BARRY F GRAHAM, LARRY J MEADOR, KENT C WOLF
Ben Luc, Long An Province, Republic of Vietnam
Fifty years ago . . . August 3, 1970
I am a witness. It is August, 1970. I am in Ben Luc, a military base on the Sông Vàm Co Đông, (Vàm Co Đông River) a branch of the Đông Nai River system of the Mekong Delta.
Soldiers of the 3rd Brigade of the U.S. Army’s 9th Infantry Division, the “Old Reliables” from Fort Riley, Kansas are here.
The 3rd Brigade of the “Old Reliables” serves with U.S. Navy units of the Brown Water Navy as part of the Mobile Riverine Force (MRF) in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam.
The 39th Cavalry Platoon (Air Cushion Vehicle) is an experimental unit, serving within the 3rd Brigade of the 9th Infantry Division.
There are two other experimental units within the 9th ID, the 1st Airboat Platoon (Swamp Cavalry) and the 2nd Airboat Platoon (Water Assault Recon).
These guys use Hurricane Aircat airboats to root out the VC in the salt water mangrove swamps of the Rung Sat Special Zone, the Forest of the Assassins.
They are highly effective on water, and wet slimy mud, that is everywhere in the Rung Sat.
Here in the Mekong Delta, the Mobile Riverine Force faces unrelenting physical hardships, a tenacious enemy, and the delta’s treacherous terrain.
The MRF is charged with protecting the delta and its population against VC insurgents, in support of the Republic of Vietnam.
Major Barry Graham, commanding the 39th Cavalry Platoon, invites me to go on a night operation with him and soldiers of the 1st Platoon, Company D, 6th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment.
He is to take the two Air Cushion Vehicles (ACVs) out onto the Vàm Co Đông River the following night.
The U.S. Army’s 31st Infantry Regiment is known as the “Polar Bears,” in memory of its service as part of the American Expeditionary Force guarding the Trans-Siberian Railway near Vladivostok, Siberia from 1918 to 1920 during the Russian Civil War. As you would expect, their story is a wild one too.
The 39th Cavalry Platoon (39th signifying 3rd Brigade, 9th Infantry Division) is unique.
In the back country of the Mekong Delta, the 39th operates specially designed hovercraft to fight the VC deep inside their hidden base camp areas in the brown water and slimy mud of the Đong bang Sông Cuu Long, the River of Nine Dragons.
There are only three Navy ACVs and three Army ACVs in the entire Vietnam War, so this is an exceptionally rare opportunity to see and do something completely different.
The Mekong Delta is home to over 1,000 animal species. New kinds of plants, fish, lizards, and mammals, including the Laotian rock rat, thought to be extinct, are discovered here.
Humans have lived in the Mekong Delta since ancient prehistory, and extensive human settlement has been common in the delta since the 4th century BC.
The Mekong River originates in Tibet, the highest region of earth. Mount Everest, on the border between Nepal and Tibet, is earth’s highest mountain, rising 29,029 feet, nearly 5 ½ miles above sea level. The Tibetan name for Mount Everest is Qomolangma (“Holy Mother”).
Tibet is also the source of the the Yangtze River of China, the longest river system in Asia, and the Huang He (Yellow River), the second longest river system in China.
Mount Everest was formed 60 million years ago when India moved northward and smashed into Asia, causing the seabed to fold and rise up to form the highest mountains on earth. The plates beneath the Himalayan Mountains and Mount Everest are still moving.
The Mekong River flows 2,703 miles from Tibet through China, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia before it floods through southern Vietnam, and empties into the South China Sea.
It is an amazing and humbling thought to know that the dirt on my combat boots in a black plastic bag in our closet is the sediment of millions of years from six different Asian countries.
At first light on the morning of August 3, 1970, I meet with Major Graham of the 39th Cavalry Platoon in his office to verify times and places.
A gold finished metal picture frame on Major Graham’s desk holds a photograph of him and his wife, Ellen, and their two children.
After meeting with Major Graham, I hurry to the base helicopter pad to join a senior naval officer to fly to Cambodia. We are to participate in a planning and coordination conference for a combined arms, amphibious operation, involving Vietnamese and U.S. forces operating in Cambodia.
We climb on board a “loach” (LOH, light observation helicopter), lift off, and lean into the west, toward Cambodia.
The conference in Cambodia lasts longer than expected. The light observation helicopter has to fly against a strong east wind on the return flight back to Vietnam.
Because of the head wind, we are late arriving over Ben Luc, and the day is growing dark.
Down below me, through the open right side chopper door, I see the two ACVs heading out onto the darkening green river through the gathering gloom of night (sundown that night was 7:17 pm, local time).
