Tiger Force: A True Story of Men and Warby Michael Sallah, Mitch Weiss, Harry Chase, Harry Chase
At the outset of the Vietnam War, the Army created an experimental fighting unit that became known as "Tiger Force." The Tigers were to be made up of the cream of the crop-the very best and bravest soldiers the American military could offer. They would be given a long leash, allowed to operate in the field with less supervision. Their mission was to seek out enemy… See more details below
At the outset of the Vietnam War, the Army created an experimental fighting unit that became known as "Tiger Force." The Tigers were to be made up of the cream of the crop-the very best and bravest soldiers the American military could offer. They would be given a long leash, allowed to operate in the field with less supervision. Their mission was to seek out enemy compounds and hiding places so that bombing runs could be accurately targeted. They were to go where no troops had gone, to become one with the jungle, to leave themselves behind and get deep inside the enemy's mind.
The experiment went terribly wrong.
What happened during the seven months Tiger Force descended into the abyss is the stuff of nightmares. Their crimes were uncountable, their madness beyond imagination-so much so that for almost four decades, the story of Tiger Force was covered up under orders that stretched all the way to the White House. Records were scrubbed, documents were destroyed, men were told to say nothing.
But one person didn't follow orders. The product of years of investigative reporting, interviews around the world, and the discovery of an astonishing array of classified information, Tiger Force is a masterpiece of journalism. Winners of the Pulitzer Prize for their Tiger Force reporting, Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss have uncovered the last great secret of the Vietnam War.
The Washington Post
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Tiger ForceA True Story of Men and War
By Michael Sallah Mitch Weiss
LITTLE, BROWNCopyright © 2006 Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss
All right reserved.
Even through the haze of smoke in the dimly lit lounge, Sam Ybarra glimpsed Ken Green as he walked through the door. "Kenny, over here!" shouted Ybarra over the music blaring from a tape deck. Meeting, the two friends hugged as the other soldiers looked up from their beers and shot glasses.
It had been nearly a year since they arrived in Vietnam, and this was one of the few weekends the two could meet on a break. They'd been waiting it out, and now at long last it was time to down beers and later slip into the brothels that lined the streets of Kontum. Green introduced Sam to two buddies, Leon Fletcher and Ed Beck. For days, Ken had been telling them about his time with "Crazy Sam"-cruising the streets of Globe, Arizona, in Green's blue 1964 Chevelle SS, guzzling Ripple with the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" crackling over the radio. And now, in this sad and near corner of Southeast Asia, the two old friends were together again.
To most people, they were as opposite as they were close: Green was boyish, good-looking, and cocky-the type of guy who could turn heads in a crowded room. Ybarra was dark skinned, with a round, pockmarked face-awkwardly shy unless he was drinking. But forall their differences, they shared something in common: they were constantly in trouble.
Green was known for his temper-quick to start fights with other students at Globe High School, regardless of their age and size. Though he stood only five feet, five inches, he rarely backed down. Everyone knew to stay away from him. As a junior, Green had brutally attacked another student who was a year older and a foot taller for looking at him the wrong way in the hallway. Dozens of classmates watched in horror as he pummeled the student senseless on the floor. It took three teachers to pull him away.
Back home, on some summer nights, Green would sneak out of the house with his .22 rifle and head for a ridge overlooking a dam on nearby Lake Roosevelt. Patiently, he would wait for Sheriff Dutch Lake to drive onto the roadway over the dam, and then Green would shoot out the lights on the road before fleeing into the darkness. The sheriff suspected it was Green but could never prove it. Nor could the sheriff prove that Green was the one who rolled a boulder onto the dirt runway at the tiny Lake Roosevelt airstrip, shutting down flights for hours. By the time authorities arrived to remove the large rock, Green and the two buddies who carried out the prank had vanished. But they left their calling card on the boulder: the words "Fuck You," painted in black.
His father, Melvin, was a laborer for the state highway department who also ran Carson's Cafe, a diner on Lake Roosevelt. He was quick to discipline his son for misbehaving, sometimes beating him in front of his friends, but those beatings only made Green more defiant. Once, his father grounded him for coming home with alcohol on his breath, ordering him to work extra hours at the diner with his sister and older brother. Instead of washing dishes, Green stole his father's boat, later flipping the craft in a race on the other side of the lake. The beatings that followed his pranks only seemed to make him more aggressive, and by his late teens, he was getting into fights almost weekly.
Ybarra was angry, but for more obvious reasons: he was painfully aware of his own physical appearance and never felt accepted in the small mining community that looked down on Mexicans and Native Americans. Sam was burdened with the shame and angst of being a "half-breed," and his longing for a father who had died when Ybarra was five was profound. (Manuel Ybarra was a truck driver for the Inspiration Consolidated Copper Company when he stopped at a bar on the way home and was stabbed to death in a brawl.)
Besides getting into fights, he was arrested three times for underage drinking and once for disorderly conduct. At sixteen, he had dropped out of high school, guzzling beer and wine behind Mark's or Pinky's-the two nightspots in town that catered to Native Americans. He was too young to go inside, so he would wait outside the door and ask elders from the reservation to buy him a Coors or a pint of Thunderbird.
