Recently I was asked to write about the missions I was on when I was RTO (Radio Telephone Operator) of HAWK61 (the prototype Hunter-Killer team of the 74th Infantry Detachment, Long Range Patrol, 173rd Airborne Brigade- later renamed Company N, 75th Infantry Airborne Rangers.) My Team Leader/mentor on these missions was SSGT Patrick Tadina, who, I was told, had reenlisted specifically to head up a team whose primary mission was to take six men into enemy territory, and instead of performing traditional reconnaissance duties, make intentional contact with the intent of inflicting as much damage as possible. From September 1968 until I left country (June 1969)-and probably beyond- N Co., 75th Abn.Rgrs tallied more kills each month than any battalion in the 173rd ( a battalion consisted of 4 line companies (125 men each) as well as several support companies and detachments. For this confirmed kill rate we paid a price- 80%of the 27 guys I went into the unit with earned Purple Hearts, a medal I'm lucky not to receive. And Hawk61 started it all- it was the prototype, the proof-of-concept, and, after it was proven successful, the members of Hawk61 were each made Team Leaders and the entire unit adopted the Hunter-Killer concept, and when that proved successful the other 4 battalions adopted the concept, breaking the line companies down into six man teams which they called Medium or Short Range Patrol. This dovetailed nicely with the"Vietnamization" concept the Army was pushing at the time. It allowed the General to pull his line companies off patrol, keep them in the base camp and say, "See ... there's no activity in our sector. The ARVN's (South Vietnamese Army) are doing a good job pacifying the countryside. You don't need us here anymore ... bring us home." This was possible because our HAWK teams patrolling enemy territory would blow their heads off if the enemy tried to poke them up and move around on the back trails. And Hawk61, and Patrick Tadina, started it all.
Before I begin singing the praises of Patrick Tadina ( Tad, as we called him), I must clear up a few misconceptions movies and other media have foisted on the public regarding special operations missions, tell a little about myself, Ranger tactics, and lay out a general backgrounder on Tad.
The biggest misconception of Special Ops missions is that officers lead the teams. I compared notes with contemporaries at MACV Recondo school (where members of all Special Ops Teams trained for combat in Viet Nam... US NAVY SEALS, Marine Force Recon, Special Forces Command and Control, USAF Pararescue and Combat Control, ROK Marines, and every other LRP/Ranger unit in country) and the highest ranking position on any team was an E-6 (a junior-grade NCO).
That's not to say we didn't take officers into the field. Every new officer in N Co. was initiated by going on a real mission, as an observer taking the place of a Rifleman with no "Command" authority. This was done to instill some respect for what the teams he was talking to on the radio were actually doing. An officer's duty is to the larger whole. If he's in the field with a six man team, he's not in a position to monitor the other 10-20 teams under his command- to provide the necessary support when one inevitably gets in trouble. The highest ranking officer slot in a Ranger Company was a Captain ( a junior-grade officer), so when I see a movie portraying a senior-grade officer (a Major or a Colonel) doing my job leading a team, I'm flattered that Hollywood thinks so highly of my responsibility as to give me such a high "field promotion". Of course, my experience was only during wartime- with real bullets and real blood. Anything is possible during State-side training exercises, but to be a Special Ops officer- a highly motivated individual- and only hear the action on the radio and not be able to participate must have been highly frustrating ( although I'm told one of our officers that we highly liked did make contact on his observation mission.)
