War-Stories.com
  Tiger Force Recon Ghost Warriors  
by: TJ McGinley
Tiger Force Recon
1/327/101st Abn. Div.
Vietnam 1968-1969

© Copyright 2009
 
 

In November of 1968, I was walking slack for 1/327/101st Airborne Divisions recon team  “Tiger Force,” in the jungle covered mountains of the Central Highlands, about 50 miles west of Hue, South Vietnam.  John Gertsch was walking point that day, when we came across a well-used trail.  Gertsch stopped and put his left fist up, which meant that everyone stop and be perfectly quiet.  Then he spread his hand out in an open gesture, which meant, quietly, get down and pay attention.  We did.  Gertsch and I checked the trail for tracks and any another other signs of enemy activity.  We found fresh prints and reported back to the lieutenant, who told us to set up an ambush. 

Within 15 minutes, a small patrol of six NVA appeared on the trail.  We waited until they were in the right spot, made sure there were no more NVA behind them and the opened fire.  Afterwards, we cleared the trail, cleaned up any evidence that we were there and left the area.  One of the NVA soldiers was an officer and was carrying maps and paperwork.  We walked to a suitable site and called in a helicopter to take the NVA paperwork to the rear to be analyzed.     

We hiked for another hour and set up a night defensive position.  Early in the evening, Gertsch, Zeke, Campos and I, quietly discussed the day’s events before taking our defensive positions.  As I sat in silence, just listening to the jungle, I reflected back on just how I got to be in this elite unit of sky solders.
   
   When the United States first started sending significant numbers of troops to Vietnam, we were using WWII tactics. This didn't work against the North Vietnamese who were waging guerrilla warfare, and it soon became clear that superior firepower and company-sized units were ineffective. A unit of 180 men moving through the jungle could be heard for miles giving the enemy time to react to our presence.

     Late in 1965, a young and highly decorated Lt. Col. in the 101st Airborne Division, David Hackworth convinced his superiors we would have a greater success using smaller, well-armed, camouflaged units that could move quietly through the jungle. The first of these small units were created from hand-picked, experienced volunteers from the First Brigade of the 101st.  They became known as Tiger Force.

I was the second of nine children, four of which were draft age in 1967.  The oldest was in the Marines already, one was in military school and another was about to graduate from high school.  I’d just graduated and had no plans for college.  Besides, I felt if I went to Vietnam the chances of my brothers going would be slim.  It worked, I went and everybody else stayed home.

I arrived in Bien Hoa, Vietnam, on April 4, 1968, and spent a month or so in additional training in the 90th replacement.  Afterwards we flew north to Camp Eagle where I spent a single night before I took the first of countless helicopter rides along with a few other new guys and me, “cherries” as we were called, a fire base called Veghel.                                                        
                 
I spent one hour there and with the rest of the replacements walked into the jungle to meet my company on a hilltop overlooking the mountains and valleys of the Central Highlands.  Little did I know that walking through some of the most difficult and remote terrain in South Vietnam would be what I did for the next fourteen months.

2 Squad, 2 Platoon, C Co. 1/327/101 1968
Vietnam was divided into three zones. The northern zone was I Corps which consisted of battle grounds like the DMZ, The Rock Pile, Khe Sanh and the closest supply routes from North Vietnam into the south, the A-Shau Valley. I Corps was manned by conventional large scale, well armed, well trained and well resupplied NVA Regular Army Divisions. Farther south, II and III Corps were dominated by enemy units called the Viet Cong that used more of a guerrilla warfare tactic.

Photo: 2 Squad, 2 Platoon, C Co. 1/327/101 1968


Because I was not married, I was assigned the job of walking point for C Company, 1/327, 101st Airborne Division, a line company with around 120 men. During the month of May 1968, we were operating in an area about fifty miles west of Hue know as the Ruong-Ruong Valley.  During a daily patrol, we discovered something that illustrated how determined our enemy really was. We walked into a natural cathedral fashioned by an eighty-foot canopy, covering a 300-yard diameter clearing, and surrounded on three sides by a river.

