by Dan Clint
The Toledo Blade reporters and now subsequent authors of the book on the Tiger Force left out important aspects of the Tiger Force that would serve to shed a little positive light in a dark portrayal. Of course to say something good would have been contrary to what they were doing. A problem with all of us, as Vietnam Veterans, as well as veterans in general, is that we too have been influenced by the media. We have been exposed to the papers, the protesters, the books, the movies. We too try to figure out what’s going on. Part of us naturally must carry that inescapable question as to the value of our servitude and sacrifice and we also are forced to wonder about the information we receive. Are these soldiers as guilty of the insanity and the criminality, and to the depth reported, and portrayed in film, newspaper articles and books? And what does this say about us and our own ability to trust a fellow veteran, not to mention the employers and other members of our society and world?
At one point, in the “Tiger Force” book, the writers describe a soldier who was a military journalist named “Stout”. Stout claims to have spent a few days working in the field with the Tiger Force and after seeing an “innocent” civilian killed was so upset he didn’t know what to write about.
After a time with A Company and on the periphery of the Tiger Force, I could, without even having yet joined the Tiger Force, have found much to write about. Another author, the author and officer named “Dennis Foley”, has written an excellent book called “Special Men”. In this book Dennis Foley detailed how the Tiger Force got started, how Colonel Hackworth had created a U.S. guerrilla-like unit, first in Korea and then what was it, in 1966? that it was tried as a prototype by Hackworth, in Vietnam?
With rotations and deaths and wounding, Foley described in his book, how the unit of men would morph and change. Sometimes it seemed to change almost daily. Sometimes it would be nearly unrecognizable from one year to the next. So, migrating from Foley’s reportage in “Special Men” to here, only a year later, and this purported journalist, “Stout”, (perhaps he was a journalist who had only had prior “rear area” newspaper experience, and thus no understanding of the actual pitfalls of combat). Perhaps he could he be dropped in like this, and then later used as a resource, but then perhaps even the Toledo Blade reporters can only attempt to pin down a fluctuating complexity, just like our understanding of the vast and greater reality, that thing we all attempt to understand; all any of us can do, really, is just take small stabs at it. Hopefully with these probes we can do it some justice.
As far as the reporter who supposedly spent time with us. I don’t remember him. As far as the latest Tiger Force book’s authors description of his reportage/non-reportage? It must be most likely that this man is as ill reported (by these nonmilitary authors) as the rest of us. I would be embarrassed for the reporter who in our situation was unable to find something to say.
OK, the year was 1965. I left Fort Polk and “Basic Training” and was headed to Fort Ord for A.I.T. (Advanced Infantry Training). I had no car. I had been raised in the monetary paucity of the 50’s and I liked to save money, especially on transportation, when I could, so I hitchhiked across the U.S. from this one military base (Ft. Polk Louisiana) to the other (Ft. Ord, California) with the trip consuming part of my leave, and finding a way to visit my family along the way.
I was wearing my Khaki Uniform, which assisted in adding four wheels to my thumb.
So, this was how I came to be crossing the great state of Texas. There are fragments of memories from this bit of time. For example, a man, a large Texas man, a salesman, had at one point given me a ride. As he drove, he talked about Vietnam. The average citizen was already attuned to the problem of Vietnam. This guy was saying that, “we should just drop a nuclear bomb on the entire country”.
He was a nice guy, I knew he was just providing supportive lip service for my benefit. His heart was in the right place, and I appreciated the ride.
Another ride was with a fairly skinny, and very old, black man. He was driving a beater of a pick up truck, and was by his explanation, “hauling tomatoes”. The truck had a top speed of about 45 mph, rapped out, and it was slow going. After driving a while, and over the noise of the laboring engine, he told me that up ahead a few miles up the road there was a hamburger stand and he asked me if would I mind buying a hamburger for him.
I thought he was broke and needed food, and that certainly wasn’t a problem for me, (like I say, I was saving on transportation expenses) but he went on to say that he’d be happy to pay for it.
I was puzzled. “What’s the problem?” “The restaurants around here won’t serve me.”
I couldn’t quite believe this, having grown up in Colorado and California, but of course I had heard of this kind of prejudice, just had never seen it in action. I said “Sure! No problem”.