Another misconception is that Special Ops missions were only run by Special Forces. Special Forces started the program with Project Delta based out of Nha Trang, and when I was there we were housed in the old Project Delta barracks while attending the Special Forces-run MACV Recondo School. Project Delta went through many name changes. When I was there the Special Ops teams were called Command and Control North, South and Central, with CCN in Danang (in the North and Laos), CCC in Pleiku (near us in the "Central Highlands" working Cambodia & Laos), and CCS in Long Bihn working with the SEALs in the Mekong Delta region in the South. There couldn't have been more than 200 Americans on all of the Command and Control teams at any given time that 5th SFG was in country- that's not SF's primary mission. Primarily the SF concept was to be a self-contained group of advisors going into a friendly country (when asked), set up base camps occupied by the 12 man "A" Team (who would train and lead patrols of a much larger indigenous force), being supported by various "B" Teams (an SF- trained and led strike force based in "safe" areas, and deployed to "Hot" spots to assist base camps where the enemy had massed.) All of these units were supported by the "C" Team which provided support (from supply, repairs, commo, intel, engineering, medical facilities (doctors and dentists), and clerks.) -remember each SF Group is a self-contained army capable of existing without any support from any other branch of the Armed Forces ( except for Air Power). In any army, you need 9 men in the rear performing support duties to keep that 1 man doing the shooting in action. Of the 5,000 men in 5th SFG, 4,500 were in support. But they did have a neat song, and I was highly impressed with the skill and motivation of nearly all their people I came in contact with.
I entered the Army when I quit ROTC at the end of my sophomore year before I had taken the student deferment test ( I told a Full-Bird Colonel I didn't think his program was going to make a leader-of-men out of me, and I was drafted days before the next deferment test was scheduled.) I had talked to a friend who was home on leave from the lst Cav Division, and he had told me of a unit he was getting into called Long Range Patrol. Jim Seymore ("Spanky") was-to become a legend in the lst Cav LRP's (pronounced "lurps") and served as my inspiration for trying to get into the unit. My problem came when I scored extremely high on the GT test ( an intelligence exam). When I told my Career Sergeant I wanted to be Airborne Infantry, he thought I was playing "Alice's Restaurant" .with him ("I want to kill, kill, kill"), and he said,"You can do any job you want in the Army with the scores you have. What if I were to put Medic school as a 2nd choice." After Basic Training I went to Medic School, but then I got to go to Jump School. After graduation 90% of my Jump School class went to Viet Nam in the middle of Tet '68, while I, and a handful of others went to Ft. Bragg. Garrison life did not suit me well. How could they draft me out of school to clean latrines when there was a war going on? I reenlisted to go to Viet Nam. Once there, I was assigned to a Medical field hospital with the 173rd Airborne, and sat for the LRP Board the first chance I got. The LRP Board was a group of team leaders and officers who assessed your competence, motivation and compatibility by asking oral questions on a variety of subjects. Not having been in the field before, I prepared myself by studying every manual I could find on map reading, survival, weapons, radio, and anything else that might be important. 20 guys went before the board that night, and 2 of us were accepted. When I approached my First Sergeant the next morning with my transfer papers he had a cow. The C.O. of B-Med had a conniption fit. He said I was crazy, I had reenlisted for Viet Nam so I had to be crazy, and he told the General that he was processing the forms to certify me as such. Needless to say, my transfer papers were put on hold. My second chance came a month later, when in September 1968 a month-long LRP School was organized. My C.O. let me go ( thinking I'd fail and would come home with my tail between my legs after getting a taste of what LRPs was all about. You see, he was a medical doctor, and he really did know better than I what LRP was...most of the people going through his hospital with really bad wounds were coming from the unit. He also awarded me the Combat Medic Badge ( I think so I couldn't get a CIB ( Combat Infantry Badge) if I stayed with LRPS.) Barracks intrigue aside, the LRP School was patterned after Recondo School (which I attended in December- Recondo #1701). 100 guys who had passed the board were invited, 20 went home after reading the curriculum, and of the 80 that started- 27 of us graduated after 4 grueling weeks. Although it was physically draining (seven mile run with full combat gear, 30 lb sandbag in your pack, and weapon in your hands, for time), most of the flunk-outs came from not passing the academics. The subjects (map reading, patrolling techniques, communications, weapons, intelligence, medical, survival, infiltration/ extraction methods, and calling in artillery and aircraft ) were taught by real experts who were already in the unit. We got hands on experience with enemy weapons, rappeling, rope ladders, calling in arty and air strikes, and rope extractions. At LZ Dog (a small mesa-surrounded by concertina barbed wire and engineering stakes) we practiced rope extractions using McGuire and Lawson rigs with three men hanging from the helicopter at staggered heights, clinging to each other's pant legs for stabilization. I was low man, and when the chopper came back to drop us off I could see he was too low, and that I was going to slam into the side of the butte. I grabbed up high on the rope, pulled myself up, hit with both legs running straight up the face, jumped the concertina, and was still running halfway across the butte before the pilot realized he had a man on the ground. It seems he forgot that nylon rope stretches 1/3 its length ( or maybe he was being paid by the C.O. of B-Med to send me home ... who knows?) Anyway, he didn't make the same mistake with the rest of the people. Graduation from LRP School only occurred after a real-live mission, which for me was a routine reconnaissance mission 2 weeks after the training was over. The unit had just expanded from 24 to 50 people, and it was hard finding enough Team Leaders to take us all out at once.