In the center of this clearing, covered  in foliage to camouflage it from the air sat one of the largest caches of enemy weapons ever found during the Vietnam War--five Chinese 85- Howitzers, several crew-serviced anti-aircraft guns, hundreds of rifles, mortars, anti-tank weapons and in the surrounding jungle, 58 Russian trucks full of equipment.  Looking at a topographical map we could trace the route the enemy used to transport the weapons from Laos, through the A-Shau Valley and into the Rong-Rong where we found them.

85 Howitzers in the Roung-Roung Valley 1968.
Above Photo: 85 Howitzers in the Roung-Roung Valley 1968
Humpin' the trail.


Left Photo: Humpin' the trail.

Under normal circumstances we never stayed in one
location longer then one night but with all this enemy
weaponry to protect we were told to do something I
had never done before -- dig in. I wasn’t much of a
believer in fox holes. I preferred the idea of silence
and camouflage over digging a hole. My excavation
was six feet long, four feet wide, and two feet deep.

I felt now that they know exactly where I am, this hole,
regardless of how deep I could dig it, would do me no
good.

On our second day at this site, we heard that a friendly

unit would penetrate the perimeter at our sector.  From out of the jungle came the most impressive unit of soldiers I had seen to date, Tiger Force. Clad in French camouflage fatigues, carrying sawed off shotguns and AK47s, and not one man wore a helmet, these men had a look of people who meant business. I had waked point long enough to know that a helmet was a decrement to one’s ability to hear, I never wore one.

Tiger Force camped with us that night and their quiet confidence and obvious field experience drew me like a magnet.  I knew at that moment, that if I were going to spend the next several months in the jungle, I wanted to be with people who knew what they were doing and this unit of about thirty men had that effect on me. In the morning I discovered that the Tigers had vanished silently into the jungle while we slept.

C, Company stayed at the sight until all the weapons had been either removed or destroyed. Afterwards we continued our mission and headed west toward Laos. When we reached the boarder we turned north. The NVA used The A-Shua Valley as a major supply route to funnel weapons and supplies, such as we found in the Ruong-Ruong Valley.  At certain times during the year, the rains prevented Americans from moving into this valley.  The enemy used this time and weather to their advantage.  Our objective was to protect a corps of engineers who were planting a minefield across the western entrance to the valley off the Ho Chi Min trail from Laos.

On The first of June 1968, we were on a mountain overlooking Laos to our west and the A Shau to the east. That afternoon we witnessed the single most spectacular display of fire power I had ever seen. We watched a B-52 strike down the center on the valley. We could not hear the plains nor do the bombs whistle as they fall but the explosions were an amazing spectral to watch. We where about 10 miles away and we felt the percussion and heard shrap-medal fling through the trees above us. Those who were not lying on the ground suddenly became part of it. The blasts threw trees and debris hundreds of feet into the air as no time elapsed between detonations.


The rugged mountains along the Laotian/South Vietnamese border harbored thousands of NVA troops. 1968. Our commander was Tom Kinane, who had an uncanny ability to look at a topographical map and know where the enemy would be, told us that getting past the fortifications around the valley would be the most dangerous part of our mission.  He was right.  On several of the high ridges were semi-permanent NVA complexes both above and below ground.  It was between two of these fortifications that my squad was ambushed while on patrol.  Within two minutes, nine of the eleven men on patrol were wounded.  Only the man at the rear of the column and myself were not wounded. 

All the enemy had to do to stop the advance of the Americans was to wound a few of us and everything would grind to a halt. A hole would be cut in the jungle to accommodate the medivac helicopters.  This gave the NVA time to regroup and better prepare for the advancing Americans.

By the morning of June 3rd, we had worked our way to a point high on a ridge facing north.  To the west was the Laotian border, to the east was the wide, open terrain of the valley floor and ahead to the north on the other side of the entrance to the valley was a large mountain.  The U.S. military identified it was Hill 937, the Vietnamese called it  Dong Ap Bai, and a year later Senator Ted Kennedy named it “Hamburger Hill”.