At the small restaurant/hamburger stand, I went inside, stepped up to the counter and ordered two hamburgers. The lady bent down and looked out the front window at the truck, she looked back at me. “You aren’t buying one of these for that jigaboo out there in that truck are you?” “No” I lied. (Aside: Just as the Tiger Force book accused me of ultimately lying to an investigator -(third interview) after the C.I.D. Investigator had told me of the hardship this investigation was causing him personally and how we had both determined it was fairly useless, how no good could ultimately come of it. He had asked me if I had wanted to see Ybarra prosecuted. After Vietnam I knew Ybarra had already been through a form of hell. He had to live with his own God. I couldn’t see it. Prison is light duty in comparison to what we were doing, and who on this planet could sit in judgment?)
When I had returned to the truck, after we drove a bit, I handed the black man the hamburger and he ate it gratefully as he drove. I felt quite bad for him and the way the world was at that time.
In the army there were natural segregating. The blacks had their own bit of prejudice and me, being a blonde haired kid, acknowledged that some of the black soldiers came from places and states that were troublesome. Still though, this group has also been fed stories about themselves, and how they should feel. Stories passed along as history, or the media, stories about ill treatment. These stories, not unlike stories with us as central figures, may inflame resentments. But with the blacks or the native Americans or others, there is often that connection to their ancient histories, and there is a special reflection of great injustice that becomes a new source of fueled resentment, be it an ancestral connection to a former generation, perhaps slavery, isolation, ill treatment.
But the injustices do continue today. It is difficult to extricate the problems of police profiling and the targeting of angry members of a group or worse, members of a group that fail to acknowledge how only a few ignorant and dishonorable people who can easily be identified as as members of an identifiable group, can affect a sea of perception, and keep prejudices alive. Perhaps these prejudices are perpetuated by a fear, a fear that is inflamed through these few individual’s unconscious actions. It is difficult to separate the easily identifiable acts of some in one group, due to a strong desire for simplicity, a natural human proclivity to typecast and group an entire people, with the actions of a few.
But still, I think the war on (illegal) drugs began, and still remains as a means of racially targeting.
Person on person, human on human, man on man, me and most people of any race, seem to get along well. I admit, I like people. I always have. As the Ruth Gordon character portrayed in “Harold and Maude”, I should like them, “after all, they are my species”.
In 1967, by the time I was in the Tiger Force, in Vietnam, skin color was usually completely lost. Certainly in combat, the main component is the warmth of one’s blood and the strength of one’s character. We had a larger, more deadly and very common enemy to battle, and this seemed to succeed in uniting us quite well.
The thinning ranks, those either derosing, or wounded or killed, were always a source of concern. As many recalled, the Tiger Force was usually looking for “volunteers”. We were often referred to as the “suicide squad”.
In the Tiger Force group photo that I sent to David Markham, there is a tall, very black man in one of the back ranks (due to his height- not his color). His name is “Moore”.
At one point, in my Tiger Force experience, we had gotten an intelligence report of a battalion headquarters and a small group of us, four guys had volunteered to run a patrol, to go up and check it out. As usual it was supposed to be mostly a “recon” mission, and when I say “go up” that is a bit deceptive. It was about an hour and a half hike deep into N.V.A. controlled territory, and through difficult jungle terrain.
I had the radio. Moore was good on the map, still though, several times we paused while he and Bruner conferred with the map and compass and checked them with bends in the small stream, while we were confused and yet concealed with an overgrowth. Even though we were the stream for a path, we didn’t know if we’d chance on an N.V.A. encampment around a bend. The jungles were intense and thick and as far as the trails, this was one case where the potential encounter of a force larger than ours was so great that we had wisely plotted this course following this small stream as a means to avoid the inevitable enemy traffic on the trails.
This also meant we were, knee deep in water, and standing in water when stopping to check the map, while wading/walking, quietly as possible up this stream and still trying to make good time. I remember at one point the map had accidentally fallen into the creek. As for me, fortunately I had jettisoned most of my rucksack, left it back with the main group, and I only had to pack the skeleton of the frame of the rucksack, that had held the PRC 6 radio which was strapped onto it with camouflaged nylon strapping, and of course I carried the M-16 and a good supply of ammo.
