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5th Special Forces Group

ATSB Vĩnh Gia, Vietnam-Cambodia Border

The U.S. Army 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) is one of the most highly decorated military units in the United States Army. During the Vietnam War, 16 of its soldiers are awarded the Medal of Honor, making 5th Group the most highly decorated unit of its size in Vietnam.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy activates U.S. Army Special Forces units to fight in Vietnam. President Kennedy personally approves the Special Forces distinctive green beret.

Fifth Group first deploys as a battlefield advisory group to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). But by February 1965, 5th Group is a backbone combat force, leading the way, using conventional and unconventional tactics.

Headquarters of 5th Group is in the coastal city of Nha Trang, the capital of Khánh Hòa Province, on the south central coast of Vietnam.

Fifth Group in the Vietnam War, is well known for its unconventional ways of doing things, especially its serious use of Hurricane Aircat airboats. Adopting riverine tactics, 5th Group uses the speed and firepower of its Aircat airboats to telling tactical effect. When supported by armed helicopters, air cushion vehicles, reconnaissance planes, river patrol boats, and artillery, 5th Group airboats win a lot of fights with the Viet Cong.

Though I don’t know it yet, soon I will find myself working personally with 5th Group in Vietnam.

Between November 30, 1969 and August 14, 1970, I am an advisor with Duyen Đoan hai muoi lam (Coastal Group 25) of the Vietnamese Navy, based at Hon Khoi, a small hamlet north of the city of Nha Trang in Khánh Hòa Province on the central coast of Vietnam.

In late July 1970, with eight months down and four months to go before my service in Vietnam will end in November, I arrange for a chopper flight down to Saigon. I get myself transferred from relatively safe Coastal Group 25 to a much more exciting “heavy unit anywhere in the Delta.”

In a very large, very safe, very comfortable, air conditioned office with 150 or more cubicles at U.S. Naval Forces, Vietnam headquarters in Saigon, I sign the papers. As I walk across the room, eyes follow me. Heads shake slowly in disbelief. Smiling quietly, I gently close the door behind me.

Well, all right then, my new unit is RID 41. I will be serving as an advisor with the men of Giang Đoan Ngan Chan bon muoi mot (River Interdiction Division 41, RID 41) of the Vietnamese Navy.

RID 41 sails bar armored river boats on the winding rivers, narrow canals, and tangled mangrove swamps of the Mekong River Delta, the Đong bang Sông Cuu Long (“River of Nine Dragons”), as part of Operation Sea Lords. When I catch up with them, I know for sure, I am exactly where I am meant to be. I love my guys. Thank you, Lord.

In September 1970, our RID 41 Vietnamese sailors and boats are operating in Cambodia, so we U.S. advisors are ordered to remain behind in Vietnam. Somehow, the senior naval officer in our area finds me. He tells me there are some problems with the morale and military effectiveness of U.S. Navy personnel at Vĩnh Gia. He tells me to fix it.

Okay, so now I am temporarily in charge of the advanced tactical support base at Vĩnh Gia (ATSB Vĩnh Gia), on the Vĩnh Te Canal, that forms the border between Vietnam and Cambodia.

When I arrive at ATSB Vĩnh Gia, a lot of new challenges present themselves very quickly.

There has been no officer in charge of the base for some time before I show up. Enlisted men are on their own without any command structure. Some sailors are using drugs. Others are malingering and insubordinate, refusing to obey the men appointed over them. I relieve one man of duty and make him go away by sending him up the chain of command for further disposition.

A group of sailors decide to shoot and kill a dog at long range with their M16 rifles inside the base perimeter, endangering the safety of others.

This is the first day. Then there is the first night.

I sleep on a smelly, damp, filthy mattress, in a drenching, greasy sweat, in a fiercely hot, humid bunker, in a humming cloud of vicious mosquitoes. Overall, I am grateful for the soft mattress.

The toxic, chaotic culture of indiscipline and disorder among the men in this exposed and dangerous active combat area is a serious risk to the security of the base. I wonder, “How could this level of indiscipline have been allowed to develop? How is it that I am chosen to enter this hornets’ nest of potential disaster?”

In a quiet place, I sit down with the men. We talk. I ask questions. They offer suggestions. We make decisions. Our opinions seem to brighten. Things begin to improve.

