War Story: A Shau Meatgrinder

19 September 2005

Gary Linderer

If you're a six-man reconnaissance team deep in enemy territory, everything has to go right. When it doesn't, brave men die. This is a story about things going terribly wrong for a recon team of the 101st Airborne Division's famed Lima Company Rangers.

The mission began on 23rd April 1971, when a six-man Ranger recon team from L Company, 75th Infantry (Ranger) was inserted by helicopter on to a ridge top on the eastern side of the A Shau Valley in western I Corp, Republic of Vietnam. The A Shau was a bad place even on a good day. This was a bad day, and team leader Sergeant Marvin Duren and the rest of his patrol knew it. Their mission was to act as a radio relay team for a full Ranger platoon from their company which had just gone in to the valley to lay anti-tank mines along Route 547A, a dirt highway that ran across the valley's floor.

It was unusual for the Rangers to operate in a platoon configuration, but the mission called for unusual measures. Enemy tanks were a rarity even I Corp. But intel. had put them there on several occasions. Other recon teams and 2/17th Cav. aerial scout had reported NVA tanks and tracked vehicles operating along Rt. 547 over the previous two weeks.

The implications were frightening. With the U.S. involvement winding down, no one wanted to face enemy armour at this stage of the war.

The recon team's insertion attempt at their primary LZ had been aborted due to enemy ground fire, so Duren made the decision to go in on the patrol's secondary LZ – a saddle in the ridge flanked by steep slopes. He was glad his team was on the high ground acting a relay team. Those poor bastards down below could be in a world of hurt real quick if Mr. Charles got his act together – and in the A Shau, Mr. Charles always had his act together.

But radio relay wasn't just another walk in the sun, no way, Jose! Just 11 months earlier, Lima Company had lost an entire six-man radio relay team up near the abandoned Marine compound at Khe Sanh. Transmitting too long in the same location had gotten the team triangulated by the sophisticated Soviet radio directional locators employed by the NVA. A brief flurry of enemy had grenades destroyed the entire team before they could fire a shot. No, radio relay could definitely be hazardous to your health.

Once on the ground, Duren took point to lead his team off the lZ to 'Lay Dog' in some heavy cover long enough to find out if their arrival had attracted the attention of the neighbourhood Welcome Wagon. It had. Fifteen meters off the LZ, Duren was cut down by a long burst from an enemy AK-47. Hit twice in the right hop, in the chest and in the stomach, the courageous team leader was out of the fight before it started.

As NVA grnades exploded around him, and other automatic weapons joined in, Duren was hit again in the spleen, appendix, left arm and back. Firing from camouflaged bunkers, the waiting NVA had the six-man team pinned down in the saddle.

At first, the rest of the team was unable to reach the badly wounded team leader, but minutes later, Sergeant James Champion laid down heavy suppressive fire with his M-203 grenade launcher, enabling Sergeants Fred Karnes, the team's RTO, and Steve McAlpine, an ex-Special Forces medic, to crawl out to where Duren lay. McAlpine quickly started a saline IV in the team leader's neck to prevent him from going in to shock.

While preparations were being made back at the company rear to rescue the team, a Huey slick, piloted by Capt. Louis Spiedel from Bravo Troop 2/17th Cav., was inbound with Ranger SSgt. William Vodden on board to take the place of the wounded Ranger team leader. As the aircraft passed over the battle torn LZ, Vodden leaped out and ran to join the rest of the Ranger team. Heavy enemy ground fire hammered the Huey, causing it to crash on to the LZ.

Making sure the assistant team leader had everything under control, Vodden looked up to see the door gunner from the downed Cav. slick staggering across the LZ toward the Rangers' position. When the crewman fell again, Vodden left his protected position and ran out to retrieve the wounded door gunner. On the way back, Vodden was hit in the leg, shattering his femur.

As the ranger NCO lay there treating his own wound, he spotted a medevac helicopter form Eagle Dustoff approaching. Piloted by WO Fred Behrens and Captain Roger Madison, the Huey attempted to land amidst a heavy volume of enemy small arms fire to rescue the badly wounded Duren. McAlpine the assistant team leader, and Sergeant John Sly rose from cover and began to drag the Ranger TL toward the waiting medevac.

The Dustoff crew chief leaped from the ship and ran to help, enabling the two Rangers to get the now unconscious Duren aboard. Amid a hail of gunfire, the helicopter pulled away, heading back east toward the field hospital at Phu Bai.

