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
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
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
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
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
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