Team Thin Man     March 1970


   In response to 1st Recon Battalion’s request for stories about long-range Recon patrols in harm’s way, I, Larry K. Gifford as platoon Sgt. For Charlie Company can contribute accurate accounts of typical dangerous events in which I was a participant. Charlie Co. originally had been 326 Recon attached to 1st Force Recon on hill 34 which under the direction of Ssgt.John F. Hare evolved into Alpha 5th Recon attached to 1st Force. In 1970 1st Force moved to the South China Secured Area near Monkey mountain and therefore Platoons 126, 226 and 326 which constituted Alpha 5th Recon then moved to Camp Reasoner, the headquarters for 1st Recon Battalion.
    Three long-range Recon patrols which our company of about 20 men ran up to 2 March 1970 when I was severely wounded in my last patrol with Lt. Skibbe and Capt. McVey who lost their lives and finally were left in the jungle to this day in the Thuong Duc will be presented in a chronological order from Jan.-Mar. 1970. A further synopsis of the Recovery effort for them/their remains follows. This was an historic event in that our seven man Recon team intercepted the point element of three NVA divisions (c. 30,000 troops) on the border between Laos and South Vietnam.
   In January 1970, I led a seven man Recon team into the Que Son mountains. Mike Simpson acted as asst. team leader and point man. The jungle terrain was steep and very dense with clean and clear running creeks for fresh water. Within a few days we had come upon a six foot trail and discovered some tunnels with underground sleeping quarters lined with bamboo mats and caches of live AK-47 rounds. In one of the sheltered areas we found a skeleton clad in part of an NVA uniform which may explain why they seemed to have abandoned the tunnel complex, given the Vietnamese superstitious avoidance of the dead. We recovered the NVA belt and its buckle and took the skull and its femur bones. (The skull can be seen in the picture of me on 1 March 1970, the day I was promoted to sergeant.) South of where we were, we could hear the sounds of clucking chickens and pounding and from prior experience this indicated that we were very close to an NVA base camp being restored or set up. The immediate area was formed like a horseshoe shaped bowl with a steep southern hillside to protect their position. We had often seen similar encampments. We were on high alert and moved slowly past a 2 foot wide by ten foot length deep ditch containing human feces.
    About 150 meters south past the trail, we set up our harbor site. We placed just two claymore mines to support cross intersecting fields of fire to protect our spot. Then we situated the skull and crossed femur bones in front of the mines to spook any enemy that may near our area. We seldom appreciated the rain but that night it seemed to absorb our coughing in spite of making us miserable We could see that there was a large bonfire on the trail, perhaps to light the way for incoming troops. We radioed the information back to headquarters.The next morning we received orders to get even closer to the enemy and cross the trail to the bowl protected by the mountainous area. I immediately asked to speak to Captain McVey to whom I explained the danger of doing this with so many NVA around as we would have to work our way through them. He agreed with me and sent out a OV 10 fixed wing aircraft for an aerial observation of the situation. The pilot reported that he could see approximately 120 NVA soldiers walking down one of the draws from the top of the mountain into the base camp at the bottom of the bowl.
   We survived the night and in the early morning, I had the team circle west and then turn south to get into a position at the end of the base camp. To get there, Simpson, our point man, elected for us to cross through a large stand of elephant grass as the safest route to where we needed to be. Jones challenged him on his point movement, not wanting to endure the horror of the elephant grass. I moved close to him and suggested that he “knock that shit off or I’d have to cut his throat.” Drama rules! The elephant grass was over six feet tall and above our heads which gave us good cover but it lacerates you wherever it touches you and when its pollen gets into the bloodstream, one breaks out in an intolerably itchy rash. As we emerged from the grass we espied another 18-inch wide tunnel entrance on the side of the hill. We hunkered down immediately alert when suddenly from the tunnel a deep-throated growl from a tiger at the entrance just six to eight feet away watched us waving its head from side to side. We all were ready to protect ourselves as we backed away as quietly and slowly from its menace, but God was with us, and the tiger did not attack us and expose our presence to the enemy. (It was then that I realized why the military issued us khaki underwear.) We made our way to near an open area and set up a harbor for the night. After a day’s extension the CH-46 came in and extracted us.
