Situated in the northwestern portion of South Vietnam, along the border with Laos, lies the A Shau Valley. At 25 miles long and one mile wide, A Shau the valley consists of tall and thick elephant grass flanked on either side by steep mountain ranges, dense with jungle, that rise between 3,000 and 6,000 feet.
During the Vietnam War, this area was a key entry point of men and matériel being funneled along the Ho Chi Minh Trail from North Vietnam. For this, numerous battles took place from the start of the American involvement to its end, with the most notable being, perhaps, the bloody assault in May 1969, of Hill 937 by the 101st Airborne Division, which later became famous as “Hamburger Hill,” due to the tremendous amount of casualties suffered.
Even before that though, the area had received the apt nickname “Valley of Death.” And both sides knew that whenever they dared to venture into the area, no matter what size unit they belonged to or commanded, they were guaranteed a tough fight. For this reason, neither opponent could ever claim the A Shau for any length of time. Those who tried to stay put had to be battalion-sized or larger before they two were pulled out, usually with heavy casualties.
In the case of the U.S., when these larger units were absent from trying to sweep the area, they kept eyes on the place as best they could by launching numerous reconnaissance missions with Rangers and Special Forces personnel to monitor enemy strength and movements. Due to their small size, these teams often tempted fate, sometimes being pulled out just after they landed, or managing to complete several days’ worth of information gathering before extracting.
In either case, no one bothered to stick around one minute longer than necessary for fear of being overrun. Except for one team that landed on a mountain peak and deliberately hung around as bait, endured two days’ worth of constant enemy assaults and artillery barrages, yet never budged. They were called Recon Team Python, or RT Python for short.
As part of the secret Studies and Observation Group (SOG), RT Python was one of six SOG teams selected to support Lam Son 719, the three-division South Vietnamese Army invasion of Laos on February 8, 1971, to destroy North Vietnamese Army (NVA) stockpiles and cut the Ho Chi Minh trail. These teams would land in the A Shau Valley and attempt to divert North Vietnamese units in the area.
According to intelligence, among the large enemy presence there, were many counter recon teams specially trained to hunt down the seasoned Green Berets and indigenous forces that operated in SOG These men knew the NVA had placed them in high regard for years due to their effectiveness. A rich bounty awaited the lucky ones who could wipe out a group or take one alive. Doing so would mean they had triumphed over the best jungle fighters in the world, and in the A Shau Valley, nowhere were they more eager to prove it.
Commanded by Captain Jim Butler, known by the designation One-Zero, or leader, along with his second-in-command, or One-One, Staff Sergeant Leslie Chapman, RT Python’s fourteen-man unit boarded two Hueys on the morning of February 18 and lumbered into the sky-bound for that deadly Area of Operation (AO). They came prepared, with a little extra. In addition to short-barreled CAR-15 5.56mm carbines, M-79 grenade launchers, hand grenades, claymore and toe popper mines, they carried four M-60 light machine guns with around 5,000 rounds, and a 60mm mortar as well. They intended to set up this arsenal on a peak where the remains of a small firebase known as Thor lay.
Everyone aboard expected action, maybe even before they set down. By this stage of the war, the chance of being shot out of the sky had increased exponentially ever since the majority of American ground forces had withdrawn. Places like the A Shau underwent reinforcement against every possible threat by its new landlords, who now worked almost unhindered. The NVA had little to fear from the South Vietnamese, whose offensives in the area often shattered before they achieved anything. Indeed, the only real threat they still worried about was American airpower… and the men of SOG.
After nearing a set of peaks, the pilots located the derelict remains of Thor and flared their birds into a hover. RT Python jumped down onto the sandbags and empty gun pits and scattered amid the whirling dust to assigned positions as the choppers throttled away. Butler was under no illusion – the NVA had to know that something was up. It didn’t matter. He removed an American flag from his pocket, unfurled it and ran it up the wooden pole where it fluttered proudly in a light breeze. It was almost as if RT Python was saying to the NVA, “We’re here, and we’re staying.”
True to Butler’s senses, the NVA did see their arrival. Several patrols received orders to head up through the steep, forested mountain and scour the summit. As they started, RT Python began readying a welcome in the form of 57 Claymores ringing Thor, with the M-60s deployed at four points of the compass.
Contact came a few hours after sunset when Python heard NVA approaching the perimeter. They detonated the first Claymores at the unseen sounds to shred several enemies and drive the others away with automatic weapons fire. The startled NVA just managed a few shots before retreating back down to the valley.
