Recollections Of A LRP First Sergeant
28 July 2005
Roy D. Nelson
It has been almost 30 years since I first arrived in Vietnam in 1966 as the Operations NCO of the 9th Division cavalry squadron. I have since come to realize that memories fade and history of units are diminished forever by the failure to record the stories of first hand experiences.
It is for this reason that I have written the following. May it encourage others to do so.
I joined the 9th
Infantry Division Long Range Patrol (LRP) at Camp Bear Cat in March 1967. I had recently had a personal conflict with my Squadron Commander and was summarily reassigned to the LRP as a First Sergeant. The unit had been attached to the Delta Troop of the Squadron during its building and training phase. It was less than a platoon in strength and lacked the weapons, radio, compasses and other equipment necessary to carry out patrols. Since there was no TOE (Table of Organizational Equipment) for this unit, it was difficult to acquire the basic equipment, but somehow we prevailed.
In the interim we trained, got physically fit, ran missions and searched for volunteers while we tried to develop confidence and veracity with the divisional operations staff. The process involved weeding out the unqualified and determining who had what it took to lead the patrols.
My intention as First Sergeant, was to teach the same fundamentals taught by the MACV Recondo School at Nha Trang, and to instil the basic instinct of survival in to each and every Lurp who volunteered for the company. I've always subscribed to General George Patton's philosophy, “You don't fight to die for your country, you fight to make the other SOB die for his country.” For some reason it made a lot of sense to me. I strongly believed that you could do this job without getting decisively engaged with the enemy.
We formed five man recon teams, and sometimes went out with only four men in the Mekong Delta. By July 1967, we had formalized as the 9th
Infantry Division Long Range Patrol (LRPD) and were assigned to Division Headquarters & Headquarters Company. We had grown to over 100 enlisted men and five officers. We had even constructed our own compound with compound with semi-permanent wooden barracks along the perimeter wire near the Replacement Company at Bear Cat.
As we became more proficient at what we did, I began to realize that the Lurps were not necessarily the best persons or the finest soldiers. They were men who were just he best at what they did. They had to have patience and a good instinct for survival in the type of covert warfare we were involved in. They also had to have the ability to accept danger and hardship without succumbing to the stress that went along with it. They were good at what they did and they liked it. Some of our best Lurps extended their tours, and not all of them made it home.
My recollections include working with the Australian Special Air Service (SAS) in Phouc Tuy Province. Sergeant Ray Hulin was leading a team in contact with a VC unit, and was trying to break contact to get to their extraction site. I was with the CP at Nui Dat with the 1st
Australian Task Force when we got word to provide a reaction force for the team. The Hueys were ready to go when we arrived at the pad. I personally selected the Lurps I wanted to go. When I turned around I saw two new men, Hilan Jones and John Dunlap, who had jus arrived in the unit that morning. They were aboard the Hueys, and trying to avoid my gaze. I knew then I had made a good choice during the selection process – they had the “right stuff” to be Lurps.
The Australian SAS were hard drinking, hard fighting soldiers. Their methods of long range patrolling were different from ours. When they made contact with the enemy, they attacked with everything they had. They carried those heavy 7.62mm FN-SLRs (Self Loading Rifle). Their rationale was to make the enemy break contact by disrupting his ability to go on the offensive. If they ran low on ammo and grenades, they threw rocks or anything else that was handy. A lot of the SAS were veterans of fighting communist insurgencies in Malaya and other hot spots.
The U.S. Navy SEALs were another wild bunch. They operated in the Rung Sat Special Zone and were something else when it came to taking the war to the enemy. The Rung Sat was a series was a series of salt water swamps choked with mangroves. The SEAL teams did not maintain radio contact while on patrol. They were a little crazy – maybe even demented – but they got the job done. They remained with the same team during their six-month tours of duty, and I believed this was a real boon to team integrity. They were highly skilled and well trained, and had the best equipment. I really like the Stoner Weapons System the SEALs used. It was deadly in close combat. We picked up a lot of our camouflage jungle fatigues from the SEALs, uniforms we couldn't get from the Army. I didn't envy them their AO (Area of Operations) though – too much water. They were normally inserted and extracted by water, utilizing a number of river patrol craft such as the PBR, which were low-draft boats, water jet driven and very fast.
