Late in 1968 I dropped out of College and lacking any sense of direction, I volunteered for the Army. I left for basic training on April 15, 1969. I had signed up for a four year tour in the Army air defense program. I tested into Officers Candidate School, and Special Forces but on the advise of my Uncle (retired Command Sgt. Major), I declined. About half way through basic however, I’d gotten sick of taking orders from a jerk drill sergeant and an abusive platoon leader and knew I couldn’t take orders for four years. So when they came around a second time, I signed up for Artillery OCS. Half way through that, they closed the program and I transferred to Infantry OCS.
I graduated with Gary Watrous in March and after jump school was assigned to the 82nd Airborne. I spent the summer conducting heavy weapons training for the cadets and national guard at West Point. Most of the guys in my company had just returned from serving with the 101st and all fought at Hamburger Hill. After Jungle School (we had to eat our pet Spider Monkey – it tasted like roast beef), I got orders to report to the 101st. After all of the horror stories I’d heard about the Ashau and I Corps, I was suitably apprehensive. I took over 1st platoon Alpha, 2/506, from Dick Scaglione. I spent the first few weeks at Firebase Bastogne where we repelled into the jungle to cut LZ’s.
Throughout the Fall of 1969, we walked the length and width of I Corps and sometime in late December or early January we went into Laos where we spent an anxious day or two on the Ho Chi Minh trail. For reasons I don’t remember, my platoon had to walk back into Viet Nam. We were out of radio contact for the first two days.
Our first firefight was in late January or early Feb. We were sent to rescue a lost cherry and then hook up with the recon platoon near Ripcord. The cherry was eventually picked up by a Psy-Ops helicopter, but he had dumped his rucksack with a Claymore mine in it. A trail watcher got his Claymore and blew it on us the next day when were on our way to link up with Recon. The guy on Point received serioius wounds to his legs, and the guy on Slack was hit in both hands. Both were medivac’d out.
Later 1st platoon was assigned to observe a planned aerial and artillery carpet bombing on a valley that was used by V.C. for infiltration. We were spread out on top of a hill watching the artillery walk up the valley when we started receiving incoming 155’s. Rounds exploded everywhere and bounced us down the face of the hill. I called in a “check fire” and miraculously, no one was hurt. The visit the next day by what seemed to be every star, eagle and oak leaf in the Division was scarier than the friendly fire. I breathed a big sigh of relief when it was confirmed that we didn’t do anything wrong. We ended up on the wrong hill because the Battalion S-2 gave me the wrong map.
I don’t know why the initial assault on Ripcord on March 12 gets so little attention or acknowledgement. That first day was Hell incarnate. As I recall, my platoon (1st platoon) was supposed to go in first but that was changed so that we could pick up some replacements for the platoon. I think we were down to about 15 guys. We picked up Tim Evans and Chris Daffler. I just recently found out that it was Tim’s first day. Chris had transferred from the Americal. We ended up coming in last and by then, it was pure Bedlam. Ripcord was a great rock and there was no where to take cover. I saw guys hiding behind their rucksacks and behind empty ammunition crates. I remember standing near the perimeter of the hill with Capt. Burckard pointing to a hill he wanted me to go to and spot for A.R.A. It seemed like the entire firebase was either exploding or being ripped up with NVA heavy weapons. I didn’t know until later that 3rd platoon was virtually wiped out within a few minutes of landing. Two of the survivors (Orville Koger and Frank Marshall) were transferred to my platoon.
Later that day I moved the platoon to the adjoining hill. We spent the day calling in ARA (Sweet Griffin Niner Fox) on a hill about a mile away where we could see a mortar crew firing at Ripcord. We spent that night on a hill infested with poisonous centipedes on full alert. I assumed that we’d get hit that night, so I had everyone move to an alternate position after dark. I sent the two machine gunners (Tiny Aanonson or Bobby Young) to the points where I thought we were most likely to be attacked, hoping that they could put down some machine gun fire while we rallied.
The next day I was ordered to rejoin the Company on Ripcord. Assuming the NVA had set up an ambush, I had the platoon spread out in an assault line. We each threw a grenade and took off down the hill at a dead run, ready to assault the ambush. There was no ambush, but I got a lot of heat for not requesting permission throw the grenades. Asking permission when I was pretty sure it would be denied didn’t seem like a good option.
