9th Infantry Division Headquarters, Dong Tam, Vietnam
15 January 1969
"It's a pussy battalion, Colonel. I want tigers, not pussies."
I had to hand it to Major General Julian Ewell. Twenty-five years after his kick-ass command in Bastogne, the old paratrooper was still firing for effect. He had sent stateside for me to fix one of his busted units -- 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry of the 9th Division -- right then out in Indian country getting its clock cleaned.
"The 4/39th is the worst goddamn battalion I've ever seen in the Army, Hackworth. It couldn't fight its way out of a retirement home."
He thumped the desk in front of him.
It took some doing to keep a straight face. As a lieutenant colonel with over two decades of my life invested in the Army, though, I wasn't about to piss off General Ewell. You didn't spend a day in green without learning about his reputation for ruthlessness. He swung his ax with a high-pitched war cry: "You're gone. You're history." And you were.
We sat in his office in Dong Tam, half an hour by chopper from Saigon. The 9th Infantry Division's flagpole was planted -- as if anything but rice could be planted in the Mekong Delta -- just outside the general's window. Ewell's flagpole. Ewell's division. And Ewell's reputation at stake. And the poor, sorry 4/39th was letting him down.
He unconsciously jiggled his hand in a tight semicircle, thumb and pinkie extended like the hands of a watch, ticking off the points he wanted to emphasize.
"Pussy battalion." Tick, tick.
"I want tigers...." Tickety, tock.
His hand gyrated like a whirligig.
I'd known Ewell for years, a combat veteran gone long in the tooth, his days as a warrior behind him. Sure he was steamed, but if you looked closely you could see that the heat hadn't taken the creases out of his immaculately ironed fatigues. But before the starch, Ewell had earned a formidable reputation as a battalion and regimental commander with the 101st Airborne in World War II, serving under the legendary General Maxwell Taylor. After the war, he hooked himself to Taylor's coattails and took a peacetime trip up the chain of command to collect a shoulder full of stars. Right now he was a tightly wrapped, thin-lipped, hard-charging West Pointer who meant to drain the Delta before the Delta pulled the plug on him.
General Ewell and I were not alone. And the man standing a dog bone's throw behind him did nothing to improve my mood. Ira Augustus Hunt was a tall, good-looking bird colonel, as polished as a new Rolls-Royce and -- with his Ph.D. in engineering -- about as useful in combat. The Army considered him one of its best and brightest. And just as Ewell had ridden upward in Taylor's jet stream, so Hunt was cruising in Ewell's, having served under him as commander of his engineer battalion in Germany and now as the 9th Infantry Division's chief of staff. The two made quite a pair. Between them they had more naked ambition than a Harvard Law School third-year hustling the Supreme Court for a clerkship.
My take on Hunt? A whiz with a slide rule and a dunce with a sidearm, or any other kind of weapon. I met him in Italy right after World War II, when I was Private Hackworth of the 351st Infantry Regiment and he was Lieutenant Hunt of the command's engineer company. Even then he was a piece of work. We were TRUST soldiers (Trieste United States Troops), so tightly disciplined that if a private even blinked at a sergeant he'd find himself running around the parade field with his rifle over his head shouting "I'm a big-assed bird" until he dropped. In Italy, I learned that exacting even-handed discipline is crucial when the bullets start flying, but Hunt worked overtime inventing infractions, gigging good troops and basking in his power. The GIs I knew who felt his lash or sting thought he was a first-rate bastard. Now he was General Ewell's consigliere.
I'd been back in-country less than three hours. Earlier that morning I'd stepped off a commercial charter jet in Saigon. The Army's own FTA flight, free trip to Asia. All expenses paid by the Department of Defense of the United States of America. Three times before 1969, I'd made the same eighteen-hour trip across the Pacific to Southeast Asia. Nothing had changed. The plane was full of FNGs, fucking new guys -- nineteen- and twenty-year-olds, pink-cheeked, dry-mouthed, wide-eyed, eager but scared -- one more load of fresh meat for the Vietnam grinder. I couldn't help wondering which of them the KIA Travel Bureau would be bagging up for the return trip home. Even the lucky ones, the ones who made it out alive, would never be the same.