I am always amazed when things go well. For us, this day, it went very good. When we left the density of the stream bed and the jungle, we had climbed a mountain, and then when we looked over the crest, just like clockwork, we were right on. There was the small structure in question. It was a hootch, and clearly not a home. It actually had a real door, and it looked somehow, more military, quite official, and secure from the elements.
We carefully worked our way in bit closer, trying to stay in the cover of bushes, and of course being as secretive and unobserved as humanly possible. Our eyes were strained from being peeled, looking for movement.
Eventually we were in very close range. In the quietest possible whispers, and in the concealment of an embankment and bushes it was whispered that Moore and the other man (any body here in the Tiger Force recall this incident- was it you Jeff? was it Kerrigan?) would go up and check out the hootch while Bruner and I remained in relative safety, providing back up radio communication if it became necessary, and protective fire, also, if that became necessary.
My survival in Vietnam may have been predicated on my willingness not to argue for, nor want to be front and center. Yes, I pulled my share of point, as Worth can attest, having pulled slack and tried to keep up with my pace, but- I was wise enough to take the lot that was necessary. No heroics. I acknowledged that a dead soldier did our side little good.
So, in this instance, I watched as the two men, Moore being one, perhaps Kerrigan was the other, as they carefully covered the last yards, approaching the small building from it’s blind side. Then Moore, holding a finger up pointing, signaling the time to be now, tightly gripped his rifle and forcefully kicked in the door. There was nearly instant heavy gunfire, a lot of it, as they disappeared inside. For a few seconds we couldn’t see anything, and were immediately concerned, but then Moore reappeared and motioned for us to come in.
When we got up to him we saw he had been shot in the leg. He was still able to walk, and of course, was adrenalized. The intelligence was accurate. They had shot four fully uniformed N.V.A. officers. There were papers, a radio, the paraphernalia of a headquarters outpost, and Moore had been shot by one of the officers. It was pretty much, a point blank firefight. The only thing that saved us was the element of complete surprise. After Moore had shot the officer that had shot him, he had instinctively picked up the guys gun. It was an officer’s pistol. The other AK-47’s were left behind and we knew the direness of our situation. We had just raided a major pantry deep in enemy territory and we had to didi mau. All was reduced to very swift speed and haste.
I don’t remember if we had a willie peter grenade, I doubt it, those things were unnecessarily big and heavy. Don’t remember if we tried to destroy the hootch, I doubt that as well. We had to move fast. The problem was that we had, as four guys, just attacked a battalion headquarters. We knew more than anything else, the necessity for making a good escape, now, and the priority as the saying goes, is to “get the hell out of Dodge”. The problem was compounded by Moore being wounded. The first mad dash was with full abandon. In reflection I have thought of the danger of this, how we may have encountered who knows what, a squad of N.V.A. responding to the gunfire, using the same trail. We’d run like this, then stop, listen, and at one point while paused we field patched Moore’s leg to stop the bleeding. Most of the escape was done with a kind of wild abandon.
I have determined it is often better to be lucky than smart. What is luck and what is smart? I know luck better. Smart I am not so sure.
I remember supporting Moore’s weight as we ran, with his arm draped over me, as he was half hopping half limping, like a three legged sack race. He was able to put some weight on his wounded leg, so it wasn’t too bad. The exit to safety was fast, in comparison to the couple of hours to get there, but of course “safety” in the field was a completely relative term.
Moore was athletic and in good shape, but he was good in other ways. He had taken his wounding in stride, he had exhibited his bravery and his commitment. Later when we stopped and called in the medivac, while awaiting it’s arrival, Moore had showed us the pistol he’d captured. He was taking it with him, on the medivac, as a souvenir of the gun that shot him.
When the medivac took him away, that was the last time I have seen him, or heard from him or about him. I can assure you I would have been deeply pleased if he had been on the ticket running for President instead of Kerry.
This is a story about how we worked well as a team. It is a story about transcending color. It is a story about how we were, in my world, winning the war.
It is also a story about the caliber of the American soldier in Vietnam and the caliber of the intelligence gathering, and how things worked well at times. It is a story that the reporters of the Toledo Blade articles, and subsequent book will not willingly report. I can swear that it is a truer and more accurate story, based upon my own experience, than the book that they wrote, where it is claimed, on the dust jacket, to be the “true story”. It is also a story that has not been told, until now.