By Jim Morris
Excerpted from Fighting Men, Dell Books, 1993, pages 74-86
PART ONE: In the December 2021 Sentinel, Jim Morris introduced Project Delta, Special Forces Detachment B-52, one of the most highly decorated units in the Vietnam War.
A RECONNAISSANCE MISSION
Just looking at them you could tell they were good.
Doc Betterton — Staff Sergeant Dale C. Betterton, a tall, skinny guy with a quiet manner, in glasses — stood on the platform in the brief-ing room at the Project Delta Forward Operational Base just outside Phu Bai. “We’ll go in here,” he tapped the map with his pointer, “and check out these areas. Primary mission is to locate enemy installations and personnel.”
Taking all this in were five other team members — Betterton was the team leader. The other two Americans, Sergeant First Class Alberto Ortiz, Jr., who outranked Betterton, but was a new man on the Project and would not be given command of a team until he had a few patrols under his belt, and Sergeant John D. Anthony, watched the briefing.
The Vietnamese contingent consisted of First Lieutenant Ton That Hai, patrol leader, and Sergeants Nguyen Van Khan and Hoang Van Lieu.
They all listened with the same air of intense calm.
After listening to the brief-back in English, Lieutenant Hai repeated the information in Vietnamese.
In the rear of the room Major Chuck Allen, a massive crew-cut man, built like a pro football lineman, which he had been, leaned forward in his chair, one hand propped on his knee and the other under his chin. He did not appear to listen so much as to inhale the informa-tion, evaluating and storing it in a mind that tracked and controlled every detail of Delta.
Beside him his counterpart, Major Phan Van Huan, leaned back, his manner detached.
The chopper skimmed over the treetops, sun slowly extinguished by the mountains, throwing long shadows across the streambeds and valleys below.
What is this now? Doc thought. Seventeen, maybe eighteen times in a year and a half. Every time, I’m still scared. That’s good! A scared man is a careful man, and a careful man will live a long time. If I’m ever not afraid I’ll go into some other line of work.
Sitting in the left door of the helicopter, he followed the hills and valleys on his map. The wind whipped his tiger-striped trouser legs and floppy hat, hanging down his back on a homemade cord of parachute suspension line. A CAR-15 was slung over his shoulder by a triangular olive-drab bandage tied to the front sight and collapsible stock, which he would convert to a neckerchief when they reached the ground.
The seemingly endless maze of pockets on his tiger suit were jammed with notebooks, signaling devices, cigarettes, matches, and maps, all neatly folded into plastic bags. In his patrol harness were more signaling devices, a camera, and the ammunition he hoped not to use. On his back was a groundsheet, fourteen days’ chow (long-range reconnaissance patrol rations, LRRPs) and some miscellaneous fruit cans.
The others were similarly equipped, plus two radios: one held by the Americans and one by the Vietnamese. Each was on a differ-ent frequency — to send the same data simultaneously to both the American and Vietnamese headquarters.
The ship started down, and he looked below into the dark space in the trees that was their landing zone. The chopper eased in and he was grateful again for the skill of the 281st Aviation Company, Delta’s own.
Trees rose on all sides; rotor blades snipping leaves around the edges, the chopper inched its way down in the hole. Master Sergeant Norman Doney, the reconnaissance section leader, a handsome, soft-spoken, self-contained man who would stay with the helicopter, rolled two ladders out the door. Doc swung over the side.
His weight swung his feet straight out in front, he being the bottom man on the rope ladder. His heavy gear dragged as Doc started working his way down, all his weight on his arms. Finally, his feet were below the ladder and he hung by the bottom run, eight feet above a bomb crater. He let go. Ortiz dropped beside him from the other ladder and they skipped sideways to get out of each other’s way.
At a dead run they headed for the encircling jungle. Fifty meters into the slapping, snagging brush they stopped. Doc gulped air down fast to silence his panting.
Behind them the chopper sped away. The team lay listening under the brush and palms, fingers digging into wet leaves and dirt while the dampness slowly permeated their fatigues.
When Betterton gave the signal to rise, they slowly crouched and stepped off single file into the jungle, walking with their toes touching the ground first.
They made no more noise than wind sighing in the treetops. Tiger suits and camouflage greasepaint blended them into their surroundings. If one of them sat perfectly still in full view beside the trail, a man might walk by in broad daylight and never see him.
They moved forward fifty meters, stopped, listened, and moved on again. Using the last dregs of daylight the team scanned for a thicket. Spotting a likely place, they glided back on their trail and sank to the earth in firing positions. No one came, so they crept into the thicket and slipped out of their packs.
Turning on the radio, Betterton whispered, “Voyager, this is Lobo, over.”
