DEFENDING AMERICA
David H. Hackworth
30 June 98

DANGEROUS WORK

"Mayday! Mayday! Mayday" was all I could hear over my helicopter radio, amidst the background ta-ta-ta of automatic weapons and the bwam-bwam of exploding hand grenades.

Down on the ground a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) was in trouble. From the looks of things in the growing darkness, a chopper had been shot down -- and from the rifle and grenade flashes, the LRRPs were surrounded by a large Viet Cong force.

Ira A. Hunt, a glory hungry 9th Division colonel, had sent good men on a bad mission to die

I got the job to bail them out.

Thirty years later, a serving colonel who fought in Vietnam as a sergeant with this LRRP outfit says "The mission was doomed before they started. They went to the same well too often and allowed an idiot brigade commander to dictate their mission with some really ugly results."

Their radio operator had a death grip on his handset and he was full-time maydaying it. He wouldn't let up and consequently I couldn't talk to anyone on the ground to find out what was going on.

My chopper was almost out of fuel and had to break off. The helicopter rescue force carrying a rifle company from my battalion was still twenty minutes out and now it was pitch black.

If I wasn't there to mark the spot, Captain Gordon DeRoos' helicopter-borne boys wouldn't know where to go. It would be like looking for a buoy at night in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

My pilot wasn't happy when I told him to swoop down low and hover over the fight, so my partner in crime, Artillery Captain Emile Robert, and I could bail out. But when I thumped the cold end of a pistol barrel against his warm head, he reckoned I was serious and obliged.

We plunged into waist high water and into the biggest bedlam I'd struck in a lot of years doing infantry combat. The LRRPs -- all volunteers who did their thing by operating in small teams, deep in bandit country -- had totally lost their cool. Panic reigned. Nobody was in charge.

Robert and I forcibly picked up stunned LRRP soldiers and aircrew like they were sandbags and threw them into a defensive perimeter. Out of 18 survivors, 16 were wounded. But they could still shoot and once they realized the only way they were going to get out of this mess was to gain fire superiority over their foe, shoot they did.

Robert brought artillery and helicopter rocket fire down on the enemy. DeRoos' troopers landed within the perimeter, relieved the LRRPs on position, drove off the Viet Cong, and then evacuated the LRRPs and aircrew.

Under DeRoos, a pro, things were cool. He and his gallant men made the complex job a piece of cake.

That's the end of the war story. When I wrote my book, ABOUT FACE, I told this tale in far more detail than space allows here. Now 10 years later I realize I was too harsh and used a huge cannon when a sniper rifle would have been the better weapon.

I was angry. In all the scrapes I've been in, in the five decades of chasing wars, this fight was the hairiest. It was also the biggest risk I ever took. Because I didn't know what was going on down on the ground, I couldn't figure the odds. Robert and I could have well ended up as the two uninvited guests at a Viet Cong Barbecue.

So, I roasted all LRRPs, instead of just the guilty. Especially the 9th Division guys. I know now that a couple of LRRP leaders on the ground that night screwed up, became unglued and things unraveled. The majority of the kids there ­ and most were 19 years old -- did the best job they could, under very bad circumstances.

LRRPs in Vietnam like SEALs, Rangers and Special Forces soldiers were pound for pound the gustiest soldiers we had there.

I should know, I formed the first battalion LRRP unit in Vietnam, the acclaimed 327th Tiger Force, modeling it after my Korean-era Raider unit.

When you get too old to say you're sorry, you are indeed in trouble. Hey, LRRPs, I'm sorry.

The end