An Army helicopter flies in support of ground forces during the Battle of Ia Drang in Vietnam in November 1965. Credit: US Army photo.

“You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.”
— Viet Minh leader Ho Chi Minh to French colonialists in 1946

Today is Memorial Day in the United States — a day to celebrate with family and friends, at the beach, at a picnic, or a barbecue.

In other words, a day off from the drudgery of work, and time to recharge the batteries.

But it is also a time to remember the fallen, and, as such, I would like to recognize the sacrifices of those who fought in Vietnam.

In particular, my friend Santino from Chicago, who did two tours with the US Army in Vietnam.

During that time, he saw action in several military operations, sometimes acting as a “tunnel rat” when called upon to probe enemy bunkers, due to his slender frame, sometimes “on point.”

Often promoted through the ranks due to officer casualties in his unit, he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, “who only cared about body count,” he would later recall.

You would think his memories of Vietnam would be bitter and regretful.

Instead, Santino would tell us stories of how wonderful the Vietnamese people were, the natural beauty of the country, along with the terrible tragedy that was unfolding.

His photos — actually, color slides which he greatly treasures — show smiling locals, and great camaraderie amongst US troops.

The man I also want to thank on this day, is the US Army drill sergeant, who — after learning that Santino volunteered for duty — befriended him, took him aside, and told him how to survive in Vietnam.

Those secrets, can never be shared.

Thus, I dedicate this Memorial Day to my friend Santino, who is now retired and living somewhere in the US northwest.

To those who served, and did so, with great heroism:

Charles Kettles: Fearless helicopter pilot

On May 15, 1967, Major Charles S. Kettles was a flight commander with a helicopter assault company that had flown soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division into the Song Tau Cau river valley in South Vietnam.

Soon afterward, the unit radioed to the helicopter company, stationed nearby, that it was suffering casualties at the hands of enemy troops firing out of fortified bunkers and tunnels.

Major Kettles volunteered to lead a flight of six helicopters to evacuate the wounded. His helicopter and those flying alongside him were raked by fire while extricating many of the wounded on the first two rescue trips that day.

He made it back to his base after a second foray with fuel leaking from his craft and his gunner severely wounded.

Soon he was heading back to his base for the third time, believing that all the wounded had been evacuated, when he was told by radio that eight more soldiers remained on the ground.

Major Kettles swung back for a fourth rescue trip while his unit’s other helicopters continued back to their base with their wounded. The gunships, fighter jets and artillery that had supported the previous rescue efforts had departed by then, believing the action was over.

Major Kettles’s helicopter was severely damaged by enemy fire, and his windshields were shot out when he landed for a fourth time, but he rescued the eight remaining soldiers and made a safe return to his base.

“A soldier who was there said, ‘That day, Major Kettles became our John Wayne,’ ” President Obama said, while presenting him the Medal of Honor. “With all due respect to John Wayne, he couldn’t do what Chuck Kettles did.”

Kettles, like most true heroes, never sought accolades.

“I just walked away from the helicopter believing that’s what war is,” he said, adding he was thankful for the opportunity to save so many lives.

“We got the 44 out,” he said. “None of those names appear on the wall in Washington. There’s nothing more important than that.”

Charles Hagemeister: Medic who braved deadly fire

Specialist Fourth Class Charles Hagemeister was a medic with Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) in Vietnam’s Binh Dinh province during an attack on the night of March 20, 1967.

Hagemeister’s platoon came under heavy fire from three sides by an enemy force occupying well-concealed, fortified positions and supported by machine guns and mortars.

Seeing two of his comrades seriously wounded, Hagemeister raced through the deadly hail of fire to help. After learning that the platoon leader and several other soldiers had been wounded, he crawled forward under fire to render aid, the citation states.

At one point in the battle Hagemeister seized a rifle from a fallen comrade, killed a sniper and three other enemy soldiers who were attempting to encircle his position, and silenced an enemy machine gun before securing help from a nearby platoon to evacuate the wounded.

“Hagemeister’s repeated heroic and selfless actions at the risk of his life saved the lives of many of his comrades and inspired their actions in repelling the enemy assault,” the citation stated.

After receiving an award for valor from then President Johnson, Hagaemaster remarked: “The pressure of a crisis situation makes you realize what you’re made of. If you do your job and a little bit for somebody else, you’ll usually come through.”

Robert Rimpson: Hero of Operation Starlite

“That day makes me cry,” Robert L. Rimpson said.

“I’ve seen a lot of misery and pain in my life and that was the most heartache I’ve ever had; something I put behind me for a while.”  

