By Gary O’Neal and David Fisher
There were no other units in Vietnam like the LRRPs. In fact, you probably had to go back to the American Revolution and the Civil War to find small units fighting a guerrilla war in enemy territory. The big problem was that when we went into Vietnam we were not prepared to fight a guerrilla war. We were still training troops to fight big, static battles like in World War II and Korea. I believe that if we’d turned the combat responsibility over early to Special Forces–type units and kept the big army out of the fight, the outcome might have been completely different. A big if.
There were some people who figured out right away that to fight this enemy we needed to put small, highly mobile reaction forces on the ground. After the Herd first got there in 1965 Commanding General Ellis W. Williamson realized “small units could get out and get information much better than large search-and-destroy type operations.” He called them Delta Teams. Colonel David Hackworth of the 327th Airborne Infantry’s 1st Battalion helped organize two volunteer platoons that they called Tiger Forces. One of Hackworth’s subordinates called his recon teams Hatchet Teams and gave them hatchets to carry. There’s a story that after they used those hatchets to cut off some enemy heads and ears, the army made them drop that name, which is when they first got called LRRPs.
General William Westmoreland made them official in 1966 by ordering “that a comprehensive Long Range Patrol program” be developed in South Vietnam, which he defined as “a specially trained unit organized and equipped for the special purpose of functioning as an information gathering agency responsive to the intelligence requirements of the tactical commander. These patrols consist of specially trained personnel capable of performing reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition within the dispatching unit’s area of interest.” Like I said, track ’em, find ’em, and kill ’em.
There were only thirteen independently operating LRRP units in the whole country. There was no central command and control structure; we were only responsible to whatever command issued our orders. The army never figured out where we properly belonged. The fact that we didn’t fit anywhere made some people in the higher echelon a little anxious. We were sort of like rogue units operating outside of normal accountability. We were taking elite personnel out of their units, and very few knew exactly what we were doing.
When I showed up at Charlie Rangers, one of the first people I met was David Dolby, who was already a legend and a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient. He had just come out of the field with his six-man Double Deuce team and asked me who I was and what I was doing there. I was coming to join Charlie Company, I told him. Pappy Wells had sent me up. My orders hadn’t been cut yet, but I’d come on up to look around. “Okay,” he said. “If this is where you want to be, come with me tomorrow.”
I went on two missions with him. David Dolby was an amazing soldier. In demeanor and attitude he was a lot like Pappy. We snuck in and looked at the enemy. We were too far from support to initiate action, so instead we sent back intel, then delivered armored rain upon their heads. I went back to the 173rd and got my orders, and by the time I got back to Charlie Rangers, David had moved to November Company, 173rd. He’d left a spot for me on his Double Deuce team, though.
E Company was based out of An Khe and Pleiku, but we went wherever Special Forces needed us. This was where I finally found the opportunity to put all my knowledge and all my ability to good use. While officially I was assigned to Double Deuce, the truth was Charlie Rangers was pretty informal, so I’d go out with any team that needed me.
These guys were hardcore. This wasn’t run anything at all like the regular army. There was basically only one rule, do whatever you had to do to survive. Most of the time there was nobody looking over our shoulders, nobody telling us what to do or how to do it, no one giving us any bullshit about uniforms or military procedure. We lived for the mission, and when we lived through that one, we got ready for the next one. It was as a LRRP that I truly learned how to walk the path of the warrior. The more time I spent in the field, the more time any of us spent in the field, the farther away we got from any type of normal behavior. To survive out there in the jungle, fighting an enemy who understood the environment, we went native.
It’s a story that hasn’t been told very well. There were generally six people on a team, but at times I went out with as few as three people, and other times missions were “heavy,” meaning that more than one team was assigned to them. A recon team was made up of a team leader, the assistant team leader, an RTO—radiotelephone operator—the assistant RTO, a scout, and slack, or rear security. Walking point and rear security were very much the same, but rear security burned up a lot more energy because he was walking backward controlling the area behind the team, while also making sure the team left no evidence of its presence—no footprints, no tall grass pushed over, no litter on the ground. A lot of our Kit Carson scouts, which is what we called them, were Vietnamese. At times they were even Chieu Hois, NVA soldiers who had defected or gotten captured and turned. They had to keep their identities completely secret because some of them had family up in the North who could have been punished for them working with us. It wasn’t easy to put our lives in the hands of these people; they had to prove themselves before anybody’d risk going out with them. Naturally it reminded me of the Native American scouts who had worked with the cavalry. The Chieu Hois proved to be extremely loyal people, who were exceptional at their jobs.
