Chapter 5: A Hot War Gets Hotter
Upon arrival in Saigon in August of 1969, I was sent north to the I Corps tactical zone and the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile). The division’s nickname is “The Screaming Eagles.” Their motto is “Rendezvous with Destiny.” The division was located at Camp EAGLE, near the city of Hue/ Phu Bai in Thua Thien Province. This province was the entire area of operations for the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile). Just to the north was the city of Quang Tri in Quang Tri Province and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Vietnam. Quang Tri Province was the area of operations for the 3rd Marine Division and the 1st Brigade of the 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized). Local security in these two provinces was, for the most part, in the hands of the South Vietnamese territorial forces. American combat forces were oriented toward area security, primarily in the highlands, along traditional North Vietnamese Army (NVA) infiltration routes near the border with Laos.
In-processing for newly arriving soldiers at Camp EAGLE included a two-week orientation course that focused on the enemy threat and local field craft, as well as tactics, techniques, and procedures that were unique to the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile). In one of the orientation courses ahead of me was the incoming commander of the 1st Battalion (Airmobile), 327th Infantry Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Jeremiah J. Brophy. Also, in that same orientation course was a friend and West Point classmate, Major Jim O’Connell. As luck would have it, and without my knowledge, Jim O’Connell recommended to Lieutenant Colonel Brophy that he select me to be his Battalion S3 from a list of available incoming majors.
Several weeks later, after finishing the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) Orientation Course myself, I was instructed to report to the commander of the 1st Brigade, Colonel Frank Dietrich, whose brigade headquarters was right there at Camp EAGLE. Colonel Dietrich was a legendary figure in the airborne community, having received a Silver Star as a staff sergeant with the 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment during World War II and a second Silver Star as a lieutenant with the 27th Infantry Regiment in Korea. Later, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross during his first tour in Vietnam while commanding the 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile). While visiting with Colonel Dietrich at his tent, he told me that it was his policy to place his best officers down in his three infantry battalions rather than retain them on the brigade staff. His infantry battalions, the 1st and 2nd Battalions (Airmobile), 327th Infantry, and the 2nd Battalion (Airmobile), 502nd Infantry, were all engaged in combat operations in the lowlands and the mountainous jungle areas to the south of Camp EAGLE. Colonel Dietrich told me that I would be assigned as Battalion S3, 1st Battalion (Airmobile), 327th Infantry. The battalion’s nickname is “Above the Rest.” Their motto is “Honor and Country.”
Colonel Dietrich was, indeed, a truly outstanding brigade commander and an inspirational troop leader. I came to believe that there was no one in the U.S. Army more versed in small unit tactics at the squad and platoon levels. He did not care about looking good at the division level. He was focused downward, with 100% of his time and energy devoted to his three infantry battalions. We came to expect him to be the first person to show up at our fire support base (FSB) every morning. He was always looking for ways to help us with our mission and to take care of our soldiers.
This next story has nothing to do with anything of substance, but I will pass it on as a “believe it or not.” Over the period of the next six months in Vietnam, I had the opportunity to be with Colonel Dietrich in an open UH-1 helicopter on several occasions. What surprised me most was to watch him flawlessly roll his own cigarette and light it with a 50-knot wind in his face. I had never seen anyone do this before, and I would never see it again!
In early September 1969, I finally linked up with the 1st Battalion (Airmobile), 327th Infantry Regiment. It was then located at FSB PISTOL, 23 km due south of Hue/Phu Bai, in the mountainous region of the Ruong-Ruong Valley. At that time, the battalion was participating in Operation CUMBERLAND THUNDER. Its mission was to locate, interdict, and destroy enemy forces (both NVA and VC) and to provide maximum security to the population centers in the Piedmont and coastal areas of Thua Thien Province. Extensive patrolling and surveillance operations were employed in the mountains, while ambush operations along traditional infiltration routes were the norm in the lowlands.
The 1st Battalion (Airmobile), 327th Infantry, was organized with four rifle companies and a reconnaissance platoon as maneuver forces. The battalion tactical command post (TAC CP) consisted of the battalion commander, the battalion S3, the battalion S2, the support platoon leader, the communications officer, and the battalion fire support officer (FSO) as the principal components. The Battalion executive officer, the Battalion S1, and the Battalion S4 remained at Camp EAGLE with the rear detachment to push essential assets forward to support elements of the battalion that were employed down range.