Hard to Believe . . . It's been 50 years!
U.S. Army Special Forces
To all of my friends at the 281st. I invite all of you to share the following with your families and friends. I don't believe any of you fully understand what you faced or what you accomplished 50 years ago . . . this week.
My very best to all of you.
On August 3, 1968, in the Republic of South Vietnam, three abused, but determined, mountain villagers escaped their Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army captors and ran in search of help for their families and village.
After running and walking for almost two days, the three worn men found the remote My Loc Outpost belonging to American Special Forces (Green Berets) Detachment A-502. There, the men told stories of slavery, torture, and worse. Mang Quang, leader of the three, begged for help and told the Americans his family would be killed if he were not back in the village the next day.
An urgent radio call was placed to 1st Lieutenant, Tom Ross, A-502’s Operations and Intelligence Officer. Upon arriving at the outpost and after an in-depth debriefing of the three men, Lt. Ross determined that a rescue attempt by allied forces was warranted. However, if, as he had been told by Mang Quang, the family would be killed the next day and if it had taken the men two days to reach the outpost on foot . . . there was only one unit to which Lt. Ross could turn for help. The rescue team would have to be flown to the village and that would require the assistance of the 281st Assault Helicopter Company.
Lt. Ross immediately radioed the 281st with his rescue mission support request. In describing the mission, he didn’t hide any of the many dangers the men of the 281st would face if they accepted the mission. He explained that the rescue team would be flying far out into mountainous enemy territory into an undetermined landing zone where they would face an enemy unit of unknown size and strength. Among other things, he also explained that the only immediate support the team would have would be . . . whatever they could take with them.
After learning that the lives of innocent tribal Montagnard families were at risk, did any of the dangers described to the 281st scare them . . . not a chance! These were all men with deeply held family values. The response given to Lt. Ross’s request for assistance was immediate and clear . . . “Tell us where and at what time you need us. We’ll be there.” And, at sunrise on the morning of August 4, 1968 . . . they were there! Then, because the rescue mission became complicated with more families emerging from the thick jungle, they were there again on August 5th and yet again on August 10th.
On August 13, 1968, Walter Cronkite reported on the rescue in “The Valley of the Tigers” during his CBS Evening News program. When the mission was complete, the 281st had rescued 165 mountain villagers (men, woman, and children) from pain and suffering.
What members of the 281st may not know even today is that the Montagnard village served as an important relay station for the North Vietnamese Army’s infamous 18B Regiment. Only weeks after the rescue was complete, intelligence reports indicated that a company size element (125 – 150 men) arrived in the area of the village as the last few remaining members of the rescue team were being extracted after becoming stranded due to weather.
So, unknown to any of us at the time, it is extremely likely that the two Green Beret advisors along with 10 other South Vietnamese soldiers and the CBS TV crew would have been overrun and wiped out by the enemy unit had the 281st not flown through a storm to reach and rescue the stranded team.
Question: What can you say about men like these who so boldly disregard their own safety to save the lives of others?
Answer: I have been trying, quite literally, for 50 years to answer that question adequately. I was the rescue team commander, one of the two advisors left stranded in enemy territory, and the last one off the landing zone that day . . . thankful to be alive.
Over the half century since “The Rescue” . . . I have had the great privilege to speak to and about the men of the 281st Assault Helicopter Company. One of the many, many things I enjoy saying about them, each and every one, is that I am extremely proud to have seen them in action because they represent the very best our country has to offer when a call for help is received.
Tomorrow, August 10th, will be exactly 50 years since the men of the 281st risked their lives for a third time to rescue a village of primitive mountain tribesmen. Who they were didn’t matter. What mattered was that they were being hurt. The 281st ended that hurt. On the 50th anniversary of the rescue, these men deserve recognition for who and what they are . . . fearless American heroes. I feel quite certain that, because of their selfless courage, I owe them my life.
With great sincerity,
Thomas A. (Tom) Ross
Major, US Army Special Forces
photo at A-502 by Tom Ross.