Brokhausen’s group racked up one of the most impressive records of awards for valor of any unit in the history of the United States Army. It came at a terrible price, however; the number of wounded and killed in action was incredibly high. Those missions today seem suicidal. In 1970 equally so, yet these men went out day after day with their indigenous allies - Montagnard tribesmen, Vietnamese, and Chinese Nungs - and faced the challenges with courage and resolve.
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The Road to Mandalay
It's muggy. The heat blasts through me the minute they open the door of the 707 that has brought its cargo of melancholy souls to this vast quagmire cleverly disguised as a nation fighting for its existence. It has been a typical MAC (Military Airlift Command) charter with the usual goat rodeo beginning at the departure station in the Replacement Depot in Oakland, California.
I arrived three days late for my reporting date because I finished off a 30 day pre-deployment leave with all the earmarks of a major bender. I was on my second tour going to the esteemed Republic of South Vietnam and had every intention of spending my last dime sucking up every deranged fantasy I could while I was still breathing and able. By the time I got to Oakland I didn't have enough body fluids left to sweat properly. Actually going back to the war was looking pretty attractive. I had just enough of my uniform left (that I hadn't given away as tokens of affection) to get in the front gate without the "Manners Police" giving me a hard time.
Oakland was the same as it had been since Korea, a warehouse full of scared teenagers with orders shipping them off to what they had been watching on the nightly news. The place smelled of fear with a capital "F." You processed in and waited for your airlift, assigned to a holding company where you, as an NCO (noncommissioned officer), would be given charge of 40 or 50 junior enlisted to ensure they made it to the aircraft.
A couple of days babysitting the cannon fodder and you wanted to kill them yourself. Most of the poor bastards were infantry with a few other admin or techno-twinks thrown in for good measure. The kids going to line units tended to be of two personality types, the quietly resigned and the swaggering macho assholes. It didn't matter which because underneath both types were scared shitless. The worst ones to put up with were the whiners going to tech jobs. They always had an excuse for any infraction. After a few judicious suggestions that you could get their orders changed to the infantry, the whining ceased.
While waiting for my lift, I spent three days going to the NCO club with some of the other Special Forces and Airborne types that were on their second or third tours as well. We avoided the cherries like the plague unless we were broke and they were willing to buy the drinks and not get too eager for combat stories. We also watched each other's back so that some scum-sucking little Spec-6 from admin didn't change our orders to the Ninth Infantry Division. This was a time-honored method of procurement by the Infantry for acquiring seasoned NCOs. They'd get some little dickweed in personnel to look for SF types and divert them at the Replacement Depot, thus they could avoid being accused of shanghaiing us at the reception point in Vietnam.
Airlift day came and we boarded TWA or whatever airline the Military Airlift Command had contracted. Regular airline, regular airline fare, this was during those heady days when they served decent food on American carriers and the hostesses were all pretty, perky, and didn't look like your grandmother or have the attitude of a gut shot wolverine.
The 14 hour flight is a boring drudgery or drunken binge, depending on if you have money or not. NCOs can drink, but the lower enlisted swine are limited to two or three beers. The officer in charge of our lift is a major I knew from when he was a captain, so he and I are swapping lies with each other and watching the lieutenants trying desperately to get the stewardesses aroused, well, at least interested. Fat chance, Buckwheat. These girls make this trip twice a week, bringing FNGs (fucking new guys) in and taking survivors of their one-year tour out. They have heard enough lame lines to fill a set of encyclopedias. But the human libido is an amazing mechanism, and there is a constant stream of little pinheads taking shots at them. All part of the job; they take it well and still manage to be alluring little goddesses of the airways while serving up the food and drinks with good-natured grace.
The major is going up to some outfit called FANK, which is some sort of special project, working with the Cambodians. He offers to get me on the orders, but I'd worked with the Cambodes before and learned very quickly that the only thing faster at getting out of the line of fire than a Cambodian was a hero assigned to Saigon. Nope, that is not for me. I want to be surrounded by Iron Age warriors from the hill tribes, my kind of people. I politely decline and the hours drift between catnapping and quiet conversation. We start the descent into Saigon and the newbies all gawk out the windows as the ground comes into view. It's raining outside, the beads of rain streaking the windows as we bump a few times and then we are on the ground taxiing to the gate area.
The engines wind down and the intercom comes on with the captain jocularly welcoming us to our destination. After we stop and the engines shut down, a squat, overweight sergeant first class comes onboard barking instructions, the usual litany of dos and don'ts. After this stirring bit of introduction, we soon disembark to walk the few meters to the holding area just inside the terminal. After a 30 minute wait in the sweltering heat, the pus-gut from the "repo-depot" comes up and officiously instructs me to get the troops in line. I look him over for a moment and tell him to take his fat ass out of my face and get to it himself. He starts to say something when the major tells him basically the same thing, but adds an extra comment about how a reassignment to a line unit might do wonders for his waistline. He stomps off to "arf" at the privates and we wait until the buses pull up and they start loading everyone on for the trip over to the in-country reception area. The kids are all wide-eyed from the exotic smells and crowded streets packed with moped and cycle traffic. In the stalls that line the roads all manner of consumer products are marketed. Thin ascetic looking Vietnamese hawk everything from WD-40 to stereos. There is a kaleidoscope of garishly painted signs and a proliferation of girls in brightly colored ao dais with the slit down the side, the Suzy Wong skirt dress of Vietnam.