I miss my rendezvous with Major Graham and the soldiers of Ben Luc. Later that night, a 9th Infantry Division soldier sees my Navy insignia, and asks me, “Are you Lieutenant Smith?”
The soldier tells me that the two ACVs have been ambushed, and Major Graham and other soldiers have been killed and wounded.
My name is listed on the operation manifest, with Major Graham and the other men on board the destroyed ACV, but I am not found among the dead and wounded at the ambush site.
I am reported MIA (Missing in Action).
I go to the 39th Cavalry Platoon’s duty office to report that I am not missing in action. I tell the duty officer that because of the strong headwind, the helicopter returning from Cambodia back to Ben Luc did not land at the expected time. I was not able to meet with Major Graham and his men to go out on the river.
Besides Major Graham, two other 39th Cavalry Platoon soldiers, SP5 Larry Joe Meador, and SP5 Kent Carter Wolf, are killed. Two soldiers, SP4 Jack Kavanagh and SP4 Tommy Macauley, are seriously wounded. Other soldiers are less seriously wounded.
I find out later, this is what happened . . .
About six and a half klicks (kilometers) – about four miles – northeast of Ben Luc, the two 39th Cavalry Platoon ACVs are inserting U.S. Army soldiers of the 1st Platoon, Company D, 6th Battalion, 31st Infantry Division for their night ambushes.
The lead ACV is heading toward a rice paddy when it strikes a tripwire rigged over a paddy dike. Two blast craters about 10 feet apart show that the VC have rigged explosive charges at opposite ends of the tripwire.
The blasts detonate directly under the bow of the lead ACV, which is heavily damaged in the explosion. All soldiers on top of the lead ACV are thrown off by the violence of the detonation. The three soldiers inside the ACV are killed.
One of the 1st Platoon soldiers sitting on top, toward the back of the lead ACV, later says, “. . . I just want to get this out, at least among soldiers who understand . . . I remember the ride is really cool, actually, just noisy. The ACV hesitated at the paddy line. I thought we were going to get off. Then it moved a ways. I felt a jolt, felt heat, to me the explosion was muffled. I remember being in the paddy close to the ACV, minus my M16 (rifle). Dust, that smell, people milling around. Someone came up to me and said, ‘Are you all right, Tripper?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ I remember being in a weird state. They came again, ‘Are you all right?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well, you need to get on the medevac (medical evacuation helicopter). No, wait. Here is a 16 (M16 rifle). Guard over here.’
The soldier continues, “I remember the medic started to work on the boat commander (Major Graham). He was laying on his side, (on) one arm. The medic came. (Major Graham) said, ‘Well I guess I’m going home now.’ The medic turned him on his back, started mouth to mouth. (Major Graham’s) eyes started to roll back. I thought, why you giving up? Then I looked, one arm gone, chest open, bottom gone. I freaked out. I just really could not believe it!”
The soldier continues, “The medic was a hero. He never quit trying to save this man. Never! I really do not remember anything else, but I do believe (Major Graham) was dead at that time. I saw it! The whole point of this for me is that medic never quit trying to save this man. The site, the smell, lingers to this day. But above all, the medic never quit trying on this man, who I can still see.”
The soldier hints at missing pieces of his memory, saying, “There just was nothing! Did I jump from the craft? Did I run? It has bothered me all these years! I still think of this event a lot. Sometimes it’s very fresh in my mind. The death of the boat commander is as fresh as it’s always been for me, just can’t shake it, as hard as I try! I still think about that day, guess that is the way it always will be.”
The ambush is immediately reported to the 9th Infantry Division’s Tactical Operations Center. Choppers carrying a Medevac team and a security platoon are immediately sent to the ambush site.
Another 9th Infantry Division soldier says, “I was no longer with the company when (the ambush) happened, but was in the TOC (Tactical Operations Center) at Tan An when the call came in. I was the one who sent out the relief force to evacuate the wounded and secure the site. Half the members of the 1st Platoon suffered injuries from being thrown off the vehicle, but were all back to duty within a few days.”
The soldier continues, “I understand it was a 500 pound bomb rigged with crossed trip wires to catch the ACV as it came ashore from the river. The ACVs had apparently established a pattern of coming off the river by the same route each time. The VC watched, set the device where they expected the ACVs, and the device detonated when the pressure from the fan depressed the wires. The blast apparently centered on the front half of the ACV, pushing it upward, buckling the floor, killing the crew by thrusting them up against the ceiling, and throwing all the passengers from atop the vehicle. Yes, you were lucky, but so was everyone else in the platoon. I don’t know what Barry Graham’s orders were, but I assume he was putting in the 1st Platoon for its night ambushes.”