    Charlie Company’s members are listed as I remember them, but not limited to others: L/Cpl Mike Simpson, PFC Ezekiel Pierce, Jr. (Bro Zeke de Mau Mau) Cpl Steve Plunkett, HM3 Larry McGlyn, L/Cpl William C. James, L/Cpl Wayne Ritchie, Cpl...Schulthess, L/Cpl Roy Gates, Jr, L/Cpl James A. Paras (Greek), L/Cpl Roy Jones, L/Cpl Gary Moreno, L/Cpl Richard Shawver, Michael Willis (Frog) and Sgt Larry K. Gifford.
   In February 1970, another seven man Recon team with me as team leader and Mike Simpson as asst. team leader and point, were inserted into the Que Son mountains. Roy Lee Jones acted as tail-end Charlie. After a couple days of searching we discovered an active rocket position. We counted over fifty-six rockets shot from there that day, with the ordinance traveling over hill 800 and down into the valley below, almost due North. The rounds were targeted on a South Vietnamese Special Forces camp. Our team moved carefully closer to their base camp and that night we observed the enemy moving along the jungle floor with torches adding additional support for the rocket launch position. We were within 200 meters of the (we surmised) NVA columns. After they seemed to have gotten settled and no more troops were noted to be approaching, I called in a battery of 105 artillery rounds. The first strike hit quite near the enemy but the second strike hit much nearer our position. A piece of shrapnel the size of my fist hit about four inches above Jones’ back who was lying right next to me. How the batteries may have decided to walk in the rounds clearly endangered our Recon position so I aborted the bombardment.
   Over the next couple days we made our way climbing up the ridgeback leading out of the lower jungle area toward a higher elevation for less risk of being killed by ‘friendly’, not to mention ‘hostile’ fire and to establish a better observation post. No more rockets were fired that day. When we finally reached the summit, we found an area of about thirty-five meters in circumference where we set up booby traps and hunkered down to protect ourselves and observe the enemy below us more clearly. Once we were settled, we heard from the rear area (pun intended). They wanted us to cross over to hill 800 because we determined the enemy must have an OP spotting position there, directing the outgoing rockets. I asked to speak to Capt McVey to apprise him of the situation. I reported that there was quite literally no cover adequate enough for us to sneak over there. Capt McVey heeded my advice and ordered another team dispatched to near that area which was almost over-run as they tried unsuccessfully twice to be inserted. The enemy was everywhere. Every night our team rappelled off the Cliffside of that summit and simply hung in mid-air to sleep. Our rucksacks were connected by parachute harnesses that enabled us to do this. Through each night two men stood watch at the head of the trail in radio communication with our OP. On the first night Jones and I stood watch. Just as darkness fell, we could barely discern them, but a couple of the enemy approached our ambush site through the fog. We tensed not wanting to have to fire and alert the rest of the enemy of our presence. I was so anxious that the back of my tongue ached. They stood for a moment looking around, then seemingly decided no one was there and with a last look turned back down the hill. My tongue softened enough for me to swallow and take a deep breath. After that incident we were extended for yet another day due to the rain (perpetual, it seemed) and poor visibility. We were finally extracted in a blaze of small-arms fire. On the following day a fixed-wing OV-10 aerial observer detected the enemy encampment and with our and its co-ordinates, a B-52 arc-light strike destroyed the enemy encampment.
   In the days following that Recon patrol, a class was given to honor the team and to show how a successful Recon patrol happens. I went to the air force base for three days of R&R. I remember they had good chow and hot water showers. “Yeah!” One day in February, the battalion commander, LtCol Drumright and a new officer Lt Skibbe, were traveling by train when the enemy blew it off the tracks. LtCol Drumright was trapped beneath the wreckage and Lt Skibbe pulled him out from beneath it. Drumright told me that Skibbe had saved his life that day while under attack by enemy ground forces. These two marines captured two of the enemy. Drumright and Skibbe held them under guard with their .45s and began to interrogate them for information about the NVA troops, their numbers and movement. They steadfastly refused to talk when one suddenly attempted to to get to his feet and Drumright shot and killed him. The other man began to spew out the information about Gen. Bien and the 375 Division . Drumright knew of this leader but not the whereabouts of his division or their mission until then.
