First, please tell us a little about your background and how you came into the Army where you served in the Vietnam War.
I was conceived in Texas, but born and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I was well aware of anti-war protests because the first anti-Vietnam war “teach-ins” took place at University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. But to me, this was just more of the same old leftwing pacifist showboating that was already endemic to college towns.
Being young and rebellious, I figured anything those people were against just had to be good, so I enlisted for the Airborne Infantry after high school. The young Americans who came of age during the Vietnam War had grown up with toy guns, toy soldiers, war movies, playground battles, uncles and dads and coaches and teachers who were veterans, and even in Ann Arbor, there was almost universal patriotic pride in America’s liberating role in World War Two and our postwar mission to stand up to communist tyranny.
It was interesting to find out after our generation’s war was over, that none of the boyhood playmates I remember being most fond of military play ever served in the military. Like Dick Cheney, they too had “other priorities” when the Vietnam War and the military draft were still reaching out for others less fortunate than themselves. Like Steven Spielberg, they played field marshal when war was all play and they owned the most toys, but played hookey when their generation’s real war came around.
I have at least some contempt for Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Joe Biden, Mitt Romney, Ted Nugent, Rush Limbaugh, Gary Hart, Sylvester Stallone, Tommy Lee Jones and that whole smug slacker lot that includes almost every conspicuous success among American males of my generation. I might try to be generous, and I might personally like some of these opportunistic bellicose pussies, but I just can’t help holding their manhood cheap, and thinking them unfit to urge younger generations to war.
Shakespeare knew the type: “But for these vile guns, he would himself have been a soldier.”
I’m told that you are the only Ranger to have served in 101st LRRPs, Bde LRRPs, Division LRPs, and 75th Rangers. Could you begin by explaining to our younger readers what the LRRPS were and what the LRRP mission consisted of?
I am one of two guys who served in 1/101 LRRP, F/58 LRP, and L/75 Ranger, not the only one. I don’t know about other soldiers, but back then it was pretty much standard for a LRRP or a Green Beret to voluntarily extend the tour a few times, and there were lots of guys with as many missions as me, and almost everybody saw more or worse combat than I did—me happening to be weirdly lucky in those days. With the normal exceptions made for the occasional obnoxious asshole or idiotic dolt, the men I was lucky enough to serve with were the best I’ve ever known.
As the Vietnam war progressed, how did LRRPs evolve, both in terms of your table of organization and equipment, but also in the context of your mission profile?
Before the US got heavily involved in Vietnam, there were already two Corps level LRRP companies in Germany. The first provisional LRRP units formed in Vietnam in 1965 belonged to the 1st Brigade 101st Airborne, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, and the 1st Cavalry Division. Before long every division or separate maneuver brigade formed a LRRP unit, usually recruiting among whatever airborne qualified personnel they had, but out of necessity often accepting “legs,” despite the fact that all LRRP units were on jump status.
By volunteering for LRRPs, a soldier in a “leg” unit also volunteered for airborne, though few (if any) were afforded a chance to go through jump school in country. In the early LRRP days, the units were provisional and often had to scrounge for needed equipment, and even camouflage uniforms. In the 101st and 173rd, NCOs who had been through Special Forces or Ranger or Divisional Recondo training were abundant enough and available to serve as team leaders. I can only suppose that the same was true of the non-Airborne units.
Starting in early 1968, the Army did recognize these provisional Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol units and turn them into the TO&E Long Range Patrol units that eventually became lettered companies of the 75th Infantry (Ranger) Regiment. The missions of these units did not change much when the designations changed, but with each change the availability of specialized equipment improved.
One aspect of the LRRPs that always fascinated me is that the soldiers on the ground conducting the recon operations often had to improvise and overcome as they went. At that time there was not much, if any, doctrine for the types of missions you did. How did your tactics, techniques, and procedures develop over time? Were they ever even written down, or did teams just teach each other based upon what they found to work out in the field?
