Cogito (Ergo) Vivo – You haven’t lived ‘til you’ve almost died. For those who have fought for it, life has a flavor the protected will never know.
This observation, which is embraced by every combat veteran I know, has been adopted as the motto of the Special Operations Association. The very first time I heard it, back during my inaugural tour of duty with SOG, it resonated deep within me. I could sense the profound truth it expressed. All I had to do was look around at the men I served with. It would be impossible to find a livelier, more fun-loving, crazy, generous or supportive group anywhere, or at any time. To this day these men continue to be the best of friends, the finest of comrades.
The casualty rates for SOG recon teams were the highest for any unit in Vietnam. We all had our close calls. Thus, each of us was given ample opportunity for the truth of this observation to be incised on his soul. None perhaps, more so than the young, hard-charging One-Zero of RT Michigan, Sergeant Eldon Bargewell. By the Spring of 1969, Bargewell had earned the full respect of his fellow recon men. No one who ever met him doubted his professionalism or determination.
He was not only meticulous when preparing his team for a mission, and a fearless leader when on the ground, but he also possessed a biting wit and an absolute and abiding intolerance when it came to fools and REMFs, fools and REMFs being a redundancy to his way of thinking. As for me personally, I had an additional, but oddly special reason for admiring him: I not only liked the cut of his jib, I liked the way he parted his hair. Like me, he wore his hair longer than was the norm and parted it on the right.
The moment of truth came for Bargewell in March 1969 during a mission in the target MA-14, which was northwest of the A Shau Valley. Don Sheppard was the One-One and Mike Morehouse was the One-Two, radio operator. RT Michigan’s mission was simple: locate an NVA regimental headquarters and way station, pinpoint the base camp and then call in a Hatchet Force from CCS lead by Jerry “Maddog” Schriver, on temporary assignment to CCN.
Upon the team’s early afternoon insertion, two things happened: The fourth American on the team broke his arm, when he jumped from the hovering helicopter and the NVA peppered the team’s LZ with mortar fire. Bargewell had one chopper return and lift out the injured SF soldier.
When that chopper left the LZ, the NVA mortars fell silent. It appeared to Bargewell that the NVA believed the entire team had left the target. The NVA soldiers in the area returned to their regular duties along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and RT Michigan moved in an azimuth toward what intelligence officers said was the regimental headquarters. After moving only 200 meters, the pointman saw an old NVA bunker. Much to Bargewell’s surprise, intelligence was accurate – for a shocking change.
The team crept up the hill and saw more empty bunkers. In short order, Bargewell saw a bunker that appeared to have maps inside of it. This was virtually unheard of; a piece of incredibly good luck. But what do you do in such a case? Well, if you’re Eldon Bargewell, you react like a kid who finds himself in an defenseless candy shop: you go wild, grabbing maps, charts, log books, and assorted documents, stuffing them into your rucksack until it overflows. It was a veritable gold mine of information on weapons caches, supply routes, communications sites and encryption codes. In effect it was a Frommer’s Guide to the Ho Chi Minh Trail: where to sleep, where to eat, where to refuel, where to find weapons and replenish munitions. With this information in hand, the U.S. military could hurt the NVA.
After this discovery, the team came into an area where the underbrush was cleared out a little. Bargewell observed an AK-47 leaning against a bunker, with an NVA AK-47 vest lying nearby. He moved over to inspect them. Always wanting a war souvenir, Bargewell put the vest over his head and handed the AK-47 to a Montagnard team member. The NVA vests held three AK-47 banana clip magazines in front pouches that were vertical. Some vests had magazines in the back pouches too.
Wearing his new found vest, Bargewell took three Montagnard team members and moved slowly up the hill, while Sheppard and Moorehouse established a defensive perimeter and remained behind with the last Montagnards on the team.
After moving up the mountain another 40 meters, Bargewell spotted five or six NVA soldiers sitting on a picnic table playing cards. Capturing a live NVA soldier would make that particular mission one to remember. Hoping to capture one of them alive, Bargewell and the three Montagnards moved toward them, until one NVA soldier spotted them. The M-79 man fired one round above the NVA’s heads, attempting to wound one and make him a POW. But the shot was too high.
The NVA went straight up in the air, “like a scalded cat.” The startled NVA soldiers ran into a nearby bunker. Believing he could still capture a live NVA, Bargewell pursued the NVA into the bunker, with his Montagnard teammate Contua following him closely. As they descended into the bunker, Bargewell began to realize that it was an enormous underground complex. Nonetheless, he continued the chase.
The fleeing NVA suddenly jumped into a large hole in the wall inside the complex. Just as Bargewell entered into it, an NVA soldier fired a three- or four-round burst from his AK-47 at the charging SF soldier. One of the rounds hit the AK-47 magazine in the NVA vest that Bargewell was wearing over his chest. The round’s impact stopped Bargewell dead in his tracks and knocked him backwards, as though he had been hit with a baseball bat. For a few moments, Bargewell thought he was dead. But, then he realized that he was thinking and, if he was thinking, therefore he was still alive – although his chest was hurt’n for certain from the round’s impact.
