Lieutenant Longgrear is helped to an evacution helicopter at Khe Sanh. He was one of fourteen American surviour of the North Vietnamese attack on Lang Vei.
The helicopter (Huey), was hovering about 5 feet off the ground. It remained in that position only long enough to kick off some ammunition, food and me.
On the ground were a bunch of oriental looking soldiers and one Caucasian, without a shirt on, gathering the supplies that had been on the Huey. It was 10 AM in early October 1967 and already hot and muggy.
I had just joined 12th Company of the I Corp Mobile Strike Force, 5th Special Forces as a platoon leader. The company commander, Capt Mc Cullah, and another platoon leader, Smitty, were the current leadership and they were both Austrailians. All the soldiers, mercenaries actually, in the company were Montagnards. These are natives of VN but are not Vietnamese. They are fearless and brave when motivated and well led.
The CO gave the following briefing over a warm can of beer which was included in the supplies I accompanied on the Huey.
"We encountered an NVA company sized force yesterday and lost two SF platoon leaders too wounds. I am going to give you 3rd platoon. Their current strength is 28 troops present for duty."
The CO continued, "We are about 1500 meters from Laos 30 klicks from North Vietnam. Our AO is a free fire zone with no friendlies. Kill'em all, let God sort'em out!" He added, "about 8 klicks to the East there are a thousand US Marines but they don't come over here so don't worry about them." I learned our mission was to conduct Long Range Patrols for the Special Forces A-camp called by the name of the nearest village: Lang Vei. The camp was in the process of being rebuilt from the last time it was overrun and destroyed so they needed our help.
I learned that my first operation would be to ambush a dirt road, running from Laos. The ambush site was about two kilometers away from our patrol base. The good news to me was that it was my ambush, it was that night and I would be in charge. AIIIIEEEE
Smitty took me over and introduced me to the 3d platoon interpreter. I told him I wanted to meet the indigenous platoon leader (PL) and platoon sergeant (PS). The whole company was from one Rhe-Montagnard (Yard) tribe.
Afterward I called the platoon together and introduced myself. Then I briefed them on our mission that night. Or in tactical terms, I gave them a warning order.
We then spent a couple of hours training on movement to the objective, getting into position and actions following contact. I told them to clean their weapon, take a nap and eat prior to departure at 1900 hours. In the back of my mind was the fact that some of the company had run in battle a couple of days before. It was going to tick me off if I got killed on my first operation. I wondered what I would do if they ran. At 1900 we formed up. I asked the Yard PL if the weapons were cleaned, did everyone have water and a poncho liner and had they eaten. I spot checked a man in each squad and was pleased. We moved out in single file. It was already pitch black.
As we approached the ambush site we had a chance encounter with an enemy, five man recon team walking down the road. The point element fired them up. The enemy did not return fire but evaporated into the black jungle.
The forth squad immediately maneuvered to the right and swept the road to the south. The 3d squad did the same thing on my left. The 2nd squad stayed where they were as if performing the role of reserve. The lead squad ran past me, crossed the road and set up defensively.
Of course I figured this all out later. What did I do when the firing began? I hit the dirt where I was standing and wondered what kind of Chinese fire drill I had joined. I eventually gave the CO a sitrep and asked for guidance. He asked me what I wanted to do. I said that I wanted to stay out and get all the experience I could. Plus, I wanted to evaluate my platoon more.
He suggested that I move up the road away from the river a hundred yards or so and reset our ambush. I rogered, found my interpreter, took a head count and we moved out.
About 0300 hours, the Yard PL told me that the NVA had returned to the original ambush site. We got in two columns and moved along side the road toward the ambush site.
BANG, BANG, BOOM POW, KAPOW, RATATATTAT.
A dive off the road and another mouth full of dirt. I'm thinking "if every night in Vietnam is like this, it's going to be a long year".
As fast as it started, it ended. I was laying there re-evaluating my rapidly deteriorating, gung ho, hard core attitude.
"LT, what we do now?" the interpreter asked.
All I could think of was just to stay in place. It was so dark I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. I called the "Old Man" and gave him my status. I could almost hear him and Smitty laughing their butt off. I elected to stay in place until day light.
"What, in the... what is that noise"? This whispering Vietnamese voice grew louder as it got closer. I put my hand on my interpreter's wrist.
He whispered in my ear, "That NVA soldier, he say 'where everybody'". I popped the hand held flare.
I am convinced there were 28 magazines emptied. I figured I had just lost at least half my platoon to friendly fire.
At day break we swept the area and found one body with numerous bullet holes. Best of all there were no friendly casualties. Don't ask me how, I don't know.
The lesson I learned that night was always keep your troops informed. If they know what the plan is and are trained, chances are they will execute and succeed.
