Monday, May 25, 2015

The 173rd Airborne Lands at Bien Hoa May, 1965

This Memorial Day is special to those of us who served in the 173rd Airborne Brigade (Sep.)  in Vietnam because this month marks the 50th anniversary of the Sky Soldiers deployment to Vietnam.   The deployment marked the beginning of the American takeover of the Vietnam ground war.

The Sky Soldiers of the 173rd ("The Herd") under the command of . Brigadier General Ellis W. Williamson landed at Bien Hoa air base on May 5, 1965.  The 1st and 2nd Battalions, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne) were the first Army combat units sent to the Republic of South Vietnam, accompanied by the 3rd Battalion, 319th Artillery. They were supported by the 173rd Support Battalion, 173rd Engineers, Troop E, 17th Cavalry and Co D, 16th Armor. The First Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment and the 161st Field Battery of the Royal New Zealand Army were later attached to the Brigade making it the first multinational unit in the war.  The unit was eventually joined by the 3rd and 4th battalions of the  503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment, the 1st of the 50th mechanized infantry regiment and November company 75th Infantry (Ranger).

 The 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade under Brig. Gen. Frederick J. Karch landed at Da Nang on March 8, to become the first American ground combat unit in Vietnam, but its initial role was to protect the American air base at Da Nang.

The 173rd's mission included defense of the capital of the Republic of Vietnam, Saigon, as well as American bases near Saigon.  Gen. Williamson had been assigned to form the Brigade on Okinawa on March 26, 1963, as a quick reaction force for the Pacific Command.   Nationalist Chinese paratroopers gave the American paratroopers the nickname "Tien Bien" or "Sky Soldiers".  

The 173rd was the only brigade in U.S. Army history that was separate from any division.  The "Fire Brigade"  also acquired the unofficial nickname "The Herd" on Okinawa.   One explanation for the nickname is that to call Reveille, the Battalion Commander of the 1-503rd Infantry, Lt. Colonel Richard H. "Rawhide" Boland  erected a number of very large speakers from which the song "Rawhide" by Frankie Laine would blare.  Another explanation is the practice of the Sky Soldiers to run everywhere they went.  The dust they created caused some to suggest there was a herd of cattle there.

The Herd was the first American unit to go into the enemy stronghold given the name "War Zone D".   By September, 1965, the unit was operating near the Cambodian border at Pleiku.   In early November in Operation Hump in War Zone D the 1st Battalion's Charlie and Bravo companies were surrounded by thousands of enemy soldiers in a battle commemorated in the Big and Rich song "the 8th of November". The Sky Soldiers held their position with the help of air and artillery support.   When the battle ended 48 Sky Soldiers had died.  403 Viet Cong bodies were found.

During that battle Sp. 5 Lawrence Joel  became the first living black American to be award the Congressional Medal of Honor.   Joel continued to use his skills as a medic to treat his fellow Sky Soldiers in spite of being wounded himself.   Joel wasn't the only Sky Soldier to earn a Medal of Honor for treating the wounded in battle.  

On November 19, 1967, during the Battle of Dak To Chaplain (Father) Charles Joseph Watters, was killed while helping the wounded.  Father Watters was on his 2nd tour in Vietnam.  He volunteered to accompany the unit in battle even though he wasn't required to.  He felt the soldiers in the field needed him.

During operation New Life (21 November - 17 December 1965) in the  La Nga River Valley the Brigade introduced the idea of small long-range reconnaissance patrols (LRRPs - pronounced Lurps) for the first time.

On February 22, 1967, the Sky Soldiers participated in the only combat jump of the war in Operation Junction City.

I was assigned to the Brigade post office in May, 1969.

The 173rd was the first army unit since the American Revolution to spend six years in combat.   In 1971 the Brigade was withdrawn from Vietnam and redeployed to Fort Campbell, Ky., where it was subsequently deactivated  

 During more than six years of continuous combat, the brigade earned 14 campaign streamers and four unit citations. Sky Soldiers serving in Vietnam received 13 Medals of Honor, 46 Distinguished Service Crosses, 1736 Silver Stars and over 6,000 Purple Hearts. There are over 1,790 Sky Soldiers' names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington D.C.

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