I learned more about survival and operating in enemy territory from the indigs than I did by listening to our people. For almost two years I worked with a Kit Carson scout who had been sent down from the North by the NVA as part of a large group assigned to infiltrate into the South and assassinate the president of South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese were holding his family hostage. By the time his team got down to Saigon there were only four of them left, and all of them got captured. The North Vietnamese figured they were all dead.
I was really cautious with him when he first got assigned to my team, but eventually I understood that he was on a vendetta, he wanted revenge. He was a committed warrior. He taught me how to track. We would alternate at point and slack and I learned a lot from him.
We were always together. On one mission my five-man team got discovered, and they were in heavy pursuit of us for two days; a company or better was chasing us, and we were getting in and out of firefights trying to evade them long enough to get to an exfil point and get flown out of there. Finally, late on the second day of this shit, they had us pinned down. We were in another good firefight, and they were trying get around our flank. Bullets were flying everywhere. Admittedly, it was not a good situation. I always wanted to stay and fight, but there were times when our best possible strategy was simply to run like hell. The problem for us was that the people trying to kill us were between us and the next scheduled pickup location.
By this time my scout was speaking decent English, and he knew how I felt about all this. He had taken on my attitude, and I had learned his skills. So in the middle of this fight he looked at me and smiled and said, “I’m tired, Big O. Fuck these sons of a bitches, let’s go kill them all.” Then that little fucker stood up and charged these guys. I couldn’t believe it, it was just like in the John Wayne movies. I watched him in awe for a few seconds, and then I thought, Fuck it, man, if we’re gonna die let’s at least take as many of them as we can with us. So I stood up and bolted right after him, and the rest of the team was right with me. We charged into their line, screaming and yelling and firing everything we had like we were crazy. I guess we were. We were throwing grenades, causing an unbelievable ruckus. I guess we shocked them, because we broke through their line, and then we kept humping. We didn’t stop for hours. During those two days every one of us got hit by some shrapnel and had some flesh wounds, but incredibly nobody got seriously hurt.
Him telling me “Let’s go kill them all” and charging was the most courageous thing I saw in Vietnam. There are people who know me who describe me as “that crazy fucker who charged right into the NVA line,” and I tell them that wasn’t me, he was the one I was following. I tried to put him in for a medal, but our company commander didn’t like handing out medals, mostly because he was never in combat so he couldn’t get one, and he especially didn’t like awarding medals to the Vietnamese.
I lost track of this scout when I left Vietnam. It was hard to keep up with these people because we knew them mostly by their nicknames; they were defectors, so they didn’t want anybody knowing their real names. The last I heard he had been captured by the NVA, but I wasn’t sure that was true. If he was captured they probably killed him. Anyway, I never saw him again.
Our jobs on the team were determined by our skills. Rank had no meaning at all in the LRRPs. Although most of our people were E-5s, E-6s, and above, nobody wore any rank and nobody cared. Most of the time I was there, for example, people just assumed I was an NCO because I was an assistant team leader and then a team leader, but in fact I was just a PFC. That didn’t matter to anybody as long as I could keep them alive. When my lieutenant found that out, he immediately put me in for corporal, and I finally made E-5, but most of the time I was there I was a private.
While each person had his own responsibility, we also had to have all the necessary team skills, ranging from using the radio to stopping bleeding. Each member of the team was capable of using almost every type of weapon that we might come across, reading map coordinates, killing silently, or gathering intelligence. A team trained together so it could operate efficiently in the bush. When I was on point, for example, my eyes were continually sweeping the area in front of me, and wherever I was looking my weapon was pointing.
Each member of the team operated off me. If I stopped and swung my weapon to my right, the individual behind me would immediately swing his weapon to cover our left, and so on down the line. We were better trained to work together than the Rockettes, and a lot more deadly, too.
