I arrived in Vietnam in July 1966, and for the next year I served as an adviser with the South Vietnamese Airborne Division. It was the last year we thought we were winning. It was the last year we could define what we thought winning would be. It was a year of optimism, of surging American troop strength that largely took over the war from the Vietnamese — and of wildly expanding American casualty lists.
By the end of 1967, there were 486,000 American troops in the battle. The number of Americans killed in action that year roughly doubled from 1966. Amid all of that, the sacrifice and valor and commitment of the South Vietnamese Army largely disappeared from the American political and media consciousness.
The South Vietnamese Airborne Division, which I joined as an assistant battalion adviser, was an elite combat unit. By 1967 these paratroopers, with their camouflaged jump uniforms and distinctive red berets, had grown to 13,000 men, all volunteers. Those of us privileged to serve with them were awe-struck by their courage and tactical aggressiveness. The senior officers and noncommissioned officers were extremely competent and battle hardened; it’s easy to forget that while the Americans were new to Vietnam, many of these men had been at war since 1951.
As advisers, we essentially acted as staff and liaison officers at the battalion and brigade levels. We had spent a year preparing in California, including 16-hour days of cultural and language immersion at the Defense Language Institute. I ended up with a sub-fluent command of spoken Vietnamese. Counterinsurgency tactics and training in the World War II-era weapons systems that the Vietnamese still used took place at Fort Bragg, N.C.We played a wide range of roles: coordinating artillery and airstrikes, arranging helicopter lifts and medevac and providing intelligence and logistical support. We didn’t give orders, and we didn’t need to. Our Vietnamese counterparts were men we admired, and they were glad to have us — and American firepower — with them. We ate their food. We spoke their language. We trusted the Vietnamese completely. I usually had a paratrooper as a bodyguard and as a radio operator.
Normally, a battalion-level advisory team like mine consisted of three men: an American Army captain, a first lieutenant and a senior noncommissioned officer, usually a sergeant. The sergeants were the core: While officers rotated in and out, many of the sergeants stayed with their assigned South Vietnamese units until the end of the war — or until they were killed or knocked out of the fight.
My introduction to Vietnam was a bloody experience. We deployed by American Navy assault boats and Army helicopters into the swampy river delta south of Saigon. This was combat without glory, fighting and drowning in the saltwater muck. There was none of the adventure that we felt in Ranger school. My captain, an incredibly professional and competent senior adviser, was killed. Back at base, I helped carry his body off the helicopter. It was only the beginning.
Four months into my tour with the airborne we were involved in a giant, bloody battle supporting American Marine units north of Dong Ha, near the coast in the northern part of South Vietnam. Two of our battalions were inserted by helicopter into the Demilitarized Zone to check a significant force of North Vietnamese moving south. It turned into three days of intense and bloody combat. My senior adviser was killed. Our incredibly courageous noncommissioned officer, Master Sgt. Rudy Ortiz, was riddled from head to foot. He asked me to load his M-16 and put it on his chest so that he could “die fighting” with the rest of us (luckily, he survived).
We took hundreds of casualties and came very close to being overrun. But the South Vietnamese paratroopers fought tenaciously. At the critical moment, with supporting air and naval fire, we counterattacked. The executive officer of my Vietnamese battalion walked upright through heavy automatic weapon fire to my foxhole. “Lieutenant,” he told me, “it is time to die now.” It gives me chills to remember his words.
In combat, the South Vietnamese refused to leave their own dead or wounded troopers on the field or abandon a weapon. In another battle one of my West Point classmates, Tommy Kerns, a huge Army football player, was badly wounded and stuck in a narrow trench as his airborne battalion tried to break contact with a large North Vietnamese force. The Vietnamese paratroopers with him, all much smaller than Tommy, couldn’t haul him out of the trench. Rather than withdraw and leave him, they held their ground and won a violent engagement over his giant wounded body. He survived because of their courage.
The America advisers and most of the Airborne Division were stationed in and around Saigon. We loved the energy and fun of the city. We loved the culture and the language and the Vietnamese. We were terribly proud of our status with the Red Berets. We were sure the entire world envied our assignment — we were working with the country’s elite. With combat and airborne pay, we had what seemed like a ton of money. We lived in air-conditioned quarters. We were young and harebrained and aggressive. The American colonels and lieutenant colonels who ran the advisers were older, stable and battle-hardened men who had seen much worse combat in World War II and Korea as paratroopers.
Life as an adviser in the Vietnamese Airborne Division was unpredictable. The division’s job was to serve as a strategic reserve, to be inserted into combat whenever commanders needed an edge. A Vietnamese airborne battalion or a full brigade would be alerted for emergency deployment in the middle of the night. We would cram into American and Vietnamese Air Force transport planes, which sat, engines roaring, in long lines at Ton Son Nhut Air Base, near Saigon. Live ammo would be issued. Sometimes parachutes were issued. A hurried battle plan.
And then — mayhem. The battalions deployed to wherever they were needed. We could head anywhere in the country and find ourselves in the middle of a firefight. Many of the America advisers and hundreds of the Vietnamese paratroopers I served with did not come back from these operations. I can see their young faces still. Capt. Gary Brux. Capt. Bill Deuel. Lt. Chuck Hemmingway. Lt. Carl Arvin. My very young radio operator, Pvt. Michael Randall. All dead. Brave. Proud.
Vietnam wasn’t my first combat tour. After graduating from West Point, I joined the 82nd Airborne Division in the Dominican Republic intervention in 1965. We had deployed to the island and quashed the Cuban-inspired Communist uprising, and then stayed as an Organization of American States peacekeeping force. We thought that was what combat meant, and when we returned to Fort Bragg, we were eager to get to Vietnam — several lieutenants from my infantry battalion jumped into a car and drove all the way to Army headquarters in Washington to volunteer for the battle. We thought we were going to miss the war.
Now we know the end of the story. Two million Vietnamese probably died. The United States lost 58,000 and 303,000 were wounded. America descended into a bitter and convulsive political civil war. We knew nothing of it then. I was so very proud to have been selected to serve with the Vietnamese airborne. My new and beautiful wife, whom I loved dearly, knew I had to go. My dad, an Army general, would honor me if I was killed.
All this was over 50 years ago. The Vietnamese Airborne Division soldiers who survived the collapse of South Vietnam either escaped through Cambodia or went through a decade of brutal “re-education” camps. Most of them eventually made it to the United States. We have an association of the American advisers and our Vietnamese comrades, and there is a memorial to our efforts at Arlington National Cemetery. We gather there every year and remember how we fought together. We wear our red berets. We laugh at our old stories, but there is a deep sadness that we lost so many, and that it came to nothing.
People often ask me about the lessons of the war in Vietnam. Those of us who fought with the Vietnamese Airborne Division are not the ones to ask. All we remember and know is the enduring courage and determination of the Vietnamese Airborne privates pushing forward into battle. They have no monuments except in our memories.
VIETNAM '67 AUG. 8, 2017
Barry McCaffrey (@mccaffreyr3) served as an adviser in the Vietnamese Airborne Division. He retired as a four-star general, later served as the Clinton administration drug czar and is now a national security commentator for NBC News.