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Death in the A Shau Valley

Published by Ivy Books on 1998-09-28
Paperback: $7.99

"The enemy had a single purpose: kill me and my teammates."  

Larry Chambers was still new to Vietnam in early 1969 when the LRRPs of the 101st Airborne Division became L Company, 75th (Rangers). But his unit’s mission stayed the same: act as the eyes and ears of the 101st deep in the dreaded A Shau Valley–where the NVA ruled.

Relentless thick fog frequently made fighter bombers useless in the A Shau, and the enemy had furnished the nearby mountaintops with antiaircraft machine guns to protect the massive trail network that snaked through it. So, outgunned, outmanned, and unsupported, the teams of L Company executed hundreds of courageous missions. Now, in this powerful personal record, Larry Chambers recaptures the experience of the war’s most brutal on-the-job training, where the slightest noise or smallest error could bring sudden–and certain–death. . . .

(Paperback (1st), 1998-09-28)
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ASIN: 0804115753
ISBN: 9780804115759
EAN: 9780804115759



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DEATH IN THEASHAU VALLEY L Company LRRPs in Vietnam, 1969-70 Larry Chambers IVYBOOKS ? NEWYORK

Sale of this book without a front cover may be unauthorized. If this book is coverless, it may have been reported to the publi~her as "unsold or destroyed" and neither the author nor the publisher may have received payment for it. An Ivy Book Published by The Ballantine Publishing Group Copyright ? 1998 by Larry Chambers All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by The Ballantine Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Ivy and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc. Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 98-92823 ISBN-13: 978-0-804-11575-9 Manufactured in the United States of America First Edition: November 1998 aPM 10 9 8 7 6

To the memory ofJoe Bielesch

Introduction It is hard to write a new introduction to Death in the A Shau Valley after watching Ken Burns's eighteen-hour film The Vietnam War (released just two weeks ago as I write this). It is hard after everything I have learned about Vietnam and the lies and deceit that have surrounded it, and especially after all the hidden history I have found linking Ho Chi Minh and the United States OSS during World War Two. My journeys back to Vietnam and Cambodia in the past six years opened my eyes. This book is about combat that took place in the A Shau Valley, where I pulled twenty or so long-range reconnaissance patrol (LRRP) missions, got hit by lightning, and first saw a WWII Japanese Zero fighter up close. The Zero sat like a rusting harbinger on the northern end of the Special Forces runway, which is today located in the Montagnard village town of A Luoi. When I first saw it, I wondered why it was there. Not until thirty years later, standing in the Ho Chi Minh archives in Hanoi, did I find out. When I first went to Vietnam in 1968, I was young, idealistic, and naively patriotic. I didn't ask too many questions and I believed what my leaders said was true: the Viet Cong, like all communists, were evil beings whose only purpose in life was to destroy freedom in order to rule the world'and it would be up to us to stop them in Vietnam. I was a twenty-year-old undiagnosed dyslexic kid who had dropped out of college to join the Army, and the history of Vietnam was unknown to me. As the years passed, I began to wake up and to recognize the cultural trance about Vietnam and the communist world that Americans were living in. What I have since learned is so

ii bizarre and disturbing that the knowledge has elicited a powerful shift in my thinking about myself and the war that I participated in'a war I felt obligated to defend for so many years. There is no way that I can express the rage and anger I felt when I learned I had been lied to by my government. Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were two of many who lied shamelessly whenever it was to their political advantage to do so. After the war, I had no desire to return to Vietnam, forgive my enemy, or help the Vietnamese people, but that all changed once fate intervened. A chance meeting with someone who challenged my core beliefs resulted in my returning to Vietnam, with the intention of validating my position and proving the other party wrong. Much to my surprise, going back to Vietnam and seeing firsthand the Vietnamese people, learning the real history of Ho Chi Minh and the war that had been hidden from Americans, changed my worldview, allowing me to see the Vietnamese people in a different light'not as gooks, dinks, or body count, but as people with happy families and beautiful children like my own. Once my eyes were opened, I decided to return to research the multigenerational effects of U.S. military action upon the countries, populations, and cultures that we called our enemies. Ultimately, my research led me to the conclusion that practically everything I'd once believed to be true wasn't. Six years ago, after this epiphany, I began writing about my journey.'v=y8Tu73bxazw My first night back in Hanoi in 2012, I happened to watch an HBO documentary about Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who, just before his death, finally admitted he had been wrong about the U.S. invasion of Vietnam.

iii During my second trip to Hanoi, I saw an elderly woman begging on the street. Her hands were contorted and her face was so badly burned that my first instinct was to look away and hurry past. But I turned around and walked back, bent down, and gently placed a donation in her cup. I looked deeply into her eyes, and saw something I didn't have'inner peace. Then she cupped her hands in the prayer position, thanking me. I'm sure she could tell I was an American, and she had every right to feel bitter and resentful, but she exuded only dignity, compassion, and forgiveness. That encounter reverberated to the very core of my being. I had my second 'Aha!' moment along a winding mountain road on the way to the A Shau Valley. As we drove, we found ourselves following behind a white Ford Courier truck with dark-tinted windows. My Vietnamese guide explained that its markings meant it was a body retrieval truck. My first thought was that it was an American MIA recovery team looking for the last of the 1,641 U.S. servicemen still missing in Vietnam. 'No, they are looking for missing dead North Vietnamese soldiers,' the guide explained. Until that day I had never entertained the thought that my former enemy, the North Vietnamese, could be concerned about finding their missing sons and daughters'as if humanity was somehow exclusive to Americans. In 1969, the common American soldier's belief had been that the Viet Cong were vermin-like beings incapable of human emotions. Traveling behind that body retrieval truck was a revelation to me of our shared humanity. It has been over forty years, and they're still looking for their missing. The problem is that their soldiers (the People's Army of Vietnam, which we referred to as the North Vietnamese Army, or NVA) wore no IDs such as the American soldiers? 'dog tags,' making identification of their deceased next to impossible. Even by conservative estimates, the war claimed the lives of

iv more than three million Vietnamese, among them a million North Vietnamese soldiers. More than three hundred thousand are still missing. The thought of the remains of an enemy soldier being inside that truck ripped me out of the present time and back to May 8, 1969, the day my best friend, Ron Reynolds, died. I can still remember Ron preparing to climb aboard his helicopter. He grabbed hold of my sleeve and looked at me solemnly. 'I know I'm not coming back,' Ron told me. Caught off guard and not knowing what to say, I tried to lighten the mood. 'Well, Ron, I'd better take your last picture, then.' I snapped a photograph of Ron, sitting with his arms hanging limp at his sides. Ray Zosack is holding the radio mic, Spec-4 Marvin Hillman sitting in the middle.

Later that afternoon, Ron walked into an ambush. Shot three times in the chest and mortally wounded, Ron lay in the open elephant grass alone until Doc Glasser crawled out to him and held him, waiting for the medevac helicopter to arrive. Glasser told me Ron's last words were, 'I'm thirsty.' But that is not the end of this story. Thirty years later, I wrote about Ron's death in this very book, but before I finished it, I wrote a letter to Ron's mother. I sent it along with the photo I'd taken of Ron and asked if it was okay to print it, knowing that his mother had of course never gotten over her grief. I worried that I might be reopening the wound. What Ron's mother wrote back was not what I expected. She thanked me. She said that for over twenty years she had feared that her son had died alone in the jungle. But the photo and my letter explaining the circumstances and how Doc Glasser had sat with Ron gave her peace of mind, something she hadn't felt since his death. I relate that story to illustrate how a tiny piece of missing information can mean everything to a grieving parent. Trung Nguyen, or Wandering Souls Day, is the second-biggest holiday in Vietnam. The Vietnamese believe missing spirits return to earth in search of offerings left for them. They also believe these wandering souls can cause misfortune if they remain unsatisfied, so the object of the holiday is to provide ritual offerings to pacify the errant spirits. In the ceremony, the head of the household places a mat on the ground with offerings'bowls of rice, fruit, or rice alcohol? and then summons the wayward sprits to partake of the offerings by striking a gong or hitting two pieces of wood together. Family members burn Joss paper (Hell Bank Note), which serves as the official currency for the afterlife.