In Globe, Indians and whites weren't supposed to socialize. It had been that way for generations. But by the 1960s, some of those rules began to be challenged. Though Ybarra and others from the reservation went to "Indian schools" during their grade-school years in the 1950s, they were now attending the white public schools. Whites and Indians were at this point playing on the same football and basketball teams, and even joined in school dances. Still, the older Indians would tell Ybarra to stay out of the white bar, The Huddle.
Green and Ybarra didn't meet until high school, where they began hanging out in the parking lot before classes. Though they came from different worlds, they found something in common: they were angry and were quick to pick fights. Ybarra was an outcast, and Green was becoming one.
Their bond became deeper after Green began driving, and the two started skipping school and drinking. "No one knows the shit that Sam has gone through," Green told family members who tried to discourage him from associating with Ybarra. It was them against the world, as ferocious as suns.
And now, here they were in late May 1967, ten thousand miles from home and oblivious to the soldiers around them in the bar. They ordered Black Labels and toasted each other.
"At least we're both still alive," said Green.
The night before they had enlisted, the two friends had sat in Green's car downing beers when they heard a radio broadcast about the war. They began talking about joining the Army. Sam had challenged his friend: "If you do it, I'll do it."
Green had agreed. As a boy growing up along Lake Roosevelt, he was spellbound at the sight of the paratroopers dropping from the sky during training exercises. And when Green and Ybarra hunted deer and quail in the nature preserves near the lake, they often talked about what it would be like to be soldiers. Besides, there was nothing for them in Globe, except working in the copper mines. Ybarra knew all about that life: his relatives had toiled underground for years, and he didn't want any part of it.
The next day, they showed up at the local recruiting office and enlisted under the Army's buddy system. Together they entered the 101st Airborne in January 1966 and, after jump training at Fort Benning, Georgia, were sent to Vietnam, Ybarra in July and Green a month later.
It had been about ten months since they arrived in Vietnam, leaving behind their lives in Arizona, and for most of that period, they were assigned to different units. Green was in a mortar platoon but spent most of his time humping in the mountains in the heart of South Vietnam with heavy equipment and only sporadic contact with the enemy. Ybarra's experiences were different-and it showed even in his uniform. Unlike the others in the lounge that night, he wasn't wearing the traditional olive green. Instead, he was dressed in tiger-striped fatigues and a soft-brimmed jungle cap, and he carried his own sidearm and hunting knife.
Tiger Force, the 101st Airborne's version of Special Forces. Badass of the badass.
Ybarra had actually been sent to a signal corps after arriving in Vietnam, but quickly grew bored and asked to be transferred to the Tigers in early 1967. He didn't regret his move. As soon as he joined the platoon of forty-five men, he felt part of a special team of soldiers who were treated differently than the grunts in the line companies. He remembered the first time a battalion commander addressed his platoon in Phan Rang: "You're the Tigers, men," he reminded them before they went on a reconnaissance mission. "The Tigers always get it done, no matter how many gooks you see." It was an exceptional group that allowed no exceptions.
Tiger Force was founded in November 1965 by Major David Hackworth to "outguerrilla the guerrillas," a platoon known as a "recondo unit" because it was to carry out reconnaissance and commando functions. The model for Apocalypse Now's Colonel Kilgore, Hackworth was a hell-for-leather soldier of savage brilliance who had revealed himself as a daring hero during the Korean War. In Vietnam, he had realized that conventional warfare was a dead end. Following his lead, his commanders found the best way to locate the new enemy was to blend into the jungle terrain. That meant breaking into small teams, donning camouflage, and carrying enough rations and supplies to last several weeks. They would leave themselves behind.
Such was Hackworth's answer to an enemy that moved in intricate underground tunnels and carried out hit-and-run tactics.
Beyond surveillance, the Tigers were often ordered to perform impossible maneuvers, such as acting as a blocking unit for retreating guerrilla forces and often relieving much larger line companies trapped in firefights. In February 1966 at My Canh II, an area covered by rice paddies and mountains in the Central Highlands, the Tigers were trapped by a well-fortified enemy until the unit's own commander, Lieutenant James Gardner, heroically charged three bunkers. Gardner was killed, but his actions allowed his platoon to escape, and he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. At Dak To, a city just thirty-five kilometers from Laos, eleven Tigers were killed on June 11, 1966, when they pursued a fleeing North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regiment. In that case, as it would be often, they had been the first unit sent to face the enemy. Let the other guys mop up-the Tigers wanted fresh blood, even if it meant some of it might be their own.
Only forty-five men were accepted in the Tigers, and that was only after three months of combat experience and a screening process by commanders that included a battery of questions, mostly centered on the soldiers' willingness to kill.
