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Valor in Vietnam
Chronicles of Honor, Courage, and Sacrifice 1963-1977
By Allen B. Clark
Casemate PublishingCopyright © 2012 Allen B. Clark
All rights reserved.
Early Special Forces "A" Teams in Vietnam
Captain Ramon A. "Tony" Nadal, II, USA
(NAM DONG SPECIAL FORCES CAMP, 1963–1964)
The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding go out to meet it.
U.S. Army special forces came into their own during the Vietnam War. In the typical employment small teams of Americans trained and led indigenous forces, composed most notably in the Central Highlands of the native Montagnard peoples, establishing a string of camps along South Vietnam's borders with Laos and Cambodia. There the mission was to observe and report on enemy infiltration of troops and supplies and, where possible, to interdict or at least impede such movement into South Vietnam from the enemy's Ho Chi Minh Trail network. Of course the static camps were tempting targets for enemy raids and attacks by fire, and over the long years of the war many fierce battles took place in and around these camps.
The Ultimate Volunteer
At a young age in his native Puerto Rico, Tony Nadal knew he was meant to be a soldier. His father graduated from West Point in 1928 and no other choice but West Point made any sense to him. Upon graduating in 1958 he desired to prepare himself the best possible way for soldiering and joined many of his classmates at the Infantry Officer Basic Course followed by Airborne and Ranger schools. He volunteered for the infantry, without argument the most dangerous branch of the U.S. Army. His first Vietnam tour would be an illuminating and illustrious example of the early Vietnam War history.
It was only natural for him to volunteer for special forces who were engaged in combat action, however limited it was at the time, in Laos and Vietnam. He had barely heard of Laos and Vietnam, but learned that SF soldiers had served on mobile training teams in Laos since 1959 and in Vietnam since early 1961. He quickly realized the "romanticism" of this type of soldering and knew that was where he wanted to serve. (Stanton: 26) After applying a second time for an SF assignment it was his good fortune to be assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, and soon after he became qualified as a special forces officer. Then he volunteered a second time to lead a special forces A detachment to Vietnam.
Prior to his assignment to Detachment A-727, Nadal was sent to Ft. Knox, Kentucky, for two months where he trained a battalion of Cuban volunteers that was to take part in the planned invasion of Cuba as the vanguard of the liberation of Havana in order to create the impression that the invasion of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis was a Cuban affair. Also included in the invasion plan were the 82nd and 101st Airborne, 1st Armored, and 2nd Marine divisions. This massive invasion force had been organized to prevent Soviet nuclear missiles from being stationed in Cuba.
After returning from Ft. Knox, he received his assignment as team leader for the newly-formed SF Detachment A-727, a twelve man A team, bound eventually for South Vietnam and the special forces camp at Nam Dong in the northern section of the country. Several of the other eleven members of his team had already been to Laos and their experience was welcomed by Captain Nadal. He would now be serving with soldiers at a level of quality that he had not previously experienced. Their training, motivation, physical hardiness, mental discipline and expertise were outstanding and their ability to accomplish their tasks with limited guidance or supervision was a lesson that he quickly learned. Special forces missions, "demanded rugged individuals who were able to master critical military skills needed to train and lead guerrilla warriors [and] to take care of themselves and others under harsh combat conditions." (Stanton: 21) These were Nadal's kind of warriors. He would fit seamlessly into this culture. After two months of training at Ft. Bragg they were ready for deployment to Vietnam.
His team sergeant, MSgt. Theodore Finch, remains to this day the best enlisted soldier Nadal ever met. A long-serving SF soldier, Sergeant Finch was as qualified in the various skills of an A team as the incumbent sergeants holding the positions of communications, weapons, intelligence, or engineering. However, Finch himself would probably have admitted that the team medic may have been somewhat better qualified in that skill position. In addition to their military occupation specialties the senior sergeants in each position were also qualified as combat leaders, with several being veterans of the Korean War. "Doc" Wilson, their senior medic, had served in the 101st Airborne Division in World War II as well as in the Korean War. First Lieutenant Walter Nelms, his team executive officer, who had been in Laos previously, would become a valuable asset in camp administration and patrol leadership once they reached Vietnam.