vi The ritual is performed outside the house, because the Vietnamese are very superstitious and believe that if given the opportunity to enter, a restless spirit might decide to make the altar its new home and stay. Back to the mountain road behind that body retrieval truck. As we traveled up the winding highway, the miles passed quickly, one after another; on our approach to the border of Laos, the sky turned a dull gray color, except for a line of puffy white clouds to the west. Stuffed under my seat was the English version of the Hanoi newspaper, dated July 10, 2012. I had brought it along to show my friend and traveling companion, Robert Grasmere, an article I read about Vietnamese psychic corpse finders and how they had become one of the fastest-growing industries in Hanoi. Robert and I, along with our guide, Mr. Duy, were on our way to retrace the climb of Hamburger Hill I'd made with the 101st Airborne in the late 60's. I pulled out a field map I had brought along in case we wanted to climb to one of the abandoned U.S. Army firebases. As I oriented my old map with a new road map, I noticed that the highway we were on matched the dirt road the Army Corps of Engineers had built back in 1969 that passed directly below where our U.S. fire support bases had once been. The bases? names were marked on my field map'Bastogne, Veghel, Eagle's Nest, Berchtesgaden, Rendezvous, and Currahee'names which evoked connections to the 101st Airborne's historic WWII past. Back then, the names had little effect in stirring any sense of pride; instead, firebases were nothing more than tiny safety islands by day and mortar magnets by night. Perched high atop mountains on a pathway to the A Shau Valley, each firebase was about the size of a football field, encircled by irregular rows of concertina wire, sandbagged bunkers, trenches, and fighting positions. Each base housed 105mm or 155mm artillery pieces

vii manned by 101st field artillery units. These gave us the ability to use stationary artillery coordinated through tactical operations centers, which were located in a command bunker on each firebase. The firebases had few comforts'no bunks, no showers, no hot food. Firebases were accessible only by helicopter or on foot. When our guide explained that nothing was left, not even a sandbag, we scuttled any plans to stop and climb a jungle-covered hill to hunt for them. I unfolded the old field map, and some stapled-together pages fell out: a copy of the 1969 'operational report? on the attack on firebase Airborne that I had obtained from the Library of Congress archives. I had been there the night the attack on Airborne occurred, and I used the report in writing my account of the attack for this book. As I picked up the dog-eared pages, I experienced my third 'Aha!' moment. The solution to the Vietnamese problem of finding their dead was here in these old reports. 'Look at this.' I showed Robert the report. 'If I had our original field map with grid coordinates I could match them to the locations described in this operational report. I bet I could find their dead and missing soldiers.' 'Find who'? Robert asked. 'After a firefight, they would dispose of the VC dead by digging a mass grave nearby, laying them side by side and covering the ditch with a few feet of dirt,' I said, adding that I remembered seeing helicopter cranes fly in, with bulldozers in a sling underneath. I told Robert that we could have graduate students look through archive files and digitize the records, along with locations, unit names, and dates. We could build a database of enemy unit names, how many were killed, and the possible burial locations. We'd make everything available to the Vietnamese. Then we could cross-reference the dates with the last letters they sent home

viii and narrow their search. We could use the new ground-penetrating radars and GPS-guided magnetometers, which basically build a detailed underground survey around the locations where attacks took place. I thought of Ron's mother and how a tiny piece of information that I thought was nothing at the time was an answer to her prayers. 'Wouldn't it be cool if we were the ones that helped them find their missing'? I asked. Robert got out his camera. I was so deep in thought about my body-hunting adventure that I didn't notice he'd pointed his video camera in my face. 'How does it make you feel being back'? he asked as he flicked the camera on. 'Would you please shut that fucking thing off'!' The truth was I didn't feel much of anything, except maybe excited over my insight. About twenty minutes later we entered the Montagnard village town of A Luoi (pop. 5,000) in the middle of someplace that time had forgotten. 'A Luoi,' our guide, Mr. Duy, announced with a wide smile on his round face. Al Luoi is a typical Montagnard village town that anyone'other than members of the 101st Airborne, who had spent time here under different circumstances'would love to visit. Our first stop was the village center, where Mr. Duy needed signatures on the permits allowing foreigners to climb Hamburger Hill. We waited an hour before the local chief of police returned from breakfast to sign the permits and earn a small gratuity. We were also waiting for our local mountain guide, Mr. Ho Van Diu, who would escort us to the top of Hamburger Hill.

ix Duy explained that four ethnic groups lived in A Luoi: the Paco, Katu, Bahnaric, and TaOi. 'Our guide is Ta-Oi,' Duy told us. I'd always called them Montagnards, the name the French had given them during their colonial days, a name that seemed to have stuck. The Vietnamese name is Moi. Vietnam's government uses the term 'Nguoi Thuong'? which means 'highland people.' During the war many Montagnard minorities from the Central Highlands enrolled in the Civilian Irregular Defense Program (CIDG). The Special Forces community considered the tribal people the hardest and most loyal forces on the South's side.'v=-m7zigw8Fn8& We made two more stops, one to buy extra bottles of water, the other to get more local permits to cross through Laos. I had to ask Duy a question that had been bothering me all these years. 'I was told that after the South lost, the NVA killed all the Montagnards that had helped the Americans during the war. Is that true'? 'No. That is propaganda,' he replied, smiling the way people do when you say something ridiculous. 'I'm Montagnard,' he added. The Vietnamese government had built the Montagnards their own town, destroying another myth I'd heard and which I'd repeated to others for years. In reality, the socialist Vietnamese government gave them back their valley, relocated those that had moved to cities like Hue and Da Nang, and expanded and paved the road to A Luoi. A Luoi has one modern boulevard right through the center of town, two hotels, caf's, and an all-grades school on the former location of the Special Forces camp. From the road you can usually see Hamburger Hill, but today clouds filled the valley. In the middle of the rice field was

line of bomb craters, most likely remainders of a B-52 bombing run. Water accumulated in the center and shone darkly in the intermittent sunlight. Permits in hand, we drove to where the road ended at the base of the mountains. Our driver, Mr. Hiep, stayed with the car while the four of us followed the footpath to the 'welcoming house.' Beside the house was a ten-foot-wide map showing the details of the battle, complete with locations of tunnels, bunkers, and caves; everything was neatly numbered and labeled with both Vietnamese and English subtitles. A solid white line over a blue background highlighted enemy (our) positions and each tactical point of the battle. Because of all the napalm, air strikes, and bombs dropped here, my memory of these mountains is of a colorless gloom. But time and nature had recovered the mountains in emerald green vegetation, trees, and thick jungle vines. Only one thing hadn't changed: the sound'the loud buzzing sound made by an ugly-looking insect with a wide, blunt head, protruding eyes, and two pairs of membranous wings. The hike was rugged and long, 890 steep concrete steps. It took the rest of the afternoon, but it was worth it to be surrounded by the vibrant colors and fragrances. The battle for Ap Bia (Hamburger Hill) was a bloody, eleven-day battle: 71 Americans died and 372 were wounded'and who knows how many NVA soldiers lost their lives. On the top of the Hill was a shrine dedicated to the 'great victory of the NVA over the American Army.' (I remembered that battle differently.)

xi I tried to visualize what those young men in the 101st Airborne Division, 3rd Battalion, 187th Regiment unit had had to endure. In some places they would have had to climb almost straight up in mud and rain, carrying all their gear as NVA bullets rained down on them. In his perfect English, Mr. Duy told me that in fifteen years of taking people on private tours of Hamburger Hill, I was the first 101st soldier he'd taken up to the top. That told me just how much we'd hated the place. He asked what I had been here in 1969. I told him I was on an LRRP team and that our mission was to find a North Vietnamese radio broadcasting station,'but that before we could find anything my team was hit by lightning and we were evacuated. As I finished my story, he pointed across the valley floor. 'I know the location of this radio station,' Mr. Duy said. 'You want to go there next'? After the climb down, we drove to the far side of the valley, turned onto a dirt road, and parked in the yard of a farmhouse with a monkey chained to the shed like a guard dog. Mr. Duy knew the family, but we sort of hung around the front door until we were invited in. In a bed lay a ninety-year-old former NVA potter who was ill'and who kept his eyes on me the whole time I was in his house. Behind the house we found a footpath along the creek, and then traversed a side hill until we came to a trail marker at the entrance to a cave. Between 1967 and 1970 this cave housed a powerful radio broadcast station. From their vantage point the North Vietnamese could have seen every helicopter flying in and out of the valley.

xii It felt strange finding this 'high-value target? that today is just a hole in the side of a mountain. I felt a momentary excitement and wanted to report that my Ranger team had finally located its primary objective, only I didn't know who I would report it to. Cambodia 2017 You can take a tuk-tuk southwest along Monireth Boulevard to Cheung Ek. Once an orchard with a long sweep of rice fields extending behind the grounds, it's now considered an active grave site because it holds the remains of untold numbers of murdered Cambodian citizens whose only crime was being born at the wrong time in history.

