hands by 9:30 am.
OP1 was manned by Pfc. Harry Coen, Pfc. Andrew Craven, Sgt. Joseph Simpson, and Spec 4 Julius Long from Company E, 2nd of the 1st Infantry. At about 4;15 am, when OP1 came under heavy enemy attack, Pfc. Coen and Spec 4 Long were seen trying to man a 106-millimeter recoilless rifle. Survivors reported that in the initial enemy fire, they were knocked off their bunker. Both men again tried to man the gun but were knocked down again by RPG-7 Rocket Launcher fire.
Pfc. Craven, along with two other men, departed the OP1 at 8:30 am on May 12. They moved out 50 yards and could hear the enemy in their last position. At about 11 AM hours, as they were withdrawing to the battalion perimeter, they encountered an enemy position. Craven was the point man and opened fire. The enemy returned fire, and Craven fell with multiple chest wounds. The other two men were unable to recover him and hastily departed the area. Craven was last seen lying on his back, wounded, near the camp.
OP2 was being manned by 1st Lt. Frederick Ransbottom, Spec 4 Maurice Moore, Pfc. Roy Williams, Pfc. Danny Widmer, Pfc. William Skivington, Pfc. Imlay Widdison, and Spec 5 John Stuller, from the 2nd of the 3rd Infantry, when it came under attack. Informal questioning of survivors of this position indicated that Pfc. Widdison and Spec 5 Stuller may have been killed in action. However, the questioning was not sufficiently thorough to produce enough evidence to confirm their deaths.
The only information available concerning 1st Lt. Ransbottom, Spec 4 Moore, Pfc. Lloyd and Pfc. Skivington that Lt. Ransbottom allegedly radioed Pfc. Winder and Pfc. Williams, who were in the third bunker, and told them that he was shooting at the enemy as they entered his bunker.
Spec 4 Juan Jimenez, a rifleman assigned to Company A, 2nd of the 1st Infantry, was occupying a defensive position when he was severely wounded in the back by enemy mortar fire. He was declared dead by the Battalion Surgeon in the early morning hours of May 12. He was then carried to the helipad for evacuation. However, due to the situation, space was available in the helicopter for only the wounded, and Jimenez’ remains were left behind.
At noon, a massive NVA attack was launched against the main compound. The charge was stopped by planes hurling napalm, cluster bomb units, and 750-pound bombs into the final wire barriers. The decision was made by the Americal Division officers to call for immediate extraction.
The evacuation was disorderly, and at times, on the verge of complete panic. One of the first extraction helicopters to land was exploded by enemy fire, blocking the airstrip. Engineers of Company A, 70th Engineer Battalion, frantically reassembled one of their dozers (previously torn apart to prevent capture) to clear the runway. Eight more aircraft were blown out of the sky.
When Pfc. Richard E. Sands, a member of Company A, 1st Battalion, 46th Infantry, 198th Light Infantry Brigade, was being extracted on a CH47 helicopter, it was hit by 50 caliber machine gun fire at an altitude of 1500-1600 feet shortly after takeoff.
Sands, who was sitting near the door gunner, was hit in the head by an incoming round. The helicopter made a controlled landing and caught fire. During the evacuation from the burning helicopter, four personnel and a medic checked Sands and indicated that he had been killed instantly. Because of the danger of incoming mortar rounds and the fire, personnel attempting to remove Sands from the helicopter were ordered to abandon their attempt. The remaining personnel were evacuated from the area later by another helicopter.
Intense antiaircraft fire from the captured outposts caused grave problems. Control over the indigenous forces was difficult. One group of CIDG soldiers had to be held in trenches at gunpoint to prevent them from blocking the runway.
As the evacuation was in progress, members of Company A, 1/46, who insisted on boarding the aircraft first, shoved Vietnamese dependents out of the way. As more Americal infantry tried to clamber into the outbound planes, the outraged Special Forces staff convinced the Air Force to start loading civilians on board a C130, then watched as the civilians pushed children and weaker adults aside.
The crew aboard the U.S. Air Force C130 aircraft were Maj. Bernard Bucher, pilot; Staff Sgt. Frank Hepler, flight engineer; Maj. John McElroy, navigator; 1Lt. Steven Moreland, co-pilot; George Long, load master; Special Forces Capt. Warren Orr and an undetermined number of Vietnamese civilians.
The aircraft reported receiving ground fire on takeoff. The Forward Air Control (FAC) in the area reported that the aircraft exploded in mid-air and crashed in a fire ball about one mile from camp. All crew and passengers were believed dead, as the plane burned quickly and was destroyed except for the tail boom. No remains were recovered from the aircraft.
Capt. Orr was not positively identified by U.S. personnel as being aboard the aircraft. He was last seen near the aircraft helping the civilians to board. However, a Vietnamese stated that he had seen Orr board the aircraft and later positively identified him from a photograph. Rescue efforts were impossible because of the hostile threat in the area.
At the time, the order was given to escape and evade, Spec 4 Julius Long was with Coen and Simpson. All three had been wounded and were trying to make their way back to the airfield about 350 yards away. As they reached the airfield, they saw the last C130 departing. Coen, who was shot in the stomach, panicked and started running and shooting his weapon at random. Long tried to catch him, but could not, and did not see Coen again. Long then carried Sgt. Simpson to a nearby hill, where they spent the night.
During the night, the airfield was strafed and bombed by U.S. aircraft. Long was hit twice in the back by fragments, and Simpson died during the night. Long left him lying on the hill near the Cam Duc airfield and started his escape and evasion toward Chu Lai, South Vietnam. Long was captured and was released in 1973 from North Vietnam.