We assented from the south down the mountain and on to the floor of the A-Shua Valley.
This is where our objective changed from exploring jungle covered mountains; mostly never set foot in by humans before us, to protecting a unit of engineers on one of the most heavily used infiltration routes by the North Vietnamese to bring supplies into the south. The engineer’s task was to lay a mine-field across the northern entrance to the valley.
The valley floor consisted of 8ft. elephant grass but no dense jungle or cover, so it was imperative that this operation be finish as quickly as possible.                                                               

Orders came around for 1/327 to find out if there was any enemy activity on Hill 937.  D Company led the way followed by C Company in support.  Once on the valley floor, our personal security evaporated.  For the first time in months, large groups of men were totally exposed no canopy no jungle, no place to hide in this enemy stronghold.

Finally, we reached the other side of the valley and started our ascent. Then D Company started receiving fire from somewhere in front of us.  We encountered reinforced bunkers, heavy machine gun and mortar fire from what seemed like every direction, way more fire power than we’d encountered to date.  Our orders were to find out if there was enemy activity up there, not to take the hill.  As soon as we confirmed the hill was occupied, we left.  We returned to our sanctuary on the other side of the valley floor where we called in the Air Force to deal with the mountain stronghold.  By the time we returned, the entire battalion was on the valley floor protecting the engineers.

The A-Shau Valley 1968 Left Photo: The A-Shau Valley 1968.

For the next three hours, jets dropped napalm; 250-pound bombs and what seemed like everything but nukes on this hill with anti-aircraft and green tracers being returned by the NVA.  Never have I seen such bold action taken by the enemy as I did that day.  This hill was different from all the mountains we had explored so far because of its strategic location, guarding the Laotian border and the entrance to the valley. To our north and south-west were mountains. To our west the Laotian border and we were standing in the middle of the Ho-Chi-Minh Trail.

Time was crucial and we knew we were being watched from the surrounding mountains. As night was descending the engineers finished their job. As we were preparing to move out we started receiving incoming mortar rounds from the mountains around us then artillery fire from somewhere in Laos. We had to move and the only direction that was open to us was south, straight down the center of the valley.

Our commander was Tom Kinane, who had an uncanny ability to look at a topographical map and know where the enemy would be, told us that getting past the fortifications around the valley would be the most dangerous part of our mission.  He was right.  On several of the high ridges were semi-permanent NVA complexes both above and below ground.  It was between two of these fortifications that my squad was ambushed while on patrol.  Within two minutes, nine of the eleven men on patrol were wounded.  Only the man at the rear of the column and myself were not wounded. 

All the enemy had to do to stop the advance of the Americans was to wound a few of us and everything would grind to a halt. A hole would be cut in the jungle to accommodate the medivac helicopters.  This gave the NVA time to regroup and better prepare for the advancing Americans.

By the morning of June 3rd, we had worked our way to a point high on a ridge facing north.  To the west was the Laotian border, to the east was the wide, open terrain of the valley floor and ahead to the north on the other side of the entrance to the valley was a large mountain.  The U.S. military identified it was Hill 937, the Vietnamese called it  Dong Ap Bai, and a year later Senator Ted Kennedy named it “Hamburger Hill”.

We assented from the south down the mountain and on to the floor of the A-Shua Valley.
This is where our objective changed from exploring jungle covered mountains; mostly never set foot in by humans before us, to protecting a unit of engineers on one of the most heavily used infiltration routes by the North Vietnamese to bring supplies into the south. The engineer’s task was to lay a mine-field across the northern entrance to the valley.
The valley floor consisted of 8ft. elephant grass but no dense jungle or cover, so it was imperative that this operation be finish as quickly as possible.                                                               

Orders came around for 1/327 to find out if there was any enemy activity on Hill 937.  D Company led the way followed by C Company in support.  Once on the valley floor, our personal security evaporated.  For the first time in months, large groups of men were totally exposed no canopy no jungle, no place to hide in this enemy stronghold.