xiii At the entrance of the museum is a temple built in the traditional pagoda style. The temple is a tower filled with hundreds of human skulls visible behind clear glass panels. Buddhist monks arranged the skulls'males on one side, females on the other. The Execution Tree at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is covered with hundreds of brightly colored yellow, red, blue, and green beads called seik badi, strung on garlands. Monks first blessed the beads, then tied them around the trunk of the tree. It is beyond human comprehension to imagine babies being ripped from their mothers? arms and bashed against this tree, but it happened. A Cambodian farmer out digging for potatoes uncovered this field. He had no idea what he had stumbled onto. And there are many more sites just like this place. After the monsoon floods, pieces of human bones, blankets, pants, shoes, rags, and baby ribbons rise to the surface. Monks gather them up and place them in glass-covered cases near each grave plot. I saw a child-size sandal on the edge of a glass case. I had a powerful urge to pick up the sandal and hold it'maybe to make what seems unreal real. But what happened as I clasped my hands around the tiny shoe, I can't explain. I heard what sounded like tiny voices screaming. My chest tightened and I could barely breathe. Dropping the sandal, I backed away, my eyes brimming with tears, as a profound sadness unlike anything I had ever felt welled up inside me. I couldn't pretend, or run away from this. I stumbled backward. I walked slowly around the grounds, dazed, silent tears wetting my face. I found a bench and sat, crying. I couldn't stop. I cried for what happened here in Cambodia. I cried for my friends who were killed in the war. I cried for myself. My journey into Cambodia had destroyed the last bit of my former belief system.

xiv I just stood staring down into the ground where babies had been tossed away like yesterday's garbage. I could no longer pretend that we were innocent of our part in what happened in Cambodia.


xvi There have been times in the past when I wanted to stand up and take action or protest an injustice, but I always let those moments pass. Not this time. I promised God that I would be the voice of the dead. I would write about it, talk about it, and not stop until the world knew about this place. I would raise human consciousness about a war most people know nothing about. I suddenly felt unexpectedly elated. I had no idea that feeling another's suffering would have such a profound effect on me. Tonglen is an ancient Buddhist practice of awakening one's compassion for another person, no matter how cruel or cold that person might have been. The belief is that in order to truly feel compassion for another, you first have to feel compassion for yourself. You may not feel anything for Cambodia. Or you may believe that Nixon's secret bombing of Cambodia had nothing to do with what happened, but you'd be wrong. Not being aware of something doesn't make it any less true. A 2009 declassified U.S. Air Force report showed that more tonnage was dropped on 'neutral? Cambodia between 1968 and 1975 than during all of WWII, including the two atomic bombs. What happened in Cambodia and why we turned and looked away is shameful. To date, no American president has ever taken responsibility or apologized for what the U.S. bombing did to Cambodia. I remember Nixon justifying the bombing of Cambodia as targeting 'suspected? NVA sanctuaries inside the Cambodian border and protecting Vietnam as we made our departure. But Nixon's secret taped conversations reveal a different story. The bombings had two purposes: to protect U.S. forces in South Vietnam, as advertised, and to send a message to North Vietnam about how tough Nixon could be on communists. The principal reason for the 1972 invasion was intelligence that said Hanoi had a southern headquarters inside Cambodia. This turned out to be false. The invasion, which killed

xvii thousands of Cambodian civilians, South Vietnamese Army forces, and American troops, became the event that radicalized people's hatred of the U.S. into a civil war that led to genocide. Before the U.S. bombings, the Khmer Rouge was just a small sectarian group, with no popular base. The bombings tore apart the very fabric of Cambodia and created a power vacuum that allowed Pol Pot to take over the country. 'They [Khmer Rouge] were using the damage caused by B-52 strikes as the main theme in their propaganda,' Richard Helms, the CIA director of operations, reported on May 2, 1973. Finally, the U.S. Congress voted to cut off funding to Cambodia, believing it was taking a heroic action to end the war in Vietnam, but never considering the aftermath. The war ended; the peace movement disbanded. President Nixon resigned before being impeached. Henry Kissinger won the Noble Peace Prize and the media refocused on America's recession; returning soldiers pretended to adjust to 'normal? life, while the world went to bed without one thought about Cambodia or the gates to hell we left open. In the months and years that followed, requests for help from Western relief agencies were made, but were shunned by America (with the exception of Oxfam, which had no lists of conditions). The only food and supplies came from Vietnam, from towns and villages in the south that were asked to share a portion of their rice with Cambodia. The estimates range from 1.5 to 3 million Cambodians murdered, starved, or worked or beaten to death in the fields at the hands of Khmer Rouge guards. Today, the historical accounts I read tend to largely obscure the deep cultural and psychological problems associated with the kind of trauma that Cambodians experienced, and the pain and suffering they endure still. Cambodia is light-years behind the modern world in

xviii almost everything that makes for a comfortable life. Poverty still haunts the country, causing large numbers of Cambodian women to drop out of school because they're needed at home. Many girls and women have been forced to turn to the sex trade part-time in order to contribute to their family's finances. Very few Americans have ever made the connection between the U.S. bombings in the 1970s and Cambodia's poverty today, but I assure you they connect. Besides military targets, U.S. B-52s destroyed villages and killed thousands of innocent civilians, driving many into the arms of the Pol Pot army. It is okay to defend freedom'I'm all for that. But I've spent my life defending a lie, and I am mad as hell. That is why I decided to leave behind my comfortable life and move to Cambodia to try and help the people who had to live through that horror. Still, the lies of our leaders don't take away the honor and heroism I witnessed by our U.S. soldiers, which is what I've tried to convey in this book. I may not feel as proud of my military experience as I did when I wrote the books Recondo and Death in the A Shau Valley, but I feel proud as hell about what I'm doing here today. The experience of living in Vietnam and Cambodia has given me a new perspective on life. Thanks for letting me say what I needed to say in this introduction. I hope it will shine some light on what happened in the A Shau Valley in 1969 and 1970. The story is a true story, and it begins with a childhood scene in Fort Barry, California, in 1956.

xix Raymond, Eva, and Larry Chambers saluting. Larry Chambers Phnom Penh, The Kingdom of Cambodia 2018


My childhood prepared me for Vietnam. My dad had been a World War IT hero and made a career in the army. My mom met and married hinl shortly after the war. A year later, I was born. My toddler clothes were made from my dad's cut-down officer's uniforms, and my childhood friends were twenty-yearold army privates. When I played army, I could hear the sounds of tank tracks. After Korea, my father was in charge of a radar site hidden in the hills overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge at one of the many missile installations that dotted the California coast. I remember the three huge radar dishes slowly spinning and the concrete bunker under them. Inside, the room had no windows, and only an overhead light dimly illuminated its tightly packed equipment-radarscopes, controls, communication panels. The air was always warm and thick with cigarette smoke; ashtrays brilllined with butts. Men talked back and forth in controlled military" voices. Back then, Soviet planes routinely tested our air defenses. They'd fly down from the north, keeping low to avoid radar detection. Their bombers would try to find weaknesses in the radar and missile cover-openings to penetrate if the two superpowers were to go to war. The game was to get close but not get caught. We played the same game. Before reaching the coast, their bombers would tum back, but my dad was there in case they didn't. 1

Larry Chambers He'd get phone calls in the middle of the night. Air-raid sirens would sound off. I often heard my monl and dad talking; my mom was scared. From our quarters, we could watch as the missiles went vertical. "There they go!" she'd say, then she'd put on a pot of coffee. I remember the sinister look of the Nike Hercules Inissiles as they slowly rose from their concrete underground bunkers. These images are burned in my mind. I knew then that what my dad did was important, and I wanted to be just like him someday. As the cold war intensified in Europe, my dad's unit was sent to guard the West German border; I was sent to live with my grandparents on a ranch in northern California. It was very different Irom army life. I milked cows, hauled hay, and fished along the river. My uncle taught me,to hunt. The first time I went bird hunting with him, I tried to shoot at all of them at the same time; not one duck dropped. So my uncle showed me how to zero in and shoot o~e bird at a time. I got so I could flick off the safety, bring the gun smoothly up under my chin, and fire the second it got there. Mter high school, I enrolled in Shasta College. When I dropped two units during ~y sophomore year, football season, I lost my college deferment and was reclassified I-A. That draft notice changed my life. It made me feel part of the bigger world. I don't mean to get heavy here, but I think it's important you know where I was coming from and how I got into the war. I wasn't completely crazy. Anyway, I cut a deal with my draft board-I'd volunteer if they'd let me finish football season. After a grinding college football season, basic training and AIT seemed like summer camp. Nothing in the army bothered me. Besides, I was living out my childhood fantasy, fighting the Evil Empire. I was going to make the best ofit. I used to piss off the other trainees; no one likes a guy who wakes up happy in boot camp or likes the food. I scored at the top in my physical fitness test, and tied for honors for best shot in the company. While most of my friends stayed home, finished college, and got real jobs, I volunteered for Airborne training, earned my jump wings, and insured I'd be going to Vietnam sooner rather than later.