The Special Forces Command Group was the last organized group out of the camp. As their helicopter soared into the clouds, Kham Duc was abandoned to advancing NVA infantry at 4:33 p.m. on May 12, 1968. The last Special Forces camp on the northwestern frontier of South Vietnam had been destroyed.
Two search and recovery operations were conducted near OP1 and OP2 and the Cam Duc airfield on July 18, 1970, and August 17, 1970. In these operations, remains of personnel previously reported missing from this incident were recovered and subsequently identified. They were Spec 5 Bowers, Pfc. Lloyd, Sgt. Sisk, Pfc. Guzman-Rios and Staff Sgt. Carter. Sadly, extensive search and excavation could not be completed at OP1 and OP2 because of the tactical situation.
It was assumed that all the missing at Kham Duc were killed in action until about 1983 when the father of one of the men missing discovered a Marine Corps document which indicated that four of the men had been taken, prisoner. The document listed the four by name. Until then, the families had not been advised of the possibility there were any American prisoners taken other than Julius Long. A Vietnamese rallied identified the photograph of Roy C. Williams as positively having been a POW.
Until proof is obtained that the rest of the men lost at Ngok Tavak and Kham Duc are dead, their families will always wonder if they are among those said to still be alive in Southeast Asia.
Editor’s Note: Capt. Warren Orr was from C-Team Headquarters in Da Nang and was sent to Kham Duc to assist in the evacuation of civilians. At the time, I was the XO of A-Team 102 and was at the C-Team to conduct some personal business when I ran into Orr as he was preparing to leave for Kam Duc. He was his usual friendly, high spirited self but I sensed some apprehension and fear, which is natural when you know are going to a place where heavy fighting and dying. Had I been in his shoes, I would have felt the same. When I learned later that he died on a plane loaded with Vietnamese civilians, I felt terrible about his loss.
By Michael P. Walsh
The Washington, D.C., Vietnam Veterans Memorial is inscribed with 58,272 names – each a story of lost opportunity and heartache; ultimate sacrifices that, with time, are known by and intimate to fewer. The New Guy is one of those small stories, perhaps now, 48 years later, important to only me – that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be told.
Long Island’s morning fog was dense and chilly as I turned onto the drive at Pinelawn National Cemetery. Driving forward, I familiarized myself with the numbering of the stones. Donning my overcoat as I got out of the car, I crossed the roadway to walk another 50 feet over wet grass to The New Guy’s permanent address: plot 31313A in section “N.”
A stunted, winter-bare tree stood watch over his grave – it looked like it shaded him nicely in the summertime. The headstone, identical to the thousands surrounding it, is engraved with bits of personal information: born 12 days after I was, on July 14, 1947, he died March 7, 1968. Below those dates are chiseled the word “Vietnam;” farther down are the two letters “PH” confirming the Purple Heart was awarded posthumously. Exactly 40 years later, March 7, 2008, I was here for a long overdue visit. Although today I know his name, for most of the intervening years, I didn’t. In my recollections, he has always been, simply, “The New Guy.”
New guys were easy to spot. Naturally, there was the rookie’s nervousness, but that clean helmet cover was the giveaway. A seasoned Marine’s helmet might have a heavy rubber band encircling it, holding bug repellant and a well-used plastic spoon, but always printed on the fabric covering his steel “pot” was a message. Sometimes a clever or rude manipulation of a biblical phrase; other times, it was a less-nuanced “Screw You” challenge to the enemy. The brazen tempted fate with a crude calendar counting down their remaining days in country. Attesting to the helmet’s use as protection, basin and stool, the messages were written on camouflage covers stained by rain, soil and sweat. In 1968, those young Marines with helmet covers awaiting a personal signature were known to the rest of us as “New Guys.”
I was a Marine forward observer scout. My helmet cover sported a faded green shamrock, surrounded by the words “All Irish F.O.’s.” Early March found Louis, my radio operator, and me attached to “Alpha” Company, one of two line companies of First Battalion, Third Marines, providing security up a backwater of the Cua Viet River.
It was a reprieve to patrol from a fixed location, allowing us to fortify positions, improve makeshift hutches and learn the lay of the land before, not during, ambushes. The few incoming sniper rounds were erratic – minor nuisances that were quickly suppressed – and the weather improved daily. Most importantly, we were alive. There wasn’t much not to like.
Suddenly, on March 7, 1968, our Vietnamese-speaking S-2 scout reported enemy combatants moving through Phu Tai, a neighboring village, after nightfall. Since it was our job to keep bad actors out of the neighborhood, Alpha Co was ordered on top of Amtrak’s in the predawn dark for a rough ride, over dry rice paddies to give this little village the once over. Maybe we’d find trouble, maybe not. Personally, I was thinking not.
With the bellowing of our Amtrak’s dual turbocharged exhausts announcing our pending arrival, all North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars working the area would surely be long gone before we showed up. For all intents and purposes, it looked like it would be an early morning cakewalk. Map and compass were close, radio communications checked; I was alert, not anxious. Turned out I should have been.
In the glow of a false dawn, we were rolling-up on Phu Tai’s western edge when suddenly a rocket propelled grenade flew out of the tree line, blowing a hole in our lead Amtrak. With it came a stupefying volume of incoming automatic weapons fire. Screams of the wounded and shouts for corpsman were coming from all quarters as Louis and I leapt off our Amtrak and scrambled to a nearby trench. So much for nobody being home. Dawn had arrived at Phu Tai with a promise of some serious mayhem.
