10 May, 2005
Saluting a Shipmate
Hereís a story for you, a true one.
As you know, our Corps is a little different from other military services, in fact, from most organizations of any kind. You donít just go in for a couple of years and get out, untouched. There are certain elements that you might not be able to put your finger on but you know that you are a little different from your co-workers and neighbors and itís not all IQ. This story, so fitting today, is about the code words that are drilled into us somehow. A few that come to mind are courage, integrity and perseverance. One of the values that we are taught is the job is finished when the job is finished. Sometimes it is finished at O-dark-thirty and sometimes, later.
My recollection of the fall of 66 is far from perfect but a few things stand out including gray ships, Olongapo and Deckhouse V. For those of you who were there, Deckhouse was a huge operation, way down in the Delta. I think all branches of the military might have been involved. I remember berets, seals and I expect we even had a few Air Force liaison people aboard. I remember some SEALS telling me that subs were going to drop them offshore. Unfortunately, in spite of all the preparations, the operation was pretty much a disaster. Not only was John Mooney killed. I think a couple of Grunts were killed by friendly fire as well as a pair of lovers out for a moonlight walk.
Part of the build up for this top secret operation was the addition to the SLF of a couple of UH-1Es from an advance sub-unit of VMO-3. I think there were two birds but maybe four. I remember them bolting them together at Cubi Point. One of the crew chiefs was a young kid, Ron Zaczek and some of us probably met him then. VMO-3 later became HML-367 or Scarface. In 69 when I came back for my second tour, they wouldnít let me back in the Uglys because they were getting ready to stand down so I went to the hueys so I guess I also have a connection there. In fact, several of us did subsequent tours with 367 making us Ugly Scarfaces. Gene Bailey, Greg Lee, and Mike Zacker are a few who come to mind.
Back to Ron. Heís the reason that I am writing this piece and later you will see why I am doing so this weekend. Some of you will remember that I used to write a column for the Pop A Smoke Newsletter. Thatís how I met Ron again. I interviewed him because he had written a great book titled Farewell Darkness, A Veteranís Triumph over Combat Trauma. It is a fine book about the helicopter war but that is almost secondary to what the book is about.
Many years after his discharge and college, Ron was finding himself in trouble. Besides having an attitude, he was becoming dangerous to himself and his family. Close to the breaking point, he finally did what his wife had been pleading for. He went to a Vets Center for help. Farewell Darkness is about him being treated for PTSD. As you would imagine, therapy would include extensive prodding into his Vietnam experience. It turns out that PTSD is not caused because you were unhappy about getting shot at or having to put up with thirteen months of crummy weather. As explained in the book, it is typically caused by three or 4 separate, intense experiences. In Ronís case he identifies three but not the fourth. One was the death of his best friend, Ron Phelps who went down with General Hockmuth when a hunk of cowling took the tail rotor off. The second was when he accidentally wounded a Green Beret and the third was the 3rd Recon ďBreakerĒ Team rescue on May 11th, 1967.
Very briefly, and I hope you will read the various reports of this, either in Farewell Darkness or just ďGoogleĒ Team Breaker or Breaker Patrol, 7 guys from Third Recon were dropped off in a very bad place northwest of Khe Sahn. They found themselves very close to an NVA base camp. Realizing their predicament they withdrew to spend the night a short distance away. Unfortunately about 150 of the enemy literally tripped over them on their way back to camp. The brand new lieutenant and another Marine died instantly. The experienced sergeant and the corpsman died during the night. The remaining three, all badly wounded, fought all night long. At first light, the attempted extraction began and it was brutal. One 46 pilot was killed and his entire crew wounded among other incidents.
Meanwhile, Zaczek was flying left seat with Major Reynolds in a slick. At the same time another crew chief, Jack Acosta and Lieutenant Dave Myers in a second slick were also inbound to Khe Sahn to see if they could help. While the pilots got their info from the command bunker, the two crew chiefs gathered what they thought might be useful while some grunts went off to get them each a grease gun and ammo. When the pilots got back, they opted to take Ronís Huey but didnít think they would have time for the guns. The situation on the ground was too intense.