DEATH IN THE A SHAU VALLEY 3 After training, I returned to northern California on a thirtyday leave, saw a few friends, but mostly spent my time fishing and pheasant hunting. My last week as a free man, I camped out at Lake Shasta, caught three huge trout, no less, and ate fish for breakfast, bird for dinner. I left the States with a good taste in my mouth. Arriving in Vietnam, I realized this was a very different army from the one I'd known as a kid and experienced in basic training. Here, the Americans all seemed to be pissed off, from officers all the way down to privates. Orders were yelled at us as if they were jail sentences, and "old-timers" of a few months in country enjoyed the fact that the "new guys" had 365 days to go. I figured, since I'm here, I might as well go all the way. I can still see the guy _who recruited me into the LRRPs, Sergeant McDougal. He looked different from the other guys I mef my first days in Nam. His shirt was starched. He wore a Combat Infantryman Badge above the left pocket and his jungle boots were polished though there was not much leather left on them. He wore a black baseball cap with a Recondo patch, his jump wings pinned above the patch. He reminded me of my dad. He gave us new guys a pitch about volunteering for one of the most dangerous jobs in the army-gathering intelligence behind enemy lines. My knees started shaking, and I imagined sneaking out the back of the tent. Instead, as if someone else had raised it, my arm was suddenly waving above my clean-shaven head. The next thing I knew, I was part of a special unit ofrecon scouts. An hour ofexcruciating buyer's remorse was drowned out by the mantra, I'm tough, I'm tough. I was achlally excited. One other guy volunteered that night, Art Herringhausen, and he was sitting on the bench with me. At least I wasn't alone. After a few more days of training, we were sent to Camp Eagle-which seemed to me like Dodge City. Muddy, unpaved streets, everyone carrying guns-like a real-life war movie. I couldn't wait to go out on my first combat mission. I imagined I was a military version of007-James Bond in jungle fatigues. On my very first mission, as I was sitting in front ofmy team, alone next to a trail, ten enemy soldiers walked within a few feet

larry Chambers of me. I sat up straight to get a better view and realized I was trapped. I couldn't move a muscle or they'd hear me, they were so close. I held that sitting position for twenty minutes, telling myself over and over, I feel no pain, as my stomach muscles screamed. The enemy didn't see me and moved slowly down the trail. Back at the company, I was inducted as a full LRRP (long-range reconnaissance,patrol) teammate: I had passed my first real test. I had kept my head and resisted a fearful move, which would have endangered the entire team. When I was growing up, my dad did his share ofdrinking, so I was never sure what would happen next. When my dad first came back from war, he used to sleepwalk around the house carrying a machete. That used to scare the hell out of my mom. It taught me to be quiet and not to make fast moves at.night. It also taught me to anticipate and prepare for the unexpec;ted. Vietnam, in contrast, had 'larity and simple rules. The enemy had a single purpose: kill me and my teammates. I got real good at spotting signs of the eneIny before he spotted me. Some of the guys said I had a sixth sense, intuition, in the jungle, but the truth was my sensory awareness had already been fine tuned. I could see things immediately that were out of place. Walking through the jungle with me at night was a mystical experience, they said, because I could completely catalog anything that moved within a three hundred meter radius and instantly hatch plans to take it out. I once walked around the backside of an enemy ambush. My team leader had sent me to scout the trail ahead. Things didn't look quite right, so I slipped off the main trail and found myself in thick jungle behind a group of enemy soldiers. I could hear them talking before my eyes adjusted to the darkness. Then, slowly, ten silhouettes-NVA soldiers sitting cross-legged on the ground-came into view. I pulled my rifle up to fire, but instead of shooting, slo\vly backed away from their camp undetected. Our team was able to escape unseen and unharmed. That was what a LRRP was supposed to do. Most guys aren't cut out to be Rangers or LRRPs. Rational men, when faced with the concept of surviving in the jungle be-

DEATH IN THE A SHAU VALLEY 5 hind enemy lines, stop breathing. Surround them with enemy soldiers and most completely freak out. The problem is you never know if you're one of those until you're actually there. For others, the danger-induced adrenaline rush inspires even greater risk taking. The more missions you go on, the more you get off on it. It becomes an addiction. I personally reacted by covering my fear with a veneer of humor, but my humor was not always appreciated. Certain guys, like Marty Martinez, occasionally wanted to kill me for my positive attitude. One guy enjoyed it though-Gary Linderer. Gary was from Missouri, and aside from being patt lllule and a lot stubborn, he was one of the neatest and smmtest guys 1'd ever met. We \vould spend the nights in the rear area, mostly harassing each other. I'd try to convince him that his home state of Missouri should secede from the union; he would accuse my mother of impossible sexual feats. Another guy who egged lne on was Kenn Miller. Kenn first volunteered to come to Nam in 1967; he was with the 1st Brigade LRRPs and kept extending his stay. Kenn was an intellectual-a fish out of water in that environment. His father was the president of a major university, his mother a Ph.D., and Kenn had volunteered just to piss them off. Kenn and I became close friends after our chopper crash in the jungle. Rescued and safely back at the company, Kenn and I did battle after a few drinks with each other, landing us both in the hospitaL As I recall, Miller broke my hand with his head. Yeah, we were buddies. Still are. I really felt at home in the company, except for the food. Camp Eagle was near the end of the military food chain. By the time supplies in Vietnam made their way north, the food remnants resembled water buffalo dung mixed with sea shells. I can close my eyes and still taste powdered eggs and lime green Kool-Aid. Camp Eagle was a huge military complex, 3112 miles long by nearly 11/2 miles wide, just six miles south of Hue City. It was base camp to twelve thousand troops of the lOlstAirbome Division and served as our rear area-slicks, gunships, trucks,

Larry Chambers medical facilities, a PX, and miles of tents and bunkers surrounded by open fields pockmarked with bomb craters. Around that was an Oriental landscape where farme~s waded in rice fields amid tiny hamlets and villages of thatch huts and ancient pagodas were common sights. A gigantic cemetery bordered the eastern end of the camp. At night, mortar illumination rounds on the gravestones glowed a spooky green; they appeared to vibrate in our starlight scopes. It made some guys see shadows running between the gravestones. I found that if you looked offto one side, the shadows disappeared. There was also a peculiar odor to the camp-and almost anywhere else GIs lived in Vietnam-a mixture of diesel fuel and burning shit. I never quite got used to that smell. I did feel somewhat at home in the woods. The jungles of Vietnam looked and smelled like river bottom. Living along a river as a teenager gave me an edge. Summers back home had been hot and humid, and the work never ended; Vietnam in a lot of ways was no different. In my second month with the company, we experienced a major disaster: Two of our LRRP teams were attacked; four men killed and eight wounded. Gary Linderer was one of the wounded, andArt Herringhausen, the guy who volunteered with me, was killed. The team I was on was stuck in heavy fog at the time, down the side of a muddy hill and unable to help. We had to just sit there, listening to the radio transmissions as.our guys were overrun. That was one of the worst days ofmy life. We desperately needed replacements at that point. Aside from losing the two teams, a lot of the original, experienced guys had rotated home. I was one of only a few new recruits who volunteered to refill the ranks. Gradually, more guys came into the company, and we were back in business. The 10lst's Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol Company kicked off 1969 by becoming Rangers-in our case L Company-in an army-wide paper shuffle to legitimize the many LRRP-type units that had flourished in Vietnam. There was no parade, no physical transfer, no change of commandjust a paper exchange of one scroll for another. Overnight we

DEATH IN THE A SHAU VALLEY 7 became L Company, 75th Infantry (Ranger). We were, how-. ever, authorized by the reorganization to wear black berets. I tried one on but thought it made me look more like a French artist than a soldier, so I kept my tiger-stripe boonie hat for headgear. Anyway, we still had the same mission-to $earch out enemy troops in their sanctuaries and to bring down whatever tactical men and weapons we could upon them. We still functioned as the eyes and ears for the different unit commanders within the 101st Division. Historically, the 75th Ranger Regiment had originated as "Merrill's Marauders," named after Maj. Gen. Frank D. Merrill. They were the first United States ground combat force to fight the Japanese on the continent ofAsia during World War ll. It seemed ironic to me that l\tlerrill's Marauders worked alongside Chinese forces, fighting the Japanese. Now here we were, picking up where the Japanese left off. In that year, 1969, the company conducted 310 long range patrols, almost twice the number of the previous year. Five Rangers were killed and fourteen wounded, and they were all my good friends. As the years went on, the statistics got much worse. Also during that year, the South Vietnamese army was supposed to take on the majority of the offensive operations, and our troops were supposed to withdraw gradually from combat. All that really meant to us, however, was that our area of operations expanded.. As the outlying firebases closed, L Company was working as far as seventy kilometers away from Camp Eagle, with fair to poor-sometimes zero-communications, and depending solely on J75mm guns firing at maximum range for support. At that point, most of us were replacements, with only a few trained Rangers among us. Training for replacements became on-the-job. Every mission had one or two new guys along; this quickly weeded out the guys who couldn't handle the pres~ure. My team position was point man. I always wanted to be first, and I met little resistance from my teammates. As the year dragged on, we pulled missions back-to-back

