VFW Magazine — August 2012
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Last Days Of The Infantry In Vietnam, 1972
Richard K. Kolb

By the final full year of the war, American grunts were a rarity in the field. The last of them would die by enemy action in early June. For light weapons infantrymen and their constant companions—mortarmen, combat medics, armor recon and crewmen, artillery forward observers and their field radio operators—it was a lonely end. It was the same for a handful of Special Forces advisers. Three task forces would close out GI ground operations.

As 1972 opened, only two U.S. divisions (the 1st Cav and the 101st Airborne) along with the 196th Light Infantry Brigade (LIB) fielded a total of 14 infantry battalions in Vietnam. Five of those battalions were gone within the first two months of the year. The 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment also still maintained one squadron (the 2nd) in-country. (Its G and F troops lost a total of three men KIA, all armor crewmen in separate incidents, early in the year.)

America’s ground war was ending, and the casualties clearly reflected that fact. Infantry KIA occurred only sporadically, mostly in the first three months of the year. Throughout 1972, a total of 16 “11 Bravos” (excluding advisers with that MOS operating with ARVN units) were killed on the ground as a result of enemy action. Fourteen, or 88%, were members of the “First Team”: seven were killed by small arms and seven in explosions.The 196th’s only ground-grunt KIA (two) came from the 2nd Bn., 1st Infantry, on Feb. 25-26, in two different actions before the massive NVA Easter Offensive was launched on March 30.

RECALLING THE WANING DAYS

Many 196th vets recall those last days in the field vividly when U. S. withdrawal was in full swing. A squad leader in D Co., 3rd Bn., 21st Inf., Sgt. Dana Monaco remembers conducting “mostly search and destroy patrols and guarding the ridge line around DaNang. I came home during the large-scale troop pull out in March, but a lot of my men were still there for the finale in August. These were not nice times.”

Terry Jordan was a mortarman with the 1st Bn., 46th Inf., based at Hill 350 (LZ Maude). In April, his unit was the farthest north, with 100 men working the bush around Charlie Ridge. “Humping 81mm mortars on top of your rucksack, weapon, ammo and 81mm round wasn’t easy,” he said.

Jim Gales was a gunner with an 81mm mortar crew of B Co., 2nd Bn., 1st Inf. “The last few months, right up until June, we spent guarding the radar site [LORAN Station] for guiding B-52s, being out on Observation Post 56, FSB Linda and at Camp Carroll,” he remembers.

John Woyansky was a platoon leader in the 1st Infantry’s 2nd Battalion until leaving in mid-June. “Those were tense times,” he says. “We were in rolling hills southwest of Phu Bai guarding some signal/intelligence site, running patrols. Most of my platoon went to the 3rd Bn., 21st Inf. Apparently, remnants of the platoon became a ‘4th Platoon’ in that unit. Fortunately, they all made it out alive.”

As the American infantry war ground to a halt, two line outfits vied for the title of “last to leave”: elements of the 196th and the 1st Bn., 7th Cav, 1st Cav Division. The “First Team” missed that mark by a mere week or so, but has other claims to distinction, some unwanted. Its troopers stayed in the field, doggedly pursuing the enemy.

A squad leader of an 81mm mortar crew attached to E Co., 1st Bn., 7th Cav, Sgt. Maximo Carraso arrived in Vietnam in January 1972. He was based at a mini-firebase in March and April. “During the NVA Easter Offensive,” he says, “FSB Spudis was constantly hit. Even after moving back to Bien Hoa in August, we were hit by 122mm rockets. We could see them being launched; they sounded like speeding freight trains.”

Walter Roberts was a medic with 2nd Plt., D Co., 7th Cav, leaving the country in early June. “Our company was committed to search and destroy missions in Long Khanh, Phuoc Long and Tay Ninh provinces. We had numerous contacts with NVA regulars who were well-dug into bunker complexes,” he recalls 40 years later.

The last infantry Gis to die in Vietnam on the ground by enemy action were 1st Cav Rangers: Sgt. Elvis Osborne and Spec. 4 Jeffrey Maurer. On June 9, H Company’s Ranger Team 76, led by Osborne, conducted a recon patrol near Tan Uyen.After helicopter gunships raked the NVA bunker complex there, the team went in to assess the damage. Either rocket fire or a command-detonated bomb rigged as a mechanical ambush device claimed their lives.