This was the beginning of a love affair between me and my "Yards".
The next day we were air lifted out of Lang Vei (LV) and it would be about a month before I would be back. But the next time it would be with a totally new group of command element and a different outcome.
Mobile Strike Force (MIKE FORCE) Company 12 had an average of 160 Yards and six US Special Forces. Four of the SF were Non Commissioned Officers (sergeants) either E-6 (staff sergeant) or E-7 (Sergeant First Class) or E-8 (Master Sergeant) and a medic.
For the battle at LV we had MSG Harvey Brande from the state of Washington, SFC Charlie Lindewald from Indiana, SFC Earl Burke from North Carolina, And SSG John Early who had grown up as a military dependent. We actually had a last minute add on: SSG Dennis Thompson from Oregon was a replacement for MSG Brande but Brande was not able to get out of LV to become the MIKE FORCE (MF) Battalion CSM (Command Sergeant Major), so both of them were present and assigned to 12 Co for the battle of LV. Our team medic was SP4 (Specialist 4th Class) James Moreland from California. I was the CO, 1LT Paul Longgrear from Arkansas.
12 Company started arriving at LV prior to Christmas. We actually had to piece meal in because there were not enough transportation assets to get us there all at one time. The best I remember it, the company was 100% by the middle of December. Our mission was to support A-Team 101, which was the 13 SF stationed at LV. We did this by pulling their patrolling, especially long range patrols (LRPs). They did some 24 hour patrols so as to not lose their edge in combat and the jungle.
Captain Willoughby, the A-team CO, and LT Wilkins, the XO, were Q-course classmates of mine. Plus, Willoughby and I were in the same Battalion at Ft Benning, GA prior to attending the SF qualification course at Ft Bragg, NC. While we were at Bragg I had him over to my house for dinner since his wife did not accompany him.
When he picked me up at Khe Sahn Marine combat base that first time in October, he treated me like a LT and he acted like a Captain. You might think this odd of me to note but in SF there is less rank distinction than in the regular Army. Besides, this was war and I had never been less than professional with him. I addressed him as Captain even in my home.
The next time I went to LV, in December, things were worse. He sat me down and read me the riot act. Amongst other things, I was informed that my Hre Montagnards (Yards) were not authorized inside his wire. Because they had "a reputation as BAs" he didn't want any trouble between them and his Yards. The A-team NCOs treated us good but I refused to enter the wire (unless I had to) if my Yards couldn't. Since I had been up to LV (it was the northern most camp in South Vietnam) previously, I established our position in the same spot the Aussies were located when I joined them in October. It was about 5-700 meters west of LV right atop Highway 9, the paved highway that ran east and west from the coast all the way to somewhere in Laos. (I never saw where it ended).
Looking back, it didn't really matter where we set up base camp, we were never there. During the two months leading up to the big battle, none of us were ever in the base camp more than two days at a time and I rarely saw any of my NCOs. We were running staggered LRPs of five days out and two days in. What made it even worse was the enemy obviously had orders to not engage us. They were building up for the big attack on 6 February. If we encountered them, they ran or avoided us at all costs.
Around the first of February, I received a direct order from LTC Schungel (I-Corps SF commander) to move my company inside the A-team perimeter. The attack was imminent and the spooks had the poop that it was to occur anytime. When we executed that order, we reduced our patrolling considerably. Only daytime or short distance patrols were authorized because everyone was to be inside the wire to defend the camp.
When we moved in, the A-team consisted of 10 NCOs and three officers. (In VN there had been an alteration to the standard 12 man A-team makeup. The addition was a LT who was the Psychological Operations/Civil Affairs (psyops) officer. His main job was to win the hearts and minds of the locals and keep the morale of the A-team up. The psyops officer at LV did not participate in the battle of LV because he had flown into Danang city to buy groceries and do what ever else they did when they were in the rear.
At about the same time we moved inside the perimeter, a clandestine Laotian Battalion also moved to the camp from a CIA base in Laos. These CIA mercenaries were preceded by about 2200 members of their families; women and babies. You would have thought someone crapped on the CGs desk. THE SHIT HIT THE FAN!
Now, not only was DOD interested in the outcome of the battle, but the CIA and US State Department took charge. Because I had disarmed the "Valiant and Loyal" Lao commander and his troops, LTC Schungel or his XO had to be present at all times. Everyone figured I was going to be relieved but hey, I was just a ‘crap for brains' LT.
My boss, Major Adam Husar, the MF Bn CO, told me to disarm them. My attitude was, if you are oriental and carrying an AK47, lay your weapon on the ground. Not only did a field grade officer have to be present "at all times" but SF also had to send a team of full time aides for the, CIA/State Department sponsored, Laotian LTC. This four man SF team was led by SFC Eugene Ashley from NC. He had under him a Sgt E-5 Rich Allen from California, SP4 Joel Johnson from Florida and SP4 Young.