Back in the old 1/101, LRRP platoon teams were occasionally picked up and reinserted or extracted in loops of rope when McQuire rigs were unavailable, but that changed for the better. Rotary wing support was essential to Lurps (a generic term that covers Vietnam War LRRP, LRP, and Ranger recon teams), and as the war went on, the helicopter units supporting long-range patrol operations got more professional in the special skills needed—although, as far as I know, no such units except 5th Special Forces Group’s B-52 Project Delta had its own dedicated helicopter support.
In the 101st, we usually had the Kingsman or 17th Cav helicopters and crews flying for us, and they were excellent special operations helicopter crews who knew how to insert, extract, and support recon teams and could always be depended on. But sometimes we did have to take whatever rides were available at the time. It was clear to us, and to those who regularly flew for us, that special operations units needed specially trained crews. Division and Corps commanders did not—or could not—always give us helicopter crews trained and equipped to support us effectively. We loved and still love the crews that worked with us most often.
What weapons and equipment did LRRPS carry out on operations with them?
In the field we usually carried either M-16 or CAR-15 rifles, that fired the same ammo and used interchangeable parts. But when a 12-man heavy team went out, usually on a direct action mission, it was not unusual to take along an M-60 machine gun. Some men also carried pistols with them, and (depending on vegetation and terrain) one man per team would also carry a sawed-off M-79 “coach gun.”
AKs captured in the field were also carried due to the fact that they sound different from weapons of the M-16 series, and a burst of AK fire could confuse the enemy when an M-16 burst would give us away. I don’t know of any team that went out entirely armed with AKs, but I suspect it probably happened.
Although of questionable legality, we also had access to suppressed Swedish K and Sten guns, and for a while we had an experimental suppressed M-16 that had supposedly been engineered to make the sound seem to be coming from somewhere else. We were forbidden to photograph this weapon, and so, of course, we used it primarily as a photo prop, since most guys didn’t much trust it to work as intended.
With the exception of the M-60 gunner on a heavy team, every man who carried a special weapon would also carry either an M-16 or CAR-15. Shotguns were also popular with some of the guys, but they would also have to carry a 16 or CAR.
By fall of 1968, we had a fine array of small individual radios and transmitters available to us, but the standard patrol radio was the PRC-25 with various antennae. Getting and keeping good commo could be a hassle—especially on low ground during bad weather. Being out there with bad or no commo sure could make a man feel vulnerable.
One hears the rumor that LRRPs did some operations “across the fence.” Can you confirm or deny?
For the most part, missions “across the fence” fell to MACV-SOG recon teams, and any LRRP/Ranger missions that crossed a border did not go as deep as SOG recon often went. Years after the war, my old teammate John Meszaros and I visited the map room in the University of Michigan grad library to look at old recon zones. It seems that some of the international borders on the civilian maps were a little bit further east than the standard issue maps we used. I have reason to believe that after I left, recon teams from L/75 pulled at least a few missions in blatant (though covert) disregard for the Laotian border, especially around the time of the ARVN’s disastrous Operation Lam Son 719. But I am glad to say that I have never heard a first hand account of any of these missions from those who may have pulled them.
Could you please tell us about some of the more memorable operations you participated in?
You asked about the significant missions I was on. There is one that stands out—a heavy team mission along the wooded waterways southwest of the old capital city of Hue. This was in April of 1968, and we were looking for landing sites along the rivers, and signs of NVA encampments and activity. This was not long after the communists were finally driven out of Hue, where they’d massacred thousands of civilians.
We did not encounter any NVA troops, and we found only two abandoned docking places. But we did come upon the open mass grave of a group of West Germany dental professors and their families who had been captured and taken into the jungle to be executed. We had no idea who they were, but we’d noticed that scraps of civilian clothing and blond hair, and after putting up perimeter security, we took photos, tried to count the tangled and deteriorated corpses, called the finding in, and waited for an infantry company to bring in some graves registration people.