A few of the replacements are astute enough to notice that the buses all have an armed guard and the windows are screened with mesh to keep the odd Viet Cong or drunk cowboy from throwing a grenade through the window. We wind through Saigon to the barracks and the in-processing point where we are issued our jungle fatigues and another clothing packet, US Army, Tropical, one set each, and processed to our units. With me is another old troop, Bernie O. Bernie had been in the original Air Assault which eventually became the mighty First Cavalry Division. He's been around the military so long he's developed the easy grace of a seasoned pickpocket in a crowded subway car.
Bernie has a round Irish face that speaks of too much blarney and liberal amounts of fine Irish whiskey, which season his outlook on the way of the world. He is in his mid-forties, has a gimp leg, and the exalted rank of Buck Sergeant. One would suppose, because of his age, that here is a former master sergeant who has fallen from grace and is working his sins off in order to retire, but this is not the case with Bernie. His is a simple case of getting out of the Army in the late fifties and pursuing a career in the then high-tech field of refrigeration. Bad location and even worse accounting skills left him with the only safe alternative of returning to the "Great Green Womb." So here he is, back in the Army and absolutely thrilled with the prospect of soldiering again and, more importantly, away from the spit and polish of garrison duty. Add to that the certain prospect of picking up rank faster and the opportunity for a bit of larceny and what more could a man ask for?
After an afternoon of in-processing, we are assigned a barracks and the time is ours. I am lying on the bunk in the transient barracks as Bernie comes bustling through the door with a pleased look on his face and a net bag full of tepid Ba Mi Ba beers in the heavy gauge 14 oz. glass bottles. You get an extra two ounces of beer with the added bonus that the bottle, empty or full, is the perfect tool for adjusting the headspace on the odd marine or sailor who wants to get froggy.
He plops down in the bunk opposite from me and grins that lopsided, wiseass grin that the Irish have perfected over the centuries. He pulls out two bottles from the bag, hands me one, then pulls out a CO2 fire extinguisher that is obviously missing from someone's wall bracket and sprays the beers liberally. Voila! Instant, chilled beer. I take a long slow pull, relishing the sharp tang of the beer and the ambience of brewing that uses formaldehyde in the aging process. It gives you a heady hangover, but it is still better than that swill, Black Label.
"I went over to see if we got orders yet," Bernie starts and then smiles. I smell the conspiracy coming. "The Infantry guys managed to poach a couple of the new kids and they had us on orders to go to the Big Red One."
I know tragedy hasn't overcome us because he is in a really good mood. The Big Red One is the 1st Infantry Division. With our ranks, had we been shanghaied, we would end up as platoon sergeants. The proud members of this division put the emphasis on the last word in their nickname; those of us who never want to set foot in it put the emphasis on the second word, "red." I'm waiting patiently for him to lay out the masterful stroke of wheedling and scheming that he has accomplished in order to save us from a fate worse than death.
He takes a long pull on his beer, belches, and then continues. "I ran into one of the E-8s that run the admin section. He was in Germany with me in '58. I was his platoon sergeant and he was a Davy Crockett crewman."
"Anyway, he owes me a few favors, so he tells me that the only way to get up to Nha Trang, to Group Headquarters is either know God and have him protect you from the press gangs from the infantry or take a voluntary to an outfit called CCN."
I am beginning to feel queasy about this. For sure the guy he is talking to is another Mick and there is only one group that can outdo them in fucking each other and that's attorneys. And if I remember rightly, the Davy Crockett System was a jeep-mounted device that fired a huge projectile, like a foot in diameter, which was a nuclear warhead. In fact, the manual said to put the jeep in gear, fire, and accelerate away keeping a ridgeline between you and the target. How quaint, Bernie's E-8 is not only some fellow traveler, but is obviously not too bright.
On top of that, wherever or whatever CCN is, it is obviously something someone wants to keep quiet or they would have spelled it out. A simple rule in the Army is that if it is called by its initials, it's a bad start. You should worry even more if the initials are real short, because it indicates the speed at which your ass gets blown away.
Now, I had specifically sent Bernie over to the S-l to arrange that we get orders assigning us to the 5l SFGA (Special Forces Group, Airborne), which is what we had on our original orders and to use their phone to call Nha Trang and tell them we were at the depot. If he wasn't able to do that he was to call House 39 and get someone to come over and rescue us from the clutches of the legs. These were pretty simple instructions, for Christ's sake. Even a Mick could follow them. I knew we could get assigned to the Mike Force. They always needed bodies in the Mike Force because it wandered around out there where all the bad people were and picked fights with them. Besides, I knew a number of the guys and I wanted to go where there were people that I could trust.
I'm beginning to sweat because he says, "I got us both on orders to go up to Da Nang and," he pauses, "I was able to get all those cherries freed from their infantry assignment as well. They are going with us."