Ultimately, it is the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong who pull these men together to protect and defend each other against the common enemy. U.S. Army and U.S.

Navy units work together at ATSB Vĩnh Gia.

The U.S. Army 268th Field Artillery Radar Detachment (“Night Eyes”) is here. These guys use special radar equipment to detect and locate enemy forces, and alert other units to the presence of the enemy.

There is a Beach Jumper “Duffel Bag” team here. These guys plant and monitor vibration and body heat sensors on the Cambodian side of the Vĩnh Te Canal that track the movements of bad guys, and sometimes water buffalos and “just folks” in sampans.

We also have the good fortune to be supported by “Seawolves” of U.S. Navy Helicopter Attack Squadron Light (HAL) 3 and “Black Ponies” of U.S. Navy Attack Squadron Light (VAL) 4.

“Night Eyes” and “Duffel Bag” technology is all well and good, but there is nothing like boots on the ground to find out what’s really going on.

Two U.S. Army Special Forces officers arrive and ask my permission for their airboat detachment of Nùng soldiers to operate from ATSB Vĩnh Gia. Fifth Group has a reputation for taking the fight to the enemy, so I know this is going to be good.

The next night, these Special Forces airboat soldiers go out into the night, snooping around in the dark swampy areas on the Vietnam side of the canal. Prospecting for trouble, they strike paydirt.

They make contact with a Viet Cong battalion that has slipped across the canal about two miles into Vietnam from Cambodia. The Special Forces airboat soldiers immediately take the fight to the enemy, attacking, testing, probing in the darkness at their enemy. Like an encircling war party of Sioux warriors, they are relentlessly harassing, herding, assessing, measuring the size and strength of their VC enemy.

Within minutes, Special Forces radios are calling for other friendly forces to join the fight. Soon “Seawolves” of U.S. Navy Helicopter Attack Squadron Light (HAL) 3 and “Black Ponies” of U.S. Navy Attack Squadron Light (VAL) 4 arrive on scene, and become involved in the fight.

The “Seawolves” and “Black Ponies” unload a lot of ordnance on that VC battalion, that is now trying to break away, and disperse, from under the relentless pounding from above.

Each “Seawolf” gunship has two gunners, one on each side of the helicopter, armed with an M-60 machine gun. In combat, these amazing young men lean out of their helicopter door with one boot on the 2.75 inch rocket launcher pod.

From below, they take hostile fire, and steadfastly return fire, as their “Seawolf” gunship turns and jerks, bumps and lurches, each time they roll into an attack run, and climb out of one.

During the running battle, U.S. Navy HAL-3 “Seawolf” attack helicopters land half a dozen times on the ATSB Vĩnh Gia helicopter pad to refuel, and reload ammunition.Some of our guys refuel the chopper from large black rubber fuel bladders. Some of our guys reload the chopper’s 2.75″ Mighty Mouse rocket launcher pods. Some of our guys bring steel boxes with belts of 7.62x51mm NATO M60C machine gun ammunition for the door gunners.

A “Seawolf” door gunner hands me a link taken from his M60 machine gun belt. It has a Chinese 7.62×39mm bullet lodged in it. Eyes meet eyes. We bump knuckles. So far, so good. Close, but no cigar. Not this night.

Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles, Degtyaryov RPD, and Kalashnikov RPK light machine guns use Russian and Chinese 7.62×39mm ammunition.

Within a couple of minutes, refueling and rearming is complete.

The chopper engine whines into high gear as it gains power. The chopper blades whirr more loudly, whup, whup, whup. The bird lifts off our helo pad, gains altitude, leans into the night, and disappears, returning to the fight.

Eventually, the battle slows. Finally it is called off. Special Forces radios call us for illumination to guide their airboats back home through the darkness. Our guys fire 81mm parachute flares to provide them with safe passage.

The next day, the Special Forces airboat soldiers prepare to move on to a larger base to seek medical care for their wounded.

Before moving out, the U.S. Special Forces captain asks me for ammunition to rearm his airboats. I give orders for our sailors to open the ammunition bunker and help the Special Forces soldiers rearm with all the ammunition they can carry.

