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Cover Story May 22nd, 2008

  Untitled Document

cover

by lyle e davis

It was a long, long time ago and far, far away. Yet to those of us who were there, it is like yesterday.

We speak of a country known as Vietnam.

You are about to read some harrowing adventures from the Vietnam era. Much of what your are about to read is not for the squeamish. But neiether is war.

As I read these adventures, preparing for this story, I found myself vicariously pounding the ground and crawling through thorny bushes, accompanying the often deadly patrols that were a constant in Vietnam. I was on patrol . . .yet even though safe . . .I felt the sweat building on my brow again, fear striking my heart as I recalled situations of so long ago. I was in awe as I read of the exploits that were undertaken in that country so long ago.

Background:
I recently met J. Stryker Meyer, a former columnist for the North County Times, and a good one. He wrote about matters military and he did it well. Fortunately for him, unfortunately for those of us who enjoyed his column, he got booted upstairs to a hi-faluting position of an editor on the Op-Ed Page for the North County Times.

He and I were in the Vietnam area at about the same time. He as a warrior . . . I as a civilian war correspondent. I scribbled stories for two Chicago area newspapers and recorded “hometowner” interviews for two radio stations, one in the Chicago area, one in St. Louis, Missouri.

While I was chasing down stories, Meyer was out in the bush, chasing down Viet Cong and members of the North Vietnamese Army. Often, he only had a team of five or six warriors with him, usually indigenous troops, Montagnards (mountain men) or Nung (Chinese heritage), or South Vietnamese, who were armed and trained by Meyer and his colleagues. Often, he and his team were hopelessly outnumbered. Through all this, he survived. Some of his buddies didn’t.

Meyer, known as “Tilt” to his friends (it’s because he’s a pinball freak), was a member of the Special Forces, a Green Beret . . . part of that Giant War Machine known as SOG/MACV (Studies and Observation Group - Military Assistance Command, Vietnam). SOG/MACV was also a cover organization. They weren’t so much studying and observing events in Vietnam as they were shooting the hell out of bad guys . . . and often being on the incoming end of gunfire.
Just as often they were in places they weren’t supposed to be. Like in other, supposedly neutral countries. But, those forays, of course, were secret operations.
He, and most warriors like him, were required to sign a paper pledging to not discuss or otherwise divulge for 20 years, those events that took place while they were on active duty. That 20 year embargo has now passed and amazing stories begin to emerge.

photo
J. Stryker “Tilt” Meyer, today with his wife, Anna

Tilt and his writing partner, John E. Peters, have put together a fascinating book, “On The Ground - The Secret War in Vietnam.” I have read a lot of military books. This is one of the best I’ve ever read. As you read it, you are one of the team members, you’re on patrol, you’re sweating, you’re suffering, you’re exhausted, just like the rest of the team.

Had we not had warriors like J. Stryker “Tilt” Meyer, it’s hard to tell where we would be today. He and his fellow warriors fought against unsurmountable odds and, somehow, managed to prevail in most of them . . . and actually managed to survive.

A Sergeant when he chose to leave the service, he was in line for a battlefield commission to 2nd Lieutenant.
He would have been a great officer.

Mission: RT Idaho (RT = Recon Team), headed up by Sgt. J. Stryker Meyer, was to be inserted by helicopter. They were to then document enemy troop movements, look for phone lines to tap, and to locate any enemy fuel pipelines that were being constructed. They would radio this information to the FAC (Forward Air Controllers) who would relay it to the powers-that-be. If and when they located the telephone lines they would tap into them and that information would be relayed to the CIA who would amplify the signal and decipher military messages; if and when they located the fuel lines, they had sufficient C-4, a plastic explosive, to take out the largest fuel farm. If challenged, they not only carried a heavy load of weapons and ammunition but had the FAC often flying above their AO (Area of Operations). If in deep doo-doo, they could, and often did, call for close air support in the form of propeller driven A1E Skyraiders or F4 Phantom jet fighter/bombers. Many’s the time when the Air Force would save Special Forces bacon.

Mission Obstacles: For several days in a row RT Idaho had been unable to land in their assigned LZ (Landing Zone). It was “hot,” which meant they were on the receiving end of fire and had to abort the mission. Meyer, as team leader, determined that somewhere between the AO and Saigon there was a leak. Someone was feeding the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) and/or VC (Viet Cong) the exact LZ’s and troops were waiting for them.

Meyer improvised, as Special Forces are wont to do, and chose a separate LZ and decided not to tell Saigon until they were on the ground. They would then plead helicopter error or some other excuse.

It worked. And another adventure began:

“RT Idaho was inserted late in the afternoon. We were carrying wiretap equipment and extra C-4 explosives , just in case we ever ran into the NVA fuel lines that we kept hearing about. It was cold at night, the leeches were plentiful, but we were able to move well through the vegetation and established a good RON (Remain Overnight - a secure campsite, easily defended. Usually). The weather closed in during the night, preventing us from working any tac Air (Tactical Air Control) on NVA movement that we heard in the valleys to the west and south of us. In the morning, we moved out of the RON and continued on a general western pattern, zigsagging through the jungle.

