When I die, if the Lord gives me a moment to reflect before I breathe my last breath, my first thoughts will be not of my loved ones, nor my children.
I'll reflect on and thank God for Sau, Hiep, Phouc, Tuan, Hung, Son, Quang, Chau, Cau and Minh. Captains Tuong and Thinh and lieutenants Trung and Trong will follow them in my thoughts. Then, I'll think of my loving wife, our talented and unique children, and our folks.
Why the Vietnamese men before my loved ones? Without the courage, strength and fearless verve as combatants in America's secret war in Southeast Asia, I wouldn't have returned to the United States.
Today, on the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, I'll pause to salute those warriors, men most Americans will never hear about, including the more than 3 million U.S. troops sent to South Vietnam during America's longest and costliest war.
There are many who do not respect or salute the Vietnamese who fought in Vietnam. That's because our country has failed to educate them about the Vietnamese, the country they sent us to and its history and customs. As Green Berets, we fought side by side with them, laughed with them and learned about their families, their dreams and hopes and fears.
The first group were members of Spike Team Idaho, a reconnaissance team that ran classified missions into Cambodia, Laos and North Vietnam under the aegis of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam, Studies and Observation Group ---- SOG. Green Berets, Navy SEALs and U.S. Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance troops manned several special operation commands throughout South Vietnam.
I joined Spike Team Idaho in May 1968, after six members of the team disappeared in a Laos target area. Three U.S. Green Berets and three Vietnamese mercenaries were never heard from again and remain listed as missing in action today. By '68, Idaho operated out of Phu Bai, 10 miles south of Hue. In May, there were 30 recon teams there. By November, Idaho was the only operational team left in camp. The enemy troops in Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam were well-trained, fearless and well-equipped.
Captains Tuong and Thinh and lieutenants Trung and Trong were helicopters pilots who flew Sikorsky H-34s in the Vietnamese 219th Helicopter Squadron for SOG. Time and again, they flew the older H-34s, which we called "KINGBEES," into landing zones where enemy soldiers tried to knock them out of the sky.
For several months in '68, the KINGBEES were the only aircraft flying SOG teams "across the fence" deep into enemy territory. In Laos, the CIA estimated there were between 30,000 and 40,000 North Vietnamese troops keeping the Ho Chi Minh Trail open, bringing supplies from the north to South Vietnam ---- and fighting SOG troops.
During my 17 months on Idaho, we always left targets under heavy fire from North Vietnamese troops. The ride home was in KINGBEES and every time we asked for one, it came, regardless of enemy fire. There are many Green Berets alive today thanks to the incredible flying skills of Vietnamese Kingbee pilots. And without the Vietnamese or Montagnard team members, there would have been more than the 161 killed in SOG operations.
Sau was the Vietnamese team leader on Spike Team Idaho. When I landed at Phu Bai, Sau had been fighting for Special Forces nearly five years. Weighing less than 100 pounds soaking wet, Sau had a remarkable sixth sense: He could smell the enemy. In the jungle he moved with complete stealth and silence, often cursing his larger American counterparts.
Hiep was the team's interpreter, who sometimes corrected U.S. troops on their English, as well as speaking Vietnamese, French and some Chinese.
Phouc, Chau, Son and Hung all signed up with Special Forces when they were 15 or 16. After hundreds of hours of intensive training, their age didn't matter as they stood tall in combat.
On Oct. 7, 1968, Spike Team Idaho, after trying to escape from North Vietnamese trackers, was attacked by NVA soldiers, who opened fire on full automatic. Sau had warned they were near. Although none of the Americans heard anything, Sau, Phuoc, Hiep and Don Wolken were on alert, with their weapons on full automatic, ready to go.
In those firefights the first seconds are crucial. The submachine guns we carried fired 20 high-velocity rounds in 1 1/2 seconds. Sau, Phouc and Hiep reloaded and drove the NVA back down the jungle-shrouded hill. We gained fire superiority, but the NVA never stopped coming at us. After a while, they were firing at us from behind stacks of dead bodies. They came at us from 2 p.m. until dusk, time and again rushing us, trying to overrun our position. We had Air Force Phantom jets, Skyraiders and helicopter gunships dropping bombs, napalm and cluster bombs and make strafing runs. That was the first time I could recall smelling burnt human flesh.
By dusk, we were low on ammo, hand grenades and rounds for our grenade launcher. Capt. Thinh flew his H-34 to a slight rise above our position, hovering in deep elephant grass ---- thick-bladed grass that grew more than 12 feet tall. Because the grass was thick and the NVA tried to close in on us again, it took us several minutes to get to the Kingbee.
When I arrived under it, I looked up at Capt. Thinh, sitting there looking as calm as a Rocky Mountain breeze in springtime, and he smiled. Finally, we were loaded and he yanked us out of there. Sau, Hiep, Phouc and I fired off our last magazine of rounds and threw our last grenade as we pulled out of the landing zone, again under heavy enemy fire.
Within a few minutes we were at 4,000 feet, returning to Phu Bai. We were safe and unharmed. The Kingbee had 48 holes from bullets and grenades in its side panels and propellers. The new American on the team quit the next day. Sau, Hiep and Phouc ate dinner before I arranged for Sau and Hiep to return to their families that night. That scene unfolded hundreds of times over the course of SOG's history.
I carry a deep, haunting guilt for having left them in South Vietnam.
(J. Stryker Meyer, a North County Times staff writer, served in the Special Forces from 1968 to 1970.)