Larry Chambers while our commanders worked on rebuilding the company's strength. Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese were infiltrating more units into South Vietnam, and our missions became evermore dangerous with ever-increasing enemy contact. By midyear, I had pulled twenty-seven recon missions, almost all resulting in enemy sighting or direct contact, and I was about to get a reward. If an LRRP had spent at least six months in the country and had team leader potential, he would be sent to MACV Recondo School, the equivalent of a "finishing school" for recon menand probably the finest of its kind anywhere in the world. The last week ofschool culminated in a three-day live mission in the jungles north of Nha Trang. You had to stay alive to complete the course and earn the school certificate, plus the right to wear the MACV Recondo patch. As excited as if we were headed for an R & R, Harry Duty, Dan Roberts, Ron Reynolds, and I hitched a ride on a C-130 and hightailed it down south to :t\Tfm Trang, home away from home for the 5th Special Forces. Mter a weekend of drinking, we found our way to the gates ofthe school, where we were met by yelling, gravel-voiced Special Forces instructors. For three weeks, we worked eighteen-hour days in intense training. The first thing they did was give us each a thirty-pound sandbag to carry in our rucksacks. From the day we arrived, we were up at 4:00 A.M. for hard runs that progressively lengthened to eight miles. Heavy physical training, intensive map reading, medical instruction, prisoner handling, NYA attack strategies, and training with communist weapons followed. (The School was officially closed December 31, 1970, and had graduated 3,357 troops from a total 5,395 attendees.) Our field training at Recondo school was conducted in the steep hills that rose behind the seaside base, one hundred miles northeast of Saigon. Viet Cong were still active in and out ofthe area. On my third day out, I was walking point ahead of my team when I suddenly came upon a group of fifteen NYA camped right in the center of a high-speed trail. I lifted my CAR-15, took aim, and shot the first enemy soldier just as he lifted his weapon. After a brief firefight, we pulled back. The

DEATH IN THE A SHAU VALLEY 9 following day, we went back with reinforcements to the same spot and came face-to-face with an NVA soldier who had gotten dislocated from his unit. We stood frozen for a split second, then I charged, threw a football tackle on the guy, and wrestled him into a headlock. He was struggling and screaming so loud that I stuck my rifle barrel down his throat and held him until our team leader, Sgt. Louis LaPage, got there. He yelled at me, "Don't pull thattrigger." I looked down. The way I had hold of the guy, and the direction my rifle was pointed, I would have shot a hole through his head and my balls. I released my grip. I was the first American that this young North Vietnamese soldier had ever seen, and he had thought I was Korean. That dispelled any illusions I ha(l had about my Irish Heritage. The NYA's shiny silver belt buckle and the promise of an additional R & R were my rewards for capturing what turned out to be a fresh lieutenant who had just walked all the way from North Vietnam. It seemed that whatever good news came my way was quickly overshadowed by the realities of combat. I returned to the company just in tune to learn that S.Sgt. Julian Dedman's helicopter had been hit by ground fire, exploded in the air, and burned. The following month, on May 5, 1969, I was flying bellyman when our lead. helicopter went down in the Ruong Ruong Valley, and my friend, Keith Hammond, was killed. Only three days later, a team led by Staff Sergeant Zoschak and Sergeant Reynolds engaged an enemy unit five times their number. Sergeant Reynolds was mortally wounded, and two other Rangers were also badly wounded. Next we lost Sgt. Wtlliam Marcy, killed by small-arms fire. He was an admiral's son, so he was obviously there by his own choice, and he was highly respected by the other men because of that. As the months went on, our missions brought us closer to the Laos border. North Vietnamese units had secured themselves in camps, which we were not permitted to touch, along the borders of Cambodia and Laos. Our commanding general, Gen. Creighton Abrams, believed the A Shau Valley was a

10 Larry Chambers staging area for the NVA and might be used for future attacks, so he ordered us to go in and see what was up so we did. Everything about the A Shau was eerie, even the way it rained there. Rain clouds didn't have to fonn up and march their way into that place, they were just always there, waiting to loose a thick downpour-the kind unleashed if you pissed somebody offin the Old Testament. We're talking major flood! I remember thinking that no clouds could possibly hold that much water. Because of the ever-present thick fog, fighter-bombers were often useless in the A Shau, and lnany of the mountaintops had been turned into small fortress bunkers by the North Vietnamese to protect their massive network of trails and roads I through the valley. The peaks and ridges served as lookouts for communist antiaircraft gun emplacements. None of us were looking forward to going back in there. In college, r d taken a class in anthropology and knew something about the people who originally inhabited theA Shau-the montagnards. For thousands ofyears, dark-skinned montagnard tribes, similar to the aborigines and primitive tribes in the South Pacific~ had inhabited the mountains surrounding the valley. TIle montagnards remained isolated from the French, but the communists had used them as guides, porters, and even soldier conscripts. During the Vietnam War, some of the lucky ones ended up working for our Special Forces units, but most of them were relocated to the lowlands orjailedby the South Vietnamese, who routinely mistreated montagnards because they regarded them as somewhat less than human. A lot ended up as slaves to the Viet Congo The Vietnamese hated the montagnards, but the Special Forces loved them-which meant we did, too. While the fighting continued throughout most of Vietnam, the A Shau Valley had remained untouched; it was a great hiding place for the NVA. They could slip in, roam around, then sneak back out undetected. TIle valley became an important NVA strategic way station for transporting supplies between base camps on myriad high-speed trails through the valley floor, leading from the north into anyone of a number of South Vietnamese cities and villages, including :Phu Bai and Hue.

DEATH IN THE A SHAU VALLEY 11 During the Tet offensive in 1968, eighty-four thousand Viet Cong attacked sixty-four district capitals of South Vietnam, including the fonner imperial capital, Hue. Many of the North Vietnamese troops had bivouacked in the A Shau and struck out on that offensive in several different directions, avoiding American and South Vietnamese units. They took control of Hue, then embarked on an unbelievable orgy of death and destruction. The communists had prepared lists of enemy targets, which included just about anyone with even the slightest connection to the South Vietnamese government, including school teachers, artists, businessmen, students, and political leaders. Many people were killed on the spot; others were marched to isolated areas where they were clubbed to death and buried in mass graves. An estimated six thousand civilians were killed by "their own" VC. Our mission was to insert near the old Special Forces AShau camp and find them. I remember it being triangular, surrounded by minefields and rows of razor-sharp concertina wire. One of our higher-ups had the bright idea that we should insert in the minefield, reasoning the NVA wouldn't expect us there-a Vietnam version of military intelligence. The old Special Forces camp had been overrun by NYAback in 1965. Only 180 men of the 434-man garrison survived; the rest were killed or taken prisoner by the NVA. Ofcourse, I was not looking forward to patrolling where so many had been killed. It was April 23, 1969, when Larry Closson, Gary Linderer, Marvin Hillman, John Sours, Mother Rucker, and I seriously ate it on a remote hill in the A Shau Valley. A bolt of lightning just about ended our young military careers.-{Just three weeks later, that same hill bec3Q1e the notorious Hamburger Hill, when 70 men in the 101stAirbome Division died and 372 were wounded attempting to seize its fortified ridgeline.) The mission began by making several false insertions in an attempt to deceive enemy observers, we landed near a spot labeled Dong Ap Bia on our map_ The mountain was covered with a thick doubleand triple-canopy jungle consisting of layers of vines, brushy trees, and stands ofbamboo. The whole