At Tan Son Nhut, the U.S.-controlled air base in Saigon, customs greased me through like a four-star general, and I went directly to the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) helicopter pad, where a 9th Division chopper waited. The bird rose and veered to the southwest, Saigon fading behind under its haze of camphor smoke. I watched the chopper's shadow racing above rice paddies where tiny figures worked -- men and women in black pajamas with naked children in tow, a few followed by the dark silhouette of a water buffalo.
Thirty minutes later, the bird circled Dong Tam. From the air, the place looked like a huge, dirty, nineteenth-century Nevada mining town squatting in its own tailings -- prefab wooden buildings with tin roofs, dusty roads and miles of green sandbags, the bunkered 3rd Surgical Hospital, a PX and an outdoor movie theater, one short runway of perforated steel planking and a huge helicopter pad. Home away from home to rear echelons of ten infantry battalions along with aviation, signal, engineer, artillery and military police outfits and every other kind of logistical ash and trash.
To build the place, U.S. Army engineers had brought in a monster machine that sucked several square miles of silt from the bottom of the Mekong Delta to create enough solid land for the 9th Division to set up shop. Four hundred acres in all with the rest heaped into an earthwork berm that gave the perimeter the look of an ancient Roman encampment -- twentieth-century innards surrounded by second-century ramparts.
As the chopper dropped toward the pad, under the whump, whump, whump of the rotors, I saw a World War II-style ammunition dump in the middle of the base. Great call. One enemy mortar round, and the whole place would be history. I walked off the pad and jumped into a jeep with a kid behind its wheel waiting to run me over to General Ewell's headquarters.
The ride was an eye-opener. Nearly ten thousand rear-echelon motherfuckers -- REMFs to the grunts out on the line -- were stationed in Dong Tam surrounded by all the creature comforts. I saw a miniature-golf course and a swimming pool. I caught a glimpse inside a barracks, decked out with clean beds under mosquito nets. These guys pulled down the same combat pay as the young soldiers in the bush who lived in the mud, watching their feet rot, burning leeches out of their crotches and laying down their lives.
Dong Tam crawled with Vietnamese civilians, doing chores, changing the sheets on the beds of the generals and colonels, shaving the brasses' jowls, ironing fatigues and shining shoes. It took only one sympathizer to report every U.S. burp and fart to the Vietcong. But what really got my heart pounding was that ammo dump. What kind of commander would squat on top of his own powder keg?
General Ewell's briefing lasted half an hour, with Colonel Hunt bobbing his head in agreement every time Ewell spun his hand to make another point.
After that, they sent me on my way.
I left that meeting unsure of myself, anxious. I wasn't sweating a sick unit or leading troops. I'd enlisted in the military before I finished puberty and in the two decades since, I had commanded two infantry battalions and nine companies -- two rifle companies and two artillery batteries, and one each of raider, heavy weapons, armored cavalry, combat support and headquarter companies. But here, the chain and the terrain both spelled trouble. Pragmatically, I could do nothing about the chain of command and the tactical operational stupidity of Dong Tam. I'd be out of Ewell's and Hunt's eyesight soon enough, and worrying about how combat operations were being handled from above was a waste of time at best and got men killed at worst. There'd be ways around that. But the terrain was another matter. The Mekong Delta was an unknown to me -- a vast swamp riddled with a tough enemy who'd been fighting in it forever and who had every furrow down cold.
I knew that I couldn't count on my earlier in-country combat tour to guide me. In the Vietnamese Highlands, where I cut my teeth fighting the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), the enemy wore uniforms, there were few civilians in the jungle areas and the terrain, except for the coastal plains, consisted of mountainous, lung-busting jungle -- a bitch, but a manageable one. The Delta, mainly flat and open, was turf made for a chopper war. Not only didn't I know much about using choppers, it had been almost two years since I'd smelled enemy gunpowder. Over and over in my mind I asked myself: Will I be able to handle it? Will I remember what to do when the bullets sing?
I tracked down and spent the rest of the afternoon with the 9th Division's G-2, Lieutenant Colonel Leonard A. Spirito, bringing myself up to speed on the intell coming out of Dinh Tuong Province. Dinh Tuong was the swampy home court of Base Area 470, the Vietcong's Mekong stronghold. A capable intelligence officer, Spirito gave me the skinny on the basics of what the 4/39th faced every day -- enemy, weather and terrain. "Don't expect the enemy down here to fight or think like you do," he told me. "In the Delta, the enemy is strange, tough. He wrote the book on guerrilla warfare -- and he just keeps adding new chapters."