H Company ceased combat operations by mid-July. A month later, on Aug. 15, it was inactivated, the last U.S. Ranger unit to serve in Vietnam. It was credited with the longest continuous combat tenure of any Ranger outfit in U.S. military history up to that time. (The 1st Cav’s 34th Scout Dog and 62nd Combat Tracker platoons also were on duty until mid-August.)

TASK FORCE GARRY OWEN: 1ST BN., 7TH CAVALRY

It was the 1st Bn., 7th Cav, the core of Task Force Garry Owen, that carried the division’s banner until the bitter end in early August. It operated in III Corps around Bien Hoa from firebases such as Bunker Hill and Grunt.

On June 15, when the 3rd Brigade left Vietnam, “Deadly Delta” was created out Of B Company with troopers from the 2nd Bn., 8th Cav and 1st Bn., 12th Cav, filling the remaining ranks.

Some 139 men were assigned to the company plus an artillery forward observer and his radio operator, four medics and three Kit Carson Scouts (former enemy Vietnamese).Providing fire support was B Battery, 1st Battalion, 21st Field Artillery.

A brand-new arrival to the war and the 1st Cav was Marc G. Thibodeaux. “I actually enlisted to go to Vietnam, so the Army had to send me there even though I was an 11 Bravo,” he said. “I ended up in-country in May 1972 and with Delta Company through August.” (Thibodeaux would serve the remainder of his tour, until Jan. 31, 1973, as a gate guard for the Command Aircraft Company at Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon.)

Lt. Sandler Heller led the 4th Plt., C Co., 1st Bn., 7th Cav, for about five weeks, then switched over to “Deadly Delta.” “The men were the best you Could ask for,” Heller stresses today. “It was the wrong image projected back in the world. We were in the field well past the time the President announced the
U. S. no longer had ground combat troops in Vietnam. We got the word live on the radio as we were boarding a slick for another insertion and patrol.”

Bob McConnell was captain of Delta Company and agrees with Heller’s assessment of the troopers.

“As we drew back and drew down, no one wanted to be the last man killed in Vietnam,” he says. “Despite that, Custer’s Finest, the 1st of the 7th Cav, stayed hard core to the end. We did combat assaults, set ambushes on trails and blew bunker complexes up to the last. The last guys out of the bush that August said good-bye to Vietnam with a mag and a frag. Men in the 1st Cavalry did heroic things for each other without hesitation. I am proud to have been one of their commanders.”

McConnell describes Delta’s final days in the field graphically: “Our last combat mission was an air assault northeast of FSB Grunt. It was full on air cavalry with artillery prep, Cobras firing rockets, resupply on day three and a ‘frag and mag mad minute’ as we boarded slicks for the last time after the operation was completed. The last ‘kills’ by Task Force Garry Owen were a bunch of dead monkeys hosed by Cobras.

“It was all over by Aug. 8 as the task force melted away. Unlike the 3rd Bn., 21st Inf., there was no formal, ceremonial stand down for TF Garry Owen. No press was on hand to greet our last patrol, so our last mission went unrecorded.”

TASK FORCE GIMLET: 3RD BN., 21ST INFANTRY

When the 196th LIB left Vietnam in early June, the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry, stayed behind to protect DaNang Air Base. Along with B Btry., 3rd Bn., 82nd Field Artillery, it formed Task Force Gimlet (the 21st’s nickname) on June 15.

The task force’s normal routine was punctuated by a tragic accident on July 7.
While in a night defensive position, four men of 1st Platoon of A Company were killed by “friendly fire” from an artillery round fired by B Battery based on Hill 260.

“I was the radio-telephone operator (RTO) on the gun (#2) that fired the friendly fire round and was stationed with the RTO who called in the mission for the platoon,” remembers Ron Fox. “I refused to fire the round because I knew something was not right. I made Fire Direction Center (FDC) re-plot the data three times and required the FDC officer to give me a direct order to fire the gun.”

John Rieu was a medic attached to that six-gun battery, which was ordered to fire a high-explosive round, and was down in the parapet during the fire mission.“The mistake was either made by the grunts in the field or the tactical operations center personnel,” he says.“The gun battery crew entered the coordinates provided to them correctly and was not at fault.”