A vestige of the French and Viet Minh conflict of an earlier time, our trench was typical of those surrounding villages near the Demilitarized Zone. Just to the north of it, outside the village, was an abandoned, French-era church. It didn’t show on my map, but there it was – two-stories tall and roofless, it was one of the few solid masonry structures in those parts. My view of it was blocked by a clump of bushes rimming our trench’s back edge, directly behind where Louis and I made our stand.
Looking over the forward edge of the trench, I located where Marines were digging in. Our near-instant heavy casualties and the sustained volume of incoming fire indicated a large, entrenched force – a motivated enemy that might mount a counterattack. The simultaneous firing of several batteries was initiated to provide a protective curtain of shrapnel while we got a handle on things.
Despite everyone’s best efforts, the day went badly fast. To my right, just beyond Louis, a Marine I had bummed a cigarette from a few minutes earlier was dead. To my left, in sequence, was another dead Marine, our wounded platoon commander and, scattered beyond them, a dozen, perhaps 15, Marines. Some dead, some wounded; those still capable struggled to keep our recently-issued M-16’s functioning.
During all this, I received a priority radio message advising me an NVA sniper had been spotted on the second floor of the church. The reason for the high number of casualties in my immediate area was now obvious: from his perch, the shooter could target men well below the trench’s rear lip. It was inevitable that Louis and I were going to find ourselves on that deadly score card if we didn’t put him out of business. Hoping to be quick enough to avert additional causalities, another artillery mission was worked up.
It was just then that I met The New Guy – part of a Marine company sent to reinforce our precarious position. As he dropped into the trench behind me, I turned to see by his clean helmet cover; the look on his face said that today was his introduction to the terrors of the fight. Still, he never wavered. Suppressing the fear, we all knew, he spoke the last words of his life: “What do you want me to do?” In the intervening years, neither our dire circumstances nor his response to them have been forgotten.
Quickly I pointed out the sniper’s position and explained the need to keep him down while artillery was brought on target; I don’t remember the precise number, but I can’t imagine that more than 15 words were exchanged. Turning toward the church without hesitation, he took a firing position at the base of the bushes. With my back now covered, I gave the final “fire for effect” that would eliminate that menace in the loft.
Moments later, six 105 mm artillery rounds landed in the church’s upper story, abruptly and decisively ending the shooter’s reign. Unfortunately, The New Guy missed our small victory. Seconds before his demise, the sniper fired his last round. It was on target, and it was fatal. The New Guy was dead.
Although aware that he had protected me, providing time to complete the task at hand, reflection was not an option as that March 7, 1968, engagement at Phu Tai still had plenty of promised mayhem to be played out. A brutal assault, with Marines engaging in close-quarters fighting, routed the NVA forces. Afterward, in the late afternoon’s fading light, we searched for our wounded and killed. I don’t recall there being any prisoners.
As darkness enveloped the field, “Puff,” the Gatling-armed C-130 flying transport, came on station, providing covering fire as needed and dropping huge illumination flares, lighting-up the dry rice paddy for the night’s remaining work.
With our men accounted for, the Marines withdrew from the village and linked up to form a perimeter where, from freshly dug fighting holes, weary eyes and lethal intent were focused into the evening’s menacing shadows. Inbound helicopter flights soon began landing with the necessities: munitions, food, water and, oh yes, more New Guys. Following triage protocol, our corpsmen backloaded the outgoing flights with our 94 wounded. It wasn’t until the next morning, March 8, 1968, that The New Guy and his 12 companions, each now cocooned in a body bag, were finally relieved of duty. Marines gently loaded them into Hueys for their trip back across the Cua Viet to the first stop on their rotation stateside: the morgue at Dong Ha.
Curiously, though few things have had such a profound and lasting imprint on my life, many years passed before I dared replay those long-ago violent days. When I did, prominent and persistent was the question: “Who was The New Guy?” With research, I found the answer.
Three days after the battle of Phu Tai, the Department of Defense issued its weekly count of Vietnam casualties. The following day, March 12, 1968, The New York Times published the names of those who claimed New York as home. Last on their list of 22 was a young Marine from Brooklyn: Esau Whitehead Jr.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial website describes Esau at the time of his death as a 20-year-old African-American corporal from New York City. On “The Wall,” his name is found on Panel 43E, Line 49. The record states vaguely that he died from “ground, small arms fire, Quang Tri province.” Because of the chaos of battle, it is most likely I am the only person who knows the exact details. Wanting to share those, a letter was written describing Esau’s last moments; however, when unable to locate survivors, I rewrote it as the story of ‘The New Guy,’ hoping someday it would land where it belongs. Of course, after all this time, there may be no family left or, it’s also possible that no one cares.
But I do. I care. So, Esau, I’m writing your final story, hoping it will find its way to those who remember that 20-year-old kid from Brooklyn and wonder how it was for you at the end.
Cpl. Esau Whitehead Jr., you died living up to the Marine Corps motto – Semper Fidelis – while protecting a fellow Marine you knew for less than five minutes.
Thank you again, Esau. Your family should know.
The photo is left to right: Cpl Michael Walsh, Cpl James P. “Pat” Daly and PFC Roger McLain displaying the shamrocks they added to their helmet covers in Vietnam, 1968. Lt. George Norris is to the rear and between Cpl. Walsh and Cpl. Daly. He was killed in action while serving as a Company Commander.
