This article originally appeared on the following website: http://www.war-stories.com/ and is printed here with the author’s permission.
In November of 1968, I was walking slack for 1/327/101st Airborne Divisions recon team “Tiger Force,” in the jungle covered mountains of the Central Highlands, about 50 miles west of Hue, South Vietnam. John Gertsch was walking point that day when we came across a well-used trail. Gertsch stopped and put his left fist up, which meant that everyone stop and be perfectly quiet. Then he spread his hand out in an open gesture, which meant, quietly, get down and pay attention. We did. Gertsch and I checked the trail for tracks and any another other signs of enemy activity. We found fresh prints and reported back to the lieutenant, who told us to set up an ambush.
Within 15 minutes, a small patrol of six NVA appeared on the trail. We waited until they were in the right spot, made sure there were no more NVA behind them and then opened fire. Afterward, we cleared the trail, cleaned up any evidence that we were there and left the area. One of the NVA soldiers was an officer and was carrying maps and paperwork. We walked to a suitable site and requested a helicopter to pick-up and take the NVA paperwork to the rear to be analyzed.
We hiked for another hour and set up a night defensive position. Early in the evening, Gertsch, Zeke, Campos and I, quietly discussed the day’s events before taking our defensive positions. As I sat in silence, just listening to the jungle, I reflected back on just how I got to be in this elite unit of sky soldiers.
When the United States first started sending significant numbers of troops to Vietnam, we were using WWII tactics., which didn’t work against the North Vietnamese, who were waging guerrilla warfare, and it soon became apparent that superior firepower and company-sized units were ineffective. A group of 180 men moving through the jungle are loud, the noise carrying for miles and allowing the enemy time to react to our presence.
Late in 1965, a young and highly decorated Lt. Col. in the 101st Airborne Division, David Hackworth convinced his superiors we would have a greater success using smaller, well-armed, camouflaged units that could move quietly through the jungle. The first of these groups comprised from hand-picked, experienced volunteers from the First Brigade of the 101st. They became known as Tiger Force.
I was the second of nine children, four of which were the draft age in 1967. The oldest was in the Marines already; one was in military school, and another was about to graduate from high school. I’d just graduated and had no plans for college. Besides, I felt if I went to Vietnam the chances of my brothers going would be slim. It worked, I went, and everybody else stayed home.
I arrived in Bien Hoa, Vietnam, on April 4, 1968, and spent a month or so in additional training in the 90th replacement. Afterward, we flew north to Camp Eagle where I spent a single night before I took the first of countless helicopter rides along with a few other new guys and me, we were “Cherries” going to the firebase, Veghel.
The replacements and I spent one-hour there then walked out through the jungle to meet my company on a hilltop overlooking the mountains and valleys of the Central Highlands. Little did I know that walking through some of the most difficult and remote terrains in South Vietnam would be what I did for the next fourteen months.
Vietnam was divided into three zones. The northern zone was I Corps which consisted of battle grounds like the DMZ, The Rock Pile, Khe Sanh and the closest supply routes from North Vietnam into the south, the A-Shau Valley. I Corps was manned by conventional large scale, well armed, well trained and well resupplied NVA Regular Army Divisions. Farther south, II and III Corps were dominated by enemy units called the Viet Cong that used more of a guerrilla warfare tactic.
2 Squad, 2 Platoon, C Co. 1/327/101 1968
Because I was unmarried, I was assigned the job of walking point for Charlie Company, 1st/327, 101st Airborne Division, a line company with roughly 120 men. During the month of May 1968, we operated in an area fifty miles west of Hue know as the Ruong-Ruong Valley. During a daily patrol, we discovered something that illustrated how determined our enemy was. We walked into a natural cathedral fashioned by an eighty-foot canopy, covering a 300-yard diameter clearing, and surrounded on three sides by a river. The overhead foliage is camouflaging it from the air.