In early August, Lt. Col. Rocco Negris stood before the specially handpicked men of D Co., 3rd Bn., 21st Inf. “No taking chances. No heroics,” he told them. “This is our last patrol.” For three days, Aug. 8-10, the grunts beat the bush in the DaNang “rocket belt.” Several were wounded by booby traps. Spec. 4 James McVicar stepped on a half-buried c-ration can, which exploded, spraying him with shrapnel.Evacuated to the 95th Evacuation Hospital in DaNang, he was the last line infantryman wounded in the war.

Six men of Fire Team Bravo, 2nd Squad, 3rd Platoon, D Company, led by Lt. John Vermilion, were the last to be Lifted out of the field by helicopter on that history-making mission. When the entire operation was completely done, Sgt. Al Alcala exclaimed: “God, I can’t believe we’re finally going home—that it’s over!” CBS reporter Phil Jones accompanied that final patrol. “For the grunts,” he proclaimed, “the Vietnam War is over.”

But it had been hard slogging to get to that juncture of history. Roger Drouet was among those extracted from the field on Aug. 10. An M-60 machine gunner, he participated in 25 aerial missions from January through July. “We stayed in the jungle two weeks at a time,” he recalled, “sometimes inserted by helicopter into hot Lzs. We set up listening posts on trails outside night defensive positions, which were often probed by sappers. Memories of the sounds, sights and smells of these operations never go away.”

Rich Wengatz arrived in Vietnam on Jan. 1, 1972. An 11D20—armor recon specialist— he started out with the 2nd Sqdn., 11th ACR at Pho Loi. On May 28, he went to the 2nd Bn., 1st Inf., and finally C Co., 2nd Bn., 21st Inf., from June 15 to Aug.12. His path to Vietnam was unique. “I was a Department of the Army volunteer who selected the option for Vietnam,” he said. “On the last night my unit was in the field, my squad drew the short straw and set up along a known NVA trail with an OP and tripwires/Claymores.”

Also arriving in January, Rich Waldrop ended up in the mortar platoon of HHC in battalion headquarters at the base of Hill 321. He clearly remembers the last stand down: “As I stood in the final formation where we furled the colors, I realized I was part of a historical moment in the Vietnam War and was proud to have served.”

Gun bunnies of B Btry., 3rd Bn., 82nd Field Artillery were part of that history, too. Ron Fox vividly recalls the final mission: “The battery stayed out for another day to cover the infantry as they pulled out of the field. There was a massive fire for effect, all six guns firing 20 to 30 rounds each and then Gun #4 fired one final round. The U.S. flag that flew over the firebase was taken down and so ended the U.S. artillery’s role in Vietnam.”

George Whitehouse was the section chief of the Fire Direction Center. “That final, ceremonial round went off of Hill 260 at 1100 hours on Aug. 10,” he says.
“I remember thinking this is really it for me [he had been with three other artillery units that stood down], and we are really going home. But it was five weeks too late for the four troopers who died on July 7. I carry their names around in my wallet to this day. May we never forget the sacrifices they made.”

Even after Task Force Gimlet ended, some grunts were still serving in Vietnam because they arrived late. Tim Ingle got to DaNang on March 9. Starting off with C Co., 2nd Bn., 1st Inf., he eventually wound up in B Co., 3rd Bn., 21st Inf. “We mostly tromped around in the rocket belt outside DaNang and suffered the elements,” he said. “Most men were worried that they would be the last American killed in the war.”

But he, like a few others, was destined for a longer stay. “Those of us who were left in my unit beyond August were sent to F Trp., 8th Cav, 1st Avn. Bde., to work security from Marble Mountain, a miserable place,” Ingle recalled. “I finally left Vietnam on Nov. 12, 1972.”

By the fall, only three rifle security companies remained behind—in Long Binh and Qui Nhon—as part of the U.S. Army Support Command, and they were all gone by Nov. 26. However, seven air cavalry troops were there until Feb. 26, 1973. The Infantry Security Force (Special Guard) stayed until the very end in March 1973. The first U.S. infantry unit to arrive in-country, it was composed of specially chosen soldiers.