The soldier continues, “I did not like working with the ACVs, because they were too big and too noisy. Using them to put in night ambushes was a recipe for disaster, because the VC could hear you coming for miles and knew exactly where you stopped by listening. Troops riding aboard the vehicles had impaired hearing for an hour or so, because they were deafened by the fans.”
The soldier continues, “The ACV platoon was attached to our company only once during my time in command. We were operating just south of Highway 1 along the Cambodian border and were expecting a large enemy unit to cross the border north of the Duc Hue Special Forces Camp to attack Go Dau Ha. The ACVs went into night laager positions but had such a high silhouette that they could easily be seen against the skyline. They carried a lot of firepower, and generally separated by only 75-100 yards, so there was a zone between them for an enemy force to infiltrate. If that happened, they could not fire toward each other, because they had no armor, so we had to place a platoon there to protect them. I worried more about getting shot up by the ACVs than by the enemy.”
After the engine and other salvageable parts are removed from the destroyed ACV, an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) unit places explosive charges, and completely destroys the remaining wreckage.
Major Barry Francis Graham was from Jersey City, New Jersey. He graduated in 1961 from St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, and upon graduation, was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He arrived in Vietnam on May 2, 1970. His MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) was Armored Reconnaissance Unit Commander (1204).
He was 31 years old when he was killed in action on August 3, 1970 near Ben Luc, Long An Province, Republic of Vietnam. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia (Section 35, Grave 3098). His name, BARRY F GRAHAM, is inscribed on the black granite Vietnam Veterans Memorial (Panel W8, Line 79). His name is one of 58,307 names on “The Wall” in Washington, D.C.
SP5 Larry Joe Meador, from Carmichael, California, was drafted into the U.S. Army through the Selective Service system. He arrived in Vietnam on January 14, 1970. His MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) was Armor Intelligence Specialist (11D40).
He was 21 years old when he was killed in action on August 3, 1970. He is buried in Mount Vernon Memorial Park, Fair Oaks, Sacramento County, California. His name, LARRY J MEADOR, is inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (Panel W8, Line 79).
SP5 Kent Carter Wolf, from Boone, Iowa, enlisted in the U.S. Army. He arrived in Vietnam on April 7, 1969. His MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) was Armor Intelligence Specialist (11D20).
He was 21 years old when he was killed in action on August 3, 1970. He is buried in Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Cemetery, in Gilbert, Story County, Iowa. His name, KENT C WOLF, is inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (Panel W8, Line 81).
If I had been killed that night out on the river, something similar would have been written about me. But on that day, Monday, August 3, 1970, an eastern wind from the South China Sea was the breath of life for me.
The wind slowed my return from Cambodia to Vietnam. I was prevented from going out on the river with the ACVs of the 39th Cavalry Platoon. That night, I would have been out on the river with the U.S. soldiers who were killed and wounded.
Over the years, I have often asked, “My Lord, why do you do this? I don’t deserve any consideration at all. I am the least of your creation, yet you are generous with me. Surely there are people who would be better off if I had been killed on August 3, 1970.
Who is better off today, because I was not killed?” The tangled knot in my thoughts is now fifty years old.
Wisdom considers the tangled knot in this way, “You cannnot go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are, and change the ending.” and “If you could erase all the mistakes of your past, you would also erase all the wisdom of your present. Better to remember the lesson, not the disappointment.”
So that’s the way it is. Through no merit of my own, I am not yet dead. Bound by destiny, I am meant to accomplish some further useful purpose on this earth. Sustained by help unseen, I have promises to keep.
I am meant to live an honorable life, to keep my word, to fulfill my commitments. I am “free” to choose. But every kid knows, I am expected to choose what is good, and avoid what is not.
Aware of many imperfections, I stumble on, make my mistakes, get up again, push on with infinite respect and total trust in the Maker of All Things. That’s the way it’s always been. That’s the way it is.
When I was younger, I was many times way over my head in harm’s way. Today, I am grateful for my relatively quiet, relatively peaceful, mostly invisible, unlisted life.
Just the same, whenever something “remarkable” happens around me, I know right away, without any doubt, who it is, and I say, “My Lord, it’s You again, isn’t it? It’s always You. What do You want me to learn this time?”
Thinking back on my time in Vietnam, I am grateful to have been in the presence of exceptional men. It is a gift to have been in the company of genuine, for real, true warriors, the pride of many nations. What a great treasure! I do not deserve any of this.
In crucial moments of instant decision, when all eyes turn to one another, it is a rare thing to know, for certain, with absolutely no doubt at all, that I am exactly where I am meant to be.
At times, seemingly for no reason at all, I stop what I’m doing to remember my family and friends, and whisper a quiet prayer of thanks to My Lord.
