Secret Weapon
Luck Strikes at Lunchtime

Members of Special Forces A-Detachment 104, 1967. Author appears center front; in the back row, third from the right, Team CO Captain Hugh Shelton, future 4-star General and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the LLDB Sgt. in the back row, second from left, fought at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. (Author collection)

Text and photos by James D. McLeroy
Originally published in Soldier of Fortune Magazine’s March 1988 edition

No matter how much advanced training, technical support and experience you have, in certain life and death situations sometimes the only thing that saves you is plain, dumb luck. Either that or occasionally God decides to protect the unworthy and incompetent for His own mysterious reasons. That’s the only way I can explain what happened to me in Vietnam in 1967.

I was executive officer of Special Forces A-Team A-104 in I Corps, Quang Ngai Province, Ha Thanh District. I was a young, muscular, Airborne, Ranger, Jungle Expert, Green Beret, Infantry first lieutenant, and I considered myself a deadly fellow — all technique, training and esprit. I didn’t need luck I was proud of my special training and my special unit, and I was at least as sincere a believer in our cause (killing the communists) as the communists were believers in their cause (enslaving Southeast Asia).

One night at the beginning of the monsoon season, just before first light, I took one of my typical two-platoon Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG — rhymes with “fridge”) patrols to recon an area for targets of opportunity for ambushes. By chance, around mid-morning of the following day, we happened across a lone VC whom we took prisoner. He was a scared, skinny, teenaged boy who said he had been recruited by force and had just deserted.

Like most Vietnamese and Montagnard peasants, all he really wanted was to go back home to his village and be left alone.

Our CIDG commander threw him to his knees, put a knife to his throat and threatened to cut his head off if he didn’t immediately agree to show us exactly where his supply and infiltration routes were. The CIDG would not have actually cut his throat, at least not with me standing there, but the kid didn’t know that, so he eagerly complied. We then fed and reassured him, for which he appeared to be most grateful.

Capt. Shelton, at 6’ 5,” stands next to his LLDB counterpart, the CO of Ha Thanh CIDG Camp, Qu?ng Tín, I Corps, 1967.

Author with his LLDB counterpart at the Ha Thanh SF camp, I Corps, 1967. (Note the ballet pose.)

The area where he proposed to take us was way out on the edge of our normal area of operations, an area where our patrols rarely went because it was so far from the relative safety of our camp. It made sense, though, that if we really wanted to find the VC’s supply routes, we would have to go looking for them in areas where they didn’t expect us to look. I finally managed to persuade the CIDG commander to go. When we got there we carefully set up several area ambushes based on our prisoner’s first-hand information.

On Patrol

Late the next afternoon, from my vantage point in the center of our area-ambushes along the VC infiltration trails, I heard several long bursts of automatic weapons fire — all ours. I soon learned that two of our CIDG units had almost simultaneously ambushed two small VC supply columns. In their enthusiasm to win points for our body count bonuses, which were based solely on confirmed kills, my little CIDG allies proudly presented me with some fresh VC ears. We were, as the saying went in those days, “heavily into” body count. The Special Forces commander in I Corps headquarters had recently flown out to our camp to present us with an actual trophy, sort of like a little bowling trophy, for having achieved more enemy KIAs than any other camp in I Corps for the quarter.

My CIDG interpreter explained that some of the VC supply carriers whom they had just ambushed had had no weapons, which we usually demanded as proof of kills, but the CIDG had wanted to be sure that they got credit for their body count bonuses. Thus the ears. Trying not to appear shocked, I simultaneously congratulated them and gently admonished them from any further ear-taking. I suppose our strategy on that patrol could have been called “winning hearts and minds and ears.”

Hre Montagnard CIDG troops of Ha Thanh SF camp, 1967

The CIDG troops in other camps may have been valiant irregular civilian-soldier patriots, but most of our CIDG were thieving outcasts and draft-dodging, cowardly mercenaries, only marginally better than the Luc-Luong Dac­ Biet (LLDB), the corrupt Vietnamese special forces that commanded them. Our CIDG mob was about an even match for small groups of the ragtag local VC, but that was not saying much for either side.

Since both the CIDG and the LLDB were our allies, it was considered critical to our mission as “advisers” to maintain at least a superficial facade of what was called in those days “good rapport with our counter­parts.” Counterparts or not, the CIDG did not behave like real combat soldiers, and we all knew that it wouldn’t do for us to have to depend on them in any serious hostile con­frontation with real soldiers.

Unfortunately, the main force VC companies, led by their NVA advisers, were real soldiers. To know them at close range was usually to regret it. Most especially, as in our case, if you did so with no air or artillery support and a few of the local VC’s ears in your pockets.