In its center, we found one of the largest caches of enemy weapons ever found during the Vietnam War. The inventory included five Chinese 85mm Howitzers, several crew-served anti-aircraft guns, hundreds of rifles, mortars, anti-tank weapons and in the surrounding jungle, 58 Russian trucks filled with misc. equipment. When the officers reviewed a topographical map, they could trace the enemy’s route to transport the weapons from Laos, through the A-Shau Valley and into the Ruong-Ruong where we found them.
Above Photo: 85 Howitzers in the Roung-Roung Valley 1968
Under normal circumstances, we never stayed in one location longer than one night but with all this enemy weaponry to protect we were told to do something I had never done before — dig in. I wasn’t much of a believer in foxholes. I preferred the idea of silence and camouflage over digging a hole. However, this time, my excavation was six feet long, four feet wide, and two feet deep.
I felt that they knew exactly where I was in this hole, and regardless of how deep I could dig it, it wouldn’t do me any good.
Humpin the trail
On our second day at this site, we heard that a friendly unit would penetrate the perimeter at our sector. From out of the jungle came the most impressive group of soldiers I had seen to date, Tiger Force, clad in French camouflage fatigues, and carrying sawed-off shotguns and AK47s. None of them wore a helmet; these men had a look of people who meant business. I had walked point long enough and knew that a helmet was a detriment in the ability to hear, so I never wore one.
Tiger Force camped with us that night, and their quiet confidence and field expertise drew me in like a magnet. I knew at that moment, that if I were going to spend the next several months in the jungle, I wanted to be with people who knew what they were doing and this unit of about thirty men had that effect on me. In the morning, I discovered that the Tigers had vanished, slipping silently into the jungle while we slept.
Charlie Company stayed at the site until all the weapons had been either removed or destroyed. Afterward, we continued our mission and headed west toward Laos. When we reached the border, we turned north. The NVA used The A-Shua Valley as an important supply route to funnel weapons and supplies, such as what we found in the Ruong-Ruong Valley. At certain times of the year, the rains prevented Americans from moving into this valley because aircraft wouldn’t be able to support them. The enemy used this time and weather to their advantage. Our objective was to protect a corps of engineers who were planting a minefield across the western entrance to the valley off the Ho Chi Min trail from Laos.
On The first of June 1968, we were on a mountain overlooking Laos to our west and the A Shau to the east. That afternoon we witnessed the single most spectacular display of firepower I had ever seen. We watched a B-52 strike along the center of the valley.
B-52 Arc Light Mission
We could not hear the planes or the bombs as they fell, but the explosions were incredible to watch. We were about 10 miles away, and felt the percussion, and then heard shrapnel flying through the trees above us. Those who were not lying on the ground – suddenly became a part of it. The barrage threw trees and debris hundreds of feet into the air, the blasts, continuous without any time elapsing between detonations.
Our commander was Tom Kinane, who had an uncanny ability to look at a topographical map and knew where the enemy was. He also informed us that getting past the fortifications around the Valley would be the most dangerous part of our mission. He was right! There were semi-permanent NVA complexes both above and below ground on several of the high ridges. It was between two of these fortifications that my squad walked into an ambush while on patrol. Within two minutes, nine of the eleven men were wounded. Only the man at the rear of the column and myself were not wounded.
All the enemy had to do to stop the advance of the Americans was to wound a few of us, and everything would grind to a halt. They knew that we would cut a hole in the jungle to accommodate medevac helicopters. This gave the NVA time to regroup and better prepare for the advancing Americans.
By the morning of June 3rd, we had worked our way to a point high on a ridge facing north. To the west was the Laotian border, to the east, open terrain of the valley floor and just ahead of us to the north on the other side of the entrance to the valley was a large mountain. The U.S. military identified it was Hill 937; the Vietnamese called it Dong Ap Bai, and a year later Senator Ted Kennedy called it “Hamburger Hill”.
We descended from the south down the mountain to the floor of the AShua Valley. Once there, our objective changed from exploring jungle covered mountains – most of which were virgin – never seeing humans prior to our visit, to protecting a unit of engineers on one of the most heavily used NVA infiltration routes into the south. The engineers needed somebody to watch over them as they laid a minefield across the northern entrance to the valley. The valley floor comprised of 8-foot high Elephant grass but no dense jungle or cover, so it was imperative that this operation wrap up as quickly as possible.