A couple of hours later, a few errant mortar rounds were sent their way, wounding two. Calls for a MEDEVAC revealed none could be sent due to another SOG mission underway. The men patched their wounds while, far below them on the valley floor, they saw vehicle headlights moving, along with flashlights on either side. It seemed business as usual, endless men and supplies streaming into the South, but they knew the NVA would be back. And unknown to Python, they were preparing a battalion of several hundred men along with mortars and recoilless rifles to sweep them off the mountain the next night.
An eerie calm settled over Thor the next day. A few mortar rounds came again but hurt no one. Butler received word that Spectre, the powerful AC-130 gunship would be on station that night. It was reassuring for Python, knowing that Puff The Magic Dragon’s far more powerful descendant would be orbiting above when the NVA returned that night.
When the sun set again, hundreds of NVA began climbing the mountain, spreading out to surround the summit, then rush it. A much heavier mortar barrage whooshed over their heads to cover their approach. Again, more Claymores exploded and the deeper steady drum of the M60s added to the higher-pitched reports of the CAR-15s and AK-47s. The 60mm mortar lobbed shells at the highest and closest trajectory, while Spectre sent streams of 20mm and 40mm tracers down into the jungle around Python, tearing away the foliage and any enemy who tried to rush the top. Each time they were stopped, just a few meters away from Python, retreating with more dead to when by the morning, the NVA had to resort to more shelling as a new sight started to take shape. The heavy fire from Spectre meant the bareness of the mountaintop started to extend hundreds of yards down the slopes. This was the first of metamorphosis the mountain would undergo as more ordnance fell upon it.
When the sun rose on the second day, a Covey Rider Forward Air Controller, who was also a fellow SOG Green Beret, appeared overhead and coordinated tactical airstrikes against lines and waves of NVA trying to start back up the slopes. A-1 Skyraider, prop-driven Close Air Support, roared in, dropping napalm and strafing to cover most of the mountain in flames and thick black smoke. With the exception of the top, the whole mountain disappeared for hours as its landscape was rearranged. Small bands of enemy who somehow made it through were quickly mowed down by Python.
Vehicle traffic in the area closed down. The smoldering mountain looked like a volcano seeping magma from its sides, as still more napalm exploded to burn and drip among the dead and dying enemy.
The remainder of the battalion received more reinforcements and cut loose with their most intense shelling yet. Several of Python’s men were wounded, but still, none evacuated. The Covey Rider called in more air assets, including Huey Cobras, and prepared for another wave.
At around 8:30 a.m., through the smoke and gasoline smell of the napalm, the NVA charged in their largest assault. Hundreds emerged shouting and firing AKs from the hip, just as Python opened up. Throngs of enemy fell, but more got closer. Chapman saw a Montagnard get hit and roll down the slope. He rose from his position and leaped over the edge, sliding down the embankment, firing his carbine to kill four NVA who suddenly appeared a few feet away. He retrieved the wounded ‘Yard, threw him over a shoulder, climbed back up to safety and resumed firing.
Butler knew they were on borrowed time, so he lowered the flag, requested extraction and received word two choppers were inbound. The Cobras rocketed and strafed in ever-widening circles around the firebase, the pilots able to see the little band of men at the top bravely returning fire in all directions against an enemy who seemed endless.
From one direction, NVA stormed to within a few yards, this time starting to keep Python pinned down as they prepared to charge one final time and crest the summit. Grenades and automatic weapons kept them at bay long enough for choppers to emerge from the smoke and speed by just above their heads to rear back and hover above the ground. Python’s men piled aboard in record time just as the NVA started to come over the top.
Then, Covey Rider heard something no one wanted to hear.
“We’ve still got a man on the ground!”
Immediately, Covey Rider brought his bird in, feigning strafing and bombing runs as another Huey dove down to pick up the man. As bullets peppered its sides, the man crawled aboard and the pilot tilted his bird forward and climbed away over the smoke. Thor disappeared behind them, consumed by the raging enemy who, to their extreme displeasure, found no dead to mutilate or wounded to torture.
All of RT Python survived the Valley Of Death. Even better, they could say they ruled it for a brief period. Proof of this was at Firebase Thor, where large and small batches of over 300 enemy dead lay encircling it. It is also confirmed, on top of this, that Python alone killed an additional 42 NVA in their 48 hours on the ground. Forever unknown, the actual total number is likely far greater.
Weeks Later, after headquarters read of Chapman’s braving enemy fire to recover the wounded ‘Yard, the Staff Sergeant was called to attention in front of his unit as the Distinguished Service Cross was awarded to him.
Sadly, though their diversion worked, the great offensive of Lam Son 719 did not, and the South Vietnamese army’s first test of going it alone on the ground proved an unmitigated disaster. Its ordeal became a grim prediction of what lay in store for the country a little more than four years later.