In the handset a voice crackled back, “This Voyager, go.”
Doc gave their positions in the same hoarse whisper and reported no contacts or sightings, while Hai did the same in Vietnamese. Then they wrapped up in their plastic groundsheets and fell asleep, each man touching at least one other. They still wore their pistol belts and harnesses. If they had to run they could manage without their packs, but not without water, ammo, and other gear on the harness.
With a rock gouging his shoulder blade and his hips digging into the ground, Doc slept fitfully. At 0330 the growl of heavy equipment and trucks snatched him from sleep. The enemy was building a road! Doc scribbled in his notebook.
At 0430 the patrol was up, creeping through the underbrush. Avoiding ridgelines and streambeds, they moved through the jungle on the slopes. Frequently they heard padding footsteps on the trails above, or the tonal ululations of Vietnamese conversation in the creeks below. There was no attempt at concealment on the enemy’s part; he owned the territory and felt no need to hide from anything but airplanes. Again Doc scribbled, and spoke into the handset.
In the TOC (Tactical Operations Center) bunker Chuck Allen and Captain Bill Larabee, his operations officer, who looked like the social chairman of an especially bellicose Sigma chi chapter, sat side by side at a big desk, plotting reports from their recon teams in the field. At a similar desk ten feet away Major Huan and Captain Ton That Luan did the same.
Seated across from Allen and Larabee, Captain Richard Dundee, heavy and dark-complexioned, passed intelligence reports and summaries to major U.S. commands, while Lieutenant Truong Hoang Phi cranked out the same information to the Vietnamese Special Forces High Command.
No one on the patrol spoke a word except into the handset; they had worked so long together than no words were necessary, and silence was the rule. On the third day Hai gestured toward the trail above and made a grabbing motion with his hands. Doc, knowing he meant to try to capture a prisoner, nodded and they crept toward the path to wait.
Three North Vietnamese army regulars, all armed with AK-47’s, came down the trail. They heard others chattering down the trail. No way. Betterton opened fire from five meters, and their “prisoners” shuddered backward as the slugs hit them, and they fell with blos-soms of their own blood splattered across their midsections. The team broke off, one after the other, and dashed over the ridge and down the other side.
The next day Anthony almost walked headlong into another NVA solider. They were both startled, but the kid was still staring wide-eyed when Anthony cut him down. They decided it was time to pull out. Betterton and Hai looked for LZs on their maps.
Allen saw it first. From his command-and-control ship, flying high over the operational area, he picked out the bright blue-white flash of a signaling mirror and spoke into his radio. Gunships, easy to spot by their red tail markings, assumed a clockwise orbit over the LZ, either firing at targets of opportunity or just keeping Charlie’s head down. The air was filled with the whoooosh-CRACK of rockets and the gruff belch of miniguns.
Flying above, monitoring all conversation between his ship, the gun-ships, the TOC and the recon team on the ground, Allen could see it all like a Parker Bros. game. At his command the first recovery ship hopped over a ridge-line and jockeyed down into the hole.
Doc Betterton put the mirror back into his ammo pouch. The others fanned out in firing positions around him. The incoming recovery ship hovered a hundred feet over them in the trees. Although Doc couldn’t see Doney in the ship, he knew who it was.
Three sandbags dragged the heavy, six-foot looped straps of the McGuire rig, escape for three men, down through the trees. Doc waved Ortiz and the two Vietnamese sergeants in, and they grabbed the straps, whipping and writhing in the rotor wash. Each of them sat in one loop and hooked his right wrist in a cuff that slid down tight to prevent falling from the rig, even if wounded, on the way out.
The chopper struggled to go straight up without dragging the men through the trees. This was the period of maximum danger — maximum exposure of the helicopter and maximum exposure for the men. They cleared the trees and were gone.
The next ship edged into position and the straps came down again. Doc, the heaviest of the three, jumped into the middle seat as the others settled next to him. The chopper eased upward and they rose through the trees, branches slapping at their faces and hands.
Then they were clear of the treetops and the ropes streamed to the rear as the chopper surged forward, heading for a safe spot to land and take the men inside. No matter how many times he did it, Doc never got completely used to whipping through the air at the end of a rope, at a thousand feet.
WITH THE MIKE FORCE
The day after Betterton’s team came out, the Mike Force went in. Betterton, Dundee the Delta Intelligence officer, and I went along as well, Doc because he knew the ground, and Dundee to personally collect intelligence. The rest of us were there to see that he lived to get it. The 281st had knocked out an entire NVA truck convoy two weeks before, and Chuck wanted Dundee to photograph their bumper markings to identify the unit.
