Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 17

OKLAHOMA CITY — Captain Wallace “Wally” Johnson commanded the U.S. Special Forces A Team when the two UH-1D “Huey” helicopters landed at Chi Linh on May 14, 1967, to begin the rescue of more than 100 Vietnamese soldiers.

A month earlier, the camp had been called Cau Song Be, but confusion over the name had resulted in 30 tons of rice being delivered by mistake to the Special Forces camp rather than to the nearby provincial capital of Song Be.

Wally Johnson had given the camp its original name. The camp had been built near a stone bridge — “cau” in Vietnamese — over the Song Be River. Though the camp had been renamed in April 1967, the helicopter crews still knew it as Cau Song Be.

Wally Johnson’s family went back to the 1800s in Louisiana and Texas. “My mother was an only child and my father, with his lineage, was a little bit of everything — African-American, of course, but we also have some French blood, some South American blood, and my grandfather, his father, was approximately 50 percent Choctaw Indian,” Wally said.

“They started off in Parish, Texas, and just prior to that — my father was born in 1902 and my mother was born in 1908 — in a little place called Shiro, Texas.”

Shortly before Oklahoma became a state in 1907, his parents were given a parcel of land in what was known as Indian Territory.

“My father settled in a place, southeast of Oklahoma City, just 7 or 8 miles east of what is now Tinker Air Force Base. It was a small, predominantly African-American community called Newalla. That’s where my father grew up on a farm. His family had 11 children, 6 boys and 5 girls. My father was involved in farming and ranching. My grandfather was a rancher and farmer, and raised horses and cattle. They grew their own crops,” Wally said.

His father, Carroll W. Johnson, moved to Oklahoma City in the early 1930s. His mother, Pauletta Bibbs, was living in Oklahoma City before they married.

When Wally was growing up in Oklahoma City, he recalled, “everything was segregated. We lived on the east side of Oklahoma City. There’s a street named Broadway that runs north and south that divided mainly African-Americans who lived on the east side of town, on the east side of Broadway.

“Believe it or not, there were railroad tracks; the railway came from the north, out of Kansas, all the way down to Oklahoma City. I grew up on the other side of the track,” he said.

In Oklahoma City, Wally’s father started off as a dishwasher, working at various cafes and restaurants. About the time Wally was born in August 1939, his father became a chef at the Twin Hills Golf and Country Club.”

Wally was a middle child, the fifth of 10 children, who were evenly divided between 5 boys and 5 girls. The Johnson children attended Inman E. Page Elementary School, near their home.

“Then we went to Frederick Douglass Junior-Senior High School, about a half mile from our home,” Wally said.

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Brown v. the Board of Education decision in a 9-0 ruling that ended racial segregation in the U.S. schools. The ruling led the way to racial integration throughout the United States.

“In 1955, all the schools and their programs became integrated. Blacks went to school with whites and whites went to school with blacks in Oklahoma,” said Wally, who was a 16-year-old high school sophomore when integration was implemented.

Wally is No. 36 in high school team photo.
“Leading into my junior year, I had a choice of schools to attend because of integration. I lived closer to Central High School, which was downtown, but since I had played football as a sophomore at Douglass High School, my coach informed me that, ‘You don’t really have a choice, you’re a starting fullback and linebacker and you’re going to be playing with us the rest of the year.’

“They had just built a brand-new Douglass High School before Brown v. Board of Education, so I started off in the newly renovated high school, Douglass Senior High School. My class was the first class, the Class of 1957, to start and graduate from that high school.”

Wally remembered his high school “had a really great football team, winning something like 46 games in a row and 12 state championships. Then, when we integrated in the fall of 1956, we played an integrated schedule and we won the state championship again in class AA, as well as the Mid-State Conference and District Championship. We didn’t have any really big schools; class AA was as large as it got back then. We won the state championship again in 1956,” Wally said.

Wally at University of Oklahoma
“One of my teammates had gone down to the University of Oklahoma the year before, in the fall of 1956, and was the first African-American to play football for the University of Oklahoma.”

Wally went to the university in the fall of 1957 with an academic scholarship and subsequently received a football scholarship when he made the football team.

At the university, Wally took four years of Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). “Back then, unless you had a physical defect or other valid exemption, during your first 2 years it was mandatory that you take ROTC.”

Wally opted to take Advanced ROTC during your junior and senior year.

“Most of the athletes took all 4 years of ROTC. We had an academic counselor who was a veteran of World War II. We later found out he had stormed the beaches at Normandy,” Wally said. “He was pretty persuasive, to say the least, at encouraging us to go into advanced ROTC. Most of us did. Back then it was a very honorable profession to become an officer. I had talked with my high school teachers and coaches, and they had encouraged me, also. They said, ‘You know, you’re going to have to go into the military anyway, so you might as well go as an officer.’”