I remember returning once from a mission on board a Huey helicopter. My team had spent a day and a half avoiding VC units actively looking for us. We had managed to avoid firing even a single round, although enemy soldiers had been firing warning and signal shots throughout our AO. We spent the last night listening to VC movement all around us as they searched for us with flashlights. After all the anxiety and stress from being too long in close proximity to danger and death, the tension was broken on the return trip to Bear Cat when Noonan leaned forward and took the tape off the face of my military issue wrist watch and yelled in my ear, “We'll get back in time to watch Combat on the TV.” It was just another way of coping with what we endured on these missions. Part of my job was to observe the individual and team training of the unit and accompany the teams as an observer to critique the methods and results. Gradually we gained a good reputation with division. But it was difficult to overcome their natural animosity against elite units. We had to develop a “believability quotient” just to sell our results to the people at division G-2. Many times I had to listen to staff officers remarking at a debriefing that there were no VC in an area just patrolled by a Lurp team – it just being nothing but “Lurp Bullshit.” Gradually, our results were believed when a follow-up Arc Light strike or a ground unit sweep verified that the enemy was indeed there.
As we got better at what we did, we expanded our horizons. We operated with the US Navy SEALs in the Rung Sat Special Zone; we stirred up the Plain of Reeds; we scouted out the defoliated areas of War Zone D; and even invaded Toi San Island (VC Island) to cut the VC's lines of communication.
I led the first LRP teams in to the Plain of Reeds and on to Toi San Island. These actions probably alerted the local VC of the small unit activity in their areas. Sergeant Ray Hulin led a team on to “VC Island” during a night insertion. They had no sooner dismounted from the landing craft than the VC opened up with machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades. The Navy crew ducked for cover and backed the landing craft away from the bank. The Lurps on board returned fire using the mounted machine-guns and their individual weapons. I remember Staff Sergeant Cottrell burring the barrel up on a .30 calibre light machine gun at the bow position. Fortunately, no one was injured and the team was able to jettison gear and swim out to be picked up. This response to enemy fire was instinctive and not ordered by anyone. Another example of these kinds of men.
In spite of all the mundane requirements of soldiering, we still found time to enjoy our free time. Remember, combat is 99% boredom and 1% pure panic. So we took full advantage of the breaks in mission and preparation. We had our cookouts, beer drinking, resting and ferocious “touch” football games. These games sometimes became more “tackle and get even” events than football contests. I was a young First Sergeant and participated in the games, taking my lumps and bruises without complaint. I can recall no instances of personal dislikes among the member of the unit. At least none were brought to my attention. We had the usual rabble-rousers and guardhouse lawyers in the Company. For the most part, we were just too worn down. I had gone from 180 pounds on my arrival in Vietnam to 150 pounds when I rotated out.
This unit eventually became Co E (LRP), 50th
Infantry (Abn) on 20th
December 1967, and later Co E (Rgr), 75th
Infantry (Abn) on 1st
February 1970. The unit suffered 26 KIA, including one MIA, during its tour of duty in combat.
So much for my initial misgivings as to the survivability as a Lurp. Apparently, the General Patton philosophy had some effect. There were no KIAs during my tenure as First Sergeant.
I had personally forecasted that a company reunion could probably be held in a phone booth rented from AT&T. I was wrong.
I remember the unit NCOs and those who came as privates and grew quickly to NCO rank. Staff Sergeants Richard Cottrell, Arlyn Wieland, Robert Syndram, Elbert Walden and Gregory Nizialek provided the early guidance and training that formed this group of men in to a cohesive results-oriented unit. Others were, Sergeants Emory Parrish, Johnston Dunlap, Hilan Jones, Robert Hernandez, Ray Hulin, Mike Patrick, Herbert Frost and Howard Munn, and a host of others since not remembered, but never forgotten. The officers provided the buffer between us and the higher echelons. They kept the unit reputation in tact and even built on it. Clancy Masuda, the commanding officer, and I were reunited at a company reunion in 1993. Every time I attend a reunion I come across someone who reinforces my fading memory. I have met some of the wives and children of those young warriors who served themselves and their country so well. I will always be proud of them.
The following is by George L. Skypeck, soldier, poet and historian:
I was that which others did not want to be.
I went where others feared to go, and did what others failed to do.
I asked nothing from those who gave nothing, and reluctantly accepted the thought of eternal loneliness…should I fail.
I have seen the face of terror; felt the stinging cold of fear; and enjoyed the sweet taste of moments love.
I have cried, pained, and hoped…but most of all, I have lived times others would say were best forgotten.
At least someday I will be able to say that I was proud of what I was…a soldier.
The above poem explains how I feel about the Lurps I had the honour and privilege of serving with during those days, which will never be forgotten. In the future, if I ever have to walk in harm's way again, I hope I am with those “special men” of days gone by.
This article was originally published in Behind The Lines magazine. VietnamGear.com has reproduced this article with the kind permission of Gary Linderer.
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