Entire Recon Team MIA after Da Nang Jump?
As I Remember
In 1967 I was a Marine 2nd Lt. assigned duties as 11th Marines Target Information Officer and I stood watch in the Fire Support Coordination Center (FSCC) at 1st Martine Division Headquarters in Da Nang. We were headquartered in a large underground bunker which housed the FSCC, COC and DASC. FSCC coordinated all division artillery and naval gunfire, COC was Division Command and DASC coordinated all air traffic. First Recon headquarters was literally across the road. I had served 10 months in the field as and artillery forward observer and unit commander before assignment to the FSCC in about July, 1967. As a forward observer with 3/5 I had observed numerous recon teams taken to the field in helicopters. It looked to me like the pretty standard method of dropping off a recon team involved the chopper landing in a couple of places, so that the enemy would not know where the team was actually dropped. Later in the FSCC I became aware that the recon teams would quickly move to a new location after drop off. I am personally not jump qualified and have no technical knowledge about it. The events described below happened in September of 1967 four or five days before I left country on R and R.
One afternoon a Marine Major from 1st Marine Division Reconnaissance
appeared at FSCC to brief us on a mission that was to take place that evening. The Major informed us that mission would be launched by parachuting a recon team at night into an area outside Da Nang. The gung ho Major stressed that this would be the first night time combat parachute jump since World War II.
It was my immediate unspoken opinion that the mission was motivated by the notion that it was the first jump of its kind since WWII. There was no need or expressed justification to do this high risk jump, particularly at night! As an artillery forward observer assigned to 3rd Battalion 5th Marines, I had been on patrols in the area of the proposed jump. The topography was rough, steep and wooded, and it was in an area where the enemy had been active. As a 2nd Lt. I stood moot during the briefing and said nothing of my personal opinion. That night the mission was launched as scheduled. I understood that the mission included the Major and an 8 man recon team.
At Division Headquarters we monitored the progress of the mission and were advised when the team had jumped from the fixed wing aircraft. We waited in vain for radio contact from the team. There was nothing but radio silence, so we waited and waited hour after hour for some word that they had landed and accounted for all team members. But there was no contact from the team… . ever. They had all jumped to their presumed death!
I was one of several officers who briefed the 1st Marine Division commanding General and his staff each morning. As far as I know, the entire recon. team remained MIA! At the General’s briefing the morning after the team had jumped, it was simply reported that the team was missing in action and there was no further information available.
During the days following this incident there was no explanation provided at the morning briefings and I never heard an official explanation as to what had happened to the recon team.
I knew a Lieutenant in DASC and in the days following this incident, I asked him to call over to the air wing and find out what the pilots and air wing personnel thought had happened. After making several phone calls to the air wing, my friend informed me he had been told that air wing personnel suggested that there had been high winds on the night of the jump. They used the language ‘wind sheer’ and said that under some conditions the parachutes would not open or may collapse.
On September 10, 1967, I left Vietnam for 6 or 7 days in Okinawa, and in October 1967 my Vietnam tour of duty was completed and I returned to the United States. I left Vietnam understanding that the entire team was MIA and that, in all probability, the team died as their parachutes did not open. This is one of the Vietnam memories of needless death that has haunted me for over 40 years!
Those of you who know the 'rest of the story' also know that I have been wrong, that I had made assumptions about what had happened and that I have let my assumptions torment me for all this time! Of course we combat veterans do just that. We rotate home before the facts are known. We have knowledge of some incomplete information and we are quick to fill in the blanks with assumptions. We torment ourselves, and all too often, these unconscious mental gymnastics create and contribute to post traumatic stress.
A month ago, December 2008, I contacted Bob Morris through the 1st Marine Division Recon. web site and offered to write up my memories of events. Bob is working on a history of the unit. I drafted up my account, as set forth above, and sent it to Bob. He then sent me a computer link from which I learned the rest of the story:
The Rest of the Story
The jump took place at night on September 5, 1967. Reports vary a little on detail, but the major events are pretty clear.
All nine chutes opened. But the team was dropped in the wrong spot and from ‘twice as high’ as had been ordered. They had jumped into a 30 knot westerly wind and missed the drop zone of 3 ½ kilometers. They landed in a 125ft high jungle canopy in rough terrain near the eastern end of Happy Valley. Seven members of the team found each other but two were seriously injured and a medevac was called in. Missing were Gunnery Sgt Walter M. Web Jr, who dangled 60 feet in the air until daylight. He was located and medevaced out that evening after having evaded three Viet Cong.
The team corpsman, 2nd Class Petty Officer Michael L. Laporte was also missing. He was last seen as his parachute separated from the team and he drifted away from the others. Laporte was officially listed as MIA until 1977 when he was officially pronounced a KIA and in 1982 Laporte’s name was added to the Vietnam Memorial Wall. However, there remains a great deal of controversy suggesting that Laporte survived, was AWOL and that he was a traitor. (See the above referenced link for LaPorte details.) Later that day the team was hit by 5-6 Viet Cong and in the firefight some members of the team were wounded. The drop area was searched by reconnaissance personnel without success. On September 6, with their mission abandoned, the remaining 5 team members were extracted.
The jump was a tragedy from some standpoints. The mission was not accomplished, one team member was MIA, and some team members were wounded. And the entire operation raises questions about command decisions about the necessity of incurring the risks associated with a night time jump. On the other hand, we should not judge the wisdom of the mission 40 years after the fact, particularly without knowledge of the intelligence known to those in command at the time.
On a personal level, I feel much relieved that the chutes opened and that, except perhaps for Laporte, the team survived the jump! ,
The author John C. Minahan, Jr was on active duty from 1965-1969. After discharge as a Captain, he attended law school, spent time as a Law Professor and attorney and the last 13 years as a Federal Bankruptcy Court Judge. He retired in 2001 with PTSD as long suppressed Vietnam memories surfaced.