Finally, we reached the other side of the valley and started our ascent. Then D Company started receiving fire from somewhere in front of us.  We encountered reinforced bunkers, heavy machine gun and mortar fire from what seemed like every direction, way more fire power than we’d encountered to date.  Our orders were to find out if there was enemy activity up there, not to take the hill.  As soon as we confirmed the hill was occupied, we left.  We returned to our sanctuary on the other side of the valley floor where we called in the Air Force to deal with the mountain stronghold.  By the time we returned, the entire battalion was on the valley floor protecting the engineers.

For the next three hours, jets dropped napalm; 250-pound bombs and what seemed like everything but nukes on this hill with anti-aircraft and green tracers being returned by the NVA.  Never have I seen such bold action taken by the enemy as I did that day.  This hill was different from all the mountains we had explored so far because of its strategic location, guarding the Laotian border and the entrance to the valley. To our north and south-west were mountains. To our west the Laotian border and we were standing in the middle of the Ho-Chi-Minh Trail.

Time was crucial and we knew we were being watched from the surrounding mountains. As night was descending the engineers finished their job. As we were preparing to move out we started receiving incoming mortar rounds from the mountains around us then artillery fire from somewhere in Laos. We had to move and the only direction that was open to us was south, straight down the center of the valley.

TJ McGinleyLeft Photo: TJ McGinley.

It was my turn to walk point. Without delay we took off and not at a slow pace. It was getting dark, fast and moving through the elephant grass even though we were being cut to ribbons by the razor sharp blade of this type of vegetation, we could move much quicker than in the dense jungle. After about an hour we slowed down realizing where we were as we came across crumpled barbed wire and rotten sand bags.  I knew we had found the abandoned Green Beret camp that was overrun by the NVA in 1966. This put me in my place and I realized what I was doing and where I was, walking point through one of the most dangerous locations on the planet in 1968, the A-Shau Valley in the middle of the night.

I encountered two separate groups of NVA soldiers during our march. Americans never moved at night, so our adversaries didn’t know just what to do when I appeared out of the vegetation, so they ran. Not wanting to broadcast our location. We didn’t give chase or expel too many rounds at the fleeing enemy. I didn’t know the size of the force we had encountered and they didn’t know how many of us there were. It was kind of an instantaneous mutual understanding among adversaries in this very odd situation, to leave well enough alone.  Firefights raged all through the valley as encamped units of Americans were being probed by the NVA.

We slowed our pace now that we were out of range of the artillery that was pursuing us. After what seemed like weeks the most beautiful dawn that I can remember started to unfold. We had radioed ahead to an American unit to be expecting our approach from the north. What they saw must have resembled a scene from a Steven King novel. From out of the early morning mist came a unit of ghost soldiers. The elephant grass, which we mostly ignored, had cut us to shreds. We were completely out of food, low on ammo, water, and strength. We had been up for 48 hours and the last eight we had walked, at night, through ten miles of one of the most enemy infested location in all of South Vietnam.

Later that day the First Brigade of the 101st was extracted from the A-Shau Valley after being in the jungle of the Central Highland for more than three months.

During the five day stand-down at Camp Eagle, several members of C, Company including myself, decided to join Tiger Force. It was in this elite group of paratroopers that I first met men who could “out-Indian” the Indians.  This recon team consisted of about 30 well-seasoned, handpicked volunteers.

Left: Zeke Blevins, John Toberman, Dave Fields and TJ McGinley. Right: Sparks, Rader Rick, Zeke Blevins, and Stan Parker.
Left Photo:
Zeke Blevins, John Toberman, Dave Fields and TJ McGinley.
Right Photo: Sparks, Rader Rick, Zeke Blevins, and Stan Parker


Tiger Force, July1968

Left Photo: Tiger Force, July1968.

