Lam Son 719: My Trip to the Shooting War

The spring 1971 air-mobile assault along the Laotian border was the last major offensive of the Vietnam War for US and South Vietnamese troops. Thanks to a sloppy mistake on my part, I wound up face to face— far too up close and personal—with this shooting war.

SOUTH VIETNAMESE ARMY: A push into Laos in the late days of the American War.
BELOW THE DMZ: The road to Laos from Quang Tri to Tchepone along Route 9.

As the rainy season waned in Vietnam soon after the new year in 1971, I had the good fortune of working a cushy job on the Chu Lai base that kept me off of field assignments. My gig as night-shift editor of the Americal Division News Sheet, a daily, typewritten newsletter often referred to as the “Ameri-kill sheet,” couldn’t have been simpler. So long as I didn’t dwell on what I was writing. It would take real jerk to screw it up, which wasn’t beyond my ken.

THE AMERI-KILL SHEET: Reporting enemy casualties only.

My duties began each evening when the rest of the Public Information (PIO) staff was ready to quit for the day.  Alone in the office, I’d take phone calls from the division’s field forces scattered at remote firebases and landing zones in the two provinces where my division operated. These reports would be any activity—how many caches of weapons or rice they seized, how many bad guys they killed, captured, or suspected they wounded—but never any mention of friendly casualties.  I was reporting only the “good news” of the war.  

I’d bang out a series of short blurbs on mimeograph stencil-paper, run off about 1,000 copies, jump in the office jeep and speed around to all the base mess halls and our two hospitals, dropping off bulk copies for all to read at breakfast. Most times, I was done before midnight. And that is how my problem ensued.

THE MIMEO MACHINE: A printing press by any other name.

The Hog Farm bar was nearby and humming with activity about the time I completed my appointed rounds. I would often stop by. My Donut Dolly friend Michele M. was an occasional visitor to the Hog Farm. One particular particular evening in March, she asked for a ride in my jeep up the hill to the mobile-home quarters where she lived.

I was invited in and after just a few minutes, her telephone rang. Yup, the Donut Dollies lived a life of relative luxury, compared to us GIs: air conditioning, a full kitchen, a real private bathroom and shower, and a land line phone in their trailer.  That night, it was the call coming in past midnight on that land line phone that was most significant. 

Michelle answered the phone and before I could wave her off, I heard her say: ”Oh yes. He’s here; hold on.” With dread, I took the receiver and heard my commanding officer tell me to report to his office first thing in the morning. 

Major Robert D. Bailey had the ass for me since he arrived at our office less than two months earlier. Mostly, he was hostile to my being “short.” I was gleeful to have less than 3-months left on my tour, which is anathema to a career soldier—aka a lifer—like Bailey. The Major was an aviation guy, on temporary assignment as the CO of our office, which didn’t much please him either. And for sure, my hanging out with Donut Dollies must have irked him; fraternizing with the opposite sex was a perk the brass thought exclusively theirs. 

Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, I suffered the brunt of his frustrations. Technically, I was  AWOL (Absent from my post Without Official Leave). I didn’t get busted in rank, but the major fined me, and twisted the knife with a more sinister punishment to boot: I was to leave for a field assignment to the DMZ and other points north near the Laotian border where the vestiges of the American ground war in Vietnam were at full tilt boogie.  My jammy night job in the rear was kaput; my well-honed routine of ghosting and covering orphanage parties and battalion promotions and intra-divisional basketball tournaments, was history. With less than 100 days left before heading home, I was on my way to the shooting: Operation Lam Son 719, the last major battle for US forces in the Vietnam War.

HO CHI MINH TRAIL: A rustic highway of jungle roads, mountain footpaths that spiderwebbed into South Vietnam.

My assignment was to bring back stories of our division’s support of the South Vietnamese Army’s desperate push to cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the lifeline of manpower, equipment and supplies for the NVA and Vietcong.  The trail was a rugged jungle network of roads and footpaths, rivers and streams, that ran for hundreds of miles from North Vietnam, along the mountain range that joined Vietnam with Laos and Cambodia, and spiderwebbed into South Vietnam at numerous points along the way. It was the rustic highway by which the enemy and its equipment infiltrated South Vietnam, on foot, by bicycle, by truck—despite some of the most intense B-52 bombing campaigns in the history of warfare. At some point, bombs dropped on the Ho Chi Minh Trail on average every seven minutes. And still, the trail was continually rebuilt and the movement of men and supplies persisted.

Lam Son 719 was purportedly an operation of the South Vietnamese Army. However, US ground forces and helicopter units from our division and others, had been moving north for weeks as support for this mission. To get near the Laotian border, I and three of my fellow PIO colleagues—two other reporters and a photographer—finagled a ride on a Hercules C-130 cargo plane. No reservations, no seating assignments—heck, no seats! Pretty much an airborne hitchhiking process to travel around the country. If there was room, you got aboard. If anyone asked you for travel papers, you’d better have them in triplicate. But that rarely occurred.  

We arrived at Dong Ha, in Quang Tri province, situated on the intersection of the main north-south Route 1, and the critical Route 9, which ran west—parallel and just below the DMZ—into Laos. Dong Ha was the site of a fierce battle in 1968, along with the siege of Khe Sanh, the so-called “rockpile” US Marine base that was also to be reopened as part of Lam Son 719. After scrounging for some vacant bunks and boxed field rations for dinner, my little troupe of field reporters climbed atop a metal Conex shipping container and proceeded to get very very high. Passing around a joint, we oohed and ahhed watching a machine-gun firefight in the distance. We couldn’t hear the guns, but we were mesmerized by the sight of their competing tracer bullets arcing through the purple nighttime sky. Ours were red. The enemy’s were green. We did, however, feel the rumbling vibrations and see the distant flashes of B-52 bomb strikes at the border. The next morning we’d be in the thick of that war.