Shortly after lunch, Phouc (a South Vietnamese member of the team) was walking point and I was a short distance behind him as we began to angle to our right, around what appeared to be a vegetation-covered plateau that rose 20 to 30 feet above us. All of a sudden, I noticed a Chinese hand grenade flying through the air, thrown from atop that plateau. For a brief millisecond I could see it rotating in the air and my mind flashed back to the old World War II movies where the Germans threw “potato mashers” which looked very similar to the Chinese hand grenade coming at me.

‘Grenade!’ I yelled, which startled Phouc because he didn’t see it tumbling to earth. The grenade landed only a few feet from Phouc, off to his left. I grabbed Phouc’s rucksack and pulled him backward just as the grenade exploded with one thunderous roar. The explosive force knocked us to the ground. I thought, my God, we have no medic! Where’s Walton when I need him?!

As I laid there on the jungle floor I did a quick body-damage assessment in my mind. Fortunately, the only pain I felt was from my CAR-15 jamming into my hip because Phouc was lying on top of me.

I was afraid to look at Phouc. I knew what a US grenade would have done to him and I expected the worst. As I wiggled to get myself free from Phouc’s weight, I also had a terrible rush of guilt. If Phouc died, it meant his body had caught shrapnel destined for me. I thought back to the 7 Octrober 1968 firefight where Phouc killed several NVA who were approaching me from my right, NVA soldiers I never observed because I was so focused on the enemy troops to my front at the time. And now, Phouc had saved my hide again.

Finally, Phouc rolled over on the ground. Instead of blood, there was a grin on his face. Albeit he was stunned from the blast and had had his bell rung, there were no apparent shrapnel wounds to his body. As the remainder of the team maintained security, I helped Phouc stand up, glad that he was alive and amazed that he was shrapnel-free.

In a few minutes there were signal shots in the distance. We simply backtracked for a short distance to get away from that plateau and circled round to a bomb crater, where we set up a defensive perimeter and called for a tactical extraction, as the signal shots began increasing with frequency. We were extracted on strings, (where the helicopters drop a rope to which the team members fasten themselves and then are lifted out of the area) taking only moderate enemy gunfire without any casualties.

photo
Recon Team Idaho on top of Marble Mountain, near Danang. Stryker Meyer top right.

This is but one small episode in the book, “On The Ground.” Mission not accomplished, insertion into enemy territory made, extraction accomplished with no casualties, effectively repelled enemy attack. There were many other episodes, some of which were costly in terms of KIA (Killed in Action) as well as wounded.
In fact, the casualty rates for SOG recon teams were the highest for any unit in Vietnam.

One example: The young, hard-charging One-Zero (Team Leader) of RT Michigan, Sergeant Eldon Bargewell. No one who ever met him doubted his professionalism or determination. He was not only meticulous when preparing his team for a mission, and a fearless leader when on the ground, but he also possessed a biting wit and an absolute intolerance when it came to fools and REMF’s (a derogatory term for rear echelon personnel; ask any military person, they’ll decipher the acronym for you). Fools and REMF’s were a redundancy to his way of thinking.

In March 1969 Bargewell led a mission northwest of the A Shau Valley. Mission: Locate an NVA regimental headquarters and way station, pinpoint the base camp and then call in a Hatchet Force (an operational platoon and/or company) to attack.

An early afternoon insertion was made. The only problem, aside from being attacked by mortar fire during the insertion, was one of the team broke his leg while jumping from the chopper. Bargewell called in a second chopper to evacuate the injured SF soldier. When the second chopper left the mortars fell silent. The NVA believed the entire team had been scared off so they returned to whatever it was they were doing earlier on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

RT Michigan moved out toward what intelligence officers said was the regimental headquarters. After moving only 200 meters, the point man saw an old NVA bunker. To Bargewell’s surprise, intelligence was accurate for a change.

The team crept up the hill and found more empty bunkers, one of which appeared to have maps inside. Bargewell grabbed every piece of paper he could, maps, charts, log books, and assorted documents, stuffing them into his rucksack until it overflowed. It was a veritable gold mine on weapon caches, supply routes, communications sites and encryption codes. It was a Frommer’s Guide to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Where to sleep, where to eat, where to refuel, where to find weapons and replenish munitions. With this information the US military could hurt the NVA, big time.

RT Michigan continued its search. Bargewell found an AK-47 leaning agains a bunker with an NVA AK-47 vest lying nearby. Bargewell, always wanting a war souvenir, put the vest over his head and handed the AK-47 to a Montagnard team member. The NVA vests held three AK-47 banana clip magazines in front vertical pouches.