I think about my guys, and the mud marines and special forces soldiers, who were my friends. I see those young men. Their faces pass softly in front of me. I am humbled, and grateful, to have once been in their company. They are always in my presence.
The 3rd day of August, each year, marks another one of those days when I should have been killed, but just didn’t die. Each year on that day, I remember the U.S. soldiers of Ben Luc, Long An Province, Republic of Vietnam.
I see them softly in my mind. I honor them quietly within my soul. They are always with me. Whenever I think of them, an overwhelming sense of reverence gathers around me, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
I am grateful for their welcome presence, and with all sincerity, I know, “Love is patient, Love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast. It is not proud, it does not dishonor others. It is not self seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
That is who You are, Lord. One day, I trust I will meet You. I am ready.
The 39th Cavalry Platoon (ACV) originally had three ACVs. The first one lost (No. 902) was destroyed by a tripwire triggered IED (improvised explosive device) on January 9, 1970 in the Plain of Reeds. No soldier was killed, but 14 soldiers were wounded.
The second one lost (No. 901), carrying Major Graham and his men, was destroyed on August 3, 1970 in the Mekong Delta. The platoon had only one ACV left.
Army regulations require ACVs to work in pairs to protect each other, so their mission came to an end.
The 39th Cavalry Platoon (ACV) ceased combat operations on August 31, 1970, and began stand down operations at Di An, with equipment turn in at Long Binh. The 39th was deactivated and left Vietnam in September 1970.
The U.S. Navy’s Patrol Air Cushion Vehicles (PACVs) had already returned to the United States in August 1970.
The U.S. Army’s only surviving ACV (No. 903) was returned to the United States, and is preserved at the U.S. Army Transportation Museum in Fort Eustis, Newport News, Virginia. A U.S. Navy PACV (No. 004) is preserved at the Yanks Air Museum in Chino, California.
During its history in Vietnam, the 39th Cavalry Platoon (ACV) had three commanders, Major David G. Moore, Major Duane B. Root, and Major Barry F. Graham.
The 39th Cavalry Platoon twice earned the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with palm for outstanding performance of duty and extraordinary heroism in combat against an armed enemy.
The first award was for service between December 1, 1966 through June 30, 1968. The second award was for service between July 29, 1969 through July 20, 1970.
The 39th Cavalry Platoon twice earned the Republic of Vietnam Civic Action Honor Medal for performance of duty between May 1968 through June 28, 1969, and between July 26, 1969 through July 20, 1970.
American ACVs were especially useful in shallow marshy areas, like the Plain of Reeds and the Mekong Delta, where other patrol boats could not go. American ACVs had a psychological impact in Vietnam.
They were scary to the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese, who called ACV hovercraft “quái vat” (“monsters”). They were really loud, noisy, and fast, and could suddenly make no sound when their engines were turned off. One minute you could hear them, then suddenly they went silent.
In wide open spaces, they were difficult to locate in reeds and swamp grass. The ACVs could quickly reach deep into remote enemy areas, then power down into silent ambush, and suddenly attack from deep within enemy controlled areas.
ACVs used their speed to raid Viet Cong base areas and escape before the VC could react.
In the end, because of their experimental equipment, the 39th Cavalry Platoon (ACV) was one of the most unique cavalry units in the history of the U.S. Army.
By the deeds of its men, the 39th Cavalry Platoon (ACV) fielded some of the most innovative and daring warriors in the history of the U.S. Army.
There is no word in any of the languages of earth that is big enough to honor the memory of Barry Francis Graham, Larry Joe Meador, and Kent Carter Wolf of the 39th Cavalry Platoon.
The best I can do, for now, is to humbly raise “the parting glass” since it fell unto my lot, that I should rise and you should not. I think of you many times. I trust we shall meet again.
“The Parting Glass” – A Song of Farewell
. . . at the Parting of a Gathering of Friends . . .
The singing of “the parting glass” is the final expression of generous hospitality, genuine friendship, and deep respect offered to departing guests.
When those who are leaving have mounted their horses, each is presented with one final glass to thank them for their visit, and to wish them God’s protection and speed for their travels home.
A traditional song of Scotland and Ireland, “The Parting Glass” has been sung for more than 400 years, at least as early as 1600.
Of all the money that e’er I had
I spent it in good company
And all the harm I’ve ever done
Alas it was to none but me
And all I’ve done for want of wit
To mem’ry now I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be to you all
So fill to me the parting glass
And drink a health whate’er befall,
And gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be to you all
Of all the comrades that e’er I had
They’re sorry for my going away
And all the sweethearts that e’er I had
They’d wish me one more day to stay
But since it fell unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not
I gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be to you all