12 Larry Chambers place was a network of trails and roads, and at night, we could hear gas engines nlnning and what sounded like chain saws. During the day, we watched hundreds of enemy troops moving up the hill. We never moved to the bunkers at the top of the mountain, but stayed undetected on the jungle-covered ridges. I remember lying with my face an inch above the ground, the smell of rotten vegetation filling my nostrils, peering through my binoculars at the men on the valley floor below. Looking uncannily like a column of red ants, one hundred or so NYA troops were climbing a jungle path. Mother Rucker got on the radio to report the enemy movement. He had been careful to write out the coded message beforehand, and he checked the radio frequency as the rain started pounding down and I pulled a poncho cover over my head. When Rucker squeezed the radio handset, our world blew apart in a hundred different directions. A bolt of lightning tore through every piece ofelectrical equipment we carried, touched off the electric blasting caps in our claymore mines, and sent us all flying head over butt through the air. In my last moment of consciousness, I remember thinking, Oh shit, this is it! When I came to a few minutes later, I was unable to move and was completely disoriented. Finally, I reached down to feel if my legs were still there. They were paralyzed, but fear made me drag myselfback up the ridge. When I got to the top of the ridge, no one else was there. That really shook me at first-but slowly everyone staggered back up that hill. We had no radio, and we were all hurt in varying degrees. Then a miracle happened: a chopper appeared above us out of nowhere, and thirty minutes later, a medevac pulled us out with a jungle penetrator. When the medevac landed back at camp, its tail boom was full of bullet holes. After a couple of days in the hospital, I returned to the company-but I never fully recovered from the memory of being paralyzed, lying helpless on my back without a weapon, fully expecting that at any moment some teenage NYA recruit would siInply walk up and cut my throat while I watched. I began having terrifying dreams of beiIlg chased, run to the ground, and killed by NYA, and then the gooks searching my

DEATH IN THE A SHAU VALLEY 13 lifeless body. Feeling alone on that muddy hillside was the first time during my tour that I'd felt real fear. Not the normal keepyourself-alive kind of fear, but the kind that runs deep in your spine, is always with you, sometimes starts your legs shaking uncontrollably, and can even make a grown man piss allover himself. While Mother Rucker and I were recuperating, we took a drive into Hue City. We parked the company jeep outside the old Imperial Palace, and I walked alone around the grounds. No one was around. Then an old papa-san opened a wooden door and smiled at me. He didn't speak any English, but waved me in. I entered a wide room filled with gold-leaf-covered tables and a huge ancient chair. I'd never seen anything like it-a Vietnamese museum. Rucker had to come get me and drag me back to the jeep. My major in college had been art. That same month we got a new company cormnander, Capt. Robert Guy, whose primary job was to implement the concept of saturated patrolling. The company was to employ clusters of five and six teams to completely saturate an area: This was to help ensure that the regular troops were not attacked during the forthcoming withdrawal. Meanwhile, our guys would constantly be in the field. Morale was low, and bodies exhausted. Men with field experience were just shipped home when their tours were complete; they felt no incentive to return on extensions as other experienced soldiers had often done in the earlier years. _ Back home, almost everyone-except my dad-seemed to be against the war. Between missions, we'd get news of the puzzling and infuriating events back home: Charles Manson's crazed killing, Bobby Kennedy assassinated, Martin Luther King shot and killed on a motel balcony, police teargassing and clubbing students in the streets or on campuses, students rioting in the streets and on campuses. It seemed safer and more sane there in the jungles ofVietnam than back in the States, so when my tour was up, I extended. My new job was to recruit replacements for our Ranger Company. It was my responsibility to select men who could deal with the worst circumstances with the cards stacked

14 Larry Chambers against them. I felt the earlier guys had the advantage of some room for error, but that was no longer the case. In three Inonths, I had recruited twenty-six replacements. After I left for the States, I didn't see or hear anyHring more about them. That bothered me. Then in 1990, at our second annual LRRPlRanger reunion, Gary Linderer convinced me to write a couple of chapters for his book about my experience in Recondo School. I did and sent them to his publisher, ,Owen Lock, at Random House. Owen responded that he would publish my story as well, which became Recondo. Four years later at another reunion, Gary Linderer, Kenn Miller, and Rey Martinez decided to write a history ofthe 101st LRRPs. The finished book was so long, they divided it into three. Rey Martinez wrote about the early history and the original 1st Brigade LRRP Detachment, which became Six Silent Men, Book One; Kenn Miller wrote about the middle years, Six Silent Men, Book Two; and Gary Linderer wrote about the Rangers in the seventies, Six Silent Men, Book Three. (I strongly recommend all three.) While Linderer was writing his book about the seventies, I told him I'd been wondering about what happened to the guys I recruited. It had been so long though, I didn't have the slightest idea about how to find them. I wasn't sure I could even remember all their names. A few months later, Gary called me. "You sitlin' down'" Linderer barked over the phone. "You're not going to believe this, but I just got a diary in the mail from a guy who says that you recruited him." Linderer began to read aloud, "Sergeant Chambers recruited me into my Ranger company ..." The diary belonged to Frank Johnson. Johnson had kept meticulous notes-dates and places. The names were all there. I called Johnson and asked ifI could use some ofhis notes, and he agreed to send me a copy. A few weeks later, Linderer called me with news of another guy I had recruited, Jim Bates. Of course, by this tiIne, Linderer was saying he was making it too easy for me. The result is the book that you're reading. It took

DEATH IN THE A SHAU VALLEY 15 me a year to piece it together. I hope I haven't offended any of the guys. There is another reason I wrote this book. I would have loved to read about my dad's combat during World War ll. He never spoke about the war, and he died years before I became interested in what he had experienced. If he had written it down, it might have made a real difference in my life. Today's LRRPs are the Rangers who serve in the Long Range Surveillance Detachment (LRSD) ofthe 101stAirborne. This book is dedicated to them-and to my own children, when they're interested.

CommoCheck On a ridgetop just east of an abandoned 101st firebase, South Vietnam, May 10, 1970 The six men of the Ranger team had gone about their normal duties, made the required radio checks, secured their perimeter, formed a night defensive position (NDP), and laid out four claymore mines. They sat around before it was too dark to see, slapped at mosquitoes, and, in whispers, shot the bull about what they were going to do back in the World. They made their communications check at 0430 hours the following morningnegative. The team leader said he was going to move to a new location at first light. Camp Eagle, May 20, 1969 My last recon mission was on Larry Closson's team. The team consisted of Closson, Mother Rucker, Marvin Hillman, Ricky "New Guy" Lawhon, and Doc Glasser. I had already been on four missions with Closson, including the one that nearly fried our butts. The morning before that mission, we all sat in the 17th Cay mess hall telling stories and eating the usual breakfast of creamed chipped beef on toast, commonly known as shit on a 16

DEATH IN THE A SHAU VALLEY 17 shingle (orjust SOS). Between lies, we updated each other with news from-Stateside. I remember standing in the chow line and flicking George Thomas's toast offhis plate. It landed on the ground, and Dixie, our mascot dog, grabbed it, then ducked under the table. Thomas, who was as country as a turnip green, retaliated by pouring a pile ofsalt allover my beef-which didn't change the taste one bit. Sgt. Larry Closson told us to get a leg on. Closson weighed over two hundred pounds, looked like he could lift a house, but wouldn't hurt a fly-at least not one on our side. He was a gentle, white-haired giant. Closson was what we called a "shake 'n' bake sergeant," meaning he had gone to an advanced version ofAIT (advanced infantry training) and made sergeant before' he shipped to Nam. Everyone resented the idea of making rank in ninety days, so the shake 'n' bake name tagged those guys. Despite the fact that he was now a known lightning hazard, Mother Rucker was still the radioman on the team. Rucker couldn't carry an M-I6 or a CAR-I5 (a slightly shorter version of the M-I6) like the rest of ~s. No, Mother always had to be different; so he carried a 9mm Swedish-K submachine gun that he had gotten in trade from some Special Forces guy over at FOB-I. Rucker also wore his hair longer than regulation, and from a side view, he had a slight resemblance to General Custer. He was "short," with less than two weeks left to serve in Vietnam. I figured it would be fairly safe to go back out with Rucker and Closson since, according to the weather brief, neither of them would be making any unnecessary phone calls in a lightningstorm. Marvin Hillman was a shy, handsome, quiet black kid who made you feel welcome whenever he was around. He was about my height, five feet ten, and weighed 160 pounds-ten pounds less than I did at the time. Ricky New Guy and Doc Glasser were two of my favorite guys to tease. Ricky New Guy had been on "umpteen" missions

18 Larry Chambers and had been in country for seven months, but we still called him New Guy. The namejust stuck with him. Doc Glasser was "a reject" from the Special Forces medical training and proud ofit. He loved to remind us of that. It seems he got a little too drunk back at Fort Bragg, punched out a lifer, and ended up a PFC with orders for Vietnam, later finding his way into the Rangers. The nice thing about Special Forces was that they trained their recruits well. Even their rejects were a cut above. And with Doc, we had our own medic on the team. I, on the other hand, had entered the service because I was fulfilling a lifelong dream-not mine, but my father's-to be in combat the way every'male in my family had been before me. \ Lt. Jim Jackson was in charge of the briefing that morning. Jackson wore a freshly pressed uniform and looked out ofplace as he walked in and moved to the front ofthe room with our CO, Captain Cardona, at his side. "Ten-Hut!" Closson shouted, protocol for a senior officer entering a room. But before anyone could stand, Captain Cardona answered back, "At ease." Jackson talked in a slow, methodical drawl. He went over the weather report, which always seemed to be exactly the same. "The weather for the next six days will be hot and humid, with afternoon rain. YourAO (area ofoperation) will be foggy in the morning, cloudy during the day, with some rain in the afternoon and night. Winds will be out ofthe southwest." I tried to remain attentive but was nearly asleep. Jackson walked to the side of a long table where a stack of SOl (signal operation instructions) booklets lay, containing all radio frequencies and call signs. The word CONFIDENTIAL was stamped on the outside of the booklets in red, large block letters. Inside, code words were neatly typed, and coordinates were drawn on a grid, so we could communicate by radio without giving away our positions. Jackson handed the booklets to the team leaders. George Thompson asked, "When do I get a book'" "You'll get yours when we attack Guam," I volunteered. George looked at me, puzzled. "Guam'" The room cracked up. Then George grabbed me by the neck and almost strangled me. I loved to tease him, but I always had to pay a price for it.