My second mission was with Laslo "Hunky" Rabel, who, I was told, had escaped across the Hungarian border when he was 16 (someone said he had knocked off a Russian T-34 tank with a Molotov cocktail in the process- but who knows ... a lot of rumors about people were started to make them more colorful and larger than life ... sometimes they were true, sometimes not. I just took everything at face value that was being said about people, and from observing the way they handled themselves in the field, I was prepared to believe anything said about anyone. ( I recently confronted Tad about some of the tall tales that were circulating about him and he told me that most of them were tales, but he never corrected them, or got tired of trying to correct them. After a while he just played along with the macho image.) Anyway, back to Hunky. He joined the Army in 1956, got into Special Forces assigned to Europe with the hope of liberating his homeland. When Viet Nam came along he volunteered, and I believe he had been with our unit for two years before I came along, assigned to him as a cherry RTO. Our mission, while promising at first (Special Forces had spotted a large body of Cong moving through our A.0. the week before) turned out to be a dud. Hunting Cong is a lot like hunting deer...sometimes they're there, and sometimes they're not. The only difference is, this deer can shoot back. I learned a lot about being an RTO, a duty traditionally given to newbies. In addition to the load everyone else humps, the RTO gets the 30 lb PRC-25 radio...but he's also right next to the team leader, carries the SOI and KAK codes, and is involved with the decision-making process. We would tuck our whip antenna into our web-gear so it wouldn't give us away, and would tape the handset to both prevent water from getting in, and to keep the noise from other transmissions from being heard by anyone but the operator ( we'd carry the handset high on the web gear-close to our ears.) We'd talk into the handset in a whisper because you never knew the proximity of the enemy. Often the only time anyone spoke on a six day mission was when the RTO called in LOGSTATS (position reports) to let "higher" (the CO) know where we were. Noise control was very important ... we'd tape our web gear to prevent rattles, and modified all items which made metal-to-metal contact. When a team moved through the brush and someone stepped on a dry twig, everyone would look back and glare at the idiot. It usually didn't happen again. In addition to noise control, odor control was equally important. We didn't shave or shower the day before a mission because Charley could smell American soap as easily as we could smell his Nuc Mam (a Vietnamese fish sauce) which would precede him a good ways down the trail. Cigarettes didn't matter, as both sides smoked, and we never smoked on the move, which on a killer mission was most of the day. We'd burn a small hole in our hats, push a cigarette through, and hold our hats close to our chest to light a cigarette at night without giving off any light. The smell would blend in with our sweat- after a few days we'd stink to high heaven, but so did the enemy, and that kind of smell was indistinguishable ... you'd never know if it was him you were smelling, or your own sweat. The most memorable part of my mission with Hunky was on extraction. We were told to be at a certain place in the valley at a certain time. We moved down and found cover in a thicket of small trees near the LZ (landing Zone). An hour past our appointed extraction time I called in to give our logstat and was told the choppers had been delayed. Two hours later the spaghetti LRP ration I had eaten for lunch started working on me, and I had to relieve myself. I left my pack ( and radio ) with Laslo and move off about 20 meters to do my business. Talk about odor control, I was ripe. I buried everything, but still it reeked. There was no wind in the thicket and the temperature and humidity was high. The aroma hovered over us and lingered for the next hour as we crouched patiently awaiting our ride home. Laslo got the team up and was preparing to move out to a new position ( the aroma was too much) when we heard the rotor blades. Extracted in the nick of time ... we were about to pass out from the gas attack. Laslo was assigned a team of more experienced guys when we got back, and we sat around pulling details waiting for someone to take us out. Laslo, a couple of missions later, was killed when he dove on a grenade and smothered the blast with his body. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