    Lt Skibbe and LtCol Drumright had just transferred to 1st Recon BN from 26 Marines as we all had done. Shortly thereafter LtCol Drumright selected our platoon due to our good reputation for insertion into that area indicated by the information obtained from the captured enemy.
    Lt Skibbe was team leader and I was the assistant team leader of the seven man Recon team to be inserted into the Thuong Duc province. Lt Skibbe had not been on a Recon patrol before and asked me to direct our actions since I knew the men and had experienced 11 such insertions. He wanted to learn from all of us. Cpl Plunkett, point man, Roy Lee Jones, tail-end Charlie, L/Cpl Moreno, primary radioman, Zeke, secondary radioman and Corpman HM3 McGlyn with Lt Skibbe and I constituted our Recon team with the call sign, “Thin Man”.
   The book by Michael Hodgins, Reluctant Warrior, opens with a brief, judgmental version of the story about that patrol and its outcome. I am now telling the story of what I experienced and remember of that day. I have spoken to the other men who survived and their accounts are nearly identical to mine except where their point of view is due to a different positioning.
   We were inserted at a flat area about two hundred meters from the valley floor. We discovered some barbed wire and c-rat cans. Jones pointed out the clouds of flies that were present. He knew from experience that the enemy was probably very near. As we began to move upwards along a narrowing ridgeback we realized the steep cliffs on each side probably did not provide the enemy enough room for an ambush. We moved along stealthily with frequent rests due to the steep terrain, until we came to a widening of the ridgeline in a grove of bamboo. We grew more wary. As we emerged from the bamboo we suddenly realized that we had intersected with a trail leading upwards from the river below and on our right. The six foot wide trail continued upwards as the jungle thinned and our only cover was the presence of rather large boulders. After about 60 feet I stopped the team because the trail swung to the left for about another 60 feet then right where it steepened and was out of our visual field. All of us could see that a deadly ambush could be set up and awaiting us.
   I spoke very softly with Lt Skibbe and we agreed to split the team with one to guard the trail behind us leading to the river and the other to repel a frontal attack. Plunkett, the point moved out in front of us from boulder to boulder as we took the only defensible positions behind the boulders nearest our selves. Since I was the acting team leader I felt responsible to be front and center in the least desirable and most exposed position to watch the trail in front of us and defend us at the same time. Lt Skibbe set up to my
    immediate left where I’d positioned him behind a large boulder and told him to watch and wait and not to move. Suddenly the silence was broken by Cpl Plunkett shouting, “Gooks”. He immediately began to return the hail of fire that had erupted from the enemy. Two of them suddenly appeared rushing straight at me about 15 feet away. They were armed with AK-47 submachine guns on full auto and I noted the mud camouflage on their faces. As I began to return fire I got hit in the head with one of the first bursts from the enemy. I was momentarily stunned and was unable to even see them because the air and my eyes were filled with blood, dust and gun smoke. I continued after a moment to return fire in an attempt to establish fire superiority. We were all shooting to save each other and stop the enemy when suddenly I took another bullet through my thigh and then another through my right thumb knuckle which continued into the front hand guard and bolt assembly rendering my rifle inoperable, useless except as a club. At this point I lay down and played possum. From my face in the dirt I dimly noted another six of the enemy performing a fire-team rush. They had come down from where the trail disappeared from view but due to a lack of cover had to jump over onto a steep bank. Some were hit. I suddenly felt hands on the back of my collar and was dragged and thrown by Lt Skibbe who had left the shelter of the boulders exposing himself leaping over some to haul me to safety. He staggered and fell having taken a bullet that shattered his ankle. I remember thinking, “why didn’t the Lt stay behind the rock where I put him?” But, to this day I can only remember him as a man who heroically risked his life to save me which eventually resulted in his death. Within moments ‘Doc’ McGlyn showed up to administer to both of us at great risk to his own life.