Colonel Spirito backed up what I'd learned stateside. Before leaving Fort Lewis, where I'd been running a training battalion, I called up an old friend, Colonel Hank Emerson, who was back in the States recovering from severe burns after his chopper was shot down in the Delta. Hank was a legend in Vietnam, a warrior's warrior, the guy the troops called "the Gunfighter."
Until the crash, Hank had been commanding the 9th Division's 1st Brigade -- he had, in fact, been the one who persuaded Ewell to send for me -- and he knew the Delta the way he knew his own service record. "It's like fighting in the Everglades," he'd told me. "Except if you don't have your shit together, the VC take you faster than the 'gators. Everything there is an infantryman's worst nightmare."
The problem I had to figure out was how to "out-G the G," out-guerrilla these guerrillas. But regressing to General Ewell's -- and the entire Vietnam chain of command's -- visions of World War II-era glory days and tactics was not the answer. That evening, Ewell organized the most worthlessly theatrical show-and-tell I'd ever seen: starched briefers, maps, charts, sitreps, stats, kill rates, body counts galore; the whole deal, all of them shining brightly. All of them pure-grade crap that made it perfectly clear I couldn't take anything coming from Ewell and Company at face value.
I managed to button my lip until Ewell's boys trotted off. Then I told him my overall plan. I intended to steal a page from Hank, use his checkerboard tactics, Eagle Flights and jitterbug strikes to fix and fuck the VC while adding a few tricks of my own.
"You just go ahead and do what you need to do," Ewell said dryly. Either tactics bored him or even he'd had enough of the dog-and-pony.
So much for defining the mission. But that night, I hit the sack knowing that my commanding general had given me what I needed most -- enough rope to hang the enemy. Or myself.
The next morning I did more recon, but moved down the line to the point of the actual spear. I needed someone I could trust to help orient my compass, get my combat bearings. So I paid a visit to an old buddy who'd been running the 2nd Battalion of the 39th Infantry for over six months, Lieutenant Colonel Don Schroeder. A fierce, charismatic soldier, tactically brilliant but even better in the bush, Schroeder was the finest infantry battalion commander the 9th Division had. We'd been captains together at Benning and majors together in the 101st, where Don had served as Hank Emerson's battalion executive officer (XO).
Schroeder was a stud on his way to stars, every one of them well deserved. During the next six days, he taught me more about fighting in the Delta than I could have picked up from a year in a classroom. He also slipped me some priceless intell. Over a beer one night, he told me that after Hank Emerson's chopper went down, Colonel Hunt had cut Hank out of the burning bird and saved his life. Everyone respected Hunt for it and the men were ready to get behind him after he took over temporary command of Hank's brigade. But the esprit de corps didn't last. "That son of a bitch rode us too hard and always put us away wet," Schroeder said. "He never knew when to stop. He's bad news." Pushing back his can, he sent up a million-candlelight flare over Hunt and Ewell.
"Watch your back," he warned. "They're a couple of rattlesnakes."
But by then I was raring to get out with my troops and walk the walk. Before I moved out, though, I made one last stop to see the new commander of the 1st Brigade. Colonel John P. Geraci was Ranger, Airborne, Special Forces and a grizzly, all-animal fighter. His radio call sign was "Mal Hombre" -- loosely translated, "mean motherfucker." During the Tet offensive, his 1/506th Airborne "Centurion" Battalion had racked up 1,294 VC KIA in exchange for eleven of his rock-hard centurions.
Geraci ate staff officers uncooked for breakfast, but the troops idolized him. "Here's what I've got for you," he'd tell them, laying out a mission. "Any questions? No? Good. Now go out there and knock their cocks stiff." Not a guy for euphemisms. When I asked him for the straight skinny on the 4/39th, he grinned and clapped me on the shoulder.
"Worst battalion I've seen in twenty-six years of service, Hack. You got your work cut out for you."
The 4/39th's area of operation, Fire Support Base Dizzy, was set on the Wagon Wheel, deep in bandit land where five canals converged like spokes on a hub. From my chopper vantage point coming in from Dong Tam, the place looked normal enough, but when I landed, I couldn't believe my eyes, or nose. The whole base smelled of raw shit and rotting morale. Toilet paper blew across the chopper pad, machine-gun ammo was buried in mud, and troops wandered around like zombies, their weapons gone red with rust.