When replacements joined the team, we had to take time training with them before we would take them out on a mission. We were only as safe as our weakest member. I remember when Mike Echanis joined my team. Mike was a martial arts expert, and eventually we would live and work and almost die together in Nicaragua. Mike was my friend. He was one of the toughest men I have ever known and a black sash in Hwa Rang Do. Mike also was his own man who wanted to prove himself. On the first recon mission we took him out on, we got into contact with a superior enemy force. The NVA strategy was to occupy your attention from the front and attempt to flank you so you would be surrounded. That meant when we were in a firefight with a superior force we had to keep moving. If we stayed in one position too long, eventually they were going to surround us. So during this firefight I decided it was time to break contact and high-tail it to our exfil point, but Mike decided to stay there and fight them. Mike was always wanting to try out his hand-to-hand Hong Kong Fooey, to see if his kicks and punches worked, so he starts going at it with this NVA. I looked at him and thought, Are you shitting me? So I just shot the fucker and told Mike, “Come on, Mike, let’s get the fuck out of here. We got to go, amigo.” He didn’t want to leave. We had to go back and get him, which put the whole team in jeopardy. When we got back in the rear I fired his ass off my team; we couldn’t allow one person to function independently. Instead he got put on convoy security, and as his convoy was going through the An Khe Pass sometime in 1970, they were ambushed. Mike got his leg shot up bad and lost the use of his foot, although he managed to overcome that. I liked Mike, liked him a lot, but when he showed that he couldn’t be part of a team there was no place for him. He was in country for less than a month before he was wounded.
A LRRP wasn’t much more than a walking arsenal. We carried everything we needed to survive and fight for four or five days on our back. When we saddled up, the least we would carry was an M-16 or other weapon, two claymore mines, thirty or more magazines, smoke grenades, frags, willy peters, maps, canteens, a compass, a first aid kit, two knives, and C rations. I carried my medicine bag hanging around my neck. In it I had my eagle feather and some other things that mattered. I also had a survival kit where I kept my extra compass, a second pistol, a signaling mirror, a fire starter, a strobe light, and a little beacon radio, the stuff I would need for E&E, escape and evasion. Everything was attached to web belts, taped down and tied down so six men could move through jungle, elephant grass, or rice paddies without making a sound or leaving a trace. As long as we were in the field, day or night, our equipment was never more than a foot or two away from us.
That was pretty much standard, but we all modified our personal equipment. In addition to the M-16, we carried all different types of weapons. A lot of point men carried a sawed-off M-79, which fired 40 × 46 mm grenades—thumpers, we called them—as a secondary weapon. This was a real valuable weapon. If we walked out of the brush smack into an enemy patrol, for example, one blast would take a whole fucking head right off. That thumper made a loud and violent statement and it bought us the time we needed to switch to regular firepower. It also was a useful weapon when we had to blast open a door in one of their camps and we weren’t sure what was behind it. When it fired it sounded just like a 60 mm mortar, whomp, whomp, which made the enemy believe we had to be part of a bigger unit, a weapons platoon or even a company, because no six-man team could hump a mortar. That gave us time to maneuver while they were thinking about it. We found a lot of different uses for it.
When possible we preferred to carry Russian-made AK- 47s that we captured from the NVA. An AK was more reliable than an M-16 in that climate; it was more durable and easier to keep clean, and even when it got dirty with sand and water it was still operative. The M-16 jammed too easily. Another problem with the M-16 was that it was such a high-velocity weapon that if a round hit a twig or something it could ricochet. I’ve seen people hit in their upper body with an M-16 round that traveled all the way through, bouncing off bones, yet there were times it wouldn’t penetrate a target. An AK round was much more effective at busting through jungle growth, and we had plenty of captured ammunition.
Basically any weapon we could take off an NVA was valued. Not only were they good weapons, the sound they made was distinctive, so we could fire them without alarming the enemy. When we were going into an area where my sixth sense told me to be ready for some heavy contact, for example, I carried a cut-down M-60, a machine gun. “The pig,” I called it, and my team referred to me as “the pig man.” Normally that thing was too heavy to carry through brush for several days, but I cut away everything except what it needed to fire. I cut off the stock and replaced it with a homemade stock that held the buffer spring in, I took the guards off it and cut the barrel down. I took off the muzzle suppressors. I even designed a different trigger mechanism for it. Then I cut down an ammo bar I’d taken off one of our gunships and rigged it so my rucksack fit on it. I had a feed tray coming out of my rucksack underneath my arm right into the M-60. I loaded 1,500 rounds in the rucksack, so I could feed the pig straight out of that rucksack. Generally our whole pack weighed as much as 100 pounds, but even cut down, that pig weighed at least 25 pounds, not even counting the feed tray and ammo. It was a load.