Wally originally planned to stay in the Army for only 2 years. “I still had some ambitions of playing professional football, but during the second year at Fort Benning, I injured my right knee. I gave up on the football as a professional career and, after talking it over with my battalion commander, I decided to make the Army my career.

Wally with a very large snake
“I don’t know how many people were given the opportunity I was given. I had made first lieutenant and my battalion commander told me, ‘I’ve got 5 or 6 assignments. Which one do you want? I think I can get you to any one you want.’”

“That’s basically how I got into Special Forces.”

His battalion commander also told him he could go to Fort Bragg and go through the Counterinsurgency Course and then the Special Forces Qualification course, and finally to West Germany or Okinawa. “I chose to go to Bad Toelz, West Germany, and into the 10th Special Forces Group.”

Wally remembered the training for Special Forces was intense, but not all that tough for him. “If you played football and endured 2-a-day practices in the summer in Oklahoma, you could pretty much handle anything.”

In 1964, Wally started off with the 4-week counterinsurgency staff officers’ course, which involved talking about the war in Vietnam and unconventional warfare. That course was followed by what is now known as the Special Forces Officers Qualification Course, but then it was the Special Forces Officers Course, even though it included officers and enlisted soldiers.

“We had some pretty intensive training, but at the same time we got a bit of all the specialty areas — weapons, communications, medical, intelligence operations, you name it,” Wally said. “I started there in March 1964 and finished up at the end of August. I left a little early to visit my family in Oklahoma.” His youngest son, Steven, was born on July 13, while Wally was in the field.

Wally was home a week before departing for Germany.

Aerial photo of Chi Linh Camp
Unknown to Wally Johnson and each other at the time, two of the helicopter pilots who would help rescue the Vietnamese CIDG soldiers from Wally’s Special Forces camp three years later also were at Bad Toelz.

“What a coincidence,” Tom Baca would recall more than 40 years later. “I was in Bad Toelz in late 1964 at the 7th Army NCO Academy as a private first class. It was a test to see if I had what it took to be a warrant officer aviator. I had just turned 19 years old.”

Tom subsequently was approved for flight school and about two years later would graduate from the Army Aviation School at Fort Rucker, Alabama, as a warrant officer helicopter pilot.

Larry Liss, too, was in Bad Toelz, from around Christmas 1964 until December 1965, with the 2/9 Cavalry, working north along the Czech-German-Austrian border “trizone” point.

“We were up against Russian Special Forces (Spetsnaz) units who were embedded among the Czechs. I jumped back and forth between the squadron’s headquarters in Munich and Bad Toelz. I never saw so much snow in my life,” Larry later would recall.

During the May 1967, rescue of the CIDG soldiers, Tom and Larry finally would meet Wally.

Tom was command pilot of a UH-1D “Huey” helicopter that worked with another Huey to rescue the soldiers and a U.S. Special Forces advisor stationed at Chi Linh Special Forces Camp. Larry was copilot aboard Tom’s helicopter.

Wally, who was in charge of the CIDG soldiers, accompanied Tom and Larry on the medical evacuation of 6 soldiers after their company was ambushed by 600-700 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops. After the wounded soldiers were evacuated, the helicopter would be joined by a second Huey.

Inside Chi Linh Camp
Together, they would land, under enemy fire, in a clearing made by cutting vegetation with their main rotor blades. The 2 helicopters rescued all living members of the company by making 5 trips each into the area.

But that would be years in the future.

At the time Wally was stationed in Bad Toelz, U.S. Special Forces was oriented to various countries. Many of Wally’s fellow Special Forces classmates studied foreign languages during their training, though Wally took his language training later, after he had joined 10th Special Forces.

Although he had taken intensive training, Wally was not fully qualified until he had completed several Special Forces operations, as well as language training and jumpmaster school.

Though his assignment in Germany originally was a 3-year tour, Wally was there a little over 2 years “because the war in Vietnam intensified and it got pretty hairy. Most of the Special Forces folks who were in Vietnam in the 1960s — in the 1965 and 1966 timeframe — were coming out of Okinawa and Panama,” he said.

“One thing not commonly known is we had Special Forces in Vietnam since 1957, serving as advisors, training the indigenous Montagnards, some in Cambodia. For example, at Chi Linh we had quite a cross-section of different ethnic groups. Two companies were of Vietnamese origin, we had one company that was Cambodian, predominately Cambodian soldiers, and the other was Montagnard. And then we had two recon platoons of ethnic Chinese Nungs,” Wally said.

The survivors of the CIDG company extracted on May 1967 were predominantly Vietnamese.

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