Overnight, LV became a boondoggle. There was the 13 man A-team and their 196 Bru strikers or Civilian Indigenous Defense Group (CIDG) that worked for them and were local recruits. Their families lived in the nearby village also named Lang Vei. Of course the previously mentioned seven SF with the 160 man MF. The Yards being from two different tribes, somewhat complicated things. My Hre had a different language and customs from the local Bru.
Then you throw in the 2200 Laotian civilians and the 400 to 500 soldiers that brought them there. That doesn't include the field grade officer and four man "aide" team required to be there to baby sit them. By the way, the field grades offered nothing in the way of support or assistance. In fact LTC Shingle's (AKA Crossbow) presence created a negative effect on unity of command. Capt Willoughby was forced to constantly second guess himself. (Unity of command is one of the primary principles of war.) In his book, Team Sergeant, SFC Bill (Pappy) Craig noted that LCT Schungel violated command protocol by relieving one of the A-team members over the objections of both Willoughby and himself Pappy was an experienced operator but he had so many people pulling on him that there were times it seemed that he was drawn into the confusion. And there was confusion! On one occasion MSG Brande led his platoon to capture an enemy mortar that had the helo-pad (where any helicopters were supposed to land) zeroed in. This was a reaction force mission based on 20 minute old, eye witness, and intelligence. He grabbed me to lead his second squad and Sp4 Johnson, from the liaison team, to lead the third squad.
Another example of the confusion that seemed to be reigning was SP4 Young being captured the day after he got to LV. SF had a standing rule; at least two Americans on any patrol. His second day there he led a patrol of 6-10 Lao with no other American along. He was wounded in a fire fight, the Lao ran and he was captured by the NVA.
Trying to feed everyone, keep everyone accounted for, meet state department demands and prepare for an imminent attack was somewhat over whelming. Even though this was Pappy's first team sergeant stint and Capt Willoughby's first SF assignment, they probably did as good as anyone could have. MAC-V and the state department dropped the ball big time. Instead of dealing properly with the Laotians and getting them out of there, they put the onus on an A-team under imminent attack.
Moving the Lao to our location was a great strategic move on Gen Giap's part. This act was the only time I had any respect for the North Vietnamese Army. In combat, they didn't impress me for diddly squat. Sure, they kicked our butt and over ran the camp but there was never a thought that we could defeat a regiment with tanks, sappers, flame throwers and artillery.
That's why there was a contingency plan for the Marines at Khe Sahn Combat Base to be a reaction force for us. Of course when they wouldn't even leave their perimeter to assist their own at Khe Sahn village a week before, we figured we were burnt toast. Our only hope was a MF rescue. The MF had been formed years ago for the purpose of denying the loss of anymore SF camps. Major Husar got the MF battalion chuted up and standing on the tarmac but no one would give him any birds. The attack actually started around 18:00 hours on 6 February 1968. I believe that the enemy used their 45 minute artillery barrage, at that time, to move support troops in position to assist their attack elements. It appears that their intent was to have their tanks create an environment of shock and awe hoping the Yards would run. Of course the turds were so screwed up that they actually did a poor job with the ground attack. We had plenty of warning we just didn't have the fire support we needed to prevent their success. The Yards stood and fought, they did not run.
Around 20:00 hours on the evening of 6 Feb 1968, SFCs Lindewald and Hannah went out of the perimeter to man the listening post. We did this every evening so as to be an early warning system for the camp. Just as they were getting into position, their Yards started firing and screaming and running toward the camp. When they re-entered the camp, I investigated and was told by the Yards, it was Lindewald's platoon, that there were many NVA in our old position. The two Americans had seen nothing and the NVA maintained fire discipline. I had been patrolling with these men for months and I trusted them. The Yard platoon leader assured me that there were "many enemy".
LTC Schungel asked me what happened and I explained it to him. He wanted to know if the two Americans had seen any enemy. And I said "no but that was not unusual. Most of the time the Yards are aware of an enemy presence before any Americans are. That's why they walk point, tail gunner and pull security." I knew the MF Yards, if they said there were many NVA, there were many NVA. He asked if the NVA fired and I said "no and they were probably on radio silence also". He didn't like my attitude and threatened to relieve me if the platoon didn't go back out.
I told them I would take the LP if they didn't want to go back out. Lindewald and Hanna were professional soldiers who always did their job. A couple of hours later, they were killed at the beginning of the battle. If we had had them in the perimeter to help us defend the camp, we would have had a better chance of winning and they would have had a fighting chance of surviving. As it was, they were sitting in the middle of a deadly ambush.