THE HUEY SLICK: Emblematic workhorse of the Vietnam air war.

The next day, I flew a Pink Team hunt and kill mission with the Blue Ghosts, one of the aviation units from my Americal Division. Pink Team operations involved four helicopters.  The one I few in was the command vehicle: the ubiquitous Vietnam workhorse of the air: the UH-1 “Huey.” This is the helicopter which everyone’s seen and is virtually emblematic of the Vietnam War. The other aircraft on this mission were less well known. A pair of sleek Cobra gunships provided the muscle. These narrow bodied aerodynamic attack choppers were designed to fly fast and hit hard with grenade launchers, rockets and mini-guns able to fire 6,000 rounds per minute. They carried a crew of two, a pilot and co-pilot who sat in tandem. No room or need for anyone else onboard these killing machines.

KILLING MACHINE: Cobra gunships carried only two personnel, and plenty of armament.

The most interesting and most controversial chopper on the Pink Team was called a “Loach,”—a bastardization of its official designation: Low Observation Helicopter. The Loach was the “smart car” of rotary winged aircraft. It had a bubble-windowed cockpit in which a pilot and passenger sat like fish in a goldfish bowl. No fuselage to speak of, a skinny support rail extending to the rear rotor.  It sounded like a buzzing insect and it flew like one too—low to the ground, into tight spaces, with quick agile movements. This was Little Bird.

LITTLE BIRD: The Loach flew at treetop level, daring the enemy to fire upon it.

Little Bird’s job was to fly at treetop level, looking for enemy activity. It was bait, dangerously daring to be fired upon. The Cobras were poised high up and out of sight, but ready to swoop on station and annihilate a target as soon as the Loach drew fire and marked the location with a colored smoke grenade. Once the Cobra strike was done, “Big Bird”—the command post Huey—would insert a squad or more of infantrymen to sweep the area for casualties and enemy remains. All in a day’s hunt-and-kill work.

My mission began uneventfully. I was enjoying what passed for a cool breeze at nearly 9,000 feet, high above the jungle heat and the powder-fine red laterite dust that coated everything on Route 9 below. Warrant Officer Randy Palmer, a restless 20-something pilot, played State Trooper traffic cop for lack of any other action. Spotting a disabled truck clogging the vital roadway below, he called in a tow vehicle to keep men and material moving along towards the Laotian border. Below us, Little Bird buzzed at treetop level, scouting for enemy activity, but had no takers.  Then WO Palmer’s Fox-Mike (FM) radio came to life with a Mayday. 

A US patrol ran into an enemy ambush and a wounded infantryman needed urgent medical attention. The hospital chopper was refueling and still a number of minutes out. WO Palmer radioed back that he was close by and went in for the dust off. Dropping rapidly towards the canopied jungle with no suitable landing zone in sight, Palmer made his own. His overhead blades whirled the tall elephant grass into submission as his two door gunners laid down suppression fire, their deafening 50-caliber machine guns sweeping 180 degrees on full automatic out both sides of the aircraft.

As we approached, four scruffy stretcher-bearing soldiers emerged phantasmagorically from the tree line. I’d never seen our soldiers quite this way: fatigue pants cut off at the knees. Hair and beards as long and unkempt as Robinson Crusoe. Bare-chested with their taped dog-tags swinging around their neck in time with their hustle to the chopper. The Huey never even touched ground as the the stretcher was shoved through its open door, onto the deck. With an all clear thumbs up, PO Palmer pulled back on the stick to arc his aircraft up and around. I was motionless and speechless as I stared at the face-down body that lay right at my feet.  A US solider with a hole the size of a grapefruit in his back. He wasn’t bleeding, he wasn’t moving. He wasn’t breathing. He was just there. Torn apart.

It took us 10 minutes to reach the 18th Surgical Hospital at Quang Tri where emergency  medical personnel awaited us on the tarmac.  They slid the unknown soldier off the chopper deck as quickly and as stoically as the grunts who deposited him there. No words were exchanged. WO Palmer lifted off again, radioed Little Bird that we were returning to station, and we continued the mission over Route 9 until the scorching sun retreated behind the Annamite mountains of the Laotian border.  

The Lam Son 719 operation proved to be a disaster for the South Vietnamese and US forces. Despite attacking the Ho Chi Minh trail with armored tanks, close in bombing, heavy rockets and artillery, a larger NVA force, willing to sustain many more casualties, mounted a successful counterattack. In a matter of two months, South Vietnamese troops were routed, retreating indecorously, literally dangling by their fingertips from the skids of US helicopters.

INDECOROUS RETREAT: Routed in Laos, the South Vietnamese army was clearly not a match for the NVA without full US support.

Lam Son 719 has been described as the largest largest airmobile operation in the history of warfare. It may have been fiercest firepower US helicopters ever faced. 700 aircraft were destroyed, 66 chopper pilots and crew killed.  It showed how ill prepared South Vietnam’s army was to take over the war, and it resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and injuries in the twilight of a hopeless conflict. In no time at all, following the end of Lam Son 719, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was humming along as good or better than ever.

My trip North was memorable and dangerous. I flew with some amazingly brave and dedicated young men, witnessed some gruesome skirmishes, and survived to tell the tales. Most of the stories I generated from Operation Lam Son 719 were embargoed until after the operation was over.  Some did not get published until after I left Vietnam in early June. A few never made it to print at all.

“Until last week, people getting killed was merely a number and a story I read in the newspaper,” I wrote to Natalie when I returned to Chu Lai after my week at the DMZ. “But now I have seen young soldiers—my peers—die before my eyes. I am still horrified at its senseless, irreversible consequences. I hope when I come home I can forget about this war forever.”

But, of course, that was impossible.