Reprinted with permission from the Marine Corps Association & Foundation, Leatherneck Magazine, May 2017
My duties as a communications (cryptologic) technician would include flying missions, as one of 30 crewmembers, with VQ-1 that was headquartered in Atsugi, Japan. VQ-1 was a naval air reconnaissance squadron that flew in support of Operation Rolling Thunder, the bombing campaign against North Vietnam from March 2, 1965 to October 31, 1968. Rolling Thunder was the longest bombing campaign ever implemented by the U.S. Air Force and Navy during the Vietnam War. The aircraft used by VQ-1 during Operation Rolling Thunder was the EC-121M, a converted Lockheed Super Constellation passenger plane that was commonly used in the 1940’s and 50’s. We referred to this aircraft as the ‘Connie’. It consisted of a crew of 18 to 30 personnel depending on the electronic tasks involved in our missions. During the time that I served with Det Bravo, I flew 38 missions with VQ-1.
Our flights were usually eight or more hours in length flying over the Gulf of Tonkin near and around the North Vietnamese port city of Haiphong. Our crews consisted of specialists in Morse code intercept along with Russian, Chinese and Vietnamese linguists who monitored voice intercept from the surface to air missile (SAM) sites in North Vietnam. Our plane also had the capability of establishing the coordinates of our downed pilots who were shot down during their bombing missions and relaying this information to the U.S. 7th Fleet in the South China Sea below. This information was vital to determine if a rescue attempt could be made.
During the six months that I served at Da Nang, there were three rocket attacks made against the airbase by enemy forces. The most severe rocket attack at Da Nang during the Vietnam War had occurred on July 15, 1967 when the enemy forces fired 83 rounds of 122mm and 140mm Russian manufactured rockets on to the airbase. There were 175 casualties during that attack and 44 of them were personnel of Det Bravo and VQ-1. Our barracks happened to be located about 50 yards from a bomb storage area that was ignited by one the rockets that had exploded there. The bunkers that we had constructed did not have roofs on them at the time, so the shrapnel from the exploding bombs rained down into our bunkers. Fortunately, no one was killed but our barracks was totally destroyed. After the attack, the personnel of Det Bravo were transferred to another area located near Da Nang Harbor called Camp Tien Sha. It was near the R & R area at China Beach. China Beach was a favorite place for many G.I.s, especially when the pretty American nurses were there. We referred to them as round eyes.
I was only at Da Nang for six months of my life but it was six months that I will never forget. Compared to the Vietnam combat veterans, I had easy duty while I was in Vietnam but I served with honor and felt that both Det Bravo and VQ-1 had performed their assignments with exemplary dedication in support of the U. S. war effort.
In conclusion, I would like to pay a special tribute to all of the Vietnam veterans and also to the VQ-1 crew that was shot down by North Korea over the Sea of Japan on April 15, 1969. I had flown with some of that same crew while I was at Da Nang, including the plane commander, Lt. Cdr. James Overstreet.
To view video of rocket attacks on Da Nang airfield https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TDdIdT9pd3s
The USS Laffey (DD-724) was laid down 28 June 1943 by Bath Iron Works Corp., Bath, Maine. She was launched 21 November; sponsored by Miss Beatrice F. Laffey, daughter of Medal of Honor recipient S1c Bartlett Laffey. Commissioned 8 February 1944, Cdr. F. Julian Becton as her first “Captain”.
After shakedown, the Laffey traveled the world in the war effort. She was off the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. Off Cherbourg, France where an unexploded shell bounced off her hull above the waterline and did little damage. Rescuing a badly wounded Japanese pilot off the Philippines. Firing support in Leyete Gulf and Ormoc Bay. Transported intelligence to McArthur in the Philippines. Supported landings at Mindoro and Luzon, Iwo Jima, and Kerama Retto.
That is where this story begins.
Commander Frederick Julian Becton, Captain of the destroyer USS Laffey (DD 724), took the radio message his communications officer handed him on April 12, 1945, but the concerned look on the young officer’s face made Becton suspect that it was not good news. Laffey, an Allen M. Sumner-class destroyer, had been screening the heavy fleet units that were bombarding Okinawa in close support of the ground forces ashore. She was the second U.S. destroyer to bear the name Laffey; the first ship had been lost off Guadalcanal in 1942.
Shortly after dawn on April 13, Becton brought his ship into the crowded harbor at Kerama Retto. Many of the ships anchored there had been battered by kamikazes while on radar picket duty. Although Laffey’s crew had encountered suicide bombers at Leyte, Mindoro, Luzon and Iwo Jima, they had never before seen so many damaged ships in one place. The crewmen began to imagine what might happen to them when they went out to their assigned picket station. Morale was low, and it only got worse when they received news that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had died the day before.
As soon as Laffey tied up alongside Cassin Young, the fighter-director team of two officers and three enlisted men reported aboard, carrying with them special electronic gear. Three hundred rounds of 5-inch ammunition were also loaded aboard so that Laffey would sail with full magazines of all calibers. As Laffey prepared to depart, the skipper of Cassin Young offered some advice to Becton: ‘Keep moving and keep shooting. Steam as fast as you can and shoot as fast as you can.’
A gun captain from the destroyer Purdy, which was anchored nearby, also offered his thoughts about picket duty. Purdy had been struck by a kamikaze on April 12, killing 13 and wounding 270. He told the Laffey crewmen: ‘You guys have a fighting chance, but they’ll keep on coming till they get you. You’ll knock a lot of them down, and you’ll think you’re doing fine. But in the end there’ll be this one bastard with your name on his ticket.’ After all the horrific stories the crew had heard while in the anchorage, they were almost relieved when Laffey steamed north toward her assigned area, radar picket station No. 1.