DEATH IN THE A SHAU VALLEY 19 Cardona gave the warning order. "Heavy enemy activity has been reported in the southeastern sector of your AO." He pointed at the map. "The A Shau Valley. You're familiar with the area. You are to conduct a BDA (bomb damage assessment)." With as little enthusiasm, he concluded, "We had an Arc Light (B-52 strike) in the valley three days ago. We have intelligence that an NYA regiment has a base camp in one of your AOs; we need to find out if we nailed it. Be at the chopper at 0530. Thank you, gentlemen." This is great, I thought, a bomb damage assessment. We land in a fresWy devastated AO to examine what's left after a B-52 bombardment. All I could think about was the possibility of enemy survivors; those guys might be a little pissed. At 0530 the next day, puddles of water dotted the acid pad (helicopter landing pad). I mixed some camouflage with some insect repellent, to soften it, and covered the back of my neck and the shiny parts of my ears. Then I watched Rucker add last-minute touches to his camouflage. He was extraordinary at this activity; in fact, he was the best. Rucker would really take his thne contouring his face, and when he was done, his black and green tiger fatigues matched his skin. He looked exactly like a jungle leaf. I was not as good at the special effects. The upper part of my face got a fast crisscross of dark green paint, which, now that I. think about it, probably resembled a rifle target. My eyebrows looked like bat wings about to take off from the bridge of my nose. Even though Hillman was black, he still had to camouflage his face. When he was painted, he looked like an evil circus clown. the whole idea was to break up the surface ofthe face, which really stood out in the jungle. But I knew, even as I amused myself with the exercise, that if any enemy soldiers got close enough to see us, we'd scare the shit out of them. There was always something soothing about those last minutes of activity. I didn't think too much about the mission and what might be waiting for us. The rest of the team checked

20 Larry Chambers packs and smoked cigarettes. I was trying not to joke around this time and to just concentrate on the job at hand, but Ricky New Guy and Doc Glasser took one look at me and both started laughing. I shook offthe insult and pulled back the charging handle on my CAR-IS, inselting a live round in the chamber, then rechecked my safety to make sure it was on. The CAR-IS fired a 5.S6mm (.223 caliber, for those of you with a love of vannint guns) round. With most of the older weapons we had, the previous owners had filed down the trigger spring for the safety catch so we could slip from safe to auto without the metallic click that might otherwise tip off potential NYA casualtiesperfect for walking point. I always carried a sling on my rifle so it fit snugly around my shoulder. That way I could hold my CAR-IS in one hand, keeping it pointed straight ahead, and leaving my other hand free to clear the vegetation. My first three rounds were always tracers, so I could follow the tracers right into my target. My last three rounds were also tracers so I'd know when I was coming to the end of a magazine. Then I'd be ready to click in the next one. I loved that CAR-IS. Itjustlooked cool, and when it didn't jam, it was a great rifle. I wiped it down with my rag and set it down. Closson handed me a starlight scope and a claymore mine. "Here. Stick these in your pack." "Shit, I'll have to leave my Joan Baez pictures out," I said. Closson answered, "Too bad." I took the scope, opened my ruck, and set it where I could easily get to it. I closed and tightened down the flaps. The starlight scope is a light-intensifying device, resembling a telescopic rifle sight. The scope magnifies the ambient light from the stars and allows the user to identify-and shootshapes in the dark. The starlight was well worth its added weight. The claymores could be used for two purposes. If you get ambushed, it can blow an escape hole in the jungle. The other, more important, purpose was to blow a hole in the enemy. That

DEATH IN THE A SHAU VALLEY 21 it did by propelling several hundred ball bearings with deadly force in their direction. I clipped on my K-bar knife and tied its scabbard around my right leg so it wouldn't bounce. Rucker stood next to me and turned back to the other team members. "Hey, you wimps, we nlay not be the baddest motherfuckers in Nam, but the baddest call me every morningjust to make sure we're all still friends!" "Yeah, Cheezedick. Get on board," Doc Glasser called to us. Rucker held my rifle. I grabbed hold ofthe vertical brace that separated the door-gunner compartment from the cabin and pulled myself in. "I'm inside the chopper. We can go now," I shouted as I reached for my rifle. Rucker grabbed my arm and nearly pulled me out as he swung aboard and plopped down beside me. I looked between the seats at the new 17th Cay copilot; he looked eighteen or nineteen years old and his face was completely covered with pimples. Oh~ great! I turned back. Rucker was now crammed up against me, his white phosphorus grenade attached to his web gear was right up against my ear. "Get that thing away from me," I complained. Every nlan on the team carried at least one white phosphorus grenade, as well as the SOP six baseball grenades. The old pineapple-shaped grenades ofWorld War II had long been used up. The phosphorus grenades, or willy peters (for "White Phosphorus"), as we called them, were designed to allow us tinle to break contact with a larger enemy force. The grenade was a long. cylinder with the letters WP on it. When you tossed that puppy, everyone came to a stop. When it explodes, it rains out splinters of phosphorus and no one was going to chase us through that rain because ifany of it got on your skin, your only remedy was to try to pick it out with a knife. And if you didn't get it out, it would burn right through your flesh and out the other side. I had put some hundred-mile-an-hour tape (duct tape) around my grenade's handle so the pin wouldn't get caught on some wait-a-tninute vine and explode the damn thing right on my chest. I took a hard look at everyone, then turned back to yell in Rucker's ear as the helicopter began to lift, "Don't be coppin' no zees on me in the field, Mother; I'ill too short."

22 Larry Chambers "My ass is wired tight. Don't worry about it," Rucker fired back. "Snlell that'" he said. I took a whiff. It was the ever-present odor of aviation fuel. "It smells like your sister," Rucker said. "Rucker, you smell like my sister." The chopper rocked back and lifted off the ground. The bird climbed, then dropped its nose to gain speed. Rucker did his inf~ous war holler above the ever-present high-pitch whine of the turbine engine. Then he scooted across the floor of the chopper to sit next to Closson. "Rucker!" I yelled. "What'" "You looked like a dog dragging his butt down the driveway." "I feel like it, too." I turned back, released my grip on the metal frame and stared out the open door. I watched Camp Eagle disappear behind us. The flight gave me a lot of time to think. I remembered the time we were in the middle of an ambush. We got away and hid from the gooks, then watched as the enemy team leader motioned to his men to flank us. One of the gook soldiers pulled out a piece of camouflage parachute, shook off the dust, then covered his back. At that instant, he became invisible. They had all kinds of crude tactics that no amount of firepower could defend against. I had heard back in Recondo School that the enemy had counterrecon units that roamed the A Shau Valley. They were NVA regulars, trained as trackers, to be called in whenever trail watchers discovered a Ranger team walking around. Theirjob was to hunt us down and kill us. Some of the teams had even reported hearing dogs with the NVA tracking them. Twenty-five minutes later, the bellyman tapped me on the shoulder. "Get ready!" he shouted. The helicopter made a wide circle, descended, and made a false landing on a ridge near our intended target. I glanced over my shoulder at the door gunner, who was intently watching for any signs ofenemy movement. I looked down at the row of bomb craters. The previous night's

