by T.J. McGinley
Tiger Force Recon
1/327/101st Abn. Div.
When the United States first started sending significant numbers of troops to Vietnam, we were using WWII tactics. This didn’t work because the North Vietnamese responded with guerrilla warfare, and it soon became clear that superior firepower and company-sized units were ineffective. A unit of 180 men moving through the jungle could be heard for miles giving the enemy time to react to our presence.
Late in 1965, a young and highly decorated Lt. Col. in the 101st Airborne Division, David Hackworth convinced his superiors we would have a greater success rate using smaller, well-armed, camouflaged units, that could move quietly through the jungle. The first of these small units were created from hand-picked, experienced volunteers from the First Brigade of the 101st. They became known as Tiger Force.
I was a point man for C Company, 1/327, 101st Airborne Division, a line company with around 120 men. During the month of May 1968, we were operating in an area west of Hue know as Ruong-Ruong Valley. During a daily patrol, we discovered something that illustrated how determined our enemy really was. We walked into a natural cathedral fashioned by an eighty-foot canopy, covering a 300-yard diameter clearing, and surrounded on three sides by a river. In the center of this cathedral, covered in foliage to camouflage it from the air sat one of the largest caches of enemy weapons ever found during the Vietnam War–five Chinese 85- Howitzers, several crew-serviced anti-aircraft guns, hundreds of rifles, mortars, anti-tank weapons and in the surrounding jungle, 58 Russian trucks full of equipment. Looking at a topographical map we could trace the route the enemy used to transport the weapons from Laos, through the A-Shau Valley and into the Rong-Rong where we found them.
Under normal circumstances we never stayed in one location longer then one night but with all this enemy weaponry to protect we were told to do something I had never done before — dig in.
I wasn’t much of a believer in fox holes, I preferred the idea of silence and camouflage over digging a hole, my excavation was six feet long, four feet wide, and two feet deep. I felt now that they know exactly where I am, this hole, regardless of how deep I could dig it, would do me no good.
On our second day at this site, we heard that a friendly unit would penetrate the perimeter at our sector. From out of the jungle came the most impressive unit of soldiers I had seen to date, Tiger Force. Clad in French camouflage fatigues, carrying sawed off shotguns and AK47s, and not one man wore a helmet, these men had a look of people who meant business. I had waked point long enough to know that a helmet was a decrement to one’s ability to hear, I never wore one. They camped with us that night and their quiet confidence and obvious field experience drew me like a magnet. I knew at that moment, that if I were going to spend the next several months in the jungle, I wanted to be with people who knew what they were doing and this unit of about thirty men had that effect on me.
In the morning I discovered that Tiger Force had vanished silently into the jungle while we slept.
C, Company stayed at the sight until all the weapons had been either removed or destroyed. Afterwards we continued our mission and headed west toward Laos. When we reached the boarder we turned north until we came down on to the opening of the A-Shau Valley from Laos into South Vietnam. This is where our objective changed from exploring jungle covered mountains; mostly never set foot in by humans before us, to protecting a unit of engineers on one of the most heavily used infiltration routes used by the North Vietnamese to bring supplies into the south. The engineer’s task was to lay a mine-field across the northern entrance to the valley. For the first time in three months there was no triple canopy or dense jungle to conceal our location. The valley floor consisted of 8ft. elephant grass but no jungle or cover, so it was imperative that this operation be finish as quickly as possible.
To our north and south-west were mountains. To our west the Laotian border and we were standing in the middle of the Ho-Chi-Minh Trail. Time was crucial and we knew we were being watched from the surrounding mountains. As night was descending the engineers finished their job. As we were getting ready to move out we started getting incoming mortar rounds from the mountains around us then artillery fire from somewhere in Laos. We had to move and the only direction that was open to us was south, straight down the center of the valley.
It was my turn to walk point. Without delay we took off and not at a slow pace. It was getting dark, fast and moving through the elephant grass we were cut to ribbons by the razor sharp blade of this type of vegetation, but we could move much quicker than in the dense jungle. After about an hour we slowed down realizing where we were as we came across crumpled barbed wire and rotten sand bags. I knew we had found the abandoned Green Beret camp that was overrun in 1966. This put me in my place and I realized what I was doing and where I was, walking point through one of the most dangerous locations on the planet in 1968, the A-Shau Valley in the middle of the night.