This was the one and only mission I was on in more than two years where, after giving the intelligence folk information to render into intelligence, a little processed intelligence eventually came down to the team. These Germans and their families had come to Vietnam to help Hue University set up a modern dental school, and for that—for being foreigners from the wrong side of Germany—they were taken up the river, down the streams, into the jungle, and murdered.
Twelve years later, I was back in Ann Arbor, taking a class on the war taught by a proudly Marxist English professor who told the class that the massacre at Hue never happened. It was a CIA lie, he said, and any civilians killed were murdered by the CIA or American Green Berets. It was yet another bitter “Welcome Home!” awakening. I don’t know whether I’m proud or ashamed that I didn’t charge the podium and rip that idiot’s throat out.
(That’s me with the cigarette in my mouth—a bad habit fashionable at the time, and after the firing is over, lighting a smoke was not breaking stealth security. Just after the picture was taken, we noticed a bullet hole in the RPG warhead, and put it down gently, then blew it with C-4.)
What do you think of today’s Rangers, and do you see any of the LRRP/Ranger legacy within today’s Ranger Regiment?
What do I think of today’s Rangers? I am in awe of them and very proud of what the 75th Rangers have become. We love the the Rangers themselves, but a lot of Vietnam War LRRP Ranger veterans are somewhat bitter about the way the Ft. Benning Ranger establishment still treats us like the proverbial “redhead stepchildren” the LRRPs were in the eyes of the corps and divisions we worked for during the war.
I have attended more than a few Ranger Rendezvous reunions over the years, and at every one of them some retired sergeant major or colonel informs us that General Creighton Abrams invented the 75th Ranger Regiment in January, 1974 when the 1st and 2nd Battalions came on line—or that the regiment began in February 1986 when a regimental HQ was established. We LRRP, LRP, and letter company veterans are the original 75th Rangers, but the official line is that the 75th Infantry (Ranger) Regiment and the 75th Ranger Regiment are separate entities—and inferred in that is the idea that we ain’t quite the real thing.
There are Army Regulations on the books that allow for the black and gold Ranger tab to be awarded to soldiers who served as Rangers but did not attend the Ft Benning Ranger School—which in our day was too busy training infantry platoon leaders to bother with training us. (That task fell to 5th SFGA with the Recondo School, whose pocket patch was far more prestigious among us than the Ranger tab, an adornment that really left base camp.)
Our berets and scrolls and Recondo arrowheads were never authorized, but they did become mandatory uniform items in country, and strictly forbidden back in the States. All Ranger and Marauder veterans of WWII were retroactively awarded the Ranger tab, as were Korean War Rangers who hadn’t gone to the school. But we have absolutely no officially authorized distinctive emblems of our service. And the mere mention that this needs to be corrected puts fear into the eyes of the powers that be.
But the hell with all that. We are enormously proud of the 75th Rangers who followed in our footsteps and took things much further than we could have dreamed. And that those Rangers respect us foul old dudes is all the validation we need.
What has your post-war experience been like?
You asked what I’ve done since the war. I lost myself in Asian cultures and history trying to make sense of it all, and now am old and senile and serve my local school district as a Mandarin/English interpreter.
There are two often neglected historical facts that I want to stress. First, the Lurps and Rangers of the Vietnam War were the last of America’s traditional special operations units: provisional units of volunteers, recruited and trained in the war zone, like our predecessors from colonial days through World War Two. This “battle born” status should be a point of pride to today’s 75th Rangers.
Secondly, it is good to remember that the 75th Ranger Regiment and the 1st Special Forces Regiment share the longest lineage of any United States Army regiments, and without the assistance and training 5th Group gave the Lurps in Vietnam, there probably wouldn’t be Ranger Regiment today.
Kenn Miller is also the author of the novel, Tiger the Lurp Dog.