DEATH IN THE A SHAU VALLEY 23 rain had filled them up, and they looked like mud-filled swimmingpools. The pilot circled back over the ridgetop, then headed toward an openingin thejungle.The LZ (landing zone) was asmall field, fronted on one side by double-canopy jungle. I rechecked my rifle, pulling back on the charging handle to make sure that a live round was chambered, then carefully slid the handle forwarp. We landed in saw grass and shrubs, underlaid by a spongy layer of peat and muck. I was the first one out, and dropped three feet to the ground. I tried to run, but each step felt like the mud was pulling my boots off. The monsoon season had found a receptive home there. But the team finally got off the LZ, and we set up a temporary perimeter. It took a few minutes for the sounds of the chopper to fade away. It wasn't our first tilne there, so we knew what to expect. The usual procedure is to select an easily identified landmark. I chose where the jungle cut a pathway up the hill. Then I rechecked my compass. We were right where we should be. The biggest problem on any mission is knowing where you're located. In Vietnam, because of the need to pinpoint your own location to aid helicopter extraction and artillery plotting, being able to read a map and use a compa~s were absolute necessities. If you didn't know how, you would soon find yourself carrying a radio or walking slack or rear securitY. The team leader (TL), assistant team leader (ATL), and point man had to be experts at reading the terrain. Ifthey weren't, you could find yourselflost, or worse-on the gun-target line offriendly fire. The daylight was shrouded by the clouds, and only the North Vietnamese loved that because they could then travel day and night undetected, as if they owned the place-which they did. Shitty weather was their bestfriend becauseour helicopters had to sit on the,ground. Ifyou were unfortunate enough to be on the ground someplace else, as we were, you didn't dare move. You just sat on your ass and looked at nothing and hoped nothing was looking back. If you got into a firefight after the weather moved in, there was little hope of fast rescue. Your only hope was to break contact.

24 Larry Chambers Trying to keep everything together was a constant fight. The slightest sound could travel hundreds of feet inside the jungle. Any metallic sound seemed to travel even farther. Talking was a no-no, and coughing was out of the question. If we were sick, we still went out. We just took extra Darvon and got over whatever it was-whether it was a hangover or a cold. That morning, I had the worst headache-it felt like someone had driven a stake between my eyes. Even so, I rechecked my ammo pouches, made sure everything was secure; then we moved out. Most of the time, our communications were one way; the team's radios were turned off to conserve the batteries. At the designated sitrep (situation report) times, we'd stop and give the team a break while the team leader would call in, report the team's position and enemy observations. This also gave your body a chance to get in tune with the jungle. We'd have to adjust to the sounds, smells, and sights, as well as changes in terrain. I'd stop every so often, just to look and listen. Moving through a new AO was like visiting an unfamiliar house. Ifyou're there for a while, pretty soon everything starts to feel comfortable. Then there were the sounds of the jungle at night. We'd get hit by droves of ravenous mosquitoes, which would fly inches from your ears and wait for your bug repellent to wash away so they could start their next feast. There was also the chirp of tree frogs; if they stopped, you got scared. I was looking for shadows, silhouettes, or anything out ofthe ordinary. I'd try to move the vegetation in front of me without making noise. Our rear security, Hillman, was doing the same, covering our trail as we went. The idea was to put all the leaves and branches back where they were, as ifno one had even been there. He had to do thIs at a slow pace, but fast enough to keep up with the team. My biggest fear was tripping or falling and injuring myself because that would screw everybody up and could compromise our mission. So you try to balance speed with doing everything correctly. You also never wanted to silhouette yourself against

DEATH IN THE A SHAU VALLEY 25 the skyline. So my strategy was to walk below the ridgeline, justbelow the trail, even ifthat meant breaking brush. The good news was there was always an animal trail or two running parallel to a human trail. Meanwhile, I was saying to myself, "What if'" What happens ifyou get attacked from the side or from the front? What if there's a booby trap overhead? Where is the best place to jump offthe trail? Like everyone else, I was carrying a hundred pounds of shit that kept getting snagged on wait-a-minute vines. Ricky New Guy was right behind me. Next came Closson, and behind him, on the radio, was Rucker. Doc Glasser was walking fifth, and the tail was Hillman. All morning, we kept hitting clearings, and I began seeing mirages of North Vietnamese jumping out from behind bushes. I was imagining the bastards popping up and down, like they were playing games with me. That day was the slowest I'd ever walked. By midafternoon, it started raining; not the way it rained back home in northern California where you could see it coming for miles. I could remember watching Penner's cattle walk slowly toward the bam to take cover. My grandmother would yell at me to take the clothes offthe line, and I'd still have plenty of time to roll the windows up in my Chevy. Not in the A Shau; the rain never started slowly. The air was so wet, it simply burst into a downpour. Within seconds, every partofyou was soaked, even those parts held tight by fear. Then every step became such a struggle that there was little pleasure in sucking in raindrops even though they tasted a hell of a lot better than the water in our plastic canteens. Purification tablets made the canteen water taste like liquid plastic. Then the rain shifted direction, and I followed it, mouth open, trying to catch as much as I could. Something made me stop. In the back ofmy mind a warning sounded: Hey, wake up, jerk. Something is about to happen. I closed my mouth, wiped the raindrops offmy forehead, and brought my CAR-IS to the ready. I kept feeling there were gooks just around the next comer, or the next. I'd walk fifty

26 Larry Chambers meters and stop, seeing imaginary gooks'running just ahead of me. Next, lightning lit up the mountains with giant luminescent explosions. I tried to clear my mind and didn't tell anyone on the team what I was experiencing. But it was difficult to not react. I knew the surrounding jungle was filled with NVA patrols. We'd also learned from one of our CCN buddies back at FOB-l that the NVAhad been using counterrecon units, NVA soldiers trained as trackers and stationed at strategic locations along the Ho Chi Minh trail-which meant here, in the A Shau Valley. Once the gooks discovered the LRRPs' presence, within twenty-four hours the LRRPs would become the hunted. My mind raced, questioning both my map reading and my instincts. Our maps could be so far off that we could be in the wrong AO and not know it. The maps were compliments ofthe Imperial Japanese Army who had occupied Vietnam during World War ll. I stopped again, rechecked the map, folded it up, stuck it back in my cargo pocket, and started moving again. Thumb-size leeches dropped from tree branches onto our necks and slithered up our pant legs. We kept moving. Finally, we found some good cover, with vines. We'd wait there for darkness. I looked back, Closson motioned me to go deeper in. It took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. I'd read that the cones in your eyes enable you to see colors and have depth perception in daylight, but they weren't worth a shit at night. But in the thick jungle, when it got dark, color and depth perception didn't matter much anyway. I hoped Closson wanted us to stay put. I didn't want to stop unless it was to set up our night defensive position: during JIlonsoon season, the temperature would drop into the forties and fifties and, after hiking with ninety-pound rucks, ifwe stopped, soaked with sweat, we'd start shivering. Closson told us we'd spend the night there. I was happy. That night I whispered back and forth with Doc Glasser about what had really happened to Ron Reynolds. I told Doc that Ron and I were best friends and how he knew he was going to die. Reynolds told me that day, before we went out, "I won't be comin' back, man." He looked as ifhe'd seen a ghost. I tried

DEATH IN THE A SHAU VALLEY 27 to joke with him, but he had that far-off stare. When it happened, he rnust have walked right up on some well-hidden gook, because in the bush, Reynolds was one of the best. He was the last guy I thought would get it, but he did-in the chest, three rounds. My eyes fill with tears whenever I think about Reynolds going like that. Glasser explained, "When an AK-47 round hits, man, it starts tumbling. And that dmnage is'irreversible. Nerves get tom apart, and the body's nervous system goes into shock and begins to shut down consciousness. Blood pressure falls, then respiration, and all vital functions come to a complete stop." Doc Glasser had witnessed Ron's last moment. "He just fell over backward like a rag doll the moment he was hit, then lay completely still in the middle ofwaist-deep elephant grass. Ron was tough and didn't die right away. I held hiln in my anus, waiting for a medevac. The last thing Ron said to me was 'I'm thirsty.' Then he closed his eyes and died." Even near death, water had a high priority. I opened Iny canteen and took a drink. Later that night, we moved again in case we'd been seen by a trail watcher. We crawled farther into the murky, triple-canopy vegetation of the fucking A Shau Valley. Unfortunately, I set us up right next to m1 anthill, a huge sucker that looked like a miniature, mud-covered volcano. So I got up and moved the team around until we found a flat spot. Then I set out my claymore, opened an LRP ration, and sat on a mossy log with my CAR-I5 in my lap. Relaxing might mean death. It was clear that the fun and games had ended for me; I didn't want to do this . anymore. After five miserable days of humping and sitting in the rain, pulling leeches off at every stop, we were about to concede that the AD was clean. No traces of the enemy, just a waste of another B-52 bombing run. The night before we were to extract seemed longer than any night I'd ever experienced before. When it was my tum to pull guard, I spent the whole time staring at the second hand on my luminescent watch dial. Then, when my watch was over, I

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