Pfc. Rimpson, who was 19 at the time, and his fellow squad members advanced on an entrenched enemy near An Cu’ong village when suddenly they received intense small arms fire.

He and members of his squad, to include Sgt. Robert O’Malley, his squad leader, advanced in an effort to clear the trench line.

Rimpson assaulted the trench line with rifle and grenade fire. O’Malley was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions that day.  

After clearing the trench line, Rimpson, who suffered shrapnel wounds from enemy mortar fire, moved forward with fellow squad members to assist in moving wounded personnel to a helicopter landing zone.

During this time, Rimpson delivered accurate suppressive fire from his grenade launcher on the enemy position, enabling the helicopters to land and evacuate casualties.  

“When we hit the trench line, we opened fire to save my brothers from harm,” Rimpson modestly recalls. 

For his actions actions on Aug. 18, 1965 in support of Operation Starlite, Rimpson was awarded the Bronze Star Medal.

“I’ve never been more proud to be a Marine,” said Rimpson.

ST Idaho: Special Forces team that vanished

The men of ST Idaho, two Americans and four South Vietnamese indigenous troops, were tasked with locating enemy forces and activity in the A Shau Valley, close to the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

A snake-like tunnel and trail system that passed through nominally neutral Cambodia and Laos, the Ho Chi Minh Trail furnished North Vietnamese troops and Vietcong guerillas with materiel and supplies as they took the war to the South.

ST Idaho was comprised of One-Zero, or team leader, Glen Oliver Lane, One-One, or assistant team leader Robert Duval Owen, and four skilled South Vietnamese indigenous troops.

The highly experienced ST Idaho inserted on the morning hours of May 20, 1968. They sent the standard “Team OK,” over the net. That was the last time anyone heard or saw them.

“It was just two clicks on the radio handset, no words. The North Vietnamese were very good at intercepting our comms, and with the help of the Russians, Chinese, and the mole at SOG headquarters, they were able to track almost all secret comms in the area.”

John “Stryker” Meyer

Military Assistance Command Vietnam-Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG) was a secretive organization that conducted covert cross-border operations in North Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.

Successive US administrations claimed that no American troops were outside South Vietnam — a lie of strategic proportions.

Hundreds of Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Recon Marines and Air Commandos fought against all odds, against an enemy who always enjoyed a numerical advantage that sometimes exceeded a ratio of 1:1000.  

In their covert campaign to gather strategic intelligence, destroy or harass enemy formations, or sabotage their installations and activities, SOG commandos enjoyed the loyal support and fierce martial skills of local partner forces.

These “little people,” as the American commandos affectionally called them, fought shoulder to shoulder with their American brothers-in-arms.

It was on the afternoon of the same day that people started realizing that something was amiss with ST Idaho.

“Usually, we had a comms check early in the morning, another at noon, and one before dark,” said John “Stryker” Meyer, a legendary Green Beret.

“It was just two clicks on the radio handset, no words. The North Vietnamese were very good at intercepting our comms, and with the help of the Russians, Chinese, and the mole at SOG headquarters, they were able to track almost all secret comms in the area.”

When ST Idaho again failed to make radio contact at the commo window the next morning, another SOG team, ST Oregon, went in a Bright Light operation.

One of the most dangerous mission-sets, Bright Lights were combat search and rescue or recovery operations that aimed to save stranded SOG commandos and downed pilots who were evading capture or to recover the remains of men who had to be left.

ST Oregon was inserted on the same landing zone, and they soon encountered numerous NVA troops.

After a fierce battle, in which they lost one indigenous trooper and all of the team members were wounded, ST Oregon was exfiltrated in the nick of time and only because of the heroics of the aircrews involved.

A-1E Skyraiders arrived and began making gun runs so close to the team’s perimeter, the men of ST Oregon could clearly count the bolts in the single-engine propeller-driven war plane as exploding rounds from it killed NVA soldiers charging the team.

The battle was so fierce, the indigenous commando who was killed was riddled with 94 separate wounds.

Before they managed to escape, ST Oregon spotted a trail in the grass they believed ST Idaho had taken.

However, the NVA who attacked the Bright Light team had used weapons operated by SOG, including CAR-15 rifles and M-26 fragmentation grenades, further solidifying the belief that ST Idaho had been violently ambushed.

Sources: The New York Times, Stars & Stripes, Marine Corps News, Sandboxx, Sofrep.com

Dave Makichuk is a veteran writer and copy-editor with 35 years’ media experience who lives in Calgary and freelances for Asia Times. A dedicated Detroit Red Wings, Tigers and Lions fan, Makichuk relishes his chosen role as enemy of the state, and defender of the oppressed and downtrodden.