Meanwhile, Contua fired an M-79 round into the wall hole. He heard it smack bone and flesh, but the round hadn’t traveled far enough to arm itself and detonate as a high-explosive round. Regardless, firing that round gave Bargewell and Contua enough time to regroup, move out of the bunker and return to RT Michigan’s secured perimeter. Embarrassed by his overzealousness, Bargewell didn’t tell Sheppard or Morehouse what actually happened until they returned to CCN.
Sheppard then called Covey to execute the second half of the operation: getting the CCS Hatchet Force into this bunker complex. Covey said there were delays, so Bargewell returned to the command bunker that he had stumbled into earlier. He opened a map tube and found what appeared to be a map of the entire trail system within that portion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail – this was by far, the best piece of enemy intelligence he had seen in days. As RT Michigan searched deeper into the command bunker they found tons of equipment, weapons, munitions, maps, surveying equipment, medical kits and vast caches of supplies. Everyone on the team was given something to carry back to the LZ and to CCN.
As the team finally headed toward an LZ, Bargewell carried the map case and his souvenir AK-47, still wearing his NVA vest. Other team members carried three AK-47s from the bunker. The team made contact with the NVA caretaker force left behind to guard the bunker complex but RT Michigan quickly overwhelmed the NVA REMFs.
RT Michigan was extracted and taken back to the Camp Eagle launch site where Major Clyde Sincere greeted Bargewell and RT Michigan. Sincere asked him if they had captured an NVA soldier, because Sheppard had told Covey rider Ben “Indian” Nelson that Bargewell was chasing NVA soldiers into the bunker. With no NVA soldier, Bargewell didn’t bother to tell anyone at the launch site what happened at the hole in the wall inside the bunker.
Once back at CCN, Bargewell made his way to the hootch he had been sharing for the past three months with RT Virginia team member Doug LeTourneau. Years later The Frenchman would recall how Bargewell had come in with a kind of dazed look on his face and reported he’d been shot square in the chest and concluded himself dead. He still had the NVA vest on, and when he took it off and removed one of the AK-47 magazines, sure enough it had a bullet hole in it. When he gently shook the magazine, the bullet fell out on to his bed.
Bargewell and The Frenchman just stared at it. Bargewell then told The Frenchman the Cartesian thought process he had run through, and shared with him the conclusion he’d finally reached, i.e., that if he was pissed he must be alive. The Frenchman could only shake his head and state the obvious, “Bargewell,” he said, “you’re one lucky son-of-a-bitch, and very fortunate to be alive.”
Early the following morning, Bargewell reported to and briefed Lieutenant General William Stilwell, the top general for the I Corps area of South Vietnam on his mission and the planned Hatchet Force follow up. Stilwell told him that RT Michigan’s successful mission was the single best intelligence gathering operation in recent months. Stilwell thanked Bargewell and assured him that as soon as the Hatchet Force operation was concluded, a series of B-52 Arc Light sorties would be directed against targets garnered from the maps and intelligence reports that Bargewell had returned from the NVA regimental bunker complex.
The following day Schriver’s Hatchet Force was inserted into the bunker complex, where an NVA element of at least platoon strength, encountered the CCS unit. The CCS Hatchet Force, combined with several tactical air strikes, pushed back the lesser NVA forces and began collecting anything that wasn’t nailed down. By the end of the day, the CCS Hatchet Force had collected enough supplies, maps, weapons and munitions to load 15 helicopters, before finally returning to CCN to celebrate one of the more successful Hatchet Force operations in SOG history at that point in time.
In one of the typical, disorienting, Vietnam War ironies, The Frenchman and Bargewell found themselves two days later on their way to Hawaii to spend time with their wives. To move from a near-death experience to being in the arms of the woman you love is, to say the least, an enlightening transition. Both love and the threat of death have a marvelous way of focusing a man’s attention on the important things in life. Regrettably, but understandably, it is not recorded what exactly it was Sergeant Bargewell reflected upon while walking the beaches of Hawaii, nor how exactly it was life tasted to him at that moment; but I think we can assume the answer was “sweet.”
Note: Eldon Bargewell had not only managed to survive the MA-14 episode, he was just beginning a long and remarkable military career that extended to July 2006, when he retired after more than 39 years of service to his country as major general. During his second tour of duty with SOG, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor, for the heroism he displayed when his recon team was hit by a massive attack similar to the one RT Michigan faced. He has spent time with the Delta Force, the Rangers, and a number of other special operations assignments. His last tour of duty was as the Operations Officer for the Multi-National Forces in Iraq, where Bargewell was kind enough to visit my stepson at a hospital in the Green Zone in Iraq in 2005 after an improvised explosive device seriously injured the young Specialist Fourth Class.
Special Thanks to John Stryker Meyer for providing SOFREP with this exclusive excerpt from his MACV-SOG memoir, On The Ground. -Jack