Special Forces in Vietnam
The major reasons the United States became involved in Vietnam were to counter a possible move by China to absorb Indochina and to thwart Ho Chi Minh from extending his "war of national liberation" into South Vietnam. The special forces camp effort in South Vietnam began in 1961 with the establishment of a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) program to build border surveillance camps to monitor North Vietnamese army (NVA) troop movements into South Vietnam. By late 1961 the Communists already had been very successful in recruiting the inhabitants as Viet Cong (VC) loyalists opposed to the central government of President Ngo Dinh Diem in the western highlands of Vietnam and the border areas adjoining Laos and Cambodia. In cooperation with the American army, special forces a teams, initially funded by the CIA, established a series of camps in the central part of South Vietnam around Pleiku and Dak To. Montagnards, the aborigine inhabitants scattered around numerous South Vietnamese hill tribes, were originally recruited to serve as Strike Forces (camp fighters). Each camp was overseen by an American SF "A" team, ostensibly serving only in an advisory capacity to the Army of Vietnam special forces (VNSF) team and the Strike Force members. The success of the initial program led to its expansion and in early 1963 A teams from the 7th Special Forces Group were sent to northern South Vietnam to establish four new camps, one of which was Nam Dong. In mid-1963 the U.S. Army assumed full responsibility for this program, much to the regret of the A teams, which had become accustomed to the much more lenient structure, freedom of action, and generous resources provided by the CIA. By September 1963 there were thirty-seven special forces camps such as Nam Dong scattered all over South Vietnam, primarily along the Laotian and Cambodian borders. The CIA had originally planned and strategized for these camps to stop Viet Cong troop movements and resupply from Laos and Cambodia. (Stanton: 82)
Assignment: Nam Dong
After a long, leisurely trip by air across the Pacific Ocean, Nadal's team in-processed at Nha Trang and Da Nang. On 30 July 30 1963 a trio of Marine Corps CH-34 helicopters transported detachment A-727 from Da Nang on the coast approximately thirty kilometers over heavy jungles and mountains to their new home, the isolated outpost of Nam Dong, located approximately fifteen kilometers from the Laotian border and forty kilometers south of the A Shau Valley. As the special forces Detachment A-727 commander, Captain Nadal faced the daunting task of running a camp of four hundred Vietnamese in the mountainous northern jungles of South Vietnam. The camp was located in Thua Thien Province, South Vietnam's second province south of its border with North Vietnam
A stream flows through the village of Nam Dong, also shown as Ta Rau on the map, and the only access to the valley is a very rough dirt road, which could easily be ambushed in the narrow mountain passes between the mountains and the coastal plains. Surrounding the valley are three thousand foot-high steep-sided mountains covered with dense primary jungle that was very difficult to traverse. The stream through the village originates in another valley to the east which is separated from Nam Dong by a narrow gorge through which the river flows.
The task was very challenging, but Nadal was up to it. "No military duty was more difficult or potentially more challenging than border duty ... the northwestern outposts, in close proximity to North Vietnam and the dreaded A Shau Valley (just northwest of Nam Dong), were the most feared assignments." (Stanton: 84) He felt confident in the ability of his team members and himself to accomplish their mission. His training and desire gave him assurance that he would succeed because he reflected the positive attitude that all military personnel should possess. Extraordinary confidence was especially critical for these original American special forces soldiers, the vanguard of the U.S. military effort in Vietnam, when they were in such isolated locations with little logistical support or backup.
On arrival they were met by the outgoing Nam Dong A team members who were very helpful and took several of the A-727 detachment members on a one-day patrol to familiarize them with their jungle environment. Nadal immediately realized that it would be necessary in their six month tour to focus on building up the camp and training the Strike Force, which was not only understrength, but also not well-trained.
Nam Dong Camp
One of the pleasant surprises in the camp was when they learned that the team they were replacing was the first team in Vietnam to have hired Chinese Nungs for an A team camp to act as body guards and, most importantly, as competent fighters. The Nungs were a fascinating Chinese tribal group from southern China that had been fighting the Communists since the early days of Mao Tse-tung. They were chased out of China, fought for the French, moved to South Vietnam after the French were defeated, and were now fighting with American special forces or being used to guard special forces head-quarters units. There were approximately thirty Nungs in Nam Dong with their own team house and kitchen. Their leader was an old soldier named Le-Tse-tung who had been an NCO with a French unit. They were protective of the Americans and good allies in a fight. Whenever Americans went on patrol, three or four Nungs always joined them. Nadal was always curious as to what happened to the Nungs following the fall of South Vietnam.