On April 14, Laffey, accompanied by LCS 51 (landing craft, support) and LCS 116, arrived on station 51 miles north of Point Bolo on south-central Okinawa, which was used as a reference point in aligning the 16 picket sectors. Laffey relieved the destroyer-minelayer J. William Ditter (DM 31), whose skipper informed Becton by radio that during his time on station no kamikazes had entered the area, nor had any been detected by radar.
Becton hoped his ship would be as lucky, but at the same time he felt he should speak to his crew about the battle that was bound to come. He pressed the microphone button, and throughout the ship boomed the familiar words, ‘This is the captain speaking.’ Becton warned his crew not to expect the same kind of luck Ditter had had. He told them that he expected to see plenty of Japanese but that he had confidence in the crew’s ability. They had tangled with the enemy before and won. They were now going to make the Japanese wish they had never heard of USS Laffey. In conclusion, Becton said: ‘We’re going to outmaneuver and outshoot them. They are going to go down, but we aren’t.’
A short while later three bogeys appeared on the radar scope, but Laffey had no Combat Air Patrol (CAP) planes with her. Fifty miles to the east, however, there was a group of CAP planes with the destroyer Bryant (DD 665) on picket station No. 3. Becton requested their assistance, and the fighter-director team sent them toward the Japanese. All enemy planes were shot down. Not long after that, the radar operator reported eight more enemy aircraft approaching, and again Becton requested Bryant’s CAP planes. The fighter-director team vectored them in, and they destroyed all the aircraft. By the end of Laffey’s first day on picket duty, 11 planes had been shot down, but Laffey’s gunners had not yet fired a shot.
No enemy action occurred the next day, Sunday, April 15. The crew’s routine was broken only when Laffey was ordered to steam a few miles east to investigate a patrol plane’s report that a downed Japanese aircraft was in the water. The plane was found with its dead pilot still strapped in the cockpit. Laffey’s crew recovered an aircraft code book and other miscellaneous items that they would turn over to the intelligence section ashore, then sank the plane.
Monday morning began quietly on radar picket station No. 1. The whole crew was able to eat breakfast without any interruptions from the enemy. Then, at 8:25 a.m., the radar operator reported a solid cluster of pips too numerous to count approaching at 17,000 yards. It was a group of 165 kamikazes and 150 other enemy aircraft coming in fast from the north. The fighter-director team’s two officers requested more help from CAP. They were informed that fighters would be sent to intercept the huge onrushing formation, but it would take time for the CAP planes to arrive in the area. Meanwhile, Laffey and her two support craft would have to deal with the enemy on their own.
At 8:30, four Aichi D3A ‘Val’ dive bombers broke off from the oncoming group and headed for Laffey, which was steaming along at flank speed. Two came in from the bow and two from the stern in a coordinated attack. Becton ordered hard left rudder, bringing the destroyer broadside to the planes, and the two forward 5-inch guns downed two of the Vals at about 3,000 yards. The stern 5-inch gun shot down the third kamikaze, and the 20mm and 40mm mounts downed the fourth with an assist from the gunners on LCS 51.
There was no time to rejoice over that success, however, because two more attackers, Yokosuka D4Y ‘Judy’ dive bombers, were coming in fast – one from the starboard beam and one from the port beam. When the Judy on the starboard side got within range of the 20mm and 40mm guns, it was torn apart by converging fire and crashed into the sea. The gunners’ attention then shifted to port to assist with the second Judy, as it came in bobbing and weaving. The Japanese pilot strafed the ship, peppering the superstructure and wounding several men. The 20mm and 40mm guns finally downed the plane about 50 yards out, but just before hitting the water, the pilot released a bomb that sent shrapnel flying everywhere, wounding several more men and knocking others off their feet. The explosion also knocked out the SG radar, which was needed to detect low-flying aircraft.
The next attacker, another Val, came streaking in on the port beam. All three 5-inch guns opened fire, and as the plane came closer, the 20mm and 40mm mounts joined in. It looked as if the pilot was aiming to slam into the aft 5-inch gun, but he came in just a bit high and only grazed the top of it before smashing into the sea off the starboard side, killing one man in the gun crew. The eighth attacker, a Judy, came skimming in low over the water on the starboard beam. The 20mm and 40mm guns were hitting the plane, and finally, after a hit in the gas tank, the Judy burst into a fireball and crashed into the sea. Laffey’s crewmen felt as if they had been battling the enemy for hours, but it was only 8:42, just 12 minutes since the attacks had started.
There was a respite of about three minutes before the next attacker, another Val, came boring in off the port bow. The portside guns raked the plane, which shuddered and twisted but kept coming, even as gasoline poured from one wing tank. The pilot cleared the portside 20mm and 40mm mounts and crashed into the 20mm mounts amidships, killing three gunners before sliding into the sea. Flaming gasoline was everywhere, and black smoke engulfed the area. Two 40mm mounts were wrecked and out of operation, as were two 20mm mounts.
The ammunition racks around the gun tubs were filled with clips of shells, which were in danger of exploding due to the heat. Damage-control crewmen began to heave the clips over the side of the ship. Some of them were so hot that the men had to protect their hands with rags. As some of the ammunition exploded and blew holes in the deck, flaming gasoline poured into a magazine below. Fortunately, the ammo was packed in metal cans that resisted the heat until a damage-control party arrived and hosed down the containers, thereby avoiding disaster.