These were the sloppiest American soldiers I'd ever seen, bar none. Unkempt, unwashed, unshaven, their uniforms ragged and dirty, hippie beads dangling alongside their dog tags, their helmets covered with graffiti. Where did these troops think they were, a fucking commune?
In the middle of this shithole stood the command post (CP) of Lieutenant Colonel Frederick W. Lark, the officer I would replace in a change-of-command ceremony the following day. He'd snuggled his CP next to a 155mm artillery battery at the hub of the wheel while deploying his four rifle companies raggedy-ass around the perimeter in defensive positions that would have melted away under a water buffalo's charge.
The firebase was loose as a goose. My brain went into overdrive, sorting out priorities, assessing problem areas and trying to keep cool. From what I saw in the first thirty seconds on the ground, I knew I'd need all the seasoned warriors I could find to turn the battalion around. And I needed them now.
I meant to start by canning the outfit's S-3 operations officer and the 250-pound heavy drop sergeant major. To replace them, I'd sent for two men of my own. The first was Robert Press, who had served as first sergeant under my command in the 101st. We'd also served together in the States as well as in Vietnam, and our partnership went all the way back to the same unit during Korea. Lean and mean, Press would be my new battalion sergeant major, the noncoms' chief ass-kicker and role model.
I loved this warrior. He was smart as a whip, tough as a one-dollar steak, an NCO right out of James Jones's From Here to Eternity. From the time he was a teenager during the Korean War, he'd been training and leading soldiers, and he knew his job the way a master carpenter knows his toolbox. On the flight up, we divided the chores. He'd concentrate on the noncoms. I'd work on the officers. And we'd meet in the middle with the troops.
For my S-3, I'd brought in Major Neville Bumstead, whose near fluency in the Vietnamese language was a big plus. He'd served with me during an earlier in-country tour as a platoon leader and staff officer and I thought he'd make one hell of an operations officer. He was West Point, Airborne, a school-trained Ranger who'd seen combat in the Mekong Delta with the Vietnamese Rangers. Another two dozen good men were also on the way.
Press came back from his first circuit of Dizzy shaking his head.
"I wouldn't even call it a firebase," he said. "I don't know what it is -- it kind of looks like a picnic area. I mean, it's like some kind of outing with the local Kiwanis or something. I looked around and seen no one wearing helmets. No one carrying their weapons. Everybody in the CP group was sleeping above ground. I didn't see a foxhole anywhere. Sir, this outfit stinks worse than we thought."
"Top," I replied, "as soon as I take over tomorrow, I want you to have the company commanders and staff assembled. While I meet with them, how about you getting together with the first sergeants? They haven't been doing their jobs, or this outfit wouldn't be in this shape. Really smoke 'em. Between us, we'll get things straightened out."
He shot me a pitying look.
"Right, Colonel. You, me and John Wayne."
Press was right. We were in serious trouble, open to attack at any moment, with only a bunch of demoralized and badly led troops loitering on the perimeter to fight off any assault by the VC. If Dizzy were hit, we'd go down as quickly as a sandcastle smashed by high tide.
All that night, while Press worked the perimeter, talking to the NCOs and the troops, Bumstead and I sat back to back, pulling our own private stand-to.
We took up our position at a safe distance from Lark's brightly lit tactical operations center (TOC), which was glowing like a circus tent in the darkness. The VC could have taken it out with a barrage of well-aimed rocks.
My mind shifted into overdrive as I went back through every combat trick I'd learned over the years. Throughout the afternoon, I'd scribbled ideas in a sweat-stained pocket notebook that was now overflowing. Bumstead began a new one.
"Remind me about automatic claymores," I'd tell him, and he'd duck beneath his poncho, click on his red-lens flashlight, and write it down.
We spent the whole night like that. Every now and then, there would be an enormous bam, and someone would scream, "Medic!"
Just before sunup, Press came back. For a moment I thought he was going to blow away the TOC tent himself.
"You're not gonna believe this, sir."
Colonel Lark had set Dizzy dead center in a Vietcong minefield.
Copyright © 2002 by David H. Hackworth and Eilhys England