While Duren was being extracted, the crew chief from Spiedel's downed Huey ran across the LZ and dropped to the ground at Vodden's feet. He told him the two pilots from his chopper were trapped upside down with their legs pinned in the wreckage. When he realized Vodden was hit and couldn't help him, the crew chief tried to make it to the Rangers' perimeter. Heavy enemy small arms fire turned him back, so he returned to Vodden's position and told him he was going back to the downed bird. The crew chief then disappeared over the crest of the hill.

Meanwhile, the Dustoff Chopper, piloted by Behrens, had arrived back on the scene to pick up Vodden. Flaring in fast over the LZ, the ship once again set down on the LZ amidst the smoke of battle, Sp4 Isaako Malo, the Ranger team's junior scout, Karnes, McAlpine, Sly, Champion and the Cav. door gunner climbed aboard. As the helicopter lifted, it took several hard hits – two striking WO Behrens in the foot and upper body, another killing the crew chief. The engine failed, and the helicopter auto-rotated back down on to the LZ.

The surviving crew and the passengers spilled out opposite sides of the down Huey, some heading for Vodden's position. Behrens dropped behind the closet cover he could find, while the rest sprinted for a bomb crater 50 feet away. A short while later, the survivors at Vodden's location were joined by the crew chief from the downed Cav. helicopter.

During the entire operation, Cobra gunships from the 2/17th Cav. had been making pass after pass over the NVA position, preventing the enemy form overrunning the men trapped on the LZ. But as darkness began to fall, the surviving Americans realized there would be no rescue that day. Son the gunships were forced to return to Camp Eagle, and the heavy fire from the enemy positions around them ceased.

The Cav. crew chief said he would try to reach his ship's crash site for another attempt at freeing the two trapped pilots. He took off, followed close behind by the surviving Dustoff crewman. They returned a short time later, saying it would take special tools to get either of the pilots out of the wreckage. They were concerned that the trapped and injured pilots would fall victim to the NVA after dark.

Surprisingly, the enemy stayed put during the night. Karnes, Madison and sly spent a sleepless night together, not knowing if anyone else was alive or not. In the morning, the three men crawled around the ridge top trying to locate a radio. It was during this attempt that an NVA sniper killed Sly.

When Karnes showed up a short later with a radio, Madison learned that an NVA battalion had been spotted by an aerial scout. The battalion was moving up to reinforce the NVA unit which had the Americans pinned down. Madison spent the rest of the day directing air strikes and Cobra gunship runs on the enemy positions, often bringing it right up to their own perimeter.

Later in the day, the two men were informed that a couple of aero-rifle troops from the 2/17th Cav. had inserted just north of them, while two rifle companies from the 2/502nd Infantry Battalion had also combat assaulted in to the valley below them. Unfortunately, enemy forces had stopped them cold.

Toward the end of the second day, Karnes and Madison made the decision to escape and evade. As they moved to the west side of the ridge, they ran in to McAlpine, who had just left a badly wounded Isaako Malo hidden in the hole on the crest of the ridge. Unable to carry the hip-shot Ranger, the three men decided to leave him where he was hidden and try to make it to the Cav. troops fighting a short distance away. They moved down the mountain, turned north on a secondary ridge, then swung back east until they reached the Cav's perimeter. They were shocked to see dozens of dead and wounded troopers inside the small perimeter. The NVA had mauled them during their insertion, killing 10 of the 'Blues' in the first 10 minutes.

A short time later, Capt. Madision was medevacked out with a batch of the Cav's wounded. McAlpine and Karnes spent the second night on the ground with the survivors of the Cavalry troops.

WO Behrens hid during the entire second day of the battle among the fortified NVA positions. Wounded a third time by a sniper, he hugged the Thompson submachine gun salvaged for the wrecked medevac and waited for the inevitable. He had already used up half his magazines killing the sniper who had shot him. He decided to save the rest for when the enemy tried to overrun his position.

Friendly aircraft repeatedly strafed and rocketed the area immediately around him. He screamed at the top of his lungs to alert any other possible survivors that he was still alive and breathed a sigh of relief when the Cobras adjusted their runs away form his location. He watched silently during the lull in the action as a number of khaki clad NVA came out of their bunkers to drag off their dead and wounded. The night, his second on the ground, was especially terrifying to the young medevac pilot. He held his breath and prepared to die as enemy soldiers moved around in the surrounding darkness.

