When I die, if the Lordgives me a moment to reflect before I breathe my last breath, my first thoughtswill be not of my loved ones, nor my children.
I’ll reflect on and thank God for , , Phuoc, Tuan, Hung, Son, Quang, , and . Captains Tuong and Thinh and lieutenants Trung and Trong will follow themin my thoughts. Then, I’ll think of my loving wife, our talented and uniquechildren, and our folks.
Why the Vietnamese men before my loved ones? Withoutthe courage, strength and fearless verve as combatantsin America‘s secret war in Southeast Asia, I wouldn’t have returned to the United States.
Today, on the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, I’ll pause to salute those warriors, men most Americans will neverhear about, including the more than 3 million troops sent to South Vietnam during America‘s longest and costliest war.
There are many who do not respect or salute the Vietnamese who fought in Vietnam. That’s because our country has failed to educatethem about the Vietnamese, the country they sent us to and its history andcustoms. As Green Berets, we fought side by side with them, laughed with and learned about their families, their dreams andhopes and fears.
The first group were members of Spike Team Idaho, a reconnaissance team that ran classified missionsinto CambodiaNorth Vietnam under the aegis of the Military Assistance CommandVietnam, Studies and Observation Group —- SOG. Green Berets, Navy SEALs and U.S. Marine Corps ForceReconnaissance troops manned several special operation commands throughout South Vietnam.
I joined Spike Team Idaho in May 1968, after six members of the teamdisappeared in a target area. Three U.S. Green Berets and three Vietnamese mercenarieswere never heard from again and remain listed as missing in action today. By’68, Idaho operated out of , 10 miles south of . In May, there were 30 recon teams there. ByNovember, Idaho was the only operational team left in camp. Theenemy troops in CambodiaNorth Vietnam were well-trained, fearless and well-equipped.
Captains Tuong and Thinhand lieutenants Trung and Trongwere helicopters pilots who flew Sikorsky H-34s in the Vietnamese 219thHelicopter Squadron for SOG. Time and again, they flew the older H-34s, whichwe called “KINGBEES,” into landing zones where enemy soldiers triedto knock them out of the sky.
For several months in ’68, the KINGBEES were the only aircraft flying SOG teams”across the fence” deep into enemy territory. In , the CIA estimated there were between 30,000 and40,000 North Vietnamese troops keeping the Ho Chi Trail open, bringing supplies from the north to South Vietnam —- and fighting SOG troops.
During my 17 months on Idaho,we always left targets under heavy fire from North Vietnamese troops. The ridehome was in KINGBEES and every time we asked for one, it came, regardless ofenemy fire. There are many Green Berets alive today thanks to the incredibleflying skills of Vietnamese Kingbee pilots. Andwithout the Vietnamese or Montagnard team members,there would have been more than the 161 killed in SOG operations.
was the Vietnamese team leader on Spike Team Idaho. When I landed at , had been fighting forSpecial Forces nearly five years. Weighing less than 100 pounds soaking wet, had a remarkable sixth sense: He could smell the enemy.In the jungle he moved with complete stealth and silence, often cursing hislarger American counterparts.
was the team’s interpreter, who sometimescorrected troops on their English, as well as speakingVietnamese, French and some Chinese.
Phuoc, , and Hung all signed up with Special Forces when theywere 15 or 16. After hundreds of hours of intensive training, their age didn’tmatter as they stood tall in combat.
On Oct. 7, 1968, SpikeTeam Idaho, after trying to escape from North Vietnamesetrackers, was attacked by NVA soldiers, who opened fire on full automatic. had warned they were near. Although none of theAmericans heard anything, , Phuoc, and Don Wolken were onalert, with their weapons on full automatic, ready to go.
In those firefights the first seconds are crucial. The submachine guns wecarried fired 20 high-velocity rounds in 1 1/2 seconds. ,Phuoc and reloaded and drove the NVA back down thejungle-shrouded hill. We gained fire superiority, but the NVA never stoppedcoming at us. After a while, they were firing at us from behind stacks of deadbodies. They came at us from 2 p.m. until dusk, time and again rushing us, trying to overrun our position.We had Air Force Phantom jets, Skyraidersand helicopter gunships dropping bombs, napalm andcluster bombs and make strafing runs. That was the first time I could recallsmelling burnt human flesh.
By dusk, we were low on ammo, hand grenades and roundsfor our grenade launcher. Capt. Thinh flew his H-34to a slight rise above our position, hovering in deep elephant grass —-thick-bladed grass that grew more than 12 feet tall. Because the grass wasthick and the NVA tried to close in on us again, it took us several minutes toget to the Kingbee.
When I arrived under it, I looked up at Capt. Thinh,sitting there looking as calm as a RockyMountain breeze in springtime, and he smiled. Finally, wewere loaded and he yanked us out of there. , , Phuocand I fired off our last magazine of rounds and threw our last grenade as wepulled out of the landing zone, again under heavy enemy fire.
Within a few minutes we were at 4,000 feet, returning to . We were safe and unharmed. The Kingbee had 48 holes from bullets and grenades in its sidepanels and propellers. The new American on the team quit the next day. , and Phuoc ate dinner before I arranged for and to return to theirfamilies that night. That scene unfolded hundreds of times over the course of SOG’s history.
I carry a deep, haunting guilt for having left them in South Vietnam.
(J. Stryker Meyer, aNorth County Times staff writer, served in the Special Forces from 1968 to1970.)