Elephant Grass – each strand has razor sharp edges
Orders soon came around requiring the 1/327 to find out if there was any enemy activity on Hill 937. Delta Company led the way followed by Charlie Company in support. Once on the valley floor, our personal security evaporated. For the first time in months, large groups of men have totally exposed themselves with without a canopy, jungle, and no place to hide in this enemy stronghold.
Finally, we reached the other side of the valley and started our ascent up Hill 937. Soon Delta Company began receiving fire from somewhere to our front. It wasn’t long before we encountered reinforced bunkers, heavy machine gun fire, and mortar rounds from what seemed like every direction, way more fire power than we’d experienced to date. Our orders were to find out if there was enemy activity up there, not to take the hill. As soon as we confirmed that the hill was occupied, we pulled back and returned to our sanctuary on the other side of the valley floor where we called the Air Force to deal with the mountain stronghold. By the time we returned to our overlook position, the entire battalion was on the valley floor protecting the engineers.
For the next three hours, jets dropped napalm, 250-pound bombs, and what seemed like everything except nukes on this hill – green tracers from NVA anti-aircraft guns chased the aircraft across the sky. Never have I seen such bold action taken by the enemy as I did that day. This hill was different from all the mountains we had explored so far because of its strategic location, guarding the Laotian border and the entrance to the valley. To our north and southwest, massive mountains bordered the valley, the Laotian border was to our west – we finally realized that we were standing in the middle of the Ho-Chi-Minh Trail.
Hill 937 before the major battle and assault
Time was crucial, and we knew we were being watched from the surrounding mountains. The engineers finished their job just before nightfall, and now it was time to leave. As we prepared to move out incoming mortar rounds began falling on us from the surrounding mountains, and then artillery fire landed from somewhere in Laos. We had to move, and the only direction open to us was south, straight down the center of the valley.
It was my turn to walk point, and without a moment’s delay, we took off at a rather fast pace. It was getting dark fast, and we moved quickly through the elephant grass, suffering and getting cut to ribbons by the razor-sharp blades. However, it was much quicker than trying to cut our way through the dense jungle. We slowed down after an hour when coming across crumpled barbed wire and rotting sand bags. I knew we had found the abandoned Green Beret camp that was overrun by the NVA in 1966. The discovery put me in my place, and I realized what I was doing and where I was – walking point through one of the most dangerous locations on the planet in 1968, the A-Shau Valley in the middle of the night.
I encountered two separate groups of NVA soldiers during our march. Americans seldom moved at night, so our adversaries didn’t know just what to do when I appeared out of the vegetation. They ran! Not wanting to broadcast our location, we didn’t give chase or expel many rounds at the fleeing enemy. I didn’t know the size of the force we had encountered, and they didn’t know how many of us there were. It was an instantaneous mutual understanding among adversaries in this very odd situation, to leave well enough alone. Firefights raged all through the valley as the NVA probed encamped units of Americans in the dark of night.
We slowed our pace now that we were out of range of the artillery that pursued us. After what seemed like weeks the most beautiful dawn that I can remember unfolded. We had radioed ahead to an American unit to be expecting our approach from the north. What they saw must have resembled a scene from a Steven King novel. From out of the early morning mist came a unit of ghost soldiers.
Ashau Valley shrouded in fog during early morning recon.
The elephant grass, which we mostly ignored, had cut us to shreds. We were completely out of food, low on ammo, water, and strength. We had been up for 48 hours straight and the last eight we had walked, at night, through ten miles of one of the most enemy infested locations in all of South Vietnam.
Later that day the First Brigade of the 101st was extracted from the AShau Valley after being in the jungle of the Central Highland for more than three months.
During their five-day stand-down at Camp Eagle, several members of Charlie Company including myself decided to join Tiger Force. It was in this elite group of paratroopers that I first met men who could “out-Indian” the Indians. This recon team consisted of about 30 well-seasoned, handpicked volunteers.