I encountered two separate groups of NVA soldiers during our march. Americans never moved at night, so our adversaries didn’t know just what to do when I appeared out of the vegetation, so they ran. Not wanting to broadcast our location I didn’t fire. I didn’t know the size of the force we had encountered and they didn’t know how many of us there were. It was kind of an instantaneous mutual understanding among adversaries in this very odd situation, to leave well enough alone. Firefights raged all through the valley as encamped units of Americans were being probed by the NVA.
We slowed our pace now that we were out of range of the artillery that was pursuing us. After what seemed like weeks the most beautiful dawn that I can remember started to unfold. We had radioed ahead to an American unit to be expecting our approach from the north. What they saw must have resembled a scene from a Steven King novel. From out of the early morning mist came a unit of ghost soldiers. The elephant grass, which we mostly ignored, had cut us to shreds. We were completely out of food, low on ammo, water, and strength. We had been up for 48 hours and the last eight we had walked, at night, through ten miles of one of the most enemy infested location in all of South Vietnam.
The next day the First Brigade of the 101st was extracted from the A-Shau Valley after being in the jungle of the Central Highland for more than three months.
During the five day stand-down at Camp Eagle, several members of C, Company including myself, decided to join Tiger Force.
Among these volunteers was our platoon commander Lt.Fred Raymond who not only joined the thirty man unit, he was given command of it. Fred is a very smart man who instinctively knew how to lead men in the field. It didn’t take long before he earned the respect of all under his command.
I met some extremely smart and dedicated soldiers in Tigers that took their jobs very seriously. After just a few days in the jungle, I knew this was the group of men I wanted to be with for the rest of my tour.
Being a point man, I was introduced to a man who had been one of Tiger’s point men. His name was John Gertsch and he was in the middle of his third tour with Tigers. John took me under his wing and taught me everything about the art of walking point and surviving it.
Traveling through the jungle with Tiger Force was like walking with ghosts. We moved at a slower pace, nobody smoked, nobody talked above a whisper, and we mostly used hand signals to communicate. Silence and invisibility were our best weapons. Every now and again I would have to look over my shoulder just to see that there were American soldiers behind me.
Watching John on point was like watching a puff of smoke maneuver through the dense foliage not disturbing anything while meticulously observing everything in front of him. He was a master, an artist at his craft; I owe him my life because of what he had thought me.
Because John was a Staff Sergeant, Lt. Raymond asked him to take a command position in the column as we moved, so John walked my slack just to see if his protégé had indeed become a ghost. John still liked walking point so he didn’t give it up completely.
Tiger Force ran recon for the First Brigade and would be the unit called on if one of the line companies was in trouble, but our specialty was ambush and recon.
Tigers were broken down into three squads, each having their own point team so one person didn’t walk it every day. But walking point for a smaller sized, experienced, quit unit of combat seasoned veterans was a much safer job then walking point for 180 men whose sheer numbers spelled trouble.
One day we were hit and pinned down by a well-planned NVA ambush. Gertsch was on point. Instead of pulling back, John crawled forward alone. The NVA didn’t see him until he came up in the middle of their perimeter. Before we knew what happened, Gertsch had killed most of most them and returned with three prisoners. Another time John led Tiger Force on a two day hunt through the A-Shau Valley chasing an enemy tank. Nobody stopped to ask john what we’d do if we caught up with it. The tank made it back across the Laotian border before we could catch it. Gertsch stomped where angles, or devils for that matter, feared to tread.
By the end of the Vietnam conflict Tiger Force had seen more combat than any other unit in the Brigade and become one of the highest decorated units of its size in the military at the time. Sixty percent of its members had awarded the Bronze Star with V, thirty percent Silver Stars, and two Tigers received The Congressional Medal of Honor.
Lt. James Gardner, CO of Tiger Force KIA Feb. 7, 1966 was awarded a Purple Heart, two Bronze Stars, two silver Stars and The Congressional Medal of Honor.
My mentor and good friend John Gertsch was KIA in the A-Shau Valley on June 19, 1969. He was awarded three Purple Hearts, three Bronze Stars with V, five Silver Stars, and The Congressional Medal of Honor.
Our commander and founder, Col. David Hackworth died at his home on May 14, 2007.
David was involved in every conflict the U.S. was in from WWII through Vietnam.
David was awarded eight Purple Hearts, eight Bronze Stars, ten Silver Stars, two Distinguished Service Crosses and was put in for The Congressional Medal of Honor three times.
Fred Raymond is still in the military. He works for the Department of Veterans Affairs and holds the rank of Major General. Fred also holds the respect of all who had the honor of serving under him.
Being a member of this elite unit of Ghost Warriors was the pinnacle of my brief time in the military.