The rangers had been in right after to perform the same mission, but hadn’t been able to do it. The NVA were so thick in that area that when one of them came upon the Rangers and didn’t see the American’s with them he assumed they were another NVA unit. He walked up to one of them and asked in Vietnamese, “What outfit are you guys with?”
“You’ll have to ask the lieutenant,” the Ranger replied.
The NVA, now starting to feel a little nervous, stepped up to the ARVN Ranger Thieu Uy, and asked, “Uh, Comrade Lieutenant, what —“
“Ninety-first Airborne Ranger Battalion,” the lieutenant replied, and stitched him right up the middle with his M16. This was a costly gesture, since one of their missions was to capture a prisoner, and now their mission was blown. So they came out and we went in.
Doc Betterton led the Mike Force over the ground his recon had covered. The Mike Force wore helmets, but Doc wore his recon boonie hat; the Mike Force stepped right out—you can’t move a hundred guys in total silence — and Doc was used to moving around out here on tiptoe; the Mike Force moved on the trails, and recon never moves on trails. He didn’t look very happy.
Our first contact was so light it was scarcely worth reporting. We were taking a break when an NVA came up the main trail and was surprised to see a stocky blond American, SP-5 Sammy Coutts, leaning against a tree.
A month before in downtown Nha Trang, on the first day of the Tet Offensive, I’d seen Coutts dash into the middle of a street under heavy fire to drag a young Vietnamese girl to safety. That had been my first acquaintance with this company, but I’d been around them some since, though not in combat. The 7th MSF company were mainly Cham, a coastal fishing people, Muslims.
The Charlie who had spotted Coutts scurried away and came back with his buddies a few minutes later. By that time we were moving again and Coutts was down the trail. They hit the tail of the column. The 4th platoon opened up, and there followed one of those brief, inconclusive firefights in which neither side gives or takes much of anything.
The terrain was rough and densely wooded, but not as much as most of the Highlands. These were big hills, not mountains, and the woods no worse than many in Georgia. It was beautiful country.
A little later, during the lunch break, a Mike Force perimeter guard challenged a rustling noise in the bushes. The challenge was answered by a burst of AK-47 fire, killing the guard.
Sergeant First Class Ross Potter, a darkly handsome karate black belt, was in command of the Mike Force Company. He led the company off the trail and uphill quickly, tripping over commo wire on the ground — commo wire? — through the woods to a place where the trees were fairly sparse. A HU-1D helicopter from the 281st came in to winch the body out. The clearing wasn’t as wide as the rotor disc of the aircraft.
The pilot inched his chopper down through the trees, straight in until a limb got in his way, backed or slipped sideways around it, down three feet, over two, down four, over three. Finally they lowered their winch and picked up the small poncho-wrapped body, still tied to a one-pole litter. Then they inched that chopped back out again the same way.
We reported the commo wire on our first scheduled contact the next morning. Chuck, or somebody in Saigon, decided we needed to tap it, and, since Delta wasn’t equipped for that, a team from Command and Control FOB 1 at Phu Bai was choppered in. The C & C teams had a mission similar to Delta’s, except they generally performed it in Laos or North Vietnam. They had a horrendous casualty rate, rumored to be two hundred percent a year, compared to Delta’s fifty.
They barreled out of a 281st slick, and looked at us with raccoon eyes. The Americans with them were hard boys, but nothing special for Special Forces. But their indidge were fascinating. The Vietnamese leader was an ARVN warrant officer, very calm and competent. The rest of the team were crazy people; the Americans were on a one-year tour, but this was the Viets’ life. One had sunken cheeks and fierce eyes; he wore a ring in his ear, an all-black bush hat, blocked like Clint Eastwood’s, and black gloves which he constantly smoothed back. Another looked like Dopey of the Seven Dwarfs, except that he was badly pockmarked and giggled constantly. The last looked like a Zombie, and his eyes were windows to a dead zone.
They didn’t pick up anything useful off the wire, and seemed to think the job was a joke — a Lennie Bruce joke, but a joke. They were with us for the rest of the mission, and their attitude seemed to be . . . well, hey, everybody’s got to be someplace.
That night we heard the same trucks grinding uphill that the recon team had heard earlier. The following morning we checked the road; there were few signs that any activity had taken place the night before. Charlie did a good job covering his tracks.
After two firefights the day before the company stuck to the hillsides, going over the ridgelines only when they had to maintain the patrol’s route. After a full day’s march with no contact and no sightings, when it was about time to hang it up for the day, we stumbled across a couple of cases of twenty-three-millimeter ammunition, the kind that goes with a very large Russian antiaircraft machine-gun. The ammo looked as though it was being carried across a stream when Charles dropped it during an air strike. The ammo lay on the trail a few feet of the creek bottom. The crates had been broken and a few rounds removed.