Nam Dong village was established in 1962 as part of the South Vietnamese government's strategic hamlet program which was designed to provide land to move farmers from the populated areas to the seemingly un populated highlands. The location had originally been built as a small French outpost. Many of these hamlets were located near the Laotian and Cambodian border. Unfortunately, native hill-tribe Montagnards, living as they did three hundred years ago, surviving through hunting and slash-and-burn agriculture, had inhabited the mountain areas first. Historic antagonism between the two groups, Vietnamese and Montagnard, created continuous difficulties where the cultures collided. The outpost protected five thousand Vietnamese in the surrounding valley which served as a direct enemy infiltration route to the cities of Da Nang and Phu Bai on the coast. (Stanton: 93) Later in the Vietnam War a senior SF officer, Charles M. Simpson, III, reported that, "the greatest portion of the peasant population was not committed ideologically to either side, wishing only to be left alone to survive." (Simpson: 98)
When Nam Dong Camp was established in the spring of 1963, there had been little previous contact with the Montagnards in the area. The Katu tribe, which inhabited this area, had a history of hostility to the Vietnamese and most chose to stay deep in their jungle valleys. Because of this, the Strike Force at Nam Dong was Vietnamese, recruited from the lowlands and cities along the coast. Colonel Simpson commented that some of the Strike Force members for the SF camps in northern South Vietnam were a unique group obtained when "The mayors of Da Nang and Hue [obtained recruits] from the ... teenage hoodlums, who had been scraped off the water front." (Simpson: 109) This was unfortunate because they lacked the jungle lore and wisdom that the Montagnards possessed, did not bond with the Americans as did the Montagnards, and were often infiltrated by the Viet Cong. As an example, on July 6, 1964, after Captain Nadal's team had returned from their tour, Nam Dong was attacked by a Viet Cong battalion; the attack so fierce that the camp almost was overrun. Only the heroic defense by the A team, the Nungs, and the Vietnamese special forces allowed the team to survive. The first Medal of Honor of the Vietnam War was received after that battle by Captain Roger Donlon, the team commander. In 1995 Donlon returned to the camp site and a former Viet Cong (VC) informed him that 20 to 30 percent of his Vietnamese Strike Force had been Viet Cong. Donlon related he now understood why so many of my Vietnamese were found in their beds with their throats slit or their necks broken. Some even had their hearts and livers cut out." (Donlon: 218)
The Nam Dong camp was built as two concentric ovals, defined by trenches and barbed wire. Between the outer and inner ring lived the Vietnamese Strike Force near their fighting positions in small thatch and palm tree frond huts. Inside the inner oval were the main camp buildings, which included a communication shack for the radios, a headquarters building for the team, a dining house for the Americans, an aid station, and a dormitory for the rest of the team members. This was generally replicated for the VNSF team. Also inside the second fence were the mortar, machine gun, and various fighting positions for the Nungs and Vietnamese special forces.
Strike Force Training
While Nadal or other team members were leading patrols, back at camp the training and recruiting of Strike Force members went on continuously. Recruiting was primarily the responsibility of the Vietnamese, but the Americans equipped and trained the civilian irregular defense group (CIDG) force. The CIDG members were fulltime members of the camp complement and were quartered inside the outer circle of defenses. By the time the tour ended the Strike Force had been built to nearly four hundred members organized into three companies. There were constant training cycles focusing primarily on weapons competency, immediate action drills, and ambush tactics. Training was the primary responsibility of Sfc. Charles Dodds, a large, very competent soldier, who earned everyone's respect by his undying patience and gentle manner when dealing with the Vietnamese. Unfortunately, not much was able to be done about discipline and morale. Nadal wondered if they should have spent more time on close order drill and other rudimentary military training. Since the Americans had no power to enforce discipline and minimal language skills, it was difficult to improve motivation, unit cohesion, or morale, and the VNSF detachment commander did not choose to exert himself to remedy these problems. From the original foundation of the organization of Luc Luong Dac Biet (LLDB), Vietnam's airborne special forces, although there were exceptions, many of the officers were incompetent. Captain Nadal was unfortunate that his counterpart was one of the weaker officers.
Medical and Civic Action
Establishing good relations with his Vietnamese counterparts was important and always depended on establishing rapport with divergent personalities. Inasmuch as the U.S. Army was paying the CIDG troops, Nadal evolved to be in command of the camp. Fortunately, the initial VNSF detachment commander did not much care to be in charge and deferred to Captain Nadal.
The focus was on three activities: combat patrolling towards the Laotian border to determine enemy infiltration and ambushing or capturing the enemy, protection of the village of Nam Dong, and gaining the trust of the villagers through civic action projects. Nadal personally led many of the patrols, participated in civic action projects, and left protection of the local area to the VNSF Strike Force. One of the SF team's accomplishments came to fruition just prior to their departure: they obtained the services of a team from a naval construction battalion (Seabees), which came to the camp with heavy equipment and built a bridge across the river, improved the camp's defensive fighting positions, and built an airstrip nearby.
Excerpted from Valor in Vietnam by Allen B. Clark. Copyright © 2012 Allen B. Clark. Excerpted by permission of Casemate Publishing.
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