The Special Forces captain tells me that his Nùng soldiers have asked him to invite me to a special honoring ceremony, to give thanks to the “war lord” for the successful fight they fought with the VC the night before.

The Special Forces captain tells me that to be invited by Nùng soldiers to an honoring ceremony for helping in a fight is a rare and unusual honor.

The Nùng soldiers have chosen a sunny, open building near the canal for the ceremony. The two U.S. Army Special Forces officers usher me inside and ask me to sit down on a reed mat at the open end of a rectangular gathering of about 30 Nùng soldiers sitting on reed mats.

We regard each other, their eyes measuring my worth.

The Nùng chief comes forward, and sits down in front of me. Small white porcelain cups of a strong alcoholic drink are placed in our hands. The Nùng chief and I cross our hands at the wrist, and lean forward to drink, eyes to eyes, nose to nose.

This is the Nùng way of showing personal trust and respect. A plate holding the cooked, blackened, hardened head of a chicken is handed to me.

The expected, proper response is to take a bite, which I do, to the smiling, nodding, appreciative murmurs of the Nùng soldiers gathered there.

In my memory, I see their faces. These are exceptional warriors, descendants of an ancient race of “montagnards” (mountaineers), little tough guys from the rugged mountain border country of North Vietnam and the southern Chinese province of Guangxi.

God works in mysterious ways to have chosen me to be here with them. I think of these guys with the greatest of respect for their completely breath taking bravery, unbelievable daring, and remarkable success.

My Lord knows them. I often wonder where they are now.

The badge on the green beret of every U.S. Army Special Forces soldier carries the Latin words “De Oppresso Liber.” Loosely translated, it means “to free the oppressed.” I am grateful to have been in their company.

Knowing the story of a people makes them personal to me. The Nùng are a Chinese ethnic minority who live in the northeastern mountains of North Vietnam in the provinces of Cao Bang, Lang Sơn, Tuyên Quang, and Thái Nguyên, on the North Vietnam border with Guangxi province, China.

The Nùng are culturally similar to the T’ai, Hmong, and Mưong peoples of the northwestern mountains of North Vietnam, China, Laos, and Thailand.

When the French left Indochina in 1954, Nùng people fled from the Communists in North Vietnam and joined the great exodus of more than one million North Vietnamese refugees who fled to the south and resettled in South Vietnam.

During the Vietnam War, Nùng soldiers operating with U.S. Army Special Forces are highly regarded as fearsome warriors, and are known for their loyalty to the Green Berets.

When Saigon fell to the Communists in April 1975, Nùng people again became political refugees, and fled South Vietnam as Boat People to refugee camps in Malaysia, eventually resettling in the United States, Canada, France, and Australia.

A few days after the fight with the VC battalion, RID 41 receives new orders. We’re on our way to a different operating area, the Cà Mau Peninsula, the southernmost tip of Vietnam.

Before we leave, I turn over command of ATSB Vĩnh Gia to another U.S. Naval Advisory Group officer.

I find out later that ATSB Vĩnh Gia is rocketed and shelled by mortar fire a few days after RID 41 leaves the area. That tells me the Special Forces airboat soldiers, “Seawolves,” and “Black Ponies” hurt the VC significantly. The rocket and mortar attack is payback.

Operation Sea Float, later called Solid Anchor, is where I am destined to remain for my last two and a half months in Vietnam before returning home to Fargo, North Dakota in November 1970.

As for the Special Forces, 5th Group begins reducing its personnel in Vietnam in April 1970. On March 5, 1971, 5th Group returns to Fort Bragg, but in name only. Personnel and equipment are not transferred. The 6th Special Forces Group is renamed 5th Special Forces Group. Soldiers of 5th Group continue to conduct intelligence operations in Southeast Asia until the collapse of the South Vietnamese government on April 29, 1975.

No matter how crazy, confusing, and chaotic this world can really be, especially when I am face to face with some of the worst of it, I must never break faith with the best people I know.

Even when I’m standing in line behind a really slow person at the grocery store, I say the words of Paul, the apostle, who wrote to the world that “Love is patient, Love is kind . . .”

I hold on to that promise . . . Love never fails.

I trust, and know for sure, that . . . Love . . . never . . . fails.