Communications were knocked out in the forward engine room, but that did not present a problem for the moment. The engineers decided to adjust the ship’s speed according to the sound of the gunfire they heard. If it was loud and fast, they would increase the speed. A more immediate problem was the smoke and fumes being sucked into the engine rooms by the ventilators. Machinist’s Mate John Michel, in the aft engine room, shut down the supply fans. The temperature soon reached 130 degrees and kept climbing as Michel worked his way through the dense smoke, located the controls for the exhaust fans and turned them on. The smoke began to clear and the temperature began to fall. Knowing that the smoke would undoubtedly attract more kamikazes, Becton reduced the ship’s speed to avoid fanning the flames.
Just as the crew was beginning to get the situation under control, two more kamikazes, both Vals, struck. One came in from astern low and fast, just a few feet above the water. The gunners of the three after 20mm mounts hit him with accurate fire, and parts of the plane broke off, but the pilot kept boring in. He plowed through the three mounts, killing the gun crews, and rammed into a 5-inch gun. The bomb he was carrying exploded, causing the plane to disintegrate and throwing gun captain Larry Delewski clear of danger. Fortunately, he was unhurt. Another man was blown overboard, but he was picked up by LCS 51, along with another crewman who had gone overboard earlier.
Flaming gasoline covered Laffey’s fantail and aft gun mount, sending more black smoke billowing into the air. The fires threatened a magazine below the mount, so firefighters flooded it, preventing an explosion that could have torn the ship apart. The situation was about to get worse, however, because the 11th kamikaze came crashing aboard at almost the same spot. That plane’s bomb wiped out the mount’s gun crew and wounded several others. The damage-control parties had no time to take a breather.
About two minutes later, another Val came gliding in from astern, probably because the guns were out of commission there. The pilot dropped his bomb and sped away. The bomb detonated on the stern just above Laffey’s propeller, severing the electrical cables and hydraulic lines that controlled the ship’s rudder mechanism. The rudder jammed at 26 degrees left, and the ship began to steam in a circle, still able to maintain speed but without control. Although crewmen began to work on it at once, their efforts were fruitless. The rudder was jammed tight and could not be moved.
The smoke and flames must have indicated to the attackers that Laffey was nearly done for, but they did not ease off. Two more planes came roaring in from the port quarter, and every gun that could be brought to bear on the attackers poured out a steady stream of flak, but to no avail. The first plane slammed into the aft deckhouse, exploding in a ball of fire. Seconds later, the other plane crashed into the ship in almost the same spot. Gasoline from both planes produced roaring fires that covered the whole aft part of the ship.
Machinist’s Mates George Logan and Stephen Waite, who had been battling fires in the aft living spaces, became trapped when the escape hatches buckled. They went to the emergency diesel generator room and secured the watertight door behind them. There was no light or ventilation and no way out, but there was a telephone that still worked, and they got through to the aft engine room. John Michel went to work again, this time with some help from Machinist’s Mate Buford Thompson. They chiseled a hole through the bulkhead and passed an air hose in to the trapped men. Meanwhile, Machinist’s Mates Art Hogan and Elton Peeler used cutting torches to make a hole in the deck and then pulled Logan and Waite to safety.
At the same time, a Nakajima Ki-43 ‘Oscar’ was streaking in from the port bow with a CAP Vought F4U Corsair on its tail. The port side 20mm and 40mm mounts were sending up a steady barrage while trying not to hit the Corsair. This Japanese pilot did not drop down and ram the bridge but zoomed up and over it, shearing off the port yardarm on Laffey’s mast, which came crashing down to the deck, taking the American flag with it. As the Corsair zoomed by, it hit the air-search radar antenna and knocked it to the deck below. After he cleared Laffey, the Japanese pilot lost altitude quickly and crashed into the sea, while the Corsair pilot managed to pull up and bail out before his plane hit the water farther away. Signalman Tom McCarthy saw Laffey’s colors fall to the deck and wasted no time in remedying the situation. He grabbed a new flag from the flag locker, shinnied up the mast and attached the new colors with a piece of line.
As he watched the Corsair chase the last attacker, Becton realized that his CAP planes, which had been spread thinly and even lured out of position at times, were now beginning to furnish some close support. That did not mean that Laffey was out of trouble, however. As if to prove the point, another Judy came in fast on the port beam, with a Corsair hot on its tail. The portside 20mm and 40mm mounts and the Corsair were hitting the Judy, which splashed into the water about 50 yards away from Laffey. Shrapnel from the Judy’s bomb severed all communications to Laffey’s two remaining 5-inch guns, as well as wounded the crews who were still working the hot 20mm and 40mm guns. Three gunner’s mates were also wounded.
Ensign Jim Townsley quickly jury-rigged a substitute system for communicating with the gun mounts. With a microphone strapped around his neck and plugged into the ship’s loudspeaker system, he climbed atop the pilothouse, from where he could see the onrushing attackers, and directed the gunfire from there. The 17th attacker was eliminated as he bore in from the starboard side. The plane took a direct hit from a manually trained 5-inch gun, with an assist from the 20mm and 40mm mounts.
Two more kamikazes, both Oscars, came streaking in, one from the starboard beam and one from the starboard bow. The attacker on the starboard beam was hit with a 5-inch round head-on in the propeller and engine and blew apart. Mount captain Warren Walker shouted: ‘We got the SOB! What a beautiful sight!’ Meanwhile, another gun had the other attacker in its sights as the plane came diving in. Even though the electrical controls were out and the gun was being operated manually, it took only two rounds to finish off the attacker. As the plane exploded, the gun’s trainer, Andy Stash, yelled excitedly: ‘We got him! We got him! Did you see that bastard explode?’
