The following is a special guest submission from John Stryker Meyer, excerpted from his book “On the Ground.” Major General (ret.) Bargewell passed unexpectedly after an accident on a riding lawn mower. He was laid to rest with full military honors on Thursday, May 2.
The casualty rates for SOG recon teams were the highest for any unit in Vietnam. We all had our close calls and thus each of us was given ample opportunity for the truth of this observation to be incised on his soul. Perhaps none more so than the young, hard-charging One-Zero of RT Michigan, Sergeant Eldon Bargewell. 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 intolerance when it came to fools and REMFs—fools and REMFs being a redundancy to his way of thinking.
The moment of truth came in March 1969 during a mission in the target MA-14, which was northwest of the A Shau Valley. With Don Sheppard as his One-One and Mike Moorehouse as his One-Two, Bargewell and 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 led by Jerry “Mad Dog” Schriver, on temporary assignment to CCN.
Upon the team’s early afternoon insertion, a fourth American on the team broke his arm jumping from the helicopter as the NVA peppered the team’s LZ with mortar fire. Bargewell had one chopper return and evac the injured SF soldier. When the chopper left the LZ, the NVA mortars fell silent. Believing the entire team had left the target, the NVA soldiers returned to their regular duties along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. RT Michigan moved out toward what intelligence officers said was the regimental headquarters. After moving only 200 meters, the point man saw an old NVA bunker. Much to Bargewell’s surprise, intelligence was accurate for a change.
The team crept up the hill and saw more empty bunkers. Bargewell saw one 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 go wild: grabbing maps, charts, logbooks, and assorted documents and 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. 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.
RT Michigan continued its search. The team came into an area where the underbrush was cleared out a little and Bargewell saw an AK-47 leaning against a bunker with an NVA AK-47 vest lying nearby. He moved over to inspect them. He had always wanted a war souvenir so 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-style magazines in front vertical pouches.
Wearing his newfound vest, Bargewell took three Montagnard team members and moved slowly up the hill while Sheppard and Moorehouse remained behind and established a defensive perimeter with the rest of the Montagnards.
After moving up the mountain an additional 40 meters, Bargewell spotted five or six NVA soldiers sitting on a picnic table playing cards. Capturing a live NVA soldier would make this particular mission one for the record books. Bargewell and the three Montagnards crept toward them—until they were spotted by one of the NVA soldiers. The M-79 man fired a round above their heads, attempting to wound one and make him a POW, but the shot was too high.
The NVA troops jumped straight up in the air like scalded cats and ran into a nearby bunker. Believing he could still capture a live one, Bargewell pursued the NVA into the bunker with Contua following close on his heels. As they descended into the bunker, Bargewell realized that it was an enormous underground complex. Nonetheless, he continued the chase.
The fleeing NVA jumped into a large hole in the wall inside the complex. Just as Bargewell entered into it, another NVA soldier fired a three- or four-round burst from his AK-47 at the charging SF soldier. One of the rounds hit an AK-47 magazine in the vest that Bargewell was wearing. 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, he must still be alive, albeit in a great deal of pain.
Contua fired an M-79 round into the hole. He heard it smack bone and flesh, but the round hadn’t traveled far enough to arm itself and detonate. 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 Moorehouse what had happened.
Sheppard called Covey to get the CCS Hatchet Force into the 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 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 recent memory. 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 their LZ, Bargewell carried the map case and his souvenir AK-47, still wearing his NVA vest. The team made contact with the NVA caretaker force left behind to guard the bunker complex, but RT Michigan made short work of the NVA REMFs.
RT Michigan was extracted and taken back to the Camp Eagle launch site where Major Clyde Sincere was there to greet them. Sincere asked if they had captured an NVA soldier because Sheppard had told Covey rider Ben “Indian” Nelson that Bargewell was chasing NVA soldiers into one of the bunkers. With no NVA soldier to show for his efforts, Bargewell still didn’t tell anyone at the launch site what had happened.
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 Le Tourneau. He had a kind of dazed look on his face as he told the Frenchman he’d been shot square in the chest. Bargewell took off the NVA vest and removed one of the AK-47 magazines. Sure enough it had a bullet hole in it and when he gently shook the magazine, the bullet fell onto his bed. Bargewell and Le Tourneau just stared at it. “Bargewell, you’re one lucky son of a bitch.”
Early the following morning, Bargewell reported to and briefed Lieutenant General Richard Stillwell—the top general for the I Corps area of South Vietnam—on his mission and the planned Hatchet Force follow-up. Stillwell told him that RT Michigan’s mission was the single best intelligence-gathering operation in recent months. He 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 retrieved from the 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 airstrikes, 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, two days later, LeTourneau and Bargewell found themselves 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.
It is not recorded what it was Sergeant Bargewell reflected upon while walking the beaches of Hawaii or what flavor life had at that moment, but it’s safe to assume it was sweet.