We all have our stories to tell, and each event that has affected us in ways we may never know. My best friend SGT Bruce Nettesheim was killed in Vietnam. He will always be with me. Another event that begins with a haircut and ends with the sight of a Vietnamese soldier falling from the skid of a Helicopter has stayed with me since the "Nam," and I'm sure it also will be with me ‘til the day I die.
I was called to Headquarters from "B" battery and was immediately greeted by a Major, I think the XO, who told me to clean up, get a haircut and report to the S-3. I had no idea why I had to leave the FDC at "B" battery. It surely wasn't my idea, but soldiers don't ask, they just do. Anyway, being a good soldier, I went to get my haircut. From what I can remember there was a Papa San on base who gave haircuts. As I took my seat, he looked at my uniform and I'm sure could tell by my patches that I was an Artillery man from 8/4 Arty. Shortly after beginning my haircut he looked at me and said, "Hey GI I hear you go to Khe Sanh." Being the typical GI in Vietnam, I was treated like a mushroom, you know kept in the dark and fed shit, so I had know idea what the hell he was talking about. So, I told him, "You Dinky Dao
(crazy) Papa San."
Can you imagine, to my surprise, that three days later I was teamed up with SGT Regan, put on a Slick and sent to hill 881 (I think) overlooking Khe Sanh. I knew this was going to be another memorable experience when we almost crashed into the side of that hill. I still don't know how that Pilot saved that Huey. When we arrived, and looked around, we were surrounded by several Special Forces soldiers who appeared to be Chinese irregular soldiers. To this day I don't know who they were. All I know was that I was looking at Khe Sanh from Hill 881 and the barber was right. I suppose it was a week later when I found out this was the beginning of Operation Lam Son 719. The operation that was to shut down the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos by inserting the crack 1st ARVN Division into Laos and having them interdict and shut down the trail. Although US ground troops were not allowed in Laos, flying helicopter sorties and air support was allowed.
After Lam Son 719 began I was sent back to the Battalion and worked in the FDC somewhere in Lang Vei overlooking Rock Candy Mountain (I think). For those of you who were there, that was the place where you could hear the enemy firing at you and a few seconds later see and feel the shells explode. It was near Lang Vei that I became involved in a fire mission that was being called in by an ARVN officer. Apparently his position at one of the fire bases which the ARVN had established in Laos was being attacked. Air support was unavailable due to the horrible weather that marked most of the operation. We adjusted fire in support of the ARVN for what seemed like an eternity. The ARVN FO (forward observer), realizing that his position was being overrun by the VC/North Vietnamese soldiers and tanks, called fire for effect on his position. Shortly after he adjusted fire, and as he was trying to adjust once again, we lost contact with him and the radio went dead. Only later did we find out that the enemy overran the base.
The last thing I remember about operation Lam Son 719 was watching our helicopter pilots attempting to extract the ARVN from Laos. As I looked up at one of the Huey's, I could see a soldier hanging from the skid of the Helicopter and suddenly falling to a certain death. He was not alone, as there were several more. What was happening? Many of my fellow GI's thought that the South Vietnamese were cowards and running away. (Would a coward call fire directly on his position?) It was later that we found out the truth. Although the official press releases indicate that Operation Lam Son 719 was a success, from my perspective it was the beginning of the end for the South Vietnamese. A closer look at what happened would indicate that the North Vietnamese and VC were laying in wait for the ARVN. That coupled with poor intelligence, difficult terrain, and supply issues helped doom the 1st ARVN division and other ARVN soldiers. It was later, when I was assigned as a Liaison Officer to the 2nd ARVN Regiment, that I found out the terrible losses that ARVN and NVA troops had suffered as well as why some of those soldiers were hanging from the skids of the Huey's. Apparently some of the soldiers were of a religion that believed if they died in another country their souls would wander aimlessly for an eternity.
Perhaps we never really understood the South Vietnamese soldier or our enemy. The fact that a Papa San barber knew where I was going before I did certainly means the enemy knew what was being planned. The crack 1st ARVN division (made up of soldiers from I Corp) was decimated and replaced by a Division from the Saigon area. The hill overlooking Khe Sanh was overrun shortly after we left. I believe the Special Forces guys got out okay, but I'm not sure about those irregular troops. The rest is history. I left Vietnam with haunting memories and persistent thoughts about the ARVN soldiers and Vietnamese civilians I knew and what happened to them. I remember being welcomed home at the airport by a bunch of Hari Krishnas, but that's another story, and, I guess "It don't mean nothing."
What was it all about? Why did some people survive and others perish? How could you be talking to a fellow soldier one minute and several minutes later see a medevac take him away? It's all so confusing and hazy now. But the memories, no matter how hazy, are still within all of us. Each of us have our stories to tell. This has been one of mine.
Bill "LT" Smith B/HHB 1970-71