In the brief lull that followed, assistant communications officer Lieutenant Frank Manson arrived on the bridge to report to the skipper. When Mason finished talking, he hesitated a bit and then added: ‘Captain, we’re in pretty bad shape aft. Do you think we’ll have to abandon ship?’ Becton quickly replied: ‘Hell no, Frank. We still have guns that can shoot. I’ll never abandon ship as long as a gun will fire.’ Relieved, the Lieutenant went back to his duties.
The battle was not over yet. The 20th attacker, another Val, came gliding in from dead astern. Both the sun and the thick smoke helped to conceal the plane from the gunners. The pilot dropped his bomb, blasting an 8-by-10-foot hole in the already battered fantail. As he passed low over the length of the ship, he clipped off the starboard yardarm. He didn’t get far; a Corsair seemed to come out of nowhere to shoot him down several hundred yards off the starboard bow. Shrapnel from the bomb hit the emergency sick bay that the ship’s medical officer, Lieutenant Matt Darnell, had set up topside. Fragments severed the tips of two of the doctor’s fingers. Bandaging the bloody stumps, he calmly asked the astonished pharmacist’s mate who was assisting him, ‘Who’s next?’
The 21st attacker, another Val, strafed the ship as it came in off the starboard bow, aiming straight for the bridge. Seaman Feline Salcido, the bridge lookout, did not think that the captain saw the plane coming. He put his hand on the back of Becton’s neck and shouted, ‘Down, captain, down!’ As they both crouched low, a violent explosion rocked the bridge. The plane had dropped a bomb, killing one 20mm gun crew and wounding members of another nearby crew. That Val did not get away either; a Corsair pounced on him and finished him off.
The last plane was a Judy, which strafed Laffey as it came in from the port side. Although the port 20mm and 40mm guns put out a steady stream of fire, the attacker kept getting closer. Just when it seemed that the gunners were goners, a Corsair came roaring in with all guns blazing and blew up the Judy in midair.
By the end of the 22nd attack, the situation aboard Laffey was critical. The fires still raged, the stern was down due to flooded aft compartments, many guns no longer functioned and the rudder was still jammed at 26 degrees. Amid all the confusion and noise, Becton heard what sounded like many planes diving at once. Laffey could not absorb any more punishment. Sonarman Charlie Bell, Becton’s telephone talker, provided him with the encouraging news he so desperately needed. ‘Captain, look what’s up there,’ he said, pointing skyward. The weary skipper looked up to see 24 CAP Marine Corsairs and Navy Grumman F6F Hellcats just arriving to lend a hand to the few planes already on station. The Japanese had had enough and were hightailing it out of the area with the CAP planes in hot pursuit.
Laffey’s crewmen could not contain their jubilation. Shouts of ‘Get the bastards! Rip ’em up! Nail ’em!’ rose above the din of the receding battle. It was finally over, and the grim toll was staggering: 80 minutes of continuous air attack, 22 separate attacks, six kamikazes crashed into the ship and four bomb hits. But Laffey’s gunners had shot down nine attackers. The ship’s casualties totaled 32 dead and 71 wounded. Amazingly, eight guns were still able to fire. LCS 51 came alongside to help fight the fires, but the little vessel had also been hit and could only offer limited help.
The destroyer-minesweeper Macomb took Laffey in tow and headed for the Kerama Retto anchorage shortly after noon. The tugs Pakana (ATF 108) and Tawakoni (ATF 114) were dispatched to bring in Laffey. Using pumps, they got the flooding under control aboard the badly damaged ship. The jammed rudder caused towing problems, but it was still possible to maintain a forward speed of 4 knots.
At 6:14 the following morning, April 17, Laffey entered the harbor at Kerama Retto. Men gazed in amazement at the battered newcomer. It just did not seem possible that a ship could have taken so much punishment and survived; one kamikaze hit was often enough to sink a ship. Laffey’s escorts on radar picket station No. 1 had also suffered during the agonizing ordeal. LCS 51 had a 7-foot hole in her port side amidships, and three of her sailors had been wounded. LCS 116 had suffered topside damage, along with 17 dead and 12 wounded.
Shortly after sunrise, when Laffey was safely at anchor, the crew went aboard the tug Tawakoni for breakfast, their first real meal in almost 24 hours. Later that morning, a chaplain came aboard to conduct services for those killed or missing in action.
By April 22, six days after her ordeal on the picket line, Laffey had undergone enough repairs to depart for Saipan. At Saipan more repair work was performed, especially on the battered fantail. Laffey’s next stop was Pearl Harbor, where the crew was warmly welcomed and entertained while the ship underwent further patching to ensure its safe passage back to the West Coast.
On Friday, May 25, 1945, Laffey moored at Pier 48 in Seattle, WA. 39 days after her fight for survival on radar picket station No. 1. Before additional repairs were begun, the battered ship was thrown open for viewing by the public.
Some naval officials believed that defense workers had been easing off in their production efforts since V-E Day on May 8, and they had been searching for a way to remind everyone that the war was far from over. After seeing Laffey’s condition, everyone got the message loud and clear.
For her outstanding performance on the picket line, Laffey was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation. Eighteen members of her crew received Bronze Stars, six received Silver Stars, two received Navy Crosses and one received the Navy Commendation Medal.
The Ex-USS Laffey can be toured at Patriot’s Point in Mount Pleasant, SC. For more information, click here: https://www.patriotspoint.org/
This article was written by Dale P. Harper and originally appeared in the March 1998 issue of World War II magazine.
SP4 Richard “Tunnel Rat” Bradley
(Veterans – record and share your own service story with friends and family by joining www.togetherweserved.com. This is a free service)
WHAT PERSUADED YOU TO JOIN THE SERVICE?