Dundee took pictures of the cache. Then the company headed down a small bank and into a creek. There was a quick chatter of gunfire and the point went down. Cordite smoke poured out of the creek bottom as the Cham returned fire. It was a platoon, probably back for more ammo. The Cham took out six Charlies.
Then another group came in from the other side. Hearing a lot of gunfire, they came better prepared.
What with being caught in a crossfire, and darkness coming on fast, we got the hell out of there, not in very good order, no panic, but not exactly a perfect formation either. We just got the fuck out.
The night was dark. We slept clinging to the side of a hill like moss.
Early the next morning the Cham hacked out a landing zone with machetes and evaced their dead and wounded. The company moved cautiously down the trail to check out the ammo boxes again.
Captain Dundee had just gotten the last of his pictures when three more Cong showed up and the firefight was on again. The Cham made short work of them and we moved out.
On the next break Potter said, “I think I’ll have to revise my estimate of enemy strength in this area up from one to two companies.”
“Yeah,” replied Doc Betterton. “Either that or a highly mobile squad.”
We moved out again. Only, this time we had picked up a tail. Every time we stopped or started, the familiar signal shot rang out, alerting the entire neighborhood.
When we crossed a little finger of the ridgeline, we ran into a series of large ammo caches. They were dug into cubical pits in the ground, about eight feet on a side, braced with bamboo so they wouldn’t cave in. They were well made. Potter had an order passed to the 4th Platoon. As the platoon, advised by Staff Sergeant Ken Roberts, passed the caches, they rigged them with time fuses. Five minutes after the 4th Platoon moved through the first cache blew, destroying a sizable portion of the ammunition and leaving the remainder to cook off. It continued exploding for the rest of the afternoon and long into the evening.
Around the middle of the afternoon the most satisfactory sounds came, as Charlie’s backtracking team got into a firefight with their own exploding ammunition.
We came out on the two-lane dirt road that Charles had been build-ing through the dense woods, down in the flats between hills. We wanted to get to an LZ and get out, and that road was the quickest way. It was an eerie feeling to be walking down that road like Stateside troops coming back from an exercise. I hear NVA a few meters back in the wood, chattering. It was normal conversation; they weren’t aware of us at all, just hauling wood, making fires, cleaning weapons, smoking pot.
Delta’s forward air controller droned overhead, flying cover, a little boom-tail aircraft with fore and aft propellers, the OV1.
Dug into the sides of the hills we walked past were one and two-man foxholes, some dug in an L-shape, probably for crew-served weapons, rockets, and machine guns.
The company came upon the nine Russian trucks the 281st gun-ships had knocked out the week before. They lay strewn on the road, burned and gutted. Dundee took intelligence photos of the trucks and the bumper markings, and I snapped Dundee for the Group magazine.
We moved down the road again for about half a klick to a good LZ. The Cham set up a perimeter and waited for the choppers. The longer we waited the more NVA came to get in on the act. We were complete surrounded on and around a big bare red-dirt clearing, dotted with four or five B-52 bomb craters. The firefight continued sporadically for about an hour and a half, enemy strength continuing to build as we waited. Air cover was called in to keep the tightening noose of NVA off until slicks from the 281st could get us out.
F-105’s made run after run, huge aircraft making that cracking jet roar, dropping five-hundred pound high-drag bombs into the jun-gle so close that smoking chunks of jagged steel bounced into our holes. Then we heard the familiar sound of approaching helicopters.
When we got back Dundee’s photos didn’t come out, so Delta con-fiscated all of mine.
Two days later I went back into the same LZ with a company from the Ranger battalion. We went in in two lifts, and by the time the second came we were surrounded again. We were pinned onto the LZ all night with six choppers down and thirty percent casualties, me among them.
The next day we fought our way to another LZ and got out. That was my last operation; I retired because of wounds. Although I was never on their roster, I am proud that Delta counts me among their alumni.
About the Author:
Jim Morris joined 1st SFGA in 1962 for a thirty-month tour, which included two TDY trips to Vietnam. After a two year break, he went back on active duty for a PCS tour with 5th SFG (A), six months as the B Co S-5, and then was conscripted to serve as the Group’s Public Information Officer (PIO). While with B-52 Project Delta on an operation in the Ashau Valley, he suffered a serious wound while trying to pull a Delta trooper to safety, which resulted in being medically retired. As a civilian war correspondent he covered various wars in Latin America, the Mideast, and again in Southeast Asia, eventually settling down to writing and editing, primarily but not exclusively about military affairs. He is the author of many books, including the classic memoir WAR STORY. Jim is a member of SFA Chapter 78 and is a former editor of the Sentinel.
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