Suddenly I am fully alarmed. My warning bells are ringing and my memory banks are starting to wind up. This is starting to smell like bad, bad news. It's obvious that this is an SF assignment, because anything that will get you away from the Division press gangs has to have some heavy priority on it. Add to that the fact that the cherries were able to get on the list, and the little voice in the back of my head is screaming, "Uh-oh," in big red letters.
Bernie is obviously pleased with himself and doesn't want to hear that if the assignment can spring guys right out of the infantry press gangs, it's got to have some major priority. With priority comes bad operations, lots of people shooting at you, helicopters and jets falling out of the air, and lots of folks going home with missing parts or in body bags. This is not good. I reach over and liberate another beer from the bag and lower its body temperature with the fire extinguisher. Bernie is still rattling on about how lucky we are. This will be a real combat assignment, nothing but SF brothers, blah, blah, blah. I'm beginning to suspect that the O'Reilly in S-l had some sort of grudge against Bernie. Maybe Bernie was slapping leather to the guy's wife in the distant past and now it was payback time. I can see him grinning like a shark as he types up our orders. Hail Caesar, we who are about to die....
I come back from nightmare land with Bernie saying, "Geez, you look a little pale, brother. Maybe you need to take a cold shower, get acclimated ..." I'm spinning in a vortex of bad vibes and suddenly realizing why the Irish end up in every front line outfit since King Henry beat the snot out of the French nobility at Agincourt. It's obviously a genetic thing that attracts them toward loud noises and screaming. They probably think it's a wake in progress, ergo plenty of free booze, so let's get involved.
It's so hot that I am starting to melt, but the beer is giving me a mellow feeling. Well, mellow enough that I don't throttle Bernie. I look at him and make sure I enunciate the words carefully.
"ARE YOU FUCKING CRAZY?" He looks at me with the hurt expression that only your family and ex-girlfriends who show up at your wedding seem to be able to pull off.
"What are you pissed about? We ain't going to some leg infantry outfit; I tried to call the number you gave me but no one answered. Then Kevin suggested that we could guarantee not going if we wanted to volunteer for this MACV-SOG thing."
I am trying to comprehend why my spine feels like I just pissed on an electric fence. Then it hits me, CCN, Chuckle Chuckle North, Command and Control North. Shiva, Destroyer of Worlds! Chaos! Oh yeah, now, I remember.
You see, with an operation where you are using company-sized maneuver forces, it's go out, scrap it up, and the bad guys have 200 plus targets to shoot at. They move out of your way if they aren't big enough or can't get the drop on you. From what I remember, SOG is Recon with a capital "R." It is deep penetration and no artillery support because you are in his back yard. There is nothing but air support, provided, of course, that it can get to you in time. You would have better luck getting help in the Bermuda Triangle. I have a couple of friends that are there. They are good men, lots of combat time; I remember something about it being voluntary. Ah, that's better, that little caveat might be a possible loophole. By now I'm on my third beer, so I decide to let Bernie off the hook.
"Oh yeah, Kevin. I knew it, another O'Fitzfuckyerbuddy." He is miffed that I yelled at him when he thinks he has done us both a great favor. Bernie can't know what he is in for, so I smile my brightest scamming smile, finish my beer, pull another one out and frost it down. Then I lean back against the wall and fix him with my most sincere look.
"Jesus, I'm sorry Bernie, I must still be affected by the drop in pressure from the long flight. Great! You got us a SF assignment. What the hell, I didn't want to go to the Mike Force. I would just as soon play this tour out in some cushy job. It's probably one of those show camps. You know, where all the bunkers are covered with cement and whitewashed, complete with a stencil of the unit crest on each one. Yes, that's it, probably right outside, where'd you say it was? Da Nang? Yeah, great place. All you do is let visiting Congressmen and reporters and Donut Dollies fly in and you give them the grand tour of a real SF A Camp. Probably has its own laundry with starched tiger stripes for the uniform of the day. Shit, we'll probably be able to drive into Da Nang and go to the whorehouses, every night we aren't being interviewed by Huntley and Brinkley, that is."
He is trying to get that Gaelic mush that he calls a brain around the fact that apparently I am no longer mad, but I can see that he is nervous about the flash of panic and terror that had been me a mere thirty seconds before. He gets into the swing of it, though, and spills what "good ol' Kevin" had told him.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "We Few"
Copyright © 2018 Casemate Publishers, Nick Brokhausen.
Excerpted by permission of Casemate Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsAcknowledgements
1 The Road to Mandalay
2 Keys to the Kingdom
3 First Blood
4 Cold Storage
5 Buff aloes Can Dance
6 The Coolest Man Alive
7 Polite Society Meets Reality
8 We Few, We Happy Few
9 Luck is a Fickle Mistress
10 Blue Eyes
11 Operation Afrika Corps
12 Selection Process
13 Bright Light
14 The Anthill Mob
15 With Texans Expect Bumps
16 As Through a Glass Darkly
17 Saltwater Therapy
19 Isn’t Science Wonderful
20 The Cuckoo’s Nest
21 Little Island in the Sun
22 King of the Cannibals
23 Rubik’s Cube
24 Gin and Heartbreak