Vodden, Champion and the surviving helicopter crewman tried to stay out of sight as each movement seemed to draw enemy fire. The Cav. crew chief continued checking on the two pilots still trapped in the wreckage of the downed Huey slick, giving them moisture form some pulpy roots he had found. The pilots were in very bad shape and getting worse by the hour. Miraculously, the enemy had not yet discovered them.

The three Americans, believing they were the only ones left alive on the ridge, decided Champion and the crew chief would try to E & E (escape and evade). The crew chief was armed only with a revolver. Champion, the stock of his M-16 shattered by an NVA bullet, had lost his web gear and rucksack. Vodden divided his remaining magazines and frags with Champion and gave the young Ranger his map and compass. At dusk on the second day the two men moved out. A short time later the crew chief returned to Vodden's position saying he had decided to stay and look after the injured pilots. Champion had gone on alone. An hour later, the two men heard firing in the valley below them. Vodden decided they had just heard Sergeant James Champion's “last stand.”

During the night, enemy soldiers moved all around them. On two occasions, Vodden fired at the silhouette of a man standing over the edge of the crater that hid the two Screaming Eagles. Each time, for good measure, Vodden also tossed a grenade in to the brush above them.

Tha Cav. crew chief again took advantage of the distraction caused by the Cobras and slipped off the ridge to check once more on his pilots. When he returned an hour later, he reported Vodden that the peter-pilot had died during the night.

Off in the distance, the two men saw a long sting of helicopters approaching. They knew help was finally on the way. For the first time in three days, they began to believe they might somehow survive this horrible nightmare.

In the afternoon, Vodden and the crew chief heard small arms fire and someone yelling in English. Then, miraculously, two L Company Rnagers apperared, ghost like, out of the brush and moved toward them. Ranger sergeants Dave Rothwell and Don Sellner had reached the two survivors. The Cav. crew chief and Vodden quickly medevacked off the ridge.

Karnes and McAlpine remained inside the Cav. perimeter until the morning of the third day. The two men volunteered to join up with a five-man reaction force composed of Ranger Captain David Ohle, Sergeant Dave Quigley, Sergeant Herb Owens and two other Rangers and lead them back up to the ridgeline.

General Tarpley, the division commander, had ordered an arclight on the ridge, scheduled for later that afternoon. Captain Ohle and his Rnagers had volunteered to go ahead of the B-52s and try to recover anyone who might have survived the three days on the ridge.

Nearing the LZ, the seven Rangers came under intense small arms fire from a large number of NVA hidden in reinforced bunkers. Everyone but Quigley was immediately pinned down, unable to move closer. Taking advantage of this window of opportunity, Quigley rushed through the bunkers alone until he reached the LZ. He stumbled upon Sly's body near the downed medevac. Crossing the LZ, he found many dead 2/17th Cav. and 502nd troopers who had tried in vain to reach the trapped Rangers and helicopter crewmen. Bodies were everywhere.

Then Quigley discovered WO Fred Behrens, more dead than alive, looking like a piece of Swiss cheese from all the holes in him. The NVA gunners had used him as a target for zeroing in their weapons. Unbelievably, Behrens was still conscious and asked Quigley for something to eat. Quigley dropped him a can of apricots and a canteen of water and moved on.

Captain Ohle had finally fought his way past the NVA bunkers and caught up with Quigley. The two Rangers located the Cav. chopper in the trees 300 meters down the hillside below the saddle, smashed flat like a pancake. Speidel was still alive, but would later lose both legs at the hips as the price for living.

Owens and Quigley searched the ridge for Champion and Malo. They found Malo's weapon but no sign of either man. Finally they had to give up and move back to extract the dead and wounded. There was no time to run a more extensive sweep, and the number of enemy soldiers in the area made the possibility of bringing in a larger reaction force foolhardy.

Two year later, Issako Malo was released from captivity by the North Vietnamese, along with other American POWs. To this day, he will not relate the events of the ill-fated operation nor the circumstances of his capture.

James Champion is still carried on the Ranger roles as Missing In Action. But most of those who survived that day believe James Champion never reached the valley alive.

Gary Linderer was executive editor of Behind the Lines. He saw action in Vietnam from 1968-1969 while serving as a LRRP / Ranger with the 101st Airborne Division.

He is author of Eyes of the Eagle and Eyes Behind The Lines as well as Black Berets and Painted Faces (a hard back containing both previous paperbacks, offered through the Military Book Club).

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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