With his newfound vest, Bargewell took three Montagnard team members and moved slowly up the hill, while two American Green Berets remained behind to set up a defensive perimeter with the rest of the Montagnards.

After moving up the mountain an additonal 40 meters, Bargewell spotted five or six NVA soldiers sitting on a picnic table playing cards. Capturing a live NVA soldier would make this particular mission one for the record books. Bargewell and the three Montagnards crept toward them until they were spotted by one of the NVA soldiers. The M-79 man fired a round above their heads, attempting to wound one and make him a POW, but the shot was too high.

The NVA troops jumped straight up in the air like scalded cats and ran into a nearby bunker. Bargewell followed the NVA into the bunker. The fleeing NVA jumped into a large hole in the wall inside the complex. Just as Bargewell entered it another NVA soldier fired a three-or-four round burst from his AK-47 at the charging SF soldier. One of the rounds hit an AK-47 magazine in the vest Bargewell was wearing. The round’s impact stopped Bargewell in his tracks and knocked him backwards. He thought he was dead. But then he realized he was thinking and if he was thinking he must still be alive, albeit in a great deal of pain.

Contua, one of the Yards, fired an M-79 round into the hall. It gave he and Bargewell the chance to escape and get back to the RT’s secured perimeter.

His team called in the Hatchet Force (Operational Team, as oposed to a Recon Team) to commence the attack. There was, however a delay. During that delay Bargewell returned to the bunker complex, found a map of the entire trail system within that portion of the Ho Chi Minh trail. As RT Michigan searched deeper into the bunker they found tons of equipment, weapons, munitions, maps, surveying equipment, medical kits and vast caches of supplies. Everyone on the team was given something to carry back to the LZ and to the CCN. (Landing Zone and the Command and Control North). As the team headed back to their LZ they came in contact with a NVA caretaker force but they made quick work of them.

photo
Sergeant Eldon Bargewell, wearing the NVA vest he captured, which saved his life when shot in the chest by an NVA soldier

They were, after all, REMF’s. (Ask any military man. The enemy had ‘em too).

Upon returning to the CCN, (Command and Control, North) Bargewell made his way to the hootch he had been sharing for the past three months with RT Virginia team member Doug LeTourneau. He told about the NVA vest, and how he had been shot square in the chest and survived. He removed one of the AK-47 magazines. Sure enough, it had a bullet hole in it and when he gently shook the magazine the bullet fell onto his bed.

They both stared at the bullet and LeTourneau said, “Bargewell, you’re one lucky SOB!”

Not only was he lucky but he was a damned good soldier. How good? Remember, he was a Sergeant when this incident took place. In July 2006 Eldon Bargewell retired from the Army as a Major General.

There’s a good chance J. Stryker “Tilt” Meyer might well have had a similar rise in rank had he chosen to stay in Special Forces. But, thanks to an overbearing, egotistical, award-driven Commanding Officer that had been assigned to Special Forces, Meyer opted to take an early out. This CO had gotten other men killed with his ill-thought out, ill-planned orders . . . and he almost had gotten Meyer killed.

Sadly, this outrageous CO was a West Point graduate. He was a disgrace to West Point. The Army eventually found out he was not a good officer and he was cashiered out of the service. He has since passed on. It is doubtful that any but his immediate family mourn his passing. There are many, many other exciting stories in this book. I intentionally have not told them to you as I don’t want to ruin the book for you. And I want you to buy the book. (I think it would please Tilt Meyer as well). Meyer was, and is, an outstanding warrior. A man who has proven his worth time and time again, a man who has gone to war for his country. It is our good fortune that he was able to survive. (Naturally, I rather believe Tilt Meyer is pleased about that as well).

photo photo
The same, Eldon Bargewell; but this time, he’s a Major General. Bargewell retired in 2006 Sgt. John S. Meyer, 2nd from left, and fellow team members. Shot is of team in Ho Nguc Tao outside of Saigon at FOB 6 in Nov. '68

 

Glossary

A-1E Skyraider - Code name, Sandy. A Douglas-manufactured propeller-driven, single-reciprocal engine, land or carrier-based aircraft capable of carrying heavy bomb loads with long loiter time over a target.

AO - Area of Operations.

AK-47 - 7.62 mm assault rifle ued by NVA forces.

CAR-15 - The Colt submachine gun, the preferred weapon of choice among SOG Spike Team and Hatchet Force men which had a shorter barrel than the M-16 and a collapsible stock.

Claymore mine - a deadly, plastic anti-personnel mine that contained 450-550 steel ball bearings encased in C-5 plastic explosive. Could be detonated by firing cord or time fuse which sent out a swath of ball bearings that could cut down small trees.

CCN
- Command and Control North - SOG base north of Marble Mountain in Da Nang.
Glossary - Continued

FOB - Forward Operating Base.

LZ - Landing Zone. A clear area of jungle large enough for a helicopter to land and deposit or pick up SOG troops.

 

 

 

 

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