As far as I knew there wasn’t another weapon like that in the whole country. That motherfucker roared when I fired it, and flames shot at least 15 feet past the muzzle in a spectacular fireball. The NVA never knew what it was. They had never seen or heard a weapons system like that. It sounded something like a fast-firing .50 caliber. That thing created confusion on the battlefield, which was what we wanted to do. Normally one out of every six rounds is a tracer, but I loaded it special so that my first five hundred rounds were all tracers, so all of a sudden they’d see solid tracers coming at them and wouldn’t have any idea who was firing what; they couldn’t figure out how many people were out there. Let them think there was a whole weapons company firing at them.
That pig could make a big difference. One time we were not more than 300 yards from our landing zone when we got hit. We’d gotten off the bird and faded into the woods; we were waiting there for our senses to get up, to get the noise of the slick’s engines out of our heads so we could hear the small sounds when we got in contact. Most of the firing was coming from in front, but then they began flanking us. We didn’t know how many of them there were, but we always operated with the belief that there were more of them than of us. We formed our defensive semicircle; I was right in the center. When my team was delivering suppressing fire I stayed hunched down on my knees, but as soon as they started changing magazines I rose up and start spinning in a circle, continuously firing the M-60 right over their heads. You could see the rounds going through the barrel; hot brass was flying out of my rucksack. Flames were spitting out of that gun like it was a big flamethrower. I didn’t see who I was shooting at. I was just spinning, spinning, firing continuously. Suddenly I heard my assistant team leader Steve Byer and Hardcore Kelly hollering at me, “Stop firing! Stop firing! You’re catching us on fire!” We were bunched so tightly that my rounds were hitting them on the back of the neck and the flames from the weapon were heating up their rucksacks. After that they began calling me “the mad 60-man.” We scared the shit out of those people—and my own team wasn’t so comfortable either.
I depended on my knife, especially with the type of missions we were running in Vietnam and later when I was in Nicaragua. I always carried three knives with me. I had my little Randall knife, which was a really good handmade knife used by Special Forces. When I first got into the LRRPs I really wanted one, so I sent that company a letter asking how much it cost, and they sent one back to me. I also had a British Fairbairn knife, which was like an 8-to-10-inch long dagger sharpened on both sides, and a razor-sharp penknife I carried in my survival kit. I used the penknife like a scalpel if I had to cut something out. When I was in camp I was always sharpening my knives; they had a job to do.
I became an expert at the silent kill. Eventually I taught sentry stalking and silent killing at different schools for elite troops, but the first time I killed a man with a knife I almost sliced through my own arm. We was operating out of Pleiku, and an SF guy was teaching me how to kill a man with a knife. Practicing to kill a man hand-to-hand doesn’t have too much relationship to the reality. When you’re learning the technique, the one thing you know is nobody is supposed to get hurt. Somewhere in the back of your mind you wonder if you’re capable of doing it for real. You never know until you know.
We’d discovered an NVA training base camp in an area known as the Fishhook, between Pleinong and Plebring where Vietnam borders Laos and Cambodia. It was real thick jungle. We was trying to get as close as possible to gather intelligence, like how many people were in there. Then we intended to pull back and call in air support. We were still outside their security perimeter when I walked up behind this sentry. When I saw him for the first time he was no more than 5 feet from me, facing away. I must have made a little sound, because he started to turn. I knew that if he kept turning he was going to see me and raise the alert. I didn’t think, I responded to the situation. Like I’d been taught I threw my left arm around his neck, covering his mouth and his nose with my hand so he couldn’t breathe or scream a warning, then with my right hand I stabbed him right through his neck with that Fairbairn knife. It surprised me a little how easily that blade cut right through his flesh and bone. What I did not realize, what nobody warned me about, was that the Fairburn blade was so long it would go completely through his neck and right into my arm. It ripped into my muscle and bone a couple of inches. I was stuck with this dead body hanging from the knife. He only struggled a little bit, but as I spun around and pulled out the knife I took him to the ground. I didn’t have the slightest doubt or hesitation about cutting his throat, and I had no bad feelings about it either. Mostly I was just pissed at myself for putting that blade into my arm. It was an important lesson.