TASK FORCE MADDEN: 2ND SF BATTALION, 1ST SFG

But it would be among another group of elite Army troops that the last American would die in a firefight in Vietnam. Near the war’s end, Special Forces (SF) tasks were classified and hence largely unknown. The 1st Special Forces Group, based on Okinawa, formed Task Force Madden and dispatched nine operational teams and 113 SF personnel to Vietnam beginning July 5, 1972.

TF Madden would be the 1st SFG’s last combat operation of the Second Indochina War. One of its tasks was to train indigenous personnel as instructors and cadre for the Cambodian Medium Range Reconnaissance Patrolling Course.One training camp was located at Long Hai in coastal Phuoc Tuy province.

B Company of the 2nd SF Battalion supplied the detachments for the task Force. Operational Detachment 22 consisted of 20 men commanded by Capt. JamesM. Fletcher. One of the 10-man teams included Master Sgt.Nicholas Marvais, operations sergeant; Sgt. 1st Class Clifford Newman, intelligence sergeant; and Sgt. Fred G. Mick, assistant medic.Marvais and Mick would be on a fateful convoy in the fall.

As fate would have it, Cliff Newman missed that convoy. “The week prior to Fred’s incident, I was supervising a patrol in a reportedly dry (secure) area and walked into a small ambush,” he recalls. “I stepped on a booby trap and shattered my left foot. Fred was one of the medics who applied first aid. I was evacuated to the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon, and about two weeks later on to Okinawa. The VFW Post there awarded me a life membership, by the way.”

On Oct. 12, Mick and Marvais were riding in a 2 ½-ton truck in a convoy carrying equipment being returned to Bien Hoa. Traveling along Highway 13, the convoy—it included 10 Cambodians— was ambushed between Long Thanh and Long Binh. “The ambush was triggered by an explosion followed by heavy smallarms fire,” Marvais stated in the afteraction report. When he checked, “Sgt.Mick was dead.” Seven Cambodians also were killed.

Sniper fire pinned the survivors down in a ditch until relief arrived. Mick’s body was taken by a medevac helicopter to the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon. Marvais was wounded in the ambush. Today, both Marvais and Newman are members of the Special Forces Association. Newman serves as administrative director.

As for Sgt. Mick, he had been in-country only 22 days, having arrived on Sept.
19. Age 26, he was married with a daughter.Posthumously awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, Mick has not been forgotten. A street is named after him at Fort Lewis, Wash., and a plaque and tree outside Groveport High School in Ohio preserve the memory of the last Green Beret KIA in the war. Moreover, Mick was the last American actually killed by small-arms fire in the field in Vietnam.

Even after 40 years, Mick’s former commanding officer remembers him fondly. “Sgt. Mick was an outstanding soldier and a fine young man,” says Jim Fletcher. “It is appropriate that his service and sacrifice be recognized.”

That same sentiment holds true for the Gis who pounded the ground when virtually all Americans believed the last ground combat units had been withdrawn from Vietnam by 1972.

Author and Vietnam vet William J. Shkurti wrote of them in Soldiering On in a Dying War: “The troops that had to rose to the occasion. They looked out for each other, sacrificed for each other, and, in the end, protected the interests of their country. While their countrymen were divided and distracted, they held it together and soldiered on.”

Whatever Happened to 3/21?

AFTER IT WAS INACTIVATED in Oakland, Calif., on Aug. 23, 1972, the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry, remained out of combat action for the next 32 years. It was reactivated again (a er several earlier activations) on March 16, 2002, and assigned to the 25th Infantry Division. Since Dec. 16, 2006, the Gimlets have been stationed at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska.

As a component of the 25th’s 1st Brigade Combat Team (BCT), 3/21 completed its first Iraq tour in 2004-05. Serving in and around Mosul, it earned a Valorous Unit Award as part of the entire brigade for Operation Founding Fathers, which supported elections in Nineveh province. A second tour in Iraq, 2008-09, saw the battalion in Diyala province with Task Force Lightning. Earning three campaign stars over two tours, the battalion sustained eight KIA and some 76 WIA.

In March 2011, the 3rd Battalion deployed to Afghanistan as part of the 4,000- man 1st Stryker BCT—the “Arctic Wolves.” Operating in the southern provinces of Zabul and Kandahar, the Gimlets saw duty in places like Outpost Lion on the edge of the Horn of Panjwai. By the time it returned to Fairbanks in April 2012, six battalion members had been KIA by the Taliban.
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