I forget exactly how it went but everything with guns aboard showed up and delivered the goods. Eventually, their UH-1E made either two or three attempts depending on which report you read, sneaking in while the shooting was keeping the other guyís heads down. They eventually found the 3 live guys tucked behind the corpses of their buddies and their enemies. Flames from the napalm was very close. The two crew chiefs left the aircraft to get the two who were immobile. I believe that Steve Lopez, the radioman was able to get to the bird by himself. While they were trying to get everything straight in back, two shots rang out. Dave Myers the co-pilot had shot a guy who had made a run at them with a grenade. In the meantime, Major Reynolds was having trouble getting the aircraft into the air but eventually they got some air between them and the burning site.
Enroute to Khe Sahn, two things happened that Ron mentions in the book. One was the radioman gave him a camera and told him to get it to Intel. The other was that each of the crew chiefs tried to make the two badly wounded guys as comfortable as possible. Zaczek said the fellow he was holding just kept looking at him. At one point he undid his cammies to see if he could stop the bleeding but the damage was so severe that he just buttoned him back up. They made it to whatever Med was at Khe Sahn convinced that despite their best efforts they had seen the end of these three, they couldnít live. As for the rest of the aircrew, Ron does not know where Jack Acosta is. Dave Myers was killed a few months later, trying to provide cover for a recon team, I believe. The Major was killed in a private plane crash. He had been awarded the Navy Cross and everyone else got a Bronze Star.
Ron Zaczek does his four years, gets out of the Marine Corps, goes to the University of Maryland and becomes an engineer. PTSD becomes a part of his life. He enters therapy and one day he goes to a ceremony to dedicate The Wall. That night he began the book and continued working on it for several years. He finished his therapy, not completely cured but at least in control. He was able to get the book published by the Naval Institute Press.
For most people, that would be the end of the story bur Ronís tale continues on. Shortly after the book was published, he heard from Ray Stubbe, the chaplain who founded the Khe Sanh Vets Association. The fellow Ron had held on the way out of the zone, Britt Friery had posted a message in the Associations magazine looking for the crew that had rescued them. Shortly before the 2002 Recon Ball and reunion Britt invited Ron and his wife Grace to join the Reconners. As Ron put it, what do you say when you meet someone you had pulled off a hill 35 years earlier. In addition to the Recon guys, the CMC and 6 Medal of Honor recipients were there. After he and Britt tried to say a few words, everyone in the hall stood to applaud them.
Okay a real quick summary before we go on. There were the events of his year in the war including the death of his best friend and a pretty astounding rescue. Then he gets out of the service, gets a job and discovers that he had brought his troubles home in the form of PTSD. In addition to therapy, he writes an incredible book about his 13 months in the war and how he gets a handle on a pretty scary condition. Then because of the book, he discovers that the 3 guys they rescued all lived.
There was just one more element to be dealt with. Ron took the part about Marines never leaving their own behind very seriously and feels that the rescue was in some way incomplete and that contributed to his PTSD. In 1996 he returned to Vietnam and met Lt. General Ron Christmas. The general wrote a letter to the Joint Task Force in Hawaii responsible for recovering bodies after the war. Ron eventually addressed the group and when he did, they informed him they had people on the ground near there. The next day, they called him at his hotel to tell him they had the remains of 4 pair of boots. However, they could not do a complete recovery operation at the time. Thatís where things stood as our interview ended in the summer of 2001.
A few months ago, Ron and the four families got the word that the remains had been recovered and the little remains that were there provided conclusive proof that these were the guys whose remains had been left behind. Two weeks ago, Ron and Grace attended the funeral of one of the Marines in California. He mentioned to me in an e-mail ďthat, not to be corny, I consider this to be my last mission.
Today, Tuesday, May 10th, 2005, Ron, and I donít know how many people, will be in attendance at Arlington National Cemetery where all of the remains will be interred 38 years to the day after the event occurred.
I wrote this because I think you all deserve to know the story of the most all around Marine I have ever known and to know that he actually operated with some of us on at least one big operation. If you feel inclined to wish him well, his e-mail is email@example.com. Hopefully, we will have a follow up interview in the fall Pop A Smoke newsletter. If you are close to DC or a good news stand, I understand that there might be something in the Washington post today or tomorrow
Ugly Angels 66-67
Scarface 69 - 70