Left Photo: Zeke Blevins, John Toberman, Dave Fields and TJ McGinley.
Right Photo: Sparks, Rader Rick, Zeke Blevins, and Stan Parker
Under the command of Lt. Fred Raymond, John Gertsch, Dave Fields, and others, Tiger Force worked with a smoothness and efficiency that even surprised the enemy.
Tigers ran recon for the First Brigade and would be the unit called on if one of the line companies was in trouble or needed help. But our specialty was ambush and recon.
Gertsch, as he was known, was a master in the field, teaching all who were near the ways of the jungle and how to use it to our advantage. In his words, “how to be there, but not be there.” When there was any fighting going on, you could find John diving into it doing what had to be done to get his fellow paratroopers out of danger with no thought for his safety.
One day we were hit and pinned down by a well-planned NVA ambush. Gertsch was on point. Instead of pulling back, John crawled forward alone. The NVA didn’t see him until he came up in the middle of their perimeter. Before we knew what happened, Gertsch had killed most of them and returned with three prisoners.
Tiger Force 1968
Another time John led the Tigers on a two-day hunt through the AShau Valley chasing a PT-76 NVA tank. Nobody stopped us to ask what we’d do if we caught up with it. The tank made it back across the Laos border before we caught it. Gertsch stomped where angels and devils feared to tread.
Tiger Force had seen more action than any other unit in the Division. And John was the best of the best. Anyone who’d been wounded twice by claymores, and still walked point, had more nerve than any one man deserved.
John was ending his third consecutive tour with Tigers when he was chosen as “Soldier of the Year” and asked to represent the 101st Airborne Division at an annual reunion in Fort Campbell, KY. John knew Tiger Force was heading back into the notorious AShau Valley and knew that they needed his experience for this dangerous mission. He made a decision to stay in-country and help his unit on this mission. As it turned out, that decision became costly for all of us.
Tiger Force was choppered into the AShau Valley on July 17, 1969, and ambushed two days later. The platoon leader was hit and wounded severely, Gertsch moved forward and then dragged him to a sheltered position. John assumed command of the heavily engaged platoon and led his men in a fierce counterattack that forced the enemy to withdraw and managed to recover two wounded comrades. A short time later, Tigers were attacked again. John charged forward firing as he advanced. Together, John and the other Tigers forced the enemy to withdraw a second time.
Some time later his platoon came under attack for the third time, this time by a company sized NVA element. John suffered a severe wound during the onslaught, he continued to fight and noticed a medic treating a wounded officer. Realizing that both men were in imminent danger of being killed, John rushed forward and positioned himself between them and the enemy. He continued to provide cover fire while others moved the wounded officer to safety. John, however, was mortally wounded.
John Gertsch, July 1968.
My mentor and good friend John Gertsch was KIA in the AShau on June 19, 1969. In all, John was awarded three Purple Hearts, three Bronze Stars with “V” device, five Silver Stars, and for his actions on July 19, John was awarded The Congressional Medal of Honor.
By the end of the Vietnam conflict, Tiger Force had seen more combat than any other unit in the 1st Brigade of the 101st ABD becoming one of the highest decorated units of its size in the military at that time. Sixty percent of its members earned the Bronze Star with “V” device for valor, thirty percent received Silver Stars, and two Tigers received The Congressional Medal of Honor.
Lt. James Gardner, C.O. of Tiger Force KIA Feb. 7, 1966, was awarded a Purple Heart, three Bronze Stars, two Silver Stars and The Congressional Medal of Honor.
David Hackworth briefs Gen. Julian Ewell (right)
Our commander and founder, Col. David Hackworth died at his home on May 14, 2007. David participated in every conflict the U.S. fought WWII through Vietnam. David earned eight Purple Hearts, eight Bronze Stars, ten Silver Stars, and two Distinguished Service Crosses and was nominated for The Congressional Medal of Honor three times.
|Author TJ McGinely
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