I would go on to run 30 missions, and after Nam would get heavily involved with sport parachuting to calm down (was one of ten Ft.Bragg free-fall instructors in 1970, I believe the only enlisted man ever elected to the Board of Directors of the 82nd Sport Parachute Club (as an E-4), and worked with one of the USAF Combat Control Teams slated to participate in the Son Tai POW camp raid in North Viet Nam (I was SSGT Joe Jones, USAF for a while- but that's a different story). On project transition out of the Army I got my Commercial Pilots License. I worked for a year as an EMT for an Ambulance service ( assisted in an effort to train and prepare a ParaRescue team to jump into remote swamp areas and assist potential airline crash victims, and helped start the first Air Ambulance service in Columbia, SC.) I paid 100% of my education expenses by starting and running a parachute drop zone, Flight Instruction, and Charter Pilot work. On graduating, I worked for a CPA firm for a year, went to law school for a year, and got into the personnel recruitment industry. I've owned and worked on a couple of airplanes, got rated in scuba diving, and learned seven languages. I get bored easily.
But now, back to Nam- where it all began. When I met Patrick Tadina I was in my formative stage ... a cherry with school training and a couple of light recon missions under my belt. Although I only ran four missions with Tad, they were the missions that honed and hardened me into the real thing. By outward appearance, Tad could be very deceptive. A 5'6", slight of build Hawaiian who was easy-going and shy in the rear, but when presented with a mission he'd get steely-eyed and all business. Sometimes outsiders visiting our compound would mistake him for one of our indigenous people- we didn't wear patches on our Tiger fatigues. This prompted some of our people to start rumors about him (which he's later denied, but when I was in country I believed them fully because to know Tad was to know someone capable of doing anything.) One such story had Tad with an ambush staked out along a trail, but 2 VC coming down the trail stopped and seemed reluctant to proceed into such an obvious ambush area. Finally Tad lost patience, stood up, walked out to the middle of the trail wearing his black PJ's and porting his AK-47, and waved them on ( a "come here" gesture to a Viet Namese is to hold your arm straight out and wave "goodbye" in American) saying "Lai Dai" ("come Here" in Viet Namese). When the two got close he cut loose with the AK and dropped them both. Stories like this were believable because Tad could easily pass for a Montagnard, and with his AK and Tiger fatigues on he looked like a VC. Tad wasn't the only little man in the unit ... in fact, most of our guys were shorter that 6' with wiry frames. Short guys could move more quietly through the jungle while the big guys would get ensnared by the "wait-a-minute" vines attracted to their more-ample surface area. Not to say we didn't have some big guys, it's just that they had a harder time moving, and we definitely didn't have any muscle-bound Arnold Schwartzenegger-types. In fact, our guys looked like a typical cross-section of people you would find in any other unit. Every time I looked at Roy Boatman ( another of our highly successful team leaders) I would envision him as a company clerk with fresh-starched fatigues on. Another guy in my LRP School class had been a professional model before being drafted. We didn't all have the chiseled features of Jesse Ventura.
OK, enough of this foreword, let's get on with the missions. Remember, these are my first few "cherry" missions as Tad's RTO (in a perfect position to observe his decision-making process.) I am going to make mistakes ( a lot of them) and am going to share my thoughts as a man whom I considered to be a legend, even then, was in a perfect position to observe every move I made also.) These weren't my most exciting missions, nor were they Tad's... they are just recounts (with the aid of my diary to keep things straight) of the four missions we ran together with Hawk6l.