After I stabbed myself taking out that sentry, I knew I needed a special knife for the silent kill. The Fairbairn had three problems. Number one, it was too long; two, it was a dagger, made for stabbing; and three, for this work I needed a knife that would let me slit the throat, then come around and cut the spinal cord. I invented that knife in a dream. I saw it in my dream and I made it. I had learned blacksmithing and fabrication from my dad, so I could make pretty much anything I needed to. Basically, this knife looked like an Alaskan whaling knife. It wasn’t much of a sticking knife, but it was an excellent sweeping and cutting knife. The handle was shaped something like a whale; the blade was sharp on one side, and as it came to a point it was sharpened on the other side. I made it out of a fl at leaf spring that probably came off a deuce-and-a-half trailer. I cut a long piece of metal, curving it gently, sort of like the curve of a banana. When I used it I would yank back the sentry’s head, reach across his neck and dig it in, then bring it back toward me, cutting his spine as I did. It was perfect for sentry removal. It was designed for one purpose only, to cut throats. It remains a beautiful weapon.
We basically created our own uniforms, dressing to fit the mission. We’d dyed our fatigues black or brown, so that when they were done the camouflage was visible but it was much darker than usual. We’d change our camouflage depending on the terrain we were going to be operating in. Sometimes we’d even change when we crossed from one area to another, from open areas to the jungle, to fit into the environment. If we were going into an area infested with VC, we’d definitely wear clothing that looked black at night or from a distance, which is what they wore, because if they saw us that split second spent trying to figure out who we were could give us an advantage. We’d cover all our exposed skin with camo. We never wore helmets. Helmets were too cumbersome and too noisy when we were moving through vines and heavy growth. Instead we wore floppy hats or just headbands to keep the sweat out of our eyes. Those headbands became important; some people had just one that they wore for a year or more, until it wasn’t much more than a torn-up piece of material. We wore all different types of footwear, again depending on the mission and the terrain. Sometimes I wore boots, sometimes Ho Chi Minh sandals, which were cut out of rubber tires, and sometimes elk moccasins that my grandmother sent me. What we did with our boots was mold smaller footprint impressions on the soles, so anybody tracking us couldn’t be sure whether we were Americans or Vietnamese.
I also had my bones, buffalo bones, which I wore in my ear, my war necklace, and my war shirt. I had the totems of war that a lot of us collected and didn’t talk about, too, but that came later.
The LRRPs got assigned just about every type of mission you can imagine. We were the people who went into enemy territory and did whatever had to be done. Personally, I don’t have any idea how many missions I went on, but I was in the field more than I was back in camp. While usually we were each assigned to one team, I would go out with all of them. I kept three rucksacks packed all the time. While I was out Steve Byer, my assistant team leader and a good country boy from Utah, would prepare my rucksack for the next mission.
I didn’t like sitting around in camp waiting several days to go. There were always these little Barbie details that had to be done, and I didn’t want any part of that. I earned a reputation as being a really good tracker, so teams wanted me to be with them in the field because they knew I was going to find the enemy. I had my recon map of all the terrains and the ridges, and I studied it, I analyzed it. I would go over it and over it. In my mind it was a topographical map; by looking at it I could see the hilltops, I could see the streams. I would know where a human could go in and how he would move.
At night, when I closed my eyes I would visualize where we would find him, where I would be if I was him. I would see in my mind where we would walk. In my dreams I projected myself as one of them, and there were times when we went out on a mission that I knew I had been there before. I had walked that trail, and I would know that down this trail the bad guys were waiting. It took me some time to trust these visions. They weren’t like the visions I’d had as a child, staring into a fire, where the elders would come and teach me. These were different; I couldn’t grab hold of them. Sometimes I didn’t consciously remember them until I was walking the path.
I wasn’t that little kid who’d peed his pants in that first firefight, I was a seasoned troop. A proven warrior. I thrived off the mission.
Excerpted from American Warrior: The True Story of a Legendary Ranger by Gary O’Neal with David Fisher.
Copyright © 2013 by Gary O’Neal with David Fisher.
Reprinted with permission from Thomas Dunne Books.
GARY O’NEAL trained from childhood in the warrior traditions of the Oglala Sioux and devoted nearly forty years with the U.S. Army Rangers and Special Forces. He is the author, with David Fisher, of American Warrior: The True Story of a Legendary Ranger.
DAVID FISHER is the author of more than fifty books, including Basic: Surviving Boot Camp and Basic Training, with Col. Jack Jacobs (Ret.), and American Warrior: The True Story of a Legendary Ranger with Chief Warrant Officer Gary O’Neal (Ret.).