My platoon spent that day and the next night alone on Ripcord in two-man positions while the company withdrew to an alternate location. We received intermittent mortar fire all day and called in ARA (Sweet Griffin again) when we spotted their aiming stakes. Before dark, I spread the platoon around the perimeter and we scraped holes in the ground as best we could. I gave orders not to move for any reason, and to use grenades if there was movement. We had some crummy Korean war walkie talkies at each position and anyone who spotted movement was to break squelch three times. Late in the night Dick Oxler let out a muffled cry and we thought he was under attack. Apparently a large lion or panther approached him and they scared each other. We could see the silhouette of the animal jump over Dick. Before dawn, there was movement near another one of our positions. I called the position on the radio and there was no answer. After several anxious minutes we agreed that it must be NVA, so I told Charlie Steffler to shoot the figure moving around with his M-79. At the last second he decided to aim short. The round landed in front of the one of our guys who decided to stand up and relieve himself. They never explained why they didn’t answer the radio; or why he didn’t get back in his hole when he was done. He was seriously injured and medivac’d out after dawn.
We left Ripcord early in the morning and rejoined Alpha Company were they were deployed on a ridgeline about a mile away. When we joined the Company, my platoon was assigned the task of putting the bodies carried from Ripcord into body bags. Later I took a squad back towards Ripcord to find the Recon platoon after they got hit on Ripcord. We waited in the foggy rain forest for a couple of hours and finally made contact with them. The medic had their dead platoon leader tied onto his back. The medic was holding a .45 caliber in each hand and looked like he was in shock.
On April 15, we were assigned to chase down an NVA platoon estimated at 40 men. We had only ~ 17 guys and I was very worried about it. The NVA had set up an observation post facing a firebase that was scheduled to be reopened. When we approached their positions, they evacuated down the side of a very steep mountain. I was told to pursue and engage them. There was only one way down and it was perfect for an ambush.
I asked permission to do a recon by fire and was denied. I should have argued but didn’t. We were out of water and it was terribly hot. We climbed down and I finally had to call a break because Bobby Young was about to pass out. At that moment, we got hit by an NVA machine gun. I thought it was friendly fire, because one of the other platoons was supposed to be behind us. When I found out it wasn’t our guys, I returned fire and they started throwing grenades at me. At the same time, Charlie Steffler found their position and killed the machine gunner. He was shot in both legs. Both of his legs were broken and had lost a lot of blood. Bobby Young was shot in the forehead and Chris Daffler in the heart.
We called for a Medivac and had Charlie ready to be picked up. When the Medivac arrived, the pilot said it was too dangerous and abandoned the rescue. We then carried Charlie all the way back up the mountain. After a lot of begging, I was told that if we could make it back to the LZ, the Medivac would return. By then it was well after dark and I got some volunteers to go with me to take Charlie back. Unfortunately, the only people I remember who volunteered were Orville Koger and our Medic. It took a lot of courage for them to leave the safety of the company and walk a couple of miles in the dark carrying a stretcher with no quick way to defend themselves. We made it to the LZ and set up fuel tab lights for the Medivac. Charlie stopped breathing while the chopper was inbound. We took turns giving him CPR until the medic told us to stop. The Medivac again left without Charlie.
The next morning I left on a helicopter with Charlie Steffler, Chris Daffler, and Bobby Young, six months to the day from when I first took over the platoon. Charlie and Bobby Lowe were best friends. The first person I saw when I got back to Camp Evans wash Bobby Lowe. I told him about Charlie and he said it was ok because he would see him again soon. Bobby was killed not long after that.
I finished my tour as the Brigade Headquarters Company XO and Property Books Officer. When I returned to the U.S. I finished my service with the 10th Special Forces in Massachusetts. I was training to be assigned to a NATO contingent to be sent to Sweden or Greece. I blew my knee out and lost the assignment and decided to leave the Army.
I used to visit the wall a lot, but not so much anymore. The first time was the night of its dedication. It was heart wrenching. My first impression of the wall was a great black gash in the earth. To me it symbolized the great division the war caused in our country. Now, it is a place of comfort and connection with guys I grew to love and miss very much.
It wasn’t until just before Alpha’s mini-reunion last March that I ever talked about Ripcord to my wife and son.
Frank Marshall said that there was talk of a movie. If there is one and it doesn’t include the first assault on Ripcord in March, the lives – and deaths of a lot of good and awesomely brave men will have been wrongly and unfairly minimalized.