Ybarra had impressed the officers. With cold, steely eyes, he said he could kill without hesitation-using a knife, M16, or even his own hands. It made no difference. Ever since jump school at Fort Benning, Georgia, he had been looking for a home. He hated the structure of the line companies-the chain of command, the rules, the officers. The Tigers were different, part Green Beret, part line company. They would break into small teams, two or three men at a time, creep deep into the jungles, "and do whatever the hell you want to do," he was fond of saying. When the commanders told him he was accepted into the platoon, he was "thrilled."
After several rounds of beer, Sam sank down into his chair. There was so much smoke in the lounge it was almost impossible to see across the room. Not that there was anything special worth noticing. The room was a typical makeshift military bar, with round Formica-top tables, folding chairs, and thin wood walls built on a raised bamboo platform, and filled with the stench of cigarettes and whiskey. There were hundreds of these cheap versions of nightspots in South Vietnam that were supposed to remind American soldiers of the watering holes they left behind. The only prop in the lounge was the flickering Black Label neon light dangling over the bar.
Ybarra guzzled the last of his beer, leaned over, and began telling Green and the others about the Tigers' most recent battle. On May 15 Ybarra and the Tigers were called to a valley west of Duc Pho in the heart of the Central Highlands-Quang Ngai province-where another Army reconnaissance unit, the Hawks, was pinned down by enemy fire. In the late morning, with a dozen Tiger Force soldiers at the bottom of the valley, the enemy launched a surprise attack. "They were fuckin' all over the place," Ybarra angrily recalled. Well-fortified enemy bunkers at the top of the valley suddenly opened up, and NVA soldiers began shelling the helpless Tigers below.
Led by the Tigers' commander, Lieutenant Gary Forbes, the platoon members charged the bunkers but were forced down by a flurry of mortars and .50-caliber machine-gun fire. For hours, the platoon was at the bottom of the basin, dodging artillery, grenades, and bullet fire. Tiger Force radioed for helicopters to evacuate the wounded, but each time a chopper tried to land, it was forced to leave because of enemy artillery. One helicopter was able to land in a rice paddy but was immediately hit by fire and destroyed.
By early afternoon, Tiger Force was no closer to escaping and was running low on ammunition. But the platoon finally caught a break when the soldiers found a new position and were able to call in American air strikes without being hit. For two hours, U.S. jets dropped bombs on the bunkers. The combination of air strikes and the arrival of some additional American troops allowed the Tigers to escape. By the end of the day, two were dead and twenty-five wounded. For some of the injured, including Lieutenant Forbes, the war was over.
Because of the losses, Sam admitted the Tigers "were down" and unable to go back out on maneuvers until they could find reinforcements. The battalion officers were trying to bring in new volunteers. Now Ybarra did his part. He turned to Green. "You need to come with me, Kenny. You need to be a Tiger."
Green always knew when Ybarra was serious; his smile would disappear and his eyes would narrow. He had seen the look many times before, and he saw it now.
Vietnam in early 1967 was still vastly different from what it was to become at year's end. There was still a sense of patriotism that had not yet been eroded by the bitterness of the Tet Offensive and casualties that would soon turn most Americans against the war. Until now, most of the conflict had been marked by skirmishes and, if not wild optimism, at least a sense of inevitable triumph.
Through most of the conversation, Green's friend Leon Fletcher was quiet. But after several minutes, he grew agitated. "You don't want to join these guys, Kenny," he said. "You're going to get yourself killed."
Fletcher had looked up to Green. Ken had been the one who took the time to show Leon the basics of survival, from throwing him to the ground during sniper attacks to teaching him how to avoid booby traps. And now Fletcher thought it was time to return the favor.
Green was quiet for a moment, and then he turned to Fletcher. "At this point, I just want to kill a lot of them. My job is to kill."
Ed Beck joined in. After several months in South Vietnam, he was looking for real action-not just maneuvers or air strikes with no real targets. He had come to Vietnam to escape, not just from the boring western suburbs of Chicago but from a wife who was making his life miserable. "How do we get in?" he asked.
Before Ybarra could answer, Fletcher interrupted again. "You guys are crazy. You're supposed to be trying to stay alive. Why do you want to join a fucking recon unit?"
Ybarra quickly cut him off. "Look, man, stay out of this," he said, jabbing a finger at Fletcher. "Don't be telling Kenny what he's going to do. We go way back." There was not a trace of friendliness in his comment.
Ybarra's anger may have been what Green most admired, especially when his fury involved protecting Ken's right to do whatever the hell he wanted to do. Green turned to his friend. "I'm in, man. Tell me what I need to do."
"If you're going, I'm going," Beck said.
For Green and Beck, it was their way of finally taking part. Like so many others in the bar that night, they had been in high school when the first U.S. fighting units arrived in Da Nang in March 1965, and had watched the television reports of a war that was supposed to stop the spread of Communism.
Excerpted from Tiger Force by Michael Sallah Mitch Weiss Copyright © 2006 by Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss were co-authors of the Toledo Blade's remarkable series on the Tiger Force massacre. Together, they won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for their Tiger Force stories. Sallah currently is the investigations editor for the Miami Herald. Weiss is now an editor with the Charlotte Observer.
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