Under the command of Lt. Fred Raymond, John Gertsch, Dave Fields, and others, Tiger Force worked with a smoothness and efficiency that even surprised the enemy.

Tigers ran recon for the First Brigade and would be the unit called on if one of the line companies was in trouble or needed help. But our specialty was ambush and recon.

Gertsch, as he was known, was a master in the field, teaching all who were near the ways of the jungle and how to use it to their advantage.  In his words, “how to really be there, but not be there.”  When there was any kind of fighting going on, you could find John diving into it doing what had to be done to get his fellow paratroopers out of danger with no thought for his own safety.

One day we were hit and pinned down by a well-planned NVA ambush. Gertsch was on point.  Instead of pulling back, John crawled forward alone. The NVA didn’t see him until he came up in the middle of their perimeter. Before we knew what happened, Gertsch had killed most of most them and returned with three prisoners.                           
                            

Another time John led Tigers on a two day hunt through the A-Shau Valley chasing a PT-76 NVA tank. Nobody stopped to ask what we’d do if we caught up with it. The tank made it back across the Laosion border before we caught it. Gertsch stomped where angles, or devils feared to tread.

Tiger Force had seen more action then any other unit in the Division. And Jonh was the best of the best. Any man who’s been hit twice by claymores and still walks point has more nerve then any one man deserved.
 
John was ending his third consecutive tour with Tigers when he was chosen to represent the 101st Airborne Division at an annual reunion to be honored as soldier of the year in Ft. Campbell. John knew Tiger Force was headed back into the notorious A-Sau Valley and his experience was needed for this dangerous mission. He decided to stay with his unit and help out. As it turned out that decision was very costly for all of us.

Tiger Force was choppered into the A-Shau Valley on July17, 1969 and two days later they were ambushed. The platoon leader was seriously wounded and it was Gertsch who dragged him to a sheltered position. John assumed command of the heavily engaged platoon and led his men in a fierce counterattack that forced the enemy to withdraw and recovered two wounded comrades.
A short time later, Tigers were attacked again. John charged forward firing as he advanced. Together, John and the other Tigers forced the enemy to withdraw.

Sometime later his platoon came under attack for the third time by a company sized NVA element.  John was severely wounded during the onslaught.  During the attack, he noticed a medic treating a wounded officer.  Realizing that both men were in imminent danger of being killed, John rushed forward and positioned himself between them and the enemy.  While the wounded officer was being moved to safety, John was mortally wounded.


John GertschLeft Photo: John Gertsch, July1968.

By the end of the Vietnam conflict Tiger Force had seen more combat than any other unit in the Brigade and become one of the highest decorated units of its size in the military at the time. Sixty percent of its members had awarded the Bronze Star for valor, thirty percent Silver Stars, and two Tigers received The Congressional Medal of Honor.
Lt. James Gardner, CO of Tiger Force KIA Feb. 7, 1966, was awarded a Purple Heart,  three Bronze Stars, two Silver Stars and The Congressional Medal of Honor.

My mentor and good friend John Gertsch was KIA in the A-Shau on June 19, 1969.In all John was awarded three Purple Hearts, three Bronze Stars with V, five Silver Stars, and for his actions on July 19, John was awarded The Congressional Medal of Honor.
Our commander and founder, Col. David Hackworth died at his home on May 14, 2007.
David was involved in every conflict the U.S. was in from WWII through Vietnam. David was awarded eight Purple Hearts, eight Bronze Stars, ten Silver Stars, and two Distinguished Service Crosses and was put in for The Congressional Medal of Honor three times.

 

Fred Raymond is still in the military. He works for the Department of Veterans Affairs and holds the rank of Major General. Fred still has the respect of all who had the honor of serving under him.
   
Being a member of this elite unit of Ghost Worriers was the pinnacle of my brief time in the military.

TJ McGinley
Tiger Force Recon
1/327/101st Abn. Div.
Vietnam '68-'69

Author TJ McGinely
is an active member of War-Stories
 
War-Stories.com Logo