Until August of 1963, I was planning on going into the Navy and make a career out of it. My Father was in the Merchant Marines and then the Navy during World War II. I had read his Blue Jacket’s Manuel 1944 completely and was determined to become a good sailor. Then, my older brother came home on leave from Fort Bragg Special Forces Training. He was wearing a tailored uniform with French Fourragere and Jump Wings. The 82nd Airborne Patch complemented his high gloss Jump Boots. His stories about jump school enamored me. He left on August 9, 1963 back to Fort Bragg and on August 12, 1963 I got on a bus headed for Fort Leonard Wood for my Basic Combat Training. I had gotten my parents signatures for entrance since I had just turned 17 two months prior to this. I had changed my career path and now wanted to make the Army my career.
BRIEFLY, WHAT WAS YOUR CAREER PATH IN THE SERVICE?
I had enlisted for the Infantry. My immediate plans were BCT graduation, AIT Training and graduation and Jump School. I took the Airborne PT test while I was in Basic Training and took it again while I was in AIT at Fort Polk. In fact, my whole Platoon (about 31 guys) was going to Jump School after our AIT. After my graduation from AIT, I received orders for Korea instead of Jump School. Another guy got orders for Germany while the rest of my platoon went to Jump School. My first duty assignment was HHC 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division near the DMZ (38th Parallel) in Korea. I arrived in January 1964 and left about February 1965. While there, I became the Battalion Executive Officer’s Driver. This was after having been an Imjim Scout driver. I transferred my driving skills from a Truck, Utility, ¼ Ton, 4×4, M38A1C to a Truck, Utility, ¼ Ton, 4×4, M151.
The Executive Officer, Major Guy H. McCarey, was a big influence on my chosen career path. He was a real soldier and also Airborne qualified! I loved seeing his Glider Patch worn on the opposite side of his Garrison Cap (that’s not the name we called it). He encouraged me all the time to pursue bigger and better things. Because of him, I took the EIB Course and was later awarded my EIB. Because of him, I took a short discharge and reenlisted for six years. I re-enlisted for Europe for two reasons. First, because I always wanted to go to Europe and secondly, because I heard there was an Airborne School in Europe and I thought I could kill two birds with one stone by seeing Europe and going to the Jump School. I was assigned to A Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Infantry of Berlin Brigade. I soon found out that the Airborne School in Europe was just a refresher course for guys that were already Airborne qualified.
As the rest of my Army career will show, I never got the chance to go to Jump School. The closest I got was in Hohenfels, Germany when a group of Germans had an old T-10 Parachute hooked up to about 400 feet of rope and an Army ¾ Ton Truck. We were in a very large field and they allowed me to hook up. I probably made about 400 feet or so and even exercised a PLF upon landing which I felt a bit foolish about as I could have just landed straight up on my feet. The landing was soft. But I only had this opportunity to demonstrate all my brother taught me about jumping. While in the 6th Infantry, I was selected to do a training film done by a real Hollywood Director about US Army personnel who had defected to the East. I wish that I could find a copy of that as I did some fine acting in it! From the 6th Infantry, I went to HHC 4th Battalion, 18th Infantry, AMU. I guess my expertise with the M14 AR E2 came to somebody’s attention. I was also an Expert with the M60 Machine-gun. I was involved in a number of matches in AMU and received a number of badges, trophies and medallions. After a little over a year in Berlin, I decided I needed to put my training to a better use, so I volunteered for Vietnam. The Army accommodated me quickly and they sent me to A Troop, 3rd Squadron 4th Cavalry, 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi, South Vietnam.
DID YOU PARTICIPATE IN COMBAT OPERATIONS?
Yes, all from 24 April 1966 to 24 April 1967. We were a Mechanized Cavalry Unit where I served with my Infantry MOS. My Cavalry horse was an Armored Personnel Carrier (APC). My Track hit five mines while I was there. I was injured on the first hit in June of 1966 and on the last hit in early April of 1967. I received two Purple Hearts for these injuries. The second one was pinned on my pillow by Colonel Webb while I was in the Base Camp Hospital in Cu Chi. I had 17 days left. They wanted to evacuate me to another, bigger hospital to heal. I told them I could heal up just fine and went home at my scheduled time, although I did look like a spotted leopard with new skin and still healing skin in some areas. Sure ruined my tan I’d been working on for a year! I did take R&R in Taipei, Taiwan late in my Vietnam tour.
FROM YOUR ENTIRE SERVICE CAREER WHAT PARTICULAR MEMORY STANDS OUT AS BEING THE ONE WHICH HAS HAD THE BIGGEST IMPACT ON YOU?
When the Army sent me back to the United States and stationed me at Fort Hood, Texas with C Co. 2nd Bn 50th Inf 2nd Armored Division. They issued me an M14 Rifle with a Blank Adapter and sent me out into the field to play war games again! This was the turning point in my Army career.
All the rest of my buddies, who lived through Nam, went to units as trainers and instructors. One went to Fort Benning as an instructor in mines and booby traps teaching Officers. I, on the other hand, went to a unit to train for combat. I still had three years left on my re-enlistment of six years. So I asked to go back to Germany as I had always loved it and still hadn’t seen all I wanted of it. They accommodated me and sent me to 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division stationed at Kitzegen, Germany. This was Audie Murphy’s former unit.
Part of the units training was the regiment would march down to the post theater once a year and watch “To Hell and Back.”!!! This was the time period were the Sgt. Major of the Army went before a Congressional Subcommittee on EM Club Scamming in Europe. I was stationed there and I saw first-hand what was going on while the rest of the world was embroiled in the Vietnam War.