   For the next three hours, we repulsed several enemy fire-team rushes and managed to hold our position. Zeke had moved forward up the trail followed by a hailstorm of bullets to increase our fire superiority and only later discovered that one bullet had gone right through his pants leg. Doc McGlyn had placed a brace on our Lt’s ankle to provide upright support. I began to crawl back to Moreno since I couldn’t walk with the wound in my thigh in order to call in an air strike, but ‘Doc’ stopped me and told me I had adequately trained the men for them to call in an air strike without my help. Cpl Plunkett assisted L/Cpl Moreno by calling the OV-10 aerial observer to get some air support here STAT. OV-10 responded that two F-4 Phantoms were en route and we should throw out some ‘willy peder’ to mark where the enemy was just west of our position
    The scream of their engines alerted us to ‘dig in’ for cover. I remember seeing the one of the Phantoms go by straight overhead about ten feet above the tree line. The two bombs hit so close together it sounded like one horrendous explosion. They must have impacted no more than 100 feet away and all of us were lifted right off the ground and when I slammed back to the earth the breath was nearly knocked out of me. A moment later we all turned face down and covered the back of our heads with our arms as the rain of rocks and branches pummeled us.
   Within minutes a CH-46 helicopter flew in and the 50 cal. machine gunner was mowing down everything in the direction of the enemy, while dropping its stable- rig rescue ladder, as it was a ‘hot’ recovery. The jungle penetrator then was lowered and I was hoisted onto the bird. It descended again to pick up Lt Skibbe. The rest of the Recon men had already hooked onto the ladder while Lt Skibbe was being lifted up when the bird ascended and veered away. Something went terribly wrong. The jungle penetrator with Lt Skibbe suddenly broke loose above the trees and he fell back into the jungle and the ‘hot’ LZ. Some of the team could see him on the jungle floor. There was no way for the helicopter to return for him at that point as we were already taking heavy ground fire and the ladder with the team on it was still suspended below. Our helplessness deepened our sense of loss.
   N.B. I was not witness to what follows but learned it from some who had participated in the following incidents.
   Upon landing back at Da Nang, Capt McVey was informed of the bad news. He rounded up Simpson and a few other team members along with some volunteer Recon marines and flew back that very evening to locate Skibbe. When they reached the impact zone two basketball flares were dropped to illuminate the area. Capt McVey was descending on the jungle penetrator into that hellhole when the flares drifted behind the side of the high mountain. The pilot decided to bring the captain back up. As he was preparing to enter the helicopter, Capt McVey shaking his head in frustration handed his rifle in to Col Drumright. At that moment the bird skidded to one side and ascended to about 500 feet above the ground. The jungle penetrator snapped and the Captain fell into the canopy of the jungle below.
   With the loss of the two officers, BN mustered a volunteer force with participants from Recon Charlie Company, an army special forces unit and approximately one hundred twenty-five Vietnamese CID and Mike forces to return to the area. BN was aware of the large contingent of NVA troops still in the area, but on 6 March 70 the recovery team arrived at the area. On that day two CH-46 helicopters descended into the hot zone at the foot of the mountain. One of the helicopters was destroyed while landing with two dead and eighteen wounded. Air support from F-4 Phantoms dropped bombs to disable the enemy. All night long mortars and small arms fire kept the 150 friendly forces in a static position. The next morning the firestorm of enemy mortars, small arms fire and RPGs resulted in the CIDs advancing up the hill to get severely mauled with at least six deaths and many wounded. Meanwhile, the mortars were being walked in towards the Recon team and Mike Simpson realized that they were definitely in harm’s way and urged the Recon team to move to safer positions. He sought out Greek and James to regroup the Recon team which included Plunkett, Doc McGlyn and their team leader, 1st /LT Polster to lead the large force of men out of the dangerous location and into the enemy stronghold. However, there was a sudden roar of enemy claymores that decimated the CIDs even further. Plunkett, and Simpson acting as point men discovered a mortar site at a bunker that was preparing to move closer to hit the site of the new harbor. This enemy group was eliminated.
   At night “Spooky” was called in and worked over the area occupied by the dense concentration of enemy troops and protected the harbor site of the recovery force. The recovery force could not justify further losses (at least 15 dead and 53 wounded) in searching for Capt McVey and Lt Skibbe and so withdrew the force from the field.
   This history is as I experienced and remember it. Much of this information is documented in a confidential report issued by Headquarters, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division. (5 April 1970)
To have been a member of such courageous and excellent
Marines has been one of the proudest experiences in my life.

Submitted by: Larry K. Gifford, Former Sergeant, USMC

Gifford, Que Sons, and Simpson

Plunkett and 1st Recon LZ